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Up close and cosy with the ghosts

Follow the thongs of playful dancers in elaborate costumes to Loei for the annual Phi Ta Khon festival

Time flies and already residents of Dan Sai in Loei province, are getting ready to celebrate Phi Ta Khon, one of Thailand's most colourful and vibrant festivals, from June 27to 29.

This famous festival features colourful parades headed by throngs of "ghosts" and "fearsome creatures" who play with the crowds and occasionally wag and wave a whopping great pink wood penis at onlookers.

The origins of the festival have been lost to history, though many say its origins can be found in Buddhism.

They say King Vessandorn - an incarnation of the Lord Buddha - relinquished his throne for awhile to live like a priest in the forest. His decision to return to the court was cause for celebration, it's said, and the spirits of the woods joined the local people in dancing into town.

To this day, and fuelled by a successful tourism campaign, Dan Sai district hosts a Boon Luang merit-making ceremony as part of the festival, which features the country's most spectacular parade of ghosts.

On June 27, the eve of the celebration, the spirits assemble before dawn at Wat Phon Chai and drift in a parade to the Meun River, where white pebbles are collected from the riverbed as tokens for Phra Upakud, a local Buddha statue that's used in rainmaking rituals. The pebbles are consecrated and taken back to the temple for more rites honouring Phra Upakud while firecrackers clatter and home-made rockets are launched with a whoosh.

Visitors can hover in the temple grounds and watch as the locals don their scary costumes for the bigger parade the next day.

The long-nosed masks are made from coconut husks and bamboo baskets once used as rice steamers. Scruffy trousers and shirts are ripped then painted in primary colours.

Many ghosts are decorated with small bells, usually borrowed from water buffaloes, so they jingle when they jump out and tease the onlookers.

On the second day, the ghosts parade a Buddha image around, while monks chant the story of Buddha's reincarnation. The culmination is the mayhem of ghost parades, when all inhibitions are let loose. Funny rather than scary, the grotesque procession draws laughter as the ghosts tease the crowds with their huge phallic sticks.

Serenaded by live music and fuelled by rice wine, the vibrant procession beckon onlookers to dance along, offering the ultimate opportunity for a knees up before the arrival of the three-month Buddhist Lent.

Phi Ta Khon Festival ends peacefully and spiritually on June 29, the third day, when the villagers offer food to the monks and attend a sermon at the temple.

If you go

_ Buses to Loei leave from Bangkok's Mor Chit terminal. Dan Sai is about 85 kilometres from the provincial town.

_ Hotels fill up fast, so you might need to bring a sleeping bag and bunk down at Sri Phonchai temple.


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