Inside Thailand’s ‘Day of the Dead’

Mexico’s annual celebration of the Day of the Dead, or Día de Muertos, has become globally recognized, but far fewer people know about the ghost festival that takes place in Thailand.

Called Phi Ta Khon, or the Loei Ghost Festival, it takes place in northern Thailand over three days. Famous for the distinctive ghost masks, festivities range from traditional dance to Buddhist sermons.

Phi ta khon festival ghost
(Getty Images)

The Vessantara Jataka, or the Great Birth Story, is the last and among the most popular of Buddhist jatakas. These stories tell reveal the past lives of the Buddha, and the story of Vessantara is about of a prince of the same name.

Prince Vessantara was a generous man. When his father decided it was time to let Vessantara rule, the prince gave away much of his kingdom’s wealth. Among the gifts was a magical, rain-bringing elephant, that he gave to a neighboring kingdom who was suffering a drought. 

With his own kingdom’s money and resources depleting, the people were upset and Vessantara was exiled by his father. Along with his wife, Maddi, and two children, Vessantara lived in the forest, continuing to give away anything that was asked of him. When a man came to him and asked for his children as slaves, Vessantara obliged. When, the next day, a man came and asked to take Maddi, Vessantara again obliged. Only it turned out that the second man was the god Shakra in disguise. In awe of Vessantara’s generosity, he returned Maddi. 

Phi ta khon festival ghost
(Getty Images)

Vessantara’s children, meanwhile, had been recognized in their home kingdom. The king bought his grandchildren back for vast sums of money and food, and regretted exiling his son. He sought to find Vessantara and Maddi from the forest to bring them back. 

There were fears, however, that Vessantara was dead. He had become a hermit. When he was found and returned alive and well after the lengthy exile, the celebrations were wild. The gods poured down jewels from the sky so that Vessantara would always have gifts to give away, and the party was so loud as to awaken the dead.

Phi ta khon festival ghost
(Getty Images)

The three-day festival to commemorate the Vessantara jataka in Loei province, Thailand, is not the only celebration of the story, but it is one of the biggest. Laos, Myanmar, Cambodia and Sri Lanka all also remember the generous prince each year. 

The Phi Ta Khon festival takes place in June. The first day is the most raucous, as festival goers try and raise the spirits from the dead. Music, dancing and parades make most of the noise, as revelers adorn two different kinds of ghost masks for the celebration.

Read More: Is this the oldest board game in the world? 

Made out of coconut-tree trunks and painted with elaborate ghost designs, the largest masks are works of art, and only made by experts who are said to have been given special permission by the ghosts. The smaller masks can be made by anyone. 

On the second day of the festival, the party atmosphere continues. There is more singing and dancing, as well as rockets and fireworks. For the final day, after back-to-back days of partying, many go to their local temple and listen to Buddhist sermons.

Phi ta khon festival ghost
(Getty Images)

As well as the masks, many of the men’s costumes also feature giant, wooden penises painted red. Looking like something between a sword and a spear, the men chase and tease the women. This is seen as harmless fun by the festival-goers and is part of the tradition that supposedly brings them bountiful harvests and rainfall in the coming year.

The 2023 celebration took place from June 23 to 25.

1 Comment

  • Telegra.Ph says:

    Good info. Lucky me I found your site by chance (stumbleupon).
    I have bookmarked it for later!

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