Phi Ta Khon, Phi Ta Kon or Phitakon
Ghostly, Thailand Style
Thailand's closest brush with the western concept of Halloween takes place in the Dan Sai District of Loei Province. They sort of mix Halloween and April Fool's Day and call it Phi Ta Khon, or "ghost festival". And it takes place in June rather than April and October.
But lest you believe the Phi Ta Kon Festival is a midnight display of flesh chilling terror, the festival is held during the light of day since it is much easier to see the fun. And possibly so all the creative mask designs can be properly appreciated.
As many things in Thailand, Phi Ta Kon was born of legend and mixed into Buddhism as part of a local merit-making holiday called 'Bun Pha Ves.' The associated legend bears a resemblance to the biblical "prodigal son" parable.
Prince Vessandorn, who was thought would become a Buddha some day, was a remarkably generous person and much loved by his subjects. But one day the generous Prince gave away a white elephant.
That created an uproar in the kingdom since white elephants are royal creatures and revered as symbols of rain. The subjects feared drought and famine would certainly befall them. Their fear turned to anger and their anger toward Prince Vessandorn; so much so that the King banished his son.
So distraught was the Prince that he left the kingdom on a long journey.
Soon the anger in the kingdom ebbed as they missed the Prince. Realizing the error of their ways, the people beseeched the King and he gladly recalled his auspicious sone to the kingdom.
When the Prince finally arrived his subjects were so happy they ran forth to welcome him joyously. The welcome became a celebration and the celebration became so noisy that it awakened the dead ... so the dead came to join the party.
Phi Ta Kon is mostly for young people. In between playing tricks, they fashion costumes of sheets or blankets, and fashion scary masks. Sticky rice containers are decorated and converted to hats of bizarre design.
Masks are huge and generally carved from the bases of coconut trees. These spirit masks are an important part of the celebrations, representing the dead who are no longer able to attend the festivities .. or do they?
The festival goes on for three days:
Day 1 features a parade of masks, happiness, dancing and music.
Day 2 the villagers, bearing a sacred Buddha image, dance to the temple; pausing occasionally to "frighten" spectators. At the temple they shoot bamboo rockets into the sky.
A recitation the story telling of the Buddha's last incarnation before attaining enlightenment is made.
Contests include best mask, costume and best dancer. Each age group winner gets a plaque. The dancing contest is the most popular event of the day.
Day 3 gathering at Wat Ponchai, the villagers hear the message of the thirteen sermons of the Lord Buddha.
Day 4 is a return to the rice paddies and of cooking and living and looking forward to Loi Kratong, Songkran and next years Phi Ta Kon.