A goal of mine while living in Thailand was to explore places that were not on the typical tourist track and experience as much native culture and tradition as I could. Enter Phi Ta Khon – a three-day party filled with hand-painted wooden masks, dancing and wooden phalluses (still not 100% clear on that one). Phi Ta Khon is the Thai ghost festival held in the Loei province in northeast Thailand, and when I say party, I mean party. The dates change yearly, depending on the town’s mediums, but always includes three days of merit-making, parades, music and locals dancing down the streets in wooden masks clanging cowbells and dragging the few timid farang into the fray.
According to legend, Prince Vessantara, a reincarnation of the Buddha, once took a journey into the wilderness that was so long and perilous that his followers presumed him dead. When he returned, the people threw a party so loud and raucous that spirits were literally stirred from their graves. The masked men of the Phi Ta Khon festival dance to commemorate this party of legend.
My friends and I flew to Loei and drove a rental car to our camping spot in Dan Sai – after stopping to have lunch on a floating raft in the middle of a remote lake. We spent our time in Loei participating in the revelry, exploring mountaintops, and wandering through serene hillside temples.
Venturing to a new spot in my adopted country and participating in (another) odd Thai tradition was an obvious choice for one of my last months in Thailand. I had imagined that now familiar feeling of being out of place, far from my comfort zone, would go away after I moved back to America, where I write this belated blog post. But I’ll be honest – I still feel like I don’t belong. Only here, I’m a little less sweaty, everyone understands what I’m saying, and no one has pointed a wooden phallus at me. Not yet anyway.