Loei Province in Northeast Thailand is well-known for its mountainous terrain and cold winter mornings. Loei has a climate perfect for growing beautiful flowers and its misty sunshine weather is one reason why the province is recognized as one of Thailand’s best wine-making regions. Loei also has a history of ghosts and Phi Ta Khon face masks and luckily I was in Loei city over the New Year period to catch the 1st International Mask Exhibition Loei 2555.
First here’s the history behind Loei’s ghosts and theatrical hook-nosed Phi Ta Khon face masks.
Phi Ta Khon Festival in Dan Sai, Loei
Dan Sai’s Phi Ta Khon Festival is part of their annual three-day merit-making Bun Luang Festival which combines two festivals, Bun Phra Wet (festival of the fourth lunar moon) and Bun Bang Fai (a bamboo rocket festival).
Bun Phra Wet is a religious festival where Dan Sai locals and tourists listen to monks reading 13 sermons about Vessantara Jataka (the story of the last reincarnation of Lord Buddha before his birth as Prince Siddhartha). Dan Sai locals believe their merit-making will bring them closer to Phra Sri Araya Mettrai, the next Lord Buddha, after their reincarnation into their next life.
Bun Bang Fai is a festival where black-powdered rockets are fired into the sky in worship of the spirits who protect the local villages and to ask for sufficient rain to fall in time for the coming farming season. Competitions are held and prizes awarded for the rockets which travel the furthest, both height and distance, and the rockets which have the best smoke trails. It’s fun and a little dangerous too. Best wear a hard hat.
Phi Ta Khon (Ghost Eyes Dance/Play) carnival starts as early as three in the morning on the first day of Bun Luang Festival when a group of local men head from Phon Chai Temple to the nearby Man River to perform a rite inviting Phra Up Pa Khut (a former monk with supernatural powers) back to Wat Phon Chai and a ceremony in his honour.
Locals believe Phra Up Pa Khut transformed himself into a white pebble with divine protective powers and chose to live a solitary life below the waters of the Man River whilst protecting the villagers from harm. The procession of men bring Phra Up Pa Khut, in the form of a white pebble, back to the temple where worshippers have gathered in his honour. On the second day things become much more colourful.
At dawn on day two ghosts descend upon Dan Sai. The local people don Phi Ta Khon masks, colourful costumes, cow bells and brandish red-tipped wooden phalluses to parade and dance through the village watched by hundreds and hundreds of tourists.
Dan Sai is about 75 minutes drive from Loei city and its Bun Luang Festival has no date set in stone and is held between March and July each year.
1st International Mask Exhibition Loei 2555
The exhibition focused on masks from different cultures, though in the main most had a distinct Asian history and flavour…. some did look like they’d been fished out of a Venice canal and there was one wall assigned solely for American masks, but most were as Asian as rice and coconuts.
Masks have been a big prop of Asian dance, music and plays for hundreds of years and the exhibition displayed many masks from the cultures of Bali, Bhutan, Korea and Thailand. The masks symbolized people, deities, demons, animals and much more.
This one looks like a sharp fanged demon with a very thick blood thirsty tongue.
This one was colourful and typical of many of the brightly coloured masks. You wouldn’t want to back onto those horns.
You won’t find many smiles like these under a policeman’s helmet. I believe these are Beijing Opera masks.
Some of the theatrical masks on show had a Venetian look to them while others more Batman and Robin. And some a little scary too (top left).
Many of the masks had been made the simple way. Good old newspaper pasted to a balloon. Pop, shape and paint.
Admission to the exhibition was free and a thoroughly enjoyable and educational experience.
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© 2013, Martyn. All rights reserved.