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Trains, Cars and Phi Ta Khon (Thai Ghost Festival)

Phi Ta Khon Festival

Phi Ta Khon (Thai Ghost Festival)…

After missing Phi Ta Khon last year I promised myself that THIS year I’d go. No matter what. I mean, come on, Loei’s ghost festival is all about masks and fun, and masks, I love!

My Thai friends tell me that Phi Ta Khon is sort of like a Thai Halloween, only Thai style. And as the celebrations are mostly in the daytime, it’s a photographers delight! Ah. A double like.

Wikipedia: Phi Ta Khon, also Pee Ta Khon (Thai: ผีตาโขน meaning Ghost Festival), is the most common name for a group of festivals held in Dan Sai, Loei province, Isan, Thailand.

After debating about possible transportation – car, plane, coach, or train – on Thursday morning we (meaning a friend and I) jumped on the express-my-batootie from Bangkok to Phitsanulok. The promise? About three hours from place to place. Or four (depending).

Ghost Festival: Train toilet

Over SIX hours later the train limped into Phitsanulok. What kind of train is two hours late? No matter. I’ve never been on a Thai train before but for me the seats were comfy, the rolling views out the slightly dirty windows spectacular, and keeping balance on the squat toilet challenging (but amusing fun).

Oh. And forget about smelly toilets. The breeze coming through the very open window whoooshes any nastiness up and away. But be warned, the clanking noises from the train tracks and the wind whirling around the small room and across your bare neither regions are a bit surreal.

Ghost Festival: Train toilet

The driver waiting in Phitsanulok wasn’t too put out (thank goodness) about our tardy arrival. A former school teacher, he admitted that being a driver has taught him plenty of patience. And teaching kids didn’t? Heh (I forgot to ask).

Climbing into the van, off we went to Dan Sai for another three plus hours on the road.

Ghost Festival: Rice fields

Looking back, this trip was all about the incredible views. The views seen from the train. The views from the drive between Phitsanulok and Dan Sai. And the view from the hotel room. And more. Read on.

Ghost Festival: Room

Views aside, both nights in Dan Sai were rough going sleep-wise. For one, the beds were hard. Really hard. For two, some sort of critter was chomping on the floorboards of our room. All night long (yes, I have recordings). For three, my roommate was terrified of moths. Peeing moths hanging from the ceiling. A treat, for sure. And four, there was no hot water.

Blurry-eyed but hopped up on a mix of Thai coffee and painkillers (yeah), on the first morning we attended the opening ceremony for the Ghost Festival. Turns out, it was a perfect introduction to Phi Ta Khon.

The opening ceremony featured schools, and as you’ll see below, the children involved in the celebration were beautiful to snap. And while there were a few photographers around, it was still possible to get decent shots without other cameras invading. Barely.

Ghost Festival: Kids

Ghost Festival: Kids

Ghost Festival: Parade

Ghost Festival: Boy

After the speeches (some in English) and performances were finished, the celebration headed for the streets.

Ghost Festival: Parade

Ghost Festival: What a face!

Ghost Festival: Monks

I swear this trio of monks were at other ceremonies I’ve attended around Thailand (I’ll have to check and get back to you).

Getting our fill of the parade, we headed off to the National Park and Chateau De Loei (thanks for the heads-up about the vineyard Martyn).

Ghost Festival: National park

Ghost Festival: Wine

Ghost Festival: Wine

Ghost Festival: Wine

Working our way through a bottle of wine and even more hours of Thai massage – did I forget to mention the first night’s massage? – the second day ended and the long night of painful beds and peeing moths began.

By day two we were not exactly staggering from a lack of sleep. More like hyperventilating from an overdose of caffeine (in a weak attempt to get through the day). Still fun? Sure.

Ghost Festival: Masks

All the way up to the day of arrival we still weren’t 100% sure when everything was going to happen. On the morning of the official parade we were told the parade would start at 9am. After arriving and wandering around with nothing much happening, we asked the police who replied “maybe” it’d start at 9.30am. Maybe…

Ghost Festival: Masks

Ghost Festival: Parade

Ghost Festival: Too many cameras

You know, I had a wonderful time on the first day of the celebrations. And I had a great time running around the countryside. But when photographers started showing up in groups of tens and twenties, it was time for this Cat to leave. And leave, we did. For more fun (just not in Dan Sai).

Will I be back next year? Or the year after? Sure. The Ghost Festival is an amazing experience and I’m not done yet.

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My passion is promoting the Thai language. Fullstop. Oh, and traveling. I'm passionate about that as well. And photography too.

18 Comments

  1. Rick Bradford

    June 24, 2012 at 9:23 pm

    A beautiful travel story, and one which demonstrates the diversity within this country,

    I sometimes feel there are over-zealous efforts by relevant authorities to define a single Thai culture, a ความเป็นไทย which operates with equal relevance everywhere in the Kingdom.

    Diversity is strength, ใช่ไหม

  2. Rick, with all the different cultures within Thai culture, Thailand has so much going on – and I don’t see myself getting bored ever.

    And here’s another thing… I don’t desire perfection. I want the peeing moths, the cranky trains, the iffy bits. I don’t want to live in a perfect country where life is predictable.

    Ok, I could have done without the burning bowels on the last day that had me dashing from toilet to toilet (not mentioned in my post) but hey… it is what it is.

  3. Despite the challenge of squeezing in amongst all the other photographers, you got some fantastic shots. The masks are beautiful works of art and those kids! Just adorable!

  4. Thanks Amy :-) After watching other photographers I now know which lens to take next year (one I don’t have yet!) They could stand back more, while I was limited by the range of my lens.

    If you do get a chance to go, it really is a fun place to experience, and not just the festival. On my next trip I’ll venture even further out from Dan Sai.

  5. Catherine – I turn my back, hop on a plane, cram three days of work in and before I know it you’ve put three posts together. How can a guy keep up with you.

    I love travelling on Thai trains (and buses), there’s something about watching the world go by that really appeals to me. Aeroplanes are quick but their view is rather fluffy.

    I’ve been to Dan Sai a few times before but never for the ghost festival. I must make it there one day. Your wonderful photographs make me doubly determined to do so. I do have a Phi Ta Khon figurine in the village house in Thailand. I have a Phi Ta Khon mask beer mug as well.

    Did you like the wine at the vineyard? I’ve bought a few bottles of it myself in the past.

    I have great memories of Loei and especially our trips to Phu Rua and Dan Sai. The countryside is amazing and its climate very agreeable too.

    Great post and thanks for the memories.

  6. Martyn, your trip to the UK went fast!

    This was my first time on a Thai train and I’m hooked. It’s so much better than flying. I’m now planning many other train adventures around Thailand.

    I brought back a few small masks (I’ll get larger next year) and kept finding great t-shirts so came away with plenty of those. Whoever designed the T’s went all out on design plus printed them on quality materials for a decent price. And while I don’t wear t’s, I know plenty of who do.

    The wine was only so so but I didn’t expect more. I’ve been on a wine tasting for Chateau De Loie in Bangkok and their upper range is ok. But, I wasn’t prepared to pay in the 1000+ baht range for a bottle of wine only as good as a £10 bottle in the UK. I settled on a 300 baht bottle instead.

  7. I can assure you Wilai and I only grabbed the cheap bottles of plonk.

  8. Martyn, you and I are of the same mind on that one. Even decent wine out here will go iffy so why throw good money to bad?

  9. It didn’t make sense that the hotel got raves but what we experienced was awful, so I did some checking at the source. The review site that glowingly listed the hotel as having “no minuses” sent me to a different hotel to make the reservation.

    Like I already posted, it was an expensive hotel with no hot water, awful beds, iffy breakfast, and chewing critters that kept us up all night. And I forgot to mention the holes in the floor (big enough for rats to slither through).

    It did have a good view (I’ll give them that). So if you want to check out the view but don’t want to find yourself in a crap (expensive) hotel in Dan Sai, email me.

  10. Love the pictures! I wish I could’ve been there during the Festival!

  11. Cat, absolutely amazing photo’s! Not sure I would like the trains bathroom too much if I had to squat…at least there is one good reason for being a man, at least half the time.

    It looks to me like you had a splendid adventure and I truly hope I can join you next year for the festival…I would love nothing more than to get you a lil tipsy on the train before you use the facilities :P

  12. Thanks Talen. The event was amazing for those with cameras so you must go next year!

    Tipsy? Heh. Actually, the train left an hour late coming back so as I was bored I had a beer while waiting. Then when we were lining up to get on the train, I noticed a sign threatening a fine for drinking alcohol in that area. My friend then pointed out that the sign showed graphics of bottles, not cans of beer, so I was safe :-D

  13. Rick Bradford

    June 28, 2012 at 8:36 pm

    The Thai trains could be so much better with some investment.

    Forget these high-speed train fantasies, which are simply politicians’ vanity projects.

    Some new rolling stock, iron out the rails, and maybe double-track some important bits (like the southern line).

    I just get the feeling that the officials who get to allocate the infrastructure budget have more in common with the big 4×4 pick-up drivers who need a 6-lane highway to keep up a steady 120kph behind their tinted windows.

    Result? Hua Hin Bangkok by road, 2.5 hours; by train, 7 hours. And the minibus is cheaper.

    As Herbert C. Walton would say “I love trains”, but SRT really puts a strain on that love.

    Though Thailand By Train always lifts my spirits…

  14. Rick, for myself, I don’t see the need for high-speed trains either. My main reason for going via train is to see the scenery. The plane is only 3000 baht for the same trip so not an impossible difference.

    I’ve only experienced one train trip I can’t really go heavily into improvements. I actually expected worse than I found. The seats in first class (or whatever it’s called) were comfy and as I have a bad back, that’s saying a lot. And the toilets didn’t gross me out either.

    Minibus – no thanks. Some of those drivers are insane :-D

    I read Thailand by Train and will use it for my next trip. I’m hooked!

  15. Cat, wasn’t there a sign on the door of the bathroom which said in Thai and engrish; “Don’t use the toilet when the train is stopped.” ??

    I saw it in the 3rd class compartment goin’ to Kanchanaburi.

    I actually think the waste falls between the tracks. ..

  16. Todd, I didn’t notice any signs on the doors in English or Thai. Also, the gal waiting on the carriage was placed right by the door going into the hall where the toilets are. Not that she’d stop anyone … but she might have at least pointed to the sign. And on my return trip the girl waiting on us spoke beautiful English with no hesitation so I don’t believe she would have been afraid to speak up.

    Yes, that’s what I was thinking too but the toilet was built in such a way you didn’t see the tracks.

  17. What a lovely story and set of photos ! I was also there and spent quite some time talking to your “what a face” guy. That´s the only time in my life I agreed to drink beer at 8am in the morning ! Do you already know the date for the 2013 festival ? I want to go again!

  18. Welcome to WLT Simon :-) I don’t know what the exact dates are this year. I want to go again as well so I’ll be keeping an eye out for it! And I just might drink beer at 8am as well (something else to look forward to).

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