11 Jul All about Phi Ta Khon or Ghost Festival in Loei, Thailand
We are talking about Thailand’s own ghost festival, Phi Ta Khon. I bet, most people haven’t even heard of it. But you have! And that’s why you are here. Which is great. Because this festival is amazing. It takes place outdoors in hot humid summer which will leave you sweltering. But I am sure you will still end up enjoying it.
Now I am sure you must have gotten curious after looking at some of the photos on the internet. Or some friend told you about it. And yes, this is what you will get. You will find dozens of people walking all over the town in these ghost costumes. There are parades, dance performances, street food and all the types of festivities that you can think of finding in Thailand.
It is not so hard to dig up information about the festival itself. But boy, it is hard to reach there. And even quite hard to come back from there. To be honest, it seemed like I have travelled outside of Thailand and into Laos (I can assure you Laos is quite remote). So here I am sharing all that I know so that you can have a better experience.
Let’s get started.
Why is Phi Ta Khon celebrated?
There are several stories that could explain its possible origins. According to one of the legends, when Prince Vessantara (Gautama Buddha in his previous life reincarnation) and his wife Madri were leaving the forest for the city, the spirits from the forest took form as humans and mingled with the villagers to say their farewell.
Another story tells us that at one point in time, Prince Vessantara was assumed dead during his travels due to his long absence and news. But when he showed up, the villagers rejoiced with so much intensity that it brought the spirits of the nearby forests back from the dead.
If you ask someone from the village, they may say that they celebrate it to pay homage to the spirits of their ancestors by offering them food. In turn, the spirits make their presence felt and dance with the living at night. The festival goes hand-in-hand with the Bun Luang festival where people make merits by attending sermons and making the spirits of their ancestors happy.
Where is Phi Ta Khon celebrated?
Phi Ta Khon is celebrated in the small town of Dan Sai in Loei province in northeastern Thailand. This province comes under the Isan region and is at the border of Laos. Dan Sai village is around 85km from Loei City and 120 km from Phitsanulok. The celebration takes place near the main square of the town near the Wat Phonchai temple and Phi Ta Khon museum.
In fact, as soon as you are in Dan Sai or even Loei, you will find these ghost mascots all around the town. During the festivals, the celebrations are such that you cannot miss them. Just keep following the crowd.
When is Phi Ta Khon celebrated?
There is no fixed festival date and it can differ every year between March – July. But more often than not, it takes place during the month of June. Every year the head monk of the town prays and asks the spirits of the ancestors for the appropriate time for this festival. The dates are decided with the acceptance of the ancestral spirits with the promise of being there.
Phi Ta Khon is celebrated for 3 consecutive days. The first 2 days are when you will find most of the celebrations while the last day is designated to merit making where the villages listen to sermons. So if you wish to take part in or enjoy the festivals, parades and dance performances, try visiting on the first and the second day.
How to reach Dan Sai, Loei
Dan Sai is a remote village, so there are not a lot of options for transportation. The connectivity with bus and minivans aren’t as good as you would find in mainland Thailand. The only way to travel to Dan Sai is by road from Loei, Phitsanulok or Lomsak coming from Petchabun.
Travelling from Loei
Depending upon your origin location, you can try taking a flight to Loei. There are direct flights that run from Bangkok 2-3 times every day. Once you arrive at the Loei airport, you can either take a taxi from the airport directly to Dan Sai village. Or you can take a taxi to the Loei bus station and take the bus for the next leg of your journey.
A taxi from Loei to Dan Sai will start from THB 1200 depending upon the vehicle. Since you won’t find a lot of aggregators online for this route, it is best to talk and negotiate with a local taxi service in Loei town. Check out Loei Taxi or talk to another taxi service on their Facebook page.
If you decide to use public transportation, the bus is probably your only option. There could also be minivans running on this route (maybe because of the demand around the festival), the bus I can be sure of.
A bus runs several times a day from Loei bus station. A local bus runs at 9.30 am, 12.30 pm, 1.30 pm and 4.30 pm. Whereas an AC or VIP bus runs at 10 am, 12 pm and 2.20 pm. Since the bus has limited seats, the bus can also leave early if the seats get full. This timetable was from 2023 and may change in future.
If you are travelling on the day of the festival, make sure you are at the station by 7 am. The bus takes 2 hours for the journey and a ticket costs THB 70 per person.
Traveling from Phitsanulok
For the first part of your journey, you can take a flight to Phitsanulok. Several direct flights are available every day from Bangkok to Phitsanulok. Another option is to take a bus to Phitsanulok from your origin city. Since Phitsanulok is a much bigger city, the options are usually much more compared to Loei.
From Phitsanulok, you can take the bus to Dan Sai. Now there is no bus that only goes between Phitsanulok and Dan Sai. But you will probably have to hop on a bus between Phitsanulok and Loei or Phitsanulok and Udon Thani. The buses on this route also stop at Dan Sai and that is where you can get off.
You can find options at this route at Phitsanulok Bus station. I couldn’t find a timetable online, you will have to figure this out at the bus station. In the other direction, you can catch a bus from Dan Sai to Phitsanulok at 2.30 pm from the Dan Sai bus pickup/dropoff area.
There is also a private bus service that runs between Phitsanulok and Dan Sai. But this usually starts at night and drops at Dan Sai in the middle of the night. Similarly, it starts from Dan Sai at 1 am. If you are okay with the timings, you can find more information here. If you do not have any pickup/drop-off arrangements in Loei, avoid travelling at night.
Renting a Car or Bike
A great way to travel all the way to Dan Sai is by your private car or bike. Since there are no options for public transportation inside Dan Sai village, it is best if you have your own. It will also give you more flexibility with your time.
However, a HUGE downside is that there is a massive traffic jam in the town during the festival days due to the insane number of tourists that pour in. I would suggest arriving in the town a day earlier and staying somewhere near the centre so that you can get around on foot.
You can rent a car or a bike from Loei or Phitsanulok and return after your journey. Check out Kayak.com to find out more about car rentals in Phitsanulok or Loei. However, for bike rentals, you will need to look up rental shops in either of the city. If you are a non-thai tourist, you may have to give your passport to rent out a bike that costs between THB 250-300 per day.
Where to Stay in Dan Sai
Stay can be a big problem during the festivals. Most hotels and homestays in the area are jam-packed with tourists. So unless you have booked a place way in advance it can be quite difficult for you to find a place to stay.
Another thing to keep in mind is that there is hardly any public transportation inside the town. So if you are not staying within walking distance of the centre (where the festivities will take place), you will also need to think of public transport.
Your options are some kind of private transport like a bike or a car or checking with your hotel/homestay for pick-up/drop-off service. Although keep in mind that the traffic on the day of festivities is bad so park your vehicle at some distance and walk the last mile from there.
Here are some of the hotel options inside the town. But make sure that you book way ahead of time.
We stayed at a homestay Country home which was around 15 km from the city centre. Our host was kind enough to pick us up on the day of the festival. The property is also gorgeous located deep inside the countryside. If you wish to book this place, check out their Facebook page.
A hack that I often use in such cases is checking out the properties in the areas on Google Maps where I can find the photos, website, Facebook page or their phone numbers and calling them directly to check for availability. The chances of you getting a place is more as you move out of the city.
The last option you have is to arrive at the town early in the morning from Phitsanulok or Loei and returning back the same day. You can expect the festivities to dull down by evening hours. But since the area is quite remote, I will suggest that you return before it gets dark.
What to see during Phi Ta Khon
For the best part, we are going to talk about what to expect during Phi Ta Khon. I visited Phi Ta Khon in 2023, and I can confidently say that people in Dan Sai celebrate Phi Tha Khon just for the purpose of celebration. There are a lot of stalls, restaurants, food and souvenir stalls around but I can see that for most of them, it is not about tourism or money, even if comes with it.
The festivities start on Day 1 early in the morning around 4.00 am by summoning Phra Upakhut. According to the legends, Phra Upakhut was a monk who attained nirvana and can perform miracles. Yet he chose to spend his life in seclusion. He was first summoned by King Asoka to watch over an auspicious and grand ceremony to protect them from evil spirits. This tradition was adopted by the people of Dan Sai marked by a procession that takes place from Wat Pon Chai to river Mun.
After this everyone returns to Wat Pon Chai around 6.00 am where people look forward to making merits by offering food to monks, an important custom in Thailand and Laos. This is followed by summoning the spirits of the ancestors which will mark the beginning of the festivities.
At around 10.00 am people gather in the assembly area of Wat Pon Chai for celebrations. People of Dan Sai get together dressed up as ghosts that we have been talking about. A procession takes place on the road outside the temple and a dance competition inside the temple premise. Or you can just hang out wherever something is happening.
Day 1 of the celebrations holds a dancing competition among various groups. Each group is dressed in a unique ghost costume identical to one another. And there are dozens of groups like these. Which gives us the opportunity to see them in so many colours and variations.
There is also a mask painting competition and workshop in the area. You can actually see how these masks are made and how much effort and creative juices go into each. If you fancy it, you can buy one and take it as a souvenir.
People disperse by late afternoon for rest and preparation for the next day.
The second day is the most intense of all three. And if you are in Dan Sai for just one day, then this should be it. The whole town of Dan Sai is in a state of celebration. The celebration starts around 10.00 am in the morning. Head over to Wat Pon Chai and the surrounding areas to catch all the excitement.
There are continuous parades on the street in front of the temple with grand processions and decorations. People from all around the surrounding regions prepare dance performances and cultural events and showcase them here. The burning hot sun can give you a tough time though.
You will find beautiful (and scary) ghosts all over the place. And even if they seem sweating in the hot sun, they are still so happy to take photos with the tourists. Some even go far to make your photos absolutely memorable. I saw others just playing around with kids. Cultural performances take place inside the temple premise.
As I already told you, there are several groups of ghosts and each group has their unique costumes and mask decorations to take part in the competitions. But it seems that the whole thing has also become a creative platform for experimentation. We found ghosts in different colours, patterns and themes. One of the groups was all women dressed up in bright pink costumes and masks. Absolutely stunning!
The ghosts have these cowbells tied to their lower back dangling around their hips. And their dance is such that the bell is always making a noise. It is absolutely adorable when you see small kids jingling sideways with dancing hard. Another feature of a ghost is that they need to carry a sword of a phallus made out of wood. Do not get creeped out if you find a wooden dick dangling in front of your face.
There were also a few more experimental ghosts. Traditionally, there is also a ‘Big Ghost’ or Phi Ta Khon Yai. In fact, there are two – a male and a female. These are people who adorn a different kind of costume, much larger almost double the size of a human. There can only be one of each and they also need permission of the spirits to become one. A person who becomes Phi Ta Khon Yai must also do it for three consecutive years while throwing away their costume every year in the river to send away misery and bad luck.
The celebrations go on the whole day with something or other happening in the town. You can just take a spot, relax and just enjoy the festivities. People drink and dance, so participate in merry-making. The festivities end around 7 pm with the sermons.
You will hardly find any ghosts or festivities on the last day of the festival. Just a laid-back village with people enjoying an extended vacation. The traffic jam also clears up so it is a good time to sightsee, maybe head over to Dan Sai viewpoint. Sermons take place in Wat Pon Chai attended by hungover villages. You can join the same or just relax in the temple complex.
If you plan to return on this day, make sure that you either head out early to find possible transport options to the nearest town. Or book something ahead of time with the help of a local or your hotel owner.