We all love a good ghost story. The spiritual and the
supernatural, even the gruesome arouse an instinctive curiosity in all of us.
In the west, we have Halloween on October 31. In Thailand, the spirit world
comes closest to us in June 23-24, 2001 with the Phi Ta Khon Festival; an
event filled with fun, mischief and of course, a touch of the unknown.
This festival, unique to Thailand, is held in the Dan Sai
District of Loei Province, about 450 km north of Bangkok. Phi Ta Khon is part
of a Buddhist merit-making holiday known locally as ĎBun Pha Ves.í The
precise origin of Phi Ta Khon is not clear. But itís believed that the roots
of the festival revolve around an important tale of the Buddhaís last life,
before he reached nirvana.
According to Buddhist folklore, the Buddha-to-be was born
as Prince Vessandorn, a generous man who gave freely to the people. Then one
day he gave away a white elephant, a royal creature, worshipped as a symbol of
the rain. This made the people in the town very angry, as they feared reprisal
of drought and famine, so they banished the prince into exile.
The prince left the village for a long time and went on a
very long journey. Finally, the king and the people relented and recalled him
to the city. When he eventually returned, his people were overjoyed. They
welcomed him back with a celebration so loud that even the dead were awakened
from their slumbers to join in the festivities.
Ta Khon is held with the arrival of the sixth or seventh lunar month, when the
young male villagers prepare their ghostly attire and masks, while children
roam around town playing tricks. Sheets or blankets are sewn together to look
like shrouds while traditional wooden bamboo containers used to store sticky
rice (huad), are creatively fashioned into bizarre hats. The huge masks are
carved from the bases of coconut trees. The spirit masks are the integral part
of the celebrations, which lasts for three consecutive days.
On the first day there is a masked procession with music
and dancing. On the second day, the villagers dance their way to the temple
and let off bamboo rockets to signal the end of the procession. As the parade
travels through the street they tease and play with the on looking crowd as
they accompany a sacred image of the Buddha. Monks recite the story of the
Buddhaís last incarnation before attaining enlightenment.
The festival organizers also hold contests for the best
masks, costumes and dancers, and plaques are awarded to the winners in each
age group. The most popular event is the dancing contest among those dressed
up as ghosts. On the last day of the event, the villagers gather at the local
temple, Wat Ponchai, to listen to the message of the thirteen sermons of the
Lord Buddha, recited by the local monks. Everyone is welcome to join in.
The ghost dancers then put away their ghostly masks and
costumes for another year and itís back to the rice field to continue to
earn their living with the onset of the new crop season.