In the Northeast of Thailand (on the Mekhong River and border of Laos) sits Issan – Thailand’s least visited province.
English is rarely spoken here and there are no golden beaches to attract hoards of western tourists. Visiting this “forgotten” province can be stressful; particularly for anyone new to Thailand (and especially for anyone coming from a cosy beach resort full of English speakers omelets on every menu!). Transport is confusing, the language barrier is more obvious than in the rest of Thailand and ordering food can be tricky – as a vegetarian I was often handed a pile of miscellaneous meat with the explanation: “no meat, no meat, just pork”!
That being said, Issan can be a beautiful place to find a truly Thai experience with friendly locals. The people of Issan are proud of their culture with the unique dialect, ritual and famously spicy food that differs from the rest of Thailand. Issan lets you see the famous Mekhong River in a completely untouched environment and drive for hours through the mountains and endless views of forests, only broken by the occasional bamboo hut.
Phi Ta Khon Festival
One reason to visit Issan is for the brilliant and bizarre annual festivals of rainy season, the most unique being Phi Ta Khon in Dan Sai – every year thousands of people descend on this sleepy village for 4 days of loud, colourful and sexually-charged celebration!
The festival combines a few different cultural and religious celebrations – and going in we thought we knew what to expect but we were proven wrong! The whole experience was perfectly summarised by a German journalist I shared some rice-cakes with:
“the longer I’m here the less I understand it”.
In a nutshell, from what I gathered from locals and other confused bloggers, the Phi Ta Khon festival (Festival of the Ghosts) is unique to Issan and centred around the story of the Buddha’s last great incarnation before attaining enlightenment – at that time local celebrations were so huge it woke the spirits of the village and nearby forest, so they joined the party. The festival creates a re-enactment of that great celebration, with local men wearing the Phi Ta Khon masks to represent and appease local spirits.
One element of the festival is based around fertility, and something we weren’t expecting was the countless number of phallic objects being waved around all weekend! Every Phi Ta Khon carried a huge wooden penis and we even got surprised by a few old ladies poking us from behind with penis canons! At the end of the second day giant penis-shaped bamboo rockets were fired into the sky to provoke rain-making spirits into doing their job of bringing a good rainy season.
Another thing we didn’t know was that the festival of Bun Luang is celebrated in parallel to Phi Ta Khon, and joins the party in Dan Sai for a weird and wonderful hybrid of sights and sounds. The two spiritual leaders of the town and their many disciples hold merit-making sermons all weekend, and their parades of orange and white beautifully clash with the madness of Phi Ta Khon.
What to expect
During the days you’ll be caught in never-ending parades of Thai dancers, phallic-waving Phi Ta Khons, impressive floats and loud music. You’ll wander through town and join hundreds of disciples dancing around temples, experience Buddhist monks chanting and praying at the river, share beers and hear stories from local people, and as one of only a few other “farangs” in town you’ll probably take part in hundreds of selfies with excited locals!
Hundreds of children compete in traditional dance contests over the weekend of Phi Ta Khon.
At night you’ll experience the hospitality of Issan and drink beer with locals while dancing to live music at the main-stage. Then when the inevitable evening rain comes you’ll join hundreds of people carrying on the party from within the fish market!
Over the weekend we lived with a lovely local lady who made us part of the family and showed us off around town as “her farangs”. We spent the evenings eating, drinking and partying with her and her friends. Most of them didn’t speak English but they partied hard and we didn’t need spoken language – the beauty of any festival is that everyone is connected by the shared experience of their surroundings, the joy that comes from music in the sunshine and – in this case – the spiritual ceremony that is so important to the thousands who celebrate Phi Ta Khon.
If you are in the area visit Chiang Khan – a great riverside market village nearby which is trendy among Thais and tipped to become the next Pai.
Buddhist sermons and merit-making start from as early as 3am on the first day – so get some sleep!
THE CANDLE FESTIVAL
If you are in Issan around July make sure you check out the Ubon Ratchathani Candle festival – the biggest and most elaborate candle festival in Thailand. In true SE Asian style the dates changed at the last minute this year and we couldn't make it, so we will be celebrating on a smaller scale in Chiang Mai. But hang around in Issan and ask locals or a TAT office for the latest information.