Home to the Phi Ta Khon Festival
For a small town in a backwater province, Dan Sai is no ordinary place. Home to a sacred chedi that serves as Loei’s provincial symbol, the hamlet is best known for what’s arguably Thailand’s most mesmerising spectacle: Phi Ta Khon. On these three days, spirits portrayed by wildly imaginative costumes join Buddhist readings and rocket launches as part of the larger Bun Luang festival.
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Held annually on a weekend in late June or early July (the exact dates are determined by the local spirit mediums), Phi Ta Khon expresses the region’s complex religious tapestry in a boisterous melange of sight and sound. Local animist beliefs blend with Theravada Buddhist tradition and Brahman ritual along with plenty of partying, or "merit-making playing," as the local museum puts it.
Once the signal has been given by the female spirit medium who oversees the town’s 500-year-old chedi, Phra Tat Si Song Rak, the townspeople perform a ceremony to awaken a local terrestrial spirit, Phra Upphakat, and invite it to reside in a tower at Wat Phon Chai in the centre of town. Various other spirits, including those of ancestors known as Chao Nai, are also beckoned to join.
The second day includes a Buddhist image procession symbolising the arrival of Prince Vessantara, or Wetsanthon to use the Thai name, the main character in a Jataka (Buddha’s previous birth story) that’s long held an important role in several Southeast Asian cultures. The prince is welcomed with the firing of bamboo rockets (bang fai), believed to invoke fertility in the form of rain.
In the story, Prince Vessantara leads a white elephant with the power to bring rain from his kingdom to a drought-stricken land, provoking his own people to become enraged and banish him to a forest. Eventually coming round to see the value of the prince’s generosity, his people invite him back with a great festival that’s mimicked each year in Dan Sai.
Joining the prince are his new forest-spirit friends, depicted during Phi Ta Khon by way of frightening costumes. The term phi tam khon (later resolved to phi ta khon) means "following a person," as in how the spirits followed Vessantara. Recited in its entirety during the festival, the Jataka bonds two vital elements of any Thai-Isaan farming community: the Buddhist ideal of selflessness and the fertility needed for a healthy crop.
Symbolising the fertility element, a staggering array of phallic symbols (they look like oversized wooden dildos) is featured during the festival, some of them so large that they have to be pulled on carts. Men cover themselves in mud to symbolise rice paddy, while images of water buffalo compel the spirits to provide sufficient rain for the coming crop.
The festivities are centred at Wat Phon Chai, a small temple featuring an excellent museum that’s open year-round. When Phi Ta Khon isn’t taking place, Dan Sai is a quiet but pleasant place to break up the trip between Loei and Phitsanulok. Rimmed by mist-shrouded mountains and with a couple of worthwhile temples, it’s a good option for travellers looking to experience a slow-paced town with very little tourism.
Be sure to book your accommodation a few months in advance if you intend to stay in Dan Sai for Phi Ta Khon / Bun Luang, or probably a month in advance if staying in Loei town, 80 km east, from where the festival can be hit as a day trip. This entire area gets downright chilly from October to February; do pack a sweater if coming in the cool season.
Set at the confluence of the Man and Sok rivers, Dan Sai is a small town with only a few main roads and side streets connecting them. The main highway from Loei to Phitsanulok, Route 2013, runs west-to-east to the south of town; this is where most buses stop, with three accommodation options within sight of where you’re dropped off.
Also known as Route 2114, Kaeo Asa Road is the main drag through town, shooting north from 2013 and passing Wat Phon Chai on its way to a couple of markets, the police station, post office and a minibus pick-up point. This area is where you’ll find the largest number of eating options. The hospital is situated just east of town on 2013. To the west sits Phra Tat Si Song Rak and Wat Neramit, both perched up on hills within walking distance of the bus stop.
Dan Sai is a small, off-the-beaten track destination. While most of the hoteliers can speak some English, don’t expect any real tourist infrastructure or English menus in the restaurants. Time to get out that phrasebook?
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