The Mask Makers of Dan Sai, Isaan, Thailand
Located in a lovely valley amid gently undulating hills, Dan Sai, in the Loie Province of Thailand’s Isaan region, is a town of dilapidated wooden houses that is famous for Phi Ta Kon, a boisterous three-day rainmaking festival, also known as the Ghost Festival, which coincides with a grand merit-making event known as Boon Luang.
At the folk museum at the temple complex Wat Phon Chai in Dan Sai, we learn that in Thai, ‘Phi’ (pronounced ‘pee’) means ‘ghost’ or ‘spirit’, ‘Ta’ means ‘eyes’ and ‘Kon’ is a traditional Thai masked dance. This is why the The mask makers of Dan Sai, Isaan, are so famous.
Held around June-July each year*, Phi Ta Kon is essentially a fertility festival that kicks off the start of the rainy season and the planting of rice crops, and looks, from the film we watch, to be a bit of a bawdy event with a carnival-like atmosphere.
On the first day of the festival, the locals dress up as spirits, wearing their flamboyantly painted masks, raggedy patchwork costumes and phallic-shaped accessories, and parade through town. On the second day, they dance to the temple, making mayhem along the way, where they fire bamboo rockets into the air. On the third and final day of the festival, they head to the temple to listen to sermons recited by the local monks and pray for rain.
Like the weavers in Chonnabot, mask-making isn’t a full time profession for the people of Dan Sai. It’s something they do when they’re not working the fields. So we drive the tranquil lanes of the village looking for a mask-maker – we look for locals who aren’t wearing rubber boots.
In the mask shop that has been fashioned from the front rooms of his home, we find local artist Apiwat – nicknamed ‘Wat’, which is Thai for ‘temple’ – sitting on the floor, bare-footed and cross-legged, painstakingly painting a mask. His teenager daughter works elsewhere on the costumes.
Traditionally made from the corn husk baskets used to carry rice and the hard part of a palm frond, these days mask makers create the masks from a substance made from sticky rice (some use papier-mâché, pottery and even wood), to which they then apply acrylic paints.
As Wat paints, he has that same intense concentration that we observed in Chonnabot’s weavers and we find his attentiveness to his craft just as absorbing. The mask he’s painting is beautiful but we have little room for masks, so we buy a small souvenir spirit man wearing a mask.
At the museum we had learnt about the festival’s origins, found in accounts of Buddha’s last incarnation before attaining enlightenment, when village spirits appeared to celebrate his return.
At the start of Phi Ta Kon, we learn, a spirit medium performs a ritual at the Muan River, which runs through Dan Sai, to waken a revered monk who is thought to be meditating on the river floor. During the festival, cowbells jingle from the spirits’ costumed waists to announce their arrival.
As we explore the countryside around Dan Sai, we hear the tinkling of cowbells, but unfortunately for us they’re only announcing the arrival of a farmer leading his stock to new pastures to graze. However, it does look like it might rain…
Phi Ta Kon festival
Dan Sai, Loie Province
* Note that dates for the festival, which are communicated by the spirits to the town’s mediums, change each year. Check the Tourism Authority of Thailand website; see their post on the 2011 festival, which unfortunately we missed.