23 May 2024

With a funfair and plenty of festive vibes, the Mask Festival 2023 is all set to rev up the hot season in Thailand’s northeast this month. Taking place in Loei province from March 17 to 19, the international festival will not only bring together Loeis three famous mask processions – including the iconic Phi Ta Khon – but will also feature spectacular mask parades from around Asia.

The festival is being held at the Kud Pong public square in downtown Loei and promises festivalgoers a series of mask parades, cultural shows and lots of tasty local food.

The Phi Ta Khon, the iconic and entertaining mask festival, marks the end of a long period of hermitage and the monastic life of King Vessandorn. (Photo by Thaweechai Jaowattana)

The ghosts of Loei

Located along the Thai-Lao border, Loei is about 520 kilometres northeast of Bangkok. The province is famous for the Phi Ta Khon Festival. Inspired by Buddhist legend, this festive event celebrates the return of King Vessandorn(the incarnation of the Lord Buddha) to his throne after a long period of living as a hermit monk in the forest.

The locals don long-nosed ghost masks and wear huge wood phalluses to play and tease a crowd of fascinated onlookers.

Serenaded by hip-shaking Isaan rhythms and fuelled by rice wine, the vibrant procession beckons onlookers to dance along, offering the ultimate opportunity for a knees up before the arrival of the three-month Buddhist Lent.

A colourful mask procession in Loei province. (Photo by Thaweechai Jaowattana)

The Phi Ta Khon is traditionally held in the remote district of Dan Sai in June.Fortunately, the colourful procession of Phi Ta Khon will be roaming around town in March for visitors to the Mask Festival 2023.

Other than the iconic Phi Ta Khon, the international mask festival also beckons visitors with two lesser-known processions of the Phi Khon Nam and the Phi Bung Tao.

With its roots in agricultural rites and celebration, the Phi Khon Nam is a kind of rainmaking dance. Ahead of the growing season, the folks in Loei’s Chiang Khlong district will put on smiling buffalo masks and dance around the village calling on the rain god to put an end to the drought.

The masks, which are made of wood and painted with ancient patterns, are a big draw of the Phi Kho Nam procession. These masks are shaped like buffalo heads, with large eyes and large teeth and smiling mouths. Their horns are made of rattan in the shape of crescents, while ribbons dangling from the antlers represent rain.

The Phi Khon Nam mask is unique with its smiling buffalo head and dangling ribbons. (Photo courtesy of TAT (Loei Office) Facebook)

The Phi Bung Tao, on the other hand, is the youngest mask festival of Loeiprovince. Part of the annual celebration of the Nawa Banphot Buddha on top of Mount Phu Ruea, the locals traditional make demon masks from calabash shells.

Like the Phi Ta Khon, the dances of Phi Khon Nam and the Phi Bung Tao are full of vivid colours and playful moves.

Masks have been used by humans for thousands of years. Many masks are associated with religious and social ceremonies, or are concerned with funerary customs, fertility rites, or the curing of illness. Other masks are worn for special occasions, to portray characters in a dramatic performance, or to re-enact mythological events.

At Loei’s Mask Festival, the visitors will get to know masks from other countries such as Japan, South Korea and the Philippines through parades, exhibitions, and demonstrations.

A cute demon mask of Phi Bung Tao is made from calabash shells. (Photo courtesy of Pheebungtao Facebook)

Food and creativity

The Mask Festival 2023 is about more than just having some fun around the colourful procession; it’s also an expressive outlet for local artists to make provocative statements using the international mask event as a platform.

Loei is home to different Tai-speaking communities who once travelled and settled along the Mekong River. Their cuisines represent a part of their heritage and identity, stories passed down through generations. Visitors to the Mask Festival 2023 will be able to explore and experience that culinary heritage, as more than 100 food stalls will be serving a variety of dishes varying from finger-licking “khao daek nga” to lip-smacking rice noodle salad.

If you go

Nok Air, a budget airline, operates flights between Bangkok and Loei.