It’s just before midday, the street is crowded, and a ghost is waving a penis in my face.
Yet there’s nothing unusual about this scenario.
In fact, it’s completely normal, at least for the next three days.
I’m in Dansai, and this is Phitakhon.
A three hour drive west of Udon Thani, Dansai is a small district of only 8,000 people, nestled in the cool mountainous province of Loei in Thailand’s northeast.
At any other time of the year, this small, unassuming region is a place of meditation, where traditional culture and beliefs still hold strong amidst the spectacular natural landscape.
But come Phitakhon, it is awash with colour as the spirits come out to play, putting on a spectacle to rival some of Southeast Asia’s biggest festivals.
Perhaps the easiest comparison to make is with Halloween, though the origins of Phitakhon are far more spiritual.
Local villagers – mostly children – spend months crafting elaborate masks from wood, rice husks and coconut leaves, as well as colourful patchwork clothing, which they wear in a parade through the town’s main street.
Each mask is unique and created according to the maker’s creative and imaginative interpretations, though each still adheres to the traditional Phitakhon style (‘Phi’ means ghost and ‘khon’ means mask).
They also wear bells, and perhaps most bizarrely, the men wave large wooden phalluses with a splash of red paint on the tip – and watch out ladies, they’re not exactly shy about showing them off.
The festival itself originates from a mix of animist and Buddhist beliefs. Locals believe that in his previous life before he became Lord Buddha, Siddhattha Gotama was banished from his home city for giving away a Royal elephant.
When he returned from exile, the celebrations were so boisterous that even the spirits of the dead decided to attend.
It is this coming together of the dead and living that is commemorated by Phitakhon, which is in fact part of a larger celebration known as Bun Luang that also includes Bun Bang Fai (the rocket festival – exactly as much fun as it sounds).
Phitakhon is held annually, with dates shifting between the months of May and July.
Of course, there’s more to Loei than just Phitakhon – it is a diverse province of immense natural beauty and a bastion of traditional culture with plenty of hidden pockets to explore.
The popular nature reserve of Phu Kradeung National Park is about 140 kilometres southeast of Dansai.
Rumour has it that this trek is a great testing ground for young lovers – if you can survive the trek together without breaking up, you should live a long and happy life together.
AirAsia (airasia.com, 02 515 9999) have daily flights direct from Phuket to Udon Thani, and twice daily from Bangkok to Udon Thani.
From there, it is best to rent a car or motorbike and self-navigate, however there are also regular local buses running from Udon Thani to Loei (about five hours), and also from Loei to Dansai (30 minutes).
Accommodation options in Dansai town are limited, but nearby Phu Rua has several resorts and makes for a convenient base to explore the area. Rungyen Resort
(rungyenresort.com, 086 895 4830) is a good place to start, with rooms from B690. Dansai and surrounding areas can get extremely busy during Phitakhon, so it’s best to book well in advance.
One of Loei’s slogans is ‘The Coldest Place in Siam’, and with average annual temperatures of just over 20 degrees Celsius, it is indeed a great place to escape Phuket’s hotter months.
The temperate climate also means it’s great for winegrowers, and there are several (fairly average) vineyards in the region to explore.
For more information, visit phitakhon.com or tourismthailand.org.