Category Archives: Loei

Bicycle Tour of Chiang Khan

Chiang Khan, in the upper north-east of Thailand, is a quiet town along the banks of the Mekong River. In ancient times it used to be an important town on the trade route between Thailand and Laos.  It never really got that many tourists passing through as it is quite isolated. Which is probably why over the last few years it has become a popular tourist destination. It is the kind of place that you go to get away from it all and to experience rural Thai life. But, don’t tell anyone!

There are basically only two main roads in Chiang Khanwhich run parallel  to each other. Connecting them at regular intervals are smaller lanes. The road of more interest is Chai Khong that runs along the Mekong River. This is where you will find the more photogenic old wooden houses and shops. This is also where you will find many guesthouses. The best way to explore the town is by bicycle. My guesthouse was renting them out for only 50 Baht for the whole day.

We were visiting the town during the week and so it was very quiet. I can imagine that it gets very busy at the weekends and during the high season. The weather was very pleasant and I think that the cool temperatures in the winter will make it popular with Thais. One of the main activities that you can join is the morning alms round. Our guesthouse arranged small baskets of sticky rice to offer to the monks as they passed us early in the morning at about 6 a.m. Giving sticky rice is similar to the tradition at Luang Prabang in Laos but not as many monks here.

The highlights for me were the views along the banks of the Mekong. The river here is not very wide compared to other places so you can easily see across to Laos. The mountains in the distance in this photo are in Laos. There is a path that runs along the river and I had a wonderful time cycling along this and watching the sun gradually go down. East of the town are the Kaeng Khut Khu rapids. The shiny rocks here are supposed to be very beautiful but the water was too high for us to see anything.

The early evening is another great time to explore the quiet lanes as it is a lot cooler. In addition, Chai Khong Road is turned into a walking street after 5 p.m. A number of local people set up stalls outside their houses during the evening selling handicraft and other souvenirs. This picture shows Heon Luang Prabang Restaurant where we ate during the evening. From their garden we got some great views as the sun set in the distance. I had a relaxing time in Chiang Khan and would love to go back and spend more time there.

Map of Chiang Khan in Loei Province, Northeastern Thailand:

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Phi Ta Khon Museum in Dan Sai

Phi Ta Khon is the most famous festival that takes place in Loei Province in either June or July each year. At Wat Phon Chai, in Dan Sai, you will find the Dan Sai Folk Museum that goes into great detail about the tradition of the Phi Ta Khon. You will also find examples of the various masks and costumes worn during this annual festival.

Read the report of my visit to the Phi Ta Khon Festival in 2011.

The Phi Ta Khon costumes are made from rags and colourful pieces of cloth. Hung around their necks or tied around their waists are tins cans and wooden cow bells. These create a rattling sound as they move around and dance during the parades. Some of the people also carry a symbolic weapon made in the shape of an oversized penis.

Although each of the Phi Ta Khon masks seem to be unique, they are all made using the same guidelines. Each mask has three parts: the hat, the face and the nose. The hat is made from a “huad”, which is a traditional woven bamboo container used for steaming sticky rice. The face is made from the husks of a coconut with small openings cut for the eyes. The nose is made from soft wood.

The various parts of the mask are joined together using string and nails and then the masking is elaborately painted. Mask makers use acrylic paints and urethane to give the mask a sheen. Traditionally, only three colours were used, white, black and red.  To complete each mask, pieces of cloth are sewn together and then glued onto the back part of the mask.

Masks today look very different from the ones 50 or so years ago. Now they take much longer to make and more money is spent on them. In the old days they were thrown into the river at the end of the festival to dispel bad luck. But, these days they keep them or sell them to tourists. The museum is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Map showing location of the Phi Ta Khon Museum in Dan Sai, Loei Province:

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Bun Luang and the Phi Ta Khon Ghost Festival

One of the most unique and colourful festivals in Thailand is Phi Ta Khon that takes place every year in Dansai in Loei Province. It is sometimes translated into English as the Ghost Festival as many people wear ghost masks during the processions. Really the festival is called Bun Luang which is a combination of two different festivals. These are Bun Phra Wet and Bun Bang Fai. The first is the continuous listening of thirteen sermons. The other involves the firing of rockets to ask for sufficient rain.

There are two theories about where the name “Phi Ta Khon” comes from. One is that it evolved from the phrase “Phi Tam Kon” which in English means “Ghost follows a person”. A long time ago, the Dansai villagers believed that ghosts came out of the forest to follow the Lord Buddha. Another theory is that because of the similarity of Dansai’s ghost masks with that of the Khon masks of Central Thailand, that they came to be called “Phi Ta Khon”.

The Phi Ta Khons wear a mask and a unique costume made by each villager. Over the years, these masks have become very intricate in design and also colourful. In the old days, the masks were thrown into the river at the end of the festival. But these days, the people use the masks as decoration during the year and then re-use them during the next festival. Every Phi Ta Khon has a weapon such as a sword which has a tip that looks like a penis. They also wear cow bells which make a noise as they do a kind of a rain dance.

In addition to the Phi Ta Khons, there are also others taking part in the procession. These two are the Giant Phi Ta Khon. Unlike the regular sized ghosts, there are only two giants. They must be male and female giant Phi Ta Khons. The male giant has a large penis which he teases the crowds with. Models of buffaloes remind people the importance of farm animals.

This group of men represent villagers who lived long ago in the forest. They have darkened their skin and are carrying short bamboo poles which they bang on the ground to make a noise. There are others carrying bamboo trays with mulberries or leaves used for herbal medicines.

Quite a few people in the parade have symbolic sexual objects which they use playfully with the crowd. In particular with the young ladies. In an agricultural society, the sex organs are the symbol of fertility. Villagers believe that playing with the symbolic sexual organs causes sufficient rain to fall in the rainy season. Some people also believe that this also helps to expel bad spirits.

The Bun Luang Festival takes place over three days. It begins with the ceremony to invoke Phra Uppakut. It is believed that this is the spirit that will keep the festival free of trouble. The ceremony is led by men dressed in white who are attendants to the spirit leader called Jao Por Guan. They go from Phon Chai Temple to the Man River where they dive into the river looking for the stone that symbolises Phra Uppakut. This is then brought back to the temple.

A little while later, everyone will come together at Jao Por Guan’s house for the Bai Sri ceremony which is the tying of white sacred threads around the wrist of the two spiritual leaders, Jao Por Guan and Jao Mae Nang Tiam, to wish them happiness, good health and good luck. After this ceremony has finished, the spiritual leaders will lead the procession to Phon Chai Temple where they will walk around it three times. The Phi Ta Khons also take part in this.

At dawn on the second day, local people dress up as Phi Ta Khon and cheerfully dance around the town. In the afternoon there is the Phra Wet worship procession. The parade is lead by the leader of the Por Saen holding the Bai Sri tray. Next comes a sacred Buddha image which is followed by four monks. Jao Por Guan is also in the procession sitting on a bamboo rocket. Bringing up the rear of the procession are the villagers wearing white.

Late that day, bamboo rockets are launched into the sky with the hope of bringing sufficient rain for their crops. There is also a competition to see whose rocket goes the highest. The day finishes with the throwing of  the costume and masks of the two giants into the river. They believe this will rid the villagers of any bad luck. The third and final day is spent back at the temple where they listen to sermons about the 10 lives of the Lord Buddha.

Bun Luang and the Phi Ta Khon Ghost Festival takes place every year either at the end of June or early July. The actual date is worked out in advance during a ritual performed by Jao Por Guan, Jao Mae Nang Tiam, the Por Saen and the Nang Tang. I will post information on the dates and schedule over at as soon as we get it for Phi Ta Khon 2012. If you get a chance, it is really worth attending this festival. I am really happy that I was able to go this year.

Isaan’s Chiang Khan

The town of Chiang Khan is I believe part of that mythical entity “The real Thailand”. Located in the Isaan province of Loei it can be found in a valley leading onto the Mekong River about 50 kilometres from the provincial capital which is also called Loei. Arriving at the outskirts of Chiang Khan is revealed a busy rural but on first impression unremarkable town. However once you have navigated the roads and the Sois that lead to the river you reach a long narrow river front road lined with a combination of teak timber and brick shop fronts and houses.


Once you have checked into one of the many guesthouses that line the street, its time to kick back on the guesthouse balcony and see what makes Chiang Khan special. The Mekong is much narrower here than further down river towards Nong Khai and gives a much clearer view into Laos. Wooden riverboats flying Lao and Thai flags putter up the river and in the dry season you can look up and down the river on both the Thai and Lao sides and see the market gardens that have been set up on the fertile riverbanks. The only sign of frenetic activity are the passenger speedboats screaming down the river, clocking awesome speeds. All and all just a good spot to sit back relax and enjoy a few beers.


About 4 kilometres down stream from Chiang Khan are the Kaeng Khut Khu rapids. At the rapids are a leafy park and a market. Stretching along the river opposite the market is a long thatched roof dining area. Sitting on raised bamboo platforms you can order delicious Isaan food including the local areas specialty – Kung Ten (dancing prawns). These are fresh still alive river prawns which are eaten or swallowed whole with a special sauce. Kaeng Khut Khu is a great place to while away a few hours eating, drinking and just taking in the scene.

kaeng khut khu

After spending a few days in Chiang Khan I always better in myself. Why I don’t always know. Perhaps it’s the quiet, the friendliness of the townspeople, the fogs that roll down the river in the winter or perhaps just the little things such as the “klunk” echo that you hear bouncing across the river when something is dropped in the guesthouse or the shouted conversations out to the people on riverboats. All I know is that when I finally do leave each time, I have an underlying desire to return.

In future blogs I would like to expand further on other parts of that magic part of Thailand – The Mekong region. In the meantime if you are interested I have posted photographs of Chiang Khan and other parts of the Mekong on my website. Just click on the following link.