Thursday, August 12, 2010

Drunken ghosts celebrate life

More than 2553 years ago, Buddha went off into the forest for a long time to meditate. Gone for 49 days (but eventually seeking spiritual enlightenment) the folks at home started to worry about him. They were convinced their Prince was dead deep in the forest. But eventually, after days of worry, the enlightened man emerged, and his people were so surprised to see him they thought he was a ghost. On discovering he was the real deal, the villages threw a big "glad you're not dead/ welcome back" party.

Now, I don't know about in the old days in Nepal or India, but Thailand sure knows how to throw Buddha a party. They call it the "Ghost Festival" or "Pee Tha Kon" in Thai.  Everyone dresses up in intricately painted masks made of rice baskets and wood, with matching outlandish costumes.

ghosts in the streets of dansai
too much poking. awkward.
Apparently there are customs and formal traditions involved in this festival, including finding a lucky pearl in the river and listening to 13 of Buddhas sermons.... but I didn't see any of that. It's pretty secondary to what the festival is really about : Dancing around in costume, drinking, and poking one another with huge wooden phalluses they carry around like swords. (There is really no explanation for this other than the Thai sense of humor - I've checked)**.  

During the parade, there were also a few groups of men dressed in blackface - extremely bizarre and offensive, but given the amount of racism in Thai culture, not surprising. (Again, Thai sense of humor is a little off at times, and I found no real reason for these groups to be included in the celebration)  I feel weird about posting these pictures, but I also feel it necessary ? 

ummm this is okay?
The festival took place in beautiful Isaan, Loei Province. This side of the country is less developed, full of rolling hills and rice fields, and was predictably sunny and hot that weekend. The odd thing about visiting Isaan, is that falang are still kind of a novelty. While magnificent ghost masks and spectacle danced around me, I was the one being asked multiple times to have my picture taken with locals. I even saw a few people sneak pics of me on their cellphones while I walked by - it felt nearly paparazzi-esque, and made me pretty uncomfortable. I was there with my other falang friend - and with her pale skin and red hair,  we were very foreign sights for the people of Leoi. 

This ghost-man wanted his pic with the falang, and the falang wanted a pic with the ghost man. Win-win 

Overall, another enchanting weekend of colors and celebration in Amazing Thailand.  While I certainly learned a lot about this Buddhist holiday and the culture of Isaan, the intrigue lies in that I always leave these festivals with more questions than I came with...

**Phalluses or lingam are prevalent in Thai culture, blending together a few different religious customs (In Hinduism, it represents Shiva), but typically symbolizes fertility or power. How this was particularly relevant in this festival wasn't exactly clear. But hey, why not. 

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