Mari – Phi Ta Khon Festival – Thailand June 2015:
Mari is a travel journalist with bundles of energy and an inspiring love for her job. Just over a year ago she started as an intern for a Norwegian travel magazine and now gets paid to see the wonders of the world!
Amy – Phi Ta Khon Festival – Thailand June 2015:
The absolute joy I felt seeing my first Thai celebration (along with all the phallic objects flying around) made me think of the first stage of the Buddhist wheel of life:
In the Northeast of Thailand (on the Mekhong River and border of Laos) sits Issan – Thailand’s least visited province.
English is rarely spoken here and there are no golden beaches to attract hoards of western tourists. Visiting this “forgotten” province can be stressful; particularly for anyone new to Thailand (and especially for anyone coming from a cosy beach resort full of English speakers omelets on every menu!). Transport is confusing, the language barrier is more obvious than in the rest of Thailand and ordering food can be tricky – as a vegetarian I was often handed a pile of miscellaneous meat with the explanation:
“no meat, no meat, just pork”!
That being said, Issan can be a beautiful place to find a truly Thai experience with friendly locals. The people of Issan are proud of their culture with the unique dialect, ritual and famously spicy food that differs from the rest of Thailand. Issan lets you see the famous Mekhong River in a completely untouched environment and drive for hours through the mountains and endless views of forests, only broken by the occasional bamboo hut.
One reason to visit Issan is for the brilliant and bizarre annual festivals of rainy season, the most unique being Phi Ta Khon in Dan Sai – every year thousands of people descend on this sleepy village for 4 days of loud, colourful and sexually-charged celebration!
The festival combines a few different cultural and religious celebrations – and going in we thought we knew what to expect but we were proven wrong! The whole experience was perfectly summarised by a German journalist I shared some rice-cakes with: “the longer I’m here the less I understand it”.
In a nutshell, from what I gathered from locals and other confused bloggers, the Phi Ta Khon festival (Festival of the Ghosts) is unique to Issan and centred around the story of the Buddha’s last great incarnation before attaining enlightenment – at that time local celebrations were so huge it woke the spirits of the village and nearby forest, so they joined the party. The festival creates a re-enactment of that great celebration, with local men wearing the Phi Ta Khon masks to represent and appease local spirits.
One element of the festival is based around fertility, and something we weren’t expecting was the countless number of phallic objects being waved around all weekend! Every Phi Ta Khon carried a huge wooden penis and we even got surprised by a few old ladies poking us from behind with penis canons! At the end of the second day giant penis-shaped bamboo rockets were fired into the sky to provoke rain-making spirits into doing their job of bringing a good rainy season.
Phi Ta Khon figures carry phallic objects at Phi Ta Khon festival
Young monks watch the firing of the bamboo rockets on the last day of Phi Ta Khon
Women carry phallic objects and poke onlookers at Phi Ta Khon
Another thing we didn’t know was that the festival of Bun Luang is celebrated in parallel to Phi Ta Khon, and joins the party in Dan Sai for a weird and wonderful hybrid of sights and sounds. The two spiritual leaders of the town and their many disciples hold merit-making sermons all weekend, and their parades of orange and white beautifully clash with the madness of Phi Ta Khon.
During the days you’ll be caught in never-ending parades of Thai dancers, phallic-waving Phi Ta Khons, impressive floats and loud music. You’ll wander through town and join hundreds of disciples dancing around temples, experience Buddhist monks chanting and praying at the river, share beers and hear stories from local people, and as one of only a few other “farangs” in town you’ll probably take part in hundreds of selfies with excited locals!
At night you’ll experience the hospitality of Issan and drink beer with locals while dancing to live music at the main-stage. Then when the inevitable evening rain comes you’ll join hundreds of people carrying on the party from within the fish market!
Over the weekend we lived with a lovely local lady who made us part of the family and showed us off around town as “her farangs”. We spent the evenings eating, drinking and partying with her and her friends. Most of them didn’t speak English but they partied hard and we didn’t need spoken language – the beauty of any festival is that everyone is connected by the shared experience of their surroundings, the joy that comes from music in the sunshine and – in this case – the spiritual ceremony that is so important to the thousands who celebrate Phi Ta Khon.
Thai flags at the Phi Ta Khon Festival parades
Ban Luang and Phi Ta Khon meets!
Kids representing the spirits of the forest at Phi Ta Khon Festival
Learning to dance with disciples at the Phi Ta Khon Festival
Children’s dance competitions at Phi Ta Khon Festival
Children’s dance competitions at Phi Ta Khon Festival
We found some mini Phi Ta Khons to hang out with!
Phi Ta Khon masks – last day of the festival and the streets are quiet
Men covered in mud to represent the spirits of the forest at Phi Ta Khon Festival
Day 1 parade at Phi Ta Khon Festival
Children’s dance competitions at Phi Ta Khon Festival
If you are in the area visit Chiang Khan – a great riverside market village nearby which is trendy among Thais and tipped to become the next Pai.
Buddhist sermons and merit-making start from as early as 3am on the first day – so get some sleep!
THE CANDLE FESTIVAL
If you are in Issan around July make sure you check out the Ubon Ratchathani Candle festival – the biggest and most elaborate candle festival in Thailand. In true SE Asian style the dates changed at the last minute this year and we couldn’t make it, so we will be celebrating on a smaller scale in Chiang Mai. But hang around in Issan and ask locals or a TAT office for the latest information.
Of Kenya’s 42 tribes the image of the Maasai is the most iconic as one of the only tribes in the country who still retain their traditional way of life – making them one of Kenya’s most famous tourist “attractions”. This has sparked debate in recent years on the negative influence to their culture versus the much-needed money that tourism brings to the poorer communities.
I spent 2 weeks living and volunteering at Maji Moto Cultural Camp; a small tourist camp within the community of Maji Moto set up by Salaton Ole Ntutu – warrior, chief and spiritual leader. Money from tourists goes straight back into Salaton’s community projects like the primary school, widow’s village, health clinic and Medungi Conservation for the protection of land and wildlife.
5 REASONS TO VISIT THE MAASAI
1. Experience real life Salaton’s camp is in the middle of a real living community and on arrival I was greeted with songs and the iconic jumping ceremony of the warriors. From then on, to my surprise, it wasn’t all song-and-dance every day; at first I even found myself a little disappointed when I wasn’t being constantly “entertained”. But I soon realised that wasn’t the purpose of my stay – I was there to live the life of the people, a very peaceful life, and I was quickly welcomed into the community as one of the family.
I milked goats, carried water, made jewellery, taught English, shopped at the lively local market, sang with the warriors, relaxed with the locals and walked to school with the kids.
2. Meet real people The great thing about staying a while and blending into the community is having the time to get to know people and build lasting friendships.
Being the only white person, or “muzungu” around for miles I was quite noticeable as a stranger in a community of around 600 people, but I was always greeted with warm hearts and big smiles. The children in particular were fascinated by me and always curious, full of energy and eager to learn my English songs!
Many adults spoke no English but we were able to connect in other ways – singing, dancing, jumping, throwing spears, sharing chores and learning from each other.
3. Enjoy the Masai Mara on your doorstep The Masai Mara is a 580 sq. mile stretch of the Serengeti – once roamed on freely by the Masai people but now a protected game reserve hosting over 95 species of mammals. Anyone visiting Kenya should experience an overnight safari – seeing the Big 5 roam and hunt in their natural habitat, standing in an open-top van while driving across the vast expanse of grasslands, sleeping in a tent beside a watering hole and waking up with the animals.
Even if you can’t manage a safari drive you will experience the sights and sounds of the wild all around you. Walking across the Loita Plains I saw wild giraffes, antelope and even a zebra carcass being eaten by vultures. I watched the sun set over the Masai Mara from the top of the Loita Hills, slept among a colony of fruit bats and woke up to a family of baboons at my door.
4. Learn to be a warrior Traditionally Maasai men go through 3 stages of life – childhood, warriorhood and adulthood. Once circumcised at around age 13 a Maasai boy will usually leave his community to live in the bush for 7 years – he will sleep in a cave and learn to defend himself, live off the land and learn the earth and sky from the elders who have gone before him.
On my many walks with the warriors I was shown the ceremonial and medicinal uses of the plants and which to eat when living in the wild. I also learnt the behaviour of the animals, made fire and practised my spear-throwing!
For the final part of my training I was handed a cow-skin shield and sent into a field of warriors. With no prior warning they started hurling sticks at me – fast and hard! Myself and 2 Maasai girls did lots of screaming while hiding behind shields before we went in for an attack! After 10 minutes of war we called peace and danced around to warrior songs.
5. Relax As a westerner accustomed to fast-paced life, stressful work and a constant stream of available entertainment it can be a struggle to get used to a lifestyle born out of pure outdoor living. But once you embrace the peace of your surroundings, laid-back ways of the locals, lack of media and love of nature you can find a new sense of relaxation.
The sleep I had at Maji Moto was the best I’ve had in years – you spend your entire day outside among the trees, your nights by the fire looking up at billions of bright stars, no TV or iPhone keeping you up until the early hours of the morning, the stress that normally floats around your head all night lifts away and you can just drift off in the pitch-black dark of night to the sound of birds, insects and the occasional hyena.
I was told that the Masai have no recorded history of stress-related illness and most of the people I met across Kenya really did live by “hakuna matata” – no worries.
I visited in low-season and would recommend it to anyone looking for a truly authentic experience – or if you visit around August you will have other tourists to interact with and get a chance to see the great wildebeest migration!
Having been in Nairobi, Kenya for a week now I can’t tell you a whole lot about it – I’m here on business for the first few weeks of my trip, organising a large international conference, and so my experience of this beautiful country has mostly been airport-hotel-office-hotel. But I’ve been embracing my surroundings as much as possible so here are 5 ways to enjoy travelling on business:
1. Actively embrace local food and culture.
You’re likely to be staying in a hotel catered for westerners – burgers, chips and omelettes on the menu and Carlsberg in the fridge. If you don’t make the effort to try new things it’s easy to slip into a “Busman’s Holiday”. Even if it’s not on the menu, ask your hotel staff to make you something traditional – they’re usually happy to cook their local cuisine!
There’s no one dish that represents Kenya as the 42 different tribes (or communities) of the country hold their own unique culture and tradition. Nyama choma (grilled meat) is the most popular meal and usually eaten with ugali and kachumbari.
2. Have a day off.
Working on a large project in any country can mean 12 hour days, 7 days a week. Make sure you plan 1 day in the middle of your work trip to go and explore. Go out early on a Sunday as most of your colleagues won’t be calling and traffic will be clear. Get all of your work done on Friday/Saturday so you can relax in the knowledge that you’re on top of your deadlines and can turn off all of your devices. You’re free for a day, enjoy the calm before Monday’s storm!
I took a day to drive around the entire city with a local – he took me to tourist attractions like the David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage and the Nairobi Giraffe Center. He also showed me the real Nairobi outside of the tourist areas and largely European suburbs. Stepping away from the computer and into Kenya was just what I needed!
3. Make friends with the hotel staff.
It can get a little dull stuck in a hotel on your own, especially in a city like Nairobi where – as a foreigner – you can’t safely just wander out to a bar alone and make friends.
Having worked in bars and restaurants I know the hotel staff are probably more bored than I am! So when I’ve had enough of my room I’ve wandered downstairs, offered the night-staff a beer and learnt about their lives and their country. This week I even got let into the kitchen for a late-night cooking lesson!
4. Get used to local time.
I don’t mean re-set your watch. You’ll find in a lot of places that your local colleagues are much more laid-back about deadlines than you’re used to. In Kenya particularly the approach really is “hakuna matata” – no worries, it’ll get done.
Most Kenyans run on “Kenyan-time” and so your 2pm meeting could start anywhere between 2.30-4pm. Get used to this quickly and don’t let it frustrate you. Surrender to the idea that you may become the office monster from time-to-time!
5. Speak the language.
As with anywhere you go on holiday or on business, locals appreciate hearing their native language. Even if you just learn the basics (hello, thank you, goodbye) you can be assured to receive a wider smile, especially in Kenya!
Jo spent 5 months in South East Asia, Australia and finally New Zealand. She spent her last week hitchhiking, jumping off cliffs and getting tattooed. Before she flew home to England she wrote herself this message – a perfect piece of advice to remember the freedom of fearlessness.
I got a lovely surprise today.. an email from Schwabel Studio and a project called the Human Light Suit – Eric Schwabel took my photo at the Black Rock Roller Disco (Burning Man) 7 months ago and finally gifted it back to me it true Burner style! Heading to your first Burn this year? Read about a ‘virgin burner’s’ experience here.