Last week while doing some research on special days in Thailand, Phi Ta Khon came up. Phi Ta Khon is a spiritual festival that mixes Buddhist tradition with animist elements and takes place over several days in an otherwise boring mountain village in Northeast Thailand called Dan Sai.
Due to some confusing language and a lack of proper research, instead of ending up in Dan Sai for the first day of the festival, I ended up in Loei, the largest city in the region by the same name (ugh!) after the festivities had ended for the first day.
Dan Sai is about 52 miles from Loei, meaning I’d need to find a way on the second day of the festival to get there and stay here.
The bus from Chiang Mai is quite comfortable and has proper air conditioning as well as free snacks and a toilet. It takes 10 hours and costs just $14 to get to Loei, although it makes a stop in Dan Sai (I’m super mad at myself for not knowing this until we actually stopped there and I didn’t have time to gather up my things and get off). But again, minor setback. Hakuna Matata.
Nothing was bookable online (Loei isn’t really made for tourists), so when I arrived I asked a Tuk Tuk driver about where I could sleep. The entire conversation was mimed, but he agreed to take me somewhere for cheap and just a short ride later we had pulled up to a big wooden home with a sign outside. That read “Sugar Guesthouse.” The lights were all off and a mangy dog limped over, whining and pacing back and forth a few feet in front of me. The driver hit a doorbell and after a long wait, a young woman walked out in her pajamas.
“Sa wa dee khrap!” I said with a wai, which she returned. “Do you have any free rooms?”
“Yes, we have one with a shared bathroom for 200 and a private bathroom for 300.” 200 for a room in most of Thailand is a little expensive for me, but I didn’t see any other options as it was already 12:30AM.
The room was really nice and there was no one else in the entire rest of the house, so I got to enjoy some time to myself for the first time in a very long time. This would be a trend that continued longer than I expected.
The next morning, instead of hanging around long in Loei, I walked to a family restaurant in the direction of the bus station and asked how to get there. A small, older woman with a sun-worn smile and wearing clothing from head to toe in the gruesome heat repeated after me.
“Bus station. Bus station? BUS STATION!” she yelled, turning around to yell at her family. They started having a conversation, looking at me and smiling like they were seeing something that sent actually there. I was getting a little nervous. Finally, she turned back to me and motioned for me to sit down.
“Car? Tuk Tuk?”
“Car. Car! Holiday,” she said. Pointing to the seat I was sitting I and waiting at the road.
“Thanks!” A Tuk Tuk driver had offered to take me to the station for 50 baht so I was glad I’d waited. Twenty minutes later, a covered car came by, carrying a ton of school children and a very old monk in dark brown-orange robes. The woman who was helping me and her whole family were running into the street to wave it down. I will forever regret not getting that on film.
Since there wasn’t any room in the car, I latched onto the back and tried to pretend I didn’t notice the entire car staring at me blankly. I’d heard stories of going places where westeners aren’t common and locals touching their hair and staring and such, but had dismissed them as sensational. When we piled out, the children waved goodbye to me and we each paid 10 baht for the ride. I still had a good two hours before my bus supposed to leave for Dan Sai, so I walked around town a bit to take pictures and see if life here was different than in other places in Thailand. The sun was incredibly intense so as I walked down the streets lined with broken concrete I made an attempt to stay in the shadows with little success. There was a large covered market a couple hundred meters from the bus station so I stopped to look for some food.
I couldn’t find anything I wanted until I came to a fruit stand ran by a woman who couldn’t have been more than 13 years old. There was a weird, red, spiky fruit that looked like a leathery strawberry on steroids that I’d never seen before so I stopped to buy one.
“Sorry,” I started, “what’s that?” I asked with a confused face. She came around and opened one for me it looked like a large Brazil nut on the inside and she handed it over for me to try. It was delicious — sour, sweet, very juicy.
“Oh! It’s good!” I held up my thumbs and smiled, shooting juice out of my mouth.
“Oh!” she laughed and stepped back. Some other girls I presumed were her friends came up after she called to them and asked where I was from.
“USA,” I said. They all looked really confused. “Uh… America?”
“Ohhh! America! How long you here?”
“Six month,” I said, holding up six fingers, which sent them into overdrive. The girl working the fruit stand collected some of the red fruit (later I found out they’re called snake fruit), lychee, and rhambutan for me to eat. I pulled out my money and she threw her hands upwards.
“Oh, thank you!”
And they gave me a really enthusiastic goodbye.
A few blocks away, there was a residential street where the lines of houses were interrupted by little shacks built from metal and wood. As I passed, a group of kids playing on computers on the their porch stopped what they were doing to stand up and wave at me, yelling “Hello mister!” At the end of the street, where there was a great deal of greenery and a pond, a woman about my age ran out of her house to greet me.
“Hiiiiiiiiiii! Where you go? Where you from?”
“Hi! I’m from the U.S. I’m just taking a picture.”
“Ohh, you want me take picture for you?”
“That’s okay, I’m just going to take a picture and be on my way.” I did, and she followed me.
“I take you, better picture place. You follow me!”
“No, that’s okay, I need to catch a bus to Dan Sai.”
I started walking back and looked toward the house she’d come from. There was an older woman sitting on the porch looking concernedly over at us. I greeted her with a wai (the prayer-looking motion and a bow) and she didn’t respond. At that point, the woman next to me starting screaming in Thai at her. The older woman raised her eyebrows and returned the wai.
“Okay, well, I need to go catch a bus. It was nice to meet you!” I said, shaking her hand.
“Okay, you have good daaaaaay!”
I walked quickly away to avoid any more conversation and made sure she wasn’t following me.
A temple on the corner was playing techno music rather loudly but there didn’t seem to be anyone around to listen to it.
Monks and other less enlightened folk stood and sat idly around the bus station avoiding the need to sweat any more than necessary. When the bus finally came, the whole station came alive with movement and people ran into it in all its air-conditioned glory. My seat had been assigned at random, but I ended in the very front, on the top deck on the right-hand side. I had a perfect view of the whole trip.
I like to think that once you’ve traveled over land for more than 30 hours in a country without retracing any roads, you won’t be surprised by things when you continue to travel. That’s certainly not the case here. The mountains in Thailand come in varying shapes. They roll and clash with one another in the north, but as you head east, they stand almost solitary and more proud than their West and North Thai cousins, like aged turtle shells covered in some of the greatest foliage imaginable. If only I had a better camera that could zoom and stuff, documenting their beauty might be a bit easier.
The bus ride wasn’t so long– maybe 3 hours (totally doable after the 30-something hour bus ride I took back in the States). But the sun was still really strong when I arrived in Dan Sai, which was unsettlingly more empty than I thought it would be. Wasn’t there a festival going on? Weren’t there supposed to be thousands of spectators, a parade, and people in scary costumes?
The truth about the situation was that I am stupid and I don’t do enough research before I decide to head off into the great unknown. Call it a personal flaw.
I did another Google search and found that the date actually changes from year to year, depending on the lunar cycle and a local spiritual expert who determines the real date of the festival. I was there a week early, and there was no way I was staying here for a whole week. Not to mention I really needed to be in Bangkok so I could make it to Cambodia in time for my volunteer job.
I sat down at a noodle restaurant a bit up the hill from where the bus had stopped where a young woman was working. She actually spoke English well enough to help me out. Her mother was also there, preparing veggies and cutting up meat.
“I need a place to sleep. Are there hostels or cheap places to sleep?” She turned to her mother and asked in Thai. The mother looked at me and starting wildly gesticulating and speaking madly. I wasn’t sure if she was offended or just really excited to be talking…
“Right across the street, just right there– that woman speaks English. And she owns the hotel. You can maybe stay there. It’s 600 baht a night, I think.” That was pretty pricy considering I was used to seeing rates as low as 100 baht a night.
“Alright, thanks! I’ll go check it out. How do you speak English so well?” I asked.
“I used to work in Bangkok. I went to school there and I come back here for the summer.”
“So you’re originally from Dan Sai.”
“Yes, I’m from a place that’s very close.”
“Okay. Thanks for your help.”
Her little brother was also staring at us the whole time, like I wasn’t supposed to exist in real life. I waved at him and he laughed.
Across the street, there was a woman waiting at a desk outside next to a little hotel that consisted of 12 or so rooms on two floors.
She offered me a room for 600 a night. When I said I couldn’t afford 600, she asked how long I was staying.
“I could do 2 nights for 900 baht,” I said. “Is that okay? I see it’s fully booked later for the festival.”
“Um… 900 is okay.” I love Thailand.
The room turned out to be much nicer than I’d expected. It came with my own personal air conditioning unit, complimentary soap and bottled water, and even a television (“I won’t use that at all,” I thought to myself). She offered as well to let me use the bike outside to explore the city.
I flipped the AC to 16C/61F and took a cold shower. I was determined to get the most out of my $13 room. While the AC was still cooling to room to subzero temperatures never before seen in that part of the world, I took the bike out and started riding around to see what there was.
Just a few minutes up the road was a cool little temple (Wat Pha Tas Sri Song Ruk) with a lot of terribly translated signs. It was more colorful than other temples I’ve seen and had a couple more rules than others; I wasn’t allowed to wear the color red, for one. The name of the temple actually means “Stupa of love from the two nations.” It was erected as a symbol of friendship between the Ayutthaya kingdom (present-day Thailand) and Laos, and was built back in 1560. In fact, this used to be where the border between the two countries lay, but now, the border has been moved twenty miles north.
Another temple worth noting is the temple in which the Phi Ta Khon festival is celebrated. It’s home to the Phi Ta Khon museum (which I explored in about 12 seconds with the lights off as there was no one there) and some cool views over the village. The monks seemed really confused that I was there, walking around, taking pictures– maybe because I was literally the only one.
Farther down, in the residential areas, the houses are actually quite nice compared with homes I’ve seen even in Bangkok. They look like they’ve been refurbished, or built from new wood. A quick ride into the jungle area behind the temple was like a miniature vacation. The streams look like they’re filled with creamy chocolate milk and the greens that grow up out of it are spectacular. I was chased by roosters on more than one occasion, and stared at endlessly by potbelly older men smoking pipes on their porches.
The only “busy” area of the village is the market in the evening, which is on the secondary road, a ten minute walk from the highway. There’s nothing that special about it– a school, a courtyard where people play football and other sports, and some average food carts next to an old, abandoned theater(?).
On my second day riding up and out of the city on bike, I was stopped by a woman on a motorbike who spoke English.
“Hello! Where you stay?”
“I can’t remember what it’s called. It’s a hotel right back that way.” She looked confused.
“I run hotel this way,” she said happily. “I have other white guy staying. Dutch guy. He leave today. You want to come?”
“Oh, I already have a room, but thank you.”
“Okay, you come and I cook for you. You follow me just up road, to the right. Okay?”
“Okay, you follow me,” she said, and sped off. I pedaled as hard as I could and tried to follow her directions, but got totally lost and just ended up coasting back down the whole way, enjoying the wind and trying to dry as much sweat off as possible as the sun was just beginning to go down. Instead of being treated to a home meal, I treated myself to chocolate ice cream and bad Thai television involving magical glowing people and a guy with the most epic beard ever.
Before it was time to leave, I asked almost all around town how to get to Bangkok by bus. There was no information online (at least that I could find) about where the bus stopped, how much it was, or how to get a ticket. There is one police officer working at any time in the village in a little hut where the bus normally drops people off; most of the time he’s either watching television or sleeping in his chair. I had to knock on the glass to get him to wake up. It wasn’t much use though, because he spoke zero english. We spent five minutes trying to communicate at all before I gave up and walked back up along the highway, asking almost everyone I saw if they could help to no avail.
Eventually, I ran back into the hotel owner and she was able to help.
“You have to go down this road, and it’s on the left. It’s a little building and the bus leaves in the morning directly for Bangkok,” she said. “They should still be open, you should go get a ticket now.”
“Thanks!” She even drew me a little map:
Except when I followed the map, there was nothing there. Then, she showed up again, zooming along on her motorbike. “It’s this waaaaaay! Sorryyyy!” And I followed her down the street so I could get my ticket. From there, it was a piece of cake.