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For the Hokkien Chinese community of Phuket, ghostly ancestors are as much a part of a family’s daily life as its living relatives. And occasionally, these ghosts are haunted by hunger. Each year, on first day of the waxing moon on the seventh lunar month, it’s believed that the gates of hell open to give these poor starving spirits a chance to revisit their families and enjoy a feast.
The month-long Hungry Ghost Festival is celebrated across Southeast Asia and is better known as the Por Tor Festival in Phuket. This year’s festival runs from 21 August 21 to 27 September, with several events taking place at Chinese shrines around Phuket during the first 10 days.
At the heart of the festival is the belief that families can help alleviate the suffering of the ghosts of deceased relatives who were perhaps less than pure in heart and actions during their lifetime and are now trapped in hell. It’s also a time to honour those lost souls set adrift in the beyond who might have died suddenly or far from home, or otherwise weren’t given a proper passage from life to death.
Many Por Tor events take place at the family home, including an elaborate meal laid out for the dearly departed. By tradition, plates of rice are set around the table for each of the visiting ghosts, with a stick of incense skewered into each. Once the incense has burned through, indicating that the ghosts have finished supping, the living relatives are then free to gather at the table to dine.
In Phuket, festival activities centre around the Por Tor Gong shrine, which is dedicated to the Por Tor god, the king of hell. Panels along the top of the shrine’s entrance depict some vicious punishments suffered by the sinful, as well as the imposing Por Tor himself, meting out his judgements.
Unique to Phuket is the use of red ceremonial cakes in the shape of turtles, which are presented as offerings at the Chinese temples along with large quantities of savoury food, carved fruit and drinks.
The turtle cakes, called ang ku, represent good luck, longevity and wisdom and a number of shops around Phuket Town churn out great bales of them during the weeks of the festival. Keng Tin bakery, Phuket’s oldest bakery on Phuket Road, is considered one of the best (its mooncakes are divine, too). Made with glutinous rice flour and sugar, a simple version costs a few hundred baht while large, intricately decorated cakes cost upwards of 50,000 baht.
Two parades are scheduled for this year’s festivities, with the first on 23 August starting at at 11:30. The procession will carry a Por Tor god image along Bangkok Road to Suriyadet Circle, then continue along Ranong Road to the fresh market. The Hell God will be on display at the market till midnight.
The second parade on 30 August starts at 17:30 from the Queen Sirikit park next to the Tourism Authority of Thailand office on Thalang Road, then travels south along Thepkrasattri Road to Phuket Road, until reaching the Por Tor Gong shrine. The shrine is tucked away down Soi Saksit off Phuket Road not far from the Phuket immigration centre.
An alms-giving ceremony with 85 monks will be held on 24 August starting at 09:00 at the Ranong Road market. Throughout the first 10 days Ranong Road especially will be a hive of activity, with dance and music shows, food stands and fruit carving demonstrations, mostly during the cooler evening hours.
All the Chinese shrines in Phuket Town and elsewhere on the island are open to visitors throughout the festival, and anyone is welcome to pick up a turtle cake of their own and join the festivities.
Thanks to Phuket Heritage Trails for supplying the festival and turtle cake photos and insights into this event.
By Lana Willocks
Last updated on 10th December, 2014.