A colourful, important event for Phuket’s local Hokkien Chinese community, the Por Tor Festival is a month-long celebration that honours the dead. Known locally as The Hungry Ghost Festival, it allows the island’s Thai-Chinese inhabitants to pay tribute to their ancestors through a variety of merit-making ceremonies. The Hungry Ghost Festival showcases a rich tradition in Phuket, with a variety of activities taking place at all of the Chinese shrines across the island.
The Por Tor Hungry Ghost Festival begins on the first day of the waxing moon of the seventh lunar month of the Chinese calendar, usually in August or September.
For 2020, the festival is scheduled to take place from Wednesday 19 August until Wednesday 16 September.
During the month of the Por Tor Festival, it is common belief that the gates of hell are opened, allowing for hungry ghosts to return to the realm of the living to enjoy delicious feasts prepared by their relatives. It also signifies a time to help those who are suffering and perhaps stuck in a state of purgatory – spirits who died suddenly, often away from family, and who were not given the chance to have a proper funeral ceremony.
The first day of The Hungry Ghost Festival always begins in the family home. A table is set with a variety of traditional dishes placed in the middle. Additionally, a bowl of rice is placed on the table for each one of the family’s departed relatives. Incense sticks are poked into the centre of the rice bowls and lit, while family members often sit quietly to the side. Once the incense sticks burn through, it is believed that the hungry ghosts have finished dining. Family members are then allowed to gather around the table to enjoy their own meal.
Celebrating the Por Tor Hungry Ghost Festival in Phuket
While the island’s Chinese shrines hold ceremonies for The Hungry Ghost Festival, the majority of the month-long activities are centred at Por Tor Gong shrine in Phuket Town. This shrine is dedicated to the Por Tor god, who is best known as the king of hell.
Por Tor Gong shrine is decorated in ornate artworks. Intricate wooden panels at the shrine’s entrance highlight various punishments suffered by those who commit grand sins. A very foreboding depiction of Por Tor himself stands as a reminder of his vengeful judgements.
Although it is not one of the largest Chinese shrines in Phuket, Por Tor Gong shrine plays an important role during the Por Tor Hungry Ghost Festival. The shrine happily accommodates curious visitors, and it is possible to encounter a local or two who will be happy to explain the significance of the festival. For those planning to visit Por Tor Gong shine during the festival, please be mindful that it is a place of worship and proper dress is required.
Good luck, longevity and wisdom
A unique aspect of the Por Tor Hungry Ghost Festival in Phuket are the red ceremonial cakes. Fashioned in the shape of turtles, the cakes are presented as offerings at the Chinese shrines. Known as ‘ang ku‘ in Hokkien dialect, the cakes are said to represent good luck, longevity and wisdom.
The red cakes are made from glutinous rice flour and sugar. Sticking to Chinese tradition, the colour red is chosen for good luck. The cakes are available for purchase in a variety of shops around Phuket Town throughout the duration of the festival.
In addition to the turtle cakes, other traditional foods are offered at the Chinese shrines including whole roasted ducks, bags of rice, and a variety of fresh local fruits and vegetables. Sometimes, even unopened bottles of whiskey or other alcoholic spirits are left to sate the appetites of the hungry ghosts!
The Por Tor Hungry Ghost Festival in Phuket offers up an interesting look into the island’s local Hokkien culture. It is a vivid, family-friendly celebration of one of the traditions that makes Phuket absolutely unique.
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A traveller and storyteller, Amy has lived on the island of Phuket since 2007. Adventurous by nature, she seeks out unique local experiences and off the beaten path attractions which truly highlight the island’s natural charm and Phuketian flavour.