Por Tor (Hungry Ghost) Festival in Phuket
The Por Tor festival (also called the Hungry Ghost festival) was something that I'd not even heard of until a few years ago, and last year was the first time I went to see what it was about (see Por Tor Festival 2011). Phuket has a mixed population of Buddhists, Muslims and people who lean towards old Chinese beliefs die to their ancestry - about 30% of the Phuket population is Thai-Chinese, due to large scale immigration mostly in the 19th century. Many mainland Chinese headed to this part of the world - some ended up in Phuket, some in Bangkok, some in Penang or Singapore. Phuket celebrates a number of festivals based on Chinese beliefs such as the Phuket vegetarian Festival (which starts October 14th). The Por Tor festival is based on the belief that the spirits of ancestors are released from the spirit world during the 7th lunar month. And they are hungry!
Offerings are made for the spirits, with the most common offering being a red turtle cake called an Ang Ku. These come in all sizes - more about them later. On the weekend of September 2nd the festival was based around the main market in Phuket Town. I had meant to get to this event last year, but seems the Por Tor festival is so local that even some locals don't know the details and we went on the wrong day! This time, I was at the market on the right evening and it was busy! Tables full of food, drinks, whole roast pigs, huge turtle cakes and people saying prayers...
These pictures were taken in the market around 6:30 - 7pm. Firecrackers were being set off up on the roof and there was incense burning all over the place and bells being rung as people said prayers at makeshift shrines.
Outside, the road was packed with food stalls and there were several small stages set up where dancers and singers performed. The crowds are always quite large at these events, or seem to be as so many stalls are packed into narrow streets! the photo below was taken from the 2nd floor of the market looking at the street below.
After an hour of smoke, bells and crowds and an extra 10 minutes wasted as I had originally parked the car, walked almost to the market and then found that the memory card for my camera was in the camera bag (in the car), a cold drink was called for. Happily bumped into Tim who also blogs about Phuket and we managed a few cold beers at the Phuket Backpacker hostel, which seems to have been remodeled and has a nice bar downstairs on the road near the market and on this evening a little escape from the crowded street and a place to watch the festival goers pass by.
A few days later on September 8th (Saturday) I was back in town with the family - my wife and kids plus 2 brothers in law and an uncle in law. Now, one of the brothers in law is from a very Chinese family in Bangkok, but I was surprised to hear that he'd not heard of the Por Tor festival. Do they not do it in Bangkok? We split into 2 groups. My daughter and I wanted to visit the Kengtin bakery which is well known for making lots of the Ang Ku turtle cakes during the festival. They make plenty of other Chinese style desserts and cakes too, but it's the red turtles we came to see!
(above) Making Ang Ku at the Kengtin bakery - applying red dye and adding decorations. We bought a small (100 Baht) turtle, but some of the big ones sell for thousands of Baht!
A couple of doors down from Kengtin - more red turtles, and some big ones! The one in the photo below had a price label - 5,000 Baht, and was still being decorated...
They seemed to be making cakes in their front room. I am fascinated by the detail and the mix of sacred objects and pictures if you look closely at some of the shrines in people's houses. There are Chinese gods, family photos, a photo of an old monk and of course a picture of the King. If you just have a quick look through doors as you pass, almost all houses in Old Phuket Town have shrines like this.
We then walked down to the Por Tor Kong shrine, which is the center of the celebrations.. a Chinese shrine that I did not know existed until last year, hidden away on a small side street near the much bigger Bang Neow shrine. Lots of street stalls around the shrine, and inside the shrine itself .. organised chaos. Crowded, and it's a small shrine. There was not much room to move. We gave our turtle to someone who placed it with many others at the entrance to the shrine, and in turn we were given a little bundle containing incense, candles and "hell money". And we joined the queue to pass through the shrine and say a prayer. First, light our candles and incense...
Inside it was hot and very very smoky - you have to hold your incense up high out of people's faces, but I tell you it was hard to breathe and the smoke was in our eyes. Let's go say our prayers...
(above) Holding my incense up high. The walls of the shrine have some amazing decorations showing Chinese stories. But no time to stop and look, keep moving with the queue ...
I'd not done this last year and normally the kids and I would have my wife to guide us but we could not find her and the rest of the family in the crowds, so we copied other people and a guy told us to put 3 lit incense sticks in each place...
It was a non stop stream of people and incense. Quite a "cultural rush" and I think my daughter enjoyed the experience.
Having lit candles and left incense in the shrine, we still had our hell money to burn. Hell money is specifically made to be burnt as offerings to the deceased as it's believed that the spirits need money in the afterlife.
I love these local Phuket festivals. This is the real Phuket. I am not sure what to think of this, and I know a few foreign residents who did also go to the shrine, but that evening I did not see any tourists or anyone who didn't look like a Thai local. And on the other evening in the market I saw only Tim and a photographer who I think was probably Japanese. Does this mean tourists have zero interest in local traditions and events? Or nobody knew it was happening? Or knew about it, but found it difficult getting from the beaches to town and finding the right place to go? It really is worth making the effort to see and experience something like the Por Tor festival!
Ah well - next big event is the Phuket Vegetarian Festival, which is my favourite thing in Phuket!
Por Tor Festival - Map of Locations
View Por Tor Festival in a larger map