Hungry Ghost Festival in Phuket Town
It's festival time! The Por Tor festival, also called the Hungry Ghost festival takes place in Phuket during the second half of the 7th lunar month, which this year is August 28th to September 12th. The hungry ghost festival also takes place in Singapore, Hong Kong and other places, and the history seems to be a mix of Buddhist and Taoist beliefs. It's not a huge event in Phuket, and almost everything takes place in Phuket Town, though I did see a few offerings outside a small Chinese shrine near our house in Kathu. Certainly, if you stick to the beach areas you will have no idea this is happening! It's not something that all local people participate in, and in other parts of the country this festival hardly exists. A few years ago we visited with my wife's sister and husband. His family is Chinese-Thai from Bangkok and he'd never heard of this festival before! I have blogged about the Por Tor festival a couple of times before in 2011 and 2012. The last couple of years we'd either not been here during the festival or just decided to skip it. This year I wanted to have a look again. My mother died last year on August 29th and her funeral was on September 8th. I hope she's not hungry. She should be OK though, she had a proper send off, a lovely funeral and a huge family gathering, so she should hopefully be a happy ghost.
The first part of the festival included a couple of street parades (which I missed, but you can find some pics on Tim's Blog). The center of activities for a few days was the central market on Ranong road in Phuket Town. We went for a look on August 30th. The second floor of the market becomes a temple and has massive tables full of food offerings for those hungry ghosts!
(above) Roasted offerings and giant red turtle cakes for the Por Tor Festival. The red turtles are a symbol of long life and good fortune.
(above) Lighting candles and saying prayers at the temporary shrine in the market. This was on for the first few days of the festival, along with a street fair outside on Ranong Road. Lots of food stalls and a stage with dance and music performances. On the 31st there was a parade from the market heading through old town and south to the Por Tor Kong shrine. A place that I did not know existed until 2011, down a small unassuming side street, but it's the center of activities for much of the Por Tor Festival.
(above) Dancers outside the market in Phuket Town
(above) Street stall near the market, making Hoy Tod (a kind of omelette with mussels)
The little Por Tor Kong shrine is in the south of Phuket Town, not far from the Bang Neow shrine, which is one of the main shrines during the Phuket vegetarian festival. We found this shrine in 2011 when we went exploring during the Por Tor Festival and just followed the crowds. Not a big shrine, but gets very very busy in the evenings during the festival as people come here to make offerings and say a prayer in the shrine. This year we headed into town on a Sunday evening (September 6th) and I dragged the family down to the shrine to make a turtle offering. We had to park about half a mile away and take a little walk, passing the famous Keng Tin bakery on the way. They do Chinese snacks year round and make lots of turtle cakes for the festival, but when we passed they were just about sold out! But a little further up the street a family was making a big turtle ...
Heading down the small side street called Takuathung Road things got busier as we approached the shrine. Lots of food stalls and clothes stalls and of course stalls selling turtles. So we bought one to leave at the shrine as an offering to any of our lost ancestors who might be hungry.
At the shrine itself the crowds were thick. There was a queue to obtain incense sticks for lighting and placing in the shrine. And many, many people arriving with turtle cakes. Of course, I dived into the crowds to take a few photos, while the rest of the family found a relatively quiet spot to wait for blogger Dad. The photos here are all taken with an iPhone 6, and they seem to be OK, which makes we wonder why I still want to buy a nice new Canon SLR! This was the first time I have really tried to use this phone/camera in these conditions (night time / low light) and it's done pretty well.
The food offering display outside the shrine (see below) was quite marvelous, and it is a very nicely decorated shrine.
I went looking for a back way into the shrine. No way past the queue of people with incence sticks. I found some space just inside the "exit" - you have to enter and exit a Chinese shrine and leave incence in the right places in the right order. With all the candles and all that incense it was pretty hot and smoky in there. I could still feel the smoke in my lungs next morning. if hanging around in there, a mask would be a good idea.
(above) Inside the Por Tor Kong shrine.
The altar at the back of the shrine is in a narrow passage. It's here that people will put their burning incense in different places. Yes, this is Phuket. Not the beaches, beers and sunshine version of Phuket. A bit different.
One of the volunteers looking after the shrine found me a space to stand for a couple of minutes right inside, a bit too close to people, maybe! In a case like this a nice camera with a wide angle lens would be ideal. I squeezed against the wall to keep out of people's way as they came through the shrine. After a few minutes the smoke was a bit much and the volunteer guy suggested I should move on out anyway, and not stay too long right there in the "holiest" area. The true meaning of this festival is hard to grasp without being a local (and when I say local, I mean really local). Many local people in Phuket have Chinese ancestors and they understand what these festivals mean. Many areas of Phuket have nothing to do with Por Tor or the vegetarian festival. I try to get some meaning out of it by getting close to the events, but I am an English atheist, merely here as an observer. I'd like to believe in something more spiritual and maybe someone somewhere has the answer. Are the spirits of hungry ancestors hanging around Phuket Town right now? As I write this, it's September 7th, so 5 more days if you are in Phuket and want to see something a bit different... Note that the dates change every year. Festival starts in the middle of the 7th Chinese lunar month if you want to plan for the future!
Por Tor Festival - Map of Locations
View Por Tor Festival in a larger map