6 June 2024

As Chinese communities worldwide observe the Hungry Ghost Festival, Old Phuket Town, which is home to many Chinese descendants, boasts distinctive rituals during this enigmatic Ghost Month. The celebration is worth ditching a tropical beach and daybed for a day of exploring century-old shrines and the mystique of the old town.

Known as Por Tor to Phuket residents, the Hungry Ghost Festival starts on the first day of the seventh lunar month in the Chinese calendar, which this year falls on August 30. Rooted in ancient Chinese beliefs, the festival has its origins in the traditional Ghost Month, when the spirits of ancestors and other restless spirits, return to roam the earth and visit relatives.

Set the table, pour the rice wine

The first day of the Por Tor Festival in Phuket begins in the family home.

A table is adorned with an array of traditional Chinese delicacies like rice bowls, roasted duck, chicken, and pork belly, accompanied by tea and rice wine. Incense sticks are lit in the centre of the rice bowls as a symbolic offering to the hungry ghosts, while family members sit quietly nearby. Once the incense burns out, it’s thought that the spirits have partaken of their feast. This ritual ensures their contentment, averting any harm to the living. Afterwards, the family gathers to share their meal, fostering a sense of connection and care.

Rows of roasted pork are prepared in the alleys as part of the Por Tor Festival in Phuket.//Photo by TAT, Phuket office

The iconic “Ang Ku” red turtle cake is paired with traditional Chinese tea for guests at Ang Ku Tea House in Old Phuket Town.

Chill out with the departed

The Por Tor Festival extends beyond individual households, welcoming outsiders to partake in and learn from this ancient tradition.

Visitors can witness the rich tapestry of festival offerings and engage in age-old rituals. Blessing ceremonies and complex rituals at Chinese shrines can be observed, offering outsiders a deep cultural immersion. Live performances, such as Cantonese Opera and folk dances, serve to pacify both the departed and the living attendees. This inclusive event allows for cross-cultural understanding and the sharing of a unique experience.

The Por Tor Gong shrine in Phuket Town serves as the focal point of the festival—a hub of both devotion and celebration. This revered shrine pays homage to Por Tor, the guardian of the underworld, depicted through elaborate and detailed artworks. As one gazes upon this representation of judgement, a blend of reverence and apprehension emerges, reminding us of his unbiased evaluations.

To celebrate to the Poh Tor Festival, the Chinese descendants cook a red ‘Aug Ku’ cake shaped like a turtle before offering it to the guardian of the underworld at the Poh Tor Shrine. Crafted from a blend of glutinous rice flour, sugar and green beans, the red turtle cake symbolises luck, longevity, and wisdom.

The offerings are carefully arranged to pacify the departed as part of the Por Tor Festival in Phuket.//Photo by TAT, Phuket office

Poh Tor, or the Hungry Ghost Festival, spans the entirety of the “month of ghosts”, serving as a bridge between the deceased and their history. This observance shares a kinship with customs such as Mexico’s Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), Cambodia’s Pchum Ben, and Thailand’s Sart Chin.

You don’t need to be a Chinese descent to take part in the Poh Tor Festival celebrations.

Burning paper during the Hungry Ghost Festival is believed to guide the spirits towards the netherworld.//Photo by TAT, Phuket office

Travellers to Phuket can savour their way through the festivities. Many restaurants in Old Phuket Town, such as the Ang Ku Tea House, offer the iconic red turtle cake alongside a selection of beverages.

The iconic “Ang Ku” red turtle cake is paired with traditional Chinese tea for guests at Ang Ku Tea House in Old Phuket Town.

By Thai PBS World News