Today is the first day of the seventh lunar month on the Chinese calendar. It is the beginning of the annual fifteen-day period that Thai-Chinese people believe the spirits of their ancestors are released from heaven to visit their relatives. In Thailand, it is popularly known as Ngan Por Tor or the “Hungry Ghost Festival” in English.
While similar festivals are held in Chinese communities elsewhere in the world, several aspects of Phuket‘s celebrations make this a not-to-be-missed event.
It all started at noon with a parade in through Phuket‘s Old Town area. The main portion began from Chaloem Prakiat 72th Anniversary Commemoration of Queen Sirikit Park (usually known locally as “the Queen’s park”) near the Hai Leng Ong, or sea dragon, statue. I arrived early, as usual, and ran into some of my own students while partaking of free juice and noodles. I also ran into a couple of old friends – Amy, a fellow American from Iowa who has lived in Phuket for at least as long as I have and Tim, yet another of the island’s best-known bloggers.
The procession was led, as usual, by the old men of the Konnoom Team with their little bicycle-driven cart and distinctive blue shirts pounding away on drums and gongs. They even recruited a young blonde woman to accompany them! A number of local government officials followed, carrying banners. Oddly, I didn’t see any sign of Madam Governor this year. Groups of children followed, all colorfully-attired in traditional Chinese garb, as well as vehicles decorated with floral arrangements and carrying some very large turtles indeed! Many of the boys in the parade were carrying much smaller turtles.
The parade turned south at the Thalang Road intersection with Thepkassatri Road and went past the Standard Charter Bank and Promthep Building at Phang Nga Road before turning west on Radsasa Road and heading towards the market. Then it stopped for a lengthy time just before the Suriyadet Circle. The kids just sat in the middle of the street while cars and motorbikes whizzed past; they do attempt to control the traffic but still many drivers just don’t pay attention. It’s a wonder somebody doesn’t get hurt!
The reason for the wait turned out to be for another procession to join the main parade. The image of the god Por Tor Kong was taken from the house of Taokae Loh Joo behind the fresh market, proceeded along Bangkok Road to the Suriyadet Circle, and then into Ranong Road to travel the final short distance to the fresh market. This was proceeded by the dragons and plenty of loud fireworks. Unfortunately, I was not in a good position to photograph the fireworks the two or three times they were set off.
Along the procession routes, local people placed altars in front of their homes and at the local Chinese shrines from which offerings of food and drink are provided for the returning spirits of their ancestors.
The faithful prepare food not only for their ancestors but also to nourish spirits who have no living family to visit. Children are not allowed to go outside after dark in fear that the spirits will take them when they return to heaven.
The most important god during the Por Tor Festival is Dtai Seu Eiya Gong (ไต่สื่อเอี๋ยก๊ง), a novice of Mae Guan Im who has the duty of stopping spirits coming from hell stealing the offerings.
Central to the Por Tor Festival is the offering of bright red cakes in the shape of turtles. According to Phuket City’s mayor, Somjai Suwannasupapana, “The red turtle cake is essential to the festival. It is the symbol of good luck, fortune, and long life.”
Small turtles are called Ang Ku (อังกู้) while the large turtles are called Dtua Ku (ตั่วกู้). The smaller ones cost as little as a hundred baht but the largest are quite expensive indeed. Many of these turtle cakes are made at the famous Kengtin Bakery near the intersection of Phuket Road and Kra Road (about a block west of the McDonald’s at Robinson’s Department Store). The shop was established in 1942. I really would like to make it over to the bakery for a tour this year!
Once the Por Tor Kong image had arrived at the fresh market, it was quickly ushered up the parking garage ramp. This is where the entire event turned quite chaotic as local faithful tried to stream into the narrow entrance and spectators had to kneel on the ground in prayer and reverence. You really had to look in all directions at once to avoid getting trampled. So much for trying to focus a shot! We wound to the third floor of the market building which was full of offerings – not only red turtle cakes but all sorts of other food, drinks (including plenty of local rice whiskey as the spirits really need to get drunk during the afterlife), carved fruit and beautiful floral arrangements.
Many of the faithful prayed to the image of Por Tor Kong, placing joss sticks into a shrine and then burning “hell money” in a temporary furnace. It was a windy day so one needed to approach the flames with extreme caution as it blew out as much flaming paper as was thrown in! I also ventured to the open-air fourth-floor of the market (a car park) where they were lighting the huge reels of fireworks. Very smoky, indeed.
I especially enjoyed the fact that everyone is given food to eat. There were bowls of noodles and plenty of the square Thai cakes that I like so much. And plenty of cold water to wash it all down with. Yum!
The funny part was that I ran into a number of Thai people that I’ve met over the years. But the oddest was seeing the motorbike taxi driver who sits across from my apartment everyday waiting for customers. He was trying to balance three small plates full of Thai desserts. I also had a wonderful conversation with the owner of Kiatsin Stationery near Khao Rang. He’s a fifth-generation Phuketian!
In addition to the parades (there will be another next Friday from the Queen’s park all the way to the Por Tor Kong Shrine near Tessaban Bang Naew School on Phuket Road) and displays of red turtle cakes and other food offerings, there is a street carnival along Ranong Road. There are all sorts of exhibitions and shows scheduled up to the closing of the festival on 4 September. Among other events, there will be fruit carving by local students, mini concerts featuring singers including Bai Toey R-Siam and Kaew Fah Pawirun, and Thai dancing shows. Five stages have been set up as well as many stalls.
Tomorrow morning (Saturday, 24 August) at 9:00 AM, there will be be an alms offering made to 85 Buddhist monks. This will be repeated in the evening.
Similar activities will also take place at the Por Tor Kong Shrine. Locals will make offerings not only of food and turtle cakes but also burn incense and “hell money”. It’s a colorful, chaotic, and very smoky spectacle.
And, of course, Phuket will reverberate at all hours of day and night to the sound of firecrackers. Indeed, they have already begun in my neighborhood. These are intended to frighten malevolent spirits but do the same to local babies and dogs. Not to mention disturbing one’s sleep! In fact, I can pretty much count on regular blasts of fireworks from now until sometime in February. But it never really stops as there are many more Chinese festivals than Thai celebrations and they are also set off for other events such as weddings, funerals, a full moon, a day of sunshine, a thunderstorm. Well, you get the picture…
I always consider Por Tor to be the “preview” to the Vegetarian Festival, starting this year on 5 October and finishing on the 13th. That’s my second favorite Phuket festival each year (number one is the pairing of Chinese New Year and the Old Town Festival in late January to early February).
But all the festivals here are great fun — a chance to see and hear interesting things and an opportunity to eat even more great food than usual. Did I mention that many of the shrines fry up slices of turtle cake and give them out for free?