With its spirit-possessed mediums performing shocking acts of self-flagellation, the Phuket Vegetarian Festival is a colourful spectacle that’s become famous around the world. But a month before the Veg Fest is a more gentle, less well-known yet no less important, event for the island’s Hokkien Chinese community: the Por Tor Festival.
The Por Tor Festival has a long, rich tradition in Phuket and similar festivals are held throughout Southeast Asia, China and Japan. Known also as the Hungry Ghost Festival, it starts on the first day of the waxing moon on the seventh lunar month of the Chinese calendar.
During this month it’s believed that the gates of hell are opened, allowing ghosts trapped inside to return to earth to enjoy feasts prepared by their living relatives. It’s also a time to help those who may be wandering lost in a deathly realm: the forlorn spirits of those who died suddenly or died away from family, or otherwise missed the chance for a proper send-off.
The festival’s first day is typically spent at the family home, where an elaborate feast is prepared. The table is set with all the dishes placed in the middle, plus a plate of rice for each of the departed relatives. Sticks of incense speared into each serving of rice are lit, then all the family members sit off to the side or go to another room. When the incense is burned through, it indicates the ghosts have finished dining, allowing the living relatives to come to the table to start their meal.
Feeding their forsaken dead relatives gives the living a chance to show respect to their ancestors. Preparing meals and making offerings at the Chinese temples are acts of loving kindness and mercy, giving shelter and sustenance for suffering, starving spirits.
The name of the festival in Phuket originates from the Chinese god Por Tor, who is the king of hell. He’s the gatekeeper and judge to whom the recently departed must make their case in their quest to reach heaven.
At the Por Tor Gong shrine near Saphan Hin in Phuket Town, temple walls are lined with murals depicting this entrance to hell, as well as gruesome scenes of the punishments Por Tor metes out to hell-bound spirits. Every Chinese shrine around Phuket stages ceremonial offering events, but the Por Tor shrine is the main one since it’s dedicated to the Por Tor god.
Red turtle cakes, called ‘ang ku’ in the Hokkien dialect, are the most vivid offerings prepared for the festival, and Phuket is the only known place where such turtles play a ceremonial role.
The turtles, which represent longevity, are made with glutinous rice flour and decorated with a fondant icing. The colour red is chosen for good luck, success and wealth, while some turtles are white for purity and others are yellow to represent high status and royalty.
Phrases like ‘good luck’ or ‘good health’ are inscribed on the cake as well as name of the person, family or business making the offering. Several shops around Phuket Town specialise in making the turtles and some order very large and elaborate turtles, costing 50,000 baht or more.
Local historian Khun Chaya NaTakuathung, who offers culture tours with Phuket Heritage Trails, says some believe the inclusion of turtles in the festival originated from early Hokkien migrants to Phuket, who had a difficult passage by sea from the Fujian region of China.
The journey reminded the migrants of a story in Buddhist legend about a Chinese Taoist monk who made a journey to India to learn more about the Buddhist teachings that were spreading across the region. While at sea a storm swept up. The monk began to pray and a huge turtle rose up out of the sea. Some believe the turtle led the ship to shore while another story tells about how the turtle lifted the ship on its back and carried it to safety.
In addition to the turtle cakes, an abundance of food dishes are proffered for the famished lost souls. The temples are brimming with bags of rice, whole roasted ducks, pork and chicken, piles of fresh fruit and vegetables. Even whiskey and wine cooler bottles are on offer, keeping things festive.
Despite the seemingly dark themes of death and hell, the Por Tor festival is a lively, family-oriented event. Not only is it a feast for the ghosts, but a fascinating feast for the senses offering a peek inside Phuket Hokkien culture, perhaps in more accessible and palatable ways than the better-known Vegetarian Festival.