Catching Ghosts: Phuket Por Tor Festival


Baba beauty, looking a bit furtive.

Update in 2018: The Por Tor Festival will run from August 23 to September 9, at various shrines and sites around Phuket Town and beyond. See this Hungry Ghost festival news for details.

Crowds. Noise. Don’t like them. Perhaps because of my early years spent on the wide-open Canadian prairies, or maybe it’s my introverted nature, but the thought of immersing myself into a crowd has always been a dreaded one. Especially when you throw firecrackers into the mix.

In the thick of it at the Phuket Por Tor Festival.


A pause in the Por Tor parade.

So it was with some trepidation that I set out to see the Por Tor festival in Phuket Town, also known as the Hungry Ghost festival. An annual event in the Hokkien Chinese community, Por Tor is a time to honour and feed ancestors who have passed on, especially those who were banished to a hellish realm or otherwise not given a proper passage into the beyond at the time of their death.

I didn’t see any ghosts.

But I did see the results of a lot of effort to give these unseen spirits a fantastic time during their well-earned vacation from hell.

Red turtle cake offering for the hungry ghosts.

Lots of food: whole roasted pigs and twisty-necked ducks, dry rice noodles arranged into towers, fruit and vegetables elaborately carved. A brief parade with prancing dragons, stepping amongst the exploding firecrackers, ear-shattering and acrid. Giant red turtle cakes, a symbol of longevity, an ironic image perhaps in a festival for the dead. Incense sticks pressed between hands. Piles of ‘hell’ money ready to burn to help the ghosts pay their way through the afterlife. Beautiful children with painted faces and satin frocks.

Turtle Cakes and Parades

Plenty of colour and clatter, but not the expected crowds. I joined the daytime parade (another is held a week later in the evening), anticipating the streets to be lined with parade watchers jostling for position in the hot tropical sun, but there were only a handful of spectators and photographers.

Ghostly smoke rises as the dragons dance.
Solemnity and explosions intermingling.

The parade stopped for a time and a few more people gathered along the sidewalks. I took photos of all the kids with turtle cakes, and they sometimes returned a smile. Then it started up again and I spotted the dancing dragons ahead of me, shimmying to the clash of cymbals and drums.

This man is of my tribe. The noise-hating one.

I raced ahead to get in front of them for a better photo angle but stopped when I saw the lines of firecrackers stretching down the centre of the street. Some photographers who were well positioned in front of the parade probably got some great shots up until the moment they noticed the firecrackers exploding under their feet. The look on their faces as they leapt aside was a bit Wile E Coyotish. Sadly, I missed those shots, too.

Happy fat turtle gets a free ride.

The dragons were followed closely by local bigwigs carrying a heavy incense pot and an image of Por Tor, the god of hell who usually dwells in a Chinese shrine across town. Everyone in the procession reached out towards the pot and golden statue, or touched the arms and shoulders of those closer to these sacred items.

Offering incense and best wishes for unfortunate, starving souls.

A Cracking Good Time

The main parade makers took a hard left and made a jangly walk to the upper floor of the downtown fresh market building, led by the dragons, firecrackers a-cracking. Poof! The parade was over in a cloud of smoke. Within minutes the red paper firecracker debris was swept off the streets and the big turtle cakes unloaded, with a lot of shoving and shouting, from the parade pickups, then carried like royalty on the shoulders of teams of men up into the market.

Red turtles carrying messages of hope and good fortune.

I went up to check out the food displays and the merit-making, snapping away and trying to make sense of it all. So much, so much. Such a bounty and glorious effort for people long dead, unseen, unknown.

Magnificent melon fest.

Dazzled and dazed, observing the rituals of a faith I’ll never fully understand through the haze of smoke, slowly finding a cure to my aversion to crowds.

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Lana

    Great shots, Tim! You were definitely in the right spot. Yes, firecrackers are a definite occupational hazard when photographing festivals.

  2. Tim Laven

    See you for this 🙂

  3. Lana

    Tim, when is it this year? I haven't seen any event announcements yet.

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