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Chinese Hungry Ghost Festival in Thailand

Full moon of the seventh lunar month according to the Chinese lunar calendar (Mid to late August).

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  • Wednesday, 17 August, 2016.
  • Tuesday, 5 September, 2017.

Hungry Ghosts Roam the Earth

Chinese communities in Bangkok, Phuket and Chiang Mai celebrate the Hungry Ghost Festival. At the full moon of the seventh lunar month of the Chinese calendar, it is believed that the gates of hell are opened and the spirits of hungry ghosts allowed to roam the earth. These ghosts need food and merit. People can help by offering food, paper money, candles and flowers, making merit of their own in the process.

Chinese Temple in Chiang Mai

Mahayana Buddhist Observants

On a national scale, this is a lesser holiday. Most of the Chinese who observe the Hungry Ghost Festival are Mahayana Buddhists, though the hungry ghosts themselves are also taken seriously by Theraveda Buddhists and most people in Thailand as well as throughout Chinese religious traditions. The main celebrations of the Ghost Festival (also known as Por Tor in Phuket) are observed around major Chinese shrines in Thailand.

Chinese Tradition of Ghost Day

The Hungry Ghost Festival is originally a Chinese celebration, but it is now also popular in other parts of the world – particularly those areas with a history of Chinese immigration. It takes place on the 15th night of the seventh lunar month of the Chinese calendar.

Ghost day is also celebrated in parts of Thailand including Bangkok, Chiang Mai. In Phuket it is more commonly known as the Por Tor festival (งานผ้อต่อ) as it takes place near the Por Tor shrine.

Origins of the Chinese Hungry Ghost Festival

The Hungry Ghost festival originates from Mahayana Buddhism. It is based on the idea that there are certain spirits who are driven by intense emotional needs. In Thailand the hungry ghost is known as a Praet (เปรต). This spirit is usually invisible to the human eye, but it is human like with a tall skeleton-like figure, long neck, and very small mouth, which keeps it from ever satisfying its hunger.

The hungry ghost is always looking for nourishment but it is unable to satisfy its appetite, though good Buddhists in Thailand will make merit and direct some of this toward nearby Praet. It is believed that some humans end up in this state after death due to previous karma. It is even suggested that drug addiction is a route by which humans can become a hungry ghost while still alive.

As well as Buddhist roots, the hungry ghost festival is also influenced by Taoism and Chinese folk religion. The purpose of ghost day is to allow family members to perform rituals in order to help their deceased relatives. It is believed to be a special day when the gates of the lower realms are opened, and it then becomes possible to help these spirits. People celebrate this day with special food and by attending shrines to leave flowers and incense.

Por Tor Festival in Phuket

In Phuket the Por Tor festivities tend to be limited to Por Tor Kong Shrine near Phuket Town and Seng Tek Bew Kuan Im Tai Seu Shrine in Bang Neaw district. There are also activities to commemorate the day at the Chinese shrines in Chiang Mai. Some of the activities that visitors can expect if they attend these events include:

In Phuket they make large red turtle shaped cakes (Ang Ku) which are believed to bring luck and success – some of them as much as 3,000 THB. These cakes are not usually eaten but instead left at the temple to make merit. The best place to buy a Ang Ku cake is Keng Tin bakery in Phuket Town. Those who wish to make merit for their deceased loved ones will visit one of the shrines. They can leave flowers and incense along with their Ang Ku. It is possible to purchase pretend money which can be burned in a special fire. The idea is that the hungry ghosts can use this cash. Most people will attend the shrines in the evening when it starts to get dark. This is the best time to go because there is more of a festival feel to things. The local markets have extra stalls and special food to celebrate the occasion.

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