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Hungry Ghost Festival in Penang

In the old days, during the hungry ghost month that begins on the fifteenth night in the seventh lunar month of the Chinese calendar, Buddhists tend to stay indoors at night to avoid an eventful encounter with restless spirits let out from the netherworld and allowed to wander the earth for the month. These spirits, believed to be ancestors and perceived as ‘hungry’ were then appeased through offerings of prayers, food and entertainment by the living throughout the duration of what was, and still is, called the Hungry Ghost Festival by those of Buddhist faith. 

Today the rituals and traditions continue, making it one of the biggest and festive Buddhist festivals in Penang. Buddhists believe appeasing the spirits will bring good luck and prosperity. This year, 2015, the Hungry Ghost or Phor Thor Festival starts on the 14 Aug to 2 Sept in Penang.

The Hungry Ghost Ritual
Tradition dictates for various cooked dishes such as rice, sweetmeats, chicken, fruits, noodles and cakes are placed at shrines at homes, outside the homes, street corners or roadside and the like as treats for the wandering, hungry spirits to allay ‘trouble’ and bad luck.

In Penang, not only on the streets of George Town but in many neighbourhoods that are at close proximity to a Buddhist temple, there are often temporary stages built for Chinese opera performance or musical concerts to entertain the spirits. More often than not, the front row audience seats are left vacant for these invisible (but thoroughly present, according to believers) guests.

The burning of joss sticks and lanterns are also common as a way to lead the spirits to where the food offerings are placed. Within the premises of Buddhist temples, the burning of paper oblations or effigies are done for the dead to have a comfortable afterlife. These are also where you’ll see clusters of large joss sticks taller than humans being burnt. As you’d imagine, Penang is rather fragrant during this month of the year due to distinct sweet, woody aroma of the burning joss sticks.

Where To See 
Basically, all Buddhist temples will hold some sort of ritual during this month and quite often the burning of paper effigies or oblations happen on most nights of the festival. However, there are a few spots that may offer more dramatic scenes for photo-op, such as:

At Tua Pek Kong temple on Jalan Tokong Thai Pak Koong in Tanjung Tokong which is located by the sea. The lanes are narrow here, so it is best to park outside of the area or hop onto Rapid bus 101 and stop after Tesco supermarket.

At the Clan Jetties on Pengkalan Weld, there are not only the religious rituals but also a good spot to catch performances by Chinese opera troupe, karaoke singing concerts and multitudes of food stalls. What’s spectacular to see at the end of Lee Jetty is the all lit-up temple perched by the water at the neighbouring jetty. The area is a stone’s throw away from George Town’s ferry and bus terminals.

At the Pek Kong temple on Jalan Pasar in Bukit Mertajam, colourful rituals within the temple’s premises are held annually during this time. The temple committee here are proud of burning the tallest and largest paper effigy each year. This area is also known for its multitudes of hawker stalls and if not for anything else, a feast can be had while soaking up plenty of actions that take place during the Hungry Ghost Festival month. This temple is more than 120 years old and it takes around 20 minutes’ drive from Butterworth ferry and bus terminals to get there.
Click here for a list of show times in Penang.

Image credits: Su Aziz & Leonard Selva