The Hungry Ghosts Festival

This week, I was lucky enough to celebrate the Hungry Ghosts Festival, right here in Malaysia. It was one of those experiences I’ll never forget, and I’m so thankful I was here for it.

The festival is meant to pay homage to the dead, namely deceased ancestors. People leave offerings of food and burn huge towers of joss paper (paper covered in gold leaf – money for spirits) for their ancestors, all while burning incense and marking the sites with flags, to lead the spirits to the offering. They believe that at midnight on the fifteenth day of the seventh month on the lunar calendar (which happened to be last Thursday night) that a portal opens to the realm of the dead, allowing ghosts and spirits to walk among us.

On Thursday night, our friends who usually stay out with us until 11pm or even later hurried home at 10pm, afraid of being followed home by ghosts. Lucas told us that this was the night that most families would be out leaving their offerings, and that at a crossroads right down the street from our apartment, there would be burnings of joss paper at midnight. When he told us, he phrased it, “I have a suggestion, but I don’t recommend it,” so that if we were eaten by hungry ghosts, he wouldn’t have to feel guilty.

So, of course, we snapped one last picture together just incase we WERE eaten, and at 11:30 we made our way to the crossroads.
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We found flags and candles along the way, leading the spirits to the crossroads.
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We even found an offering before we made it there – one that was being enjoyed by stray cats rather than ghosts (they were adorable).
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When we arrived at the crossroads, there were four different towers of joss paper prepared at every point of the intersection. The burnings began at midnight, and they were quite a spectacle.

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Once the burning was done, the night seemed to be over – the families who had been conducting the burnings piled into their cars, leaving incense and offerings and flags behind for the dead. Andrew and I walked home. Halfway there a man pulled over to offer us a ride home – he seemed extremely concerned that we were out on foot, after midnight, on a night when ghosts could be following us home.

The next day, Lucas heard from a friend of his, who happened to be making offerings at that very crossroads. His friend said that we were fearless, to come so close – and apparently he has pictures of us there, and even a video (I thought I saw some cameras pointed in our direction). We really are celebrities here.

The next night, the true night of the festival, Alex took us with him to his temple, where the Hungry Ghost festivities were continuing full swing. They had erected a huge paper boat, filled with joss paper, which was to be burned at 9pm. Until then, I had some time to enjoy the beautiful sculpture surrounding the temple. Everything was hand carved, and intricately detailed. It was absolutely beautiful.
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We were invited into the temple as well, and given a chance to see the various altars. We even met the temple dog, who seemed extremely unimpressed with all the people coming through his house. There was incense burning everywhere, so much that the air was thick with it, and it was actually a little hard to breathe. By the time we finally made our way back outside, my eyes were watering so badly I looked like I was crying. You can see the gray haze in the photos.
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Back outside, Andrew and I picked out a spot to wait for the burning to begin. While we were there, a stray dog came through, probably drawn by all the food they had set out. She was so tiny, and so skinny, and so obviously a mama dog – and I watched an old lady kick her, hard, twice. I wanted desperately to say something to her, but I didn’t want to be disrespectful in another person’s temple – later Lucas told me we’re VIPs, and we could have said anything we wanted – but at the time I settled for dirty looks. Luckily, everyone else seemed to be okay with the dog being there, and bunch of kids were even petting her. I’m hoping she was offered some food later on in the night – I lost sight of her after the burning.

The burning began at 9. The pots of incense were all carried back inside, and then the monks boarded the ship to bring down two lanterns hanging from the masts. Once they had climbed down, a number of people approached with torches, and lit up the paper money piled around the boat. The flames were quick, and hot – Andrew and I, who were so proud of our front row viewing space, were pushed back by the heat. I felt sunburned by the end. I’ve never in my life seen a fire so huge.
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Once the masts had fallen, people swarmed huge piles of food that had been laid out since we arrived, taking their share and loading it all into grocery bags. This is, apparently, part of the celebration (I’m hoping someone thought to share with my poor dog). I was concerned that all the food was going to be fed to the fire, and I was really glad to see it going to people who need it instead. There was also a feast laid out, and I’m led to believe that most of the worshippers stayed to eat – Alex took us back to the cafe where we usually eat dinner, where we regaled Lucas and Laura and Michael with tales of the horrible dog kicking woman.
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When we made it home, I realized that the smell of incense was still in my clothes and my hair – even my skin. It lasted all night, until morning, when I finally showered it away.

It was an amazing experience, and although we didn’t plan it out, I’m so glad that it happened to fall during my stay here. It’s something I’ll never forget. And, I have to say – I think it’s my new favourite holiday.

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