From mid-August to mid-September of this year, locals in Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia and China will celebrate one of Asia’s most bizarre and spooky traditional holidays that’s nothing short of fascinating. Though it’s just around the corner, plenty of visitors to Asia aren’t quite sure just what Ghost Month – or Ghost Festival – really means. Is this Asia’s very own version of Halloween? Where can I see some of the festivities? What’s this talk about “hungry ghosts”?
In short, Ghost Month is believed by many in Asia to be the time when the souls of the deceased rise up from the lower realm to visit the living on earth. The name “ghost month” can be quite misleading, as this event takes place over the course of a lunar month rather than the calendar month. This year, the festivities last from the third week of August until the third week of September – with the region’s temples and ancestral altars becoming even more integral to daily life than usual.
Unlike other festivals in Asia that focus on paying respect to ancestors, Ghost Month is different in that its believed ghosts rise up and visit the living – rather than the other way around. While the souls of the deceased often have a “home” to return to – that is, where the ancestral altar connected to them is located – others have no home to return to. These souls are sometimes called “lonely ghosts”, and they are believed in roam the streets in search of human ‘hosts’ to consume or take over.
According to local folklore, the day that these souls rise up is on the 15th day of the 7th lunar month (in 2015, August 28th), called Ghost Festival. This day is the most significant in the month, when some locals believe the Gods of the Underworld allow the spirits to eat, drink and play in the living realm. While these spirits have the earth as their playground, the still-living expect quite a lot of disruption and bad luck – if they aren’t careful. Locals rarely open businesses during this time, and weddings all but cease to happen during this period, too.
When in Asia during Ghost Month, it’s best to do as the locals do, and follow some cardinal “hungry ghost” rules. Here’s what you should do – and what you shouldn’t do – during Asia’s spookiest festival!
Keep your voice down at midnight.
While its believed that the boundaries between the realms are porous during every hour of the day during Ghost Month, the most superstition centres around the time after the sun sets. At night time, yelling someone’s name (especially during midnight) is believed to attract the attention of souls roaming the earth – and could have dire consequences for the person you summoned. That’s because some locals believe the dead will remember the name, and later trick them into following them back to the lower realm!
Skip the hair removal morning routine.
Some locals believe that the hair on your legs will protect you from evil spirits – though I suppose that depends on how thick it is – and that shaving during Ghost Month is a surefire way of destroying your defenses. If you want to play it safe, skip the razor or wax this month.
Hands off of the ancestral altar.
Most homes in Vietnam and China – as well as some in Malaysia and Singapore – have ancestral altars in strategic locations within the home. During Ghost Month, these ancestral altars will likely be brimming with offerings of cookies, fruit, wine and even cigarettes. Though it’s never a good idea to snatch something off of an ancestral altar, this time of the year is the most dire if you do to. That’s because hungry ghosts promised their fill of food and drink while on the earth are likely to exact revenge on anyone stealing food meant for them!
Skip the photos after dark – or not!
If you’re excited by the prospect of having a dark, mysterious companion standing beside you and your friends in your travel photos, snapping photos at night is believed to be a good way of getting one! Some locals believe that printed images snapped at night during Ghost Month will reveal those hungry souls roaming the earth, especially if that photo is taken in a very dark spot.
Leave the skull and crossbones shirt at home.
Since Ghost Month is such an important time for the dead, it’s best not to wear clothing that attracts the attention of those in the other realm. Local folklore dictates that those wearing clothing with skulls, bones or other imagery of death are likely to be mistaken for the dead, and taken back to the underworld when the hungry ghosts must return!
Money on the road? Leave it there.
During Ghost Month, locals often leave small offerings of currency or burn paper bills (called joss paper) at ancestral altars, so a lone bill on the road might be intended for one of these deceased souls. Best to leave it where it is – unless, of course, you’re comfortable getting into a pickle later on when this deceased soul comes back to claim it!
Wear darker colours – never white.
Unlike parts of the West where the common colour at funerals is black, in Vietnam and other Asian countries, the colour worn at most funerals is white. Just like the tip not to wear clothing with imagery of death, same goes for white clothing. It’s sure to attract the attention of hungry souls searching for those to take back with them!
Forego the swim in a pool, lake or river.
Unless you’re an Olympic swimmer, some locals believe it’s a good idea to skip the swim during this time of the year. Why? Because many of these hungry or lonely ghosts hang out in water rather than only on land – and are likely to try to drown those who dare jump in!
Head to temples and pagodas!
If you’re keen to see what Ghost Festival is really like on your visit, head to nearby pagodas and temples for a look at home pious locals will pay respect to their ancestors – as well as appease hungry ghosts roaming the earth – in vivid fashion. It’s a great place to see locals burning ‘joss paper’ or fake currency to send to the ancestors, which often turns into more of a bonfire during this time of the year. Just make sure to stay out of the way and refrain from snapping photos while you’re there – this is an important spiritual time for many locals, who deserve respect to observe their beliefs.