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Touching the Other Side

Celebrating Halloween this month, Travel 3Sixty looks at how different cultures commune with the spirits, appease wandering ghosts and honour ancestors with special rituals that lift the veil between the realms.

Words: Efi Hafizah Hamzah

One of the prison in Port Arthur.

Port Arthur prison.


Port Arthur, Tasmania, Australia 

There is an unmistakably eerie vibe to this little island that was once a penal colony for the hardest and harshest of British and Irish criminals incarcerated here in the 1800s. Between 1833 and 1877, almost 1,000 burials of criminals who perished while serving time, and staff who worked at the Port Arthur prison, were held here. However, the lack of a proper criminal justice system during that time saw murderers and rapists locked up alongside petty thieves caught for stealing food or a pair of trousers! In 1848, the system was adjusted to create the ‘Separate Prison’ that was built in 1850 for those sentenced to corporal punishment. Cuffed and shackled, these hardcore criminals were put in tiny cells, and their heads were covered with sacks. Many went insane or died from the lack of light, sound and interaction. The haunting experiences that visitors have had at Port Arthur are varied and plentiful – from strange sounds to the feeling of being watched and followed. The history of this place is fascinating, and Port Arthur has been listed as an UNESCO World Heritage site since 2010. For the brave, a lantern-lit walking tour at night makes for a truly gripping experience. 

Learn more at www.portarthur.org.au/index.aspx?base=1930

Hungry Ghost Celebration in China

The Chinese burn giant paper effi gies of the Chinese deity known as Da Shi Ye or Guardian God of Ghosts during the middle of the Hungry Ghost festival month.


Celebrated by Chinese communities around the world. The seventh month of the Chinese lunar calendar is known as the Ghost Month, but the 15th night of this month, which falls in August (or 14th night in southern China), is when the gates of Hell are said to open allowing the spirits and ghosts to emerge and roam the earthly plane. On this day, the Chinese appease transient spirits, pray and perform rituals to help ease the sufferings of their deceased ancestors. To enable their ancestors to live comfortably in the afterlife, the Chinese perform rituals like burning incense, paper money and paper mache clothes, gold, houses and even cars as offerings.

     The festival’s origins are intrinsically linked to the Chinese practice of ancestor worship. In China and Hong Kong, people tend roadside fires to perform the burning rituals as well, and food is left out to satiate the appetites of the hungry ghosts. During this month, is it customary to stage Chinese opera shows, and the first couple of seats are always reserved for visiting spirits. The Hungry Ghost month is not a leisurely time; while the Chinese worship and respect their ancestors, it’s also considered a month when some spirits may be looking for revenge or victims. In ancient times, no one would leave the house after sundown.

Learn more on mandarin.about.com/od/festivals/a/ghost_month.htm 

Fire Festival in Scotland, UK.

May Queen


This festival celebrates the spirit of nature and fire with Celtic roots; as spring turned to summer, the neo pagans would light bonfires to protect the villagers, crops and cattle with a prayer for a bountiful harvest in the coming year. Beltane is a festival held to invoke Bel, the Sun God, for protection and blessings. The eve of Beltane is an important part of the festival as in astronomy. The way the stars are aligned depicts that this was a time of ‘no time’; when the veils of the two worlds (our world and the spirit world) are at their thinnest. It is believed to be a deeply magical time, and that the Queen of Fairies would ride out on her white horse to entice people to follow her back to Fairyland.

     In ancient times, druids or wizards were called to oversee the conduct of this festival, and young men and ladies collected blossoms in the woods and were made to light bonfires in the evening. The rituals often led to matrimonial matches for the young villagers where the boys would place garlands and boughs on the windows of the girls they liked. The marriage could take place immediately or in the coming summer or autumn. The cattle were lined up to pass between two large fires, and the smoke was believed to ensure the fertility of the herd. Today, Beltane is still in practice among modern pagans, mostly in Ireland and in Edinburgh in the UK. It is a tradition that is seen to cleanse, purify and revitalise the soul of the living.

Learn more at www.witchology.com

Holloween Costumes

Children dressed in fancy costumes going ‘trick or treating’.

HALLOWEEN Celebrated mainly in Europe and America

Halloween was not always about fancy costumes, parties and candy; its roots are said to be tied to the Celtic festival of Samhain. During this festival, people paid their respects to the spirits of the dead who returned to visit the living. In medieval times, druids would light bonfires and villagers danced around the flames dressed as witches, ghosts and goblins to ward off roaming spirits and avoid being possessed. Held on October 31 annually, Halloween was originally called All Hallows’ Eve and celebrated on the eve of All Saints Day – a day to honour saints and martyrs of the past – that falls on November 1. Halloween, as it later became known, is a time of celebration and superstition that has since evolved into a secular community-based event. It was brought to America when Irish immigrants fled the potato famine in the mid-1800s. The combination of the Irish and English traditions began a new one that incorporated children-friendly activities like ‘trick-or-treat’ where children go from house to house to collect chocolates and candy. In the 1950s, American leaders declared Halloween a holiday to limit vandalism and crime among the younger generations.

Learn more at www.religioustolerance.org/hallo_cu.htm

Clay skeletons, calavera catrina, figurines in San Miguel de Allende.


The Day of the Dead is a Mexican festival to celebrate and remember those who have departed, and prepare special foods in their honour. Never will one see gravesites so lavishly decorated in Mexico than on this day. The streets near cemeteries are filled with paper decorations, flowers, skeleton and skull-shaped candies, and foods specially prepared as offerings are left at graves. This celebration coincides with Halloween, beginning at midnight on October 31 when celebrants believe the spirits of the dead arise to visit families and leave only on November 2. During this time, extravagant parades and processions to the cemeteries are held, music is played and merriment is made to welcome the spirits. Incense, yellow marigolds, and a picture of the departed are placed at their graves and their names are inscribed on the foreheads of the children of their lineage. It is a celebration uniting grief with joy. Mexicans are taught from young to appreciate both life and death with toys depicting funerals, coffins and undertakers.

Learn more at www.inside-mexico.com/featuredead.htm

Woman dressed in Yukata wearing dog mask

A woman dressed in a yukata and wearing a dog mask during the Tsukiji Honganji Noryo Bon Odori Taikai in the grounds of the Tsukiji Honganji Temple, Tokyo.

OBON Japan

This three-day festival where the departed souls of ancestors are honoured and remembered is one of the most important celebrations in the Japanese calendar. Every year, a dance called Bon Odori is held to commemorate the beginning of the festival and usually falls on August 13. It is a dance held to welcome the spirits of ancestors with gaiety, ensuring that their presence is appreciated. A big part of the Obon Festival is the annual practice of cleaning and decorating the ancestral shrines at home and at the graveyard, and offering flowers and sweets. The end of the celebration held on the evening of the 15th is a real sight to behold when families gather along the nearest rivers where they live, lighting beautifully coloured and decorated paper lanterns called toro nagashi and floating them downstream to bid farewell to their ancestors’ spirits and provide guidance for their return to their own world.

Learn more at www.japan-guide.com/e/e2286.html

Mae Nak Shrine, Wat Mahabut

Nang Nak shrine in Wat Mahabut, Bangkok


Many love stories we hear end with a tragic death, but death doesn’t necessarily mean the end of the story. Such is the tale of Mae Nak, as depicted in the horror film Nang Nak that was released in 1999. It is based on a famous folk tale, Mae Nak Phra Khanong, which means Miss Nak of Phra Kanong district. It’s said that the spirit of the lovelorn Mae Nak continues to call out for her husband as she walks the plains of a separate dimension. According to local legend, Nak, a beautiful young woman who lived near the banks of Phra Khanong River near central Bangkok, fell in love and married a man named Maak. When war broke out, Maak was drafted into the army, and had to leave Nak pregnant and alone. Unfortunately, Nak died in childbirth, along with her baby. However, her spirit refused to leave. Eventually, Maak returned from war and ‘lived’ with his young wife and baby, not realising that he was actually living with their ghosts in a decaying home. Life as he knew it went on as usual, but one day, he saw the reality of the state of his home and what his wife and baby really looked like. He was fearful and overcome with anger. Possessed and instructed by Nak, he ran amok and began terrorising the villagers, who called in a monk to help. The monk went to Nak’s grave and cut a piece of bone from her forehead to capture her spirit and send it where it was meant to go. Only then did Maak settle down. Today, there is a shrine to Mae Nak erected at the Maha But temple in Phra Khanong, and many go to her for blessings and guidance.

Learn more at www.bangkok.com/shrines/mae-nak-shrine.htm

Tao tao in Tana Toraja.

Tao tao of life-size wooden effi gies watch over the land in Tana Toraja.

TANA TORAJA South Sulawesi, Indonesia

While most cultures view death as a grim affair, the Toraja tribe of South Sulawesi, Indonesia, treats it with cheer and celebration. This is reflected in the tribe’s unique burial grounds on the rocky mountainside of the villages. Although most of the tribe members are Christians, having converted during the Dutch colonial era, they still honour their Austronesian culture. Their beliefs are most evident in how funeral festivities and burial customs are conducted. When a Toraja dies, his or her body is placed in a tomb dug in nearby cliffs or in wooden coffins that are hung on the side of mountains. The most popular of these burial sites is Lemo. Here, you can see coffins placed in holes dug along the rocky mountainside like crypts where the tao tao (life-size wooden effigies representing the deceased) are erected, overlooking the lands so the spirits may watch over their descendants. In the olden days, effigies merely represented gender, but now, master carvers are called in to make actual lookalikes. Funerals are celebrated with pomp and pageantry, and include the sacrifice of dozens of buffaloes and pigs for the whole community to feast upon as they send off the spirit of the deceased. Families may keep the bodies of their departed at home for years until enough money is raised to have the funeral celebration, during which, the deceased is referred to as ‘the sick’. Lately, it has become a custom for families to keep the effigies of their dear departed at home since there have been many cases of stolen effigies being sold to tourists. Nonetheless, tourists are welcome to join in the funeral festivities, just as long as they don’t wear red or black. 

Learn more at www.toraja-info.com/whattosee.html


Besides the annual celebrations held in reverence of ancestors and the visiting spirits of the departed, there are some highly curious celebrations held all over the world.

     Fiesta de Santa Marta de Ribarteme (Las Nieves, Spain): This is a festival celebrating near-death experiences of people who have faced death and lived to tell their tales. A parade is held through the streets of this small town in honour of the patron saint of resurrection; the survivors are carried in coffins to the town cemetery near their church. Blessings are sought by thousands who visit this small town every year, clamouring to touch the living who lie in the coffins.

     Phallus Festivals (Japan and Greece): It’s a case of much ado about the male genitalia, from buying phallic-shaped candies to parades of giant phallus carvings headed to the phallic shrine in Kawasaki, Japan! Known as the Kanamara Matsuri, this festival celebrates fertility. A similar procession is held in Lerissa, Greece before Easter; festivities include participants sitting on a phallus-shaped throne, and visitors goaded into kissing phallic-shaped wooden carvings.

     Baby-Jumping Festival (village of Spain’s Castrillo de Murcia): This ceremony for blessing new babies is taken to new ‘heights’. Babies are laid on a mattress for this ritual, which is held during the annual Corpus Christi feast, and men in devil costumes jump over a row of up to five babies at a time as a sign of cleansing the sins of the young ones and bringing them luck and good health. This ritual began in 1620 but locals priests no longer participate in this ceremony as ordered by the Church.


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