‘He’s looking at you,’ I said to Pucuk.
Dangling off the rear view mirror in the front of the car, was a head. Wearing a feathered headdress and bearing a solemn, war painted face, we at first presumed it to be a Native American figurine. It had slowly twisted around on its elastic string and was now shooting an unnerving look at Pucuk who sat in the front passenger seat.
‘Bit creepy, right?’
We were around an hour away now from Singkawang, the city of the legendary Cap Go Meh festival. Conversation turned to our driver, for anymore tales he had heard about the festival. In Indonesian, he explained to Jack and Pucuk (with Lily and myself interjecting every now and again each time the boys oohed and aaahed at something he said, What did he say? What did he say?) the strange and unbelievable things he had seen.
The conversation being Indonesian, I can’t translate directly – but the gist of what he said was this (please imagine our nervously smiling faces throughout):
‘Cap Go Meh is an ancient Chinese tradition. The ethnic Chinese celebrate it along with descendants of the Dayak tribe of Kalimantan.’
‘That explains the hanging head in the front,’ Jack said, ‘It must be Dayak. They wear clothes like that.’
‘Every year people are chosen or volunteer to be the Tatung.’
‘What is a Tatung?’ I asked.
‘The people who become possessed. The ones who do all the crazy stunts,’ Pucuk explained.
The driver went on, ‘The Tatung stand on spikes and cut themselves with swords and blades. On their arms, their necks, even their tongues – they cut themselves, and there is no blood at all.’
‘Really?’ I said, brow furrowed with disbelief, ‘No blood at all?’
Jack double checked this with our driver, ‘Apparently yes, no blood at all,’ he verified.
‘They become possessed by the spirits of the gods. To show how strong they are they cut themselves but don’t bleed, so that any evil in the city will be driven away, intimidated by their strength.’
‘Are they really possessed?’ I asked, pretty sceptical of it all.
Jack translated to the driver, and he nodded firmly.
‘To begin the ceremony, they eat a live dog. And they will eat live chickens too.’
Our eyes popped out of our sockets. ‘A live dog? Wait wait wait… a live dog?!’
‘Maybe you shouldn’t see that part,’ Pucuk turned and said to me, being the crazy animal loving lady that I am.
‘Yeh. If there’s anything to do with animals, I’ll cry,’ I grimaced and tried not to imagine it.
And with this last piece of information the driver parted with, a collective thought of ‘what the flip have we let ourselves in for’ consumed our minds.
‘It’s going to be an interesting weekend,’ said Pucuk.
‘I don’t think I’ll ever forget this Valentines,’ I said to Jack. Tomorrow would be the 14th February.
Darkness fell, and bright red and orange lanterns hung high lighting the streets on either side. We were close. Chinese New Year had been fourteen days ago now, but it’s presence was still visible throughout the city. Bright red and yellow banners saying ‘Gong Xi Fa Cai’ fluttered in the breeze of the night, and houses were decorated withthe glow of lanterns and fairy lights. Singkawang being a comparatively small city, it wasn’t long before we found ourselves in the centre of it. Silhouettes and shadows of people were visible from our car, hundreds of them gathering around a bright, golden temple in the middle.
‘The Tatung are there,’ said Jack, ‘they might be doing something. Let’s get out and see.’
The driver pulled up nearby the temple. Before leaving the vehicle, he said something quickly to Jack and Pucuk.
‘What did he say?’ Lily and I asked.
‘He said to be careful that the spirits don’t get you.’
‘You mean, become possessed?’ I said still with a tone of scepticism, but well on my way to being a 100% scaredy cat.
‘ Well, he thinks so,’ answered Pucuk, nodding over to the driver. ‘I don’t think anybody has ever said that to me before.’
With this in mind, we tentatively made our way towards the temple. It was almost pitch black dark and there were so many people about it would have been easy to lose each other. We had missed the Tatung procession, but not unlike a shimmering light bulb in a dark room, like moths we were drawn closer and closer to the temple.
Gleaming a brilliant gold and exuding a dazzling glow, the Vihara Tri Dharma Bumi Raya Temple stood before us, like a beacon of full, luminous splendour. Red and yellow flags of honour hung proudly, gold and emerald coloured dragons, their mouths wide open in a craze, guarded and coiled themselves around the temple’s pillars. Incense was burnt on thin red wands and lanterns flew metres up in the sky, like glittering oranges floating in the dark. Inside the temple it was gold upon gold and red upon red. Ornate, gilded shrines dedicated to the gods filled the interior, images of ancient bearded gods were painted on the doors, and stacks upon stacks of incense sat waiting to be used at the entrance. A buzz of animation hummed in and outside of the temple; people smiling, chanting and praying – all excited in anticipation of the big day tomorrow. I had never experienced anything quite like it – this much exhiliration around a place of worship. And little did I know, it was just a faint foreshadowing of the full on craziness that we were to encounter the next morning.
*Tune in next time for our encounters with spirits, the possessed and the death defying feats of the Cap Go Meh festival…
Go Go Go!
Where: Singkawang, West Kalimantan (Borneo), Indonesia.
Why: The ancient old Chinese tradition of Cap Go Meh, one of the biggest Chinese festivals in the world.
How: How: From Jakarta, a 1-2 hour flight to Pontianak and then a 4 hour drive on to Singkawang. Flights can be booked with most airlines, such as Air Asia, Lion Air and Garuda. We flew with Sri Wijaya, a return flight costing us around 2million Rp /approx £100 (flights around this time can increase drastically due to the Cap Go Meh festival that occurs in February.) Accommodation is available, but if going for Cap Go Meh, book well in advance.