Drums. Gods. Spirits. Smoke. Possessed eyes. Pierced faces. Blades. Knives. Skulls. And headless chickens.
Incense permeated the atmosphere, its wisps of fragrance sweetening the morning air. It was the first indicator of the delirium that was to parade into our lives later that morning.
Jack, Lily, Pucuk and I had arrived in Singkawang late the night before. Staying at a friend of a friend’s house, we were lucky to find somewhere to stay, as the nearby hotels of the small city are full to the brim around this time of year. Cap Go Meh, one of Indonesia’s biggest festivals, celebrates an ancient Chinese tradition of warding off the city and its people from evil spirits. Chosen people, called Tatungs, become possessed by the gods and perform pain and death defying feats of bravery and insanity to demonstrate their power to any evil lurking about the city limits.
It was 6.30am. Tiredness was squandered by intrigue and excitement – but despite the many stories and anecdotes of bizarre and wonderful things that have happened at Cap Go Meh, nothing could quite prepare us for what we were about to see in just over an hours’ time.
The city streets were empty and eerily quiet. Sinkawang being only a small city, we decided to walk to the main point of where the festivities were to begin. The first real sign of life were two black pickup trucks, crammed full of people standing in the back of them. Heads covered in feathers and faces and arms covered in tribal paintings, they banged heavily on a drum, almost sounding like a war beat, whilst cheering and ululating loudly along the road. A man wearing a headdress full of feathers stood proudly at the front of the car. He shot an imposing, fiery stare at us. Dressed in bright yellow and red, another man stood next him, a stately aura surrounding him. As they passed, I noticed he had a thin metal rod pierced through his face.
Although smiling with curiosity at the sight we had just beheld, the ominous beating of the drum had shaken me slightly on the inside. What were we getting ourselves into?
Bar a few others treading their way to the parade starting point and a heavy presence of police and military, the streets were completely clear. We had been walking for just over half an hour before we came to a long road where the procession was about to pass. Other bystanders stood on either side of the road with us and it wasn’t long before we heard that war-like pounding of drums again. In the distance, we saw a psychedelic myriad of people.
Cap Go Meh had begun.
An infantry of hundreds of vibrantly dressed people flooded the road, some rhythmically beating hard on drums, others nobly holding up yellow, red and green flags. The scent of incense was pungent and heavy. Thrones made of blades and hanging with chicken carcasses were held up high by troops of men, upon which the much revered Tatungs were seated. Whether it was the dizzying incense or the gods themselves, the Tatungs sat regally and possessed. Some in a deep muttering trance peering up into the sky, others were so overcome they were drooling and blind, and others were proud enough to lift themselves on their thrones to place their bare feet upon sharp knives, spikes and seats of nails. Many had their own swords and hacked away at their bare arms, necks, stomachs and even tongues – but not the tiniest speck of blood dripped from their skin. I flinched at the sight of them sawing at their bare arms and necks, their arteries and jugulars protected from the long steel blades only by a millimetre or two of skin – but still there was nothing, not even a scratch.
People of all sizes and ages marched along through the procession; men, women, children and the elderly all together dressed in their tribal ancestors traditional costumes, others painted from head to toe in black or red, resembling spirits and demons. Heads covered in feathers and skulls, skin painted in threatening colours, eyes in a trance and most of all, faces and mouths pierced by metal rods, they seemed to have lost any humanness to them – as if they were from another world; mysterious, strong and invincible. I stood transfixed and completely in awe, my eyes not quite believing what I was seeing. I looked over to Jack and remembered again that today was Valentines Day. Hands down, this had been the best one so far – and it was still only 7.30 in the morning.
*Tune in next time for more stories from the Cap Go Meh festival of Singkawang…
Go Go Go!
Where: Singkawang in Kalimantan (Borneo), Indonesia.
Why: For the Cap Go Meh Festival, honestly one of the most fascinating things I have ever seen.
When: Fifteen days after Chinese New Year, usually in February.
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 Rp 2,000,000 – 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. You’ll hear differing times as to when the procession starts, but the earlier you wake up, the better chance of having a good view of everything.
If you’re of a squeamish disposition, I recommend thinking carefully before coming to the festival – saying this, it is one of the most intense and awesome (in the true sense of the word) things I have ever witnessed.