I really wanted to love the Singkawang Cap Go Meh Festival in Borneo, but I hate to admit – it didn’t exactly have the effect on me that I thought it was going to. It’s not that the festival is disappointing. It certainly is not. In fact, quite the opposite. The atmosphere here is super-positive, fun, and entertaining.
While I was researching and looking at the photos online, there was no question in my mind that the festival was going to be pretty freaking amazing.
I couldn’t wait to get here because before now, I’ve never been a truly unique Chinese New Year celebration. I was excited for this.
The Cap Go Meh experience turned out to be much different for me than I expected because I felt like a fish out of water for the entire four days I was in Singkawang. That’s strange for me because I’ve spent a lot of time in Indonesia – not in Bali as a regular tourist hanging out with other tourists – but as a bule (white person) in parts of Indonesia most tourists never see.
And although I was always very aware of my foreignness in places like Malang, Manado, Bandung, and even Jakarta, I was hyper-aware of it here. Obviously, I was a white person surrounded by people who looked very different from me. But this time, I felt culturally out of place – which rarely happens to me.
SIngkawang was different than my other Indonesian trips.
Normally when we travel someplace, whether it’s to a festival or any other type of event or activity, it’s something that we know we’re predisposed to enjoy a lot. That’s why the mood of most of the things on this blog is generally pretty positive.
So let me just say right now – even though I might not have understood the festival, and that may have affected my enjoyment of it, I am very glad I went.
Because sometimes, even an experience that’s not your favorite can be a terrific learning experience. Singkawang was for me. You should go. The festival is incredibly interesting. Perhaps you’ll see something more than I did. If nothing else, you’ll see things you will never see anywhere else and get to taste mouthwatering Indonesian food with a heavier Chinese influence than in other parts of the country.
Indonesian food is always a huge plus for me! It always makes everything better.
How to get to Singkawang: To get to Singkawang, first, you have to fly to Pontianak on the island of Borneo (Kalimantan). Then, you can take one of these two easy ways to get to Singkawang.
About Singkawang Cap Go Meh Festival
In this post, I’ll attempt to explain the Singkawang from the perspective of an outsider. Because of this, you’ll have to keep in mind that it’s a very meaningful festival to the thousands of people who show up to see it and to the thousands more who participate in it.
My perspective is obviously different – one of a person who did some research, saw the lovely photos and read a little about it – and then came here expecting that just seeing the amazing sights would make me enjoy it without the context of a lived experience.
In other words, I have no personal connection to the festival like many who may be reading. That means I might get some things wrong – or at least not exactly right. If you feel I’ve made an egregious error, I’d really appreciate you leaving a comment to politely correct it, or send me an email.
Important dates: The 2021 Singkawang Cap Go Meh festival will take place on February 26, 2021. The 2022 festival will take place on February 15.
What is Cap Go Meh?
Cap Go Meh refers to the 15th day of the New Year in the Chinese Calendar. Every year in Singkawang, Borneo, the world changes a little bit and Singkawang becomes the focus of the gods – mostly the gods of Taoism, but not only Taoism.
The gods come to the city to spread their blessings on the people. They do this through tatungs – or shamans. Tatungs are the mediums through which the gods manifest themselves.
Read more about the tatungs and the tatung parade below.
Parade of lights / Pawai lampion
Two nights before the Singkawang Cap Go Meh festival’s main parade, there’s another parade down the main street in Singkawang that features several vehicles and floats – each brightly-lit with colorful lights and decorations.
It’s meant to be reminiscent of a lantern festival.
The music is loud as crowds line the streets to take it all in.
For me, this was the most fun part of the Cap Go Meh festival in Singkawang. Your senses of sight and hearing were almost assaulted by the thumping music and brightly decorated vehicles. I loved it all.
People on the floats were singing, dancing, banging drums and other noise-makers, and having an amazing time. There were even occasional firecrackers.
You could just feel the energy of what was coming in two days.
Singkawang Cap Go Meh Festival parade
I have to admit, this is where the Singkawang Cap Go Meh festival lost me a little bit. I didn’t understand quite what was going on except in the abstract.
This year, there were literally over 800 tatungs (shamans) in the parade – most from Singkawang, but also from outside of Borneo and Indonesia.
To put it mildly, the parade was much too long for me. With marching bands, community groups, and many others participating in the parade, spectators had to stand in crowds along the route in oppressive heat and humidity. When you’re from Indonesia and you’re used to it, it’s not as big of an issue.
Halef’s mom, for example, stood outside for nearly the entire day while Halef and I struggled a bit. When you’re used to February and March being cold in your home country, it’s a little hard to take. And face it, even though Halef is from Indonesia, he’s been in the United States for two decades. He’s a bit of a snowflake when it comes to heat! Haha!
The tatungs of Singkawang
While looking at information about what was going to happen at the Singkawang Cap Go Meh festival parade, I read about the role of the tatungs. My understanding is that they get themselves into a trance during the entire celebration. The tatungs of Singkawang are possessed by gods and other supernatural spirits called lauya.
Then, they parade through the streets while being carried by others in seats made of insanely sharp objects like knives and spikes.
You’ll see tatungs sitting on top of sharp knife points, standing on blades, and pressing their feet with all their might. One would think that the blades would slice through their feet and hands.
They don’t. In several hours, I only saw one tatung with blood on his feet – and nothing serious, to be honest.
My disappointment with the parade came from two things. First, it was insanely long. As I said, this isn’t a problem for locals (and the parade is for them, obviously).
But even more than that, I was a bit disappointed in several of the tatungs themselves. The mystique of the tatung is that he is a shaman who subjects himself to painful experiences. He is an honored member of the community.
Yet, a very high percentage of these tatungs sat or stood on their knives while chain-smoking and drinking beer. Something about that took the “reverence” and mystery out of it for me. It almost felt to me like they’d prefer to be home having a smoke and a drink than in a parade at the Singkawang Cap Go Meh festival.
Maybe I was missing something. I don’t have the cultural upbringing or context to really criticize this. But I felt it was necessary to at least point it out.
Suggested video: You can learn about the daily life of a tatung in this conversation with a tatung and his family in Singkawang, Borneo. The link goes to a page with a YouTube video embedded at the top. Take the time to watch it.
Singkawang food fair
One of the highlights of the Singkawang Cap Go Meh festival for many people – including me – is the large food fair. People who know me know that I am a huge fan of Indonesian food. There’s very little of it that I won’t eat and enjoy to the fullest. Indonesia is about spicy, delicious food. It rarely disappoints.
From Nasi Campur and Ayam Goreng to Sate and Pisang Goreng and everything in between, the food options at Cap Go Meh in Singkawang seem endless. I even found several vegetarian and vegan dishes at the food fair.
It surprised us that we had to purchase coupons to buy meals at the Singkawang Food Fair. You can purchase coupons in Rp. 5,000 and Rp. 10,000 denominations.
The price of each stall’s food will add up to a multiple of that. And don’t worry, if you have coupons left over at the end of the festival, they’ll buy them back.
My recommendation: When it comes to Indonesian food, I think you should always try something that doesn’t look familiar to you! Indonesian food generally doesn’t have many ingredients that might seem “strange” to westerners. So don’t worry. You won’t have to get out of your comfort zone too much.
And while Indonesian food is spicy, that spice is more to add intricate flavors to the food. I’m not saying there’s no heat to it – but if you want real spicy heat, you can add it yourself. There are usually hot sauces and sambals at your table. If you’re unsure about the heat, try a little first!
Singkawang Cap Go Meh Festival auction
One of the events that we, unfortunately, didn’t attend was the Singkawang Cap Go Meh Festival auction. Although we tried! We stopped by at 5 pm and discovered it was scheduled to start at 6 pm. So we showed up again at 6:15 and there was still nobody there (except for a few workers).
It didn’t appear that anything at all was going to happen and we’re pretty certain we had the schedule right.
In any case, the auction included some big-ticket merchandise like scooters. But most of the items seemed to be small Chinese altars. There were dozens of them on the stage.
Again, since nothing happened and no one could tell us when anything would happen, we didn’t stick around. Better to spend our time eating the delicious street food of Singkawang!
Is the Singkawang Cap Go Meh Festival worth seeing?
In the end, the Singkawang Cap Go Meh festival was a very unique experience. That said, but there is definitely a cultural element here that you just can’t quite understand unless you live it.
If you’ve been to Indonesia several times like me, or if you have little or no experience with the intersection of Chinese culture with Indonesian culture, you might feel a little lost in the experience.
But it’s worth it.
With the exception of my first time in Indonesia, I’ve never felt uncomfortable in the country. This time, I did. The festival brought me out of my comfort zone to an area of Indonesia that I had not yet learned about or come to understand.
Will I come back to Singkawang? If the opportunity arises, I absolutely will. While the Cap Go Meh festival is the main reason to come to the city, the food scene here is something I would really like to explore a lot more. We only scratched the surface and I know there is so much more to explore.
I also think it would be good for anyone who travels, including me, to get off the beaten path in Indonesia and experience life outside the tourist zones.
Festivals like this, rarely attended only by outsiders, are a great way to do that!
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Michael is originally from Canada but now resides in Atlanta, GA with his husband, Halef, who also writes here. He is a Couchsurfing expert. Michael has traveled to over 50 countries learning how to experience more for less as he travels.