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A bizarre Chinese New Year celebration in Singkawang

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Getaway Category: Culture & HeritageGetaway Tags: Asia, indonesia, and Singkawang

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  • Are lanterns, lion dances and fireworks too mainstream for you?

    In Singkawang, not only do they have the biggest Chinese New Year celebration in all of Southeast Asia, but they celebrate it on a grotesquely outlandish scale. Thousands of audience members visit Singkawang just to see the celebration every year. At the peak of the celebration is the Tatung parade at Cap Go Meh festival, in which more than 600 participants fall into a trance to perform incredible stunts like stepping on swords and piercing skewers into their face—and the surprising thing is that none of these people are injured or even scarred!

    This itinerary will guide you through one of the year’s most exciting festivals, which can be done from Singapore in just 3 days!

    [Note: The organizing committee has announced that, unlike previous years, the 2017 festival will not be held as the date coincides with a local elections period. Nonetheless, this remains an interesting curio which you should add to your bucket list and plan for a visit on future Chinese New Year period!]

    Day 1 in Singkawang, Indonesia

    12nn: Arrival at Pontianak’s Supadio Airport

    When you arrive at Pontianak, you will first need to complete the immigration process and find the Perum DAMRI bus that is expected to depart tentatively around 1pm for a 3-hour journey to Singkawang.

    4.30pm: Vihara Tri Dharma Bumi Raya

    The icon of Singkawang is Vihara Tri Dharma Budi Raya, which is the city’s oldest temple and it has existed since 1878. Inside the temple, there’s a statue of the God Bumi Raya. Legend has it that he was a wise king who was loved by the people back in the early days of Singkawang when workers from mainland China came to work as miners around the Borneo region. After the king’s death at 102 years old, he continues to guard the Singkawang city from demonic spirits who lived in the Borneo forests surrounding Singkawang.

    Once you are done, you can take a leisurely stroll, passing through Tugu Patung Naga (dragon monument) as well as the temples which adorn Singkawang’s streets, such as Kuan Kung Temple, Fa Kong Ki Temple, Vihara Tri Ratna, Vihara Dewi Kwan Im, and these are just some of the temples which you can reach in less than a 10-minute walk- so we’re barely scratching the surface here!

    Nearly every god and goddess in Chinese mythology are worshipped at Singkawang, so much so that Singkawang is dubbed as the City of a Thousand Temples. Singkawang has a moderate population of 192,844 people, but with 70% of them being Chinese, it’s the true Chinatown of Southeast Asia.

    Jl. Sejahtera, Melayu, Singkawang Bar., Kota Singkawang, Kalimantan Barat 79111, Indonesia

    6pm: Pasar Hongkong

    At night, this market slowly turns vibrant with red lanterns and old-school kerosene lamps. There will be rows of carts with a huge variety of food. You should absolutely try their local specialty: Rujak Ju Hie (fruit salad with dried squid) and Singkawang tofu.

    Jl. Setia Budi, Condong, Singkawang Tengah, Kota Singkawang, Kalimantan Barat 79111, Indonesia

    Day 2 in Singkawang, Indonesia

    7.30am: Tatung parade at Cap Go Meh Festival

    It’s time for the big show!

    At the Tatung parade, the participants start by praying at the main temple, where the good spirits of their old ancestors will possess their body and grant them immunity to perform the eerily jaw-dropping stunts. This is why they are able to pierce their faces with irons and wires, put knives through their skin and step on other sharp items without harming themselves.

    The reason why Chinese New Year is celebrated so differently here is mainly due to the assimilation of culture between traditional Chinese and local Dayak tribe customs. It has an early beginning in the Chinese diaspora, in which the mainland Chinese people were brought to Borneo to work in the gold mines. Back then, the area around Singkawang was a huge dense forest and this ritual is necessary to cleanse and “scare away” the demons.

    P.S. It should be noted, however, that women should not participate or get too close to the tatung during their menstrual cycle as it is believed that it will erase the participants’ immunity. On an interesting note, the capital city of West Borneo (Pontianak) is actually the name of traditional ghosts who became vengeful because they passed away while they were pregnant with unborn children. They are typically portrayed with long hair and wearing a bloody white dress—which practically makes them the original Sadakos of the world before The Ring even existed.

    Though the actual time of the parade is 9-11am, it pays off to start your day early as you’ll be competing for a good spot with thousands of people! Here’s the full route of the parade: Lapangan Kridasana –> Jalan Pelita –> Jalan Yohana Godan –> Jalan GM Situt –> Jembatan Pasar Ikan –> Jalan Saad –> Jalan Setia Budi –> Toko Obat 1001 –> Jalan Budi Utomo –> Jembatan Rusen –> Vihara Tri Dharma Budi Raya –> Jalan Sejahtera –> Jalan Kepol Mahmud –> Muka Altar Lelang.

    If you’re anywhere along this route, you can catch the parade. Naturally, Lapangan Kridasana is one of the most vibrant spots as it’s in a huge field and the parade starts there. Alternatively, the route along Vihara Tri Dharma Budi Raya and Jalan Sejahtera has a strong vibe due to the presence of many old houses and the iconic temple.

    11.30am: Lunch at Bakso 21 Singkawang

    As the show ends, have a taste of the popular local bakso (beef balls), which are distinctive because they are served with Chinese Hakka-style minced meat tofu called Yong Theu Fu. There are plenty of beef ball vendors you can find in Singkawang, but the locals’ #1 favorite is Bakso 21 along Niaga street. A portion costs around IDR 30,000.

    No 95, Jl. Niaga, Melayu, Singkawang Bar., Kota Singkawang, Kalimantan Barat 79111, Indonesia
    Opens 10am-2pm daily

    1pm: Depart to Pontianak

    After the lunch, check out from your accommodation and take the 3-hour bus ride/drive back to Pontianak.

    4.30pm: Rumah Adat Betang & Rumah Adat Melayu

    Betang is the main traditional house of local Dayak tribes that can be found across Indonesian Borneo, which is a shame if you don’t visit one while you’re there. Betang traditional houses are shaped like a long platform stage, ranging from 30-150 meter and can house over 100-150 people!

    If you have a little more time, you can also visit Rumah Adat Melayu with its eye-catching yellow colour! Rumah Adat Melayu is located on the same stretch of streets with Rumah Adat Betang, roughly around 5-10 minutes’ walk away.

    Jl. Sutan Syahrir, Sungai Bangkong, Pontianak Kota, Kota Pontianak, Kalimantan Barat 78113, Indonesia

    6pm: Dinner at Kwetiau Apollo

    Established in 1968, Kwetiau Apollo is a legendary culinary experience from Pontianak. It’s popularity grown over 2 generations. They offer various types of kway teow including kwetiau goreng (fried kway teow), kwetiau siram (stir-fried style) to kwetiau kuah (soup-based kway teow). Moreover, they are very generous in their portions and this comes at an affordable IDR 20,000-35,000 per person.

    JL. Pattimura, No. 63, Pontianak, Kalimantan Barat 78243, Indonesia

    8pm: A Hin Chai Kue Panas Siam

    Another must-try! Chai Kue is a Chinese delicacy specifically found in Indonesia and has its origins in the Pontianak region. It’s a popular local dumpling filled with vegetables such as chives, green beans, taros and yams. Best eaten while it’s warm! IDR1,000-1,500 per dumpling.

    Jl. Siam, Benua Melayu Darat, Pontianak Sel., Kota Pontianak, Kalimantan Barat 78122, Indonesia
    Opens 10am-10pm daily


    Day 3 in Pontianak, Indonesia

    9am: Depart to Supadio Airport

    Depending on whether you connect via Jakarta or Kuala Lumpur to Singapore, you will need to arrive at the airport 2-3 hours before the actual flight. The airport is around 30-45 minutes away from Pontianak city centre, so make sure to allocate enough time to reach the airport.




  • Places to stay in Singkawang, Indonesia

    Prices listed are based on average daily rates for a Standard Room.

    Affordable

    Hotel Khatulistiwa is a huge bargain, coming just at a price tag of SGD14-19 while being conveniently located just opposite from Vihara Tri Dharma Bumi Raya, Singkawang's oldest and most iconic temple. It comes with free WiFi too!

    Address: Jln. Selamat Karman No. 17, Singkawang 79122, Indonesia

    Mid-range

    Dangau Resort, Singkawang comes equipped with swimming pool, fitness centre and karaoke. At just SGD35-45, this is excellent value for money.

    Address: Jln. Jendral Achmad Yani, Singkawang 79123, Indonesia

    High-end

    Villa Bukit Mas sits on a slightly higher elevation so it offers a decent view of Singkawang city from the top. Not a high-end property per se, rather a better-than-average hotel priced at SGD36-83, with decent facilities such as pool, room service, concierge, karaoke, laundry and dry cleaning. Book via villabukitmas@ymail.com or +62 562 3335666.

    Address: Gg. Batu Mas Pasiran Jln. Jendral Achmad Yani, Singkawang 79123, Indonesia

    Places to stay in Pontianak, Indonesia

    Prices listed are based on average daily rates for a Standard Room.

    Affordable

    Hotel Aroma Inn Pontianak is an okay, basic accommodation if you don't expect a lot. The SGD19-27 rate is good value given its strategic city centre location and the staff speak English too!

    Address: Jln. Dr Setia Budi No. 93, Pontianak 78122, Indonesia

    Mid-range

    Hotel Santika Pontianak is highly convenient and accessible as it is located at the top floor of a shopping mall and nearby the main street food area. It offers modern, comfortable rooms and transfers to the airport can also be arranged with them. For a price range of SGD40-53, it is every dollar worth spending!

    Address: Jln. Diponegoro no. 46, Pontianak 78122, Indonesia

    High-end

    Grand Mahkota Hotel Pontianak is more like a 4-star hotel than a true high-end property. It has modern rooms with carpeted floors and the concierge staff can assist you with everything from luggage storage, airport shuttle to free valet parking. You can spend the night drinking at the Lobby Lounge & Executive Karaoke Lounge or by arranging a relaxing massage. Price range: SGD31-49 for an entry-level standard room.

    Address: Jln. Sidas No 8, Pontianak 78112, Indonesia

    Getting to Singkawang, Indonesia

    The entry flight point to Singkawang is the city of Pontianak.

    From Singapore to Pontianak, and vice versa

    All AirAsia flights from Singapore to Pontianak will go through Kuala Lumpur. The Kuala Lumpur-Pontianak leg runs every Mon, Wed, Fri, Sun from 11.45am-12.30nn, where you can easily connect from Singapore's 8.45-9.55am or 7.35-8.45am flights.

    For return flights, the Pontianak-Kuala Lumpur leg runs every Mon, Wed, Fri, Sun from 12.55nn-3.40pm; from which point you can catch your connecting flight to Singapore at 6.35-7.40pm or 8.10-9.20pm.

    Garuda Indonesia offers multiple flights from Singapore to Pontianak via Jakarta every day. The earliest flight is 7.25-11:50am. This leg runs every day except Sunday. For Sunday, the next best alternative is 10am-2.30pm.

    For the return to Singapore, several flight options are available. The earliest way to return to Singapore with minimum transit time is 7.40am-2.20pm (daily), while the latest available flight is 12.35nn-7.20pm (daily).

    For the 2017 Cap Go Meh festival, the best way to maximize your time in Singkawang/Pontianak with just 1 leave day needed is by departing with Garuda on Friday 7.25-11.50am (February 10th) and returning with Garuda on Sunday 12.35nn-7.20pm (February 12th).

    From Pontianak to Singkawang, and vice versa

    From Pontianak's Supadio Airport, you will need to take a 3-hour bus for IDR 100,000 per passenger. The bus operator is known as Perum DAMRI (+62 561 744859 / 736620 / 734549). The bus tentatively departs from the airport to Singkawang at 9am, 11am, 1pm, 5pm and 8pm. It returns from Singkawang to the airport tentatively at 2am, 4am, 7am, 11am and 2pm.

    Alternatively, you can also take a taxi (IDR 120,000-150,000/pax), and the most reliable taxi provider in the region is Mitra Taksi (+62 561 766321).

    Getting around Singkawang & Pontianak, Indonesia

    Major key attractions can be reached within walking distance. Otherwise, you can take a trishaw or taxi to get around. If you book mid-to-high end accommodations, you can usually request to arrange hotel transfers at a cost.

    Other important notes

    Time difference

    Singkawang and Pontianak are both 1 hour behind Singapore (GMT+7).

    Best time to visit

    Chinese New Year is based on the lunar calendar, which differs every year but the 15th day will most likely fall between February to early March. The Cap Go Meh festival falls particularly on the 15th day of the new year, which marks the final day of the new year celebration. It is therefore crucial for you to check the latest lunar calendar and count the date properly in order to enjoy the festival at its peak!

    The upcoming Cap Go Meh festival will naturally fall on the following dates:

    • March 2nd, 2018
    • February 19th, 2019
    • February 8th, 2020
    • February 26th, 2021
    • February 15th, 2022
    • February 5th, 2023
    • February 24th, 2024
    • February 12th, 2025
    • March 3rd, 2026

    Things to pack

    Pack light as you'll have long journeys and a few transfers between Singapore and Singkawang! Here's a quick checklist:

    • Camera! (and battery charger)
    • Modest and breathable clothes
    • Umbrella in case it rains
    • Insect repellent
    • First-aid kit

    Safety

    Please do not try to replicate the stunts or get too close to any sharp items!

    Other than that, the usual petty thefts and pickpockets exist especially in Pontianak, so you need to exercise basic common sense such as avoiding empty streets or staying out too late at night especially when you are alone or in smaller groups. You may also need to keep your bags in front of you and refrain from flashing your valuables as that will just invite trouble!

    Helplines

    • Ambulance: 118
    • Police: 110
    • Search and rescue team: 115
    • Fire department: 113
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