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Banjarmasin: Life on the River in Borneo

It came without warning. Barely a minute earlier, Bama and I had been puttering down a narrow waterway lined with ramshackle wooden houses, softly lit by the full moon as it peeked through a wispy layer of cloud. But here was a vast expanse of water that seemingly merged into the darkness of the pre-dawn sky. At once I felt infinitesimally small; the absence of lights on the opposite bank exaggerated its distance, and our boat was now dwarfed by an oil tanker and hulking flat-bottomed barges laden with heaps of coal. I knew then that we’d arrived on the mighty Barito River. Read more

Jakarta’s Magnificent Reprise

The last time the Asian Games were hosted here in Jakarta, exactly 56 years ago, it left an indelible mark on the cityscape. A slew of landmarks and infrastructure developments owe their creation to the event: these include the iconic Welcome Monument (as shown in the photo above) and the Hotel Indonesia next door, which was the first modern five-star hotel in the nascent country and the official lodgings for dignitaries and sports leaders back in 1962. Read more

Penataran Temple: Stories in Stone

Indonesia might be a relatively young nation – both in the demographic sense and in the fact that the republic turns 73 this week – but its complex layers of history are hidden in plain sight. Brooding stone dwarapala door guardians half-kneel outside hotels and gleaming skyscrapers in downtown Jakarta; Javanese traditional dances and shadow puppetry recreate episodes from the Hindu epics; and the national language, Bahasa Indonesia, borrows a plethora of words from Dutch, Portuguese, Hokkien, Arabic, Persian, Tamil, and Sanskrit. All these point to a millennial tradition of absorbing foreign influences to create something unique to this part of the world. Read more

Blitar: In the Spirit of Sukarno

“Don’t forget it, don’t you ever forget it, child, that you are a son of the dawn.”

So said the Balinese mother of a precocious little boy who would eventually go on to become a founding father of Indonesia and its very first president. Born at half-past five in the morning on June 6, 1901, as the first glimmers of dawn lit up the sky over the port city of Surabaya, Sukarno ushered in a new era for a sprawling archipelago that had seen three centuries of exploitation and hardship under Dutch colonial rule. Read more

The Other Side of Bintan

Perhaps the thing that worried me most about Bintan – especially in the days just before I went on assignment – was the fact that I had no idea what my story was all about. Not that there wasn’t a general framework: I knew that I’d be going from the north to a newly-opened property on the southeast coast, and Iris and her crew at Bintan Resorts had planned a detailed itinerary of things to do and places to see. But would the island as a whole be interesting enough to fill out a print article of just over 2,000 words? And would I be able to find and talk to the right people? Read more

Island Idylls in Bintan

Until this February, I’d never given any serious thought to visiting the holiday island of Bintan in Indonesia’s Riau Archipelago. It took a solo work trip for me to eventually hop aboard a domestic flight from Jakarta, a journey that was slightly longer than the usual 55-minute ferry ride across the strait from Singapore. That hardworking city-state often looks to its larger neighbors for places to lepak, a word borrowed from Malay to describe the act of loitering around, to chill and do nothing. The broad perception among Singaporeans – and one that I also held until recently – is that Bintan is all about lepaking in beachside resorts; that it is purely geared toward weekenders looking to cocoon themselves in the smart hotels scattered along the island’s northern shore. How wrong I was. Read more

On the Cusp of Change: Semarang’s Old Town

In a previous post, penned a number of months after my first visit to Semarang three years ago, I described the old town district of Kota Lama as “one of the best-preserved historic centers of any major city in Indonesia”. Up until the mid-2000s it had suffered decades of neglect, compounded by poor drainage and a flood-prone location. Since then there’s been a recent push to restore the old town’s vitality with the ambition of becoming a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2020, though much still needs to be done before it can earn that coveted title. Read more

The Historical Charms of Medan

Ask any Indonesian here in Jakarta about Medan and its people, and you will likely get one of several prevailing opinions. Some declare it a rough and aggressive place whose unruly residents speak with a coarse accent. Others rave about the food, particularly the non-Muslim fare of the Chinese and indigenous Batak communities. Still others might say the city has a reputation for crime: cue the Medanese friend who spoke of a break-in at his family home while his mother was around – the thief escaped after hearing her screams and realizing he’d entered the window of a room that had been locked from the inside. Then he told me of a cousin’s encounters with a (sympathetic) local mafia boss who was a regular at her restaurant. Few visitors – if anyone – would describe Indonesia’s fourth-largest city as beautiful, charming, or easy on the senses. But good food is not the only redeeming quality of the boisterous provincial capital of North Sumatra. Read more

Malacca: Treasures from a Kristang Kitchen

Kumi nang bergonya! “Eat, don’t be shy!”

Those unfamiliar words jumped out from the opening page of a vermilion leather-bound menu, a reminder that I was no longer in traffic-choked Jakarta but the easygoing Malaysian city of Malacca. Sitting in a rattan cane–backed dining chair, I looked up to see pastel-colored walls decorated with replicas of historical prints and old photographs; wooden fans spun lazily from the high ceiling as the nighttime breeze filtered in through half-open windows. This was Melba at the Mansion, the upstairs restaurant inside a heritage-themed hotel called The Majestic Malacca, and I was about to get a culinary introduction to Kristang culture. Read more

What I Love About Seoul

The first thing you might notice about Seoul is the technological prowess: sleek, quiet trains whisk you from Incheon International Airport to the central station in less than an hour, inside spotlessly clean carriages fitted with electronic maps above each set of doors – a sequence of red and yellow lights to chart the 48-kilometer (30-mile) journey. Then, once you’ve navigated the maze of passageways at Seoul station to get on a subway train, there comes a jolt of global cosmopolitanism: you may well encounter a blonde-haired expatriate who speaks fluent Korean and a local student joking in English with two African friends. Read more