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Going basic in Banyuwangi


Overwhelmed. That is the feeling I get on arrival at the guesthouse on the outskirts of Banyuwangi. We have just finished a six and a half hour train ride from Surabaya, and the owner tells us we can get a better deal on a hike to Ijen if we decide to go that night – which means leaving at 1:00am.

Our threadbare room is right opposite the reception. The door is surrounded by windows on two sides – one of these cannot be closed completely. Bama and I can hear every conversation outside, from the owner boasting of his cheap tours to a businessman, to a group of backpackers asking for the price of a trip to Bromo. Though we can’t see the traffic, the sound of passing motorbikes and larger vehicles drifts in from the main road.

The bathroom reminds me how much I have been spoiled as a city dweller. It has a working shower, but as I find out that night, the water is freezing cold. The guesthouse has installed a western toilet without a tank; instead there is a separate tap for filling up a bucket to flush it manually. I am more distressed by the absence of toilet paper, and wonder why we didn’t have the foresight to bring a roll or two from Surabaya.

I sit down for a minute to focus on the positives. I still have a single packet of small tissues, and if need be, two napkins from a donut shop, emblazoned with a peacock logo and the words “Nothing is sweeter than the togetherness we share.” The room is relatively clean, with a brand new air-conditioning unit, and nets over the windows and bathroom vent to stop mosquitoes from coming in. We have the luxury of a sink to brush our teeth and wash our faces. There’s even a wall-mounted TV to distract us from all the noise outside. After a brief discussion, Bama and I agree to rest and schedule our hike to Ijen the following night.


Masjid Agung Baiturrahman – Banyuwangi’s main mosque


The gardens of Taman Sritanjung

Depending on your perspective, Banyuwangi sits either at the beginning or the end of Java. It is the most easterly major town and the last stop on the railway network that meanders across the island. Minutes before we pull into the station, the wild, serrated hills of West Bali rise above the narrow straits. Over there, on Indonesia’s most famous island, the clocks are one hour ahead. Banyuwangi feels left behind – its nascent tourism industry is centred on the crater lake and sulphur mine at Ijen, the surf at G-Land and a string of beaches to the south.

Banyuwangi is built along a main road running parallel to, but not directly along, the coastline. From our guesthouse Bama and I catch an angkot, a smaller and rougher version of the minibuses found in Hong Kong. We crouch through the doorway into the back, where tattered seating runs the length of the van. The windows have been pulled back and the door left wide open; a cool breeze blows right through the angkot.

In the centre of town we visit Taman Sritanjung, a beautiful, well-maintained park rivalling those of Indonesia’s bigger cities. A neat procession of warung (eating places) runs along one side, separated from the park by a permeable wall of creeping vines streaming down from alternating rows of planters. Children run and cycle along the pathways or frolic in the grass. By the central fountain a vendor waves a broom-like contraption in the air, releasing clouds of bubbles. Banyuwangi’s main mosque stands just across the street, crowned by three brilliant turquoise domes that glint in the sunlight. With its scales and elongated shape, the biggest one resembles a salak fruit.

Taking the angkot into town also serves another purpose. Near the terminal we find an Alfamart, a convenience store where we stock up on cold drinks, potato chips, and much to my relief, individual rolls of toilet paper. 


A cheerful side street


Becak outside Banyuwangi Market


The central post office – painted in the agency’s signature cream and orange colours


Alun-alun Banyuwangi, the ceremonial central square

21 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ha ha – love the words on your toilet paper “Nothing is sweeter than the togetherness we share.” How appropriate :).
    Always good to focus on the positive. Hope you have/had a great trek to Ijen.

    July 26, 2015
    • In that anxious state of mind I thought of your advice on travelling with gratitude. It certainly helped me calm down quicker. 🙂 Ijen was surreal and otherworldly… I don’t know how the hike compares to Batur, but you and Don would surely enjoy it!

      July 29, 2015
  2. I hate to keep the focus on your (lack of) toilet paper, but I once wrote half a post on the preciousness of paper products of any sort when you don’t have them! We stockpiled napkins and Kleenex and even ransacked our backpacks for leftover airplane supplies in rural Tibet … it was so dusty there, so our noses were running and, of course, none of the holes in the ground that served as toilets had any hint of toilet paper! I did enjoy the rest of your post, too!

    July 27, 2015
    • Wow, from your story at least I know what kind of supplies to bring when I make it to Tibet! To be honest I couldn’t have written this post without the toilet paper issue – it is something that so many travel bloggers can relate to. I am glad to see people sharing their own experiences here in the comments section!

      July 29, 2015
  3. I love the colorful buildings and the incredible blue of the mosque!

    July 27, 2015
    • The town of Banyuwangi was surprisingly photogenic – I wasn’t expecting to see all those vibrant colours! The mosque was easily my favourite building.

      July 29, 2015
  4. hahaha… start with an overwhelm experience in Banyuwangi, but for sure you will have a wonderful trip to Ijen, James!

    July 27, 2015
    • Ijen was beautiful – I don’t regret the hike, but getting up in the middle of the night was pretty tough!

      July 29, 2015
  5. Rule #1 in Indonesia, or anywhere – always steal the toilet paper from the hotel and keep a stash. You never know when you will need it. You may need it at the next hotel 🙂

    July 27, 2015
    • I’m not sure how I didn’t think of that, Jeff! We bought two rolls just in case… and we clearly needed it at the next place after Banyuwangi. I had a gut feeling that it would be even more basic and I was right! No fan or A/C in the rooms, squat toilets, no shower (you use a small pail from a water tank)… it made the previous guesthouse seem so luxurious in comparison.

      July 29, 2015
  6. Clearly a little missing TP doesn’t keep you gents down! The mosque is gorgeous! (Naturally as are the other pics) 🙂

    July 27, 2015
    • It was beautiful, Carissa! I especially loved the shape and colour of those domes. Sadly I accidentally deleted that photo of the mosque – after resizing it and uploading to the blog, I forgot to save the original from my camera’s SD card. Lesson learned!

      July 29, 2015
      • Oops! At least you have the memory and the resized image though. 🙂

        July 30, 2015
  7. “Nothing is sweeter than the togetherness we share.” Was it the tissue paper from J.Co. in Jogja James? No matter what I wish that you enjoy Banyuwangi and Kawah Ijen so much ya …

    Btw, I still have no idea about Banyuwangi but the legend about its name and a bit story about “the black magic”. But, you show me a nice perspective about the city. I think I should go there soon …

    July 28, 2015
    • Good guess, Bart! It was the tissue from J.Co, but a branch we found in a mall in Surabaya (Plaza Tunjungan 3 or 4, I forget which one). Banyuwangi is a nice town, although I did feel that people were less friendly and more suspicious than those we encountered in Jawa Tengah. Even to my untrained ears the Javanese they spoke sounded louder and angrier. But then who am I to judge? I was completely spoiled in Semarang and on the road trip before then.

      July 29, 2015
      • Well, I think you’re right in some point. That’s the typical of people from Jawa Timur. Although they use mostly-similar-language with Jawa Tengah, their accent, dialect, and the tone more louder, and sometimes rude. But still I hope, those experiences will enrich your knowledge about Indonesia.

        July 29, 2015
  8. Ha, those TP rolls must have seemed more precious than gold!! So much harder to go basic as you age James….the reason I regret not having started travelling when I was twenty five 🙂 The white building in the ceremonial square looks uncannily like a South Indian temple!

    July 28, 2015
    • Absolutely Madhu – my anxiety was compounded by the fact that our guesthouse sold bars of soap but no TP rolls or packets of tissue! If I am finding it hard now I don’t know how I will travel like that in my 30s and 40s. 😀 Bama tells me the white building is a copy of an ancient Hindu temple in a neighbouring part of Java. He says the architecture was most probably inspired by the gopuram of South India!

      July 29, 2015
  9. I remember my first venture out of the States and to China in the 90s. Toilet paper was my first harsh reminder I was going basic 🙂 It took awhile to get accustomed to my new ways of travel, but since that time I like the basics, it somehow brings the raw traveling experience a bit closer to the heart (that is how I rationalize it). Hope the trek and adventures went well ~ enjoy.

    July 29, 2015
    • China in the 90s must have been quite a shock to the system! I guess we tend to forget how pampered we are living in places like the States and Hong Kong. Ijen was a great experience and well worth the 12am wake-up call. Had you been there I’m sure you would have taken plenty of beautiful shots. 🙂

      July 29, 2015
  10. Reblogged this on timikaroundtrips.

    August 7, 2015

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