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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.

Sukarno had a remarkable gift for language and public speaking – by his late twenties he had gained a reputation as a charismatic figure whose stirring anti-colonial speeches won him broad support from the populace. Eventually, after spending a year in jail and using his newfound freedom to publish pro-independence material, the colonial authorities exiled him without trial to Ende, a coastal town on the sparsely populated eastern island of Flores. It was there that he came up with Pancasila: the five-point state ideology still invoked today to unite Indonesia’s vast patchwork of ethnic groups. And yet it is neither Ende, nor Bengkulu in Sumatra – his next place of exile – nor Surabaya that is most closely associated with the visionary statesman. It is not even the capital Jakarta, whose squares and avenues remain peppered with monuments commissioned under his tenure as president.

That honor goes to Blitar, a laid-back city in the heartlands of East Java, which possesses both Sukarno’s childhood home and his final resting place. It lies far off the tourist trail in spite of that connection and its proximity to the ancient Hindu temple of Candi Penataran. In late 2016, several months after relocating to Jakarta to start a job editing a travel magazine, I learned of a heritage hotel in Blitar that was putting the spotlight on Javanese culture and the city’s enduring links with Sukarno. But it wasn’t until last March that the idea of going there to write a history-themed article became a reality. And for once, Bama had the rare opportunity to tag along on a work trip.

*            *            *

Blitar isn’t the easiest place to reach, particularly for travelers coming in from abroad. Getting there requires at least a four-hour drive from Surabaya, home to the nearest international airport, but Bama and I find a quicker route by hopping aboard a domestic flight from Jakarta to Malang, just two and a half hours up the road. The drive takes us through a landscape dominated by volcanoes shrouded in low clouds: it unfolds as a tableau of warehouses and factories, villages, paddy fields, and a reservoir backed by lush mountain forest. Blitar is astonishingly quiet, with well-tended streets lined by wooden fences and concrete walls painted in the distinctive red and white colors of the Indonesian flag. Turning left at the central square, where an enormous banyan tree rises out of an open-roofed garden pavilion, we eventually spot our home for the next three nights.

A majestic banyan tree at Blitar’s Alun-alun (central square)

The main city mosque overlooks the well-tended square

Aerial roots of the great banyan (a symbol of Indonesian unity); late morning walkers

Seeking shade from the equatorial sun

The view down Hotel Tugu Blitar’s arbored driveway after a spell of heavy rain

To enter the arbored driveway at Hotel Tugu Blitar is akin to going back in time. Beneath the vault of cascading vines, staff members glide past in traditional Javanese dress: the men wear batik-printed blangkon caps; fitted button-down vests known as beskap; and jarik fabric, also adorned with batik patterns, to clad the lower body. Every room and communal space has its share of antiques collected from all over Indonesia. That trait is a hallmark of the homegrown Tugu brand, whose museum-hotels and restaurants capture something of a bygone era that Indonesians refer to as tempo dulu.

We’ve arrived at the tail end of rainy season, and the rolling thunder and flashes of lightning only add to the magic as dusk begins to fall. Tugu Blitar is far deeper than it is wide, a layout that insulates the hotel from the street, and in a way its design reflects the Javanese penchant for subtlety and restraint. The main building turns out to be a single-story affair with a tiled roof and a front porch held up by stout Doric columns; it appears low-slung from a distance, but that impression evaporates as soon as we step inside and marvel at the lofty ceilings at least three meters high. “It’s a trait of Dutch colonial houses,” Bama says.

If the stories told here are to be believed, Tugu Blitar may well be the oldest hotel in Indonesia. Nine of its rooms take up a whitewashed 1850s mansion in the Indies Empire style that once housed a prominent local family before its conversion in the colonial period. It became the lodgings of choice for Sukarno whenever he came to Blitar to visit his relatives, and even in his youth, the mansion’s main hall was the place where the charismatic independence leader danced and mingled with the local elite.

When operations manager Suhartini (who, like Sukarno, goes by one name) unlocks the door to the Sang Fajar Suite, the aura of reverence is such that I instinctively feel the need to remove my footwear. It is a veritable shrine to Sukarno and his ideas. Countertops and the sturdy desk carry portraits and busts of the statesman, while a wooden Garuda Pancasila, the Indonesian national emblem modeled after a Javan hawk-eagle, takes pride of place on a wall. There are display cases and antique cabinets stocked with all sorts of memorabilia: yellowing books about the former president and his family, independence-themed posters, and an original painting of a Balinese woman by Sukarno himself. But nothing is quite as touching as a handwritten note from Kartika Soekarno, a daughter who grew up in Europe: “Last night after praying at Bapak’s grave, I have visited for the first time the room you have dedicated to him. Thank you for capturing his spirit and moments of Indonesian history.”

Through a second set of doors we find an imposing, hand-carved teak divan bed. It’s the biggest I’ve ever seen and appears wide enough to sleep four people. “All of Indonesia’s presidents have stayed here, except for Jokowi,” Suhartini says. “And later you will too.” Bama and I are flabbergasted. I knew that Tugu would waive our room charges in exchange for the print article, but to put us up in the suite normally booked by heads of state? Suhartini responds to the surprise on our faces with a beaming smile. “You can’t just take pictures; staying here will give you more stories and insights.”

The main hall where Sukarno used to dance (left) and a lounge (right) at Tugu Blitar

Inside Tugu Blitar’s Sang Fajar Suite, dedicated to Sukarno

Antique furniture in the bedroom of the Sang Fajar Suite

A sturdy desk and a wooden floor lamp that appears to be from the early 20th century

The hotel’s intimate restaurant flanks one side of the arbored driveway

After breakfast the next morning, Bama and I set out for Istana Gebang, Sukarno’s childhood home. “Istana” means “palace” in Indonesian – though in this case it really describes a series of single-story bungalows linked together by covered walkways. Surprisingly, we have the place almost entirely to ourselves. A wizened guide walks us through the various rooms, including the former kitchen and a garage containing Indonesia’s first presidential vehicle.

Sukarno might have been a shining light for Indonesians of all backgrounds during the struggle for independence, but there were deep flaws in both his personality and aggressive style of leadership. His later years brought an undeclared three-year war with neighboring Malaysia, increasingly autocratic rule, and heavy-handed socialist policies that wreaked havoc on the economy. His womanizing ways were also public knowledge. So much so that even irreverent expats in Jakarta have dubbed that city’s phallic National Monument “Sukarno’s last erection.” It is an indisputable fact that Sukarno had nine wives, and here at Istana Gebang, the guide begins to count with his fingers, rattling off their names in quick succession. “First it was Siti Oetari, then Inggit Garnasih, Fatmawati, Hartini…” Wife number five, Dewi, was the 19-year-old arts student Naoko Nemoto, whom Sukarno first met at a Ginza hostess bar while on a state visit to Tokyo. Kartika Soekarno was born from that union in 1967, although their happiness was short-lived. Within a year the president had been deposed and placed under house arrest by Suharto, a general who would rule Indonesia for the next three decades under a corrupt and repressive military dictatorship backed by the United States.

Before we leave Istana Gebang, the guide motions for us to inspect a sepia-toned photograph atop a wooden cabinet. It shows a shaft of white light that purportedly appeared in Blitar the day Sukarno passed away in 1970, illustrating the Indonesian penchant for seeing mysticism in major events.

The mood at Sukarno’s mausoleum is one of admiration and respect: it’s thronged with pilgrims but everyone speaks in hushed tones. His tomb lies next to the graves of his parents below a pyramidal, three-tiered roof soaring above a raised platform, where we remove our shoes before climbing the steps. A cheerful caretaker welcomes me with a firm handshake and asks if I’ve been here before. Referring to Sukarno with beliau, the honorific for “him” or “her”, he adds, “His mother was Hindu, from Bali. His father was from Java.” Most visitors sit cross-legged or kneel on the polished marble. Some have their eyes closed and hands opened in prayer; the sweet aroma of cempaka incense hangs in the air as pilgrims toss white and purple rose petals, fragrant jasmine, and kenanga flowers onto the tomb.

Scenes from Sukarno’s final resting place

Young and old paying their respects to the late president

Istana Gebang, Sukarno’s childhood home

It’s now a museum crammed with presidential memorabilia

Indonesia’s first presidential car; portraits in the dining room

The lounge at Istana Gebang; an old gas lamp at Hotel Tugu Blitar’s Waroeng Jawa

Serving afternoon tea at Waroeng Jawa

An assortment of “jajanan pasar” – traditional snacks you’d find at a local market

Waroeng Jawa has a rustic and delightfully weathered appearance

Later that day, after photographing two of the area’s three ancient Hindu temples, Bama and I return to Tugu Blitar for its Javanese fare. Sukarno might have been intensely modern but he did have an appreciation for traditional arts, food, and culture. Had he been alive today, I imagine that he would have enjoyed afternoon tea at Waroeng Jawa, a shaded, rustic space recalling the informal street-side eateries beloved all over Indonesia. Against a backdrop of delightfully weathered walls, antiques, and a bamboo rack hung with dried corn, shallots, and rice stalks, we are served boiled peanuts with an assortment of sweet treats: a pandan-flavored green jelly called talam jagung, fluffy steamed kue mangkok in an eye-catching shade of pink, sticky diamond-shaped kue wajik, and deep-fried banana (pisang goreng) topped with shredded coconut and palm sugar.

Waroeng Jawa also provides the setting for a three-hour cooking class led by chefs Winarno and Musinem. The latter, it turns out, is a veteran of the hotel kitchen. “She started working here before marriage,” Suhartini explains. “Now she has four grandchildren.” Bama and I watch intently as the chefs prepare two Blitar specialties, nasi pecel – white rice with a medley of boiled vegetables in an aromatic peanut sauce – and kotokan kutuk belimbing wuluh. The long-winded Javanese name describes a meaty freshwater fish (snakehead murrel) that is deep-fried before being slathered in coconut milk, various spices, tomatoes, and tart bilimbi fruit. “People usually substitute catfish for this,” Musinem says. “Kutuk is more expensive and rarely available – it’s caught from the swamps.”

I can’t be certain that these were two dishes Sukarno grew up eating in East Java, but in this easygoing city of 130,000 people, his spirit of inclusiveness is alive and well. 

Some of the spices and other ingredients for making “pecel”, a dish Blitar is known for

Refreshingly tart bilimbi fruit, chilies, and shallots to be used in the cooking class

Dessert will be made with steamed “pisang raja” (latundan banana) and purple yam

Grinding the spice paste for pecel; Musinem making “rempeyek” crackers

The pecel is served with rice, rempeyek, and a slab of fried tempeh

Putting the finishing touches on Blitar specialty “kotokan kutuk” with bilimbi fruit

The dish in the foreground is “tahu tek”, fried tofu in soy sauce, shrimp paste, and palm sugar

A colorful Javanese feast; making “kue lumpur telo ungu” (literally “purple yam mud cakes”)

Kue lumpur telo ungu being heated in a cast iron mold (the coloring is entirely natural)

Tugu Blitar’s purple yam “mud cakes” have become one of my favorite Indonesian snacks

25 Comments Post a comment
  1. What wonderful food!

    July 30, 2018
    • Oh, it was all delicious! And a perfect balance of flavors and textures.

      July 30, 2018
  2. Hey, James. Thank you for bringing my childhood back through your pictures. I was born and raised in Yogyakarta, those “jajanan pasar” and “pecel” were my favorite breakfast menu! The sweet cakes are suitable for afternoon tea or coffee break, as well.

    I love the ambience of Waroeng Java! It feels like sitting at my grandma’s house 🙂

    July 30, 2018
    • My pleasure, Nugie. I really enjoyed the jajanan pasar and I just couldn’t get enough of the kue lumpur telo ungu! The pecel was superb too; I appreciated it even more after seeing just how much work went into grinding the spice paste.

      Waroeng Java does such a good job at recreating that traditional, street-side feeling for visitors from abroad who might not otherwise eat at an actual warung.

      July 30, 2018
  3. You have woven tourism and history beautifully. While I remember Sukarno {and Suharto] as a world figure, I had little knowlege of his history.

    July 30, 2018
    • Thanks for the kind words. 🙂 It wasn’t until a few years ago that I really became interested in who Sukarno was as a person and what he did for Indonesia.

      July 30, 2018
  4. I second the comment above! The names are familiar but the histories are not, and it’s more fun to read about people and places outside of academia or the news. And what a coup to score the huge suite – (occasional) perks of the job, I guess!

    July 31, 2018
    • That enormous suite was one perk I did not expect from the trip – it was almost like staying overnight at a history museum (in a good way of course)! I think one of the reasons I find Sukarno so fascinating was because he had so many facets and so many imperfections. Plus there’s also the fact that we both majored in architecture; coincidentally, he attended Bama’s alma mater.

      July 31, 2018
  5. Just a few days ago when I was telling my coworkers about this trip to Blitar, one of them instantly said “isn’t the city scary?”, referring to its reputation as a place with a strong supernatural ambiance which I wasn’t aware of before. I believe he would find Hotel Tugu too frightening. We’re really lucky not to be able to feel such thing so our memories of Blitar are mainly about its hearty traditional dishes, the beautiful old hotel where we stayed at, the atmospheric ancient temples, and the palpable veneration toward Sukarno.

    August 1, 2018
    • That “awareness” seems like such a widespread trait among Indonesians – I know a lot of my coworkers would rather stay in a newly built contemporary hotel with clean lines and modern furniture rather than a historic building like at Tugu Blitar. I can sort of see why some would be creeped out with a few of the dimly lit spaces strewn with antiques, but then again a lot of that is down to our own imaginations. Thanks for agreeing to come along, Bama. It was so good to have you there too!

      August 1, 2018
    • ulungpr #

      I feel really greatefull for both of you after came in my home town, and i was living here. Basically, maybe the reason is why you choosen that hotel for having experience for etnic, traditional which is reflected Blitar itself. But i knew there are less hotel can give you that feeling. So, Thankyou for coming and describing my town in beautiful ways.

      August 20, 2018
      • You’re welcome. We really loved our time in Blitar and would love to go back in the future. Your hometown has this wonderful, laid-back charm – it feels very different from the more industrial cities closer to Surabaya.

        August 21, 2018
      • ulungpr #

        Absolutely, yes. Blitar is a small town, almost similar to a village, not too much of a factory’s industrial activities, so the air is much fresher and cleaner than Surabaya. Can’t wait your coming & other storys!

        August 21, 2018
  6. Looks like an absolutely magical place! Gorgeous photos as always James!

    August 3, 2018
    • Thank you, Nicole! I am in no doubt that you would love the riot of colors and all the delicious food as well.

      August 3, 2018
  7. James, your description of arriving at Hotel Tugu Blitar set such a mood. I could hear the thunder roll. Although I’ve often admired the traditional Javanese dress, I had no idea what the garments were called. Thanks for filling in my blanks. And your description of the cooking class has me longing for Indonesian food once again. ~Terri

    August 3, 2018
    • You’re welcome, Terri. It was Bama who told me the names of the garments – otherwise I would have had no clue whatsoever! The cooking class was a real highlight; however the savory dishes were quite complicated and laborious so I’m not sure if I will ever get the chance (or have the patience) to make them properly.

      August 3, 2018
  8. James a wonderful mix of history and tourism and I’m delighted to see you receiving perks for the incredible travel writing you do. Between your fabulous photos and in depth eloquent narrative you inspire wanderlust. Not always an easy task.

    August 3, 2018
    • Sue, thank you so much for the kind words. I try not to mix work and play too much but in this case it was a perfect match – and what I’d call the ideal working holiday! Bama and I were just blown away by the sheer generosity of the staff at Hotel Tugu Blitar… the whole experience went far beyond my expectations.

      August 3, 2018
  9. I like the Operation Manager’s attitude and no doubt staying in the Presidential Suite gave you lots of inspiration. The hotel looks absolutely glorious and your food photos just spring from the screen. I didn’t know much about Sukarno except for his more colourful traits that you mentioned. Thanks for the fascinating history lesson. PS: I’ve been to Ende and it wouldn’t be such a bad place to be exiled to for awhile.

    August 6, 2018
    • Thanks in turn for the lovely comment, Caroline! It surprises me how a place like Blitar remains such a little-known gem. I too passed through Ende a couple years ago and remember it having a gorgeous natural setting. Bama and I caught a glimpse of that famous breadfruit tree, and we hoped to pay a brief visit to Sukarno’s house of exile. Sadly it was closed at the time; our guide explained that most of the interesting furniture had been moved to a museum somewhere else.

      August 6, 2018
  10. Wowww… Thanks a lot to tell about Blitar😊

    September 20, 2018
    • You’re welcome… and thanks too for reading! 🙂

      September 23, 2018
      • Oke James, I’m waiting for the next review about Indonesia , especially west Java😉

        September 23, 2018

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