“I’ve never seen an Indonesian working so fast,” Bama says.
Night has fallen in Malang, East Java’s second-largest city, and we’ve joined a small crowd of hungry customers at Puthu Lanang, a portable stall at the covered entrance to a street just wide enough for motorbikes. A five-person assembly line is churning out traditional sweets at lightning speed, led by the mustachioed vendor who takes orders, gives change, heaps the morsels on banana leaf before dousing them in palm sugar syrup, and wraps it all while we look on in amazement. Read more
“So, do you want to be Auntie Dhani’s son?”
Bama and I are at the table with his affectionate mom, Auntie Dhani, in the open-air dining room of his parents’ house. For the third consecutive year, I’ve joined Bama on his annual trip home for Lebaran, the week-long holiday marking the end of Ramadan. I’d considered flying back to Hong Kong to visit my own family, but by the time I looked up the flights, ticket prices had already gone through the roof. Semarang, a city of less than two million perched midway along the northern coast of Java, was an obvious alternative – not least because of Auntie Dhani’s home cooking and the warm welcome I would receive as an adopted member of the family. Read more
“No,” Bart said forcefully, “Not here. The view isn’t the one I saw in my friend’s photo. We have to go further.”
On a grassy ridge at the top of Gunung Prahu, the mountain shaped like a boat’s hull, I was getting exasperated. “Close enough,” I thought. We’d pulled ourselves out of bed at one in the morning, as the rest of the village slumbered peacefully under the brightness of the full moon. Captivated by the rugged scenery around Dieng, a fertile basin in Central Java’s volcanic highlands, our group had unanimously agreed to a sunrise hike some two days earlier. By this time, on the cusp of dawn, I had grown so tired and miserable I almost didn’t care. Read more
Under the veil of darkness, I saw little more than a hulking presence that towered in the distance. Our flashlights illuminated small details along the path: heavily worn steps, the edges of a gateway, and then a bell-shaped, perforated stupa. I had arrived with Bama, my longtime travel companion, and fellow bloggers Bart and Badai. All of us were repeat visitors to Borobudur, but none had yet witnessed the glory of a new day from its terraces. Read more
Several years ago, while asleep in a bungalow not far from a beach in Lombok, Indonesia, I was rudely awakened by the shrill sound of a mosquito buzzing in my ear. Bama and I eventually killed the thing, but I couldn’t forget what it said to me that night: “Uaaaaaang.” For the mosquito had been speaking a language I half-understood. Uang, it turns out, is the Indonesian word for money.
Fast forward to the summer of 2015. Two weeks have elapsed since the end of Ramadan, and we are back in Indonesia, in the wilds of Baluran National Park. Bama and I are transfixed by the sight of deer and peacocks congregating in the shade just below our perch. We observe them in silence from a nondescript observation post, its concrete parapet and makeshift barriers of woven palm leaf enough to disguise us from the skittish animals. Read more
It isn’t long after daybreak when Bama and I find ourselves in a small slice of Europe. Across the tree-lined street, not yet spoiled by the din of motorcycle traffic, the painted copper dome of a church glints in the first rays of the morning sun. Around us rise noble structures in brick and stone, some crowned with the narrow, steep-sided gables of a country halfway across the world. Semarang has one of the best-preserved historic centres of any major city in Indonesia, and we are standing at its very heart. Read more
The hike to Kawah Ijen begins with a struggle. It is most likely the sulphurous fumes rising from the depths of the volcano, combined with the effects of little sleep. Bama tells me he doesn’t feel well – he is gripped by nausea. We limp along a trail of volcanic ash, taking refuge on the gnarled, low-slung branches and tree stumps beside the route.
Imagine an island seven degrees south of the equator, blessed with rich volcanic soil, where broad coastal plains rise to the hills and a chain of mystical 3,000-metre peaks. An island roughly the size of Greece, of sprawling cities, endless rice fields, and raw, otherworldly landscapes where you might find boiling lakes and plumes of steam billowing from the earth. This island is known as Java, and it is a food-lover’s paradise. Read more
If we only believe the sensationalism of Fox News, CNN America and other media outlets, Indonesia is the kind of country a lot of people might want to avoid. Historically, it has made world headlines for all the wrong reasons – plane crashes, violent protests, terrorist bombings and large-scale natural disasters. Read more
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. Read more