Waking before dawn is about the last thing I want to do on a Saturday after a hectic work week, but the promise of going someplace new cannot be ignored. In my half-asleep state, it feels as though we are preparing to flag down a taxi to the airport for an early morning flight, except that this time we leave with no backpacks or suitcases: just our camera bags slung over our shoulders and two bottles of water. This admittedly crazy plan, hatched just the week before, was Bama’s idea. Neither him nor I had left the greater Jakarta area since early March, and we were eager to hit the road for a short excursion into the countryside of West Java. Our destination? A village called Batujaya, home to ancient red-brick temple ruins even older than Borobudur. Read more
Food has enormous potential to connect and unite people, to cross the barriers of language, race, and creed. There is power in the simple act of sharing a meal with people whose backgrounds are different from your own. For what better way is there to understand a place than to meet the local people and eat their traditional cuisine? A shared interest in cooking is the basis of a special bond I have with Bama’s mother, who I call Auntie Dhani. “She loves seeing people enjoying her food,” Bama told me recently. “And no one appreciates it like you do.” Read more
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
“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
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
“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