Stumble Into Indonesia's Unseen Places
I never really thought more beyond Batik and food when it comes to Cirebon, West Java. They’re the only things that people often recommend of this city. I did plan to see it myself after reading Vira’s post once upon a time, but I wasn’t in a hurry. Until one day I flipped through a flight magazine, on an airline that is to be remained nameless (because we’re not endorsed, nye nye!), where I saw another reason I had to visit. I saw a lot of plates embedded in walls. Like, A LOT! Call me shallow, but what better reason is there to travel than to see plates embedded on walls? (To see a cat juggle, of course, but I’ll leave it there).I immediately said ‘yes’ to a family trip. Thus, I saw probably hundreds of plates embedded in walls and a few more unique mosques, which eventually made this trip into a historical and religious journey.
How to get there
The train was our choice of transportation with about IDR 110,000/pax one way in executive class from Bandung to Cirebon. The same price applies to the trip back.
Being a small city, becaks and angkots are the best options. There are taxis around the city but we didn’t opt for this.
My mom needed her mind occupied. My aunt has family in Cirebon. My young cousin is weird (I’m kidding, she’s lovely) and on school holiday. I wanted to see plates in walls. No room for excuses!
On to the quest on finding plates on walls! Darn, I should have remembered the name of that specific place I read about. Turns out there are a lot of plates on walls in Cirebon. It’s kinda like a signature art statement of the city (doesn’t that sound fabulous?).
After the previous day of shopping, I found it! I found the plates in the walls that I saw in the magazine! Whad’ya know? It was at Fatahillah’s cemetery complex. I could feel my face lighten up once I saw the gate way of this cemetery already covered with plates. With a little donation, I was facing the wall I wanted to see. Yay!
Fatahillah was one of the strongest Islamic leaders in Java. There were 9 strong leaders (WaliSongo) but it’s said that he was the strongest. He performed miracles; lead a few armies against the Dutch, and spread Islam wisely. People worshiped him, as they did prophets. Maybe even more because people felt more related?
Honestly, I didn’t expect it to be as beautiful as it is! Hundreds of plates were arranged upon the main walls of the main building. Each plate is different and is adjusted to the pattern of each wall. If I had a lot of time I would look at each and everyone of them out of curiosity… which killed the cat. Someone must have had an artistic idealism in their blood. It was awesome!
At the face of the gate, I saw worshipers chanting prayers in Arabic while facing the door that lead to Fatahillah’s grave. This practice is not known in Islam, and seems like the result of acculturation. There were an impressive number of people of all ages, and some looked like the leader with some sort of turban on their head. I had a bit of a chill sensing the mystical air of the area.
There were other graves around the gate. The closer the grave is to Fatahillah’s grave, the higher the importance the person was from Fatahillah. Thus, devotees had to sit amongst the graves while praying. Everything was explained by the local guide on our friendly tour, which you pay by donation at the end of the tour.
Here’s whom I have to snap my fingers to. OngTien is (maybe one of)Fatahillah’s wives and was Chinese. Her grave is the complex beside Fatahillah’s, with walls painted in dark red. There were no devotees but there were remains of incenses, meaning the Chinese still come to pay their respect. It was her brains and balls (you get what I mean, right?) behind the hundreds of plates. She had them specially delivered from China to Indonesia for the sake of decoration. Now that’s a high class decorator! Kudos! *snap snap snap
After the Keraton tour, we stopped at the main mosque just across the road. I wasn’t really interested, thinking it’ll be as any other mosque. Dead wrong!
This mosque was painted, again, dark red. There’s something about red in this city, hmm?The original mosque is located in the middle of the complex, which had 9 small doors.The doors were small even for me that’s 5 feet. We had to crouch down a bit to enter. This was a symbol to be humble when entering God’s house, such an appropriate method. I think if I had a house, I’d put a door like this. Better not be a snob in my house!
The mosque is actually small. The limited space is even more reduced with 9 huge original wooden pillars, each from an original trunk. The ceiling was filled with woods crossing each other and supporting the high roof. It also had a lot of calligraphy on a high part of the wall. It’s artistic, I tell you.
Visiting tip: Wear covered clothes when entering the mosque. Do visit on Fridays at noon! If you’re pretty sick of the call of prayer in one mosque, you’ll get a kick out of this one that has not 3 or 6, but 7 people doing the call at once.
My family and I sat in the complex for a little while just to enjoy the shade. What caught my eyes were the people praying. Usually, the men stand up front and the women in the back. Here, they stand side by side. Now what’s going on? Is equality an accepted value in Cirebon? *twilight zone music.
This mosque is located somewhere in the city. I’m not sure where exactly since our relatives drove us there for the afternoon prayer. The mosque had a similar design to the places above with plates embedded on walls and it was, predictably, dark red. The praying area is very limited. It also had a door in the middle of the front wall, which lead to a sacred place only accessible during special days such as Idul Fitri. It’s an odd looking building in the neighborhood. It’s not on the same palate with the others 😛
On this trip, I was a more diligent Moslem. I prayed when the time came and never missed any of my obligated prayers. This was also due to the fact I was traveling with my mum and aunt. But I took this opportunity as a path that is leading me to more religious quest, another thing that I will soon strike out of my ‘to do list’. But it’s a secret! Muahahaha…
Here are tad bits of history that I remembered from the trip.
We’ve done the Keraton trip before, but what caught my eyes were the tiles on the huge flower decorated wall. The brown bottom part consisted of pictured tiles of the crucifixion. They were gifts from a foreign country. Because people didn’t understand about Christianity at the time, they didn’t arrange the tiles according to the story. Thus, you have a random sequence of history.
On Fridays, this mosque has 7 prayer callers that make the call simultaneously. That would be something to hear, right? This had nothing to do with any Islam teaching. It actually is an acculturation with the local myth. When the mosque was built, there was a very huge and evil being that hung around the ceiling area. It disturbed the development of the building. The only way to get rid if it was to do the calling of prays by 7 people. Another word for it, scream the bugger the hell out!
Now, the people maintain this tradition to keep the evil being away, fo’evaaaa….
I stayed at Ibu Ii’s (read: ee-ee’s) house. She is a relative by marriage through my aunt. She lives in this old fashion house, which is 165 years old. Antique! It’s located quite far from the city central but it is a nice house. A bit spooky too. Since her family bleed blue blood, they could afford the colorful and great quality materials when building the house, including the wood and the colorful tiles, which is a sign of royalty. I betcha it was a fortune back then. These tiles are great for coastal cities since it preserved the cool air within the house.
Other parts of the house still have their original designs such as the glass mosaic door, the embedded cupboard, and other bits and pieces that are still unique to these modern eyes 🙂
The foo you’re about to read is almos the same as Vira’s link here. You can still read through if you need your memory refreshed 🙂
Oh how I love food in its original place. Empal Gentong is a meat soup with coconut milk that is boiled in a big bucket-like pot or gentong. I can’t really describe the exact difference with similar soups, it’s just fresh and rich in taste. Almost like curry, but a lot runnier.
Originally, the contents are the cow’s organs, such as stomach, intestines, liver, lungs, and the usual favorites of Andrew Zimmerman’s . (No, no penis and testicles in this one! And no, I don’t mean that Zimmerman is gay :)) However, you can ask for just meat when ordering. The taste is to drool for. The meat was tender and it melts in your mouth. The broth is rich but not too rich. The sate was no different, so easy to chew and tasty. The struggle to eat it is another different ordeal. It’s crowded and smoky as any restaurant with good food should be.
OK! For you guys, I’d report that there is Es Durian. It’s the pealed Durian, with ice, a bit of condense milk and syrup. My family said it’s good, I just looked away :p
We spent about IDR 150,000 for a meal of 5 people. Super cheap, considering there was Durian involved!
Empal Gentong Amarta
Jl. Raya Tengah Tani, Plered
Nasi Jamblang Mang Dul
It is the most famous Nasi Jamblang on the planet, they say. I had the chance to try it on this visit. Nasi Jamblang is rice with countless side dishes to choose from and is popping up with nummy tastes, from tofu, quail’s egg, meat, chicken, and a lot more, all cooked in different ways. I’ve also tried it in another venue. It’s also served on a leaf that adds more flavors to the food.
Unfortunately, I had a late lunch which resulted in me eating what is the remaining of the morning crowd. The food was a bit cold for our liking. I have to admit, the taste was good. It just wasn’t fresh. It ended with a meal falling from a ‘to die for’ standard. But you can enjoy a fresh batch every morning at about 9 am which covers lunch, and early dinner at about 4 pm.
I loved this dish when I went to school. It’s one of those dishes that I would save all of my lunch money for. Tahu Gejrot is tofu bathed in special vinegar that has been mixed with chilly (amount is optional, no extra charge), shallots, salt, and brown sugar. I’m drooling just writing about it. It has the taste of hot, sweet, and sour. It’s also served on a small clay plate where they mixed the ingredients. Slurp!
You can find these babies randomly wondering the streets. They’re usually sold by men carrying their load on their shoulders. A portion depends on how many tofu you want on your plate. Usually, a plate of 5 tofu, is no more that IDR 5,000. You can’t really miss with this dish.
Vegans, fear not! Cirebon has a lot of vegetarian dishes for you. One of my favorites is this dish consisting of veggies (type depending on the vendor), rice, and a pour of handmade peanut sauce. Sometimes they’ll add in a rice cracker for fun. It’s usually served on a banana or teak leaf. It’s super healthy!
This particular nasi pecel was in front of a batik store. We thought we’d enjoy a plate just after a long stroll around the neighborhood. And this random lady was a satisfying choice!
There are many transportation options from Bandung and Jakarta. I happened to travel from Bandung, taking the morning executive train called Harina Pagi. They also have a daily morning (or maybe through out the day) train from Jakarta, which is called the Cirebon Express. The train, I think, is the best way to travel to Cirebon or Jakarta because it provides great scenery through the lush and hilly West Java land. Trains also travel from Surabaya, Semarang, and Jogjakarta, making a stop at Cirebon while heading for Bandung or Jakarta.
Tickets can be purchased at the train station. An executive ticket from Bandung to Cirebon costs IDR 110,000 / pax.
Heading back, we took a midnight executive train which originally is from Surabaya. It arrives at the station at about 1 am and arrives in Bandung at about 5 am, just in time for breakfast. Tickets cost a similar price.
It’s one of my favorite transportation modes because it’s all good. Breezy, slow, and environmentally friendly.Becaks are pretty cheap in small towns like Cirebon and prices all depend on your body size, distance, and load. Me and my mum (a super haggler) shared a becak with a few bags, riding about 700 m, and it cost us IDR 5,000. Good luck haggling!
And if that’s not enough fun for you, here’s an idea. We found this link of 40 things to do in Indonesia and it suggested you should try driving the becak instead of sitting like a snobbish prick (which is his opinion entirely). It does sound challenging though.
Angkots are more less the same in this city as in others. I can’t remember all the angkot’s numbers to each destination I traveled to, but I can give you an advice if that’s any consolation. We obtained all the information to get anywhere from the people on the streets. It’s a small town and the touristy places are really famous. So prepare a written down list of a place you want to see. Point it out to the people and they’ll help you out.
But if you’re still worried, you know where to find us 😉
Cirebon is said to be derived from the word ‘Cai’ which means water, and ‘Rebon’ which means mini shrimp. Put it together and you have a city smelling of shrimp. Not that it’s a bad thing, it’s actually delicious. Cirebon is very proud of its shrimp products especially the shrimp paste (terasi) that puts a little ‘umph’ in Indonesian food. I’m not sure if it’s applicable in western dishes, but if you like Asian food, then you might want to give this little baby a go.
Cirebon batik is well known to be vibrant in color and patterns, probably due to its coastal location and various mostly Chinese influences, through time. It’s very different to the Central Java batik that is more monotone with brown and black. Trusmi is Cirebon’s Batik village, where manufactures gather and make massive amount of this traditional cloth. Products are then distributed throughout Indonesia as well as they’re sold in small retail shops distributed within the area.
Because time has changed and interest has increased, the community of Trusmi has shifted into becoming more modern. Trusmi use to be humble aisles of small home industries with women hand making batik, but now you can shop in modern retails and some with AC. There’s even a small Batik shopping center, collecting several retailers to make their own stalls and saving your time and energy to go in each house. The style has also evolved with supplies of hoodies, night robes, bed sets as opposed to the usual dresses and skirts.
A colorful sarong costs IDR 30,000 / piece, while a bed set can cost only IDR 250,000 for queen size bed sheet, a colorful quilt, and 2 pillow cases. Clothes prices vary, and it wouldn’t hurt your budget to pick a piece or two.
Personally, I think shopping in the retail center has no added value and a bit snobbish. I’d rather meet the producers in their own homes as I did in Pekalongan. But I can’t say I didn’t enjoy the convenience of options and AC either, especially when we’re a big group and there’s a light raining outside.
Although rattan is sold everywhere, not all provide a good quality or a wide range of choices. Some parts of Cirebon sell rattan handicrafts from chairs, lamp hoods, to rocking horses for the kiddies. If you’re one of those people that love these items for your house, then better lock up your wallet because you’re gonna lose the content. The items are cheap and by inspecting it you could see that the quality is persuasive. My aunt bought a plate cover. She bought a small one just because a big one would be a scene at the airport from Jakarta once she heads back to Makassar. If only…
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