Stumble Into Indonesia's Unseen Places
Submitted by indohoyindohoy on 30 June 2010 • Itinerary
I declared to be back… so here I am! Semarang is the capital of Central Java. It’s relatively close to Jakarta but not a popular city to visit to those that do not know what is installed. People usually transit to get to Karimun Jawa, but that’s about it.
This time I’m traveling with Rani, and old friend from college that was also bored and looking for a vacation.
The thing about Cap Gomeh or 15 days following the Chinese New Year is that it always rains in Indonesia, everywhere. It’s a good sign they say, a blessing. We should be worried if it doesn’t, because then it would be a hard year for all. So getting to the bus station in Jakarta was a bit … wet. The streets were flooded and jammed as always after a rain, and an ojeg may save time traveling, but sure made my feet cold in the AC bus. It is the only transport reliable after a huge rain.
Since the bus left Jakarta at about 3 pm, I got in Semarang in the wee hours of the morning. Once hopped off the bus at 3 am, I took an ojeg to a hotel. I didn’t want to trust a taxi being they could over charge poor me in desperate need of transportation. It’s quite normal for people to hop off buses at the high way juncion , just before the busses enters the high way to Surakarta (or also known as Solo). Thus you will get numerous offers from ojeg drivers even if it’s so early in the morning. The bargain was to help me until I booked in to a hostel around Imam Bonjol street, the-so called backpacker accommodation district. From 3 choices, I finally chose Owea Asia, and I rest my head for the rest of the morning.
Rani came over about 9 am. After preparation, first thing we did that morning, buy a bus ticket back home. We needed a guarantee that we can get back on time, or at least we will have that on our minds throughout the weekend. Here is a tip for you traveling in Indonesia, you have to be somewhat aware of the public holidays. Being a very plural culture, there are a lot of holidays! Not knowing this can ruin your spontaneous plans, especially luxurious ones. You probably can’t get a booking close to the required date. Economy class could fulfill your itinerary but it won’t feed your satisfaction of getting there comfortably. Check our event calendar to help you plan your visit. Rani and I got the 2 last seats of our bus choice. Rani to Bandung and me back to Jakarta. Fiuh!
The past, the Old City
We decided to hit the Old City or ‘Kota Tua’, targeting the Blenduk Church first. The Old City is marked by the paving block roads. I like old cities. Walking through them invokes your imagination to how life used to be. Since Indonesia was colonized by VOC for quite sometime and we had slavery, I was in between imagining myself as a ‘priyayi’, a higher class Javanese citizen, or as a ‘slave’ roaming the roads following her master? I’m no Javanese, so…
The destined church is called Blenduk because of the puffed roof. Blenduk is a word that describes this feature of being puffed. Churches usually don’t have this structure, mosques actually do. What I thought would be huge, turns out to be a cute simple church. It seems like it was built to be the center of the area and it was well preserved. It was closed and we couldn’t find anyone that knew if we could have access entering it. People would advise us to try on Sunday since it’s still used for mass. What we missed? An old organ that still works till today.
Jl. Letjen Suprapto No. 32
Around this church is where the old buildings are. Again, some are well preserved, and some are ageing less gracefully. Many of the buildings are still used for business, which is a great idea. But not all!
Never talk about ‘Cock Fight Club’
After strolling and getting lost in this old maze, we found ourselves in an alley full of men and chickens. I wasn’t sure at first but my hunch was right. This alley is for chicken fights and no doubt, gambling. Rani and I were out of place. We were women and stood out. Still looking nice thank you! Nevertheless, some warmed up by teasing us friendly. We found our first fight, which was coming to an end. It quickly dispersed once we took a picture. I can see they are afraid we were journalist. But I told them as sincere as I could, that we were tourist roaming the old streets. Weren’t we?
A man to be called Michael (I’m sure that’s not his real name), held his rooster close after the fight. He said the beast is called Chris John after an international light weight winning boxer from Semarang. The rooster has won 4 fights that day and was bleeding in victory with fiery eyes. We walked along but only to find our next fight going on and this time we got some of the action, but we didn’t stay long since the men slowly went their own ways after the one of the chickens ran away due to defeat and bleeding badly.
One thing that was interesting about this was it’s a tradition still passed down to children. Although we didn’t see any children gambling for sure but we saw some children carrying roosters and watching matches along the road. As a lot of Indonesian tradition, we let children see what we do, may it be good or bad. And that is how most of our tradition is passed on.
So… what’s next?
Lawang Sewu – A Thousand Doors
One of the highlights of Semarang is the Lawang Sewu or ‘A Thousand Doors’. You probably can guess why?
Stepping in to the gate, you will be greeted by a retribution table. One person would have to pay IDR 5,000 / person. Then you will be offered a guide to talk your way through. I would recommend a guide, because there is a lot of history behind these walls. Especially up in the roof. And it’s nice to know the history of one’s place, no? We definitely took the offer.
Entering the gloomy door, we were welcomed by the impressive high mosaic that stood on top of the main stairs, and perfectly lit from the back. This country doesn’t have much mosaic, so seeing one this big, neat, old and preserved was eye boggling.
The Dutch designed things with concept. The building was built with long halls and connecting doors between rooms in one line, as if we were in a train cart. The ceilings were high, probably designed so the air was cooler in the narrow dark isles. We then started walking up in some of the balconies facing the ‘simpang lima’ or the ‘junction five’, what is basically the centre of the city’s motion.
Lawang Sewu and Semarang in general is often used as Indonesian movie shooting location. Unfortunately not all have good ethics when it comes to ‘borrowing’ a set. Some movie jerk apparently refused to wipe out painting props of one of the walls, leaving dodgy hand marks that looks far from real. Anyhow, roaming through was like playing in an old building. Just running around and seeing how cool a deteriorated place can be.
One room that was pretty important was the top floor. It’s consisted of the old steel structures keeping the roof up. It was like a factory loft and it was so big. This area was said to be where the Japanese tortured the Indonesians and the Netherlands by hanging them. Since there are 2 main buildings, therefore there are 2 hanging areas. At night, it is said that these areas are the most haunted of them all. There are sounds and sightings at night. This is an area that built a little chill in me, trying to imagine how it really was.
We strolled through the old building just looking in to some details no longer explainable to the guide. It was a fascinating and spacious building. Although the alleys were so dark, each room was so bright. It’s such as shame having these ruins neglected as it is.
The drainage dungeon
First of all, before the dungeon tour, our tour guide pointed us the river besides the building, where the Japanese threw all the dead bodies from the torturing chambers. Geez… they were and are pretty efficient in everything, aren’t they?
We then went to this next ‘attraction’, which was the torturing chamber in the basement. Before getting in, you register to the front desk by paying a mere IDR 5,000/person. The officers then will assign you to a tour group that can be of more than 10 people. But maybe different to those that need translating, which means could be a different group and price too. If it’s any consolation, you get a sticker!
It’s good to bring your own high socks for this, and thick ones too. You will be lent boots, which could be wet inside and out from the previous tour. Eew.. but a small sacrifice! The basement was flooded with water about 15-30 cm high. The basement was built as water drainage by the Dutch, but then used as a torturing chamber. The flooding water created a humid and cold ambience.
We started to walk down the stairs and soak our boots. It was pitch black in the basement, good thing they provided torches. The young guide showed us the ‘squatting torture method’ which was filling 5-6 people in a 1 by 1 meter chamber and forcing them to squat, bringing the water up to their chin. And they would be in for days. There are numerous 1 by 1 chambers and imagining what it used to look like, and being so dark, is so sad. It was damn cruel, yet effective for torturing, I guess… SOB!
Another chamber was a 1 x 1 meter chamber but 5-6 people were shoved in standing up with their feet soaked. Then a door made of steel bars would be closed behind them. The Netherlands were beheaded, and all dead bodies and heads were disposed in a secret door so close to the river that was shown to us earlier. It was a secret since the Japanese were still persuading the Indonesians to support the ‘Eastern’ move. Well my principle is, start something badly won’t get you far. It was a great way to understand the gloomy side of Indonesia history being at the crime scene. I had a tad feeling what the Indonesians had to go through. War is never good… and it never will.
Dare to take the Lawang Sewu at night? It’s open up to 11 pm, so drop by with your flashlight and see if you can ‘see’.
On the junction five or Simpang Lima.
This building used to be owned by the colonial train services and was used as their office. Railway tracks used to pass right in front of the building. There’s even an old locomotive in front of the building symbolizing the past function. The building was then taken over by the Japanese during their 3,5 years of colonialism and used the building as a torture chamber for the Indonesians and Netherlands. Eventually it fell in to Indonesia’s hand and used for offices in the past. Now it’s pretty much used as a tourist attraction.
Kramat Djati bus stop
The first meal I had on this trip was the free meal from the bus service. The bus stopped at a dodgy restaurant somewhere… literally somewhere because I had fallen asleep during the trip there and it was late.
We had to stand in a long line to the oh-so-this-is-the-only-food-you’ll-get buffet. We looked like high school kids in a canteen waiting for crappy food. You can take as much as you want, and a cup of water or tea and choose which gang you wanna join in the cafeteria.
I can say, the food was edible for the Indonesian tongue and not that bad actually. But no guarantee to those picky eaters. What you are seeing is fresh rice, water fish, veggie soup, and sautéed tempeh.
Because it was so good, we were back to one of my favorite places to eat. Juwana Bandeng shop. I’m a fan of Bandeng and seafood, so I get it. Rani maybe not as so but she was a good sport. She ordered the Nasi Goreng, while I took the buntil bandeng. I’m sure you know what Nasi Goreng is, but buntil? Buntil is basically cassava leaves with bandeng fish of course, and spices, wrapped in banana leave and then steamed until it’s cooked. It has a beautiful taste, a combination of bitter and salty and rich at the same time.
The dishes didn’t cost more than Rp 30,000/ portion. You could even share one portion with a friend and mix and match the food.
I think there are 3 Toko Oen in the whole of Indonesia. This café is famous since it’s been around since the colonial days, and has claimed to still use the recipe from back in the days. I’ve visit the one in Malang and loved it.
But I can’t say the same for Semarang. I do love the interior design, which practically is still the same building from the old days too. I love how it looks broke down and abandoned from the outside, but still fresh in the inside. Oen maintained the interior very well… well except the food.
There was nothing special about the food. Not something that would give you that extra colonial experience (hmm.. that might not be a good thing). I did have a slight experience when I tried one of their cookies which used an old fashion recipe. It was ok, to the least I enjoyed it.
And the ice cappuccino was pretty good. Just not a good thing on a hot morning 😀
Komeng also advised us to try the local ice cream she always craves for every time she’s in town. Lind’s Café is the place to get your local ice cream. It’s not really local considering there are a lot of their stores are in other cities, but they sure made their ice cream in their kitchen and not in some big fat factory.
The Lind Café is pretty hard to locate because you have to go in a housing complex to get there. Only if you have an exact address, then you can enjoy this ice cream because asking around doesn’t do much help.
The ice cream itself was pretty good. It wasn’t too sweet, and the chocolate was bitter enough to enjoy. The café was really nice and modern, and so the ice cream was a bit pricey.
Jl. Brotojoyo No. 2D 11.
There are a lot of hotels in Semarang, and backpackers style. After looking it up online, I found out that the Imam Bonjol road is where you will find the backpacker class hostels.
I stayed in this so-called hostel, which was a bit pricey for the service they had. One room can range from IDR 80,000 up tp IDR 120,000. Ok, sue me for claiming to be a low budget traveler and taking the best room there is, but I have to get good sleep since I was coming from work, so to speak. And I do like the room. The other ones were decent enough though.
It was an old Dutch house, seeing from the tiles and high ceilings. It had a spring bed, a loud AC, remote-less TV in a cage just incase it runs away, and a bathroom lit by the sunlight during the day. It was just enough to get me through the morning and that one night sleep. Other rooms are bareable I guess.
In a sense, I can guess this use to be a nice hotel. Unfortunately through time and competition it has failed to evolve in maintaining its humbleness to decent. It’s best room is a good sleep nonetheless.
If you’re from Jakarta, then public transportation by land or taking your own ride will definitely pass the north coast road or Pantura. Last time, I took Puspita with some of my friends. It’s public this time.
Kramat Jati is one of the prominent executive buses that travels between cities. They have countless routes that can take you almost anywhere in Sumatera, Java, and Bali. The executive bus is not bad. It’s clean, moderately comfortable, with AC, a bathroom inside the bus for the emergencies, and a meal included. They will make a stop on the road for it. That stop would be really valuable to stretch you legs from the tad bit shorter space than your usual bus.
You can take a bus to Semarang form Jakarta from numerous points spread around the city. It will cost you IDR 110,000 / pax. Night bus, as the one I took, is available.
I happened to take the 3 pm bus from Lebak Bulus station to arrive in Semarang at 2 am.
A warning to those that would like to use this service, the bus usually does not head for Semarang directly, but to Surakarta. So, they will drop you of at the highway junction from just outside of Semarang in the early hours. From here, you can get a taxi, or an Ojeg or asks someone to pick you up. For international tourist, I must warn you, you can be cheated in price, but the adventure choice is yours. My ojeg costed about IDR 30,000 to the hotel.
There are also shuttle busses that can take you for about IDR 175,000.
The best way to get to Semarang I think is by train. Since it was a long weekend, predictably, a spontaneous buy the same week would be impossible.
If you take the Business which is bareable or Executive trains which are really nice, you will arrive at Tawang train station right on the edge of the Old City. While economy trains will arrive at Poncol train station. By the way, the train station is a delight to visit at night. There is a huge pond in front of it and the night colours are just delish!
Ticket prices are about IDR 220,000 / pax for business and … / pax for executive from Jakarta.
Plane rides from Jakarta are also available with prices usually not over IDR 300,000 during normal season.
For those traveling from abroad, there are Batavia Air flights from Singapore.
Again, long weekends are disastrous considering sudden ticket reservations. Bus tickets and travel agents are located at Cipto Street, Semarang. Take a pick of an agent and hope you can get to your next destination, and you better do it sooner than later on considering long weekends.
Semarang is a moderately big city. Most of the activity is located in the coastal area while housing are more distributed in the hills.
I haven’t been on a becak for a long time since many cities have banned them. I actually think it is the right transportation for this moderate dense city, and the distance to anywhere is reasonable.
A faster choice is always the local minibus/angkot or ojeg. Payment is depending on distance. Minibus ride will cost about IDR 2,000 – IDR 4,000, while ojeg will depend on your bargaining skills.
Tips: bargain half the price the driver asks you. Have a big smile and friendly sense of humor. It helps you get a bigger discount since Indonesians are weak for the kind hearted.