I love to travel to East Java, I am surprised so few people take the trip from Bali to be honest, I mean, it is easy to get to, there are trains, buses and planes, you can hire a car with or without a driver and in five days see vast changes of character and climate. Take your time and discover the wonderful East Java cities of Surabaya and Malang.
From Bali to Surabaya’s streetsI recommend the short flight to Surabaya: For one thing it is just over an hour from Bali and the view from the plane is breathtaking, the tips of the volcanoes peak through any cloud cover and you can feel almost as excited as the first colonials must have been as you touch down into a city that bares the marks of the true explorers, the Bugis, the Massakans and the Arabs. Here Surabaya’s streets beat with the ancient history of the Turks, the Moors and the Hadhramis well as the Chinese that approached from the seas to the north. While the architecture of Raffles and his conquering cohorts dominates the physical history of the city if you look further in, into the faces, the markets and the minarets of mosques, you will find true history.
There’s to me an essence of that hard core gypsy living that contradicts the efforts of big cities like Jakarta to placate history with a sophisticated facade. Here in Surabaya there is a rawness that resonates with the earlier rebelliousness of the place. To me I think it has the appeal of Liverpool or Birmingham, port cities running in ‘second place’ to a capital, yet richer and more rewarding because of it. I love the tangible hard work ethic that pervades the markets and the shops, the way that trading carries on in a similar fashion to the ways of a century ago.
Visit Pasar Bebeng, or Pasar Pabean and see for yourselves, the Maduranese women, the ‘pirates of the pasar’, are running everything in sight and see if you can get past them without comment. They gave me such a ribbing, honestly if it wasn’t for my ability to give as good as I get I would have left with my ‘tail’ tucked well between my legs.
The Hotel Majahpahit
Don’t worry too much though you can always retreat to the colonial aspects of the town and don for a moment the shield of nostalgia at The Hotel Majahpahit.
Here is the original Hotel Oranje started by Louis Sarkies of the Armenian Sarkies brothers who really were the original luxury hoteliers of South East Asia.
With the famed Strand in Yangon and Raffles in Singapore to their name, they commissioned hotels that offered dreams of colonial grandeur despite their own status as emigres and luminaries attending the Majapahit’s opening included Crown Prince Leopold III from Belgium Princess Astrid from Sweden and English actor Charlie Chaplin.
Oh yes, Surabaya was the city of the Java Jive, and from the early 20th Century until the Japanese invasion and subsequent liberation of the country, a heady and exotic mix of ethnicities including Muslim Yemeni and Buddhist Chinese, the Calvanist Dutch and the Islamic and Hindu Javanese mingled in relative peace.
This is the Surabaya to discover, the city, one time larger that Jakarta, a competitor to Hong Kong and Shanghai and the largest city in the Dutch East Indies.
In the summer the Surabaya elite retreated to the hill city of Malang where eventually Dutch colonials built their bungalows, and today golden apples still grow and small canals are traversed by arched bridges alongside pretty cottages bedecked with flowers and domestic cats in a miniature version of Dutch urbanity.
Captured by this ‘olde worlde’ charm the city of Malang is a marvellous mirage, seemingly full of budding intellectuals who are fervent and ardent in discussions that desire to shape the nation of the future.
The many cafes and warungs are bursting with a student population drawn to this hub of academia, here they feast on an excellent beef soup called Rawon and noodle dishes, Cwie Mie or Pangsit Mie and the cakes and breads that can be found everywhere but nowhere better than the Roti Tugu Bakery.
The Hotel Tugu Malang
The Tugu Group happens to be one of my favourite hotel groups precisely because they are not a group, they are a family. At the Hotel Tugu Malang you will find the history and architecture of Malang spread before you with artifacts, gallery displays and entire rooms given over to histories from the myths and legends of the Ramayana to contemporary stories of Eastern Javanese history.
Resident or not the Hotel Tugu is a must visit, from early morning coffee to afternoon teas the hotel draws you into its unique and heady atmosphere of Dutch colonial era heritage , Indonesian and Chinese cultural fusion and the humble beauty of traditional Indonesian art and craft masterpieces.
Spending a day exploring on bicycles is easily arranged through the Hotel Tugu, grab a becak – cyclo rickshaw- to visit local warungs or hire a taxi for a day to take you out to the tea and coffee plantations that adorned the surrounding hillsides.
Whatever you do and wherever you go in East Java you will feel all the richer for it.