When thinking back on our time in Java, what really stood out was the vibrancy of colours, both from the bright houses that lined the streets and the insanely lush greenery of the surrounding forests and plantations. The other thing that really stuck in our minds was the warmth and kindness of the Javanese people. With Java being a less popular destination than neighbouring Bali, the island has preserved an authentic environment where the local people harbour a curious and helpful attitude towards visitors. Our only regret was that we hadn’t allocated more time to this beautiful part of Indonesia. We still managed to cover a lot of ground, so brace yourself for a lengthy post. To keep things more concise we wrote a separate post giving details of our midnight trek on the Ijen plateau.
Local Friends in Banyuwangi
Stepping off the train at Banyuwangi station, we crossed the car park in search of the conveniently located Sri Tanjung Homestay. After a few tentative peers into store fronts we noticed a small elderly lady in an orange top frantically waving us over with a huge smile. What followed was five minutes of gestures, smiles, confused looks and communication failures that somehow, despite her not knowing a word of English, ended with us enjoying tea and biscuits in her living room. Eventually, her son showed up to confirm we were in the right place, prompting our host to joyfully show us to our spacious room at the back of the house. This homestay turned out to be a great choice as the entire family were so wonderful. The women would spend the days de-shelling huge sacks of peanuts by the front door, and the adorable grandchildren would curiously follow us around corners of the building. Tea and biscuits were free-flow and our host remained warm and attentive throughout our stay.
The other great thing about Sri Tanjung Homestay was the location, which is excellent despite the occasional early morning train noise. Just down the road is the Palm Sugar Cafe – possibly our favourite cafe on Earth! This serene artist studio come restaurant is full of intricately carved furniture. The artist was away when we visited but the staff encouraged us to explore their wonderful space full of paintings and sculptures. It’s a must go if you’re in Banyuwangi! Also on the station road was a tiny garden front restaurant run by a friendly local family – we don’t know the name but look out for a kitchen set up on a front porch. The chef (mum) whipped us up a scrumptious egg kuey teow (flat Chinese noodles) for just 17,000IDR.
To test out or scooter before taking it up Ijen, we decided to set off away from the city in search of a coffee plantation. We’d heard it was possible to visit one where they keep civet cats, the erm… “processors” of the most expensive coffee in the world. The place turned out to be impossible to find but we had a good time driving around the quaint coffee plantation villages, thoroughly testing our bike in the process on the worst road imaginable.
Starving after our unsuccessful mission, we headed back to Banyuwangi for lunch in Kampong Wisata Temenggungan. This central neighbourhood was one of the first to be developed and now sits as a lived in tourist attraction, revamped into a collection of beautifully painted, quirky houses and businesses. It was at one of these restaurants that we first bumped into Febri, a local homestay manager who we would meet again a couple of hours later as we drove into Pantai Beach. From the back of the bike I heard the loud incredulous call “England?” in what we would soon learn is Febri’s standard volume. Over the following two days he became our affable guide and friend, starting with the promise to show us a much better beach where we wouldn’t have to pay a parking fee if we arrived in his company. A little apprehensive, as you often are when you decide to trust a complete stranger, we followed his red helmet as he bobbed and weaved through the city traffic. True to his word Cacalan Beach was much nicer than Pantai. We had a lovely time dipping our feet in the warm waters of the rock pools.
Afterwards, we embarked on an animated treasure hunt through the city as Febri led us from one closed cafe to another to try and find us some coffee luwak* to buy for our friend Peter. Each time, we’d pull in at an obviously closed establishment, Febri would spend a few minutes insisting he could get them to open with a series of yells and fence shakes. His confidence was quite infectious, and although the method failed on the first two attempts it eventually worked at Kopine Cafe. It was too late in the day for us to actually drink any coffee as we needed a decent night’s rest to hike Ijen, but we agreed to meet up the following afternoon.
On our last day in the city, Febri took us to more sites in his hometown including the central mosque and park. We finished off at the best cap jay spot in town (Lhom Ngelakh) for a delicious meal cooked by the father of his best friend. But the best thing Febri did for us was to put an end to our weeks long search for terang bulan. We’d heard about this Indonesian dessert from Tim during our Rinjani trek but had failed to find it anywhere. Before bidding us farewell, Febri dropped us off at a martabak and terang bulan shop. The dish comprises of two spongy, thick pancakes glued together with a layer of chocolate sauce. It was rich, delicious and definitely not good for you! Meeting Febri turned out to be the highlight of our time in Java because not only was he great company, he also enhanced our experience with insider knowledge. If you want to make friends with an energetic, gregarious local, search him out at Rupan Resto and Homestay.
Day Trip to Malang
When the Dutch colonised Java, Malang quickly became a cool highland favourite of the newcomers. This airy and pleasant city maintains much of its character today and is definitely worth a visit. We took advantage of the reliable Javanese rail system by making a day trip to explore the city.
The highlight was without doubt the stunning Kampung Warna Warni. This once condemned slum stood months away from demolition before a student project transformed it into a wonderful living art installation. Not only did the project transform the city, it has also made a huge impact on the residents who are now able to take pride in their village whilst earning additional income from tourism. Slums are often considered to be a problem by city authorities and residents alike. However, with 70% of the population set to live in urban dwellings by 2050, we think this renovation project shows great initiative in the essential task of integrating and destigmatising the poorest residents of developing cities (check out this interesting documentary on this topic).
For contrast, we then walked through one of the most affluent neighbourhoods, complete with mansions and a super-mall, Here, we followed Corneliu’s nose to what is undoubtedly the best baked-good on Earth: coffee buns from Roti O. Seriously, you have to try them if you’re ever in Indonesia/Malaysia. We had two that day! We also made a stop at the delightful Library Cafe next to Malabar Park before looping back to the train station. All in all, Malang turned out to be well worth the £10 return train fare.
Bangil was not our first choice for a place to stay. But, as we scoured the rail network for a destination that was still reachable and close to both Malang and Surabaya, Bangil presented itself as the convenient candidate. It turns out the reason we hadn’t heard about it is that there’s really nothing to say for the place. It is a dusty, congested, ghost town, full of shuttered stores and devoid of character. A reminder that it doesn’t always work out well when you’re planning on the fly!
Although there was nothing to do there, Bangil did serve it’s purpose as a base, allowing us to reach the airport painlessly. It even treated us to a glorious blood moon on our last night in Indonesia, ending this chapter of our trip on a definite high.
*We later discovered that the coffee luwak craze is creating unsustainable demand. With profit margins so high, it is unsurprising that producers are resorting to cruel and sometimes strange practices. Honestly, it doesn’t even taste that different so we advise to stay away.