It’s time to get acquainted with Indonesia’s hidden wonderland and debunk the ‘nothing-much-to-do’ myth.
Words and Photography: Jayne Kam
I didn’t know what I was getting myself into when I agreed to embark on a trip to relatively unknown Semarang in Central Java, Indonesia. Would it be a waste of my travel time or would it have surprises along the way?
Deeply Rooted Legacy
It turns out that this heritage laden city has legacies that range from awe-inspiring Javanese and Dutch architecture and art to age-old methods of maintaining holistic health and wellness which is popularly known as djamu (or jamu).
I’m a sucker for all things djamu and was even more convinced of its natural healing properties when I traversed the Taman Djamu Nyonya Meneer park. It was here that more of the local herbs and their specific remedies used in djamu, as well as their origins were revealed.
Way back when empires ruled Semarang, djamu was only allowed to be consumed by keraton’s (royalty). As time progressed, the recipes began to spread across Indonesia and in no time, they were used in every household. Nyonya Meneer is one of the popular djamu brands introduced by the lady who pioneered the modern way of preparing, packaging and distributing djamu of the same name. From creating her own concoctions in her tiny home kitchen for her ailing husband to now a multi-million dollar business, Nyonya Meneer’s legacy is showcased in the form of this beautiful park with gardens sprouting herbs used to make her djamu.
I had the chance to touch, taste and smell the exoticness of these herbs and if you are up for it, sneak in at least a couple of hours to indulge in a luxurious spa treatment using only the best remedies available. I’ll never forget Kepel—used by palace kids long ago to remove body odour and halitosis, Mangkukan—a hair tonic and Iler—for acne problems and acts as an anti-inflammatory medicine.
Apart from family legacies of djamu, Semarang’s captivating art, culture and architecture heritage fascinates till no end! There are footprints of magnificent Dutch-like architecture, life-like sculptures and more-than-a-century-old lamp posts which have stood the test of time in Semarang Old Town (Little Netherlands). And where local craftsmanship of traditional Javanese carvings is concerned, you can explore and even stay in the compounds of Balemong and Hills Joglo Villa in marvellous joglo (traditional Javanese houses).
Semarang is definitely a city that quickly grows on you, charming you with fascinating ancient ruins, enthralling legends and gorgeous vistas.
One of them is Gedong Songo Temple (Nine Temples), high up at Mount Ungaran, 1300 metres above sea level. Legend has it that Queen Simha of the ruling Kalingga Kingdom in the 8th century preached the three pillars of life to her subjects after she was apparently visited by Sang Hyang Widi, the powerful God. Devotees from as far as India and Thailand pay homage to these temples in hopes to have similar divine experiences, especially during the full moon when a special ceremony is performed.
The temples, five surviving now, are the epitome of Hinduism beliefs and practices. Similar to the Angkor’s of Siem Reap, they were built to mainly worship the Lingam (Deity Shiva) and Yoni (Goddess of Shakti), which together represents the male and female sexual organs for the totality of creation.
Each temple is quite a distance from each other dotting the uphill mountain trail but fret not as there are options to go on horseback while enjoying the cool mountain air, which I loved immensely. Yogis seeking solace and meditation should check out the villas at the mountain top….imagine the serenity!
Next is The Curug 7 Waterfalls, nature’s gift in the form of gushing water from mountain springs and lush green grounds. The formation of the falls is said to represent seven heavenly angels and there are natural steps leading up to each fall. At the top of the falls is a small natural pool of water called Kedung Wali which doesn’t recede even during the hottest season. Those who drink the water will have amazing luck but only if they believe in the power of the water, so we were told.
When my hunger pangs struck, it was lunch at Banaran Coffee Plantation. Chowing on delicious local food like Tempe Mandoan and Nasi Timbel in quaint little gazebos within a tropical setting was just perfect. Little did I know that the coffee here is exported to countries like Japan!
Ever heard of the famous female double spy named Mata Hari? The Marabunta Theatre at the Old Town sector, where she performed her signature striptease confetti act to a welcoming sea of men in the late 1800’s, was the base of her operations.
The theatre itself was built as an entertainment spot for the Dutch community and only part of it remains intact and beautifully preserved, including the unique overturned ship hull ceiling design inspired by Christopher Colombus. I must say that the first thing that caught my eyes were the hard-to-miss huge twin red ants on the roof of the theatre, said to represent the philosophy of these diligent insects as a form of indirect rebellion during the reign of former President Soeharto.
From the inspiring, mythical and now to the spiritual; let me just say that Sam Poo Kong Temple was unlike any other Buddhist temple I’ve visited.
The moment I entered main compound, three main temples which were built in honour of Admiral Zheng He (or Cheng Ho) from China in 1724 were immediately ushered into view. What caught my attention was the 3D mural depicting his contribution to countries all over the world. That and the original anchor from his sunken ship back in 1416!
Locals also believe that the Admiral possessed three magical powers. Apparently, he can travel to China through a well, has a powerful magical sword and has the ability to control waves of the ocean with the help of a Sea God. Awesome fella, won’t you say?
The temple pillars deserve a mention as they are made from a combination of volcanic ash from Mount Agung in Bali and cement with detailed carvings of dragons. Outside the temple was an impressive bronzed replica of the revered Admiral, all 10 metres of him and placed next to the replica of the gates to the Forbidden City. You can hire traditional Chinese costumes and take pictures with the temple in the background to complete your experience!
Other places of worship in Semarang worth visiting are aplenty–Pagoda Watugong has an impressive seven-storey pagoda and houses a centuries-old scripture written in Sanskrit; the massive Central Java Grand Mosque with its Moorish-Javanese designs and the Al-Husna Tower where you can view the entire town and beyond. Of course, not forgetting Gua Maria Kerep with a statue of the Virgin Mary (a replica of the same statue from Lourdes, France) and Gereja Blenduk–the oldest church in Central Java where the architecture and huge antique pipe organ is just awe-inspiring!
Like any city with a foreboding past, courtesy of colonisation, there are mysteries to be unearthed and its stories to be told.
Take Lawang Sewu (A Thousand Doors) for example. Until recently, it was only visited by foreigners as it holds bitter memories of the past for locals. The reason is one involving Japanese occupation, cruel punishments inflicted upon Indonesian POWs and even beheadings at the recesses of the dark dungeon.
As I walked through one part of the building, I couldn’t help getting this being-in-awe-yet-hair-raising feeling, like being in an abandoned castle. It’s great to know that restoration works are fully funded by UNESCO World Heritage Site committee and this place of rich history will be known to all soon.
Trudging around in galoshes exploring its dungeon was something I braved myself to do but there’s no real fear as people are always moving in and out of the dungeon trail with a guide most of the time. It seems there was a Kuntilanak (vampire) caught on camera during a filming of a local mystical reality show. So, dare you try the night tours?
Tummy Growling Fare
I dove straight into whatever local food I could find because I’m a natural born foodie–juicy Sate Kambing (mutton sate) at the Sate 29 chain with thirst-quenching Soda Gembira (rose syrup and condensed milk topped with soda water); Tempe Mendoan (compressed fermented soya beans dipped in batter and fried with spring onions) became my favourite daily snack; and crunchy Ayam Goreng (fried chicken) at Mbok Berek just sealed the deal for me.
The best is still Bandeng Presto, a special local fish cooked till you can eat the bones whole!
I would have been remiss in my shopping duties if I didn’t get something for friends and family back home and the best place to get oleh-oleh (knick knacks) is along Pandanaran.
The entire street has shops selling pre-packed snacks and souvenirs. Malls on the other hand are few, scattered around the average-sized city centre and the newest addition is Paragon, right opposite Novotel.
A mix of international and local brands since everywhere was on sale in conjunction with the year-end, annual Semarang Great Sale for the entire month of December. Too bad I didn’t have the time to check out the other shopping havens!
I can’t wait to return to Semarang and explore the amazingly beautiful, postcard-perfect Karimunjawa chain of 27 islands! Since AirAsia just started their Kuala Lumpur-Semarang route, it makes it easier to get there anytime. Whoopee!
* Check out more Semarang photos here!