About Surabaya, Indonesia
When one mentions Indonesia as a travel destination, Bali is probably the first place that comes to mind. A few years ago, I had fallen hard for Bali but later discovered I wasn't the only woman in its life. I remember reading, with a sinking heart, that the global popularity of Eat, Pray, Love (no, I am not a fan) inspired hordes of tourists to Bali.
I was ready to move on.
While Julia Roberts' character may have found love in Bali, I believe there is much more to do in this bustling country consisting of hundreds of distinct native ethnic and linguistic groups, than staring deeply into the eyes of your loved one. I was more than happy to visit the less popular locations in East Java.
I hopped on a plane to Surabaya and was ready to spend the next four days exploring Surabaya, Malang and Mt. Bromo.
Photo taken on the plane to Surabaya. AirAsia flies daily from Singapore to Surabaya.
Discovering Surabaya and Malang
Surabaya is not your bona fide tourist destination or party city. To most foreign visitors, Surabaya may merely seem like a good place of transit to the rest of Java. To the Indonesians however, Surabaya is Kota Pahlawan (City of Heroes), and is closely linked to the birth of their nation and battle for independence, and statues commemorating independence are scattered all over the city.
To a glutton like me, Surabaya means sambal chilli and avocado juice.
Indonesian food is a high-wire balancing act, one that pits salty, sour, sweet and hot against each other in equal and opposite measures. To take that one step further, it empowers eaters with a table full of condiments, turning you into a sous-chef of some sorts.
At Layar Restaurant for example, they have ten condiments and chilli for patrons to choose from.
One thing is clear: in spice-crazed Indonesia, a meal without some fresh chilli is almost unthinkable.
A few meals into the trip, I begin to wonder how it ever got so good, how they cracked the code on one of gastronomy’s most enduring challenges: how to make food healthy, inexpensive and unthinkably delicious all at the same time.
What made the culinary experience in Indonesia so enjoyable was not only because the food tastes superb, but primarily because one can easily sense the genuine pride that the Indonesians have when they share about their culture and food.
Surabaya may not be the most happening city in Indonesia, but spend some time here and you’ll discover a business yet family-orientated Indonesian city with traditions intact and understated attractions and cultural sights. You’ll be guaranteed a warm-hearted welcome from the unfailingly friendly Surabayans.
Sightseeing in Surabaya - Mt. Bromo
The smell of volcanic ash and sulphur was unmistakable as we walked through the mountainous terrains at 3 a.m while braving the three-degree cold to catch the first peek of the morning sun.
Packed with visitors donning scarves and gloves, the Penanjakan Viewpoint is an extremely popular spot to watch the sun hail over the horizon in the morning.
While waiting for the sunrise in the pitch dark (except for the occasional light from phones and cameras), what accompanied us was an explosion of stars that littered the sky. Coming from light-polluted Singapore, this certainly was a rare sight for me and the fellow Singaporeans present. I don't have any pictures of the night sky because no photos can capture or justify the beauty of it - you ought to be present to allow it to take your breath away.
An hour later, a kaleidoscope of colours painted the sky:
Overshadowed by Mt. Bromo (left) that constantly oozes out sulphuric gases, and by Mt. Semeru in the far horizon, Mt. Batok (foreground) is often regarded as a side attraction that completes the spectacular set of volcanoes in the ancient Tengger Caldera.
Another shot of Mt. Batok
Compared to Indonesia’s other major peaks, Mt. Bromo is a midget. But this volcano's beauty is in its setting, not its size. Surrounded by the desolate Sea of Sands, its peak is sacred and eerie. The echoing of horses’ hoof that accompanied the low-lying fog that envelops the Sea of Sands, added to the mystery of the surroundings. It is easy to see why this place is a ritual stop for visitors.
After ascending 253 steps and barely catching my breath (I need to get fit again), I came face to face with the steaming, sulphurous guts of the volcano. Having studied about volcanoes in school for more than seven years, it was almost impossible to not get excited when I finally got to stare right into the crater of a volcano.
The Mount Bromo vicinity is vacated by the Tengger tribe, who earns additional cash by selling souvenirs, food, and providing transport to visitors.
As a typical Asian tourist, I asked a Tenggerese horseman if he could help snap a picture of me against the volcanic landscape. He showed no trouble using my DSLR camera nor iPhone, a clear sign that he has long been accustomed to the tourists that dot the area.
As I inhaled in the volcanic dust while flashing a smile for the photo, I made a silent wish: The Tengger tribe deserves the economic opportunities that tourism brings but I pray that the economic growth will not come at the expense of the unspoilt beauty of their tradition and culture.
Getting to Surabaya
There are daily flights to Surabaya and for a short two hour flight, it makes more sense to fly with a budget carrier. I flew with AirAsia, and the flights to and fro Surabaya were smooth and comfortable. A common problem I had with other budget carriers is the issue flight delays, but was glad that the AirAsia planes left and arrived punctually. The food served on board were surprisingly affordable and the taste exceeded my expectations of airplane food.
Where to stay around Surabaya
The 252-room Hotel Santika Premiere is a popular choice among businessmen. It is clean and modern, and has a stunning view of the city.
Royal Orchids Garden Hotel is a cozy boutique hotel that resembles a swiss cottage. The lack of air-conditioning is not an issue as the weather was sufficiently cooling even for aircon-reliant Singaporeans like myself.
Lava View Lodge is the highest hotel in the Bromo surroundings. I am not going to suggest that you stay at the Lava View Lodge for its luxury, but its location is perfect if you intend to catch the sunrise at Penanjakan Viewpoint and pay the volcanoes a visit.
Where to eat around Surabaya
If Surabaya is known for one gastronomic specialty, it’s fish. And Layar Seafood serves up some of the freshest and most expertly prepared crabs, lobsters, clams, frogs and other saltwater swimmers to be found in the city. Diners must first select their catch from large tanks that line the entryway and then specify how they would like their fish cooked.
Jl Raya Bukit Mas 109 | Jl. Manyar Kertoarjo 62, Surabaya, Indonesia
Toko Oen, having been around since 1930, is one of the oldest restaurants in Malang. With the rattan chairs, classic checkered tablecloth and an old piano in the corner of the restaurant, you will immediately be transported back in time with its quincy, old-school layout. It serves both Indonesian and Western food, and also have traditional snacks and pastries if you crave for a taste of nostalgia.
Jalan Jenderal Basuki Rahmat, Malang, Indonesia
A restaurant and mini museum altogether, Rumah Makan Inggil is one of the most popular restaurants among locals and tourists alike. This quirky restaurant is festooned with old photographs of Malang and a motley collection of curios - gramaphones, typewriters, maps, cameras, and even a very old hair curler that resembles a teleport machine. Food and service are both great, and the restaurant also have a live band performing sometimes.
Jalan Gajah Mada no 4, Malang, Indonesia
Warung Bambu is a Lesehan style, with fish ponds surrounding the place. The bamboo structures of the restaurant coupled with the comfort of traditional Indonesian food provides a laid back environment for visitors. Visitors are also allowed to place their feet into the koi fish pond.
Raya Selecta | Desa Punten, Kecamatan Bumiaji, Batu, Indonesia
En route to Mt. Bromo, you are likely to pass by a humble-looking eatery. Tongas Asri is a popular pit-stop for those on their way to Mt. Bromo, serving inexpensive, hearty Indonesian food. Be sure to try out their Oxtail Soup and Pastel (currypuff with glass noodles and egg).
Jalan Raya Tongas KM 84, Probolinggo, East Java
Final Thoughts on my trip to Surabaya
I admit it, I wasn’t completely hyped up about the trip to Surabaya because I thought it wouldn’t be anything new since I have been to Indonesia several times over the last few years. But that is the beauty of travelling: it surprises you. I left Surabaya resolved to return to Indonesia for a longer trip - to check out more volcanoes within the Ring of Fire, to wander around the 50-shades-of-green streets, to cross paths with more ethnic tribes, and to camp under the stars.
I think it’s so easy to claim you’ve been bitten by the wanderlust bug but what’s more difficult is holding on to that initial gasp of excitement and immense gratefulness when you first soak in the rays of another country.
Let me never reach the point where each new destination is no longer a big deal. Let me live each day not like it’s the last day of my life, but the very first. And let me never blame the world for being dull.
This post was brought to you by AirAsia and Tourism Indonesia. AirAsia offers direct flights to Surabaya.