something about surabaya

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Honestly, it is hard to think of a city in the world with a name as sweet-sounding and redolent of a tropical bygone era as Surabaya.

But the origin of the name Surabaya that hints strongly at the bestial instincts of struggle and survival is not quite so romantic. The name, it is said, comes from two words in the local Javanese language. ‘Sura’, meaning a big shark-like fish and ‘boya’, meaning crocodile.

Surabaya  is situated on the northeastern coast of Java along a narrow straits facing the island of Madura.

Kali Mas (Golden River) which is a branch of the Brantas River flows through the centre of Surabaya from south to north. Chosen for its location, on the busy sea lanes linking multifarious waypoints in the world’s largest archipelago that is Indonesia, Surabaya has always served as a port.

Surabaya’s seagoing connection goes back more than 600 years when Java was ruled by the mighty Majapahit kings.

Around 1800, about two hundred years after the arrival of their first ships, the Dutch finally gained control of Java. They conquered Java by cunningly playing the island’s local muslim rulers off against each other and destroying those who dared to stand in their way.

True to form, the Dutch in the Age of Imperialism, were cold-hearted, efficient and bent-on-profit administrators. They cared little for the lives (much less the livelihoods) of the Javanese peasants, chieftains and noblemen over whom they governed.

Through a colonial policy introduced in 1830 known as Cultuurstelsel or Cultivation System the Dutch compelled their Javanese subjects to plant commercial crops like indigo, coffee and sugar instead of rice. Such export orientated policy brought huge profits to the colonial government, as well as to their middlemen and merchants but led to widespread misery, starvation and sickness among the population living in the coastal and central regions of Java.

Indonesia was then called ‘Hindia Belanda’ or the Dutch East Indies and Surabaya grew to become its foremost city and most important port. But by the time of the economic depression of the 1930s Surabaya’s fortune was on its way down and its position as main city had been overtaken by Jakarta (then Batavia)

Surabaya is still today Indonesia’s second biggest city, a vibrant centre of commerce, industry and an important  travel hub. Many travellers fly into Surabaya to get to somewhere else. Some of them may choose to stay a night to take in a handful of sights but Surabaya is really not yet a traveller hotspot especially for texting teenagers or tourists chasing big-ticket attractions.

For visitors looking for vestiges of the Dutch East Indies in the delapidated doorways and grunge-covered gables of a nineteenth century colonial city separated into European, Chinese, Arab and native quarters, the old city of Surabaya is an absorbing place. It is also a veritable walk-through history book and street photographers’ delight.

 

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Surabaya’s old city near Jembatan Merah or Red Bridge looking even more atmospheric after an afternoon thunderstorm
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Young mother with napping baby at the Pabean market
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‘What is your profession?’ he enquired before showing me the way to the Red Bridge behind the shop passing dried seafood stalls, sniffing rodents and smiling shopkeepers
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Fresh fish arriving at the Pabean market around lunch time
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Some of the young friends I made in Surabaya

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Afternoon pilgrims walking to the tomb of Sunan Ampel one of the nine saints or Wali Songo credited with spreading Islam to Java
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Young superheroes in the rain

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A father and daughter moment while waiting for the rain to stop
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“It is difficult to find a job here” Ahmad is a fruit seller near the Ampel Market

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Smoking bus conductor seen from my coach bound for the neighbouring Island of Madura
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“What will you promise me if I pose for you?”
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Built in 1918 Pasar Pabean is the oldest and perhaps also  the biggest market in Surabaya
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Sanaa in Surabaya
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A proud father and his newly attired son at the Ampel Market
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The population of metropolitan Surabaya which includes the neighbouring boroughs of Gresik and Sidoarjo is over 8 million making it the second largest urban area in Indonesia

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Shop front on the historic Jalan Panggung in Old Town Surabaya

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Unique among Indonesian cities, Surabaya was a multicultural place. In 1905 of the total population of 150,200 people, there were 15,000 Chinese, 8,000 European and almost 3,000 Arabs.

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Garlic galore at the Pabean Market in Old Surabaya
All text and photographs copyright Kerk Boon Leng April 2018

postcard from porcupine river

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On the steamy swampy flats where the Landak ( porcupine ) meets the Kapuas, Indonesia’s longest river, across the imaginary line that divides our earth into perfect halves is a happy, sleepy city with a creepy name.

Many stories surround Pontianak’s name which in Malay folklore is a female ghost who had died giving birth to a child

The one often told is about a seafaring Sultan who set up a kingdom here in 1771. His name was Abdurraman al Kadrie.

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Local children enjoying an afternoon swim in the Kapuas River. To the population living along the banks of Kapuas and its tributaries the river is the main provider of protein with over 300 species of fish living in its basin including the Pangasius catfish, Giant Gourami and the fast swimming Jelawat (or Sultan Fish). However, pollution and overfishing are causing the depletion and extinction of many types of fish in the river.
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With passenger fare at Rupiah 15,000 (USD1.10) each, the half hour boat ride that departs from Taman Alun Alun must be the cheapest city boat cruise in the world.
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Surveying life along the Kapuas from the boat’s deck
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The Kapuas is a great river in every sense. Originating in the Mueller Mountain Range in the heart of Borneo the river drains an area covering 67% of West Kalimantan and is navigable by large boats up to the town of Putussibau about 900 km from the mouth.

He was a sayyid, a descendant of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), whose family had settled in these Eastern Isles from Yemen.

An outsider to these parts of Borneo, he gained political power and influence by marrying two local women from important families. One was a daughter of the Ruler of Mempawah to the north. The other was the daughter of the Sultan of Banjar on the island’s south coast.

According to legend, the site on which Pontianak now stands was once a haunt of blood-thirsty female vampires. The Sultan and his retinue spooked by the shrill eerie voices from the dark deep forests surrounding their settlement fired cannon balls towards their direction to scare off the nocturnal denizens.

The booms and blasts duly drove the spirits away. The relieved Sultan then built a mosque and palace there and gratefully named his realm after his evicted paranormal tormentors.

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Istana Kadriah the old residence of the Sultans of Pontianak located near the confluence of the Landak and Kapuas Rivers is one of the oldest buildings in the city.
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On the steps outside a Sunday church service on Jalan Gajah Made, Pontianak’s main street
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Migrants from all over Indonesia have settled in Pontianak bringing their cuisines with them including their own version of sate ayam (chicken satay).

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Thanks to Pontianak’s location in the middle of the Malay Archipelago equidistant from Singapore and Batavia ( the old name for Jakarta ), it became an important riverine port and trading station. Ships from across the sea sailed upstream filled with iron, opium and textile to trade for the seemingly inexhaustible supply of products from Borneo’s rich and vast interior.

Among the earliest visitors to the area were the Chinese. They made their seasonal journeys to Borneo by junk to procure from the Malay and indigenous Dayak people natural products that would fetch them a profit in China such as birdnests, agar wood (gaharu), and sea cucumber ( beche de mer).

They also went there, more importantly, to look for gold.

By the 18 th century the dream of striking a small fortune brought thousands of Chinese gold diggers to Pontianak and its surrounding districts.

In July 1818 the Dutch, worried that Britain’s would threaten its dominance and economic interests in the Indies, established a permanent station in Pontianak and began to exert its authority over Kalimantan.

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Modest off the main street cafes such as this one serve up a great iced cappuccino on a hot day
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Bashful but inquisitive shop assistants in a stationery cum provisions shop
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Chinese along with Malay are the largest ethnic groups in Pontianak. Although Hakka is overall the main subgroup of Chinese in the district, the Teochiu Chinese are in the majority in Pontianak city centre.

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Text and Photographs copyright Kerk Boon Leng November 2017

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Reading my western guidebooks I arrived in Bandung expecting a congested Indonesian metropolis (the country’s third largest) with slightly more bearable heat, high humidity and lots of garment shops and pollution. I was quite wrong.

Bandung may be long past its glamorous colonial heyday as “Parijs van Java” but it is no high altitude version of Jakarta or Medan either. For a start, the city is clean with many large western style buildings (some Dutch) along wide roads lined with tall trees. Located on a highland plateau at an average height of around 730 metres, the climate is a sure pleaser if you have flown in from Singapore or Kuala Lumpur. In mid June with daylong temperatures in the upper 20s tempered by a gentle southerly breeze and average humidity it is perfect T-shirt and sandals weather for sitting out and an after-meal saunter.

Founded by the Dutch in 1810 as a military headquarter and later proposed as a capital of their East Indies empire, Bandung is today the throbbing heart and soul of Sundaland. Cihampelas, Ciumbuleuit, Cipaganti and Cibaduyut: street names and districts of Bandung reveal the city’s proud Sundanese heritage.

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All images copyright Kerk Boon Leng June 2013

palembang : malay capital on the mighty musi

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Copyright Kerk Boon Leng 2013

The Musi River (525 km) in southern Sumatra is the second longest river in maritime South East Asia. It rises near Gunung Kaba (1,937 m) in the Barisan Range and divides the city of Palembang into halves (Ilir and Ulu) before flowing finally into the Bangka Strait.

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palembang

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Copyright Kerk Boon Leng 2013

The city of Palembang is largely unknown to foreign tourists. Even to its closest foreign neighbours across the Strait, Palembang is just a place they remember from school textbooks as the hometown of Parameswara the legendary founder of the Malaccan Sultanate.  This once capital of the mysterious Malay Buddhist Kingdom of Srivijaya (that ruled the island of Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula from 7th to 14 th century) has  not a lot to entice internet holiday makers but for the intrepid traveler wanting to see Malay culture in its natural setting and meet some of the friendliest urban inhabitants on this planet Palembang and its hinterland province of Sumatera Selatan (South Sumatra) are unmissable.

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All pictures copyright Kerk Boon Leng 2013

manado (sulawesi)

all pictures copyright Kerk Boon Leng 2009

Tangkoko at the northern finger tip of the Island of Sulawesi (formerly Celebes) is  the place in the daytime to hire a boat to sail, snorkel and swim in the black sand coves around its coast.  In the evening the nearby Tangkoko-Batuangus Nature Reserve is one of the best places to see the world’s smallest monkeys known as tarsiers. When the sun sets these gremlin-like critters hop out from their tree homes to exercise their large eyes and feed on grasshoppers.