One reader asked me why I seldom put photos of myself on my blog. I’m not really into selfies but here are a couple of pictures of me taken during a recent precautionary MRI scan:

I don’t look quite so scary with my skin on!


House Of Sampoerna & Indonesia’s Smoking Addiction


The House of Sampoerna is considered to be the top tourist attraction in Surabaya according to TripAdvisor. It’s a cigarette museum and tells the rags-to-riches story of Liem Seeng Tee who arrived in Java from China as a boy in the early 20th century and, through hard work and good luck, ended up running one of Indonesia’s leading tobacco companies, now part of the Philip Morris group.


The museum displays old photos of cigarette production at the factory.

Sampoerna specialises in kretek cigarettes, a uniquely Indonesian product made by adding cloves to tobacco. Kretek, which by the way is an onomatopoetic term for the crackling sound of burning cloves, were originally marketed as a medicinal product as they were thought to be a cure for asthma, would you believe. Sadly that is not the case and we now know that kretek are as unhealthy as any other cigarette, even if they smell slightly better.


House of Sampoerna is still a working cigarette factory and visitors can observe the hand-rolling process with more than 400 women workers hand-rolling cigarettes at the rate of over 325 per hour. It was a day-off when I visited so all the women were at home attending to their coughing husbands and sons.

One day perhaps cigarettes will only be found in museums and future generations will wonder why cigarettes, which have killed more people than all the wars in the whole of human history put together, were allowed to be sold legally for so long.


Some of the factory’s products.

That day is not likely to come soon for Indonesia because the whole country seems hopelessly hooked to smoking. It is estimated that two-thirds of adult males in Indonesia smoke. The addiction is getting worse as many boys now start their habit as young as age 7. The price for a packet of 20 is around US$1 so it’s cheaper to smoke than it is to eat.

Smoking has been estimated to kill 425,000 Indonesians annually. At least smoking is not popular among women – only 5% of Indonesian women smoke – so there must be a lot of widows.


A model ship made from cloves. The museum’s gift shop sells some smart souvenir items. A heritage bus tour of Surabaya, called the Surabaya Heritage Track, is an added attraction.


The factory compound includes a batik exhibition and a restaurant for visitors.


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In Search Of Wallace – Part 8: Bali & Lombok


Perhaps the most lasting legacy of Arthur Russel Wallace’s eight year odyssey though the Malay Archipelago was his discovery of what came to be known as the Wallace Line, a boundary separating the faunal species of southeast Asia from those of Australia and New Guinea.

Wallace found this demarcation to be most abrupt when he travelled across the 35 kilometre wide Straits of Lombok between the islands of Bali and Lombok.

Although these neighbouring islands share similar terrain and climate Wallace was surprised by the differences in fish, bird and mammal life:

“Neither of these physical differences corresponds with the remarkable change in natural productions which occurs at the Straits of Lombock, separating the island of that name from Bali, and which is at once so large in amount and of so fundamental a character, as to form an important feature in the zoological geography of our globe.

During the few days which I stayed on the north coast of Bali on my way to Lombock, I saw several birds highly characteristic of Javan ornithology. Among these were the yellow-headed weaver (Ploceus hypoxantha), the black grasshopper thrush (Copsychus amoenus), the rosy barbet (Megalaema rosea), the Malay oriole (Oriolus horsfieldi), the Java ground starling (Sturnopastor jalla), and the Javanese three-toed woodpecker (Chrysonotus tiga). On crossing over to Lombock, separated from Bali by a strait less than twenty miles wide, I naturally expected to meet with some of these birds again; but during a stay there of three months I never saw one of them, but found a totally different set of species, most of which were utterly unknown not only in Java, but also in Borneo, Sumatra, and Malacca. For example, among the commonest birds in Lombock were white cockatoos and three species of Meliphagidae or honeysuckers, belonging to family groups which are entirely absent from the western or Indo-Malayan region of the Archipelago.”


This Google Earth image is taken looking from west to east. Lombok is in the foreground with the spectacular crater lake of Mount Rinjani (3,726m) easily recognisable. Lombok’s main town of Mataram can be seen in the middle left. Beyond the Lombok Strait lies Bali with its volcano, Gunung Agung, on the top right. Bali’s capital Denpasar can be seen next to the search box.

Wallace did not climb Mount Rinjani. You can read about my trip of a few years ago here.

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Crossing The Equator – Not What It Used To Be


While flying back from Surabaya to Kuala Lumpur last month it occurred to me that I was crossing the equator for the fourth time this year. 

Crossing the equator by air these days is a non-event. The Captain does not come onto the intercom to announce ‘ we are now crossing the equator’. There is no rush of passengers to the toilets to check whether the water in the wash basin swirls down the plug-hole in the opposite direction in the northern hemisphere compared to the southern (apparently that’s just an old wives’ tale).

Back in the glamorous days of air travel, up until the 1960s, some airlines used to make more of a deal when crossing the equator. BOAC for example would award their passengers with certificates to mark the event.

Crossing the Equator

On KLM the pilot would dress up as King Neptune and scrub a few passengers with soap and water, an act which nowadays would probably end up in a lawsuit. KLM’s ceremony was a hark back to the traditional ‘crossing the line ceremonies’ held on ships.

The Royal Navy, US Navy and other navies, as well as merchant vessels, and some cruise liners, still pay their respects to King Neptune, Lord of the Seas, on crossing the equator. This requires all those who had never previously crossed the equator to be initiated and usually involves a lot of dressing up in fancy dress and people getting very wet.

HMS Illustrious

My father received his certificate in 1944 while serving in the Royal Navy on board HMS Illustrious. He crossed the equator at longitude 86° East which is in the Indian Ocean, south east of Sri Lanka and about mid way between the Maldives and Sumatra. Actually he says this was the second time he had crossed the equator but the certificate had not been issued on the first occasion (there was a War on at the time).

Air travellers today are not so concerned about the equator or other lines of latitude. We are only concerned with lines of longitude, because these bring jet lag.

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Malang Bird Market & Other Sights


The city of Malang in East Java was established by the Dutch in the late 18th century. At an altitude of around 500 m above sea level it enjoys a mild climate, by tropical standards, with average daytime highs around 29°C cooling to a pleasant 23°C in the evenings.


The Dutch built comfortable bungalows on tree-lined streets that would not look out of place in Holland except that they are overlooked by a couple of active volcanos. Quite a lot of this colonial architecture remains although the city has grown enormously and today has a population of over 820,000.

I would imagine Malang is a nice place to live – less frenetic than most Indonesian cities. But for the tourist there does not seem to be a great deal to see in the city itself, the main attractions being in the surrounding district such as Mount Bromo and the Majapahit remains.

For me, the main highlight was the Malang Bird Market with 170 shops selling a multitude of colourful and chirpy birds as well as monkeys, rabbits, cats, snakes, lizards, fish, rabbits and insects (as bird food). Here is a video:

Next door to the bird market is the flower market with roses, orchids, bougainvillea and hibiscus being among the dominant blooms alongside ferns, palms, cacti and lots more.


I stayed at the upmarket Tugu Hotel which, with the owners amazing collection of artworks, antiques and collectables, is itself one of the town’s top attractions.


There is an army museum, Museum Brawijaya, which displays weapons and artefacts dating mainly from Indonesia’s struggle for independence against the Dutch in the 1940’s.


The town centre has two old churches, one Catholic and one Protestant, and a rather elaborate mosque, Masjid Agung Jami.



Tired from my walking, I took refuge in the Toko Oen restaurant which seems to be Malang’s equivalent to KL’s Coliseum Bar & Restaurant. The trilingual menu (Dutch, English and Bahasa) describes Oen as a colonial landmark since 1930. Their speciality is ice cream. I wasn’t mad about the food but the Bintang beer hit the spot.


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Surabaya Walking Tour


To make the most of my short time in Surabaya earlier this month I decided to join a 7 hour walking tour of the city arranged by Surabaya Johnny Walker Tour.

I’m glad I did because my guide Anitha showed me places that I would never have found on my own and introduced me to street snacks that I would not otherwise have tried. 


We toured the historically European, Chinese and Arab quarters of Surabaya but first took a ferry ride to the nearby island of Madura.

The ferry departs from Tanjung Perak which was the busiest port in the Dutch East Indies during colonial times. It is still busy with many cargo shops moored offshore.


Surabaya is also a naval base and home to Indonesia’s Eastern Fleet. A dozen or more frigates could be glimpsed here.


The ferry was the only way for vehicles to reach Madura Island until the 5 km long Suramadu Bridge was opened in 2009.


On arrival at Madura we took an angkot (mini van taxi) to see the colourful food stalls at the local Kamal Market (nothing to do with camels).


This lady was selling green mangos. The flower mix is used to throw in the sea as part of funeral rituals.


Fermented cassava (tape) was a snack I’ve not tried before. It has an alcoholic taste and is said to be good for stomach problems and to ease menstrual pains.


Returning by ferry to Surabaya we next took a bus to the Governor of East Java’s office, built by the Dutch in 1931 in the type of colonial art-deco style that is quite common here.


This historic building was built in 1911 for a Dutch trading concern called Lindeteves-Stokvis. The Japanese army took over the building during the war for use as a vehicle and weapons workshop.


This is Surabaya’s main post office which previously functioned as Hogere Burgerschool where the first Indonesian President, Soekarno received his education.


Work on this gothic styled catholic church, Santa Perawan Maria Kepanjen, began in 1899. It was completely gutted by fire during the Independence disturbances in 1945 before being restored.


The police museum, Museum Aktif Kepolisian, was quite interesting and in a lovely old building.

After leaving the museum the heavens opened and we got totally drenched, despite umbrellas. That is one disadvantage of organising walking tours in a tropical climate. A couple of times we had to hire a becak, the Indonesian name for bicycle trishaws, in order to negotiate the narrow lanes which had turned into rivers of rainwater.


Next we dripped all over the floor of the old De Javasche Bank which is now a museum. They displayed specimens of changing banknote designs over the decades. Interesting that the Japanese WW2 banknotes retained the Dutch language and currency.


Another bank museum, the Bank Mandiri Surabaya Kembang Jepun Museum, (formerly a branch of Nederlandsch Indische Escompto Maatschappij)  was full of stuff that reminded me of my former career, like ledger books, protectograph machines, and early computers. There were some staff records too from the 1930s.


The building itself was another Dutch design built in 1928. The stairwell is decorated with the flags and motifs of various Dutch and Indonesian cities. Kembang Jepun by the way translates as ‘Japanese flower’ and was a euphemism for the red light district. Japanese prostitutes were common throughout South East Asia from the early 20th century up until WWII.


Our tour through the Chinese Quarter of Surabaya was rather curtailed due to the weather and anyway, coming from Malaysia, much of it looks the same as we have at home. But we visited Shin Hua, a traditional barber shop that has been around for 75 years and still has ancient razors, scissors and ear-cleaning sets from those early times.


We broke for a sweet soup made of barley and mong beans which was tastier than it sounds. When the owner found out that I used to live in Hong Kong she started chatting to me in Cantonese but soon discovered that my rusty vocabulary is rather limited.


Next we went to a colourful and pungent covered market selling everything from red onions to lemongrass to chillies. Thanks to the heavy rain, the floor of the market had become a muddy soup floating with onion skins and the odd rat!


Before long we were in the Kampung Arab, a part of town where many of the residents are descendants from earlier generations of seafaring Yemenis from Hadhramaut, who, on coming ashore in Surabaya, decided they weren’t going back. They intermarried with local ladies and the faces we encountered here ranged from looking quite Arab to completely Indonesian. Many of them speak some Arabic and I was once again able to impress my guide with my language skills and tales of living in Yemen.


We stopped here for an unusual coffee in a tiny lean-to establishment. Unlike Middle Eastern qahwa arabiya, which is watery black coffee enhanced with cardamom pods, this version was stronger and also laced with ginger and cloves and a lot of sugar. Not bad!


This covered souk leading to the Ampel Mosque sells perfumes, prayer beads, Islamic style clothing and much besides. The mosque has five gateways, representing the Five Pillars of Islam.

Nearby is the fish, perfume and spice market which together fill the nostrils with a heady aroma.


This is why you should wash your cinnamon sticks before you sprinkle it on your muffins.

If you are ever in Surabaya and have a half day to spare I would recommend taking the Johnny Walker tour.

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In Search Of Wallace – Part 7: East Java


Continuing with my In Search Of Wallace series, last week I travelled to Surabaya in Indonesia to try to retrace Alfred Russel Wallace’s footsteps in East Java which he visited in the summer of 1861.


In italics below are extracts from The Malay Archipelago in which he describes the area.

“The Dutch mail steamer brought me from Ternate to Sourabaya, the chief town and port in the eastern part of Java, and after a fortnight spent in packing up and sending off my last collections, I started on a short journey into the interior. Travelling in Java is very luxurious but very expensive, the only way being to hire or borrow a carriage, and then pay half a crown a mile for post-horses…”


Mr Yudha, my driver for this trip. Oddly enough, I found travelling here expensive too. I had to rent a car with driver in order to visit all the places mentioned in Wallace’s book. Instead of half a crown, I paid Rupiah 1,155,000 for six hours rental which sounds a lot (USD 88) but is probably cheaper than Wallace’s cost in today’s equivalent value.

“As this kind of travelling world not suit my means, I determined on making only a short journey to the district at the foot of Mount Arjuna, where I was told there were extensive forests, and where I hoped to be able to make some good collections.”


The extensive forests are mostly no more, replaced with paddy fields, housing and industrial estates. Gunung Arjuna is a dormant volcano (3,339m) connected by a saddle to its active neighbour, Gunung Welirang (3,156m).

“I stopped at Modjokerto, a small town about forty miles south of Sourabaya, and the nearest point on the high road to the district I wished to visit. I had a letter of introduction to Mr. Ball, an Englishman, long resident in Java and married to a Dutch lady; and he kindly invited me to stay with him until I could fix on a place to suit me. A Dutch Assistant Resident as well as a Regent or native Javanese prince lived here. The town was neat, and had a nice open grassy space like a village green, on which stood a magnificent fig-tree (allied to the Banyan of India, but more lofty), under whose shade a kind of market is continually held, and where the inhabitants meet together to lounge and chat.”


Mojokerto today is still fairly neat though its narrow streets are clogged with cars and motorbikes.This colonial era house could perhaps have been home for the Dutch Assistant Resident, though not the same one that Wallace saw, since the date on the gable is 1912.


This is probably the open grassy space that Wallace mentioned, now called Alun-Alun Mojokerto. The magnificent fig-tree has gone and is replaced with a monument bearing the text to Indonesia’s declaration of independence.

“The day after my arrival, Mr. Ball drove me over to the village of Modjo-agong. On our way we stayed to look at a fragment of the ruins of the ancient city of Modjo-pahit, consisting of two lofty brick masses, apparently the sides of a gateway.”


Almost certainly, Wallace was referring to this famous gateway, known as Gapura Wringin Lawang and one of many Majapahit Empire archaeological remains in this area.

“The extreme perfection and beauty of the brickwork astonished me. The bricks are exceedingly fine and hard, with sharp angles and true surfaces. They are laid with great exactness, without visible mortar or cement, yet somehow fastened together so that the joints are hardly perceptible, and sometimes the two surfaces coalesce in a most incomprehensible manner. Such admirable brickwork I have never seen before or since. There was no sculpture here, but an abundance of bold projections and finely-worked mouldings.”


This close up of a restored section of the gateway is an example of the fine brickwork which Wallace admired so much. Earthquakes and 155 years of exposure to the elements have taken their toll on the structure since Wallace’s day.

“Traces of buildings exist for many miles in every direction, and almost every road and pathway shows a foundation of brickwork beneath it–the paved roads of the old city.”


Relief map at the museum with white markers showing the locations of Majapahit remains in the vicinity of Trowulan.

“It is much to be regretted that the Dutch Government does not take vigorous steps for the preservation of these ruins from the destroying agency of tropical vegetation; and for the collection of the fine sculptures which are everywhere scattered over the land.”


There is now a museum (Majapahit Museum, Trowulan) where hundreds of statues, sculptures and other stone works are displayed. The museum was closed for renovation but an accommodating security guard allowed me to view the outdoor exhibits.

“In the house of the Waidono or district chief at Modjo- agong, I saw a beautiful figure carved in high relief out of a block of lava, and which had been found buried in the ground near the village. On my expressing a wish to obtain some such specimen, Mr. B. asked the chief for it, and much to my surprise he immediately gave it me. It represented the Hindu goddess Durga, called in Java, Lora Jonggrang (the exalted virgin).”


According to The Alfred Russel Wallace Website this carving found its way into the Charterhouse School Museum in Godalming, Surrey, probably donated to the school by Wallace who live nearby. The carving was subsequently auctioned off by Charterhouse and somebody paid £2629 for it at Sotheby’s in 2002. Presumably it is now in private hands somewhere. If you would like your own deity sculpture there are a number of roadside studios close to Wringin Lawang where skilled craftsmen could probably knock you up a copy for a reasonable cost.

“The road to Wonosalem led through a magnificent forest in the depths of which we passed a fine ruin of what appeared to have been a royal tomb or mausoleum. It is formed entirely of stone, and elaborately carved. Near the base is a course of boldly projecting blocks, sculptured in high relief, with a series of scenes which are probably incidents in the life of the defunct. These are all beautifully executed, some of the figures of animals in particular, being easily recognisable and very accurate. The general design, as far as the ruined state of the upper part will permit of its being seen, is very good, effect being given by an immense number and variety of projecting or retreating courses of squared stones in place of mouldings. The size of this structure is about thirty feet square by twenty high, and as the traveller comes suddenly upon it on a small elevation by the roadside, overshadowed by gigantic trees, overrun with plants and creepers, and closely backed by the gloomy forest, he is struck by the solemnity and picturesque beauty of the scene, and is led to ponder on the strange law of progress, which looks so like retrogression, and which in so many distant parts of the world has exterminated or driven out a highly artistic and constructive race, to make room for one which, as far as we can judge, is very far its inferior.”

Here are some other historic sites which I visited in this area which Wallace may also have seen:


Pendopo Agung (a recent construction but on an ancient sacred site).


Bajang Ratu Temple.


Candi Tikus.

“Wonosalem is situated about a thousand feet above the sea, but unfortunately it is at a distance from the forest, and is surrounded by coffee plantations, thickets of bamboo, and coarse grasses. It was too far to walk back daily to the forest, and in other directions I could find no collecting ground for insects. The place was, however, famous for peacocks, and my boy soon shot several of these magnificent birds, whose flesh we found to be tender, white, and delicate, and similar to that of a turkey.”


“The Java peacock is a different species from that of India, the neck being covered with scale-like green feathers, and the crest of a different form; but the eyed train is equally large and equally beautiful.”

This is a view of modern day Wonosalem. Not likely to find many wild peacocks here these days.

“After a week at Wonosalem, I returned to the foot of the mountain, to a village named Djapannan, which was surrounded by several patches of forest, and seemed altogether pretty well spited to my pursuits. The chief of the village had prepared two small bamboo rooms on one side of his own courtyard to accommodate me, and seemed inclined to assist me as much as he could.”

This is how Japanan looks today. Wallace might well have stayed right here, in the Village Head’s Office, though of course the compound has been modernised since.

“The weather was exceedingly hot and dry, no rain having fallen for several months, and there was, in consequence, a great scarcity of insects, and especially of beetles. I therefore devoted myself chiefly to obtaining a good set of the birds, and succeeded in making a tolerable collection. I also obtained here a specimen of the rare green jungle-fowl (Gallus furcatus), whose back and neck are beautifully scaled with bronzy feathers, and whose smooth-edged oval comb is of a violet purple colour, changing to green at the base. It is also remarkable in possessing a single large wattle beneath its throat, brightly coloured in three patches of red, yellow, and blue.”


Gallus Furcatus

“The common jungle-cock (Gallus bankiva) was also obtained here. It is almost exactly like a common game-cock, but the voice is different, being much shorter and more abrupt; hence its native name is Bekeko.”


Gallus Bankiva

Six different kinds of woodpeckers and four kingfishers were found here, the fine hornbill, Buceros lunatus, more than four feet long, and the pretty little lorikeet, Loriculus pusillus, scarcely more than as many inches.


Javan Rhinoceros Hornbill


Javan Parakeet

“In a month’s collecting at Wonosalem and Djapannan I accumulated ninety-eight species of birds, but a most miserable lot of insects. I then determined to leave East Java and try the more moist and luxuriant districts at the western extremity of the island. “


I don’t know if it was there during Wallace’s time, but, if it was, he could have saved himself a lot of trouble if he had travelled on further to Malang where there is an extensive bird market selling many beautiful species such as rainbow lorikeets, oriental bay owls, canaries, Indonesian songbirds and this kingfisher.

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