Virtual Holiday in the Spice Islands

I need a holiday but that’s not going to happen while this global lockdown is in place. So I though I would take a virtual or pretend holiday and write a blog post about it.

Where to? I decided on Banda Neira in the Malaku Islands (Moluccas) of Indonesia, about midway between Sulawesi and Papua. It’s a place I’ve been meaning to go to for some time. Thanks to the internet and having already visited many Indonesian islands I can have a pretty good idea of what to expect so I’m writing this blog as if I have actually been there.

My Journey to Banda

I decided to take a ferry to reach Banda. There is an airstrip with scheduled flights from Ambon, Jakarta,Surabaya and Makassar, but the runway looks rather short and some of the smaller airlines in Indonesia do not have the best safety record and flights are always being cancelled or delayed so I thought a ferry might be a better option. A fast ferry leaves Ambon for Banda Neira twice a week at this time of year when the sea is calm but only if there are enough passengers. It normally takes 6 hours but this time it was cancelled. So I was left with the only other option which was to take a slow ferry Government-owned ferry called the Pelni which stops at Banda about twice a month from Ambon. The journey time was 12 hours but can take 19 hours depending on sea conditions. Basic meals were included in the IDR 100k ticket price (£5) consisting of rice, vegetables and tempeh.

Conditions on board were better in Alfred Russel Wallace‘s time when he travelled to Banda in 1857 by Dutch mail steamer. His meals were as follows:

6 a.m. tea or coffee
8 a.m. light breakfast of tea, eggs, sardines etc
10 a.m. aperitifs on deck; Madeira, gin and bitters
11 a.m. substantial brunch
3 p.m. tea and coffee
5 p.m. aperitifs again
6.30 p.m. a good dinner with beer and claret
8 p.m. tea and coffee
free-flowing beer and soda water between meals.

My arduous journey was rewarded when I clapped eyes on Banda which comprises three beautiful islands enclosing a tranquil harbour with crystal clear water overlooked by a classical shaped volcano and jungle clad hills.

During the Dutch colonial era these islands were the chief nutmeg garden in the world at a time when nutmeg was more highly prized than gold. The spice trade brought prosperity to the Dutch merchants living here who were so rich they didn’t know what to do with their money so they built fancy marble-clad houses with wide verandas. There’s not much evidence of wealth these days and the few Dutch houses which still survive are very much faded. Nutmeg is still cultivated here and you can catch a whiff of nutmeg, cinnamon and pepper in the air, along with the ever-present fragrance of Indonesia’s clove cigarettes.

My Accommodation

I decided to stay at the Mutiara Guesthouse in the centre of town for its cosy feel, its convenient location and its reasonable reviews. Breakfast was particularly good, banana pancakes, scrambled eggs, fried eggs or omelette, tasty coffee and fresh tropical fruits.

Better than in Somerset Maugham’s day. This is his description of breakfast in the 1932 novel The Narrow Corner which was set in Banda Neira (he called it Kanda-Meria):

Breakfast in the little hotels in the Dutch East Indies is served at a very early hour. It never varies. Papaia, oeufs sur le plat, cold meat and Edam cheese. However punctually you appear, the eggs are cold … the coffee is an essence to which you add Nestlé’s Swiss Milk … the toast is dry, sodden and burnt. Such was the breakfast served in the dining room of the hotel at Kanda and hurriedly eaten by silent Dutchmen, who had their offices to go to.

DAY 1. Sightseeing – Fort Belgica

After checking in the hotel and freshening up I set out to explore the sights of Banda. My first stop was Fort Belgica, a grey stone castle built on a low hill immediately behind the guesthouse. It was one of several forts built by the Dutch on the Banda islands to protect their grip on the world’s nutmeg trade. It replaced an earlier 16th century Portuguese fort.

The Dutch began their construction in 1611 and it was expanded, strengthened and rebuilt several times since with the current pentagonal design completed in 1673. It survived several earthquakes and volcanic eruptions but surrendered to the British without firing a shot in 1796 and again in 1810, having been handed back to the Dutch in 1803. The fort was comprehensively restored in 1991 and is now a tourist destination.

Fort Nassau

Next I took the short walk to Fort Nassau which was an earlier fort completed in 1609. It was rectangular shaped with four stone bastions and had a moat. It is now mostly dilapidated and overgrown. As you can see from this old photo it was overlooked by Fort Belgica.

Nutmeg Café

Feeling thirsty and hungry by now I took a break at the Nutmeg Café and filled up with some nasi goreng and nutmeg jam pancake washed down with iced nutmeg juice. To tell you the truth I’m not mad about the taste of nutmeg but the juice was refreshing.

Parigi Rante

This is an old well and monument listing the names of 40 Banda fighters and chiefs who were among the many killed in 1621 during Dutch Admiral Simon Janszoon Coen’s conquest of the islands. The names of 20th century Indonesian freedom fighters are also commemorated here.

Rumah Pengasingan Bung Hatta

This small, simple house is where Bung Hatta was exiled from 1936-42 as a political prisoner by the Dutch colonial authorities. Bung Hatta is the affectionate nickname for Mohammad Hatta (1902-1980) who is an Indonesian national hero and was one of the leaders in its struggle for independence from Dutch rule. During his exile he ran school classes on the terrace of the house which is now a cultural heritage monument and museum containing a few items of furniture and possessions of Bung Hatta.

Istana Mini

Just 100 metres away from Bung Hatta’s house is the Istana Mini, an elegant colonial mansion built in 1820 as residence for the Dutch Contrôleur or inspector/governor. The grounds of the residence face the sea and lead out to a small pier where the Contrôleur and his guests would have disembarked. The main building consists of six rooms, all sparsely furnished, in fact, empty. Off to one side is a statue of King Willem III (1817-1890).

Gereja Tua Banda

Heading back to the town centre somewhat I passed Gereja Tua Banda, an old church built in 1873. Inside, the floors are paved with a number of tombstones, mostly of Dutch but some British, many of which predate the church. Many of the tombstones are large in size and elaborately carved, similar to the Dutch graves found inside the ruined church on St. Paul’s Hill in Melaka.

Rumah Budaya Banda Neira

Just along the street, Rumah Budaya Banda Neira is a small local history museum. There are a few interesting exhibits here including a gory painting of Dutch atrocities against the Banda islanders using Japanese mercenaries to do their dirty work. Certainly the Dutch used harsh measures in order to gain monopoly control of the nutmeg trade and some scholars estimate that 90 percent of the local population was killed, enslaved or deported during the campaign.

San Tien Kong Chinese Temple

To round off the day I wandered through the main commercial streets, such as they are. There was not a lot going on. Most of the shops were shuttered for the day, or forever, and they were few in number anyway. The entire population of the Banda islands is probably less than 20,000 so I didn’t expect huge shopping malls. The Chinese population, who always add vibrancy to south east Asian towns and were once numerous on Banda, have largely moved on elsewhere and only a handful of families remain. The Chinese temple was locked up and looked abandoned. Christians too have mostly migrated to other islands following sectarian conflicts in the late 1990s.

I had a quick look at the fish market, all closed for the day but still reeking with dried fish being left out in the open on the waterfront. Then I watched the boats at Banda Neira Harbour overlooked by Gunung Api which is my destination for tomorrow.

DAY 2. Hiking Gunung Api

Early the next day I arranged through my hotel for a boatman to ferry me over the short stretch of water from Banda Neira market jetty to the trailhead of Gunung Api, the perfect cone-shaped volcano whose name means ‘fire mountain’.

The volcano is 640 metres high and is still active with the last major eruption being in 1988, spewing a river of lava into the sea, luckily not in the direction of Banda Neira town. This day there was just a wisp of smoke rising from the summit, merging with low clouds.

The hike started with a sweaty but pleasant climb through spice gardens, bamboo glades and jungle before emerging onto a steep, bare slope covered in loose volcanic scree. This part was exhausting but from around 500 metres above sea level the path became firmer underfoot. With no shade, I was glad of my long sleeves, hat, sunblock and plenty of water.

The view from the crater rim was great, especially looking back over Banda Neira. I could see the airport where the runway looked worryingly short from this height.

I descended without incident and managed to find a boatman to take me back. The whole hike took me about 4 hours up and down. Younger, fitter people can do it in 3 hours.

Peter Piper Picked A Peck Of Pickled Peppers

Since I still had nearly half a day I asked the boatman to drop me at the third of the Banda islands, Banda Besar. As the name suggests it is the largest of the three but thinly populated and mostly covered in jungle.

Above the village of Lonthoir, reached by a 313 step staircase, is Kelly Plantation where I could see nutmeg trees up close.

In the early 1600s nutmeg was more valuable than gold. A small sackful could fetch enough money in London to last a lifetime. Why was nutmeg so valuable? During the black death it was believed to be able to ward off bubonic plague, perhaps because fleas dislike the smell of nutmeg. (Would it work for coronavirus? Probably not). It was also an efficient preservative enabling meat to be kept for longer periods without going off.

As mentioned the Dutch tried every trick in the book to hang on to their nutmeg monopoly, even going so far as to produce deliberately misleading maps to hide the islands’ location. But eventually nutmeg plants were smuggled out and successfully transplanted elsewhere. One man who is often credited with doing this was Pierre Poivre, an 18th century French missionary, trader and adventurer who went on to to become Governor of Mauritius where he established botanical gardens for propagating his smuggled nutmeg, cloves and other spices. This man, whose name literally translates as Peter Pepper, is often thought to be the origin of the Peter Piper tongue-twister.

Benteng Hollandia

Close to Kelly Plantation is another old Dutch fort, Benteng Hollandia.

This fort was built of coral stone in 1624 to guard the sea approaches to Neira and to monitor the activities of the nutmeg and mace trade in the area.

The fort was devastated by an earthquake in 1743. It was later repaired but neglected again from 1811 onwards and today is in ruins. Its hill top position means that it has excellent views towards Gunung Api.

DAY 3. Snorkelling

My hotel manager recommended the best spots for snorkelling in the sparking, clear waters around Banda. The area where lava flowed from Gunung Api’s 1988 eruption is particularly rich in coral and diverse marine life. The lava initially killed off the coral but it has since recovered and regenerated into a beautiful underwater landscape.

I spent a pleasant day relaxing on the beach and snorkelling above the coral. Remembering the fortune-teller’s prophecy in which I am to be eaten by a shark (see here) I didn’t go looking for reef sharks.

That completes my virtual holiday. Having spent some time researching this post I think I now know the Banda Islands quite well and there’s no need for me to visit in real life. That’s saved me quite a lot of money. Thrifty Traveller!

Kokeshi Style Motorbike Helmets

Motorbike helmet designs tend to cater mostly for male tastes since men form the majority of the motorbiking population. In Indonesia however, where there are thought to be over 80 million motorbikes on the roads, with millions of women riders, helmet designs are emerging to appeal to the vast female biker market.

IMG_2980 (1)

Cute, cartoon character type designs seem to be particularly popular. I thought this design was quite good, based on the traditional Japanese kokeshi doll. 


There’s No Macassar Oil In Makassar

The Indonesian city of Makassar may not be that well known in the West these days but back in the 1800s it was literally a household name, or at least Macassar Oil was.


Macassar Oil was a product for strengthening and smoothing down hair and was popular with both ladies and gentlemen. The leading brand was Rowland’s Macassar Oil, marketed by a fashionable hairdresser called Alexander Rowland (1747-1823) and his son of the same name.

The son authored a book with the snappy title ‘An Historical, Philosophical, and Practical Essay on The Human Hair Combining a Full and Copious Description of its Growth – Analysis of its Various Properties – the Causes of its Varied Colours – Elucidation of the Different Disorders to Which it is Subject, and the Best Means of Eradicating those Diseases: Interspersed with Numerous Interesting Anecdotes.’

In his surprisingly interesting book he explained the origin of the name Macassar Oil:

The Macassar Oil is so denominated, because it is composed of vegetable ingredients produced from an exotic plantation, appertaining to the Island of Macassar.

He boasted that the Oil had gained the august patronage of the Princess of Wales, the Duke of Sussex and ‘His Imperial Majesty the Emperor of all the Russias’.


Lord Byron swore by it.

Rowland’s book quoted a letter from a gentleman living in Macassar in 1809:

Macassar is the most beautiful of the Phillipine [sic] Isles. Its climate is delightfully pleasant, its natives harmless and peaceable, its soil luxuriant. Europe has derived, (through the meritorious exertions of Messrs, Rowland and Son) the benefits arising from the well-known produce of the Macassar Tree. I do not wonder that ignorant persons should doubt the virtues of the Macassar Oil, when they call in question the existence of such a place.

This tree’s scientific name is Schleichera oleosa and other common names include Kusum Tree and Ceylon Oak. The oil is extracted from its seeds.

The book contained a number of testimonials from grateful customers claiming the wondrous benefits of this follicular tonic, said to cure baldness, greying, scalp diseases, dandruff, ringworm and even headaches. One such testimonial read:

I have made use of Rowland’s Macassar Oil and it has produced so plentiful a crop that you have mistook my head of hair for a wig.

In case the writing is too small for you the caption reads “An Oily Puff for Soft Heads”. Talking about Byron perhaps?

If Macassar Oil was so effective you have to wonder why it has all but disappeared from the market and why there are still so many bald headed people around. Could it be that some of the claims were exaggerated, or made up?

Personal hygiene was poor in those days. Bath night, and hair washing, was for many a once-a-week event. Ordinary homes did not have running water.  Cold water had to be heated on a stove and poured into a copper bathtub, placed in the living room in front of the fireplace.

People would have slapped scented Macassar Oil on their hair to disguise the hair’s greasy appearance and to improve its odour, remembering that nearly all men smoked in those days.


One particularly dirty fellow who refused to wash following the death of his fiancée on their wedding day, was mentioned in Rowland’s book:

The truly eccentric character, the late Nathaniel Bentley, of Leadenhall Street, generally known by the name of “Dirty Dick”, was at one time distinguished for having his hair dressed in the extremity of fashion; but in his later days how altered! – his hair which was totally grey stood up “like the quills of the fretful porcupine,” forming at once a singular and almost frightful spectacle.

I used to frequent Dirty Dicks pub in nearby Bishopsgate many years ago which, inspired by Bentley’s filthy home, included decorations like cobwebs and dead cats.


To prevent the greasy Macassar Oil from ruining the furniture, people used to place removable and washable covers called antimacassars on the backs and arms of armchairs and sofas. I remember seeing antimacassars in people’s houses when I was young but not surprisingly they are out of fashion now except perhaps on trains in places like China, Vietnam and Japan.

Macassar Oil has made something of a comeback in Britain in recent years as beard oil due to the current popularity of going unshaven but this stuff is made mainly from coconut oil rather than Macassar Oil Tree.

Minyak Tawon is the top selling souvenir product from Makassar. This magical medicated oil is highly rated for relieving muscular aches and pains and arthritis, alleviating the effects of insect bites, acne and boils, curing cold symptoms and more. However it is not meant for hair and does not claim to cure baldness.

Since I was in Makassar recently and I am in need of something to restore my sadly depleted hairline I thought I would see if I could find any Macassar Oil. Nearly every souvenir shop and supermarket sold locally made oil but it was of the medicated rubbing variety (minyak gosok cap tawon) for relief of aches and pains rather than for promoting lustrous locks. It seems that hair oil is no longer a famous local product. I guess I’ll just have to wear a hat!

Makassar Attractions


I had been wanting to visit Sulawesi for a long time. When I was at school, aged around 11, I remember our teacher asked everyone to write a non-fiction essay on any topic we liked. Most of my classmates wrote about their pets or favourite football teams. I wrote about Celebes, which is how Sulawesi used to be spelt. Partly my odd choice was driven by practicalities. I had access to the volume of Encyclopaedia Brittanica which included the letter C, so here was my source of information in those days before the internet. But I was also attracted to the strange shape that Celebes made on the map, like some deformed sea creature or crocodile. I was also curious about the photos of strange houses with upturned gables. It wasn’t a great essay and I was probably told off for plagiarism but since that time Sulawesi has been on my ‘must visit’ list.

MakassarFifty years later, I finally made it to the southern Sulawesi city of Makassar and the surrounding area. I would have preferred to visit Manado in the more scenic north and the central highlands where the Toraja people have their upturned houses and unusual burial customs but they will have to wait for another day.

Makassar is not really a tourist destination. It is a major port and most foreign visitors are seamen but there are a few sights worth seeing.

Fort Rotterdam


This Dutch-built fort sits in the heart of town. Behind its robust walls are a number of buildings which would look at home in Holland. One of them houses a museum called La Galigo, which sounds Iberian but is apparently named after an ancient book written in the local Bugis language. The fort has been well preserved but I felt that more could be done to turn it into a world class attraction.


For me it was interesting to compare this Dutch East India Company fort with the English East India Company fort that I visited last year in Bengkulu. The English one looked more solid and better designed for defence but the Dutch one looked more comfortable for its occupants. Since disease was a bigger killer than invaders, the Dutch were probably right to concentrate on comfort and hygiene.

Dutch Era Buildings

Makassar has seen enormous urban regeneration but a few buildings survive from colonial times including:

Makassaarsche Apotheek ( a pharmacy).

Former Governor’s Residence (now a police station).

Protestant Church & Vicarage

Museum Kota Makassar (former town hall).

District Court Building.

Catholic Church.

Mandala Monument


This striking monument commemorates the wresting of West Irian (Papua) from Dutch control in 1962 and its eventual integration into Indonesia.

Losari Beach

There is no longer any actual beach on this stretch of waterfront in the centre of town but it is a popular place for locals to hang out, eat and watch the sunset.

Fish Market


Like all fish markets in this part of the world, a tolerance for strong smells and gory sights is required to visit this colourful and lively place, especially the fish-gutting section which is enough to put anyone off becoming a pescetarian. Everybody who works here is covered in fish scales.

Paotere Harbour


My trishaw driver told me that this is the best place in Indonesia to see traditional wooden Bugis sailing schooners (prahus) being loaded and unloaded, though I do remember going to a similar place in Jakarta many years ago.


I was told these boats belong to people from Flores.


While these ones are the Sulawesi Bugis boats.

Street Markets

I passed a couple of street markets in Makassar.


This street was lined with kambing stalls and even though the goats were not tethered they obediently stayed in their stalls, oblivious to the fate which awaits them, poor things.


Similarly these chickens were patiently waiting to be bought.


This banana vendor appeared to have enough stock to last for a while.


Ukulele and tubers.

Benteng Somba Opu


Since I did not have time to visit the Toraja Highlands the next best thing was Benteng Somba Opu on the outskirts of Makassar where they have examples of the amazing Tongkonan traditional houses with the curved boat-like roofs.


There are also replicas of other stilted houses here and a museum.

Toraja Church


Talking of Toraja, I noticed this Toraja Church decorated with tribal motifs. The steel towers, instead of bearing crosses, appear to be topped with a couple of parrots.

Vihara Girinaga


I noticed this yellow pagoda away in the distance from the roof of my hotel and set off on foot to find it. Forty minutes later I arrived, rather sweaty, just as a couple of volunteer staff were commencing their duties and they very kindly gave me a tour around.


This Buddhist temple is not quite complete but it has amazing altars, murals and displays on each of the eight floors of the pagoda, including one floor with a mini Angkor Wat model, very beautifully done at considerable expense.

Bantimurung National Park


As mentioned in my last post, this national park is famed for its myriad butterflies. Other attractions include a couple of caves and a very lively waterfall.

I have marked all these places on this map, as accurately as possible, in case you would like to visit any of them.

In Search of Wallace – Part 9: Celebes – Macassar


Last week, after a break of several months, I resumed my efforts to retrace Alfred Russel Wallace’s footsteps in the Malay Archipelago, this time by visiting the area around Makassar in southern Sulawesi. (I’ll use the old spellings of Macassar and Celebes for the purpose of this post.)

Wallace reached Macassar in August 1856 on board the schooner Alma, brimming with optimism. He wrote:

I left Lombock on the 30th of August, and reached Macassar in three days. It was with great satisfaction that I stepped on a shore which I had been vainly trying to reach since February, and where I expected to meet with so much that was new and interesting.


His first impressions of the town were positive:

Macassar was the first Dutch town I had visited, and I found it prettier and cleaner than any I had yet seen in the East. The Dutch have some admirable local regulations. All European houses must be kept well white-washed, and every person must, at four in the afternoon, water the road in front of his house. The streets are kept clear of refuse, and covered drains carry away all impurities into large open sewers, into which the tide is admitted at high-water and allowed to flow out when it has ebbed, carrying all the sewage with it into the sea.

Today Macassar is a city of around 1.5 million but in Wallace’s time it was a lot smaller:

The town consists chiefly of one long narrow street along the seaside, devoted to business, and principally occupied by the Dutch and Chinese merchants’ offices and warehouses, and the native shops or bazaars. This extends northwards for more than a mile, gradually merging into native houses often of a most miserable description, but made to have a neat appearance by being all built up exactly to the straight line of the street, and being generally backed by fruit trees. Parallel to this street run two short ones which form the old Dutch town, and are enclosed by gates. These consist of private houses, and at their southern end is the fort, the church, and a road at right angles to the beach, containing the houses of the Governor and of the principal officials. Beyond the fort, again along the beach, is another long street of native huts and many country-houses of the tradesmen and merchants.


The fort, called Fort Rotterdam, still survives and is one of the town’s top tourist attractions. This, together with the church, the adjacent vicarage, and a handful of other colonial-era buildings are all that remain of the old Dutch town.

societeit de harmonie

There was no hotel in Macassar so Wallace stayed initially at the Dutch club, known as the Sociëteit De Harmonie, located close to the fort. The building still stands, though much altered in appearance, with a sign showing it has been used as an art centre.

Wallace slept here.

Wallace’s initial optimism soon turned to disappointment and by September he was writing to a friend:

At length I am in Celebes! I have been here about three weeks, and as yet have not done much, except explored the nakedness of the land,–and it is indeed naked,–I have never seen a more uninteresting country than the neighbourhood of Macassar: for miles around there is nothing but flat land, which, for half the year, is covered with water, and the other half is an expanse of baked mud (its present state), with scarcely an apology for vegetation…. Insects, in fact, in all this district there are absolutely none.

Wallace wanted to widen his search:

Before I could move to any more promising district it was necessary to obtain permission from the Rajah of Goa, whose territories approach to within two miles of the town of Macassar. My friend Mr. Mesman kindly lent me a horse, and accompanied me on my visit to the Rajah, with whom he was great friends. We found his Majesty seated out of doors, watching the erection of a new house.

The Gowa Regency was abolished by the Dutch after Wallace’s visit but the area where Wallace and the Rajah may have met (Benteng Somba Opu) has been turned into a museum, with the remains of demolished fortress walls on display together with a number of replica traditional buildings from around Celebes.

The Raja’s new house might have looked like this one.

Wallace didn’t think much of the local coffee:

Some wine was then brought us, and afterwards some detestable coffee and wretched sweetmeats, for it is a fact that I have never tasted good coffee where people grow it themselves.

Nowadays the local coffee is quite drinkable. In fact the Gowa Regency has even inspired its own brand.

In the interior of southern Celebes the villagers were unused to seeing foreigners:

Not a single person in the village could speak more than a few words of Malay, and hardly any of the people appeared to have seen a European before. One most disagreeable result of this was that I excited terror alike in man and beast. Wherever I went, dogs barked, children screamed, women ran away, and men stared as though I were some strange and terrible cannibal or monster. …… If I came suddenly upon a well where women were drawing water or children bathing, a sudden flight was the certain result; which things occurring day after day, were very unpleasant to a person who does not like to be disliked, and who had never been accustomed to be treated as an ogre.

The locals are more much accustomed to seeing foreigners nowadays. Instead of running away they ask to take selfies.

Wallace had much better luck in searching for species at Maros, which he visited during a second trip to Celebes from July – November 1857:

After much inquiry I determined to visit the district of Maros, about thirty miles north of Macassar.   ….    Passing over an elevated tract forming the shoulder of one of the hills, a picturesque scene lay before us. We looked down into a little valley almost entirely surrounded by mountains, rising abruptly in huge precipices, and forming a succession of knolls and peaks aid domes of the most varied and fantastic shapes.

This area is now a national park called Bantimurung.

Bantimurung National Park. Wallace might have liked this treehouse.

The rare and beautiful Butterflies of Celebes were the chief object of my search, and I found many species altogether new to me, but they were generally so active and shy as to render their capture a matter of great difficulty.

They are not easy to photograph either, as this blurry picture shows. I must invest in a good camera and super-dooper lens one of these days.

Here is one you missed Mr. Wallace. I’ll name it the Papilio Russel Bantimurung in your honour!

In these rocky forests dwell some of the finest butterflies in the world. Three species of Ornithoptera, measuring seven or eight inches across the wings, and beautifully marked with spots or masses of satiny yellow on a black ground, wheel through the thickets with a strong sailing flight. About the damp places are swarms of the beautiful blue-banded Papilios, miletus and telephus, the superb golden green P. macedon, and the rare little swallow-tail Papilio rhesus, of all of which, though very active, I succeeded in capturing fine series of specimens. I have rarely enjoyed myself more than during my residence here.


There is a rather tatty butterfly museum inside the national park containing some fine butterfly and moth specimens caught locally and elsewhere in Indonesia. Wallace’s name appears under a number of the specimens for having provided the original descriptions.


Wallace counted 250 species of butterfly at Bantimurung and dubbed the area the Kingdom of Butterflies. When a local university professor carried out a census in 2005 , only 125 species were identified. Given the number of stalls outside the national park selling butterflies I suppose we should be grateful there are any species left at all.


Wallace is still remembered at Bantimurung. He even gets a prominent mention on the National Park’s official website.

Ouessant & Pasopati

I have been on two submarines in recent months. Not underwater thankfully but safely berthed on land and now serving as museums.

KRI Pasopati


The first is the Submarine Monument in Surabaya, Indonesia. KRI Pasopati is a Whiskey-class Soviet-era submarine built in Vladivostok in 1952 and acquired by the Indonesian Navy in 1962.

It weighs 1048 tons and is 76 metres long. She was well armed with 6 torpedo tubes, 4 at the bow and 2 at the stern. I had not realised how huge these torpedo are – probably over 6 metres in length.

The submarine has seven cramped compartments housing the torpedoes, the diesel-electric engine, navigation, communication and other equipment as well as the living accommodation for a crew of around 50 men.

According to the museum’s brochure, this vessel participated in Operation Trikora,  an Indonesian military operation to gain control of Netherlands New Guinea, which later became Irian Jaya (now Papua / West Papua).

SMD Ouessant


The other sub I visited is the Ouessant which is now the Submarine Museum in Melaka, Malaysia. The Ouessant is an Agosta-class conventional (non-nuclear) submarine built in Cherbourg in 1978 for the French Navy. She was decommissioned in 2001 and from 2005-2009 she served as a training vessel and used to train Royal Malaysian Navy personnel, while still based in France. Since she was never really integrated into the Malaysian Navy fleet she maintains her French name.


This submarine is shorter than the Indonesian one (67 m ) and is designed for a complement of 5 officers and 36 men. She only has forward-facing torpedo tubes but can also deploy Exocet missiles.


Boys and girls considering a career as submariners should visit museums like these before they sign up. The claustrophobic working conditions would put most people off and the courage needed to serve in a submarine during wartime means that only a special kind of person need apply.

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.


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.


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.

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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