Travel | People | Culture

My Surabaya Sun

Shaianne Osterreich shares her fondness for East Java’s coastal capital.

Every time I came home to Surabaya, for the near-year I lived there, when I stepped off the plane, I thought “Oh, there’s my Surabaya sun”. Always shining, (ok, except for during the rainy season), the sky bright blue, and panas. So strong in fact that when I walked across my campus at the University of Surabaya, I was often jealous of the students that had umbrellas. But, as a fan of the sun, and of clear blue skies, I found it very comforting that this East Javanese village of over 4 million people never let me down.

Sunny Surabaya. Sunny Surabaya.

When you find yourself in Surabaya, whether for work or on a stop-over, you should take a few days to look around. The expat community is quite small and walking through even the Tunjungan Plaza, Surabaya’s (currently) biggest mall, will probably draw some stares. It’s not a city about foreigners. It’s also not a city dedicated to the memory of traditional Javanese culture like Yogyakarta. Rather, it’s a thoroughly modern Java. The city is replete with a growing collection of malls and hypermarkets; highly observant Muslims and a thriving Chinatown; mosques dedicated to the founders of Javanese Islam and those built recently with Saudi sponsorship; and weekly drag shows featuring Dangdut performances at the local amusement park (Taman Remaja) – combining bumper cars and waria nightlife in one fell swoop.

Minke (the hero of Toer’s infamous Buru Quartet) hailed from Surabaya and returned there, as many do, to go to University. It’s probably not a coincidence that this “City of Heroes” was also key in the fight for Independence. Indonesian nationalists declared independence here just after the end of WWII saw the defeat of the occupying Japanese. However, the British helped the Dutch re-capture their colony in the Battle of Surabaya, and so the city had to wait, along with the rest of the country, until 1949 when independence was officially granted.

This battle is memorialized all over town, particularly at the Tugu Pahlawan monument. But no visit to Surabaya is complete without a trip to the beautiful Majapahit Hotel, where nationalists gathered to discuss plans for revolt. This thoroughly enchanting spot has been well-preserved, and if you squint you might be able to see the likes of Graham Greene sipping his whiskey in the lobby bar. The dark wood and colorful stained glass combined with lovely gardens and high arches make for an excellent example of Dutch colonial architecture. Even if you don’t stay there, you just must go for a drink in the bar or dinner at Sarkies, arguably one of the best Chinese restaurants in East Java.

For hundreds of years Surabaya has been a significant port and trading city for Eastern Indonesia. Currently, the major official products to come out of its port include sugar, tobacco, and coffee. Unofficially, it’s legacy as a port city has also helped make Surabaya a major sex-trafficking hub (something that has contributed to the growth of the ‘Dolly Brothel Complex’ – allegedly the largest red light district in all of Southeast Asia).

Despite this dubious distinction, Surabaya’s port city atmosphere should be experienced, which is easily done by taking an easy 30-minute ferry over to Madura. You can spend anywhere from a couple of hours to a couple of days exploring this little island – the far eastern side of which offers lovely beaches in Sumenep. The best time to go is during August or September so you can see the colorful and exciting bull racing – the Madurese prepare all year for these races and it’s well worth the trip. Just go to Tanjung Perak, the Surabaya harbor, and follow directions for Madura.

Gateway to Chinatown.Gateway to Chinatown.

Kya-Kya, Surabaya’s Chinatown, is located in the northern part of the city, and in the evenings the main street is shut down to cars and a pedestrian area is opened up offering a plethora of Chinese-Indonesian food options and some shopping. Also located in these parts is a Chinese Buddhist Temple, Tri Darma Temple, where they will happily show you around and may even give you an I-Ching reading. Nestled in the Chinese quarter, which is mostly made up of old Dutch buildings, the walk to the temple affords you the opportunity to stroll, which is not so easily done in the Indonesian big city.

Not far from Kya-Kya is Ampel, the Arab Quarter, originally the home of the region’s Yemenese population. Named after Sunan Ampel, one of the five walis who brought Islam to Java in the 15th century, this compound contains Sunan’s tomb as well the oldest mosque in Surabaya, Masjid Ampel. The narrow and very colorful streets are alive with activity and are easily walkable. They all lead eventually to the bustling market that brings you directly to the mosque. As long as you dress respectfully (for women that means having your head covered) you should have no problem wandering around this area and the mosque all afternoon.

Rolling kretek cigarettes at the House of Sampoerna.Rolling kretek cigarettes at the House of Sampoerna.

When you are done exploring Ampel you should go directly to Café Sampoerna, also in the North. Located in the House of Sampoerna, a colonial-style Dutch compound built in 1862, this site includes both a neat museum and spot to view women workers speedily rolling Sampoerna kretek cigarettes. The food is amongst the best in Surabaya, both for lunch and dinner, and the art-deco décor is delightful. It’s also one of the few places you can get Storm Brew, the excellent micro-brew from Bali. The cool air-con will be welcome after an afternoon in the hot Surabaya sun.

Lastly, if you happen to be in Surabaya during Ramadan, you must go to the warungs around Masjid Agung (Al-Akbar) in southern Surabaya, on Jalan Achmad Yani, in Gayungsari. The area around this beautiful and imposing blue mosque, the newest in Surabaya, comes alive with activity as families gather in the late afternoon to buy food to break the daily fast. With the soft setting sun in the background there is lovely a festive feel to the air, not to be missed.

First published in Kabar 2006.

Surabaya Specifics

Places to stay

High End:
Majapahit Hotel
Jl. Tunjungan
+62 31 545 4333 65

Affordable and nice:
Santika Hotel
Jl. Pandegiling No. 45, Raya Darmo
+62 21 532 8682, 535 7573

Narita Hotel (lovely Javanese style)
Jl Barata Jaya XVII/57-59
+62 31 501 6969

Places to eat

Café Sampoerna
Jl. Taman Sampoerna 6
+62 31 353 9000

Café Jendela
Jl. Sonokembang – right in downtown Surabaya. Offers excellent Indonesian and Western food in a lovely garden setting. In addition to the food you will also enjoy the invariably high quality live music that plays every night. Also, for the ladies, attached to the restaurant is a shop called Read’s that sells unique and colorful handbags and jewelry – I found it hard to resist buying something every single time I popped in.

Sarkies in the Majapahit Hotel
Hachi-Hachi (Sushi) in Tunjungan Plaza (fifth floor TP4).
Bakerzine (Frenchish café food) in Tunjungan Plaza (third floor TP4).

Night Life

Colours on Jalan Sumatra
Hugo’s in the Sheraton Hotel downtown.
Redboxx at the Supermall Pakuwon Indah

Getting to Surabaya
There are frequent flights from Jakarta, but if you are coming from Yogyakarta I strongly suggest the train – the Executive Class Argo Willis is a cheap and easy way to see the East Javanese country side and it brings you right into downtown Surabaya.

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