Semarang: My Cherished Hometown

68 comments
Asia, Indonesia, Southeast

Semarang’s Kota Lama (Old Town)

“Semarang is squeezed in the middle,” a pun my father once told me about the Central Javanese provincial capital which is also my hometown. We were discussing about how slowly Semarang developed compared to other major cities in Java – Jakarta, Surabaya, Bandung and even Yogyakarta. Jakarta and Surabaya have become Indonesia’s financial hubs since the country’s independence, while Bandung and Jogja – Yogyakarta’s nickname – are thriving thanks to the energy and creative minds of students from all over the country who study in both cities, home to two of Indonesia’s three most prestigious universities.

Every year, I return to Semarang to celebrate Idul Fitri – an annual festival comparable to Thanksgiving or Chinese New Year where millions of people flock to their hometowns and gather with their families. Flying in to Semarang, the majestic view of Mount Sumbing and Sindoro (Sundoro) is always a treat for the eyes. But as I get off the plane, the modest airport never fails to remind me of what my father said many years ago. The city’s sole airport is so small the ones in Manado (North Sulawesi’s capital which is home to half as many people as Semarang) and even Ambon (Maluku’s capital with a population half that of Manado) appear larger and more modern. A house is how I always describe Semarang’s airport to my friends and coworkers in Jakarta who have never been.

Semarang does develop, though, albeit in a very Indonesian sense. A new shopping mall was opened a few years ago, while new hotels keep springing up in the city, making its skyline more crowded every time I come. But taking in a bird’s eye view of Semarang (in my case from the observation deck of Asmaul Husna Tower in the grounds of the Grand Mosque of Central Java), one will notice that all tall buildings in the city seem to abruptly halt once they reach a certain height. This is, in fact, largely caused by the regulation that limits building heights in Semarang due to the location of the airport, roughly 4 km (2.5 miles) from the city center.

The 18th-Century Blenduk Church

The Former City Hall of Semarang

Soaking in the Morning Sun

Tawang, the City’s Main Train Station

Getting Lost in Kota Lama

Willem III Lighthouse, Built in 1884 at Semarang’s Old Port

A Bird’s Eye View of the Central Javanese Provincial Capital

Local Teenagers Enjoying the View of the City

Similar to other Indonesian cities, motorbikes proliferate in the streets of Semarang as procuring one becomes much easier and cheaper these days. Following in the footsteps of Jakarta and Jogja which have implemented relatively successful Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) systems, Semarang rolled out its own BRT network which has been in operation for eight years. Until a few years ago, the red Trans Semarang buses were emblazoned with Saatnya Semarang Setara, ‘it’s time for Semarang to be equal [with other cities]’, yet again confirming what my father told me. However, it has now been replaced by Semarang Hebat!, ‘Semarang is great!’. What is not so great is the fact that these buses always belch out black smoke, making me wonder whether traveling with one’s own car is actually better for the city’s air.

Speaking of the air, Semarang is notorious for being really hot and humid, even more so than Jakarta. So why do Jakartans as well as people from other cities often go to Semarang for their holiday? For a big city – more than 1.5 million people call Semarang home – the food in Semarang is incredibly cheap. The same kind of dishes cost only half, or even a third, of the price in Jakarta – that is of course if one stays away from the malls. But exactly because of this, Semarang’s food scene has been relatively slow to catch up with that of other cities because for many of the city’s residents, paying more for a new and foreign dish while you can get a delicious meal of local food for a fraction of the price just sounds ridiculous.

Then there is the eclectic amalgamation of cultures that enriches the city’s soul. Semarang has a thriving Chinese community that has contributed to some of the city’s most famous dishes, including lumpia (a local version of spring rolls), as well as rich Dutch heritage which is not only reflected in the plethora of colonial buildings, but also in some dishes, including ganjel rel (a dense cake made with cinnamon, fennel, sesame and palm sugar). Semarang’s Javanese community, obviously, has also added a lot to the city’s long list of sought-after dishes.

Out of the city center, up the rolling hills of Upper Semarang and beyond, ancient Hindu temples dating back to the eighth century – when Hinduism and Buddhism were the dominant religions in Java – provide a glimpse to the past. While the five remaining temples of Gedong Songo compound are spread all across the slopes of Mount Ungaran, lesser-known Candi Ngempon is hidden amid rice paddies on a river bank. Over the course of millennia peoples from far-flung places come and go to this part of Java, each leaving a thread that has been woven into a colorful tapestry Semarang is known for today. A home for a diverse populace, it is not surprising that Semarang resisted the formation of a hardliner group’s local chapter to prevent toxic religious rhetoric from disseminating among its residents.

The Grand Mosque of Central Java, the Largest Mosque in Semarang

Asmaul Husna Tower within the Grand Mosque Complex

Sam Poo Kong Temple

Awe-Inspiring View of Volcanic Peaks from Candi Gedong Songo

Candi Gedong II, One of Five Reconstructed Temples at Gedong Songo

Rice Paddies around Candi Ngempon

Candi Ngempon, Gedong Songo’s Less Popular Sister

Museum Ranggawarsita, Central Java’s Main Museum

Javanese Decorations inside the Museum

An Ancient Artifact which Now Calls Museum Ranggawarsita Home

As for the city being a rich and colorful tapestry, one teacher hailing from a poor area in downtown Semarang took this literally by initiating a movement that would drastically transform his neighborhood. Wonosari, now better known as Kampung Pelangi, ‘Rainbow Village’, was quick to become an internet sensation thanks to countless selfies that people took there and shared on Instagram. It certainly was not the first rainbow village in the world, but it transformed into one at a time when social media has become part of people’s daily lives. Predictably, this once drab neighborhood suddenly attracts a huge number of visitors, most of them joining the colorful selfie craze. Local businesses are benefiting too, with shop owners at the lower level of the hilly village reaping the most profits. However, it is yet to be seen whether this creative approach to fighting poverty will also benefit those who live at the upper level as going up to the very top of the village can be quite challenging to some people.

A few hundred meters from the village lies one of Semarang’s most iconic landmarks. Lawang Sewu is an early 20th-century Dutch building which until recently was more well-known for being a haunted place, rather than its beautiful colonial architecture. On public holidays, tour buses now also make a stop at this historical monument, conveniently located just a short walk away from the city’s hub for buying local snacks (Indonesians have a preference for edible souvenirs). The local kids, on the other hand, like to play at a small garden across Lawang Sewu where a phallic monolith stands in the middle of a pond with fountains.

My father, who has always been a biking enthusiast, used to make the roundabout in front of Lawang Sewu the starting point of his round-the-city cycling excursions. As he retired two years ago, he made new friends who are even more crazy about cycling than him, and since then they have traveled exclusively by bike to places hundreds of kilometers away from Semarang. Never has he been so active and fit! Meanwhile, my mother, who was born and raised in Semarang but had to move to other cities following my father’s assignments in places as far as Borneo, has been able to reconnect with her high school and college friends, even some people from primary school as she told me. Together they occasionally arranged trips to places around Java with my father joining them most of the time.

Despite being one of the major cities in Java, Semarang still, to some extent, retains its small city charm. The pace of life is slower than in Jakarta, and the people are friendlier. It is a perfect place for my parents to retire – where they have a lot of friends while still being able to access the conveniences of a typical big city – as well as being an increasingly attractive place for young people to start their businesses. New cafes and restaurants are springing up in the city – with some young entrepreneurs turning dilapidated old buildings into cool hangout spots – and the art scene appears more visible in recent years. But to truly sense how the city is progressing, I don’t need to look far. Almost every time I come back to Semarang, I always take my mother to a frozen yogurt shop which also serves donuts and cool drinks. Frozen yogurt only entered the Indonesian market back in 2008, but it seems to make very slow progress in Semarang in spite of the city’s oppressive heat. But there she is, my mother enjoying every scoop of silky smooth frozen yogurt with tart fruit toppings of her choice in her own quiet and slow-paced way, at the city’s trendiest mall, epitomizing Semarang itself: it progresses slowly, at its own pace and taste, but it’ll surely get there.

Semarang’s Kampung Pelangi (Rainbow Village)

Even the Cat Has to Look Twice at the Electric Colors

A Formerly Drab Neighborhood Turned Vibrant and Exciting

Colors as Far as the Eyes Can See

Beautiful Stained Glass inside Lawang Sewu

Life at the City’s Old Port

My Mother’s Fiery Chicken

This One is Eel Smothered in Green Chili Sauce

Miskol, My Parents’ Cat, and Her Kitten Playing Around

Time for A Break

Sleeping Beauties

Sunset in the City

Posted by

Based in Jakarta, always curious about the world, always fascinated by ancient temples, easily pleased by food.

68 thoughts on “Semarang: My Cherished Hometown”

  1. I’ve heard so much about that rainbow village but has not yet visited it. I used to live in Salatiga so I visited Semarang a lot when I was little, now Semarang is much more cleaner that the Semarang I remembered. I love the food of course and I appreciate the old town too. Your mother’s fiery chicken looks fiery indeed Bama!

    Like

    • I guess that means the next time you come to Semarang, you can explore the village and take a look at the recently-restored Lawang Sewu. I would love to visit Salatiga, but the fact that I return to Semarang every holiday season means the traffic between both cities is just like Jakarta, or even worse! I remember ten years ago the flood canal in Semarang was quite dirty. But a few years ago it was much cleaner and prettier. It’s always encouraging to see how things are improving. My mom loves chili, which explains why I love fiery dishes now. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Such a lovely city and you have captured it so well with the pictures and words.. I loved reading and getting lost in the diverse culture of this city. ..

    Like

    • Hi Ayesha. Thanks for your kind words! In a world filled with so much hatred (although there is just as much love, if not more), we all need to be reminded that diversity is an asset, not a threat.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Vina says:

    Bama kampung halamannya bersih banget. Kpn2 pgn travel kuliner ke Semarang. Oh ya sudah pernah nulis tentang Bandung ?

    Like

  4. Baik baik Bama! I look forward to adding Semarang to my Java itinerary.. when I get a chance to get off Bali for a change 😉 Beautiful photos of the kota, mountains, mosque.. and even your kittens. Makasih bnyk!

    Like

    • Hi Amit. It would be interesting to read about your take on Java. Some aspects on the island — including its many ancient sites — are a reminder of its Hindu past. But being the most densely-populated island on the planet means you have to be prepared for an adventure. 🙂 Thanks for reading!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. What a charming place. I’m going to see if I can find the recipe for gangel rel on line as it sounds delicious. Don’t feel bad about the airport. I recently flew to Dawson City and their airport wasn’t much bigger than my living room! To top it off, I was stranded because no public transport or even a taxi was available to get into town. Luckily, the locals were friendly and I soon got a ride.

    Like

    • There are quite a few recipes of the cake in Indonesian online, but I have yet to find one in English. It would be great if you can make it one day! Small airports in small towns is understandable. But Semarang is a city of more than 1.5 million people, therefore it deserves a much bigger airport. I read that starting next year they will expand the airport. But being Indonesia, I’ll believe it when I see it. Your story about the friendly locals is yet another reminder that there are still a lot of kindness in the world. Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts, Mallee!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks! My mom really is a great cook. I know I might sound biased, but everyone who has tried her cooking always attests to that. Being a big city, Semarang is not super clean like Singapore. But I can say that it’s quite a nice place to live.

      Like

  6. Semarang itu rasanya jauh dan ngga familiar buatku yang asal DIY. Kalo kota di Jateng rasanya kalah moncer sama Solo atau Magelang. Ngga tahu mungkin karena kota2 itu mudah diakses dari Jogja.

    Like

    • Apa mungkin karena jalur Jogja – Semarang itu sudah padat ya sekarang? Saya pulang kampung cuma pas Lebaran sih, jadi memang bahkan gak terpikirkan untuk perjalanan darat dari Semarang ke Jogja. Bisa tua di jalan. 🙂

      Like

  7. What a wealth of information, and all in the context of your own love for your home town. Thank you for the tour, and bravo for the photos that show us so vividly what you are describing.

    Like

    • Thanks for reading and for your kind words, Penny! When I started this blog seven years ago, I began to appreciate Semarang more. I started exploring places in the city I never knew existed, and as a result I now love the city more than ever.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I lived for a while on Lombok (long ago), visited Jogja and some other places, but never Semarang. So thank you for bringing it to me!

        Like

      • So the next time you come to Indonesia you know where to go. 🙂 Thanks again for sharing your thoughts!

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Wow what a beautiful blog post. I enjoyed reading it and learning about Semarang. It looks like a beautiful city – much different from my polluted and noisy hometown of Kathmandu. The purple pillars in the Grand Mosque Complex are stunning! I also love the rainbow village – looks lovely. I’d definitely take a selfie (or photos) there heheh. I hear about the explosion of food scene in Kathmandu too, although I haven’t lived there in 6 years. Frozen yogurts, Western joints, coffee places, Korean food seem to be the new obsessions. Your mother’s chicken looks appetizing! I’ve never tried eels – they always spook me a bit due to their resemblance with snakes.

    Like

    • Much appreciated, Pooja! I would say Semarang and Kathmandu are both fascinating in their own way. There’s no labyrinthine alleys in Semarang, nor the ornately-decorated Newari temples. But of course, Semarang is a more livable city with modern conveniences easily accessible by its residents. Those brights colors were brought to the village with selfie-takers in mind, indeed. 🙂 When I was in Kathmandu almost two years ago, I found a really nice restaurant which served Western and Nepalese cuisines, and I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the food there. Pooja, eels are delicious! You should give it a try when you find one.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Suwandi says:

    Splendid! Semarang is definitely now my next Central Java city to explore.

    Like

    • Semarang has a lot to offer: good and cheap food, ancient temples, multicultural scenes, and Dutch colonial buildings, among other things.

      Like

    • One thing I forgot to mention in this post is the fact that even though I was born in Semarang, I actually grew up in other places. My mother was born there too, and I have a lot of relatives from her side living in the city. When I was a kid, almost every year my mother and I took a long train ride from where we used to live to Semarang during school holidays. Only around ten years ago my parents moved back to the city for good. So technically I have many hometowns all over Indonesia. But Semarang has a special place in my heart.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. This is such a cool post! I love seeing your home town and reading about your parents — especially your dad being a cycling enthusiast. The Grand Mosque is particularly beautiful, and the Rainbow Village is awesome — amazing what a bit of color can do to invigorate a town and put it on the map. And then kittens… you ended with kittens AND a sunset! Perfection. Thanks, Bama! 🙂

    Like

    • Much appreciated, Kelly! I was shocked when one day my mother called and told me that my father would go on a long cycling trip with his friends. I know he’s been a cycling enthusiast for a long time, but I never imagined he would do something like that. But I’m really glad that he got a lot more active after retiring a year ago. The story of the Rainbow Village really is inspiring. It reminds us that no matter how small an initiative might seem at first, when it’s done with a good intention and at the right time the effect can be significant. Thanks again for your kind words and for sharing your thoughts!

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Thank you for this lovely virtual wander around your hometown Bama. The mosque is beautiful and I love that the colonial architecture is still pretty well preserved. And your excellent photos of your mother’s cooking are always a treat. Semarang reminds me of my own, even less developed, hometown in many ways, and I think its slower vibe might just appeal to me more than the larger cities.

    Like

    • My pleasure, Madhu. There has been a growing awareness among Indonesians about the importance of preserving colonial buildings, hence the ongoing restoration works in places like Jakarta and Semarang — which is very encouraging. Speaking of my mother’s cooking, I really miss those fiery chicken and eel dishes! She loves chili and I’ve been having her spicy food since I was very young. Chili is now one thing I can’t live without! I remember reading your story about Mangalore, and honestly it made me want to visit the city. Maybe one day when you also happen to be in town!

      Liked by 1 person

  12. How wonderful that your parents have retired in Semarang, which gives you the perfect reason to return to this lovely city every year! And while there you can enjoy some of Mom’s spicy cooking! And who couldn’t love the Rainbow Village – walking through there would brighten any day.

    Like

    • Exactly! It’s always nice to return to Semarang, a place with a much slower pace than Jakarta but big enough to have modern conveniences easily accessible at any time. My mother always makes sure that I eat well when I’m home, which means a lot of food and snacks which keep my mouth busy (and tummy happy).

      Liked by 1 person

  13. nurranovika says:

    Nice post, Mas Bama! Setelah merantau dari Semarang, terkadang saya melupakan estetika yg masih dimiliki kota ini. Sudah terlanjur kesal dgn semakin sesaknya jalan raya yg sejatinya jg dialami kota-kota lain~

    Like

    • Terima kasih ya. Pastinya jalanan di Semarang sekarang sudah lebih padat dibandingkan dengan 10 tahun yang lalu. Tapi menurut saya untuk saat ini Semarang masih bisa cukup dinikmati. Semoga ke depannya pembangunan di kota ini bisa dilakukan dengan cara-cara yang lebih sustainable, dan pembuat kebijakan bisa lebih memikirkan manfaat untuk jangka panjang, alih-alih keuntungan jangka pendek semata.

      Like

  14. I can feel your affection for your hometown! Although I now love living in or nearer to big cities, I always enjoy going back to my small, quiet hometown for a little break a few times a year. (“Small” is relative, I guess! Semarang is much bigger, but it still seems to retain that slower, small-town feel.) My parents are also gravitating back toward our old town, so I will be visiting even more in coming years as they move back more permanently. Wish we had that colorful Rainbow Village in our little city!

    Like

    • Same here, if I have to choose between living in a big city and a small village, I will definitely go for the former. But I wonder if 20 or 30 years from now I will change my mind. My parents live in a quiet, low-rise neighborhood which feels pretty much similar to where we lived in other much smaller cities before Semarang. I think as I grow older, the idea of having a hometown becomes more relevant (not so much when I grew up as a teenager in other parts of Java). It was very interesting to explore the Rainbow Village and see how such a simple idea could transform the entire neighborhood. The world needs more people like that teacher!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Liz! Actually even though I was born in Semarang I grew up in other cities as my father’s work required him to move to another place after settling in for 5 – 7 years in one city. But my parents moved back to Semarang about ten years ago, and now they’re enjoying their retirement in the city with their long-lost friends as well as new ones. There wouldn’t have been those dishes had the Spanish and Portuguese not introduced chili from the Americas to Asia!

      Liked by 1 person

  15. It looks like a really beautiful hometown. I have never been to Indonesia but would like to add it to my list of travel destinations in the coming year.

    Like

    • When it’s seen from the hills of Upper Semarang, the city even looks prettier. If you have enough time in Indonesia, a short stay in Semarang would be nice. Thanks for dropping by!

      Like

  16. Well written, mas Bama. I think you bring the whole Semarang here, making it a good mini guide for your readers. I love the “polder” in front of the station.

    Tapi nganu, terakhir kali aku mampir ke sana Juli lalu, beberapa sudut Semarang masih kotor, misalnya got-gotnya yang hitam dan mengendap tebal 😀

    Like

    • Thanks Nug! Nah, aku juga heran kok banyak yang komen Semarang keliatan bersih di postingan ini. Mungkin karena memang sudut-sudut kota yang masih kotor memang luput dari bidikan kameraku sih. Di selokan dekat rumah ortuku itu juga warnanya gelap. Tapi anehnya banyak yuyu yang hidup di situ.

      Like

      • (((Yuyu)))

        Ya ampun aku udah lama nggak denger kata ini. 😂😂😂 Kayaknya yuyu itu emang suka air yang agak kotor, mas.
        Di postingan ini Semarang memang terlihat bersih. Well, that’s good, minimal di pusat wisatanya udah bersih 🙂

        Like

      • Ooo gitu.. Baru tau aku. Adanya yuyu berarti gak bisa dijadiin patokan ya. Btw yuyu Bahasa Indonesianya apa ya? 😀

        Like

  17. Oh, that is nice and colourful virtual tour! 🙂 And here are the cats family – very cute set of photos. Bye and have a good Sunday. Kamila

    Like

    • Glad you enjoyed this post, Kamila. It’s always nice to play with cats or see them playing with themselves. 🙂 Have a nice Sunday too!

      Liked by 1 person

  18. Bama, thank you for introducing me to your beautiful hometown two years ago – you know how much I love the colonial architecture, the local food and especially your mother’s cooking! I do hope the ongoing restoration of Kota Lama picks up speed… it may be compact but it is far more charming than Kota Tua here in Jakarta.

    Like

    • The pleasure is mine, James. I heard from my mother that the city government is planning to close some parts of Kota Lama to traffic, which is the right thing to do to preserve those old buildings. I was a bit surprised though by the government’s decision to submit Kota Lama to UNESCO as a World Heritage candidate given the fact that a lot of things still need to be done to it. We’ll see how it goes.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s