Killing Time in Semarang

22 comments
Asia, Indonesia, Southeast

The Kudus Regency pavilion at Puri Maerokoco, Semarang

The city of Semarang, the capital of Indonesia’s Central Java province, is the place where I was born. However, since the age of 1.5 years old I have been moving around the country with my parents following my father’s assignments from the government institution he used to work at. As a kid my memory of Semarang was limited only to things I experienced during the occasional holidays my mother and I took to visit her older sister in the city, which included going to the cinema to see Aladdin (my first-ever Disney movie), riding bumper cars and a static racing motorcycle which emulated the feeling of being in a real race, spending hours at my late uncle’s house watching Scooby-Doo, and marveling at the empty packages of tea boxes adorned with beautiful batik patterns which he designed for one of Indonesia’s biggest tea companies. There was not much of the city itself that I remembered.

It wasn’t until 2007 when I finally returned to Semarang for an extended period of time following my decision to quit the food business I ran with a few friends from college. In spite of the fact that it was the city where I was born, I came to Semarang as if I was meeting a new person. I had no expectations toward it and all I wanted to do was to know it. In those months of being unemployed, almost every morning when the sun had yet to rise I would drive my father’s car around the city, cruising along its wide and smooth streets, going up and down the hilly terrain, and trying out different routes. After spending five years in Bandung – West Java’s provincial capital – known for its narrow and winding streets, Semarang was like bliss, and I gradually fell in love with my birthplace.

Several months later I got a new job which required me to move to Jakarta, Indonesia’s fast-paced and hectic capital which is home to more than 10 million people and among the worst traffic in the world, and had to bid adieu to Semarang once again. Since then I usually return to the Central Javan city only once a year, a place where my parents have been continuously living for more than ten years.* On every trip I would try to visit new places, including famous landmarks, as an effort to try to know the city better despite calling the Indonesian capital, some 400 kilometers away, home. I’ve been exploring new places in Semarang as well as revisiting those I had gone to years earlier to witness how some of them are slowly changing for the better, including Lawang Sewu which underwent major renovation work to shed its reputation as one of Indonesia’s most haunted buildings. I’ve also noticed the growing number of visitors to the city’s once-forgotten old town district.

However, on a trip to Semarang toward the end of Ramadan last year, I came to a point where I got a little bored. Not because the city lacked interesting places to visit; Sam Poo Kong’s bright red façade surely is visually appealing, but having been there twice already made me wonder whether a third visit would be necessary. The same thoughts also applied to the Great Mosque of Central Java, where I went the year before, and the ancient Hindu temples of Gedong Songo to the south of the city which I’ve also visited twice.

Another part of the Kudus Regency pavilion

The pavilion from the Pati Regency, my father’s hometown

Kartini, Indonesia’s most iconic women empowerment activist; tropical blooms

Into the mangrove forest

The Blora Regency pavilion with a sate/satay vendor statue

Blooming Adenium

The pavilion of the Surakarta Regency, modeled after its royal palace

The pavilion of the Grobogan Regency, home to Java’s most famous mud volcano

I’m not the most religious person, but since fasting has become an annual ritual in my family (and it’s an easy way to lose weight) I joined my parents in their fast which meant I couldn’t eat or drink anything from dawn till dusk. My mother’s cooking, on the other hand, has always been among the highlights of any visit to Semarang, and even James who my parents now consider as their own son agreed in a post he wrote a few years ago. So I was left with even more limited number of options to kill time: playing with the house cats, re-watching some movies in my collection (I ended up introducing James to the Harry Potter series), and … suddenly I remembered a place my mother suggested to me some time in the past.

“What is there to see in Puri Maerokoco?” I asked my parents. “You can see different styles of houses from Central Java,” my father replied. “It’s quite interesting.”

Certainly it wouldn’t hurt to go there, I thought. So one morning James and I decided to see it, and to our delight, we had the place almost entirely to ourselves, save a handful of other visitors.

Laid out as a miniature version of Central Java, and corresponding to the exact location of each city and regency on the map, the whole complex is filled with pavilions in the shape of traditional houses. The Surakarta pavilion exudes a royal ambiance as it was modeled after the palace in Solo. Meanwhile, the Jepara pavilion is unsurprisingly adorned with fine wood carvings the regency is famous for. A statue of sate/satay vendor sits in front of the Blora pavilion, a nod to purportedly its biggest ‘export’ to many places across Indonesia, while near the Rembang pavilion the statue of Kartini – who fought for women’s rights in Indonesia – stands proudly under the bright sun. Some pavilions, that of Pemalang for instance, unfortunately seemed not well taken care of with its paint peeling off and its signboard partially damaged. However, it still fared better than the Temanggung pavilion which was completely destroyed by fire five years ago and remains in ruins to this day.

A quiet morning

The pavilion of the city of Semarang

The city of Magelang pavilion

Vibrant color of Bougainvillea flowers

A Cosmos caudatus bloom

The sad state of the Pemalang Regency pavilion

The pavilion of the Cilacap Regency, Central Java’s southwesternmost regency

My parents’ house cats from last year

Another black cat they had

Guarding the bamboo bridge

Another excursion we ended up doing was a revisit to Kota Lama, Semarang’s old town district built when the city was an important trading port during the Dutch colonial period. However, years of neglect had left its many structures derelict and crumbling, and this condition was exacerbated by the area’s susceptibility to coastal floods which periodically inundated parts of the old town. Fortunately, the rise of the internet – and later social media – has brought Kota Lama to the attention of the general public, not only those residing in Semarang, but also all over Indonesia.

Gradually more and more structures within the old town limit have been renovated, and businesses are starting to trickle in. The government’s decision in 2015 to officially submit an application to UNESCO to include Semarang’s Kota Lama in the organization’s prestigious World Heritage Sites list further boosted the area’s popularity. Change was evident on my latest visit: what was once an abandoned German-owned general store has been turned into a trendy bar and bistro attracting old and young visitors, including my own mother who had gone with a few relatives two years ago; small-scale cafés also popped up at the back streets of the old town, bringing life to what used to be a humdrum of grey buildings.

Semarang’s ambition for Kota Lama is rather high: making it a UNESCO World Heritage Site by 2020. It is, of course, up to the judging panel whether they agree with the Indonesian city’s conviction or not. It is obviously not in the interest of Semarang to see its only submission ending up in the tentative list – a growing catalog of sites submitted by Indonesia which have yet to gain the coveted World Heritage Site title. Currently there are only eight such sites in the country with its latest addition seven years ago.

While waiting for what will happen to Kota Lama in a few years’ time, I’m more concerned with what to do and visit when I go back to Semarang for Idul Fitri (Eid al-Fitr) next week. Watch this space!

The renovated office of Djakarta Lloyd

Bank Mandiri’s branch in Kota Lama

Fresh paint, fresh look

An ongoing facelift for Semarang’s old town district

Kota Lama’s typical traffic

The iconic dome of the Blenduk Church

A refreshed look for Spiegel, a former German-owned general store

Livelier alleys of Kota Lama

The Marabunta Theater

*This was my last trip to my parents’ old house, since they have moved to another place on the city’s outskirts.

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

22 thoughts on “Killing Time in Semarang”

  1. Looks to me like lots I’d want to revisit in Semarang, but I know the feeling. I’ve been returning to my birth place often since moving to Canada and feel I’ve exhausted all I want to revisit although I never get tired of going to the art galleries as Vancouver’s are absolutely not worth even a peek.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Probably the only place in Semarang that keeps making me coming back is the old town district for every year there seems to be one or two buildings that have been renovated to their former glory. I didn’t expect Vancouver’s art galleries to be that dull given the city’s multicultural scene.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I went to Semarang years ago, for a business trip, and even though I only spent Less than 24 hours total (and the bulk was spent in office), somehow I fell in Love with city. Can’t wait to go back, especially after watching the film Ave Maryam.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Ahh that movie — a good friend of mine told me that it’s very thought-provoking. As a person who has a deep connection with Semarang I’m always delighted to see films or music videos shot in the city, with Kota Lama as the usual backdrop of course.

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  3. Oh the terrible, terrible problems of spending a long time with parents in a small town 🙂 🙂

    Thanks for this wonderful post. These are things that I would not see as a tourist, but they are the things that give a place its character.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Semarang is actually not that small at all, although compared to other provincial capitals on the island of Java it certainly feels the most laid back. It’s been developing, for sure, but not as rapidly as other cities which probably explains why after all these years I start to feel boredom creeping in me whenever I go there. But it certainly is interesting to see how the city’s old town district transforming itself.

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  4. It was lovely getting to know your hometown of Semarang, Bama. It’s interesting how we might not be attached or interested in a place where we once were, but now feel connected to it after all these years. Quite a few lovely flowers around and your close-up shots are spectacular, very clear. Sounds like you had a good time visiting Puri Maerokoco and revisiting Kota Lama. Maybe Kota Lama will get heritage accreditation in the next year. I haven’t visited, but from the looks of it, Semarang looks like a rather peaceful town and not as hectic as Jakarta. Hope your parents are enjoying their new home 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • The pace of life in Semarang is a far cry from that of Jakarta, which is good if you’re visiting the Central Javan city for a couple of days. But I realized that a week is probably the most I can withstand staying in Semarang for whatever Jakarta has always makes me miss the latter. Maybe this year I’ll take photos of my parents’ new house and the neighborhood, and write a post about it. 🙂

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  5. Our childhoods were quite different in that I lived roughly 23 years in the town of my birth (although I did go to college out of town) yet I still feel like I am rediscovering it when I visit.

    It looks like quite an interesting town, and with so many cats, you can never be too bored when you go back.

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    • Sometimes I envy people who have a strong connection with their hometown, a place where you feel that you belong to. That’s how I gradually feel about Jakarta though, a city where I’ve been living in for 11 years.

      Unfortunately when my parents moved they didn’t bring along those cats. But I think it’s just a matter of time before some stray cats start coming in their new house.

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  6. Mas Bamaaaaaa…
    Mungkin lebaran besok saya sekeluarga akan lewat Semarang dan uugh, sebelum buka puasa mungkin kami akan mampir ke Puri Maerokoco itu, sepertinya menarik ya… terima kasih banyak lho sudah berbagi tempat wisata. Tahun lalu saya naik vespan keliling kota lama hahaha asyik juga. Semarang memang seru dikunjungi yaa… dan makanannya itu lho… duh kalo inget… jadi lapar hehehe… ups puasa yaa… 😀 😀 😀
    BTW, kok saya membayangkan mas Bama masih piyiik banget waktu nonton aladdin ya dan scooby-doo hahaha…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Di Semarang nginep mbak? Kalau pas kebetulan Mbak Riyanti lewat jalan yang menuju Demak itu udah deket tuh sama rumah orang tua saya yang baru. Tapi biasanya macet setau saya, hehe..

      Wah waktu nonton Aladdin saya masih piyik kinyis-kinyis mbak. 😀

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  7. Semarang seems like the perfect antidote to Jakarta, a great place to go to escape some of the madness, even if just the traffic! I love hearing about your family history, geographic and otherwise. Hope your parents are adjusting to their new house!

    Liked by 1 person

    • It really is, although to be honest whenever I stay in Semarang for more than four days I always miss Jakarta so much. The new house is located a bit far from the city center, but I quite like the calm neighborhood. The garden is starting to take shape and their white cat seems happy with her new home.

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  8. I enjoyed reading about your background and the city of your birth. Despite trying to find interesting things to do, you still seem to have an obvious connection to your birthplace. I grew up in a town just outside Montreal and lived there for 17 years. In the late 70s, for political reasons, there was a mass migration of English- speaking Quebecers to other Canadian provinces (me and my family included). Although I enjoy occasional visits to Montreal, I don’t feel any ties (probably because I have no family or close friends there).
    I’m impressed that you are able to fast from dawn until dusk. I’m sure I’d be a cranky mess.Your mother’s cooking sounds legendary. I guess if you don’t find anything to do next week, at least you will be able to feast on your mom’s food. I have always wanted to take part in an end of Ramadan feast. Enjoy the holiday and please take food photos!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I have relatives from my mom’s side in Semarang, and we still see each other whenever possible. Tomorrow we’ll go to another city, 2-3 hours east of Semarang, to join a gathering of my dad’s big family.

      I’m so sorry for what happened to you and your family who had to move out of Quebec. I have to admit when I was very much a Francophile many years ago, I supported Quebec’s Frenchness. As I grew older and learned more about the historical background of Quebec’s political conditions, I realized that it’s far more complicated than what I used to think. I’m glad that today there seems to be a stable balance between the interests of Quebec and those of Canada’s federal government.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. No worries Bama. It was a long time ago and it all worked out for us. My dad chose to leave Quebec because at the time he was managing a German-owned company and found the new language laws too restrictive to effectively run his business, plus there was the very real threat of the Quebec sovereignty movement. I agree, the situation was complicated and while there are still issues from time to time you are correct that there is a much more stable balance now.
    I hope you have a great time with your family!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Good to hear that, Caroline. As expected, I ate a lot this past week. I’ve returned to Jakarta last night, and despite all those delicious dishes my mom made, it feels good to be back to this big city.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Bama, I was expecting to become extremely bored during our most recent visit to Semarang, but surprisingly that was not the case! I think a do-nothing holiday was just what I needed after an incredibly hectic month of deadlines and work trips. 🙂

    It was great to revisit Kota Lama and see the new pavements and vintage-style street lamps installed. Now I just wish they would take a leaf from Europe and pedestrianize the main road! Though your parents’ new house is beautiful, tranquil, and full of natural light, I do feel a pang of nostalgia at seeing the photos of the cats taken at the old house, and those beautiful green tiles around the courtyard.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Glad to know that! 😀 Actually there’s this ‘Instagrammable’ place which is supposedly not too far from where my parents now live. But it’s basically an old quarry which now people refer to as the ‘Brown Canyon’. I’m not sure about going there.

      What I’m quite curious about is Purwodadi with its mud volcano and eternal flame which has been revered since the Majapahit era.

      I do miss the cats, and hopefully Si Ngeng will get better when we see her the next time.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Tiap tahun pasti ke Semarang tapi baru tau ada Puri Maerokoco. Ini semacam Taman Mini Jawa Tengah gitu ya? Ada parade kuliner jugakah.. *ujung2nya makanan*

    Btw di sisi lain aku pasti selalu ke Kota Lama Semarang, suka banget sama bangunan2 klasiknya!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Badai! Long time no see. Iya, ini semacam Taman Mininya Jawa Tengah tapi secara luas lebih mini dibanding TMII. Pas aku ke sana pas libur Lebaran sih, jadi suasananya juga cenderung sepi.

      Eh Kota Lama Semarang lagi berbenah lho. Semakin cantik sekarang, soalnya dalam rangka ngejar pengakuan UNESCO sebagai situs warisan dunia.

      Like

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