A Short Escape to Ambarawa

Asia, Indonesia, Southeast

The Blue Bridge in the village of Sumurup on the northeastern shore of Lake Rawa Pening

“Please take me somewhere out of town. I want to see something refreshing.”

That was a request my mother made over a phone call prior to my week-long holiday in Semarang back in late May/early June this year. For months until my father’s death in February, she had been taking care of him nonstop which meant weeks after weeks of sleep deprivation and mental exhaustion. And just as the traditional 40-day mourning period had ended, in April she had to accompany her brother who was hospitalized for about a week due to a problem in his lower abdomen (sadly he passed away a few months later due to a heart attack). So for her, my visit this time would be cathartic, hence that request.

At first, I had the city of Solo on my mind, partly because of the cancelled trip to this part of Java James and I had planned right before the start of the pandemic last year. However, due to the rising number of Covid cases (later I realized it was in fact the beginning of Indonesia’s deadly second wave which brought the country’s health system to the brink of collapse) and the complexities that might arise should we insist on making this trip, I opted for a place that is much closer to Semarang and somewhat less popular among tourists.

Ambarawa was an easy choice since James and I had never been and it’s supposed to have a beautiful landscape, something my mother needed. Also, its relatively short distance from Semarang – around 40 km south of the city center – meant we could go there on a day trip as opposed to staying overnight at a hotel. This town of around 60,000 residents – which would probably qualify as a city in other parts of the world – is famous among Indonesians not only for its view of Lake Rawa Pening with the backdrop of some of Java’s towering volcanoes, but also for its historical sights. And the good thing is all of these are outdoors, a safer option for the three of us as the pandemic is not over yet. With that in mind, I looked up the weather forecast to make sure that we would go on a sunny day.

Weather forecasts can be wrong, unfortunately.

The morning we left for Ambarawa, I looked up to the sky and was immediately worried at the prospect of a cloudy day. But it was supposed to be sunny! However, we had no other option but to stick to the plan, because how would we otherwise spend the day?

Driving along the picturesque toll road that cuts through the hills to the south of Semarang managed to lift my worry about the weather a little bit. It was one of the most beautiful drives I’ve ever done in Indonesia, and seeing my mother’s happy face when she saw the scenery – verdant, undulating terrain with a vast expanse of land in the east where the sun was slowly coming out of the clouds – was enough to assure me that all would be well.

Just before 7 am, we arrived at our first stop on the northeastern shore of Lake Rawa Pening. Created more than 10,000 years ago, the natural body of water was very calm that morning, with only a handful of other visitors in sight. The three of us followed a path that led to a bridge, past an excavator which reminded me of a sad reality this otherwise peaceful place has been facing for years: its area is shrinking due to sedimentation, driven by the relentless spread of water hyacinth (Eicchornia crassipes), an aquatic plant native to the Amazon and an invasive species that now covers many parts of the lake. This causes problems for the local fisheries, further exacerbating other ecological issues in this area.

However, upon seeing how life unfolded for the locals amid the serene surroundings, my mind was immediately transported to Inle Lake for the apparent similarities both places share. James and I took a boat to explore the latter in Myanmar back in 2015, and we were fascinated by the water-bound life the local residents were tied to. Although this time we didn’t hop aboard any small craft to tour Rawa Pening, I could imagine how much the people in this area also depend on the lake to sustain their lives: from fishing, farming, handicraft-making to tourism. The view would have been even more dramatic had the clouds on the horizon not obstructed the volcanic peaks in the background.

Tourist boats moored near the bridge

I’m curious about the function of these seemingly functionless poles

Going for work

Behind those thick clouds are towering volcanoes

Can you see the tower?

A group of tourists heading toward an idle excavator

Invasive water hyacinth

Life on the lake

From the village, we headed to the center of Ambarawa to visit our second stop of this day trip: Fort Willem I. The 19th-century Dutch-built stronghold was constructed in this part of Java due to its strategic location as a choke point between Semarang (where the main port of this region was located) and Surakarta (the seat of one of Java’s most influential royal courts as well as an important hub for the island’s sugar industry). This allowed the colonial power to watch the movements of the local population as a preemptive measure should there be any uprisings against the Europeans.

I decided to park the car at the railway museum, our third stop which is located just a kilometer away from the fort, not knowing that I could actually park very close to the latter’s entrance instead. But it made for a nice morning stroll along the town’s main road, down a narrow street next to an expanse of ripening rice paddies. Of course, both James and I had to adjust our pace with my mother’s.

The fort, now better known as Benteng Pendem (sunken fort), was turned into a prison after Indonesia gained its independence, and it has been serving this purpose up to this day. Only the northern, crumbling part of the compound is open for tourists, quite a contrast to the southern, whitewashed section of the fort. Some would call this place eerie or haunted, but to me the exposed red bricks, the weathered walls partially covered by moss, and a small wooden bridge that might collapse at any moment were collectively beautiful despite their imperfections. Earlier this year, however, the Ministry of Public Works and Housing announced that they would revitalize this Dutch-era fort. How successful it will be is something we can only see in a few years’ time.

Due to the compact size of the area that visitors can explore, it only took us around fifteen minutes to get all the photos we wanted. And as the sun was already quite high, we decided it was time to walk back to the museum, our third stop. Fortunately, we were not in Semarang, a city whose heat and humidity can be unbearable especially on sunny days.

Walking toward Fort Willem I

A former bastion of the fort, now surrounded by paddy fields

A pathway to the past

The northern entrance of the fort

Inside the dilapidated structure

Tourists can only go as far as the end of this walkway

Abandoned but not forgotten

Two Muscovy ducks outside the compound

Celosia argentea, a plant native to tropical Africa

Bright colors of Portulaca oleracea blooms

A lot of Indonesians can’t live without chilies (including me)

Old and new

Rice, the staple food of most Indonesians

Officially the Indonesian Railway Museum, the compound which was declared a heritage building in 2010 is also tied to the history of Ambarawa as a Dutch military outpost. Several years after the completion of Fort Willem I, a new train station was built in the town by the Nederlansch-Indische Spoorweg Maatschappij (NIS – one of the first railways operators in the Dutch East Indies) which was headquartered in Semarang. It was commissioned to help the Dutch transport their troops to other places in Java that were under the European power’s control.

In 1976, decades after Indonesia’s independence, the train station was converted into a museum to house steam locomotives from the Dutch colonial era. And today, it’s the place to go in the country for railfans. It’s also quite popular among the general public, especially on weekends when people can take a train ride aboard a vintage carriage specifically operated for tourism purposes. But we were there on a weekday, so we should be content with exploring the museum only. While it was interesting to see how a train station was run back in those days, there were a few things at this place that intrigued me more than others. First, a turn table. Not the one used by DJs at night clubs, but rather a giant circular rotating platform onto which a locomotive was loaded to change its direction. Then a train used on the island of Madura – off the coast of East Java – that was only rediscovered in 1985 after being buried in mud for years. Also vintage train stops that were dismantled at their original locations to be reassembled at the museum. For today’s standards they look no different from a warung, a modest stall that sells anything from groceries to food.

It was nearing lunchtime and my mother started looking tired, but I could tell that she was happy because that was the first time in half a year that she was finally able to leave the city for a change of scenery and not think about taking care of anyone. Mission accomplished.

The museum’s steam locomotives depot

A beast from the past

Made in Switzerland

The former Ambarawa station

A well-preserved station

An old wooden ticket booth, relocated from another train station

The station’s waiting room

Beautiful tiles of the lounge

An off-limits section of the old station building

Is it time to ring the bell?

Old fire extinguishers

This one was manufactured in Belgium

Reassembled train stops

This train was used on the island of Madura

How a turn table looked like in the past

Leaving the museum

Rawa Pening from a height

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

55 thoughts on “A Short Escape to Ambarawa”

  1. So sorry to read about your uncle Bama. What a rough time your mother’s been through! This delightful outing must’ve lifted her spirits somewhat.

    Ambarawa sounds Sri Lankan to me! And those lake photos with the boats do look straight out of Inle Lake. A true hidden gem with a gorgeous train station to boot. Impressed by how well maintained it is.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Madhu. It has been a really difficult and challenging year for her, indeed. But everything that has happened proved how strong she is.

      I wasn’t expecting to hear a comparison between Sri Lanka and Ambarawa, but I get what you mean. If only those mountains were visible on the day we went. Oh well, the most important thing is my mom was genuinely happy during this half-day outing.


  2. hcyip says:

    Interesting place, Bama, especially the scenic lake and the railway museum which is quite well maintained. My sympathies on the loss of your uncle. Your mother really has had to deal with a lot.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Hilton. In hindsight I guess it was the right decision to pick Ambarawa for it was mostly calm and quiet wherever we went — which was probably the best for my mom given her circumstances. I was also pleasantly surprised by the good condition of the railway museum.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. What a heartwarming post, Bama. It’s so nice that you got your mother out for an excursion after all the stress and sadness of losing both her husband and brother. My condolences to you as well on the loss of your uncle.

    The old fort among the beautiful green of nature makes for wonderful photos. The railway station reminds me so much of some of the beautiful colonial-era stations in Sri Lanka (although these were British). I recall a waiting room in Haputale that looks very similar.
    I’m sure, in the end, the lack of sun didn’t really matter but I can relate to the frustration of changes in weather forecast. I had a chuckle about the 60,000 population “town”…definitely qualifies as a city around here.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Caroline. She definitely needed this short break. I know I wished for a better weather, but thinking about it now it was actually perfect for my mom. It wasn’t hot, and it wasn’t raining either.

      I didn’t go to Haputale when I visited Sri Lanka. Did you take photos of the waiting room at the train station? I tried to google it but couldn’t find any image of it.

      A village in Indonesia would probably qualify as a town in Canada. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • I wish I had taken a photo but it’s imprinted in my mind–the dark wood furniture, white walls, tiled floor. I’m pretty sure it was Haputale because we spent a lot of time at that station waiting for a delayed train. I also remember that it was probably an off-limits room because the door was closed and no one was sitting inside (I was frantically looking for a bathroom…didn’t find it there).

        Liked by 1 person

      • Oh no! I can imagine how frustrated you must have been for not being able to find a bathroom at the train station. I don’t know if you can see them, but the bathrooms in the waiting room at Ambarawa train station are located at both ends of the big mirror — both still have Dutch words for men and women above the doors.


  4. Not only lack of sleep and mental exhaustion, I’m sure your mother suffered from emotional exhaustion too. A touch year—losing two family members. Sometimes you must wish Semarang was closer.
    I hope when the restoration is done on the other part of the fort that they leave some in its present state as it has a lot of character.
    Have you ever been to the other Ambarawa in Sumatra?

    Liked by 1 person

    • For sure, Mallee. I’m glad that she lives in a city where she grew up because some of her friends from school as well as some relatives helped her a lot during those difficult times.

      That’s also my hope, because when overly done, restoration works can sometimes erase a place’s character that made it interesting in the first place.

      I had never heard of the other Ambarawa until you mentioned it. How did you find out about it?


  5. This sounds like a wonderful day, both as a break for your mum, and because there’s so much to see and do there. I wonder if the prisoners are better housed in the other part of the fort? It looks pretty forbidding.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It really turned out to be a lovely day. My mom took some pictures from the places we went to and sent them to her friends. I could tell she was happy. Prisons in Indonesia are generally not up to standard and often overcrowded. I don’t know if that’s also the case with the one in Ambarawa — I certainly hope not. There are talks about revitalizing this fort, which makes me wonder if they’re going to move the inmates somewhere else. But I can’t find any details about it.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Sorry to hear about your father and uncle. You took found a beautiful place to take your mother to. Lake Rewa Pening has an interesting geology, and yes, your photos reminded me of lake Inle. I suppose the excavators there are dredging the bottom?

    I love your photo of these ruins. Brought to mind decaying and abandoned colonial structures anywhere in Asia. Nature can take over these places very quickly.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, I.J. I had known about the lake for a long time, but for some reason despite its proximity to Semarang I never went there until a few months ago. It surely didn’t disappoint.

      I believe that was exactly why those excavators were there.

      Especially in humid Ambarawa, old structures can deteriorate much faster than they would in drier places. And let’s not forget about earthquakes and volcanic eruptions in this part of the world — the very reasons why ancient ruins on Java are not as well-preserved as in other places in the region.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. What a memorable trip this will always be for you. I seem to feel in your photos the quiet comfort that you said your mother experienced in Ambarawa. My condolence on your loss. Hoping this finds you safe and healthy.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sure it will. I’m glad we went there on a weekday, although that meant we couldn’t try taking the old train. But I think my mom needed the tranquility more than anything. Thank you for your sympathy, Atreyee.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. J.D. says:

    Sorry to hear of your losses, Bama. How nice that you could take your mother out for some fresh air and change of scenery. It looks so peaceful there.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Julie. I think we picked the right day to go because in the end everything was perfect for her — the very reason why we did this trip.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. sorry to hear of your losses, Mas Bama. It’s really nice that you can take your mother on a short trip. This is my first time hearing about Benteng Pendem, I wish the government can take care of the fort as well as Museum Ambarawa.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Terima kasih, Mbak Ira. I guess Benteng Pendem is popular mostly among those who live in Semarang and the nearby cities. I hope the revitalization project that is being carried out by the government to this fort will ensure the survival of this historical structure for many generations to come.


      • Ira says:

        aamiin!! I hope with the revitalization, many tourist can come and see the fort, so Benteng Pendem can be more popular.

        Liked by 1 person

  10. That sounds like a winner of a day – a new place for you and James to see and a much-needed escape for your mom, who has certainly had her share of losses in recent months. I love the opening photo of the blue bridge in the morning mist!

    Liked by 1 person

    • In the end, everyone was happy, and that’s the most important thing. My mom certainly had a very tough year, but she is a very strong woman (although sometimes she may not feel that way). When she made that request, it was easy for me to say yes. I found that blue bridge randomly when I was googling options for accessing the lake. I’m glad we went there.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Looks lovely and it confirms that sometimes you don’t have to go far to find nice places and relaxing time. Glad you were able to support your mom in this difficult time. (Suzanne)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Due to travel restrictions during the pandemic many of us are ‘forced’ to look at places closer to home. And we are often surprised by what we find. Merci Suzanne!


    • The pleasure is mine, Yos. Ambarawa is a nice place to explore at a slow pace, which was a nice change from the fast life in Jakarta.


  12. Sending my sincere condolences to your Mom. To lose your Father and her Brother in such a short span is heart breaking. Wonderful that although she may have been tired, she enjoyed the trip. Nothing like a change of scenery and surroundings to lift the spirits.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Sue. Last night when I was talking to her on the phone, at one point she mentioned about her late brother. His death really hit her hard because it was so sudden. I’m planning to see her again probably in December, so I might need to start thinking of a new place to take her this time.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. I hope your mom had a pleasant day trip! She deserves an (or multiple) escapes after such a difficult time. The weather is not optimal for photographing. But I think it is better to walk around when it is cloudy. “No rain is good enough”, that’s what my mom often says 🙂
    I like the photo of the lakes. They are impressive, even though only the silhouette of volcanoes is visible.

    Liked by 1 person

    • She surely did. If it was too hot or raining, I think she would have enjoyed the trip less. Your mom is right; as long as it’s not raining, all is good. Maybe one day I’ll return to Ambarawa when it’s sunny and the visibility is good, so I can take photos of the volcanoes as well.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. Sorry to hear about the hardships your family has faced this year, Bama. Best wishes to all of you. It is so lovely of you to think of your mother and take her on a nearby trip to Ambarawa, not too far from Semarang and the weather quite agreeable on your trip. Looks like you got quite a few photos of and around Fort Willem I. The birds, flowers, chillis and paddy fields give signs of life amidst the dilapidated structures – and all well captured. The Indonesian Railway museum looks like it captured transport and travel through Indonesia over the years, and the steam trains do look well kept from the colonial era. If you had went there in the weekend, I can imagine you having run riding on the trains 🙂 Glad your mother enjoyed the trip 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Mabel. Driving her to Ambarawa was nothing compared to everything she had to deal with earlier this year. The advantage of going there on a weekday was that there wasn’t too many people in each place we went to — which was the best thing to do because of the pandemic. The ripening rice was a pleasant bonus. Overall, it was indeed an enjoyable trip.

      Liked by 1 person

  15. We all thought 2020 was bad enough but 2021 has been even more difficult in so many respects. It will take time for your dear mother to rest and recuperate and I look forward to taking her abroad with you someday. The Indonesian Railway Museum was truly fascinating – of the places we went to in Ambarawa, that was my favorite. Funny how the Dutch commissioned such a large structure for a relatively small town, but as you said it was all for military reasons. Hopefully the restoration of Benteng Pendem will be done sensitively and in a way that preserves its underlying charm.

    Liked by 1 person

    • So true. 2021 has been tough in many ways, surviving it would be good enough. After that trip to Ambarawa, I’m now curious about other places around Semarang — Salatiga is high on the list. Although a change of scenery to the east — like Grobogan — would be interesting as well. I was pleasantly surprised that the railway museum in Ambarawa was quite well-maintained, which was evident in each nook and cranny I explored. About Benteng Pendem, I wish what the government does will have the same result with what has been done to Lawang Sewu: shedding their ‘scary’ reputation of them.

      Liked by 1 person

  16. How wonderful to take your mom on this trip after the hard time you two have had. I can see why Lake Rawa reminds you of Inle, it’s a lovely setting with locals using the lake fior survival. The Fort although not maintained you can see how beautiful it must have been and surrounded by the green fields make great pictures. Maggie

    Liked by 1 person

    • I have a feeling had I taken a boat ride across Rawa Pening, it would have felt even more similar with Inle Lake. Although some people think the fort is rather scary or haunted, I found it very photogenic. I guess the fact that there were hardly other visitors made this visit even more enjoyable.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Henry. This railway museum is certainly something you shouldn’t miss then when you travel to this part of Indonesia one day!

      Liked by 1 person

  17. I can completely see how the lake reminds you of Inle Lake, Bama. The colourful boats are my favourite picture.
    There is something about old, crumbling buildings that speak to my soul, and I sometimes wish they could be stabilised at exactly the right moment to not further decay, but not restored. The part of the fort you could visit tick all the right boxes for what I consider charming and excellent subject matter for photographs. Yours are great, so by the way.
    What a surprise the railway museum was for me, as it isn’t a place I would have picked to visit, yet your photographs convinced me otherwise.
    Such a lovely outing. I’m sure it was exactly what your mother needed.

    Liked by 1 person

    • We have the same thought about old buildings, Jolandi. Although I understand that in some cases the only way to save this kind of structures is by restoring them. However, sensible restoration is key in order for us to not lose their charm. I don’t usually visit a railway museum either. I’ve known about the one in Ambarawa since a long time ago, yet I had never gone there until this year. But like everyone else, I was pleasantly surprised by how interesting it was. I guess from now on my mom will expect me to take her somewhere out of town whenever I come to visit her. 🙂


      • Oh dear! But I’m sure you will be a good son and indulge your mom. 😇
        I definitely agree with you on sensible restoration, Bama. Especially as so often the people in charge get carried away and mess it up by over-restoring it to something it never was.

        Liked by 1 person

  18. Wonderful post, Bama, I think the time you spent with your mother after such deep losses for the both of you was special and something you both needed. With the difficulties of the past year, to be able to venture outdoors and enjoy time is such a blessing, and from your photos and description you found this with Ambarawa ~ Lake Rawa Pening with the backdrop of volcanoes is a scene I could spend days exploring and admiring even with the heat 🙂 The feel of nature wrapping itself around you and your Mom during this trip must have made her very happy. Wish you well, and take care.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Randall! It’s a good thing that a place like Ambarawa is not too far from the city where my mom lives. So, despite the pandemic, I could still fulfill her wish for going out of town. How about you? Have you been able to travel? I hope things are going well for you and your loved ones.


      • Thank you, Bama, things are well all things considered. I’ve been able to travel a bit with work between Czech and the USA (Seattle / Portland area). Agree with you, that being able to get out a bit is made more important due to the pandemic. Wish you all well.

        Liked by 1 person

  19. First of all sorry to hear about your father and also your uncle. I lost my father too in 2020. Reading about your travel with your mother lifted my spirits. So nice of you to take her out on travel and have her experience a change. The lake is lovely and the fort is intriguing. The railways museum looks nice too though I am not a very museum person.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Neel, and I’m sorry for your loss too. I wasn’t particularly close with my father. But losing him was (and still is) really hard. I’m really glad my mother enjoyed this excursion because that was the very reason why we went to Ambarawa. And despite the not-so-ideal weather, those places actually exceeded my expectations.

      Liked by 1 person

      • In fact my Varanasi visit this time was related to my father’s demise. I went there to immerse his remains in River Ganga. My father was very keen to visit Varanasi and I had decided to take him there but destiny had other plans. Hence, decided to take his remains there.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Linda. We surely did, and this half-day trip to Ambarawa turned out to be a nice one. Luckily last week my mother and I managed to do another excursion, this time to a small city where my parents used to live.

      Liked by 1 person

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