(Published in the NOW! Jakarta Magazine, September 2012)


Heavenly Labuan Bajo Harbor, West Flores — gateway to Komodo Island.

Labuan Bajo

In the 1980s I worked in marine tourism, lecturing on the one small ship plying the Indonesia’s Eastern Islands. I remember Labuan Bajo on the western tip of Flores Island as a very sleepy, rather creepy small harbour town famed for Malaria and baby deer satay, and stunning scenery.
Today it is the “Gateway to Komodo” — the harbor boasts more luxury ‘boutique’ cruise vessels than anywhere in Indonesia. There is now a gays-friendly villa rental agency, a shop selling Komodo handbags, and an armada of re-furbished pinisi schooners.
In the old days one could only reach Labuan Bajo (and Komodo) via boat.

The Trans Air BAE jet that flies from Denpasar to Labuan Bajo daily.

Today there’s two or three direct jet flights a day from Bali, on Trans Air or Merpati, and a couple from Makassar and Kupang.
The airport is near town which is the harbor, with its amazing views and boats. Accommodation is still pretty basic — the Eco Lodge is recommended over the high-ride hotels springing up along the coast on tide of town; but the best thing to do is to jump straight onto a boat and make the sea your base. Most good restaurants are on the shore and have jetties.

Views from Rinca village, West Flores.

A dive Komodo boat in Rinca Bay, Labuan Bajo.

Portrait on the side of a Malay cottage on Rinca Island, West Flores.

Waking up in Labuan Bajo, or Komodo Bay for that matter are two of the special treats of Eastern Indonesian Tourism — the views from the deck are stunning!
One can patt around visiting colourful coastal Bajo villages on Rinca Island across the bay — Dive Komodo is a great source of good speedboats and divers — or travel inland a few hours drive to the culturally rich Manggarai heartland near Ruteng (also accessible by air from Denpasar). But the Labuan Bajo is rich in marine tourism treasures and other natural wonders.

The view from the hill above the Labuan Bajo harbor— an armada of luxury pinisi boats awaits marine tourists.

I have been to Komodo a few times in the past and am not sure that, give or take a few man-eating dragons, it’s more special that Labuan Bajo, but it’s still well worth the detour!

9 July 2012: To Solo for the wedding of Mohamad Sofyan and Irba Purnawati
During my travels around Indonesia I have been fortunate enough to make some great friends: now it’s time to go to their grandchildrens’ weddings!


Mohamad Syofan leads his bride Irba Purnawati into the yellow pavilion for the SUNGKEMAN filial piety ritual, nDalem Hardjonagaran, Solo


Among my Javanese friends there has been no greater inspiration and source of knowledge and great gossips than batik-empressario Hardjonagoro Go Tik Swan. His house is a temple to refined Javanese taste and culture. Harjonagoro passed away three years ago but his adopted son, Soewarno, has continued the batik business and maintains the exquisite courtyard home and art collection.
Today Soewarno’s son is marrying a Jogyakarta beauty and the courtyards are brimming with Pakubuwono Palace royals and nobles and dancers from the prestigious I.S.I. dance academy, plus representatives from Indonesia’s art and culture communities.


A bedoyo dancer from I.S.I rehearsing in the latihan at the Hardjonagoro house, Solo

A topeng dance at the nDalem Harjonegaran wedding, performed by dancers from I.S.I. Solo.

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Over the morning Soewarno stages a palace spectacle of such refinement and beauty — right down to KEJAWEN (ancient Java) era banana offerings on the golden pavilion’s posts — that, after two hours of bliss, one has to wrench oneself back into the rat race outside.

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One of Hardjonagoro batik artisans plays royal court lady-in-waiting at Sofyan and Irba’s wedding, Solo.

Solo still delivers that old world magic like nowhere else in Indonesia. One finds it at the Kraton Museum, the serabi (pancake) stalls and the ancient Hindu temples to the east.
Next month the Istana Mangkunegaran Palace is staging a production of classical Javanese Wayang “Matah Ati” with art direction by Jay Subyakto (Jakarta’s answer to Oliver Messel).
The town’s annual batik carnival is a full-blooded affair too — more bustier and sequined butterflies than you can poke a stick at.
Solo is also the heartland of Java’s batik industry and the home of many of its greatest exponents, such as Harjonagoro Go Tik Swan (house and showroom on Jalan Kratonan; open by appointment See wedding video: http://youtu.be/MDpDkXxhTdw)

From Solo one can head in any direction and find real cultural treasures. Last month I drove to Pati on the North Coast via the Gondi Forest and some lovely pastoral country; the northern plains are still pretty un-touched and I found village after village of traditional joglo-style Javanese architecture.

Many of the villages are reached by long straight lanes off the main road and are surrounded by thickets of tall bamboo, simulating a green fortress effect. Half of expatriate Bali now live in joglo style homes (with narcotics agent-proof front gates) so I was pleased to see that some joglo homes survive intact in-situ.
Just outside Pati (motto “Land to till”) I find a dine-star roadside warung full of farmers admiring J-Lo like proportions of the vendor while sampling her goat soup. The warung has a primitive dining terrace with a concrete slab menhir platform from which patrons can appreciate the hazy blue foot-hills of Mount Raung.

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16th century gate to the tomb of Sunan Kudus, a Muslim Saint, Kudus, Central Java.

One hour east of Solo through splendid tea plantation scenery one can visit the 16th century, late-Majapahit temples Candi Sukuh and Candi Ceto.
The East Javanese Hindu Empire of Majapahit was one of the most glorious in Indonesian history. When it fell to Islam the then crown-prince Brawijaya Pamungkas fled to the mountains east of Solo and built these two unique and magnificent temples. Brawijaya’s brothers and their descendants established Islamic courts in Demak and Kudus where 16th century tombs built in the Islamic-Majapahit style can be found today.

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From Pati I took the North Coast Road to Semarang where Lion Air now has a daily non-stop flight to Bali. Most of Java’s north coast road was built during the reign of the governor-general of the Dutch East Indies Herman Willem Daendels (1808–1811) and was originally known as the Great Post Road.

Roadside dangdut performers near Pati on the North Coast Road Central java.

The road has some exciting truck stops and roadside eateries. In one field full of used cars and used car salesmen I found a DANGDUT stage and concert in full swing (no one sways and grinds like north coast beauties).
(See video: Solo to Kudus:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tled28IdWps).


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