Stephanie Brookes glides through the streets of Malang, on foot and by becak, to discover its urban colonial charm and rural countryside.

Garuda-July14-Travel-Malang-673-150x150I stood outside the Tugu Hotel in Malang, pondering which becak (cycle rickshaw) driver I was going to use for the day. All of them were sporting tennis-ball-sized calf muscles; however, half of them were asleep, which is no wonder because their work is hot, physical and strenuous.
As I stood at the front of the becak line, miraculously, like dominoes, they awoke from their dozy daytime slumber one by one and sat upright, ready to vie for business. Soon enough I was whisked off to see the sights of this fair city.

Garuda-July14-Travel-Malang-686-150x150Malang is the second-largest city in East Java, with a population of 1.2 million. It has a cool mountain-air climate and is ringed by breathtaking highland scenery. As you go by pedal power up and down the small streets and back roads, you encounter stately colonial Dutch homes, mostly built in the 1930s and 1940s. We cut down a series of green, leafy back streets between Jalan Semeru, Jalan Welirang and the main boulevard, Jalan Ijen. It was a perfect escape from the heat and noise of the main road, and I felt myself drifting back into colonial times when Indonesia was under Dutch rule. These historic homes, many beautified by cloaks of colourful bougainvillea, give an air of rich elegance to Malang, and indeed houses in Ijen Boulevard – the most prestigious street in Malang, known as ‘millionaires’ row’ – can command over a million dollars.

With 12 universities the city has a youthful spirit and an interesting mix of cultures, as families send their children here to study from Bali, Madura, Nusa Tenggara, East Timor, Papua, Maluku, Sulawesi, Borneo and other islands of Indonesia.

Garuda-July14-Travel-Malang-690-150x150Indeed, I met many highly educated people in Malang. John, our lovely doorman from the hotel, had a perfect English accent complete with a plum-in-the-mouth intonation, which I found equally surprising and charming.

My next adventure was on foot, a three minute walk from my downtown hotel, positioned at the main roundabout and next to the city hall. I cut down a narrow lane to Bird Street and discovered the local market, Pasar Bunga (literally ‘flower market’), which branches to the left for birds and to the right for flowers. Many varieties of colourful birds are for sale, such as parrots, rare and exotic birds, and brown owls, plus other pets including fluffy rabbits, chubby guinea pigs and smooth snakes. If you look for a small gap between the densely packed shop fronts, you can catch a great view looking out over the patchwork of rooftops that hug the side of the Brantas River, which threads and weaves its way through Malang’s many villages.

Garuda-July14-Travel-Malang-679-150x150Another interesting stop was the visit to the Tradisional Oro-Oro Dowo market, which means ‘long place of small spaces’. This local market is over a century old, with a distinct Dutch architectural style of planned shop fronts and a bustling market inside. The market sells a range of produce, clothing, homewares, and just about everything you would need bar the kitchen sink. I met a lovely Indonesian shop owner who sang for me in Dutch. “This is a song from 1943, ” she told me and handed me a song sheet. “It’s called ‘Geef Mij Maar Nasi Goreng’. Why don’t you come along to my English club tomorrow and we can sing together in English and in Dutch? Please, I would like you to be my guest. ” What an offer! Alas, my time was limited and I had to decline.

Garuda-July14-Travel-Malang-678-150x150I was touched by the softness of the local people and had many encounters like this. It is really the small villages, tucked behind the main bustling roads, that are the fabric of the city. Here you can really get a sense of the locals, who are always more than happy to engage in a bit of street gossip – which is always humorous with my limited Bahasa.
After a satisfying stroll through Malang’s urban settings, I was keen to explore its rural side. So I headed off by car into the mountains to explore the Wonosari Tea Plantation on the slopes of Mount Arjuno, about 30 minutes away. The sprawling 700-hectare plantation was first established in 1910, and the carefully managed tea bushes are the original ones planted by the Dutch – they still produce tea to this very day.

Garuda-July14-Travel-Malang-684-150x150There are over 500 workers at the estate, and I stopped and talked with Ibu Tiani, who has been leaf picking since she was a young girl. “I live in Gebug and I have been picking since 1980, ” she told me. “I work six days a week from 6am to 3pm. I am an experienced picker and on average I pick around 50kg of leaf a day. In rainy season I can get up to 75 kg,” she said, adjusting the sack strapped across her back.


Ibu Tiani’s mother worked as a picker and her children also pick for a living. She was a very happy soul and told me how she works in a group with 12 women and one man. “He helps with the heavy lifting, ” she explained.

Tiani showed me how to search for the young leaves and invited me to work alongside her. I worked one row, but I was terribly slow. New workers can pick up to 30kg a day, and in my 15-minute tea-picking trial, I was nowhere near target.

Garuda-July14-Travel-Malang-693-150x150“See these thick rubber boots I am wearing? ” Tiani chuckles “They give me good protection against snakes. ” I smiled and gave a chuckle back at first, before I got the feeling she wasn’t joking. I checked with my guide, who confirmed that there were pythons and other snakes around.
This old university town may be well organised and clean; it charms with colonial architecture, colourful markets and beautiful countryside, but in the end it’s the people of Malang who will win your heart and make you want to visit again.

Malang Musings 

*On Sunday mornings the busy Ijen Boulevard grinds to a complete halt. This major thoroughfare, which normally holds a cacophony of cars, trucks, motorbikes and buses on its busy four-lane carriageway, changes its tune. On Sunday mornings it’s car-free. Streams of joggers, cyclists, dog-walkers, children and pushchair-strolling couples join in the family atmosphere and walk the stately boulevard. What a great opportunity to take a closer look at some of those grand old Dutch homes and enjoy some peace and quiet.

* Cycle rickshaws in Indonesia are called becak. They began being used in Jakarta in about 1936. Becak were considered an icon of the capital city of Jakarta prior to their ban in the 1970s. Despite the attempts at eradication, however, many becak still operate throughout the country, especially in Java.

* If there are three of you, take three becak. It’s affordable enough and the lighter the load the quicker you will get around.
Temples in Malang
* Jago temple: A 13th-century Hindu temple from the Singhasari kingdom, located about 22km from Malang. The original name of this temple is Jajaghu, which means ‘greatness’, a term that is used to refer to a shrine.
* Kidal temple: A Hindu temple located in the Tumpang district, 20km east of Malang. The temple is composed of three levels that are situated on a raised platform. At the foot of the temple, three Javanese masks depict the story of Garuda.
* Badut temple: East Java’s oldest surviving Hindu temple is located in Karang Besuki village, District of Dau in Malang. Badut comes from the Sanskrit language, and means ‘the star of Canopus’, also known as the star of Agastya, an avatar of the god of Shiva.

Stephanie Brookes is a travel writer and blogger with tales from Indonesia and beyond.


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