Unsexy Semarang

How can I say this? I’d wanted to love every bit of Indonesia. I have such fond memories of it from my first visit, thirty years ago. Most of the crew of our ship is Indonesian, and they’re the nicest folks possible. I wanted to get back on board after my visit and tell them how much I loved their beautiful country. This was not exactly that kind of day.

Some of it was the weather. When I got off the ship in the morning a small gamelan was playing on the dock. There’s no special effect going on here, the fog is the condensation created by the temperature difference between my ship-cooled camera lens and the formidable heat and humidity on the pier at 8:30 in the morning.

My lovely guide Sofie was waiting for me. This was my first time to spend a day with a 23 year-old woman in a hijab, so I took full advantage of being able to ask her the many questions about hijab-wearing women that I have accumulated over the years. The motto of the tour company she works for is “you have a friend in Semarang,” which was just what I wanted, and we both felt genuinely sad to say goodbye at the end of the day.

The first place she took me was to her mosque. She moved to Semarang so that she could go to this mosque every day, because she felt an instant connection with it.

Of course she wanted to take me only to beautiful places, and there are some. The problem is, for me at least, that in between the beautiful places there is so much un-beauty. Although they say that Indonesia’s economy is doing well, coming out of Singapore, the standard of living seemed staggeringly low in Semarang. I also didn’t feel that I could say “stop the car so that I can takes pictures of how miserable it looks to live here.” We did get out of the center of town, upland as they call it. It’s still Semarang, but on the hilly edge.

As a few shots from our moving car reveal, things are better here than downtown, but still pretty rough. It’s typical for people to have a little shop or restaurant and live in back, usually in a concrete block building.

This little neighborhood, a batik village, looked more prosperous. I did get some really nice batik items there. But now, I’ll show you the parts of town that lucky tourists get to see.

This is the city’s Chinese temple, and it’s quite a pretty one. As with the mosque, going inside would have required a barefoot walk across quite an expanse of bare stone floor, something my still-tender foot refuses to do, so we had to content ourselves with looking at the exteriors.

Then, although I had named a couple of Semarang specialties that I hoped to try for lunch, Sophie took me to an ultra-fancy restaurant. She said that she was worried about the cleanliness of places that sold what I wanted, and told me I’d love the place she was taking me, which was true. And to her credit, she did take me later to get some of Semarang’s special lumpia to take back to the ship for my dinner, and they were, in fact, quite excellent.

So instead of street food we went to the splendidly beautiful and serene Balemong Resort. If you ever find yourself in Semarang overnight, and you have a car, this is where you want to stay. It’s a group of old Javanese buildings, beautifully restored, and filled with antiques, on breathtakingly landscaped grounds.

There’s lots of beautiful mosaic and tile work,

And it’s still repaired and replaced the old-fashioned way.

We also saw Lang Sewu, sometimes called the house of 1000 doors, which is a Dutch colonial remnant from the turn of the 20th century and is said to be haunted.  This was once the headquarters of the Dutch East India Company, but I don’t think the ghosts are supposed to hearken back to colonial times.

These visitors were posing so nicely for someone else that I couldn’t help sneaking my own shot, although one lady, who didn’t look the least perturbed, caught me in the act.

And now I’ve done it, I’ve made Semarang look like a picture-perfect place. All too often that’s what this kind of travel is, floating from one postcard to the next. But I wouldn’t choose to return to Semarang, and would actually resist the opportunity, if one arose. To me that says more about the place than all my pretty pictures ever could.

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One Comment on “Unsexy Semarang”


  1. Which ship are you on? l’ve cruised on Holland America on the Oosterdam and Westerdam… which I referred to as “the dam ships.” I enjoy Holland America and have done travel articles for them. If you ever go into the galley, you will be most impressed by their cleanliness and organization! I really think you could perform surgery on any surface in the galley. It’s that clean! And I also learned a lot about how they recycle and reuse. No more throwing food over the side to get rid of it, like in the old days!


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