Published in Now! Jakarta, July 2010

Heavenly rice field scenery on the road to Candi Belahan, near Pandaan, East Java.

Malang, East Java

Last month I was invited to a peace corps function in Malang, on the day ‘Aremania’ took over the town! Aremania is the five days of madness and celebration — for Arema, the soccer league-winning team from Malang — that descended on the large town late May.
I decided to document the event — Gonzo Journo style — and do some cultural tourism site-seeing on the way:

2nd June 2010: I feel the earth move under me
Finally I visit the Lapindo hot mud spill at Sidoarjo on the way to Malang and am suitably horrified: it is not just the destruction of the village that is a great tragedy, but also that both the Eastern Java railway and the main Surabaya-Malang toll road have been cut off!
Detouring off the toll road at Sidoarjo we drive past miles of empty shops and factories that line the road. There is no mud in sight, just an ominous ten-metre high grassy ‘dyke’.
The shops have been vacated/‘disterilkan’, — “Like the political process that was supposed to guarantee the victims adequate compensation?” I ask my driver. The earth under which we are driving is now a giant empty chamber: if the roof off this ‘chamber’ collapses this whole section of the old Surabaya-Malang road collapses with all the cars on it; I would just pray that my airbag inflates.

•    •    •

The circa 10th century Candi Belahan ‘water temple’ (patirtan)

An ancient lesung (rice-husking bowl) used to support a bank in the rice fields on the approach to the ancient red-brick gate (below) near Candi Belahan.

Further towards Malang, outside the textile town of Pandaan we detour, West, to visit the famed 11th century bathing spot of “Candi Belahan”, rumoured to be the burial place of the ashes of the great King Airlangga who once ruled all of East Java and Bali.
The 3 kilometres of approach road wind through newly refurbished rural villages — rows of mini-‘McMansions’ in the currently popular canary yellow and lilac, neo-colonial,  neo-wahabi style — and picturesque rice fields, up steep  narrow roads that hug the hillside, until one spots the red ancient brick marvel in a miniature ‘gorge’ with attendant gushing rivulet.
The official custodian, Pak Charlie, relates how convoys of Balinese pilgrims often visit the springs on the day after  Nyepi (the Balinese day of silence), and how the spring  has ceremonies on holy Thursday nights (Jumat Legi) when the springs restorative powers are most potent.

The custodian, Pak Charlie, at the classical Majapahit Era gate in the rice fields 500 metres ‘below’ Candi Belahan. The extremely rare red-brick gate in the Hindu-Javanese Majapahit style recalls in its style many temple gates ancient and modern in the ‘archaeological belt’ of Bali’s Gianyar Province. The gateway was most probably the entrance to a monastery.

With Pak Charlie, I visit a red-brick gateway ruin, once part of a nearby complex. The handsome gateway — the first I have ever seen in Java — is remarkable, like many 13th and 14th century gateways in Gianyar  Regency, Central Bali (my archaeologist friend Nigel Bullough, an East Java specialist, later confirms that this was probably a gateway into a ‘Ke-Rsi-an’ Buddhist monastery.
Indeed the baths remind me of the baths at Goa Gajah in Bedulu, Gianyar, Bali, which has an attendant meditation cave nearby.
Bullough explained that the baths could be older than the 11 century as there are records in the journals of the legendary Majapahit King Hayam Wuruk which mention an inscription in the nearby village of Suci which dates the baths to the 10th century.

Students outside a madrasah school on the outskirts of Malang.

•    •    •

As we continue south towards Malang the road starts filling up with Aremaniacs  on motor bikes and in cars (Aremobilistas): the kampung lanes are spewing revellers sporting lion masks and blue-rinse hair. There is nothing menacing about it, just heart-warming, to witness all the young fans and families having a riotous street party.

The blue-rinse look popular amongst die-hard Aremaniac ‘berondong’.
Aremaniacs en convoy fill the streets and lanes of Malang.

3 hours later, as I push through the crowd, on foot, for the last 500 metres to the hotel the ‘pesta rakyat’ has turned a tad sinister — the township is paralyzed. There is not a policeman in sight and I wander if that outpouring of patriotism could not be better channelled, rather than five days of choking up the roads.

•    •    •

Signage is gorgeous at the TUGU MALANG.

Arriving at last at the heavenly Tugu hotel is like stepping from “Blackboard Jungle” into the “Sound of Music”, so tranquil and lovely are the lobby and surrounding tea rooms at this ‘vintage’ hotel.
I immediately head for the Apsara Spa — a Khmer Follie replete with aquamarine enamel, shell-shaped bathtubs and an exquisite roof terrace garden, lettered with garden art, as pretty as any I had seen in Marrakech and Florence.
Mr. Anhar Setjadibrata the hotel’s owner — and one suspects decorator general (a born-again tassle-swinger of the first order) — is a consummate collector. His indoor-outdoor museum-hotel consists of, variously, Dutch Colonial, Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, Central and East Javanese, Madurese and Balinese art, artefacts and furniture which are all thrown together in a delightful  series of rooms and courtyards rather  like an imperial palace de follies decoratif.

‘Gajah Mina Rouge’ water feature in the SAHARA section, TUGU MALANG hotel.

A view to the TUGU MALANG hotel pool from one of the hotel’s many ornate corners.

His latest venture the SAHARA Restaurant and L’amour Fou (Crazy Love) Pizzeria and Gelatoria with padded velvet love nests booths, all under a Gaudi inspired tent-like roof.
It has to be seen to be believed.
The day Mr. Anhar Setjadibrata left his law practice the decorative arts world gained an angel of excess!
Now, apart from the plethora of decorative styles in this inspiring hotel, the food never disappoints: one can have special Javanese and colonial era snacks at high tea in the upper lobby ‘verandah’; Gourmet Javanese and Nyonya (Chinese-colonial era) treats in the main restaurant; and excellent European food in the Sahara.
The cake shop outside has great snacks too.

Nasi Pecel is served in the main café at TUGU MALANG.

The APSARA SPA roof terrace is littered with lovely lamps at the TUGU MALANG.

The night I was there the hotel had a cocktail lounge pianist/singer in the café and a saucy blues singer in the Crazy Love Bar.
The over 25 large dining alcoves, terraces and loggias all have museum quality art and decadent, semi-divine decoration.
Malang with all its candi monuments and the Tugu Hotel is well worth the detour!
There are now daily flights from Jakarta.


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