It was one humid, hot afternoon in Surabaya, and I found myself in the land of too much onions.
It would have been an awesome sight if you are in that kind of thing. There were onions everywhere. Baskets after hundreds of baskets of all sizes, hanging in sacks overhead, on the head of passing women, or just strewn on the floor. Even cats got into the action (I will leave that to your imagination).
Pasar Pabean is one of those darkly lit market designed to invoke anxiety attack for those who suffer from claustrophobia. We were walking around in Chinatown when we accidentally stumbled upon this market which sold everything imaginable under the sun.
It was also at Pabean that I realised that, hey, I am taller than most people in this town. Even the guys. So it comes as no surprise that Chris, being the German that he is, stood out tall and white in a sea of usually dark-coloured Surabayans. The friendlier ones, especially the children, would cheekily called out “Misterrrrrr” (with the rrrrrr beautifully rolling off their expert tongue). Others would just blatantly stare at the pair of us.
After being stared at the whole day, I got used to it. This must be how celebrity feels like whenever they get out to town.
We started our day by taking a cab to Jambatan Merah, literally translated as the Red Bridge. This is a great place to start to explore the city, as everything worth visiting is located within walking distance. Chris already got everything committed to memory in a way that I never could so I was more than happy to tag along.
Exploring the town of Surabaya by foot shown me a side of this town that being chauffeured by car never could. Despite being a relatively undeveloped place, the old buildings in Surabaya didn’t look neglected. The Dutch colonial building just looked old, having stood the test of time. We also discovered a very old church which was beautifully maintained, apparently one of the best on Java Island.
Chris and I witnessed how colourful this city can be. As we walk our way through streets and alleyways to our next destinations, we stumbled across some beautifully erected monument (not huge, just arty) celebrating the first father of Indonesia, as well as a street alongside which a rather long wall was adorned with all sorts of colourful mural. From the objects portrayed, the abandoned watchtowers and shards of glass at the top, I suspected that was the outerside of a prison complex.
The highlight of the day was our visit to House of Sampoerna, voted the cleanest of tourist attraction in Surabaya, and it was easy to see why. Stepping into its compound from the street was like stepping forward a decade in time. The building is a tribute to Indonesia’s most famous kretek cigarette manufacturers, with very beautifully maintained exhibits like Alfred Dunhill’s lighters and old musical instruments of its once famous marching band. The museum was tastefully done and totally at odds with what I have encountered so far in Surabaya.
However the biggest surprise in place for me was when I went up to the second story of House of Sampoerna. Through a glass window I overlooked the cigarette factory, where rows upon rows of Indonesian women seemed to be in a drugged trance, hypnotically rolling and packing cigarettes. This method of producing cigarettes is banned in many countries as nicotine can get into your bloodstream through your fingers. One look at these women and you would be convinced. Their motion was fascinating to watch, their fingers looked like in a fast-forward film, while their hunched backs seemed to rock back and forth in a rhythm only audible to them.
It was such fascinating visit, and I wanted to buy some appropriate souvenirs to bring home. However all the museum shop has was some t-shirts and keychains and the usual, boring memorabilia. In slight disappointment we adjourned to the highly sophisticated House of Sampoerna Cafe, located at the next building. I felt like I was back in Singapore, and the food isn’t half bad either. There was even a non-smoking section (haha)!
It was after this lunch that I found myself at Chinatown. After some (directed) meandering around we found ourselves at the Arab Quarter. The contrast couldn’t be more jarring. At Pasar Pabean, it was a dense marketplace heaving with activities so packed that we could hardly walked pass by the stalls. At Arab Quarter, it was like someone turned off the volume in my ear. Everything was serene, quiet… and very much unexpected.
In some ways I felt like I was back in Morocco. The medina-like souk wasn’t heaving with activities, but we got stared at much, much more. The moment we stepped into the market, kids and old women came up to us to ask for money. It was very unnerving that I couldn’t bring myself to hoist up my camera for some shots.
Even when we were near the beautiful Masjid Ampel, the most sacred mosque in Surabaya, I was overwhelmed, very much aware that we weren’t appropriately attired for a mosque visit.
But that is not to say the Arab Quarter is not worth visiting. The souk was surrounded by some motor-free residential areas, and that was a joy to stroll through. The low houses were oddly painted in cheerful colour that was more often than not at odds with each other. It was like stepping into a Dulux paint chart. It was here we saw first hand how simple life can be for the Surabayans. Children played carefree on the street, with their mothers of several generations sitting outside enjoying the sunshine and each other’s company.
The world outside might be racing itself to a breaking point, but all were lost in these quaint villages.
It was a long day of walking, and after some persuasion we took refuge in a large IT mall (I think that’s what it’s called). We debated the pros and cons of various options for lunch, and in the end we ended with… KFC. As in Kentucky Fried Chicken. In Indonesia. For the record, they tasted just as greasy and unsurprising as the version in Hong Kong. Perhaps a tad spicier, and probably cheaper.
After a short afternoon nap in the hotel (I was exhausted, Chris was raring to go), we again discussed about dinner (poor Chris, stuck with a foodie). I wanted to have some posh food – i.e. in a proper restaurant – so we ended up at the Kuningan Restaurant International, a recommendation from Lonely Planet. From the outset the Dutch building looks promising, and I was getting excited over the prospect of Indonesian fare I have yet to try.
It was only after we crossed the threshold of the strangely empty restaurant (for some place supposedly to be popular) did I realised that Kuningan is – bless my heart – a Chinese restaurant. The menu was resolutely Chinese, and the place was empty because of the first day of the Lunar New Year!
The food wasn’t half bad – in fact that bowl of minced beef was divine – but had I wanted to get Chinese food, I could very much better back in Hong Kong. Being in an almost-empty restaurant also came with the unintended sight effect of over-servicing. Throughout the night the crew of waitresses were unfailingly efficient and incredibly attentive.
After such a grueling day (and the real grueling part hasn’t even start!) I was craving for something sinful, so we ended up with….
YES! An A&W root bear at Delta. What a beautiful way to end the day!
See more of my Surabaya 2013 posts:
- The One With Symphony Surabaya, Part 1
- The One With Symphony Surabaya, Part 2
- The One With Symphony Surabaya, Part 4
- The One With Symphony Surabaya, Part 5
- The One With Symphony Surabaya – A Journey Into Nature Concluded
Eating Out & Restaurants
Kuningan Restaurant International
Jalan Kalimantan 14 (Gubeng), Surabaya
+62 31 5035103, 5032907
Exploring Around & Attractions
Jembatan Merah Surabaya 60162, Indonesia
Jl Pabean, Surabaya