The most precious things are often hidden: Gem stones, pearls, diamonds. You have to look for them beneath the surface.

In many ways, that is how I feel about Semarang. Located in the northern coast of Central Java, “Semarang” draws a complete blank at first mention. Dig a bit deeper, and I discover it’s known for its export of quality furniture, its avocado plantations and its grilled seafood.

My initial impression – upon waking up after a long overland drive from Yogyakarta –  was how developed Semarang looked on the surface. We rolled into the civic centre after dark and were greeted by grand Dutch colonial buildings juxtaposed with colourful billboards lit with the familiar colours of modernity: The reds-and-yellows of McDonald’s, and the greens of Starbucks Coffee.

With the dawn of a new day, our guide Vera peeled open more layers of this unfamiliar city: A boulevard lined with government administrative buildings and international banks; grand bungalows that hugged the hilly slopes just beyond the city, akin to upmarket Beverly Hills.

I discover that Semarang is the capital and largest city of Central Java. Because it’s a coastal city with a port, the Dutch who colonised Indonesia for over 300 years used Semarang as a gateway for transporting spices and local produce from the interiors of Central Java to Europe.

I scratch deeper – below the veneer of business, industry and government – and discover more unpolished gems. Here is my pick of the best experiences in Semarang:

Adrenaline Rush at Sidomukti

Umbol Sidomukti is an adventure park in the highlands. I have to admit I’m quite the adrenaline junkie so I was quite game for this. I’ve done the Flying Fox before at adventure camps and even Sentosa’s MegaZip from Imbiah Lookout to the beach below; but never in the highlands. Oh what a view!

Highland terraces at Sidomukti

Highland terraces at Sidomukti

The Flying Fox at Sidomukti spans 110 metres across two hills and is 70 metres above ground. I’m not a huge fan of heights, but in such nail-biting cases, the only question you need to ask yourself is: “Do I trust the equipment?”

If you do, then just strap in and enjoy the ride! WHEE!!!

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What I wasn’t prepared for psychologically was the “Marine Walk”. From afar, it looked deceivingly like a mild suspension bridge.

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But when I put my first foot on the netting that stretched across two hills, I realised the gaps between the ropes were so spaced out, my whole foot could slip through! And it was very wobbly too.

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All I could hold on to was the safety line attached to my safety girdle – like an umbilical cord – which wasn’t much help at all. At one point, I missed my footing, lost my balance, and landed on my butt on the netting.

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It was harder than I thought to get back up on my feet so I decided to rest a while in this position and take photos from up here. Gorgeous, isn’t it?

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Sitting on my butt and feeling exhausted, I told myself – and I said this out loud – “You can do it, Pam. You can do this!”

So I got up on my feet (with whatever little arm and core muscles I had) and stepped my way – slowly and steadily – to the finish. It was exhausting and exhilarating at the same time! For me, a real test of will power. But now, I know for myself that my mind is terribly powerful. I can do anything I set mind to. But of course, I ached for a few days after!

Food, Glorious Food!

Now who would’ve thought that a place like Semarang would have such a variety of cheap and good food? Semarang!

After our adventures in the highlands, we trooped up the hill for a Lesehan-style lunch, which means sitting on mats on the floor and sharing a communal meal. The signature dish here is Ikan Bakar (with freshwater fish!) – it was awesome! So was the humble tahu dish.

Tahu (or tofu) is served widely in Semarang because the beans are grown locally. But this one was highly addictive for a good reason – it was battered and fried in salted egg yolk.

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Another signature dish in Semarang is Lumpia, which comes steamed or fried. It looks suspiciously like the Chinese popiah or spring roll, but you eat it with small green chilis, which you hold and bite off.

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For the Chinese in Semarang (and there’s quite a huge community here), they eat the Lumpia not just with small green chills, but with a thick sweet sauce and leek/spring onions too. Note: Bite off only the white bulb; do not gobble up all the green shoots like a rabbit.

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Our guide Vera told us that Ayam Penyet originated from Semarang. When I learnt that, I went a little berserk because I love Ayam Penyet. Apparently, the dish was created here, then brought to Batam, from where it spread to Singapore and Malaysia.

So while I was in Semarang, I just had to try the original.

Ayam Penyet originated from Semarang!

Ayam Penyet originated from Semarang!

The ayam here is spring chicken. It’s smaller, leaner, and an alpha athlete as compared to our fat chickens back home. But it’s tender because it’s pressure cooked.

We ate at a popular local eatery called Super Penyet which serves everything in “penyet” style. I learnt on this trip that “penyet” means “smashed” or “flattened”. It finally clicked – after all these years – what my dear Grandma was saying in her Chinese-accented Malay!

Things I love about Super Penyet: The sambal counter! Look out for it because you can pick a variety of chilis, sambals and pickles, at a variety of spicy levels, here. Also, do order the salted fish towgay (bean sprouts) because while it looks deceivingly normal, it is the best salted fish towgay I’ve ever eaten.

And try their “hot orange” drink. It tastes like kum guat (small oranges growing on CNY plants) – very refreshing! And it being served hot brings out the flavours even more. They serve “hot lemon” too, which I’m told is good. But be warned – they come in huge glasses!

I dare say no trip to Semarang is complete without trying their grilled seafood. Remember, Semarang is located along the northern coast of Central Java and so the seafood here is fresh. And marinated, of course, with lovely Indonesian spices.

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I’ll let my food photos do the talking from here…. let me just retreat to my little corner now and drool, thank you very much.

Fried cassava with chili dip.

Fried cassava with chili dip.

Indonesian Gado Gado

Indonesian Gado Gado

"Tahu Bakso" is tofu stuffed with shrimp paste, eaten as is without dip.

“Tahu Bakso” is tofu stuffed with shrimp paste. Eaten as is, without dip.

Indonesian Bento boxes! Meals on-the-go.

Indonesian Bento boxes – meals on-the-go!

A Touch of Supernatural at Lawang Sewu

For this next experience, I do not recommend you go with a full stomach as I cannot guarantee you won’t throw up.

Lawang Sewu is a magnificent Dutch colonial building, built in the 1900s, as an administrative hub for the railway. As the Dutch were temperate people (by this, I mean climate), they needed their buildings to be cooled and ventilated in the tropical humidity – or they’d be non-functional like me in the heat.

So they built Lawang Sewu with many, many doors. In fact, Lawang Sewu (when translated in Javanese) means Thousand Doors.

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In addition, the Dutch built a basement with an impressive network of tunnels that stored water a metre high. This water was then pumped throughout the building – through a system of pipes – to cool this grand structure. A brilliant piece of architecture in an era without electricity or fans!

BUT.

During World War II (1942 to 1945), the Japanese converted Lawang Sewu into its military headquarters. And how convenient to have a basement filled with water… The Japanese promptly converted that into a dungeon prison where Prisoners of War (POWs) were locked up, tortured and executed.

As such, Lawang Sewu is believed to be one of the most haunted buildings in Semarang.

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I don’t know what possessed us, but we decided to go there at night. Perhaps, that’s the only way to do it… I may be smiling (above), but I was scared shitless.

We had an English-speaking guide named Wawan, who has been leading walking tours at Lawang Sewu for over 30 years and a specialist at the dungeons. Well, I reckoned that if he is still doing this, it means he is still alive. So that was a tad comforting.

Wawan made us walk the corridors, hallways and rooms in the dark, with just one torchlight which he flashed around eerily. It prompted my friend Joey and me (both of us practical Singaporean girls) to ask nervously, and several times, “Why don’t they install lights?!”

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The fine hair at the back of my neck stood on ends, especially when Wawan told us that these hallways were haunted. In particular, by a woman called “Miss Helen” who committed suicide here.

Once, to demonstrate that the floors were hollow and the basement below us was filled with water, he stamped his foot down, hard, on the ground. The whole hallway reverberated with an eerie echo. It sent chills down my spine. Honestly, I wanted to sock him right there – what if he woke the ghosts and informed them exactly where we were?!

But perhaps the worst part was when Wawan said matter-of-factly, “Let’s go down to the dungeon.”

At that point, one of the girls firmly declined as she was completely creeped out. I was too, but I decided to do it because Wawan said, “You need to experience what the Prisoners of War experienced. Many Indonesians have cried.”

And so, Joey and I decided we’d give it a go. We followed Wawan down the steep stairway into the dungeon. The floor was wet and slippery. There was still water down there – we could see it when Wawan flashed his torchlight.

At the landing, he switched off his torchlight and we stood there in complete darkness.

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Even with my eyes wide open, I couldn’t see anything. It was pitch black. It was chilling, yet strangely sad. The POWs in the Japanese Occupation stood just like this, in the dark, with water up to their necks. Many were tortured and executed here too, by beheading.

Their heads were then tossed into the canal beside Lawang Sewu (pictured above) as a warning to others who dared defy the Japanese soldiers. The canal back then was always blood red.

Lawang Sewu had a powerful impact on me. Apart from stories of hauntings – from “Miss Helen” to headless ghouls – it was a history lesson that transported me to the core of the horror and tragedy of the Japanese Occupation. I left the spooky place shaken and chilled to the bone.

We had to head immediately to the bright and noisy Paragon Mall for a Starbucks Coffee after!

A Slice of History

And while you’re in Semarang, there are also two other places I’d recommend you drop by, although they are not top of my list. But it’s good to experience them because they reveal something about the essence of place.

One is Sam Poo Kong temple, which is located not too far from Lawang Sewu. It is a temple dedicated to Chinese explorer, Admiral Cheng Ho, or as the locals call him, Laksamana Zheng He.

Sam Poo Kong Temple.

Sam Poo Kong Temple.

Admiral Cheng Ho in Semarang

Admiral Zheng He in Semarang

Did you know that Admiral Zheng He was a devout Muslim? In fact, his whole family in China were Chinese-Muslims, and it is believed that he was instrumental in bringing Islam to Asia in his travels – albeit peacefully.

In fact, Sam Poo Kong temple was constructed as a Muslim place of prayer. But somewhere in history, it was converted to a Buddhist temple. It’s not clear exactly which year Sam Poo Kong is constructed. It’s believed to be built during the period Zheng He was in Semarang due to ship problems, between 1400 and 1416.

The beauty of this place is that both Chinese-Buddhists and Javanese-Muslims come here to pay respects. There is even a grand stage that plays host to both Chinese Wayang and Indonesian shadow puppet performances!

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One thing that struck me about Central Java was the beautiful weaving of religions in its cultural fabric: Buddhist temples, Christian churches and Muslim mosques share the land, side-by-side. It gives me a good feeling.

When our guide Vera told us that she was going to take us to Semarang’s main mosque, I have to admit I wasn’t overly excited. After all, I have been to the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca, Morocco. That was magnificent, with the tallest minaret in the world, standing at 210 metres.

But I went along and was duly impressed. You don’t expect to see something quite this huge and spectacular in a quiet and unassuming industrial city like Semarang.

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This is Masjid Agung Jawa Tengah or the Great Mosque of Central Java. Uncanny, but it reminds me of a futuristic space station. In fact, it reminded me of Space Mountain. And it was breathtaking at sunset!

It’s the main mosque in the whole of Central Java and a place of worship for thousands of Muslim devotees. The tall white rocket-looking structures are actually giant umbrellas that open up during outdoor prayers. I would’ve loved to see that!

To say the least, my experience in Semarang was like finding a precious gemstone in a rock.

I came here without expecting very much. But Semarang is one of those places that “under-promises and over-delivers”. In her quiet, unassuming way, she evoked a myriad of emotions in me and touched me with a beauty that goes beyond skin-deep. You just have to dig a little and get to know her.

And I’m pretty sure I’m not quite done getting to know her.

*AirAsia flies direct from Singapore to Semarang 4x a week. 

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