Tag Archive: Geography

“Many landscapes are beautiful. Meadows in spring, soft valleys, oak trees, bank of flowers (daisies especially). But they are not Sublime. ‘The ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful are frequently confounded… both are indiscriminately applied to things greatly differing and sometimes of natures directly opposite.

A landscape could arouse the Sublime only when it suggested power, power greater than that of humans and threatening to them. Sublime places embodied a defiance to our will. Burke illustrated the argument with an analogy about oxen and bulls: ‘An ox is a creature of vast strength; but he is an innocent creature, extremely serviceable, and not at all dangerous; for which reason the idea of an ox is by no means grand. A bull is strong too; but his strength is of another kind; often very destructive… the idea of a bull is therefore great, and it has frequently a place in sublime descriptions, and elevating comparisons.’

There are ox-life landscapes: innocent and ‘not at all dangerous’, pliable to the human will. Burke had spent his youth in one, at a Quaker boarding school in the village of Ballitore in County Kildare, 30 miles southwest of Dublin, a landscape of farms, orchards, hedges, rivers and gardens. Then there are bull-like landscapes. Burke enumerated their features: vast, empty, often dark and apparently infinite, because of the uniformity and succession of their elements.”

~ Alain de Botton (The Art of Travel)  

Tengger Caldera, East Java

Tengger Caldera, East Java

It’s 3am and 5 deg C outside. As I step out into the night, the chilly air licks my face with a thousand tongues. I pull on my beanie hastily and turn up the collar of my winter jacket. As I trudge out to the Jeep and my eyes gradually adjust to the darkness, I notice the explosion of stars above – like diamonds flung across the vast ebony sky.

Tenggerese villagers selling scarves & gloves

It’s almost surreal to be so near Mt Bromo. I had arrived here close to midnight, when all around me was already cloaked in darkness. I did not know where she stood, but I could sense her presence close by. She last erupted in 2011, and is still belching sulphur smoke today. In Nov 2010, her plume of ash – I hear – rose 2,300ft into the sky!

Encountering her unbridled power excites me. We pile into a Jeep – all bundled up – and rattle our way up to a lookout point to catch the sunrise. The Jeep packs 6 max, and prices range from S$30/pax (two locations) to S$50/pax (four locations). You can hike too, but it means you’ll have to wake up much earlier and battle the cold.

The Jeep drops us off a distance from the lookout point at Mt Penanjakan, and from there, we walk. It’s an easy stroll up the hill – the only “danger” being the motorcyclists buzzing around you like flies, hassling you to hop on. We come to a paved alley soon enough, with cosy little eateries on our left, and local Tenggerese villagers selling Jagung Bakar (grilled corn) on our right. Tempting on a cold night!


We have time to spare, so we succumb to the temptation of a caffeine fix. Indonesian coffee is good, black. But be prepared when you order a black coffee, for it to come with sugar. In Singapore, we’d call it Kopi-O. A couple of the guys bring back a bag of warm Pisang Goreng (deep-fried banana) and voila! breakfast at 9,000ft.

"Pisang Goreng" with black Javanese coffee

“Pisang Goreng” & Javanese coffee

Singaporeans! Teachers & girls from Presbyterian High at Mt Penanjakan.

Singaporeans! From Presbyterian High, Mt Penanjakan.

The summit of Mt Penanjakan (9,088ft) is the place to catch a Mt Bromo sunrise. Be warned though that it’s usually very crowded. People converge from all over to claim a spot way before the sun makes her shy appearance.

The crowd gathered behind me as I perch on the railing

Crowd gathered behind me as I perch on a railing

For the best place to catch the sunrise, head towards the left of the viewing platform. My advice is to look out for the hardcore photographers who have already set up their tripods and cameras. They know best!

I love sunrises. It’s not just the kaleidoscope of colours in the sky, but the fact that it’s constantly changing – like an IMAX movie surrounding you in 360. For about an hour, I watch – spellbound – as the landscape covered in complete darkness is slowly revealed by nature’s light.

A spectacular sunrise at Mt Penanjakan (9,088ft)

A spectacular sunrise at Mt Penanjakan (9,088ft)

But from this vantage point – where I have a perfect view of the sunrise – I can’t see Mt Bromo. She lies somewhere to my right. And as the sun’s ray start to illuminate the volcanic landscape, I make a judgement call to give up my prime spot to go in search of her.

It helps to be small and on your own. I have no one to mind, so I dart through the crowd, climb through barriers, and trust instincts in searching for a spot. I find a good one beyond the railing, on a precarious ledge at the path’s end.

“Be careful,” a European gentleman warns me. “The slope is slippery.”

There are a few Caucasian travellers here along that sandy path, but not one ventures to the edge. I decide to take a risk because I really want a good shot of Mt Bromo, and honestly, I’m not sure when I’ll be back. And so, heart pounding, I claim my spot and settle down to soak her in. When I beheld her – like this – I swear I swore out loud.

My first glimpse of Mt Bromo, East Java

My first glimpse of Mt Bromo, East Java

It’s the symmetrical cone in the centre that grabs my attention, but it’s not Mt Bromo. That’s a dormant volcano called Mt Batok, whose hay days are sadly over. Mt Bromo (7,641ft) stands to its left, that ash-coloured shield volcano that has steam and sulphur streaming out of its crater. Now that is a living, breathing volcano!

Steam & sulphur streams out of Mt Bromo

Steam & sulphur streams out of Mt Bromo (left)

Mt Semeru stands majestic in the background, almost like a sentinel overlooking the desolate plain, guarding his wards. But what leaves me breathless is the knowledge that this majestic collection of volcanoes is actually within a bigger volcano… a much bigger one.

Just take a step back, physically zoom outwhat do you see?

The Tengger Caldera: The blown-off top of a massive ancient volcano

The Tengger Caldera: The blown-off top of a massive ancient volcano

This entire area you see is a giant ancient volcano whose top has been blown off! In Geography, I learnt that this is called a caldera, a collapsed crater. This Tengger caldera spans 10km in diameter and cradles four new volcanoes (above).

In 1982, this whole area was declared a national park: the Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park. In fact, it’s the only national park in Indonesia that has what is called a “Sand Sea” or Laut Pasir. It has been a protected area since 1919.

From up here, it looks almost unearthly. Like a moonscape, or Mars. And as I pack up to head down to explore the Sand Sea, a thin veil of mist creeps in over the sand.

We ride the Jeep down to the Sand Sea at 7,000ft and it’s a bumpy ride! I have to admit I wasn’t prepared for the expanse of this Sand Sea. When you’re actually on it, it feels like a desert. It reminds me of traveling on the Erg Chebbi sand dunes in Risanni – the gateway to the Sahara Desert from Morocco (I explored Erg Chebbi in Sep 2011).

Here’s a taste of my Jeep ride on the Sand Sea, towards Mt. Bromo:

We tumble out of the Jeep and set foot on the Sea of Sand. It’s volcano ash, spewed from Mt Bromo (and probably Mt Batok) over the decades. While there’s vegetation here, the landscape exudes a somewhat desolate feel.

On the Sand Sea, with a view of Mt Batok in the distance

On the Sand Sea, with Mt Batok in the distance

I do not think it impossible to hike across the Sand Sea. If you have the time, inclination, and level of fitness, it would actually be quite an adventure on foot. But if it rains – as it sometimes does – do take note that the sand turns to mud. Now that would be quite a different experience!

I opt to go the rest of the way on horseback. There is a camp not too far from where I’m sitting, where horses are on standby. These smallish, pony-like horses are bred by the indigenous Tenggerese people, who come from 30 villages in and around the national park.

This is "Vicky", the Tenggerese man whose horse I'm riding

This is “Vicky”, the Tenggerese man whose horse I’m riding


It is believed that they are descendants of Majapahit princes, and still practise an ancient religion similar to the strand of Hinduism practised in Bali. This Hindu-Buddhist influence arrived in Java some time between the 8th and 10th century, and its architecture can be evidenced in UNESCO World Heritage Sites like Borobudur and Prambanan in Yogyakarta.

But here on the Sand Sea is a humble Hindu temple named Pura Luhur Poten (Poten Temple), apparently made with volcanic stones. It’s here that the Tenggerese villagers come to pray during important Hindu festivals, before scaling Mt Bromo to toss offerings into the fuming crater.

Pura Luhur Poten, a sacred Hindu temple on the Tengger Massif

Pura Luhur Poten, a sacred Hindu temple on the Sea of Sand (Tengger Caldera)

On horseback towards Mt Bromo

On horseback towards Mt Bromo

Indigenous Tenggerese villagers selling food & drinks

Tenggerese villagers selling food & drinks

The Tenggerese basically monopolise the tourism here at the Tengger Massif – they rent out horses, sell food and drinks, and hawk warm clothing to tourists caught off-guard by the freezing temperatures. But as they are the indigenous people of this region, I think it’s only fair that they are not robbed of a livelihood.

Vicky’s horse takes me to the foot of Mt Bromo. From here, I have to continue the rest of the way on foot. It’s a steep climb up to the crater of Mt Bromo. The good news, though, is that there are proper steps leading up to the summit.

Stairway to heaven... or a fiery hell?

Stairway to heaven… or a fiery hell?

The bad news is that the steps are steep and sandy (which make them slippery), so you pretty much need strong knees. But there are rest points along the way, each with a view lovelier than the last.


But nothing prepared me for this.

The thing is, from the foot of Mt Bromo, you really can’t see the crater, so you have no inkling of how huge it is! And the constant puffs of sulphur smoke rising from her wide-opened mouth is a stark reminder to me of the activity that lay beneath the surface. Yes, this is an active volcano!

The gargantuan crater of Mt Bromo

The gargantuan crater of Mt Bromo

In her magnificent presence, I stand in awe. There is no need for words at this point. She is birthed from the death of an ancient volcano. And at one point or other, all these anak volcanoes were bubbling cauldrons: Destroying and creating. Then destroying and creating again.

Her name “Bromo” – after all – stems from the word “Brahma”, the Hindu Creator God. The Destroyer and the mighty Creator.

The poetic words of Burke – as quoted by Alain de Botton in The Art of Travel – drift into my consciousness. Surely, this is a bull landscape! An encounter with what he calls the Sublime.


*AirAsia flies direct to Surabaya once a day. Mt Bromo is a 4hr drive from Surabaya. 



One of my favourite subjects in school was Geography. I studied  it for 6 years, and taught it as a teacher for 3 years.

My love for the subject grew when I topped the standard at 15 and 16. It was a ‘living’ subject that ignited my imagination. I saw in my mind an amazing world outside my classroom. And it’s one of the reasons I suffer from Wanderlust today.

In those formative years, I learnt about “slash and burn” agriculture. Our case studies were all from Indonesia.



With the advent of the worst haze in Singapore’s history (PSI hit 401 on 21 June), I found myself revisiting what I learnt in those early years.

This is what I remember:

“Slash and burn agriculture is the process of cutting down the vegetation in a particular plot of land, setting fire to the remaining foliage, and using the ashes to provide nutrients to the soil for use of planting food crops. 

The cleared area following slash and burn, also known as swidden, is used for a relatively short period of time, and then left alone for a longer period of time so that vegetation can grow again. For this reason, this type of agriculture is also known as shifting cultivation.” (Source: About.com)

thumbnail-1.phpWe studied “slash and burn” as a method used by shifting cultivators. It was a form of subsistence farming. Small scale and sustainable. Practised in many parts of Southeast Asia, and widespread in Indonesia.

Back in the 1980s, these concepts were theoretical to me. I do not remember ever having to deal with the haze or having to wear a mask to school. My learning was not experiential.

Apparently, the haze problem started 40 years ago, back in 1972. My friend Michelle pointed me to a blog post that outlined specific years where the haze was particularly bad. Personally, I don’t remember much of it.

But 10-15 years ago, things changed. I started to feel the effects of this annual fires in Indonesia. But this year has been the worst in Singapore’s history, with the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) hitting 401 on June 21. (>300 – hazardous)

I look back and I ask this question: What exactly has changed?



An article in The Star has surfaced, suggesting that land ownership laws (or the lack of) in Indonesia is to blame.

Based on this article entitled ‘Why Indonesia Cannot Stop Fires and Haze‘ by Francis Ng, it’s hundreds of thousands of peasant farmers who “claim land” by burning who are to blame. He writes that until the government institutes proper land laws, this will not stop. It’s a cultural, traditional mindset.

thumbnail.php“The custom in Kalimantan is that any land cleared and occupied belongs to whoever clears and occupies it. Any land that reverts back to jungle is open to others to clear and claim. As a result, each settler clears as much land as possible although he is able to farm only a small part of it. The rest would revert back to jungle but is prevented from doing so by fires set by the settlers themselves whenever the weather is dry. So the same land is burnt year after year after year.

These are fires on low vegetation, deliberately set by hundreds of thousands of independent poor farmers who barely survive from hand to mouth, living in absolutely primitive conditions. When will it end? When somebody buys the land and converts it to permanent organised agriculture, as for growing oil palm. The land that the settlers clear and claim represent their only hope of escape from poverty.” ~ Francis Ng, The Star

He ends off his article by making this claim:

“I cannot help but suspect that the real reasons for the fires and haze were known long ago by people on the ground, but it served the purpose of the international environmental NGOs and the international news agencies to put the blame on their favourite baddies the logging and oil palm industries. So long as the problem is not examined honestly, no implementable solution is likely to be found.” ~ Francis Ng, The Star

I’ve been told by a journalist in the field that this phenomenon of “owning by burning” has been mentioned in conversations with villagers in Riau. It does happen. How widespread? We can’t be sure. Is this is the source of the haze problem? We also can’t be sure.

But the question remains for me: Has the number of peasant farmers suddenly exploded to such an uncontrollable number in the last 10-15 years that their “slash and burn” method is causing this regional problem?


While Singapore is enjoying a temporary respite from the haze, Johor is experiencing the brunt of it right now. In Muar yesterday, the Air Pollution Index (API) hit a ridiculous 750!

(The air quality in Malaysia is reported as the API, which is based closely on the PSI. Unlike the PSI, the index number can exceed 500. Above 500, a state of emergency is declared in the reporting area. Usually, this means that non-essential government services are suspended, and all ports in the affected area closed).

“Slash and burn is a method of agriculture primarily used by tribal communities for subsistence farming (farming to survive). Humans have practiced this method for about 12,000 years, ever since the transition known as the Neolithic Revolution, the time when humans stopped hunting and gathering and started to stay put and grow crops. Today, between 200 and 500 million people, or up to 7% of the world’s population, uses slash and burn agriculture.

When used properly, slash and burn agriculture provides communities with a source of food and income. Slash and burn allows for people to farm in places where it usually is not possible because of dense vegetation, soil infertility, low soil nutrient content, uncontrollable pests, or other reasons.” (Source: About.com

12,000 years is a long, LONG time. To give this some context, I was at the Mummy: Secrets of the Tomb exhibition at the ArtScience Museum yesterday, and the mummies there were 3,000 years old. That’s Ancient Egypt. Multiply that by four.

It has been somewhat manageable – even tolerable – till today. So what has changed? What is causing hot spots in Indonesia to number several hundreds, and some larger than the size of Singapore?

There are 437 hotspots in Indonesia today, nearly double yesterday's. (Source: Channel NewsAsia)

There are 437 hotspots in Indonesia today, nearly double yesterday’s. (Source: Channel NewsAsia)



The finger is now pointing to large companies in Indonesia with vast oil palm plantations – some larger than the size of Singapore – that are clearing their land by burning.


Yes, it is cheaper. You set fire in the centre of the plantation and let it burn its way outwards. And with June being the hottest month in the year, this hot dry season is perfect for keeping the fires going.

ken TehI saw images of oil palms burning on Channel NewsAsia. Flames of fire licking the charred leaves and dancing from branch to branch. It’s a little curious to me that the whole tree is burning. Traditionally, farmers slash the plants first before they burn the low vegetation to clear the land.

My ex-colleague reporting from the field tells me that for some plantations, the nearby villagers say that the hot dry weather started the fires and some of the plantation owners aren’t even aware of the fires! They are desperately trying to reach them.

Maybe the situation is not as simple and straightforward as it seems. Maybe we are all trying to find one reason, one scapegoat, but maybe it’s a combination of a few.

But from aerial photos, one thing is clear: The role of the large companies cannot be overlooked or downplayed.


Singapore has pressed Indonesia to name these companies responsible for using “slash and burn” as a method of clearing. The approach is to name-and-shame, and Malaysia is joining in to pressure Indonesia.

Cheap, primitive methods used by small subsistence farmers are being employed by these large companies on plantations the size of a small country. Now that is a scary thought.

Is the difference then.. SCALE?

Sometimes, what is meant for “subsistence” (farming to survive) should stay at the “subsistence” level. Imagine. What if businesses used dynamite fishing for profit? What would happen to our coral reefs and marine life?

Sharks fin was meant for the Emperor in Imperial China. Look what happened when businesses decided to turn this exclusive delicacy meant for royalty to food for the masses.


Many people do not understand this, I realise. It’s not common sense.

Always. Always. It’s cents over sense.

foreign-currencyI acknowledge that there is great value in studying Economics and Mathematics – it makes one think logically in facts and figures. But without a sprinkle of common sense, such approaches can be dangerous.

Perhaps it’s a good thing that the U.S. is setting up a 54-member task force in Congress to look into boosting the Humanities and Social Sciences.

The committee includes distinguished jurists, business leaders, artists, scholars, university presidents and politicians, many of whom offer stirring testimonials on the value of their own liberal arts training. A 61-page report, entitled “The Heart of the Matter”, has also been presented in the U.S. Congress. (Source: NY Times)

I believe that without some form of Humanities education, the humanitarian balance in decision-making will be missing. And our world would be a scary place to live in.

I know I’ve raised more questions than I have answers. But I also think that while it’s important to not complicate simple matters, it’s also dangerous to simplify complex issues.

If nothing else, this is a timely wake-up call for Indonesia. And I only pray that they will respond swiftly and with compassion for their neighbours and for their own.