Surabaya is not an instinctive choice for me when I think of a quick getaway in Indonesia. Ranked ahead would be Bali, Yogyakarta and Medan.
But truth be told, I love the island of Java.
Aside from its own charms, Surabaya is also the gateway to Mount Bromo (active volcano) and Malang, a town in the highlands blessed with cooler temperatures – a popular hideaway for Europeans back in the days of Dutch colonisation.
I blogged about Mount Bromo here, and I’ll tell you more about Malang in a bit. Stay with me!
What’s more, Surabaya recently opened a swanky new international airport terminal. Just months old, it’s clean and modern, with amenities and retail that will satisfy any First World traveller. Think Starbucks Coffee.
Here are 10 reasons why you should consider Surabaya when you plan your next trip…
1. House of Sampoerna
Located in “old Surabaya”, this ‘Cigarette Museum’ is housed in a Dutch colonial-styled building constructed in 1862. Few know that this was once an orphanage run by the Dutch before a certain gentleman named Liem Seeng Tee, the founder of Sampoerna, bought it over in 1932 to convert it into a cigarette production facility.
Within its grand compound today, you’ll also find a cafe, art gallery and gift shop.
The House of Sampoerna is still a fully-functional production plant for Indonesia’s most prestigious cigarette, Dji Sam Soe. What’s fascinating is the staff still hand-rolls these cigarettes!
Check out how fast they roll…
* The museum, shop and art gallery are open Mondays to Sundays, 9am to 10pm.
2. Cheng Ho Chinese Mosque
One of the first things I notice about Surabaya – even before I step out of the airport – is the presence of Chinese Muslims. The most obvious are the Chinese women in tudung (headscarf). In fact, 40% of Surabaya’s population is Chinese!
Few people know that China’s celebrated admiral, Cheng Ho, was a devout Chinese-Muslim, and it was he who brought Islam to Indonesia’s Chinese community. He is believed to have stopped over in Semarang (Central Java) between the years 1400 and 1416, and his religious teachings spread by word-of-mouth to Surabaya.
You’ll find a fully functional Muslim mosque in amazing Chinese architecture dedicated to him in Pandaan, en route to Malang.
Even if you’re not Muslim, you can enter Masjid Cheng Ho – provided you’re “decently dressed”. If you’re not properly covered up, sarongs can be rented here.
This man (below) is Ahmad Sukarman – I think he manages the mosque compound.
He shares with me that this giant Oriental-looking drum (pictured above) serves as a call to prayer to the surrounding community – much like tolling church bells in Europe. Made of buffalo skin, it’s crafted not in China, but in Kutus in Central Java. Apparently, it is struck 5x day and played continuously for 5mins!
3. Candi Singosari
As we rumble along the roads through little villages from Surabaya to Malang, I catch a momentary glimpse of a structure by the roadside that reminds me of ancient temples in Cambodia. Yes, that distinctive Hindu-Buddhist architecture! What was it? Where were we?
We turn back, and I scramble out to have a look.
This is Candi Singosari – a Hindu-Buddhist temple built in 1351. It’s definitely nowhere close to Angkor Wat, Borobudur or the temples of Bagan, but it’s the element of surprise that grabs you. It stands on an obscure plot of land, nestled between low-rise buildings, in an otherwise uninteresting village!
The guide tells me at the stones are stacked from bottom to top, with no cement used at all. The carvings, on the other hand, are done from top to bottom – a lovely little piece of trivia.
There was no pomp or pageantry arriving at Singosari, and just as quietly and uneventfully, we went on our way. But what an unexpected roadside gem!
4. Toko “OEN” Malang
What I love about Malang is the remnants of Dutch influence – the churches, European architecture, even the food and restaurants! Toko “Oen” Malang’s menu even has its dishes listed in Dutch!
Toko “Oen” Malang is the oldest restaurant in Malang. Built in 1930 during the Dutch colonisation era, the interior exudes an old world charm that is so well-preserved that – upon stepping in – you immediately feel like you’ve travelled back in time. To me, it felt like a living museum!
In fact, this restaurant is so “true to its roots” that there is no air-conditioning or ceiling fans! It’s just high ceilings for natural ventilation and large glass panels for natural light. So be prepared to sweat buckets!
The restaurant was founded by a Chinese businessman named Mr Oen (hence its name) and the menu itself is a little “split personality”. You’ll find Western fare, mixed with Chinese and Indonesian, so pretty much anything you fancy!
Verdict: A lovely place for a lunch break in Malang.
5. Tugu Monument
This iconic monument – which stands in front of the mayor’s office in the heart of Malang – commemorates the courage of the local people, who fought against the Dutch colonial masters in the 1940s, and helped bring independence to Indonesia.
It’s shaped like a sharpened bamboo, signifying the first weapons used against the invaders.
There isn’t much to do here except to stroll leisurely on the grounds, enjoying the historical buildings and large shady trees surrounding this lotus pond. In many ways, Java is known for its heroes. If there is any point in your journey to pause and remember how hard the Javanese fought for the freedom of their country, this would be it.
6. Coban Rondo Falls
I have a thing for waterfalls – and this is an easy one to get to. I was worried it would be a strenuous and slippery hike out to the falls, so I was all prepared with my Keen ‘amphibious’ sandals, waterproof daypack and bikini!
We arrived at Coban Rondo Falls after a long drive, where I’d dozed off. When I tumbled out of the van, I was pleasantly surprised to feel the cool evening air on my face. Malang is nestled in the highlands, and the temperatures are much more pleasant here – around 20 deg C (even below!).
The waterfall is just a 5-10 min walk from the carpark, and the path is well-paved. Excellent for elderly and children! But it does get slippery closer to the falls, so best to still wear non-slip shoes. And bring a jacket!
The Coban Rondo Waterfall… I can feel the spray from here!
For fans of Jagung Bakar (grilled corn), there are stalls lined just outside the falls! Not as good as the one at Jimbaran Bay, Bali – in my opinion – but if you miss it, this one also comes glazed with margarine and chilli. And they even shave the corn-on-the-cob for you, so it’s easily shareable!
7. Fresh Apples Anyone?
Did you know that apple trees can be grown in Indonesia? I didn’t. But I guess the cool weather in Batu Malang makes it possible. The last time I picked an apple from a tree and ate it was in chilly Kashmir!
At Selecta Batu, two types of apples are cultivated: Apple Malang (green – native here) and Apple Anna (red) which is a hybrid of the local green apple and the Rosanna apple from Australia. Apparently, the green ones are sweeter!
A city slicker like me only buys apples from the supermarket or fruit stall. I mean – seriously – how often do we get to pick an apple straight from a tree and eat it? This is as fresh as it gets!
8. Jawa Timur Park
I have to admit I didn’t have very high expectations of this theme park. I mean, we have Universal Studios in Singapore after all. And I’ve been to crazy theme parks in the USA.
Located approximately 32km west of Malang, Jawa Timur Park has become somewhat of a tourist icon in East Java. While Park 1 is all about roller coasters, theme park rides, and splashing fun at the water park, Park 2 is… a zoo.
Not just any zoo, but a Secret Zoo. My first thought was: How can it possibly outdo the Singapore Zoo? My second thought: So, what’s so secret about it?
But let me tell you that I came away from this experience totally enlightened. The Secret Zoo’s collection of animals is really something. I’ve never seen some of these creatures in all my years of visitng zoos!
Here’s a glimpse…
9. Food, Glorious Food!
If there is one good reason why you should visit a place, it’s because it has GOOD FOOD – simple as that. And East Java will not disappoint. Whether it be Surabaya, Malang or Bromo, I found good food everywhere!
Now please ignore me as I drool.
When in Java, make sure you experience a “Lesehan style” meal. It’s where you sit around a long table – on the floor (or mat) – and share a communal meal. It’s casual and very Indonesian. I love it!
10. Batik Maduratna
I’m not much of a shopper, but even I was tempted by this: Indonesian batik!
Basically, batik refers to a technique of manual wax-resist dyeing. And if you’re keen to shop for some, this is the place…
Located in Madura (just across the Suramadu Bridge from Surabaya), Batik Maduratna boasts the largest batik selection in the city! These traditional fabrics are designed and handmade here. In the day, there are also demonstration sessions by traditional artisans, so you can learn more about how batik is made.
Mad About Mount Bromo
Definitely another reason – and perhaps the most compelling one – to visit Surabaya is Mount Bromo. It’s just a 4hr drive from Surabaya city, and truly, it’s like stepping into another world.
So surreal she is that I’ve devoted a whole blog post just to her. You can read it here.
AirAsia flies direct to Surabaya once a day.
Flights depart Singapore at 2.10pm (SIN time) and arrive in Surabaya at 3.20pm (IND time). Just in time to check in!
Do pre-book your inflight meals though, because you enjoy a discount that way. I’d recommend the Nasi Kuning Manado because it doesn’t hold back on the spice, and it’s authentically Indonesian.
On my flight back to Singapore, I pre-order a simple Western breakfast because it’s a really early flight. You take off from Surabaya at 5.20am and arrive back in Singapore at 8.30am. This Chicken Sub sat snug in my tummy… and to my delight, AirAsia serves Old Town 3-in-1 White Coffee too. My fav!
*AirAsia flies direct to Surabaya once a day. To book your flight, click here.