Probolinggo to Semarang (Central Java)

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We say goodbye to Wijaya and his family. To be honest, I am sad to say goodbye to a cool guy who opens his heart and home to so many strangers from countries far and wide. The train station is just five minutes away and we only wait 2-3 minutes before boarding and setting off on the first leg of our fifteen hour journey to Semarang.
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The economy train ride is relatively comfortable, though the space between the seats is probably not enough for Paul’s long legs. Is short people are well catered for though. The rice fields slip by and the two hours to Surabaya pass quickly. (Especially for Paul who sleeps most of the way.)
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It’s barely 9am as we navigate the relatively modest crush of taxi drivers, becak riders and other touts waiting at the station for a fare. We have to wait until 4pm for our train to Semarang so decide to walk about 200m to the Grand City Mall. We haven’t had wifi in a couple of days so wait for the shopping centre to open in Starbucks uploading photos to Facebook and Instagram. There is a beauty show going on next door at the convention centre so we watch beautifully women in glamorous dresses walk past. It seems there will be a makeup contest on this morning and this is why they are so dolled up. I’ve never seen anything like this in real life.
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The shopping centre is modern and glitzy. Everything is the same price as home except the food court, which is a mixed bag. You can buy a 450,000IDR ($AU45) Australian steak at The Rocks or a 25,000IDR ($AU2.50) meal of satay sticks with rice and everything in between. Japanese seems to be the most common takeaway.
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But our real joy is indulging in our favourite pastime other than travel: the movies. We go to see Inside Out at the XXI Cinema. The seats are large and comfortable, the picture quality superb, the surround sound actually surrounds us and the movie itself is sweet.
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Then it’s time to play Frogger as we cross the road, avoid the tout as we push our way through the waiting public and private transport at the station and into the cool shade of the platform as we wait for our train. Being a foreigner might open you up to scams at the Bromo but at train stations it leads to being allowed through to the platform early instead of having to wait in the heat with the crowds.

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The train journey from Surabaya to Semarang is uneventful. We have booked an executive class train so sit in large reclining seats in comfort with blankets provided by the railway company. Paul bought us an earphone splitter for my laptop so we pass the time watching movies and television series on my laptop. There is a movie showing on the train but it has many advertisements so I prefer to watch my advertisement free iTunes purchases.

We arrive in Semarang at 10:30pm to the delightful surprise of two of my cousins waiting to pick us up. I feel blessed to have family here. It’s really cool for me because I grew up as a migrant child without a blood related extended family. And I feel I am still just getting to know my cousins after our week together last year so I didn’t expect them to be at the station waiting. ūüôā

Our hotel is wonderful and luxurious but costs the same as a campsite in a caravan park in Australia. We should go to sleep but I use my Scrubber bag to wash the Bromo sand out of our clothes then we put on a movie and order pizza room service at midnight (I can’t remember ever ordering room service before) because we’re feeling peckish. It’s all very civilised and luxurious and new. Quite fitting really after such a relatively luxurious day.

Gunung Bromo (East Java)

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I could start with a long explanation of how we got scammed on the way to Bromo but that would detract from the wonderful experience of this amazing place. I’ll give the Readers Digest version:

  • We paid 700,000IDR ($70) for a private mini bus to the last village and back (1.5 hours each way plus waiting time) In context the mini bus should have cost 35,000IDR ($AU3.50) per seat shared with other passengers. A metered taxi would have cost about 600,000IDR ($AU60) return. And a commercial tour would have cost upwards of 1,000,000IDR ($AU100) per person.¬†
  • We were forced to pay the bus driver 217,000IDR ($AU22) each national park entry fee, which he was not authorised to collect. Actual entry would have been 250,000IDR ($AU25) each if we had not been dropped off at a short cut that allows you to bypass the national park entry gate.
  • In the scheme of things, with all this information, you can see that the scam was not extortionate. So, instead of being upset about it, I just accept that our day out to the amazing Mt Bromo cost us $60 each. Most of which we would have had to pay in some form anyway.

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The walk from the last village (as Wijaya kept calling it) into the caldera is steep and dusty but not slippery. It’s an easy plod through the dust cloud our feet kick up. ¬†This is little more than a village trail that the men with the ponies use on their harsh commute to work. Gaps in the trees grant us glimpses of the wonder that will unfold during our adventure.
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Once in the caldera the view is magnificent. The black sands stretch before is for miles and we are alone to feel the vastness for ourselves. Opting against the sunrise tour means that we will encounter relatively few tourists and almost everyone is a local.
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Men with horses trot and canter through the sand as they see us emerge in the distance. They want us to use their services but for now we will walk. The sand is mostly quite firm from years of scooters riding across them. So the walking is easy and beautiful.
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The smouldering live crater looms ahead. It is eerie with its bare sand walls and plume of smoke. I cannot imagine living and working here. It’s hot, dusty and smelly. The men with the ponies and warungs (small tented food and drink stalls) are tough and I feel a deep sense of respect for them. There is no guarantee of a sale yet still they try their luck with the tourist trade.
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We rent two small ponies to take us the final stretch from the temple to the steps on the crater. It seems sensible for the long steep climb and I have been talking about riding a pony up Bromo for a while now. The ponies are tiny and the saddles small. We both feel awkward and unbalanced but it’s much better than hiking up the steep path.

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And then we are there at the base of one of the most famous flights of steps in the world. It is a daunting sight indeed. I can see why there is a small shrine at the base.

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We take our time climbing to the top; looking back often to take in the views. When I was here in December there was a total white out. Now the landscape is visible and wonderous.

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At the top the volcano rumbles ominously. I can’t help but feel afraid that it might erupt at any moment. It’s an irrational fear but a fear all the same. There’s a plume of white smoke spewing from a deep gaping hole in the earth’s crust not unlike the most disgusting infected boil you’ve ever seen. It’s like one of those creepy Facebook hoax pictures of microorganisms burrowing in a person’s skin. And it promises the same devastating effects if something goes wrong. And, like the Facebook pictures, I am mesmerised despite my fear.

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We return to the village the way we came, using our own foot power the whole way. The wind has picked up and is blowing sand across the Sea of Sands. I expect it to sting a bit but the sand is so fine it just settles all over our bodies and clothes. Paul’s white shirt is now grey and I will be wiping grains of muddy sand from my eyes all night. It’s a proper adventure now. We aim for the two towers that mark the top of the trail we came down. As this is a local’s trail there are no signs so you need to pay attention to your surrounds. But the two towers are distinctive so it is easy nav.

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The final climb is steep and sharp but manageable if you take your time and work within your limits. We get a few final glimpses into the caldera and then we are back in the real world away from the volcano’s view. A quick descent in the waiting minibus takes us back to the bus station and a waiting bemo for the final short drive back to Probolinggo and our host’s house. It’s been absolutely grand!

Sunday morning in Probolinggo (East Java, Indonesia)

Last night Wijaya (our Couch Surfing host) told us that there would be a walking street at the Alun Alun this morning. So I wake early and am not disappointed.

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There are market stalls selling all manner of food, drink, clothes and trinkets. Without the usual buzz of scooters it is easy to meander through the crowd taking everything in. 

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In the Alun Alun itself young men play soccer.

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Roller blade in a small tiled area.

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And play volleyball.

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A crowd gathers as a monkey handler puts on a show. The monkey dresses up as a soldier and cowboy, pushes a kaki lima (food stall) and rides a motorbike. I suspend judgement on the grounds that a traveler should view events in context, recognising that judgement comes from applying our own cultural norms and expectations on those who allow us to be guests in their lands. And so I watch as children smile laugh and parents enjoy seeing their children happy.

We head to the Bromo for the day armed with hints and tips from our host. But I will write about that in a separate post. 

Arriving in Probolinggo (East Java, Indonesia)

Our morning is fairly uneventful. We use up all but ten minutes of our midday checkout from the hotel and walk to the Java Dancer Cafe where we are the day of the parade. With over three hours to kill before our train departs, we again order cheeseburgers and orange juice. Followed by iced chocolates to legitimise our sitting there using the wifi.

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The Malang train station is just a five minute walk from Java Dancer. We wait a few minutes for the train, board our economy aircon carriage and are off to our next city: Probolinggo. Paul sleeps and I talk with a local man who comes over specifically to check out the white folks. My few phrases of Bahasa Indonesia make him smile and encourage him to try to hold a conversation with me. After an hour he gets off the train and I settle in to write a university paper. I’m so engrossed that we almost miss our stop but, fortunately, another passenger tells us to get off just before the whistle blows for the train to depart.

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Exiting the train station we are met with the bright lights of the nightly “party” at the Alun Alun Probolinggo (Probolinggo City Park). It’s all happening here. There are brightly lit children’s rides that are operated by pedal power, a cute cartoonish train and many kaki lima (food stalls). It’s just fantastic and I am excited about our stay here.

We have organised to Couch Surf with A young guy called Wijaya in Probolinggo. I am always a little nervous before meeting a Couch Surfing host because I do not want to impose and want the experience to be good for them too. Also, I can be a bit shy with new people so it’s always tempting to retreat to the familiarity and privacy of a hotel room. But I needn’t have worried. Wijaya is a really cool guy and welcomes us into his home. He has had many Couch Sirfing guests so is used to this awkward first meeting.

We drop our gear in the room he has set aside for us and join him in the sitting room for some talking. After a while I feel hungry so suggest that Paul and I go to the Alun Alun to buy some foods to share. The Alun Alun is literally outside the house so it’s no difficulty at all. Our host apologises because he hasn’t had a chance to prepare food but for us it is nice to contribute something to his having is to stay.

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And how better to contribute that with delicious soto ayam (chicken soup). We also bring a few other things that we want to try ourselves so end up with a bit of a feast. More talking follows before a late night to bed for all.

Malang old and new (East Java, Indonesia)

We’re both feeling much better after “enjoying” traveler’s bellies for a few days. We’ve stopped eating street food to let our stomachs settle and that seems to have done the trick. So we’re ready to walk. ¬†

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We start with a walk to the train station to buy our tickets for tomorrow’s trip to Probolinggo. At first the process seems complicated and slow because there are people standing around waiting for the numbers to be called. So we take a number and realise there are literally 100 people ahead of us. I watch people filling in forms so do the same. Google told us we need to change train in Bima so it’s good that we saw the customer service area and take a ticket to go there too. We learn there is a direct train to Probolinggo tomorrow afternoon that only takes about 2.5 hours instead of the 4.5 hours that Google recommended. Customer service completes our form and sends us directly to a counter with just two people before us. Easy.¬†¬†

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Tickets bought we can relax. Sort of. I mean, we are walking around a Javanese city dodging heavy traffic. This huge park in the photo is actually a roundabout. It’s peaceful despite being probably one of the busiest intersections in town. I could probably lay on the grass quite happily with my eyes closed soaking up the atmosphere. Instead we continue walking. Behind our hotel there are quiet back streets with modern houses. These are a stark contrast to the hovels that line the filthy creek here in town. Here, these houses are mansions though some are probably no bigger than the house I sold last year. How life has changed. Living in such a huge house seems so unnecessary to me now.

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The military museum is nearby so we go there. Entry is by donation. The collection is extensive but uncurated. There is just stuff everywhere: guns, trophies, flags, an old car and these random old computers. The computers make me think about my dad who worked on some of the first commercial computers way back early in his career. He told me stories about computers that took up whole rooms so I bet he remembers these old clunkers too. They even have punch card.

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Leaving the museum we walk down Ijen Boulevard. It is a famous road here in Malang because the style is so colonial. I feel like I am back in Orlando, which I visited with my sister in 2012. I almost expect to see American pickups driving past instead of the zippy scooters.

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It’s hot outside and there’s a reflexology shop on a side street so we indulge. Sure, we have an appointment for tonight but at 50,000IDR ($AU5) an hour it can’t hurt to have another. Well, it sure can hurt. The massage men had sting bony fingers that found every tender spot on my feet and calves. I do my best not to pull my feet away; flinching often. The masseuse doesn’t speak or understand English so no point asking for softer. Besides, it’s probably good for my muscles.

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After 10km walking we reach Toko Oen (actually only 1km from our hotel but we like to explore on foot). It’s a colonial institution that has seen better days and the food is (quite frankly) terrible and expensive. But hey, you can’t come to Indonesia and not try experience colonialism. It’s part of the story here.

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Hunger not satisfied we stop at the Houtenhand bar. We’ve been eyeing this cute place off since we arrived. It is hipster cool done to perfection. This is definitely the future of Java. It’s creative, ingenious and stylish. The bar would be popular in any global city, particularly because it is not overpriced. And I want to make a cassette tape lamp fitting at home too like the one I saw here.

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We end our old and new Malang day back at the park in the roundabout. The flowers are lit up now and cheerfully smile on us. It’s funny how the smallest thing can bring so much joy.

Sidebar: Getting fit again

Before I started this adventure of travel, I was quite fit. I trained consistently in trail running, mountain biking and road cycling. I was able to ride a 200km Audax cycle even relatively comfortably within the 13:30 cut off. I had run a marathon and completed a 50km ultramarathon. My chosen sport was adventure racing and I could get around a 12 hour course comfortably.

But over the past year I have let my fitness slip. Yes, I cycle tour. But I tour slowly. I also hike but I haven’t done many long hikes over 10km (6 miles). And I certainly haven’t done any running. It’s like I’ve had a little over a year to decompress and learn a new way of living. But it’s taken it’s toll on my body.

When I look at myself in photos I am starting to see a return of the stomach that I had way back in 2011 when I started my past¬†journey to fitness. When I look at the scales I see that I have gained 10kg (22lbs) in the past year. And when I buy clothes, I have gone from a 32″ waist to a stage where a 36″ waist feels very snug. It’s the result of a year of travel food, treats and intermittent exercise.

Life is good and I am enjoying it. But I have to find a balance. I love feeling fit and knowing I can¬†tackle any adventure that comes my way. I wasn’t ready to pursue my fitness again until now. But now I am motivated and have established a new routine for when I return home to help me stick to it.

To begin, I am doing the Couch to 5km program. I have been making videos of each time I go running since week 1 day 2. And I will continue to do so throughout the program. Here’s my first five videos:

Week 1 Day 2 РI ran along the beach at home. Week 1 involved 5 minute warm up, 8 x 60 secs running and 90 secs walking, and a 5 minute cool down.

Week 1 Day 3 – I ran in Yogyakarta

Week 2 Day 1 – I ran in Malang. Week 2 involved 5 minute warm up, 6 x 90 secs running and 2 mins walking, and a 5 minute cool down.

Week 2 Day 2 – Still in Malang I ran a similar route as the previous session

Week 2 Day 3 – This morning I ran again in Malang. But this time I ran through quiet streets and along Ijen Boulevard.

My next run will be on Tuesday when I will start week 3. That will be in Semarang and will involved a 5 minute warm up, 2 x 90 sec running and 90 sec walking, 3 min running and 3 min walking, and a 5 min cool down. I actually feel a bit excited about the next session because it’s an excuse to make photos and videos.

A day out in Batu (East Java, Indonesia)

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Beep beep. Toot toot. Beep beep. Toot toot. The taxi driver attacks the horn as though his fare depends on it as he tries to race his way from Malang to Batu. He looks to be well over 70 but is probably only in his 50s. His fingers curl around the steering wheel as though they are cramped into that position. He sits forward in his seat peering out of the window, his head almost at a permanent tilt as he tries to see what is around the next bus or truck so that he can get past. It’s 45 minutes to Batu and I’m glad I opened my wallet wide enough to pay for an air conditioned taxi, rather than being squashed into a little blue mini van. It means we can take in the scenery along the road … mostly it’s urban sprawl. The taxi fare is about 75,000IDR ($AU7.50)-85,000IDR ($AU8.50) each way from Malang to Batu.

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We got the driver to drop us at the Museum Angkut (Transport Museum). I had heard about this place from my cousins who posted photos on their Facebook pages a few weeks ago from their visit here. But I still didn’t know what to expect. I was picturing a small museum. But that’s not what Museum Angkut is at all … it’s huge. And it has an amazing collection of transport including classic cars. Entry is 60,000IDR ($AU6) … beware of frauds trying to charge more.

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There is also a huge collection of interesting and unique transport such as a fire fighting bicycle from 1950 and a steam powered bicycle that predates most other steam powered land transport. These are vehicles I would probably never get to see anywhere else. And these are just a limited example of the hundreds of vehicles that they have in this museum – all lovingly restored and polished.

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But this isn’t just a museum where you can see cars. This is a fully interactive place like no museum I have ever seen before. You can stand right up next to some very cool vehicles and pretend you are the owner.

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But for me, the most fun part was riding all the cool motorbikes and bicycles. There are huge sets all over the museum. And I mean huge. Whole streets representing difference cities and countries like a movie set. There’s an Indonesian wharf, an Italian riviera town, a French cafe street, Berlin, Buckingham Palace and a Hollywood movie set.

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In the American gangster area I got locked up in jail but then redeemed myself by capturing a bank robber. And the fun thing here in Asia is that this type of caper is not something grown ups have to do on the sly. Nope – everyone visiting the museum today was an adult and everyone was taking pictures and selfies of themselves like this.

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One group of cheeky Indonesian girls even went a step further. They walked around this Bajaj testing the doors until they found one unlocked. It took all of three seconds for them to be inside the vehicle together giggling and taking selfies. Haha. I think if I were to describe Indonesian culture in one word I would say that word is “cheeky”. I notice this kind of behaviour everywhere. It’s done without malice. It’s just that people seem to want to have fun and that some rules just don’t apply. It’s the same with taking the flowers from the floats at the parade, the passengers standing on a plane as soon as it lands without waiting for the seat belt sign to turn off and they way some children still call out “Hello Mister” and then giggle when you say (for example) “salamat siang” (good afternoon) back. I think that this is what makes travel here on this loud, crowded, dusty and relentless island where a solid bowel movement is a rarity so much fun.

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Still at the museum we pay 1,500IDR ($1.50) to ride on these weird vehicles. They rock back and forward when you change direction and Paul is rough enough to find the stopper that prevents it going fully upside down. We are laughing hysterically the whole time as kitschy music plays. I think this must be so popular in Japan or Korea if they had one.

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In addition to the transport, there are also other interactive displays at the museum including this very clever mural where you can pretend to hold a paint brush and it actually looks like you are. And I got to sit next to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II (Queen of the British Empire for those not from the Commonwealth). I felt like a school boy post was most appropriate for the occasion.

We also made a green screen movie. As you can tell, we couldn’t really understand the context well, just the directions we should face. It was fun though. We were given a DVD but I managed to film most of it on my mobile phone as they played it back to us because we don’t have a DVD player with us. I missed the opening credits but you get the idea from this clip.

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After spending a good two or so hours at Museum Angkut we walked to Kusuma Agrowisata (Kusuma Tourist Farm). The walk was almost all up hill. It wasn’t far: maybe 2km (1.25 miles). Along the way we enjoyed views of mountains and volcanoes. Unfortunately, the sky was too hazy to take a good photo of the massive volcano nearby.

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Kusuma Argowisata is a big tourist fruit farm. They grow a range of fruits. Today the guava and apples were in season. You pay 60,000IDR ($AU6) for a tour of the farm including (officially) two fresh guavas and two fresh apples, a yoghurt drink, a toasted bread and a cup of juice. It’s not cheap but it is a bit of fun. And (unofficially) you will end up with more fruit than just the two you are officially allowed. And you do get shown a lot. In the guava section we tasted about three different guava fruits to see the difference in age. We also were shown how to spot a fruit fly infested fruit and to select a ripe one.

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The apple orchard is large. We tasted the sour red apples that are used for juicing and other commercial purposes. They are organically grown because fruit fly don’t strike them as much. We also go to taste the sweet green local apples with a mottled brown skin. They are quite tasty for eating.

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It was worth the entry fee to learn about the crop and spend some time eating fresh fruit. Whereas on the walk to the farm my stomach was upset, by the time we left I wasn’t feeling the urge to run (and actually running) for the nearest bathroom anymore. We took home four guava and about ten apples between us.

After our day out we returned to Malang just on time to upload some photos to Facebook and then head to our massage appointment. We had our ear wax removed through ear candling and our legs and feet massaged. My masseuse was a bit rough; he didn’t understand what he was doing so it was more painful than pleasure. But I am sure it’s still good for my muscles to be stretched. We also went to a very nice Indonesian restaurant (Harmoni Cafe and Bar) that came recommended on Trip Advisor. After barely eating a proper meal in two days due to a gurgling stomach, it was good to sit down to a full meal of nasi goreng kecaps (fried rice with sweet soy sauce), guremi goreng (fried ocean fish like snapper), satay ayam (satay chicken sticks) and a mixed vegetable dish. Including drinks the meal (for two people) was 185,000IDR ($AU18.50). And we couldn’t even finish it all. I think we will return there again during our stay in Malang.

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Then we walked out to check out whether the purple mosque we saw yesterday was lit up at night. It sure was! This might be the most beautiful mosque I have ever seen. And again, a fantastic day ends with something beautiful to cap it off.