Tales of Two Cities Cirebon and Semarang


Cirebon MarketWhile in Cirebon I had a moment of weakness. I would later have another in Malang and some have already busted my chops for that meal at McDonald’s. But this was Cirebon. I never go here at home but now that I am in a far away corner of the world I seem to have the need. Dunkin Donuts to the rescue.

Hey, I’m told they have great coffee!

The coffee and donuts are the same price as back in the US so it’s not hard to figure that I was the only one in there. I was lured in by my need for cool air and wifi. The thought being I could catch up on email; it was ridiculously hot outside.

The kind of heat that saps your energy and makes all your limbs feel limp and in need of a pool with lounge chair. You sweat profusely and your forehead drains salty droplets directly into your eyes. You wipe those away with an equally lubricated hand intensifying the effect of the salt bath you now find yourself in.

I was drenched after a long day of walking.

Unfortunately the Dunkin Donuts staff were taking a siesta. Can’t blame them, the rest of the town was doing likewise.

I do like this town for that very reason, it’s laid back. Especially compared to the last two mega cities I had been in. Jakarta and Bandung both have major traffic problems and to get anywhere takes forever.  In Cirebon that’s all pretty easy. So easy in fact that I didn’t once see a taxi. Most of the public transportation is done by becak (rickshaw) or dokar (horse and cart). It’s relatively small so I opted to walk most places and work off some of the rice, fish, and donuts.

This is a town on the coast but you never get to see the water. No one seems to pay this fact any attention and for good reason; there are no beaches.

The city did have quite a few quirky aspects to it. I walked around one night and a guy had a man-made palm tree all dressed up with flickering lights right next to a real one in his front yard.

Another guy followed me down the street trying to sell me a ride to anywhere and kept saying….”is up to you”. No matter what I responded with he would say “is up to you” and then try again. Clearly he thought it was not my decision to make.

I saw a real deer in Cirebon in the front yard of a government administration building. That kind of threw me for a loop and I could not help feeling sorry for it. That then turned into hope that more “tropical” deer lived there and he was not going to grow old alone.

The trip to Cirebon through the mountains was gorgeous. It reminded me a lot of Bali with the tiered rice fields and general lushness of it all. Windy roads and the over-zealous driving you would expect accompanied every hairpin.

I liked Cirebon a lot. A little strange but that gave it character, a little laid back, but that was a nice change of pace, bad donuts…but that’s OK, I mean who comes to Indonesia for the donuts!


One of the things I have always found amusing when in Asia is just how readily people give you directions somewhere when they have no idea where it is that you’re heading. I have read that in a lot of countries and cultures it’s all about never saying “No” or admitting that you don’t know. It’s deemed as impolite because as with most of us, we all just want to help out and how can you help if you say you don’t know the answer.  It’s better to try to help out.

Even if you’re wrong, how bad could it be?

For many Indonesians history starts in 1949 and whatever happened prior to that is of little or no importance. That’s a generalization of course but as you wander around talking to people or take a taxi somewhere you think is historically important you quickly find out that your perspective on history is not always held by the mainstream.

In Semarang, as in other cities, I made a point of visiting the Ereveld War Cemeteries. Semarang’s is Kalibanteng and is the resting place of over 3,000 civilian men, women, and children who died in POW camps. I had discovered during my visit that many places I deemed important historical sites were not so important to the Indonesian populace.

However that didn’t stop folks from giving me directions.

Kalibanteng is a few miles out from the city center. I boarded a bemo and made my way to what I thought was the general vicinity. My map was a tattered one and I wasn’t sure if it was to scale. What looked like the general area might well involve some more mileage.

On the corner where I disembarked was an army base. I figured if I was in the right area at least they would have an idea in which direction to head.

Sure enough, they did!

With guns slung across their backs, cigarettes smoldering, they looked at my map, turned it sideways, upside own, sat on the fence discussing it, and when a consensus was established they pointed me in a direction and sent me on my way.  Two street over and to my right.

I walked down the street.

It was the middle of the day, hot, dusty, and chaotic. It didn’t appear that this would be a likely venue for a place of mourning and remembrance since both sides of the street were lined with shops. I trusted these guys with guns.

They lived there, worked there, they had to have a better idea than me.

One of the shops was a travel agency, well, more of a transport agent. You know the little stalls that sell you a ticket for a bus to get you to another town. They did have posters of the Greek Islands and Italy’s Amalfi Coast on the walls so they had credibility, no?

The main guy in the stall was very friendly and knew exactly where my destination was. I was on the right street, all I needed to do was get on the right bus. Head straight down the road for 10km…10km, you’ve got to be kidding.

The map said it should be right here!

He flagged the bus down. I piled on, he told them where I was headed and off we went. My gut was not feeling it. We traveled about 1km when the bus took a dramatic left turn and headed down a bumpy lane into a village.

It wasn’t stopping.

It just kept on trucking and as city turned into country, major streets into dusty tracks, congestion into open fields, I kind of figured I would listen to my gut. With a bang on the roof (that’s what the locals do) my ride stopped, I paid and jumped off. I was getting a lot of stares at this point. What’s this crazy foreigner doing out here? Where’s he heading to? He’s lost…should we give him directions. Those kinds of stares.

I backtracked to the main road and headed in the direction of the travel agency. After a while I could see it. All the buses were converging outside in a big chaotic sea of black smoke and noise.

I was walking on the opposite side of the street just because it was cooler. The street on this side had become lined with trees; it was a much more pleasant side than the other. The sidewalk was looked after and the tall concrete fence added even more shade.

I walked along for a few minutes. I was within two hundred yards of being opposite my starting point when I came to a gate. When you come to a gate you often look in so I did.

What was there?

You guessed it. Opposite my man the travel agent was the Kalibanteng entrance!

For photos of Indonesia click here.

25 thoughts on “Tales of Two Cities Cirebon and Semarang

  1. I will never forget the first time I went to Europe and we had asked someone on the street for a recommendation for a restaurant to get a quick lunch. Thankfully the directions were good but we had to laugh when we came upon the address and it was Burger King. Did we eat there, you bet we did. After that we learned how to ask the question and then found ourselves at various bistros and pubs. 🙂


  2. In 1997, we were on a small tour in Taiwan. One day, we were on our own for lunch in a city with no English signs. After wandering around for awhile, we saw some Golden Arches (MacDonalds). We felt kind of embarrassed, but we slunk in there where it was a relief to order something and more or less know what to expect. In short order, one by one, we were joined by the other Americans in our group. We never choose MacDonalds in the US, but there we were. …


  3. What a fascinating travel experience. I have traveled quite a bit myself but have never been to Indonesia or heard of these two cities. I don’t agree that it is in any way helpful to give someone directions when you don’t know the directions. I believe it is a compassionate sign of intelligence to simply say, “I don’t know,” rather than misleading someone and sending them all over the place. That would have been a challenging day for me because I am not in any way a fan of hot weather. Generally, I try to avoid it as much as possible.


    1. I don’t think anyone really finds it helpful to provide, or be provided, directions if the destination is unknown however you are running into a cultural issue here which cannot simply be wished away with “western logic”. Saying “I don’t know” in a lot of cultures is really not an option. The best you can do is keep a smile on your face and a sense of humor about the whole thing.


  4. I also experienced the directional mishaps while in Costa Rica. I couldn’t bring myself to going into a Taco Bell, that was mind boggling to me. But, I did stop into a Pizza Hut 🙂


    1. From the responses I am getting it seems to be a slice of home that gets us all…even if we never acknowledge them when we are at home!


  5. Glad to see a story about Cirebon. The no-beaches aspect reminds me of Male’ in the Maldives, which doesn’t have any natural beach.

    While in Jakarta, I frequently saw kaki lima (street carts) where Cirebon was written, which would normally be a good way to tempt me to visit somewhere, but do you find that it’s good for a weekend visit? In addition to Dunkin’ Donuts, did you find any “Dunian Donuts?”


      1. On many kaki lima, you can see written the food name and the origin of the food. I can’t remember the specialty of Cirebon, but let’s say on one side it would say “tahu gejrot” and the other “Cirebon.”


  6. Hi Tim; good story my man. i am blind, wonder if i would have had any better luck getting directions. and at least here in the states duncan donuts has great coffee. don’t know about the food because being a successful gastric patient i can’t do much with their menu. take care out there, Max


  7. When i was in Brussels and tired of eating hard bread sandwiches all i kept thinking was i can’t wait to get home to get a bacon cheeseburger


  8. I can relate to the fast food slip ups! I think it could be an Indonesian thing because when we were in Jakarta and Bali we went to Mc Donalds for the air-con and wifi, yet after months of only eating Asian food, and loving it, we kept being drawn back there for the burgers and fries!
    When we saw a Dunkin Donuts we got really excited and splurged on some not so great donuts as well!


  9. Hi,
    It was really funny and i was so involved while reading as i was feeling that i was there and i ran to get doughnuts…. normally i always do as my daughter loves doughnuts and she always start screaming if she see some where ..
    But i really like few things you have mentioned like people completely forcing you to take something and pretend as if its your choice,,,
    other thing being an Asian … I will admit , you are right in saying that …. we can not say no… even if we do not know about anything…
    few days back a lady asked about the directions of nursery , i have seen many times but i was not sure , i stopped and i tried to see around , if i can get where it is… but i could not tell her clearly as i do not know…
    it’s sad but it’s true…
    I really enjoyed reading…


    1. Thank you so much. I am glad you agree with what I wrote but please don’t think it is sad. I get a lot of enjoyment out of being lost and find the quirkiness of places and cultures around the globe to be the fuel that keeps me exploring.


  10. It is hard for us to understand why someone would give directions to somewhere when they don’t know how to get there. It is rarer in the US but back when I was in college, there was a secretary in a dean’s office that did the same thing. I think they don’t want to admit to not knowing something. The hardest place for me to navigate so far has been Japan where the addresses make no logical sense to my western mind.


    1. You hit the nail on the head Beth. Many things make sense to the people who live there but look completely chaotic to those who don’t. There is a great book called Aama in America where an elderly Nepalese woman is taken for a holiday in the US. Absolutely nothing made sense to her!


  11. Really interesting! Found myself running to a McDonalds after spending 3 weeks in Asia, so I get the whole Dunkin’ Donuts thing. Sort of like finding a piece of home there..even though intellectually that doesn’t make sense. I’ve never heard of these cities and but for you may never have. So thanks for sharing them.


    1. Yes, they are kind of off the track in Java, Indonesia but, at least for me, were well worth the visit. In all my travels there has only been one place I really didn’t care for but that was mainly for what was happening in that country at the time. As for sharing, you’re very welcome.


  12. Tales of Two Perspectives also it appears. Both History and Distance seem quite different in Asia, especially off the beaten track. Don’t blame you for the Dunkin. I have a friend who always drinks Spruce Beer in Quebec … because that’s the only place you can get it. The fact it tastes like 7-up mixed with Lysol might explain that but such is life !


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