Colonial charm and mountain calm in Java

Spa bath at Hotel Tugu
Spa bath at Hotel Tugu

Two staff in pristine khaki uniforms and the scent of frangipani blossoms greeted us as we pulled up to the open-air lobby of Hotel Tugu.  It was after 10 PM, yet many locals were still out, walking with their families in the pleasant air in Monument Park next door.

After a full day of travel, my husband, sleeping baby and I were ready for the room. Check-in was blissfully short: Ni Luh took one look at baby and sent her to the room with my husband. She then said to me, “I imagine you will need babysitting tomorrow?”

We would.  And it would turn out that both baby and her parents would need some time at the Tugu spa…

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Lantern, Hotel Tugu Malang

We had come to Java to visit friends I had met while studying abroad in East Java as a college student.With Bali firmly claiming the mantle of Indonesia’s primary tourist destination, it’s easy to overlook Indonesia’s 16,000 + other islands. Even Java, which lies just across the water from the beaches of Kuta and is the world’s most populous island!, can seem like a destination off the beaten path. With a name conjuring up fragrant exoticism, rich cultural heritage, and cantankerous volcanic craters, those who venture here are sure to be rewarded. Oh, and there’s a beach nearby that could beat any of Bali’s in a beauty contest. Prices tend to be lower here too. 

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Your own slice of the tropics at Hotel Tugu Malang

Ever since I studied here in college, Hotel Tugu has been THE place to stay in this hill station town.  Local antiques decorate nearly every wall and cranny in its maze of teakwood corridors. A red commode next to the hotel restaurant is home to more than 50 shadow puppets, their painted faces and batik sarongs pressed closely together, leaning into the center as if posing for a photo. Walk past the wayang and you will find the columns and altar of a Chinese temple, a nod to the Chinese-Javanese Peranakan heritage of many of the island’s residents.

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Chinese temple inside Hotel Tugu Malang

You can stay in a uniquely-designed suites inspired by famous Javanese artists and legends. Former Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri has stayed in the hotel’s Apsara Residence, a 200 square meter suite with an al fresco dining area and a step-up jacuzzi shielded by a rainbow of silk curtains.

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The Apsara Suite, Hotel Tugu Malang

Gauzy red sashes sweep down artfully as well between the antiques for sale at Shanghai Noon, the in-house dealer. Malang is a good place to buy Indonesian antiques, as the prices are much lower than in Bali. Large pieces are popular–want a teak doorframe from a traditional Javanese house?–It is yours if you can ship it back home. The Tugu concierge has a list of other antique dealers in the city and can arrange your transport.

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Shanghai Noon Antique Retreat


For a beach fix, two hours south of Malang lies Pulau Sempu. This uninhabited island is home to a lagoon with a white sand beach, fully sheltered from the crashing surf of the Indian Ocean by karst cliffs. Remember the movie The Beach?

Oh, and the Food!

It’s been longer than I want to admit that I studied in Malang. The same unhurried pace of life remains the same. And I think the food has gotten better.

Malang is famous for its pecel, turmeric rice with mixed vegetables and peanut sauce, often garnished with a crispy peanut cracker. I had this dish at the Hotel Tugu restaurant three times in our two day stay. Some five-star hotel restaurants dress down the spice and seasonings for its international clientele. Hotel Tugu strives to serve authentic local cuisine, and succeeds in my less expert opinion, and those of the locals who pack the house for dinner.

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Yummy Pecel, Hotel Tugu

For breakfast, I made sure to have the bubur campur, sweet black and white rice porridge, served with a dollop of fresh coconut cream. My husband has the local chicken soup.

An Indonesia city by bike? Really? Yes, and it was quite pleasant…

Malang is one of Indonesia’s only bike-able big cities. I am a fan of staying on the move while traveling so we hopped on mountain bikes to navigate the city’s wide yet crowded boulevards and tucked away neighborhoods. We put Baby in the capable hands of Ms. Dui.

As we biked through Malang’s leafy neighborhoods we passed by a number of picturesque “Indies style” homes dating from the Dutch colonial period.  These houses feature a mix of Javanese and Dutch architectural styles, with high-pitched, orange-tiled roofs which extended over the front and back verandas to shelter from tropical rainstorms.  Malang served as a hill station for Dutch officials to escape the heat of the lowlands.

Und Corner Bakery
Und Corner Bakery

With an elevation of nearly half a kilometer above sea level and several mountains at is doorstep, the city now serves as a great base for adventure travel. The very capable concierge staff can also arrange hiking and viewing trips to Mt. Bromo, an active volcano. You can travel up to the lip of the caldera and look down into the crater and its near constant plumes of smoke. Catch the sunrise for a view of all of the other mountains in the Tengger Massif, including Mt. Semeru, Java’s tallest mountain at 3600 meters.

Mt. Bromo and the Tennger Massif Photo Courtesy
Mt. Bromo and the Tennger Massif Photo Courtesy

After a visit through the neighborhoods we stopped by a traditional market to eye the fresh fruit and veg, the headed to the bird market downtown, a one lane dirt road lined on either side with stalls selling brightly colored parakeets and other mainly native species which tweeted–the old-fashioned kind–as we passed. Continuing down the same road, the vendors switched to those selling birds-of-paradise, plumeria and hibiscus.

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Malang neighborhoods

We arrived home sweaty and ready to jump in the pool. We opened the door to our room expecting to find baby, yet no one was there. I returned the 10 feet to the lobby to ask, “Where is our…um baby?” The lobby staff replied calmly, “She’s up in the spa.”

Hotel Tugu Spa
Hotel Tugu Spa

I headed up the sherbet-orange corridor stairs to the outdoor spa to find baby asleep on the massage table.  Mrs. Dui said she would be more comfortable than in the cold air-conditioning of the room. The fact that she was sleeping indicated so.

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The Apsara Suite, Hotel Tugu Malang

Baby and her parents switched places on the massage table, followed by a traditional Javanese scrub, lulur and a flower and herb bath.

If Malang is indeed off the beaten path, then send me to the remotest corner of the earth because I bet they have massages there too.


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