During another very enjoyable month in Jogjakarta, we went away for one extended weekend to visit the city of Semarang, located on the north coast of Central Java. We were in great company, accompanied by Kadek and Roro (who are, in equal measure, our guides, teachers and friends) and by Martine and Juris (who are fellow volunteers, fellow students – and also friends). It turned out to be (as always) an interesting and rewarding excursion. Here’s a few highlights…


Our drive up there skirted around several volcanoes, including Merapi and and Merbabu.


Semarang is the fifth biggest city in Indonesia (after Jakarta, Surabaya, Bandung and Medan). Although the city proper ‘only’ has a population of 1.8 million, the greater urban area totals around six million.  We arrived at the start of a long weekend, and it seemed like all six million of them were on the road. (Yes, those balloons are on a motorbike.)


There is a sizeable Chinese Indonesian community in Semarang, and a number of examples of Chinese architecture, and not just in the ‘Chinatown’ area of town. The Sam Poo Kong temple dates back to the beginning of the 15th Century CE, when the Chinese Muslim explorer Admiral Zheng He visited the area. He (He) prayed in a little cave, and a small temple was established on the location. It is now a site used by people of various faiths – Confucian, Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu, while retaining a very Chinese feel to the architecture and artworks. Over the centuries it has endured many cycles of neglect and renovation, and was restored to its present impressive condition just ten years ago.


The Tho Tee Kong temple (also called Dewa Bumi) is used by people praying to the earth god Tu Di Gong – who will “provide fertile soil, abundant harvest and a wealth of natural resource diversity”.


The temples (klenteng) have all been built around a central paved square. One one side is a large stage area, used for all kinds of performances and ceremonies. While we were there, a large team of young Danish gymnasts arrived to put on an acrobatic show for the bemused locals.


We visited each of the temples on site, attracting some curious glances, and (as always) great interest from the children.


When we arrived at the Klenteng Tay Kak Sie, preparations were under way for a ceremony to mark the seventh anniversary of the death of prominent member of the community. A model house, complete with cars, staff, air conditioners, satellite dish etc was constructed, all from paper, to be burnt later that day. Meanwhile temple attendants prepared an elaborate meal for the spirits.


An oil flame candle burnt in a bowl beside the shrine.


In another part of the temple are shrines for several bodhisattvas and guardian deities – this one to the ‘minor’ Taoist god Kong De Zun Wan (known in Hokkien as Kong Tik Djoen Ong).


Displayed in alcoves along one wall are engraved tablets dedicated to the memory of prominent members of the community.


Not far from the Klenteng Tay Kak Sie is Kota Tua, the old Dutch centre of town, with a number of fine (and not-so-fine) examples of colonial architecture.  (The centre of town has long since moved to another area, which is less prone to flooding.) The Immanuel Protestant Church of Western Indonesia (generally known as Gereja Blenduk) was first built in 1753, and is the oldest church in Central Java.


Beside the old church is a little lane lined with about a dozen stalls. They call it an ‘antique market’, but in reality it’s a wonderfully eclectic mix of genuinely old stuff, artwork of variable quality, broken and/or obsolete equipment (anyone need an instamatic camera or a Gestetner machine?), quirky oddities – and some tacky junk. All set out against a backdrop of attractively run-down warehouses and offices. All very photogenic…


These old cameras are now mute (they’re cameras, after all…) but, if they could speak, I’m sure they’d have many interesting stories about the exotic scenes they had captured…


We have developed quite an interest in children’s games and toys in Indonesia, with many traditional games (e.g. kite-flying, spinning tops) still very popular. Karen was delighted by these little toys, which may be unique to this area (Does anyone know more about them? The stallholder himself did not know much). You wind a piece of string around the wheel, and the figure is somehow propelled forwards when you pull on it


The owner of this stall seems to have made a point of hanging a printed photo of former President Suharto beside another of Hitler and Mussolini. ‘Old Order’ and ‘New Order’?


Another stall had a great mingling of European ceramics and Javanese statues and other artworks. The four figures above would be immediately identifiable to any local. They are Semar, Gareng, Petruk and Bagong – the four Punakawans who are only found in the Indonesian version of the Mahabarata epic. They appear clownlike, but they are themselves gods, and are deeply profound observers of human folly – especially Semar (on the left in the photo above) – who is the father of the others.


After a rather nice seafood lunch at the local branch of the Rumah Makan Cianjur franchise we went to visit the Lawang Sewu. This compound of four elegant white colonial buildings is the former headquarters of the Dutch East Indies Railway Company. In the Javanese language, Lawang Sewu means “one thousand doors”, and there certainly are a LOT of them – though perhaps not quite 1,000! The central courtyard is adorned with frangipani trees and one huge and very old mango tree.

Construction of the complex began in 1904, in an architectural style known as ‘New Indies’, apparently a version of Dutch Rationalism, transitional between 19th century classicist and the modernist styles of the early 20th century.


The Japanese occupied the building during the 2nd World War, and used the basement of one building as a prison. Several executions took place there. Later in the war there was a battle between Dutch and Japanese troops in the tunnels below the building, in which many died. As a result of this history, the building has a strong reputation for being haunted, including by at least one headless spirit. (Indonesians seem to commonly believe in ghosts, and enjoy being terrified of them!)

The basement is closed off at present, supposedly for renovations, but I got at least one ghost photo upstairs (who bore a striking resemblance to our friend and fellow volunteer Martine!)


A nearby church spire viewed from the top of the Lawang Sewu.


Along the lane of the Kota Tua ‘Antique Market’.


Street art on a wall near Lewang Sewu.


Wayang kulit

Back in Jogja for another month of Bahasa Indonesia tuition. Déjà vu sekali!


Over the years, we’ve attended several performances of that most Javanese of artforms, the wayang kulit, or shadow play.  (A closely related form of wayang kulit is also found in Bali – as in the photo above).

In the wayang kulit performance, a master puppeteer (Dalang) sits behind an illuminated cloth screen (kelir), and tells stories using the shadows cast by the large number of two-dimensional, semi-articulated puppets that he has arrayed in front of him.


The stories told are mostly derived from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, with many characters and narratives added to the Indonesian versions of these classic Hindu epics. There is drama and pathos, good vs evil, romance – and a large amount of broad rollicking humour, with the Dalang adding in references to contemporary events. The Dalang is supported by a gamelan orchestra, and the performance, which will go for many hours without a break, is bound to contain something of appeal to every member of the audience.


Audience members, sitting in front of the screen, greet the appearance of each new character with gasps, hoots of delight, sighs etc as appropriate. They recognise the shapes, and they know the names and personalities of every one of the dozens of characters, and their place within the overall narrative. Some of the characters are perennial audience favourites, such as the powerful Bima and the comical Panakawan servants, led by the god/clown Semar.

The stories can be a bit opaque to the foreign viewer, as they are told in the Javanese (or Balinese) languages.


We have enjoyed watching the wayang kulit shadow puppet performances, but until our recent visit to the village of Gendeng (just south of Jogjakarta) we hadn’t realised just how much effort, time skill and creative art goes into making the flat puppets themselves.

As with most of the ‘traditional’ material arts of Indonesia, there is no meaningful boundary drawn between craft and art, or between the skills of creation and construction, as is (erroneously, IMHO!) applied in the West.

The workflow begins with a whole skin from a water buffalo (kulit kerbau). Buffalo skins are stronger and more even in thickness than those from cattle. The best ones are imported from the region of Toraja in South Sulawesi.

In the photo above, Pak Suyoto, who is a specialist in skin preparation (proses pengolahan kulit perkamen), removes the hair and outer layer of hide from the tautly stretched skin. [These scrapings of hide – minus the hair – are later deep fried with a mixture of garlic and salt and eaten as a snack. Surprisingly tasty!]

The skin is soaked, cleansed and cured (sometimes for years) in preparation for making the puppets. By this stage it is clean, stiff and translucent.


Pak Daldek prepares a full size drawing of the puppet to be created drawn onto paper (or, in this instance, a photocopy of a drawing!), and places it below the (now-translucent) sheet of buffalo hide.


Working on the floor, Pak Daldek uses a set of variously-sized hole punches (mostly shaped like heavy duty nails) and cutting blades to cut out the main features of the puppet design.


Transferred to a workbench, the details of faces, body, and the articulated limbs are carefully added to the puppet until complete. The precise design of each character (angles, lines, placement of holes) is codified, and must be memorised and carefully applied by the maker.


At another bench, the specialist painter or pelukis wayang (Pak Parjio) applies water-based inks by brush. The pigments are water-based, and are (or were?) all traditionally derived from natural materials – lampblack, blue from indigo, white from burnt bones, yellow from ochre and red from cinnabar – all fixed in a medium of egg-white. Commercial pigments may be used nowadays. In the better quality puppets, gold is applied not by ink but as gold leaf.


Some of the complicated patterns which are painted on include really finicky details.


Pak Suprih is the master puppet-maker (Empul Wayang in Bahasa Java) and owner of the workshop the we visited. He began making wayang kulit in 1974, and studied as an apprentice with two other masters of the art/craft – Ba Pudjo and Pak Sagio.

In the photo above, he is attaching the finished kulit to a finely turned and split length of buffalo horn, which is used by the Dalang as a handle during performances.


Above are front and back views of a finished Gunungan shadow puppet (which we bought from Pak Suprih…). The Gunungan (‘Mountain’) or Kayon (‘Forest’) is a special puppet – indeed the most important one of the entire wayang performance. It is the first and last puppet used by the Dalang, and it is also is employed during performances to indicate major natural destructive forces like fires and storms. A second, ‘female’ Gunungan is also used in wayang kulit – the one above is the (slightly smaller) ‘male’ Gunungan.

On its front side it features a tree of life (a banyan tree in gold leaf), with monkeys, birds and other animals in its branches. In the middle is the blue face of the demon Kala (‘Time’). There are two doors below, at the top of stairs guarded by monstrous guardians, which lead to heaven. In total the puppet represents the totality of heaven and earth, and all living and/or sentient forms of existence.

The reverse side shows symbols for fire, water and air. It is dominated by the face of the demon Kala – representing time, or the forces of destruction in the universe.




Sanur cats

At this critical point in human history, with so many serious and complex problems, and so much hanging in the balance, it’s clear that what the world really needs is… more cute cat photos on the Internet. So here’s my little contribution…

Before we returned to Australia in September, we had the great good fortune to stay for several weeks in an extremely comfortable villa near the beach at Sanur, Bali. While we were there we befriended (or were befriended by – it’s hard to tell) two delightful little cats.


They were real Bali cats – lean, wary and street-wise – and pining for affection (and food). They were also the best of friends (and siblings?) One was white, and the other tabby grey. They arrived without any names that we know of, so we imaginatively christened them Putih (White) and Abu-abu (Grey).


Putih arrived first. He was sweet and affectionate, though we soon realised that he wasn’t the genius of the litter. He’s an inveterate ankle-rubber, but he never quite learnt that he shouldn’t try to rub up against the ankles of a walking human, and was consequently subjected to numerous accidental kicks. Didn’t stop him doing it again and again, however.


After a few hard minutes’ exercise chasing dragonflies and frogs around the yard, Putih liked to have a stretch and then curl up to sleep on the outside lounge for hours. Sometimes he managed to stretch and sleep at the same time.


Abu-abu arrived soon after Putih, but was at first very wild and totally scared of us, and wouldn’t let us get near him. He would hiss and roar savagely at us. The fearsome effect was however diminished by the fact that (due to some genetic defect or injury) poor Abu-abu had no voice whatsoever. So his silent roars and his yawns looked almost identical.


After a couple of days, and a few bowls of food, Abu-abu worked out that we weren’t dangerous, and could in fact be rather useful, and so the two of them became semi-permanent fixtures around the house. They certainly spent a lot of time sleeping there.


By late afternoon, they’d stir, and start to enquire about the when the next meal might be ready.


We never let them inside, and they never (well, hardly ever) tried to come in. But they knew where the Whiskas catfood came from, and they were ever-alert to any signs of food being prepared.


They waited (somewhat) patiently for the food to arrive.


They pretended to be more-than-usually affectionate as it was doled out into their dish. Putih would sometime fall of the end of the bench in his excitement (did I mention that he wasn’t real bright?)


After dinner, it was time for prowling and preening.


And, of course, more sleeping. Abu-abu took a particular liking to a wooden bowl that was just the right size, shape and texture for curling up in.



He spent many hours curled up in the bowl, dreaming (we imagined) of the sea.

Putih and Abu-abu were there when the taxi eventually arrived to take us to the airport and Australia, and we were very sad to say goodbye. We fancy that they were looking confused and sad – but it is rather hard to tell with cats…


We had become very fond of them, and imagined that, in their nonchalant cattish way, they had come to like us too – and not just for our twice-daily provision of Whiskas. The life of a Bali street cat is not easy, and we wonder what has become of them after we departed. Hopefully Abu-abu and Putih have managed to charm someone else into caring for them – and at least they will have experienced one good month of love and luxury…


More photos of Sanur cats are on my website at


Caves Beach

I got out on Sunday to play briefly with the new 5D Mk4. After seven years and over 90,000 images with my much-loved and ever-reliable Mk2 it felt a little bit like betrayal. But I do rather think I’m going to enjoy using this new camera…

Here’s some first images, taken on a glorious day at Caves Beach, NSW.


Kookaburra and dragonfly

Pigface flower on the beach

Pigface flower on the beach


Peculiar hats ahead


Hardy daisies growing on the beach dune




Aussie beach idyll


Surf University (but what about the banana skin?)


Peter contemplates, and soaks up the sunshine


Stephen and Norfolk Island pines

Playing with a water sprinkler? Hours of fun!

Playing with a water sprinkler? Hours of fun!


Pines, cloud, moon


Is it a bird?

You can also see these images on my web site here.



Temples of Chiang Mai

The Buddhist temples (wat) of Thailand are beautiful and fascinating places. We recently had a too-brief (5-day) visit to Chiang Mai in the Central North of the country, and visited some of the many many wat that dot the landscape. Just inside the relatively small area of the old walled city there are 3 dozen active temples. Across the entire city there are, depending on which source you consult, more than 200 or 300. Suffice it to say that there are a whole lotta wat.

Chiang_Mai_20160731_090 composite

Each wat has a character, a history and an atmosphere unique to itself, but each one is an oasis of calm and elegant style in the midst of a bustling city of 960,000 people living in the metro area.


We first visited Wat Phan Tao, which is just over the road from where we were staying in the Old City. The old (late 14th century) viharn (assembly hall) is constructed entirely out of teak wood.

There were hundreds of blue flags flying around the grounds at the time we visited, blue being the colour of the revered Queen Sirikit – whose 84th birthday was about to be celebrated. The flags almost obscured the view of the chedi (stupa) which stands behind the viharn.


The wat was originally built as a palace for one of the early rulers of the Lan Na Kingdom. A carved panel over the entrance still displays an ornate peacock, the symbol of the monarchy, standing astride a dog – which is the zodiac symbol for his date of birth.


Large heavy bells stand in a row in the garden outside.


Inside the viharn, a large Buddha sits in blissful meditation with smaller statues in front. On either side of the Buddha figure are suspended two large naga (snake/dragons). They protect the Buddha. There is a story of Buddha, meditating under the bodhi tree after attaining enlightenment, when a severe story erupted. A huge cobra snake came and shielded him from the rain with his big hood.


Next door, in front of the very much larger Wat Chedi Luang, is a small but richly decorated shrine for the Sao Inthakin (City Pillar) of Chiang Mai. Such shrines are found in cities across Thailand, and it is considered that the prosperity and safety of the city is dependant on the city spirit deity (Chao Pho Lak Mueang) who resides there. Women are not permitted inside.


There is also a very large Dipterocarpus alatus tree standing beside the shrine. There is a widespread belief that a disaster of some sort will result if this tree should every fall. (But a disaster is already occurring – as these magnificent trees have almost entirely disappeared from the forests of Southeast Asia.)


Wat Chedi Luang is so named because of the stupa located there, behind the (much newer) viharn. This massive structure was first erected in 1391, to house remains of the father of the king (Saen Muang Ma). Construction continued for nearly a century, by which time it was some 85 metres tall! For a time it housed the Emerald Buddha, the most sacred Buddha statue in Thailand, before it was moved (first to Luang Prabang in Laos, and then to its current home at the Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok).

In 1545, an earthquake caused extensive damage to the chedi, and at least the top third was lost. There were partial restoration works conducted in the 1990s. It’s still very impressive!

The main assembly hall (viharn) was built in 1928, and is itself rather impressive – especially so when the monks (Wat Chedi Luang is an active monastery) assemble for evening prayers.


One stray temple dog wandered in and out during the prayers, which appears to be a regular occurrence, as no-one seemed overly concerned. One monk made a half-hearted attempt to expel the intruder – who then simply re-entered through another door!


Speaking of temple dogs… at the Wat Chiang Man there were many resident dogs, including this lordly creature who looked like he was holding audience on his throne.


Wat Chiang Man is the oldest temple in Chiang Mai, dating back to 1296, when the city was founded. The chedi here is quite different to the one at Wat Chedi Luang, fully intact and quite elegant in form. The top, gilded part of the chedi contains relics – of the Buddha, or of some auspicious monk.


The main viharn was renovated almost 100 years ago. Behind the large Buddha (and not visible in the photo above) is another Buddha, standing and holding an alms bowl, which is the oldest Buddha in Chiang Mai, dating back to 1465.


There are a limited and prescribed number of standard Buddha poses – standing, sitting, walking, reclining – and also a number of specific gestural variations. I particularly like the ‘calming the ocean’ pose. The depiction must be executed correctly, if the Buddha is to have power.

The Reclining Buddha shows the Buddha lying on his right side, close to death and about to enter into the state of paranirvana. We encountered this Buddha at a Wat (not sure of the name!), east of Chiang Mai, while on a bicycling tour.


Some of the statues in this new wat were very colourful and, with the sunglasses as above, perhaps not quite as seriously reverential as we saw elsewhere.


Another reclining Buddha, this time in repose at the Wat Phra Singh. You may be able to see Karen standing by his feet.


This large and stunning wat dates back to 1345. It got its current name in 1367, when the famous statue of Phra Singh Buddha was brought to the temple, and housed in the all-teak Viharn Lai Kham. The Phra Singh Buddha is reputedly from Sri Lanka – though there is also evidence that it was actually made in Chiang Mai. Another story tells that the head of this Buddha was stolen in 1922, and that the statue now sports a substitute head. This statue is greatly revered, and is carried through the streets during songkram festival is April.

The wall behind the Phra Singh Buddha is red lacquer, decorated with patterns of gold leaf.


The other three walls inside the Viharn Lai Kham were decorated with mural during the 1820s. These detailed murals depict stories from Buddhist mythology as well as from Chiang Mai day-to-day life, and are amazingly detailed – though fading in places after nearly 200 years.


The complex of buildings has been extensively restored on several occasions, including in 1782, 1920 and 2002. The very shiny golden chedi (known as the Phrathatluang), with a golden elephant emerging from each of its four sides, is dazzling, and almost too bright to look at when the sun is shining.


The wat houses a large number of monks (all male), ranging from the very young to elderly and wheelchair-bound. All gather several times a day for prayers at different locations around the complex – including afternoon prayers here under a breezy sala (pavillion).


After prayers, the monks head off in single file, hands clasped in front of them in the classic wai gesture. (The wai is so common in Thailand, and so routinely used for greetings, that even the Ronald McDonald statues in Thailand stand in that pose!)


The monks make three clockwise circumambulations around the chedi, chanting quietly in unison as they walk.


We saw this quite firm instruction near a reclining Buddha figure at the Wat Chiang Man. We were of course disappointed, but we dutifully refrained from take wedding photo there.



Singapore: My camera loves mirrors

Now that we’ve left Kalimantan (at least for the time being), it’s an opportunity to catch up up some photos from other places. So I’ve been (finally) processing photographs taken in Singapore last December, when we were there on a ‘visa run’.

What struck me about the images is that most of them were composed to feature reflected light and/or odd perspectives. It wasn’t a conscious decision, and I hadn’t even noticed it until I started processing the photos. Perhaps it was the contrast with Kalimantan, where there are fewer opportunities for that kind of image – or perhaps I was just feeling obtuse…


Here’s Karen and I (and other diners) having lunch in the ’Smoke and Mirrors’ bar at the newly opened National Gallery Singapore, housed in the former City Hall and Supreme Court buildings. The Gallery is a SG$450,000,000 blend of colonial and highly contemporary architecture, which (often) works really well.

The bar is constructed with a single huge curvy piece of stainless steel – which is said to weigh 400kg. It makes a great way to feature the panoramic view across The Padang to the Singapore waterfront and the unique Marina Bay Sands resort.

We had fish and chips.


Here’s a more conventional perspective on that same view – from the same place.


A fisheye mirror on a bend in a pedestrian laneway, with a construction site behind, made for an interesting (though perhaps unoriginal) composition. Did you spot Karen over my right shoulder in a green blouse, also making photos?


Another, quote different, circle. Looking down into the entrance hall of the National Museum of Singapore from a balcony on the next level up.


And from the same position, a third circle (actually a hemisphere!), looking up into the magnificent dome. The original building dates back to 1887, when it was built as the Raffles Library and Museum. Recent extensions have more than doubled the floor area of the Museum, but the very modern new parts have been (almost) entirely concealed when viewing the building from outside.

The stained glass in the rotunda was painstakingly restored in 2004-5. All 50 of the curved glass panels were removed, and glass, lead and joints were replaced or rectified as needed. The result is beautiful.


As Singapore transformed into the modernistic glass-and-steel metropolis that it is today, it has been moderately successful in preserving some of the better architectural examples from its colonial past. This juxtaposition of past and present can be seen everywhere.


Entering the new National Gallery feels like being invited back to a more ordered, graciously elegant past.


But once inside, it turns into a futuristic, techno-organic world. Very different, and the contrast is a bit overwhelming at times!


The joins between the two architectural ages are interesting – but not entirely seamless.


I think I most liked some of the classical-looking parts of the building, where you couldn’t be sure whether it was very new or really old.


There are some quite dramatic, and sometimes confusing, perspectives when looking down from high up in the atrium spaces. It’s a bit Escher-esque at times.


Strong railings and high glass walls help to dispel the vertigo!


In front of the Gallery main entrance, and leading across Coleman Street, through the grounds of St Andrews Cathedral toward North Bridge Road, is wonderful covered walkway. The high ceiling of the walkway is fully mirrored.


I found it difficult to walk along there without tipping my head backwards to marvel at the kaleidoscope of fractured reflections above.


My camera loves mirrors.

More of my Singapore photographs can be seen on my website by clicking on this link.


Reog, kuda lumping and Dayak dances

Early on the morning of the 9th of March, a total eclipse of the sun was experienced across parts of Kalimantan, including right where we were living near Tangkiling. To mark the occasion, a series of dance performances were staged at Rungan Sari.


There were traditional and contemporary performances, from Kalimantan and Java – reflecting the makeup of the community – and it was spectacular.


But the eclipse itself was less-than-spectacular, though still interesting. We got up early, just as a big thunderstorm arrived, and it proceeded to rain heavily for the next couple of hours. But we went anyway to Bukit Tangkiling (Tangkiling Hill). As the rain eased off then finally stopped, we scrambled up the steep but mercifully brief path to the summit, where around 200 other hopeful eclipse-viewers were assembled.


We responsibly put on our very cool cardboard-and-plastic eclipse glasses, but the sun stubbornly remained behind clouds as the shadow of the moon caused it to disappear and the early morning became eerily dark for several minutes. But behind our high-tech fashion accessory glasses, we couldn’t see a thing, so we reluctantly discarded them. At least the rain stayed away, and the shared sense of occasion was kind of fun. We’ve kept the glasses for next time…


A couple of hours after the gerhana matahari, we were at the Muhammad Subuh Centre at Rungan Sari as the dance performances commenced. Far from being eclipsed, the sunlight had become very intense and the day was scorching hot. While a small audience sheltered in the shade of the MSC building, the poor dancers sweltered out in the intense equatorial sunshine.


The first piece we saw was commissioned for and about the eclipse. It was choreographed in a contemporary way, but with strong traditional references throughout. It also made creative use of the landscape features of the venue – in particular the large fountain in front of the MSC. Sometimes the dancers paused motionless like garden statues (or perhaps like cormorants drying their wings!)


The next performance was a kuda lumping dance. In this Javanese dance, finely dressed warriors astride 2-dimensional hobby horses engage in mock battles and whip-cracking. The tradition of kuda lumping performance is very old, and its origins and specific meanings are now disputed and somewhat obscure, but there is always an aura of magic around it, especially when performers go into a state of trance.

The tradition is still very much alive in Java, and is carried on in the villages of Central Kalimantan by the many thousands of Javanese transmigrants who now live in KalTeng.


The acrobatics of the performers was sometimes quite breathtaking.


Unlike the kuda lumping shows that we had previously attended (e.g. here and here, none of the performers went into a state of trance. Rather, it was a very professional show put on by a well-rehearsed troupe of dancers.


This was followed by a large-scale Dayak dance drama, with a very big troupe of finely attired performers.

There were ‘pastoral’ scenes of bucolic village life.


There were dramatic battle scenes with sinister topeng-masked demons (Spoiler alert: Eventually, Good triumphs over Evil).


And there was a spectacular set-piece grand finale.


All the performers, along with many of the people most responsible for putting the show together, gathered for group photographs, and to receive the acclamation of the audience.


And then, when we thought it was all over, the Reog Ponorogo performance began…

This dance originates, as the name would suggest, from the town (now a city) of Ponorogo, in East Java, which sits in between the volcanoes of Gunung Lawu and Gunung Ngliman. Like the kuda lumping, its origins are ancient and somewhat uncertain, though it appears to have arisen in the 15th Century, towards the end of the era of the Majapahit kings.


In fact, one part of the Reog performance, know as the jathilan, looks very much like kuda lumping, with dancers mounted on woven bamboo hobby horses. The jathilan dancers are now almost always young women, though in the past these roles were always performed by boys aged around 12 – 15 years.

The parang rusak motif on the girls’ batik cloth is actually not from Ponorogo, but is unique to Jogjakarta in Central Java.


There are many different variations of the Reog Ponorogo performance, and several contending explanations of its origin and meaning. However, the broad synopsis of the Reog Ponorogo story is that in an ancient time, the king of Ponorogo (named Klono Sewandono) was travelling east to the town of Kediri to seek a bride (the Princess Songgo Langit). But on the way he encounters trouble in the form of the Singa Barong, a magical beast with the head of a lion, and a large fans of peacock feathers (or possibly an entire peacock) on top. Fighting ensues.

Bujang Ganong (the hairy red-faced fellow with oversized teeth on the left of the photo above) is the King’s messenger and ambassador. He is nimble, witty, and fiercely loyal to the King. His comic performances and interactions with the members of the audience has ensured that he is a crowd favourite, especially with children. Apparently he used to be only a minor character in the Reog, but since the 1980s he has become more central, and now usually has a long and quite acrobatic role.


The massive and ornate mask of the Singa Barong can weigh 20 or 30 kilograms, and the performer (known as a Warok) holds it in place with his teeth! To perform this role, the Warok must possess reserves of both physical strength and spiritual power. This latter power is obtained (in part) by reining in the passions – for food, drink and lust for women – and a married Warok is expected to refrain from sexual relations with his wife.

The Warok have a special, independent and highly respected place in Ponorogo society, and are regarded as possessing magical powers. They had some (perceived or real) connection to the Partai Komunis Indonesia, and large number of warok were killed during the ‘anti-communist’ massacres of 1965-6.

Traditionally, a Warok would retain one or more of the boys who perform the jathilan dance as members of his household (known as gemblakan). This Warok-gemblakan relationship is a ‘special’ one, based on mutual love and mentoring of the gemblakan – and it is also openly sexual in nature. (Interestingly however, the relationship is not regarded as homosexual, and Ponorogo parents will be proud if their son becomes a gemblakan). Gender roles and relationships in Indonesia are often more complex than they at first seem!

But in recent years, social mores have changed to become generally more more uniform and more conservative across the country. The jathilan is now most commonly performed by young women – who do not have such a ’special’ relationship with the warok, and do not reside in his household. The Reog Ponorogo itself has also shed many of its magical overtones. It has become much more purely a performance for entertainment – at festivals, and as an adjunct to weddings and circumcision ceremonies.


In the course of battle with the Singa Barong, the Bujang Ganong character made some great acrobatic moves.


In the end, the Singa Barongs (there were two of them in this performance) were defeated – though whether by battle or by sheer exhaustion was not clear. One of the warok performers seemed physically distressed at times, and had to pause in his performance to drink water, and had to be tended by the director or helpers of the dance troupe (though apparently such interruptions are a common occurrence in Reog shows).

The performance was great entertainment, and impressive simply as spectacle. But, like so many cultural displays and cultural objects in Indonesia, a closer examination reveals it to operate in a number of dimensions in addition to the ‘merely visible’ – historical, political, magical/religious, and social/sexual. And we thought it was just a dance event!

It was certainly fascinating, and we plan to see further performances, as reog troupes are now found throughout Indonesia, and in a number of other countries also. We hope one day to make a visit to Ponorogo to view one of the performances held in the main square every full moon, or (even better!) for the annual Festival Reog Ponorogo.



Festival Kampung Buntoi 2016

Last month we had the pleasure of attending the inaugural Festival Kampung Buntoi (Buntoi Village Festival). We travelled there in company with Pak Wondo, his wife Ibu Tata and son Andi. Buntoi is Ibu Tata’s home village, and we stayed at the home of her aunt and uncle.


We were only there for two days of the 3-day festival, but we had a great time. We had many interesting encounters and experiences (as we always seem to do), and saw some impressive and unique dance, music and theatre performances. Some of the outrageous costumes (such as these ones worn by dancers from the Sanggar Marajaki group ) alone were worth the journey.


Buntoi is a village of 2,500 people,attractively located on the banks of the Kahayan River, about two and a half hours downstream from where we were living at Sei Gohong (on the Rungan River). The Kahayan is a big wide river down there, and although Buntoi is just across the river from the district capital of Pulang Pisau, it takes nearly an hour to get there by road.

It was apparently founded around 1670, Buntoi used to be known as Petak Bahandang (meaning ‘Red Earth’). This former name came from the story about a raiding party of headhunters who were all killed by makhluk gaib (supernatural creatures protecting the village). According to the story, the villagers awoke to find the ground stained red with the blood of the would-be attackers.

The economy is based around fishing and rubber plantations, which seem to be thriving in this area in spite of the current low price of latex rubber. There are also a number of tall buildings like the one above, constructed to house the swiflets known as burung walet (Aerodramus fuciphagus). These are the birds responsible for producing the highly valuable edible birds nests. Recordings of the birds’ call are played continuously to attract them to the building.


Like all good festivals, Festival Kampung Buntoi began with a spectacular street parade, along the length of the road beside the river (which is pretty much the only road in town) and on to the festival venue. There were marching bands, people in splendid and ornate traditional Dayak costumes, event organisers and local dignitaries, and many children of the village.

The road was lined with… well Karen and I were just about the only cheering well-wishers. It WAS a treat.


There was an interesting and eclectic mixture of the traditional and the contemporary in the style in the parade participants – a blending which was to continue throughout the Festival performances.

This is great to see; Kalimantan cannot be a ‘cultural theme park’, frozen in some imagined long-gone age. The wonderful traditional warrior costumes on display at the Festival performances, are now only worn for performances, and young Dayak men can commonly be seen wearing Manchester United jerseys – but never bark vests… In fact many of these performance costumes are very contemporary reinterpretations of ‘traditional’ attire, unlike anything you can find in old photographs. They look great in photographs, but they owe more to the here-and-now than to history, and perhaps owe more to Carnivale than to Kalimantan.


The venue for the many performances of the Festival was the Rumah bambu (‘Bamboo House’), built in 2012 as a meeting hall and events venue with funding from the UNDP as part of the REDD+ (‘ Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation’) project. It was opened by the then Governor of Kalimantan Tengah in September 2013 as the Pusat Sarana Komunikasi Iklim (the ‘Climate Communications Facilitation Centre’).


As the only foreigners in attendance, we were (as always!) subject to a lot of (friendly) attention, and innumerable photo requests. Here’s Karen posing with event officials (that’s Pak Turai S. Deken – ‘Ko-ordinator Panitia‘ on the right) and local police officers.


Several temporary warung (foodstalls) were set up under a marquee in the field adjacent to the Festival building. We enjoyed several delicious meals there – including chicken curry, sweet and sour catfish, and chicken soup. (Note the traditional costumes worn by the local Dayak people).


The two MC’s (Chandra Intan Hakim and Ananta Nurudi Sawung) were really good – funny, relaxed, and able to ad lib freely to seamlessly fill in the gaps between the performers. At one point they called up a couple of bules (i.e. Karen and I) from the audience to talk about their impressions of the festival. We had not long arrived, so we didn’t have much to say! It was little awkward.

Intan is from Jakarta, and she has a wonderfully colourful and zany dress sense – which matches her ebullient personality. When he’s not compering festivals, Ananta is a freelance photographer who lives in Palangka Raya.


On the morning we arrived in Buntoi, we got to the performance area just as this young dance troupe (the Sanggar Palampang Tarung) were finishing, so unfortunately we didn’t get to see them perform. But they kindly agreed to pose for some photos for us.


Along with the music, dance and theatre there were also some interesting talks and Q&A sessions, on (extremely!) diverse topics. It was frustrating for us that we understood just enough to be very interested, but too little to fully comprehend what was being said by the accomplished and articulate speakers.

Dr Andang Bachtiar (l) is a geologist, former President of the Indonesian Geologists Association, and currently a member of the National Energy Council of Indonesia. He spoke about the historical and cultural implications of the geomorphology of Kalimantan and the Indonesian archipelago.

Rayhan Sudrajat (c) was largely responsible for initiating the whole Buntoi Festival, harnessing community spirit and working cooperatively with local people to make it happen. He is a both a musician and an ethnomusicologist, with wide-ranging interests (including linguistics, psychology, culture and philosophy). His eclectic musical interests range from traditional Sundanese music to the Beatles. Based in the Bandung (Java), he also operates a recording studio.

Didik Nini Thowok (r) is a dancer, mime artist, choreographer and teacher whose international career has developed the Indonesian tradition of cross-gender dance performances. His every move confirms him as a dancer – fluid, elegantly controlled gestures, no unnecessary moves. He spoke about his personal history, traditions of cross-gender dance in various other cultures – and the art of stage make-up!


Zulfikar Muhammad Nugroho has lived in various parts of East Java and Kalimantan, and now lives in Palangka Raya, where he has been a student at the Universitas Muhammadiyah.

He’s an expert player of the sape (usually called kecapi in Central Kalimantan). The sape (pronounced ’saa-pay’) can have anywhere from 2 – 5 strings, with all but the upper string usually just strummed as a harmonic drone. It may have no frets, three or many frets, and may be quite compact or up to a metre or more long. In summary, it’s form varies! But it should always be carved from a single piece of wood, with the back usually hollowed-out.


Performance sponsored by the Yayasan Permakultur Kalimantan, with Ahmad Fullah at centre stage. Their performance was about the Dayak fire management practice known as Milang Seha. Noor Julaiha was the Creative Director.


Sanggar Tingang Panunjung Tarung.


BellacoustiC Indonesia are a Palangka Raya musical group, whose goal is “creativity in music which aims to promote the customs and culture”. They certainly achieved that in their all-too-short set at Buntoi. Each one of them is a virtuoso.


Theo Nugraha performed two sets at the Festival, one solo and one with Rayhan Sudrajat (he does a lot of collaborations in his work).

He describes himself as a ‘Noise / Experimental Soundartist from Borneo’ (he’s based in Palangka Raya and Samarinda). The Village Voice reviewed one of his recordings, and described him as a ‘noise evangelist’. It’s certainly experimental sound, some of it ethereal and ambient Eno-esque, some of it collections of environmental sounds recorded in the field, and some of it a relentless grinding wall-of-noise-and-static.


A performer from Sanggar Betang Batarung, Palangka Raya.


Dancers from the wonderful Sanggar Riak Renteng Tingang, Palangka Raya


Bukung character from the Komunitas Teater Palangka Raya


Performers of the Sanggar Marajaki


Redy Eko Prastyo is a prominent musician and composer, based in Malang (Java), but he performs extensively across Indonesia (and in Europe). HIs musical style spans traditional Indonesian and jazz styles, and a fusion of the two. At Buntoi he was playing a unique, handmade electric ‘sape’. The sound, and the quality of musicianship, was lovely.


Trie Utami Sari is a very well known singer and songwriter from Bandung. Her fame with Indonesian audiences is the result of several hit recordings (as well as five albums), and for appearing as a judge on the popular TV talent show Indosiar Fantasy Academy. Her voice (seen here improvising over music of BellacoustiC) is gorgeous.


The final set on Saturday night was a something of a collaborative jam session, with a number of musicians and dancers on stage together. The music reached a crescendo full of soulful energy and warmth. It was a fitting end to wonderful series of performances.


Apart from the Rumah Bambu, Buntoi village also has another (and much older) significant building – the Rumah Adat (Traditional house).


The house was built between 1867-70 by Singa Jala, with materials (mostly kayu ulin timber) brought from Manen Paduran, which is (a long way) further upstream on the Kahayan River. Being made from ironwood, it is a very sturdy structure, but it has also benefited from some restoration work in recent years – such as new shingles for the roof. Some parts, including the rooms for the four slave families who used to live there, are no longer standing.

The current head of the family, who is a direct descendant of Singa Jala, talked to us about the history of the house, including its role as a centre of the nationalist forces during the struggle for independence from the Dutch after 1945.


Inside the betang is a fine set of gongs, and a tiny (and damaged) bronze cannon (just visible on the right of the photo above).


There are also some very nice balanga, Chinese-made ceramic jars, which are valued and treated as family heirlooms by Dayak families in Kalimantan. There were also brass spittoons (known as peludahan), brass bowls (bokor, or sangku in Bahasa Dayak Ngaju), and some old baskets made of rotan (rattan).


We also were entertained by one quite unexpected performance. During a lull in the Festival programme, we went for a drive with Wondo, Tata and Andi further south to the village of Kanamit Barat. To our surprise, there was a wedding ceremony under way at which a Kuda Lumping troupe were performing (as we have previously seen in Java at Prambanan, and in Kalimantan at Suka Mulya village in 2014 and 2015).

And just when we were marvelling at having chanced upon this ancient, mysterious and powerful Javanese trance performance in a remote(-ish) village of Central Kalimantan, a woman (Mbak Muvida) comes up to us to say that she used to work at YUM (where I was volunteering), and that she recognised us from photos on a friend’s Facebook page. Welcome back to 2016…

Poster Festival Kampung Buntoi

There’s a great short (9 minute) video on YouTube which gives a really good feel for the Festival Kampung Buntoi – and it contains samples of the wonderful dance and music performances. (It even includes a couple of quick glimpses of the bules-in-residence – see if you can spot us!)

Our thanks go out to the friendly and hospitable people of Buntoi village; to the visionary and meticulous organisers of the Festival; and of course to the creative and hugely talented performers who attended. May your talents be rewarded with career success.  Special thanks to Rayhan Sudrajat for helping me identify performers in some of the photos – but any residual errors are my responsibility!)

We left with two sincere hopes: that the inaugural Festival Kampung Buntoi may be just the first in a long and successful series of Buntoi Festivals – and that we may have the good fortune to attend again….