Tag Archives: Indonesia

Anti-drug murals in Jogjakarta

To the foreign observer, the Indonesian attitude to drug use may appear to be, well… inconsistent.

On the one hand, according to the World Health Organisation, there are 95 million ‘active’ tobacco smokers in Indonesia. Indonesian cigarettes are the cheapest in the world, mostly due to low levels of government taxation and regulation. Tobacco advertising and sponsorship can be seen just about everywhere you look. Attitudes to smoking are generally very relaxed (though this is changing, slowly), and there are very few public places where smoking is not permitted. It’s a huge and politically powerful industry, and the wealthiest individuals in the country are tobacco moguls (according the ‘Forbes Rich List’ 2018.)

In 2014, the National Commission on Tobacco Control stated that, nation-wide, 660 people die daily due to tobacco use.

At the other extreme there are, according to the national narcotics agency (BNN), less than 1 million people who are addicted to illegal drugs (‘narkoba’). A total of 4 million people are said to have tried illicit drugs at least once during their lives – with cannabis and amphetamine use being most common.

The BNN has estimated that, across the country, 33 people die daily due to use of narkoba. By a statistical coincidence, this is exactly 5% of the death toll from smoking.

But it is the use of illegal drugs that has been declared to be a ‘national emergency’. Capital punishment is in place for traffickers, and laudable (if occasionally hysterical) public health campaigns are in place to discourage illicit drug use.

Here in Jogjakarta, there is a concrete wall running a couple of hundred metres along the length of Gang Gatotkaca. It marks the boundary of a large technical high school (SMK Negeri 2 Depok – Sleman). Students from each of the school’s subject divisions have painted anti-narkoba murals along the wall.

These murals are very creative – variously graphic, cartoonish, funny, clever, simplistic – and in some cases quite moving. Interestingly, like much of the ever-present tobacco advertising billboards, many of the messages are spelt out in English.

I photographed them when we were last here, back in November 2016. But they are still there, their messages just a little faded.

Napza [Narkotika, Psikotropika dan Zat Adiktif lainnya] No Thanks. Stembayo sembada tanpa narkoba
“Drugs? No thanks. STEMBAYO [the former name of the school] is good/capable without drugs”

Build future without drugs

Narkoba? Ngoleleleng po?
“Narcotics? See it?” [Javanese language]

Kreatif tak perlu zat adiktif
“Creativity does not need addictive substances”

Say no to drugs

Peringatan: Narkoba membunuhmu
“Warning: Drugs kill you” [paraphrases the warning now printed on cigarette packets and advertisments]

Dunia indah tanpa narkoba
“Beautiful world without drugs”

Everyone gets lonely when using drugs

Bentengi dirimu dari narkoba
“Fortify yourself from drugs” [Note the inclusion of ‘rokok’ (cigarettes) in the display]

Life is short. There is no time to drugs. Say no to drugs.

Jauhi narkoba
“Stay away from drugs”

Jauhi narkoba. Hidupmu berharga.
“Stay away from drugs. Your life is precious.”

STEMBAYO tanpa narkoba.
“Our school without drugs”

Stay cool without drugs.


Setan. STEMBAYO enak tanpa narkoba.
“Devil. Our school is nice without drugs.”

Drugs can kill you.

Life is more beautiful without drugs.



Gula aren

Indonesia has a sweet tooth. Syrupy snacks and cakes are hugely popular, and it can be challenging to order a cup of tea or coffee without it being liberally dosed with sugar. I’ve been asked, somewhat incredulously: “Apakah Anda benar mau minum kopi tanpa rasa?” (“Do you really want to drink coffee without flavour?) Even ‘plain’ bread is likely to be sweetened.

Cane sugar

Across the country there are 1.3 million families engaged in sugar cane cultivation, and 63 operational sugar mills (most of which are over 100 years old). But local production accounts for less than half of the mountain of sugar consumed. The rest is imported.

The ‘average’ Indonesian consumes around 25kg of refined sugar per year. So imagine a big white mountain containing 5.7 million tonnes of sugar – that’s how much Indonesians are forecast to consume this year.

But despite Indonesia’s reputation as a nation of sugar-lovers, it might (or might not!) be surprising to find that the Australian per capita consumption is 50% higher than Indonesia’s – and that the US average is even higher again. In fact, Indonesian consumption is actually close to the worldwide average – if still higher than the World Health Organisation’s ‘recommended’ maximum consumption of 18kg.

Palm sugar

However, in Indonesia, cane sugar is only part of the story. Sugarcane plantations have only existed since the Dutch colonial time. Prior to then, and continuing to the present day, Indonesians produced a variety of palm sugars, usually collectively referred to as ‘gula merah’ (red sugar).

Palm sugar can be made from the sap of Nipa palms (Nypa frutican), Toddy (or Lontar) palms (Borassus flabellifer) or, most commonly, from the Coconut palm (Cocos nucifera). Coconut palm sugar is known locally as gula kelapa or gula jawa. It is sometimes sold as a blend of the genuine palm sugar and (cheaper) cane sugar.

The best quality palm sugar is derived from the sap of the Aren palm (Arenga pinnata). This sugar (gula aren) is regarded as more fragrant and richer than gula kelapa – and it is both less common and more expensive.

We were fortunate to witness the whole process of making gula aren while staying in Kedang Ipil, a village a few hours’ by road west of Samarinda, in Kutai Kartnegara, East Kalimantan. We were taken there by our wonderful and indefatigable guide Innal Rahman.

Pak Hairo has ten mature Aren palms. He ‘owns’ them – but not the land that they grow on – with his exclusive right to tap them indicated by the bamboo ladders that he built to climb up each one. For the people of Kedang Ipil, it’s a valuable plant; the young fruit can also be eaten, and the fibrous material of the trunk is widely employed as a roofing material.

The palms are scattered around the forest which surrounds the village, as – unlike the much-maligned African Oil Palm (Elaeis guineensis) – the Aren palm is not well suited to plantation cultivation, preferring to grow in mixed forests. They grow to over 20 metres tall, and begin to produce flower stems, from which the sweet sap is obtained, after 10-15 years.

Pak Hairo collects the sap twice daily (at around 6:00am and 4:00pm) from those Aren palms that are currently in production, using a 2 metre length of bamboo to capture the sap. Before each use of the bamboo, he goes through an elaborate process of cleaning the inside of the bamboo with hot smoke. This ensures that the surface is clean and free of bacteria, so that the sweet sap won’t begin to ferment before it can be rendered down to make blocks of gula aren.

Once in the forest, he climbs up a precariously balanced ladder to the fruiting branch, carrying an empty length of bamboo, and the special sharp knife he uses to make incisions to release the sap.

He removes the full (and now very heavy) bamboo from his previous visit, and then a new incision is made – with great care. The cut must be made at just the right and angle and depth; if not, less sap will be released, and the productive time of the flower stem – which can up to six months – will be reduced.

Once the new bamboo is in place, he can return home to commence converting the sap into gula aren.

The harvested sap is emptied into a large wok-shaped cooker, placed over a small fire. The fire can’t be allowed to get too hot, or else the gula aren will become black, burnt and unpalatable.

The cooking process takes about two hours, during which time the brew must be stirred very regularly so as cook evenly.

The process is complete when the mixture becomes very viscous, dark red and bubbling thickly.

He pours the still-liquid gula aren into moulds cut into a length of timber, and leaves it to cool and solidify.

We enjoyed tasting the left-over bits that remained in the cooking pot. They were truly delicious!

Sometimes the gula aren is moulded into cylindrical shapes, or into little dome-shapes inside coconut shells. But Pak Hairo makes blocks, with the contents of two lengths of bamboo (i.e. one day’s harvest from an Aren palm) producing four blocks of the sugar. He can sell one block for Rp25,000 (a little under AUS$2.50). Not a big return for a long day’s work…


Independence Day, Jogjakarta


Chicken sate vendor, Jogjakarta

Chicken sate vendor, Jogjakarta. It was 17th August – Independence Day – and the streets and footpaths of Jogja were streaming with people out be part of the festivities for the big day. Families with little kids waving their red-and-white flags lined up to see the parading soldiers, important looking dignitaries making speeches, gamelan orchestras, brass bands and drumming troupes, acrobats and school choirs.

In amongst it all the street vendors seemed oblivious to the occasion. This woman squatted on the edge of the road, with the crowds flowing past her like a rock in the river. She fanned the embers of the coconut husk fire to cook the sate slowly, turning the skewers and looking around all the time for potential customers. The smoke wafted around, and smelt delicious, but no-one was buying.


Sweet vendor, Jogjakarta

Sweet vendor, Jogjakarta. Another fellow was hand-making sweets out of sugary paste and food dyes, shaping the goo into elaborate shapes of dolphins, swans and butterflies, before putting each one onto a stick and sealing it in a little plastic bag. I didn’t see him get any sales in the hour or so that we stood nearby, but he seemed to be totally engrossed in his craft.


Outside the Ceremony, Jogjakarta

Outside the Ceremony, Jogjakarta. The main ceremonies for Hari Kemerdekaan (Indpendence Day) in Jogja were conducted behind a high fence in the palatial grounds of the local government official residence. Hundreds of VIPs, guests and military personnel were inside, but the masses of the general public could only look in from outside the grounds.