Sam Clark, Experience Travel Group co-founder and Managing Director writes: “Peter Hohenhaus (along with his wife Sally) is a long time client, who has travelled several times with Experience Travel Group, including exploring a number of dark tourism sights in Indonesia. Peter introduced us to the concept of ‘Dark Tourism’ and his intellectual and erudite approach greatly advanced our own understanding of the challenging subject matter. We have learnt a huge amount when researching and putting together Peter and Sally’s trips and have greatly enjoyed the challenge. In fact, it has also influenced how we approach sites on our more regular itineraries, which could be termed ‘Dark Tourism’ such as Tuol Sleng and the Killing Fields in Cambodia, to pick the most notorious example. As Peter says, these sites are not for everyone but handled sensitively, they can be a great source of learning and understanding. I thoroughly recommend his website as an incredible resource on this very specialist subject.”
Over to Peter…
Dark Tourism is a term that originates from British Academia and refers to travel to places associated with something “dark” in the metaphorical sense, i.e. often places where dark chapters of recent history have taken place, be it wars, natural or man-made disasters, massacres or other sites connected to tragedy, death or the macabre. Engaging in this type of niche tourism is sometimes misrepresented in the mass media as something morally dubious, but in reality, it is simply special-interest tourism off the mainstream that takes the world as it really is, not just the sugar-coated clichés specially prepared for tourists.
In my experience, Dark Tourism is never really in any way voyeuristic either. Instead, it’s usually much more the educational and/or adventurous aspects that are in the foreground of dark tourists’ interests. I have been a dark tourist all my life, long before I even knew there was a term for it, and I do not see anything morally wrong with it, at least as long as you know how to behave in such places. (I’ve witnessed misbehaviour, unfortunately, e.g. in the form of “selfie”-taking in places where it really isn’t appropriate. But that’s the exception rather than the rule.) I know I am not the only one interested in this kind of travelling and so I started to give like-minded people a comprehensive on-line resource: www.dark-tourism.com.
Note, however, that my travels are never 100% exclusively dark but always a healthy mix! I think that’s the usual way. There are no “pure” dark tourists. You need a balance. Experience Travel Group have helped me put together such specially tailored itineraries a number of times (including Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand as well as Sri Lanka). Most recently they excelled themselves in putting together a programme for one of the world’s most diverse countries for the dark tourist to travel to: Indonesia. So when they asked me to write another blog entry (see also Top-5 Hotels in Indonesia), this time on what I regard as the top 5 dark tourism sights in Indonesia, I happily agreed. Here we go:
1. Ijen Crater at night
Though not a prototypical dark-tourism sight in the strict sense I still had to put this at No. 1! That’s because it was just one of the most incredible things I’ve ever done anywhere. Something to remember for life.
Ijen is one of Indonesia’s countless active volcanoes, located in the east of Java near the coast opposite Bali (thus easy to combine with that tourism hub). Ijen has a turquoise crater lake that is the largest acid lake in the world. There’s a sulphur mine on its shores where a couple of hundred miners “harvest” sulphur under conditions that can only be described as hellish (as portrayed in the award-winning documentary film “Working Man’s Death”). Yet it has become a tourist site of sorts too. Most hikes to the volcano aim to get there for sunrise. Here, however, the real treat is going at night. Why? Because only at night can you witness a spectacular sight you won’t see anywhere else: the fabled blue flames of Ijen.
These blue flames are from burning sulphur, set alight by the miners to liquidize the substance to facilitate the harvesting … you can also see molten sulphur dripping deep red from pipes. (Sulphur only turns yellow when cooled and solidified.) The sulphur and the thick plumes of sulphuric steam coming from the volcanic fumaroles are a spectacular thing to behold as such. Watching the miners hacking away at the sulphur under such conditions is surreal too. But most of all it is those blue flames that add that totally otherworldly dimension to it all. I would even call it “nether worldly”. The whole spectacle is absolutely infernal. But mesmerizing and magical at the same time.
Mind you, though, getting there is a major effort – and it comes with a certain degree of risk as well. First you have to get to the bottom of the regular hiking path that leads up the outer slopes of the volcano. This is not such a difficult walk, along a prepared path, but quite steep in places. But with reasonable fitness you can make it up to the crater rim within an hour or 90 minutes. Then, however, the real adventure begins. Nominally you are not supposed to venture any further than the crater rim and signs warn against proceeding further into the crater. Most people who make it here at night, however, ignore these signs. You really have to take great care clambering down the inner crater wall but it is doable and well worth the effort. You need to wear appropriate sturdy shoes and it’s best have gloves on too (to make it easier to hold on to sharp rocks). It is also advisable to come with some protection against the aggressive sulphurous fumes. We were glad that our guide Teguh had supplied us with a face mask with filters, i.e. almost a full-blown gas mask. This allowed us to really get close for a good view of the blue flames. Incidentally: you get this only at night, because in daylight the flames are invisible.
Ijen may not be the most famous of Indonesia’s numerous volcanoes, but in my view it is the most spectacular to visit. The most legendary volcano of them all, Krakatoa, located in the strait between west Java and the southern end of Sumatra, can also be visited, on boat tours. As a historical site it is of great significance, but as a volcano it is less spectacular. The most renowned Indonesian volcano in terms of visual appeal is Bromo, also in eastern Java. The views at sunrise are world-famous, and rightly so – but the crowds you get there in high season can be off-putting. The truly darkest volcano-associated sites, on the other hand, can be found on the southern slopes of Mt Merapi where jeep tours are available to take visitors into the lahar flows and the destroyed villages. It’s eerie but also surprisingly popular with tourists.
2. Banda Aceh
This place at the northernmost tip of Sumatra is rarely visited by tourists – but for the dark tourist, it is of special importance due to the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. The memory and legacy of that disaster still pretty much define Banda Aceh. There are several sites commemorating the tsunami and some of them are amongst the top attractions of the city’s tourism infrastructure. This applies first and foremost to the large Tsunami Museum near the city centre. The architecture alone is remarkable – and serves the extra function of providing evacuation space should another tsunami hit. The museum exhibitions inside are now quite good (after many years of slow development), even if not everything is working and there is a lack of English labelling and texts in some sections. Yet it is the No. 1 must-see sight in town.
Another top tsunami sight is the PLTD Apung 1 – once a floating power-generating platform/ship which got swept far inland by the tsunami and ended up in a residential area (allegedly on top of two houses that were crushed under its weight).
This most bizarre sight has become one of the local symbols for the tsunami and has been developed into a proper memorial park. The same is true of the “boat in the roof” site near the harbour where a fishing boat got lodged on top of somebody’s house (where it actually provided refuge for some people during the surge of the tsunami’s tidal waves). More stranded boats can be found in a secluded location in a garden in a poor neighbourhood – unlike those other boats mentioned above, these are hardly tourist-ified and, without our brilliant local guide Mahlizar, we would never have even known about them. He also steered us towards some other more hidden or at least off-the-beaten-track tsunami sights (ruins of a hospital, mass graveyards, a dislodged mosque dome, stumps of a bridge that was swept away, wrecks of trucks and helicopters, and so forth).
Despite that rich tsunami-themed itinerary, however, there was also time for some of the “regular” tourist points of interest – such as the Baiturrahman Grand Mosque. As a Western tourist, however, you do stand out in Banda Aceh. Everywhere we went there were lots of people wanting to have their picture taken with us (especially with my wife)! They were all very polite and friendly, though, so it was fun and only added to the overall exoticness of the place.
3. Sidoarjo Mudflow
Since 2006 millions of cubic feet of hot mud a day have been flooding out of the ground at this site near Sidoarjo just south of Indonesia’s second-largest city Surabaya. The mudflow was originally attributed to a gas exploration operation gone horribly wrong. The company who had done the drilling, Lapindo, claimed it was not to blame and that the mudflow had natural causes, yet it found itself under a lot of pressure to pay compensation, as the mud engulfed more and more fields, villages and roads. (Recently published research, however, now seems to support the natural-causes theory). The legal issues kept the story a high-profile topic in the Indonesian media and even in election campaigns. And the whole issue is still not resolved. Whatever the cause, the fact remains that the poor local population of the area lost their livelihoods under the mud (there were even a few fatalities). The constant flow of mud proved unstoppable and is only now beginning to slow down of its own accord. This alleviates original fears that it may continue for decades more to come. But the damage done is of course done. And that’s what makes for a truly unique dark sight to behold!
There are a couple of viewpoints on the dykes constructed to contain the mudflow. At the main one you can see a stunning monument by the Indonesian artist Dadang Christanto featuring about a hundred stony-faced concrete statues holding various household items – as the mud is slowly rising up to their knees, waists, shoulders … From these viewpoints locals offer visitors motorcycle rides further into the disaster zone and even onto the mudflow itself. You can indeed get fairly close to the original main source of the mud, still steaming away, though no longer splattering mud out in big bubbles (that, however, you can see at another site: Bledug Kuwu).
During the motorcycle ride I spotted what looked like an abandoned mosque in the distance, so I asked our guide Teguh. He confirmed this and then had the drivers steer us closer to that site. It turned out to be a whole complex of empty buildings, a little ghost town really, dominated by the brooding shape of the abandoned mosque. We walked up and had a closer look inside. It was eerie. Just beyond the mosque, a cemetery was slowly drowning in grey slush … So even the dead are victims of the mud!
This trip was certainly one of the most extraordinary experiences of my whole time in Indonesia. Unlike Ijen it is also completely off the beaten tourist track. I am very grateful for the privilege of having seen this bizarre site.
4. Trunyan Basket Burial Site
Let’s make it clear from the outset: this is not for the faint of heart! This unique little site is located on the shores of Lake Batur – opposite the volcano of the same name – in the north-east of Bali. It can be only reached by boat. What makes it special is that the Trunyan, an ancient ethnic group pre-dating Bali’s transformation into a Hindu kingdom, still practise burial rites very different from any other. Here the bodies of the deceased are placed in open basket-like structures made from bamboo and just left until the bodies have decomposed. Then the skulls are arranged on a nearby ledge.
At times when the baskets contain more or less recently deceased this can be a rather shockingly close encounter with the dead. I’ll spare you close-up images of this here. The row of skulls should be Gothic enough.
You would think that letting bodies rot in the open would create an infernal stench – but here it doesn’t. The reason for this, so they tell you, is that the large tree at the burial site is allegedly of a special type that makes the smell of decay disappear or at least masks it. I can’t say whether that is indeed the true reason, but I can certainly vouch for the total absence of any smell of decomposition (nor did I detect any strong odour from the tree). There were hardly any flies or other insects about either. All that alone is quite mysterious. In general, the site oozes a strange aura, but not one of horror or gore but rather peaceful tranquillity. Still, it is clearly not for everyone. A fellow traveller from India who was on our tour could not handle this and she chose to wait for us by the boat rather than at the burial site.
Opposite the burial site and Trunyan village (which you typically also visit on these tours) is Mt Batur, one of Bali’s active volcanoes. You can see the latest lava flow from the road leading to the boat station and spot the current active vents steaming on the ridge halfway up towards the summit.
The location by Lake Batur makes it a site very easy to combine with the more mainstream destinations on Bali such as Ubud or Kuta. However, there are stories of aggressive touts and rip-off prices charged for the boat ride here if you just turn up at the boat station as an independent traveller. When I was there it was as part of a pre-organized guided excursion around inland Bali, so I was spared any such hassle. So I can only recommend doing it that way. In any case, it makes for maximum contrast to the sweet picturesque image that Bali otherwise has. Very special.
Komodo island, like neighbouring Rinca, is home to the infamous Komodo dragons. They are the world’s largest species of lizard actually, so not strictly speaking dragons, but they are still legendary – and incredible to see in the wild.
But can wildlife-watching be Dark Tourism? In this case: yes! For starters, Komodo dragons are man-eaters. And as Douglas Adams famously observed in “Last Chance to See” it somehow makes us uncomfortable to think of a lizard as a man-eating beast. We’re somewhat more tolerant of this if it’s a mammal, say a tiger or a bear, but a lizard? No, that’s too spooky. Furthermore, Komodos have a method of killing their prey that does not at all resonate with our anthropomorphizing ideas of a “fair fight”. It is now known that Komodos are venomous, but they also have saliva that is so full of bacteria that all a Komodo needs to do is get a quick bite in … and then wait. The victim, usually a deer or a buffalo, will then run away wounded, but the wound won’t heal due to the anticoagulants from the dragon’s bite. So they will slowly succumb to the infected wound. Then the dragons come to feast on the carcass. It doesn’t even have to be the dragon that did the biting in the first place, they happily take each other’s prey too. And their table manners are gross – they rip the carcass apart and swallow big chunks whole, bones, skin and all. They can consume about half their own bodyweight of meat in a single sitting.
What’s more, they don’t shy away from a bit of cannibalistic infanticide either, given the chance. That’s why young Komodos live in the trees until they’re big enough to fend for themselves and lose the attraction to adult dragons as a quick snack.
Of course, it is only our human projections that make all this sound so vicious and evil. From a pure naturalist point of view, Komodos are highly fascinating. And in reality they aren’t all that dangerous to humans either. When you go to see them in Komodo National Park you will be accompanied by rangers who wield long forked sticks to keep any dragons at bay that show too much of an interest in their human visitors. But most of the time they are placid and harmless, often just lying around motionless. They can move very quickly if they want to, though, so it’s still advisable to take care and follow all of the rangers’ instructions. But then it’s quite safe.
What can be more of an adventure is getting to Komodo island. Some of the boats that do the voyage are decidedly dodgy. Unfortunately, Indonesia is infamous for this. Just a day or two before I was there, a tourist boat sank en route to Komodo. The waters here are treacherous with strong cross-currents and vortices. This means that it is best not to skimp on the price for the crossing but invest in a proper boat with decent safety standards. Many visitors even choose live-aboard packages that also include snorkelling and diving options. If you don’t want to sleep on a boat there are also island resorts that arrange excursions to the dragons. In any case, typical tours usually combine a couple of hours on Komodo island itself and another stop on Rinca. On both islands there are several treks to choose from of different lengths and strenuousness. We only had time for the short one, yet we were lucky to see a good dozen dragons, some even quite active, on Komodo island. On Rinca we saw only three or four rather inactive ones … but it included as our last encounter one individual dragon who has acquired a reputation for being especially aggressive. Apparently, he attacked a local ranger inside his hut – twice! Looking this particular dragon in the eye did have a rather unnerving quality, I have to admit …