Karimun Jawa: Islands in the Java Sea

I’m writing this post in both English and Indonesian—a new thing I’m trying with my Bahasa Indonesia tutor as my editor (love you, Amanda!)

When I was planning my Organgutan trip last month, I came across Karimun Jawa on a map on the Java Sea. It’s easy to miss—you reallllly have to zoom in on the archipelago. On main island called Karimun, you can drive the single wrap-around road in 30 minutes flat.

Waktu saya berencana untul pergi ke Kalimantan bulan lalu, saya melihat Karimun Jawa di peta. Saya harus melihat peta tersebut dari dekat karena ada banyak pulau-pulau kecil di sekitarnya. Hanya ada satu jalan aspal di pulau Karimun, dan bisa naik mobil dari mulai sampai selesai, dalam waktu 30 menit. 

Karimunjawa sea2
All of Karimun, the main island, fits in a single frame

Once you find Karimun Jawa on a map, the distance doesn’t look so far. It’s just off the coast of Central Java, and from Madiun, I’m already near the border between East and Central. But travel required a few steps: a train to Semarang, then a van to Jepara, and finally the two-hour Bahari Express fast ferry to Karimun, the main island of the Karimun Jawa archipelago. The ferry leaves from Jepara’s Kartini harbor. It was a rocky ride but we made it! No one from our crew puked, but pretty much everyone else around us did. If you turn up your music to max volume, you can almost pretend you’re not surrounded by vomit. We got off at the “far port” because the “near port” was broken (Don’t ask me how a port breaks—I asked but didn’t understand the answer.) Questions and seasickness aside, though. Totally worth the journey:

Saat saya menemukan Karimun Jawa di peta, saya melihat bahwa jaraknya tidak terlalau jauh. Ke pulauan itu dekat pantai Jawa Tengah. Untuk perjalanan ke pulauan itu daru Madiun, harus naik kereta ke Semarang, naik travel ke Jepara, dan naik ferry ke Karimun, pulau utama di pulauan Karimun Jawa. Saya naik ferry namanya Bahari Express, selama 2 jam. Bahari Express berangkat dari Pelabuhan Kartini. Naik ferry tidak enak, tapi semua orang sampai di Pelabuhan Karimun Jawa. Teman-teman says tidak mabut laut, tapi mayoritas penumpang-penumpang muntah. Kalau kamu menengar musik dengan keras, bisa pura-pura yang tidak mendengar orang mabut laut di mana mana. Semua seutuhnya, ada manfaatnya: 

Karimunjawa harbor

Karimunjawa bobi beach
Sunrise at Bobi Beach, on the East side of Karimun
Karimunjawa sunset beach
Taken at the appropriately named “Sunset Beach.” Sunset photos are obligatory.

The true destination is the water itself: shallow pockets of nearly neon and pale blue that are cluttered with coral reef. Coral comes in many colors—not just a pale salmony pink. There are yellow-green shrubs the shade of romanesco broccoli; mustard-yellow swirly masses that looks like brains of giants; and spikes of violet that branch out like bumpy witches’ fingers, reaching for the water’s surface. While snorkeling, we were reminded: don’t touch it. You touch coral, and it dies. I didn’t touch the coral but I did try to touch some fish. I also saw two nemos out in the wild: clown fish the size of paperclips, drifting in and out of a real life anemone. I didn’t buy an underwater camera, and I don’t regret it; some things are better absorbed in the moment, in the clear water. Luckily Mas Adam, the snorkeling guy, brought his.

Tujuan saya adalah melihat laut. Ada air berwarna neon dan biru mudah, dan juga ada banyak batu karang. Ada batu karang yang berwarna kuning kehijauan; ada yang berwarna seperti mustard yang terlihat seperti otak, dan ada yang berwarna violet berbentuk melihat seperti jari penyihir. Sementara kami sedang snorkeling, pemandu berwisata pesan: “Jangan menyentuh batu karang. Kalau menyentuh itu, karangnya akan mati.” Saya tidak menyentuh karang, tapi hampir menyentuh ikan laut. Saya melihat dua ikan badut berenang di antara anemon. Saya tidak membeli camera di bawah air, tapi Mas Adam, pemandu wisata, membawa camera miliknya. 

Karimunjawa coral

Turns out Peace Corps Volunteers are a specific type. Our first night in Karimun, a guy named Fu asked us outright if that’s what we were, while we chose Bintang over Prost. The next day, he handed us off to his friends with a boat, and we got to go snorkeling for a full day, visiting two nearby islands, and even enjoy a fish fry—the whole day for just 150,000 rupiah. (That’s about 10 USD.) Turns out some past volunteers had made it to Karimun Jawa a few times. If setting up future volunteers for a discount isn’t Peace Corps’ fourth goal… we’re interested in sustainability, you know.

Sebenarnya, relawan Peace Corps mudah dikenali. Malam pertama di Karimun, seorang laki-laki bernama Fu bertanya, “Kalian relawan Peace Corps?” Besok harinya, kami berkenalan dengan teman Fu, yang mempunyai sebuah kapal, dan kami naik kapal itu sepanjang hari untuk snorkeling. Kami pergi ke dua pulau dan dua tempat snorkeling. Kami juga makan siang bersama. Semua harganya hanya 150,000 rupiah. Karena sudah beberapa relawan-relawan Peace Corps yang berkunjung ke Karimun Jawa, jadi kami mendapat diskon.

Karimunjawa sea
first snorkeling spot, somewhere out here

Karimun Jawa is still a bit under-discovered, although it’s written up on Lonely Planet Actually, I shouldn’t be writing about it at all. My friends and I joked that we’d tell no one about the island. Other than a gang of Germans (they’re everywhere), a Croatian couple, and a few families (and of course the ubiquitous Aussies), the place was pretty calm. Many Indonesians I’ve talked to haven’t heard of it. Or if they have, they’ve chosen Bali over this little cluster of white beaches for their vacations.

Ada informasi tentang Karimun Jawa di Lonely Planet, tapi tidak banyak orang yang tahu. Teman-teman saya bercanda bahwa kami tidak akan berbicara tentang pulau itu pada siapa pun. Waktu kami di sana, kami berkenal orang jerman, orang kroasia, dan orang australia. Karimun Jawa adalah tempat yang tenang. Mayoritas orang asing dan orang Indonesia memilih Bali dari pada Karimun.

Karimunjawa beach2
This is the beach were we stopped after the first snorkeling spot, for lunch.
Karimunjawa beach 3
Ibu has the right idea about sun protection ❤
Karimunjawa swing
This was the second small island we stopped at, after a second snorkeling spot. Someone in Karimun Jawa’s tourism office had the idea to place swings all over the place. It’s all about the Instagram.

Part of the reason Karimun Jawa feels so untouched is because it’s a national park. (The entrance fee is only 25,000 rupiah and must be paid before boarding a ferry). National Park status has two conflicting effects in Indonesia. When the government designates a national park, more often than not, native people are displaced—forced to move out like the Malay people in Kalimantan’s Tanjung Puting National Park. For better or for worse, the status puts a piece of land on the tourism map, attempting to divert some of the foot traffic from Bali’s overcrowded resorts, and allow more economic opportunity for small businesses in lesser-known corners of the island nation. On the flip side, much of the land is protected from any construction that resembles Bali’s boom—that’s the intention, at least.

Karimun Jawa tampak alami karena kepulauan itu adalah taman nasional. Wisatawan harus membayar 25,000 rupiah sebelum naik ferry untuk masuk taman nasional. Ada pro dan kontra saat sebuah lokasi baru dijadikan taman nasional oleh pemerintah. Kedang-kedang, penduduk harus pindah—seperti yang terjadi pada orang Melayu di Taman Nasional Tanjung Puting, di Kalimantan. Tapi kalau lokasi baru tersebut taman nasional, mungkin turis lebih ke ingin ke sana daripada Bali, karena Bali sudah ramai. Jadi, pariwisata bisa berkembang dan alam akan tetap terlindungi.

Karimunjawa habor2

Karimun Jawa is very much a mountain in the center of the sea. The single road goes up and down hills—naik, turun, naik, turun, as the locals warned when we said we’d walk. And it’s covered by dense forest. Tourism shops advertise “hiking,” but we were told that there are no trails; hiking means hiring a guy with a machete who will slash a way up the mountain for you, and a separate path back down. We opted for snorkeling and santai di pantai instead. We came for the beach.

Karimun Jawa adalah puncah gunung di dalam laut. Jalannya hanya naik-turun, naik-turun. Ada hutan lebat. Ada penonda jalan “Hiking,” tapi tidak ada jalan setapak. Harus membayar orang yang punya golok. Orang itu bisa membuat jalan. Kami memilih snorkeling dan bersantai di pantai saja.

In town, there are a handful of restaurants, as well as a night market, where all the locals sit at low tables on the ground. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t eat both pizza and lasagna on this trip. I also had a dragon fruit pancake (buah naga dulu) and my first salad in NINE MONTHS. (I nearly forgot lettuce was a thing. Can’t say I don’t miss Western food).

Di desa, ada beberapa restoran dan pasar malam, mana orang Karimun duduk di lantai dan makan malam. Saya makan pizza dan lasagna selama liburan di sana. Juga makan pancake buah naga dan salad. (Saya rindu makanan amerika juga.)

Karimunjawa salad
Salad. With a vinaigrette. Eating this almost made me forget that my diet now exclusively consists of white rice and deep-fried foods.
Karimunjawa pancakes
A matcha pancake with granola and dragon fruit pancake with cinnamon

But we made up for the pizza with three separate visits to the martabak stand for terang bulan (the chocolate-peanut kind, obviously) and two nights at the alun-alun, a soccer field that transforms into a night market with grilled corn, noodles, bakso, and fresh fish wearing the craziest colors. They say a balanced diet is a colorful diet.

Makan apa lagi? Ada terang bulan coklat-kacang, dan banyak pedagang kaki lima di alun-alun. Ada jagung bakar, mie tek tek, bakso, dan ikan laut. Ada ikan warna-warni yang dijual di sana.

Karimunjawa fish market
The grey fish that the vendor is placing in the bin has the exact pattern of some of the coral we saw. It’s like it’s wearing its best batik: ocean camouflage

Also, as it turns out, mie tek tek isn’t only available in Karimun Jawa, but that was the best one I’ve tasted: curly noodles and vegetables in a spicy broth.

Meskipun kami bisa beli mie tek tek di mana mana, mie tek tek di alun alun Karimun Jawa itu rasanya paling enak. Kami suka pedas, dan mie tek tek itu sangat pedas.

Karimunjawa kaki lima
Usually food carts are smaller than this one. They’re called “kaki lima” (5 feet) because they normally have 3 wheels (plus the two legs of the vendor who pushes it). This is more like a “kaki enam” (6 feet) ha haaa

Oh, and the cure for spicy everything? Kelapa hangat. In East Java, there is es degan (or es kelapa mudah) carts everywhere, serving up cold coconut water mixed with brown sugar-syrup. Karimun Jawa was the first place that I saw warm coconut water. A guy was roasting whole coconuts over coals on the sidewalk. He’d hack them open, add ginger and honey if you’d like, and toss in a straw. We had to try it. While fresh coconut is nothing if not refreshing, heating it takes on a smokey, marshmallow flavor. If consuming pork gelatin weren’t a sin here, I’d pair it with a s’more. Water from a roasted coconut might be the simplest, most genius treat for those early evening hours after the sun sinks.

Kami juga melihat kelapa bakar. Di Jawa Timur, ada es dawet dan es degan. Ini pertama kali saya melihat kelapa bakar. Seorang membakar kelapa di trotoar. Dia menembahkan madu dan jahe sesuai selera. Kami mencobanya. Rasanya manis dan berasap. Kelapa bakar enak diminum saat matahari terbenam.

Karimunjawa kelapa

While the Jepara ferry ride gets 1 out of 5 sea stars, Karimun Jawa merits a 5-star review. (That reminds me—the stars were incredible here—absolutely no light pollution.) With minimal planning (reserve ferry tickets in advance!), everything went surprisingly smoothly. We were told there were bicycles available for rent. (There were not). And since PCVs aren’t allowed to ride motorcycles, we ended up doing a lot of walking. But you get to take in these views along the way—and when you finally reach it, the sea feels even more delicious.

Ferry: 1/5 bintang. Karimun Jawa: 5/5 bintang. Kalau ingin ke Karimun Jawa, harus beli tiket dulu. Sebelum datang, banyak orang bilang ada sepeda yang disewakan di pulau. (Tapi tidak ada.) Karena relawan Peace Corps tidak boleh naik sepeda motor, kami jalan-kaki ke pantai dan alun-alun. Tapi tidak apa-apa. Karena kami bisa melihat pemandangan di pantai yang luar biasa indah.

Karimunjawa love hill2

Karimunjawa love hill

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