A unique site – and one of the most bizarre things to see in all of Indonesia
(which isn't exactly short of bizarre sights). It's a huge expanse of mud that is the result of an uncontrollably spilling mud volcano that may have came about by accident following a gas exploration drilling operation that went disastrously wrong … it may also have had natural causes. Whatever, the mud swallowed up several whole villages and left some 30,000 to 40,000 people displaced.
Dykes were built to stem the ever-growing tide of mud but basically there is no way of stopping it … it can only be hoped it will stop of its own accord some day. Estimates as to how long that may take vary. Worst-case scenarios see the spewing continuing for a few more decades to come, but there are also more optimistic predictions, given that the rate of the spilling has slowed down considerably more recently.
Still, the damage already done is done. Beholding this is an absolutely incomparable dark-tourism experience. And you can indeed explore the site … by motorbike – locals offer rides!
More background info:
A mud volcano is basically a hole in the earth's crust through which a mixture of water, gas and earth pours out. They are rarely truly eruptive, but the masses of mud can cause damage. Natural mud volcanoes are not an uncommon phenomenon (especially not in Azerbaijan
– see Qobustan
) – Indonesia
also has one at Bledug Kuwu
. But the one at Sidoarjo, East Java, Indonesia is quite unnatural, and much, much bigger than any ordinary mud volcanoes. It's a one-off, and a particularly dark site.
It all started in May 2006, when the Lapindo Brantas oil and gas company conducted exploration operations by drilling but instead of finding gas seemed to have triggered the mud volcano. Whether or not it was indeed their fault or not remains a controversial issue. The company claimed that the it was actually a natural disaster caused by the earthquake near Yogyakarta that had happened at around the same time. That city, however, is 160 miles (260 km) away, so that explanation did not strike many people as immediately plausible. Nevertheless, the blame could never be conclusively put on Lapindo alone. For over seven years opinions remained divided. A recent study published in the scientific journal Nature Geoscience now seems to have tipped the balance in favour of a natural explanation after all. We'll see if that will stand in the long term. I am certainly not familiar enough with, or even capable of comprehending, all the complicated science involved in this to be able to offer an opinion of my own here.
In any case, whether it is a natural disaster, a man-made catastrophe or a combination of both, the fact remains that since May 2006 enormous quantities of mud have kept flowing from the site. Attempts at blocking the hole with a concrete "plug" have proven futile. So it continued to gush out millions of cubic feet of hot mud every day.
Soon the muddy slush was covering fields and villages. Tens of thousands of residents were forced to abandon their homes. Apparently there were also fatalities (over a dozen, according to some sources). The whole infrastructure of the area was severely damaged, including the main east-west Java highway that was cut off so that traffic had to be diverted around the mudflow on slower small roads (leading to frequent traffic jams). The total damage to the economy has been put at something like a billion US dollars.
Dykes were constructed to keep the flow at bay, but occasionally dams broke or mud overflowed or seeped through to cover yet more land. A vast area of several square miles is now covered in mud up to 60 feet (20m) deep.
If the real-world physical muddy mess is bad, the legal controversies in its wake have been even worse and murkier. To this day, locals are fighting for proper compensation. Lapindo did offer some payouts, but in many cases compensation was withheld because of disputes regarding land ownership – not all victims could produce the required documents. As this was already an economically challenged area, it was the poor who were left high and dry, as so often in corrupt Indonesia. Only a fraction of the initially promised compensation was paid out and so the locals keep campaigning desperately.
This is also why visitors, including foreign tourists, are actually welcome here, on the part of the locals at least. Some offer motorbike rides around the mudflats for a fee (see below
) – well needed money, given the economic situation of so many of the locals who had lost their original source of income. They also use the opportunity to sell VCDs with documentary material that supports their case against Lapindo.
Yet, as the Lapindo mudflow (as it has also become known as) is such a high-profile case in Indonesia, it was also exploited by politicians in their respective election campaigns – including by the then president-elect shortly before I visited the site, as was evidenced by some posters showing Jokowi (see under Indonesia
) holding up his muddy hands (that he must have dipped into the mudflow) for the camera plus a slogan underneath to the effect that justice needs to be done, or something like that.
As for the future outlook on the disaster: initially it was estimated that the mud volcano might continue spewing for the next 30 years or more. Since the end of 2013, however, more optimistic predictions have been put forward, based on the observation that the volcano was evidently losing pressure. Mud was no longer ejected from the epicentre in continuous eruptions as it had done before, but instead it had begun to pulsate, i.e. only releasing mud irregularly, and no longer in fountains but as lower level flow-outs. Some now suggest that the mudflow might be over altogether as early as 2017. We will see.
The Sidoarjo mud volcano, or “Lapindo mudflow”, is also known under yet another designation, the improbably cute-sounding name "Lusi" – which is only an acronym, however; it's short for Lumpur Sidoarjo ("Lumpur" means 'mud' in Indonesian/Malay).
What there is to see:
When I visited the Sidoarjo mudflow site it was as part of a longer pre-planned trip (see Indonesia
). This stretch of the itinerary was led by the best guide I had on the entire trip, called Teguh (see also under Ijen), and it went from Surabaya to Bromo (and eventually on to Bali
). To get to the mudflow we went by car from central Surabaya (see below) to Sidoarjo in a bit less than an hour.
We stopped by the main road alongside the western dyke that holds in the mud. Here there are a few stalls with parking spaces and stairs lead up the dyke to an observation point. You already get a pretty good impression of the scale of the disaster from up here just by taking in the vastness of the ugly expanse of nothing but mud almost to the horizon. There's also a cool monument of sorts – but I'll come back to that later.
A couple of locals were there with their motorbikes offering rides around the affected area. My guide took over the negotiations and soon we, Teguh, my wife and myself, were on the backs of three motorbikes scooting along the top of the dyke, first in a southerly direction. We rounded a part of the mudflow that looked more like a lake and then headed north along a central dyke. You could see electricity pylons poking out of the nothingness of the mud/lake, some slightly leaning, as well as all manner of pipes and other bits and pieces of abandoned industrial debris. Eventually we reached a strange bridge-like structure with a platform suspended from it – apparently some sort of evacuation point.
From here we left the dyke and started riding across the mudflow itself. It had solidified in this part sufficiently to support such small vehicles (a car would probably have been too heavy). The drivers had to take care not to slip to the sides on such difficult ground, but they clearly knew what they were doing and did it well.
After some 400-500 yards we came to a point marked by flags where a few other motorbikes were parked and some other visitors were already standing there viewing the mud. This is the closest one can get to the very centre of the mudflow, its epicentre, so to speak.
So this is the actual heart of the whole site, where the mud is being spewed out from a hole deep into the ground. It is actually identifiable from afar by the cloud of steam that hangs over it – the mud from deep down below is seriously hot!
In the past you may even have been able to witness the mud splattering out in bubbles and gushes (cf. Bledug Kuwu
). But now it is mostly just steaming quietly without any fountains of mud visibly being ejected. Occasionally there are bigger steam bursts, though. I saw only one from a distance during the whole time I was there when the steam cloud suddenly rose to about 100-150 feet (30-50m) over the central vent.
The mudflat around the core is wet and soft so you couldn't walk on it. On the edge where we were standing there were some patches that were crusted over but still wobbly from the liquid mud underneath – a very strange feeling to stand on such an unstable patch.
What was no longer to be seen, at least on the routes we took, was remnants of houses semi-submerged in mud with just the roofs still poking out, like I had seen photos of on the Internet. Apparently these have either been completely submerged by mud or demolished. What I did spot, however, was a dirty mosque dome in the distance that looked like it must be located in or very close to the mudflow. I asked and it was confirmed that this was indeed an abandoned mosque. This is what we then headed for next.
It was another two and a half miles (4km) or so until we finally got there. The mosque was not standing in the mud as such, but was right next to the dyke that keeps the mud at bay. But it was clearly abandoned – just as the little ghost-town-like cluster of lower buildings next to the mosque.
I had to have a closer look, so I clambered down together with Teguh and we went to explore the empty mosque and the ghost town. The mosque, it turned out, was not 100% abandoned. In its mihrab there was a small improvised-looking minbar, just three steps high, covered by a green rug. So it is likely that some imam occasionally still uses this and worshippers still pop by too. When we were there, though, we had the place all to ourselves. (Still, Teguh insisted that we take our shoes off inside the mosque all the same – so he too must have considered it still an active mosque).
There was an eerie atmosphere inside this mostly empty space. Under the central dome only a wire was hanging down loosely, but there was no longer any chandelier – nor did the stairs to the higher levels or the upstairs balconies have railings. On one wall a clock was hanging in solitude – standing still. It was almost symbolic for the whole place.
Outside the mosque there was a cemetery that was half-submerged by wet mud – which presumably must have seeped through from the big mud spill next door. It was an exceptionally depressing sight: even those already dead were still victims of this otherworldly disaster!
Just beyond the mosque runs an abandoned stretch of the former main highway. And on the other side lies a mostly abandoned village. A bit north of the mosque an equally abandoned bridge still crosses the highway near a dilapidated monument in the centre of a crumbling roundabout. There is almost a Pripyat
kind of atmosphere about …
We then got back on the motorbikes and were driven along the southern mud dyke, past abandoned fields and farms just beyond until we returned to the main viewpoint where we had started.
It is also here where you can see the striking memorial monument by the acclaimed Indonesian artist Dadang Christanto (who was also a dissident during the Suharto era, but is now based in Australia
). The ensemble consists of about a hundred near-identical life-size statues made of simple grey concrete without any real facial features beyond a stylized solemn frown. They all hold their arms forward carrying various bits and pieces of everyday household objects: radios, pots, rice cookers, clocks, toys and so on and so forth. A few also stand empty-handed. They all just stand silently, accusingly almost, in the mud, mostly with the mud reaching to their knees or even hips, a few, however, look like they are sinking deeper still.
A bit south of this installation a solitary wire man with a yellow shirt stands in the mud – probably an independent work of art. And in between you can see a depth marker just about still poking out of the mud – the level of mud nearly having reached its maximum on the scale.
On the firm ground of the dyke there were two memorial stone slabs, one from 2013 year, one for 2014. Both have inscriptions demanding justice and compensation for the locals' loss of their homes and livelihoods.
Some locals also sell “souvenirs” of sorts, in particular copies of DVDs/VCDs entitled “Tragedy hot mudflow”. On the back cover it is pointed out in broken English that the purchase of these discs goes to help the youth and those who lost their jobs through the disaster. How could I not have purchased one …
I've meanwhile watched the material. It is, well, rather amateurishly made shaky camcorder footage of the early stages of the disaster. Some stretches were rather irrelevant but it also included some intriguing images of when the gases coming with the mud from the main borehole were ignited, shooting huge flares into the night sky. It also showed the main mud geyser at full spouting activity (when it was churning out 150,00 cubic metres of mud each day!). Some later material was quite scary, especially the footage from July 2009 shot in Siring Barat village where a new mudflow suddenly starting to spout from someone's back yard (and even under the house itself!) and within days completely engulfed the whole block. What made the videos a challenge to watch was that there was no narration, just random Indonesian and Western pop music in the background (but at distortion-level gain – so I had to turn the volume to just one notch above zero), and the only bits of written information are in rather broken English. But I'm still glad I bought it, even if it was more a donation than for actual viewing value.
The actual tour of the Sidoarjo mudflow site, i.e. having been there for real, however, was definitely one of the most incredible dark-tourism experiences I had in the whole of Indonesia
(possibly only topped by Ijen
). It is absolutely unique in the world. To behold it is depressing and exhilarating in equal measure, I found. Abandoned places rarely come so highly charged politically and so visually surreal at the same time.
the heart of the sprawling site is located ca. 15 miles (25 km) south of the city of Surabaya, East Java, Indonesia
, at Kelurahan Siring (Siring village) a bit beyond the town Sidoarjo proper, by the No. 1 road leading out from Surabaya to East Java and, eventually, Bali
Google maps locators:
Access and costs: The viewpoint by the memorial monument art installation is freely accessible at all times; most days locals also offer motorbike rides for a fee.
Details: To get to the site from the nearest hub, Surabaya, you need some form of transport, ideally a car. Theoretically you could also get a train, namely from Surabaya's Semut Kota station and get out at Tanggulangin or Porong (some 13-14 stops), if you want to brave Indonesian local railway services, that is. From Tanggulangin station you'd need to walk south, from Porong station you'd need to walk for ca. 15 minutes or hitch a (motorbike) ride back up north to get to the memorial monument site.
If you come by car or motorbike, the road goes straight past this point (see map locator above) – it's about half a mile (700m) after the point where the highway from Surabaya turns into the normal country road (at least as long as the new highway bypass under construction hasn't yet been finished). This main access point is fairly well marked – mainly by local campaigners' banners and posters demanding compensation. There were even signs saying “wisata lumpur” (you will have guessed it: it means 'visit the mud'). On top of the dyke there are viewpoints.
You can look out over the mudflats from these viewpoints and see the dramatic memorial monument for free practically at any time (during daylight hours, obviously).
Locals usually are at the site to offer motorbike rides to points further away – and right onto the mudflow. Obviously these rides cost money, but the price is negotiable. Foreigners will naturally be charged more. I had a guide who did the bargaining for me, so I don't know either what it would have cost without his help or what price he managed to settle for (it was discreetly included in my longer tour itinerary – see above
). In any case, getting such a motorbike ride immensely enhances the experience so it has to be worth it whatever the asking price may be.
Time required: from between a few moments just viewing the mudflow and seeing the monument from the viewpoint by the main road to a couple of hours taking a motorbike ride around the site. Really dedicated abandoned-places aficionados could even go even exploring along the edges for a full day or more, I would guess.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
nothing much in the more immediate vicinity, but Surabaya, the closest metropolis about an hour's drive north, was the place where the struggle for an independent Indonesia
began with the so-called Battle of Surabaya. So the place is of great significance in modern Indonesian history (and is sometimes assigned the hyperbole “Heroes' City”).
The symbol for this is the image of Indonesian independence fighters storming the Oranje Hotel (now the Majapahit – see below
) where the Allied (Dutch
) forced had set up their HQ for their quest of recolonizing the country after the Japanese surrender in WWII
. The angry youths went to the flag pole where the Dutch flag had been hoisted as a colonial symbol and tore off the blue strip part of it – thus rendering it the red and white Indonesian flag. This heroic scene is depicted on a large oil painting in the hotel lobby. (Never mind that not much later the colonial forces more or less levelled Surabaya in retaliation!)
Surabaya also has a couple of larger, mildly dark attractions (at least for some tastes), but nothing major. This includes the Monumen Kapal Selam – a park revolving around the “Pasopati”, a big Soviet-built submarine from the early 1960s. It has been propped up on land by a bend in the river as a visitor attraction. It's near the Surabaya Plaza. You can go inside the sub and explore the torpedo tubes, periscope, etc.
Surabaya is the main base of the Indonesian navy and the navy port sports a bizarrely oversized but remarkable sight: the Jalesveva Jayamahe Monument – a monster of a statue that could be Indonesia's equivalent to New York
's Statue of Liberty – except that it depicts a naval officer and was built during the Suharto era as a celebration of militarism, so it probably stands for anything but liberty. It is a 30m high green-bronze guy on a plinth also 30m high which allegedly also houses a museum. However, it is located within the naval base; and with the Indonesian military being the secretive entity that it is, this means that the statue is inaccessible to foreign visitors (unless you manage to get a special permit – good luck!). So you can't normally even see it from up close. The best you can do is catch a glimpse of it from a ferry or the bridge to Madura.
Some may also see some darkness in the possibility of visiting one of the country's best-known cigarette factories, the House of Sampoerna in the north of the city centre, where you can watch Indonesia
's signature kretek
coffin nails being hand-rolled by hundreds of women at lightning speed.
The next closest proper dark sites further afield would be Ijen
to the east but that would be at least a long day's journey away from Sidoarjo and Surabaya.
, however, located a similar distance to the west, would make the most fitting combination by nature, literally, as this is indeed a natural
mud volcano. And you can observe it spouting big bubbles of gas and mud every few seconds from quite close up.
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
Apart from its mud spill the area around Sidoarjo is totally unremarkable. The nearest big city is Surabaya, Indonesia's second largest, in fact (after Jakarta
). But as a metropolis of its size and standing it is a rather bland and ugly commercial place that isn't particularly inviting to tourists.
There is, however, one major exception to this, namely the absolutely splendid Hotel Majapahit Surabaya. It was built by the Sarkies brothers as part of their empire of luxury hotels at the beginning of the 20th century (originally as the “Oranje Hotel”) and is at least every bit as grand as the most famous one of their hotels, the legendary Raffles in Singapore. Unlike the Raffles, though, rates here are actually surprisingly affordable. I had only one afternoon and one night there but I was so smitten with the place that I gave it a top place (No. 3 currently) in my personal top-10 best accommodations ever list
. I also featured it in first place in a special Top-5 Indonesian hotels entry I wrote for the Experience Travel Group Blog
(external link – opens in new window).
- Sidoarjo 01 - you have to go by motorbike
- Sidoarjo 02 - past industrial wastelands
- Sidoarjo 03 - driving onto the big mud
- Sidoarjo 04 - as far as you can drive
- Sidoarjo 04 - parked motorbikes on the mud
- Sidoarjo 05 - the mud volcano
- Sidoarjo 07 - drain in the mud
- Sidoarjo 08 - mud, mud, mud
- Sidoarjo 09 - yours truly on wobbly muddy ground
- Sidoarjo 10 - bigger eruption
- Sidoarjo 11 - abandoned mosque in the distance
- Sidoarjo 12 - closer up
- Sidoarjo 13 - ghost town with adandoned mosque
- Sidoarjo 14 - walking through the ghost town
- Sidoarjo 15 - approaching the mosque
- Sidoarjo 16 - mosque front
- Sidoarjo 17 - inside the abandoned mosque
- Sidoarjo 18 - not actually completely abandoned
- Sidoarjo 19 - there is still a minbar that looks like it may be in use occasionally
- Sidoarjo 20 - upper floors
- Sidoarjo 21 - under the mosque dome
- Sidoarjo 22 - time stood still
- Sidoarjo 23 - flooded graveyard
- Sidoarjo 24 - unique monument back by the main road
- Sidoarjo 25 - holding up household items while standing in mud
- Sidoarjo 26 - male and female mud figures
- Sidoarjo 27 - empty-handed
- Sidoarjo 28 - that sinking feeling
- Sidoarjo 29 - memorial stones from last year and this year
- Sidoarjo 30 - lest we forget buried homes, false promises and neglect
- Sidoarjo 31 - mud art
- Sidoarjo 32 - deep mud
- Sidoarjo 33 - road and railway line next to the mud dyke
- Sidoarjo 34 - president elect bringing hope