Photo: Java’s very own Trojan Horse.

Introduction

Our rating:

Probolinggo, a historic port city on East Java’s north coast, gets a bad rap in most guidebooks with the traveller set (very undeservedly we think), billed as a place to avoid or quickly whizz past on your way to nearby Gunung Bromo barely stopping for a breath.



Our experience was far different, we found friendly folk, interesting sites, great food, some decent accommodation and ghosts! So, (as Public Enemy say) don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t believe the hype—we think the town has enough interest to warrant at least an extra day or two.

Colourful. Photo taken in or around Probolinggo, Indonesia by Sally Arnold.

Colourful. Photo: Sally Arnold

Located along the main northern coastal route between Surabaya and Banyuwangi, Probolinggo is around 100 kilometres from the former and 200 kilometres from the latter with the Madura Strait to the north and to the south, the spectacular (and highly touristed) Bromo-Tengger-Semeru National Park, the reason most travellers visit Probolinggo.

The fertile hinterland grows sugar and tobacco along with the more usual rice crops and several large sugar mills are major employers in the region. Every guide book we picked up mentions Probolinggo’s famously delicious mangoes, however we visited out of mango season, so can’t confirm if reports of this ambrosia are accurate. Besides tourists passing through on their way to Bromo, Probolinggo sees its fair share of cruise ships in the port.

The colonial master is still in residence ... in spirit at least. Photo taken in or around Probolinggo, Indonesia by Sally Arnold.

The colonial master is still in residence ... in spirit at least. Photo: Sally Arnold

Historically Probolinggo was in existence during Majapahit rule in the 14th century (although not necessarily with that appellation), bordering the eastern Blambangan Kingdom centred around Banyuwangi. In the early 15th century a civil war known as the Paregreg War between these factions led to the beginning of the decline of the Majahpahit Kingdom. There is little historical record of the later period post Majapahit when the Demak Sultanate to the west influenced the spread of Islam until when the Dutch VOC gained control of trade in the region the mid 18th century.

Later in that century, the Dutch installed Surabaya born, Chinese Peranakan sugar magnet Han Kik Ko as Regent in Probolinggo, later accusations of despotism led to an uprising in 1813 in which the Regent and British dignitaries he was entertaining were killed. Sir Stamford Raffles who was making headway into Java at the time took the opportunity to purchase the district from Han Kik Ko’s heirs, although they still retained their prominence in the region and their descendants remained active in the sugar industry.

A window into the past at Museum Dr. Mohamad Saleh. Photo taken in or around Probolinggo, Indonesia by Stuart McDonald.

A window into the past at Museum Dr. Mohamad Saleh. Photo: Stuart McDonald

Probolinggo’s major tourist attraction is the gob-stopping natural wonder Gunung Bromo 50 kilometres to the southwest, but the town itself has a few sights of its own to explore before moving on. Take the time to wander the streets and discover Probolinggo’s past at the Probolinggo Museum and the fascinating Museum Dr. Mohamad Saleh.

For folks interested in architecture, many terrific examples from the Dutch colonial period harbour all sorts of tales (some we were told would send a chill down your spine)—check out the corrugated iron “Red Church” built in 1862 and the historic blue-painted water tower. A Chinese temple, Klenteng Tridharma Sumbernaga, that has seen more than a century-and-a-half is worth a look, or you could pop into the traditional market.

A simple brief “walk around the block” takes in the Red Church and the two museums, along with a host of abandoned (read haunted) residences dating back to the Dutch period and if you’re just in town for a couple of hours, it is well worth doing. From the train station, walk through the park then south along Jalan Doktor Saleh all the way to Jalan Soekarno Hatta (the main drag) where you take a left for a block then head back north on Jalan Suroyo back to the park. The walk without stopping would along take thirty minutes, but you could easily spend half a day doing it.

The Red Church is in fact red. Photo taken in or around Probolinggo, Indonesia by Stuart McDonald.

The Red Church is in fact red. Photo: Stuart McDonald

The alun-alun—the town square—is a fascinating spot to observe day-to-day life. Here you’ll find kitsch public art including a swan fountain, pigeon houses and food carts. To the West of town near the turnoff to Jalan Raya Bromo, a pissing horse fountain is another classic piece of kitsch we are rather fond of.

Head down to the port area where to the west you’ll find the pelabuhan lama or old port and witness the riotous kaleidoscope of colours in the traditional fishing boats. It’s also possible to charter a boat to take you to Gili Ketapang, an island about 30 minutes off the coast where you can snorkel. We didn’t venture over, and reports are that a lot of rubbish pollutes both on the shore and in the water and the snorkelling itself isn’t that great. One account revealed that some tour operators have plastic bags full of clown fish that they release for underwater photos before capturing them again, oh dear. However apparently the village on the island is of some interest.

Explore the old port. Photo taken in or around Probolinggo, Indonesia by Sally Arnold.

Explore the old port. Photo: Sally Arnold

To the east of the old port, in the area around the new harbour you’ll find popular BeeJay Bakau Resort with a kids play park, mangrove boardwalks and a giant Trojan horse—yes you read that correctly. This is Probolinggo’s most popular local attraction, so beware the selfie sticks! It makes for some pretty sunset snaps, and you can climb into the bowels of the horse for a small fee (10,000 rupiah). It would make a terrific spot for a sundowner, however the one bar we found had run out of anything alcoholic when we visited. Entry fee to the resort is 20,000 rupiah weekdays and 40,000 rupiah weekends.

To Probolinggo’s east another locally popular activity is heading out in a boat to see whale sharks (locally called Hiu Tutul) that come to feed on the plankton usually between the months of December and March. We didn’t do this, but heard that visibility can be rather poor and we can’t report how disturbing this activity is to the animals. Boats leave from Pantai Bentar about nine kilometres east of the city centre. Boat tickets are available from a booth at the beach: Adults 15,000 rupiah and children 10,000 rupiah. The boats hold 20 passengers and leave when full.

No risk of forgetting where you are. Photo taken in or around Probolinggo, Indonesia by Sally Arnold.

No risk of forgetting where you are. Photo: Sally Arnold

When we visited midweek, we were the only punters, so weekends you’re more likely to join a group. The trip is quick and takes 20–40 minutes depending on how far out the sharks are. Lifejackets are provided, and high tides are best as boats can’t depart when the tide is very low. The boatmen will try to encourage you to charter a boat for 600,000–700,000 rupiah—they were not interested in us paying 20 times the going rate—300,000 rupiah that would in essence be what they make from a full boatload and insisted a charter offered a longer and better trip which will give you the opportunity to spend more time looking at the big fish. To check tides and a book charter: Pak Tulis T: (0823) 3759 3225 (no English, so translate message first and send an SMS).

Legacies of the mighty Majapahit Kingdom can be found in the Probolinggo region. History lovers will find Candi Jabung, a red brick 14th century temple of interest, and for folks with an extra day up your sleeve, Candi Kedaton and the surrounding lakes, waterfall and hot springs in Tiris region make a good day out. The Tourist Information Centre opposite the train station can help you out with maps and general info.

Don’t forget the horse. Photo taken in or around Probolinggo, Indonesia by Sally Arnold.

Don’t forget the horse. Photo: Sally Arnold

Probolinggo offers a few decent places to stay although don’t expect five star or even a swimming pool. Accommodation in the city centre is generally better value than near the bus station though convenience may win out if you’re just passing through. Food wise, as Probolinggo is a port you’ll have no trouble finding seafood, plus there’s a few local specialities to try too. A beer may be a little more challenging, but not impossible. Travelling to and from Probolinggo is easy, as it is on the train line that runs between Surabaya and Banyuwangi, and from the bus terminal comfortable buses connect all over Java.




Orientation
The main centre of Probolinggo covers around four square kilometres and is flat and easily walkable although the burbs spread much further. Online taxi company Go-Jek operates in Probolinggo and is the cheapest and easiest option for getting around.

The train station is to the north of the city, as is the port, and the bus terminal is to the west. Note that buses to Bromo leave from outside and to the south of the main bus terminal.

You’ll find ATMs all over town, with many along Jalan Suroyo that runs south from the alun-alun and also on Jalan Panglima Sudirman, the main highway that runs west to Surabaya and east to Banyuwangi (changing its name several times).

The post office is south of the alun-alun on Jalan Suroyo and RSUD Dr. Mohamad Saleh, the main public hospital, a couple of blocks west of the alun-alun.

RSUD Dr. Mohamad Saleh: 65 Jalan Mayjend Panjaitan, Probolinggo; T: (0335) 433 119; http://rsud.probolinggokota.go.id/
Tourist Information Centre: Jalan KH. Mansyur, Probolinggo; T: (0335) 432 420; [email protected]; Open Mo–Su: 08:00–16:00

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