Trainspotters and Thomas the Tank Engine fans will get a buzz out of the Indonesian Railway Museum in Ambarawa, about 40 kilometres south of Semarang.
Even if you fall into neither of those categories, it’s worth an add-on when you visit nearby Candi Gedong Songo. On Sundays the appeal is increased tenfold, as you'll have the opportunity to ride a historic train in original wooden carriages pulled by an antique diesel engine.
Ambarawa, a mountainous agricultural and former military town was the site of Koninklijk Nederlands Indisch Leger’s (Royal Netherlands East Indies Army) Fort Willem I, statically built between Semarang and Yogyakarta, and connected by rail to both. During the Japanese occupation in WWII the fort was converted into an interment camp. Ambarawa Railway station, formerly named Willem I, is no longer operational for regular services, however it now houses an engaging, well presented collection of steam locomotives, railway memorabilia and history of Indonesia’s railway system.
The museum displays over twenty restored German, Swiss, British and Dutch steam locomotives along with some wooden box carriages parked on tracks and sheltered from the elements. It’s possible to climb inside to inspect the workings and (of course) pose for selfies. For train buffs, information includes history and technical data in both English and Indonesian. The Willem I station building houses the ticket office for the Sunday tourist train, along with displays of railway paraphernalia including ticket printers and manual signalling equipment. A collection of heritage teak station counters are arranged further along the platform.
Of note, Willem I station was a transfer point between the line from Yogyakarta to the south, and Kedungjati to the northeast as track gauge on these two lines differed. One of the more interesting items (for nerdy engineer types) on display is the workings of the pinion steam locomotive. The section of track between Ambarawa and Bedono, is extremely steep and required a central cog system to pull the train up the embankment. Folks who opt for the steam train ride may be able to see this in operation, one of a very few similar steam cog systems left in the world.
A tourist train ride to Tuntang station operates three trips on Sundays and national holidays and runs along approximately six kilometres of track alongside the picturesque Danau Rawa Pening. Trips generally operate at 10:00, 12:00 and 14:00, but times occasionally change. Tickets cost 50,000 rupiah and are only available on a first come, first served basis on the day from the ticket booth which opens at 08:00. A maximum of four tickets are sold per person. It’s a popular trip, so if you’re keen, arrive early. The Tourist Information Centre in Semarang “secured” us a place for an additional 25,000 rupiah, but we could have easily just turned up.
The trip is a delight and lasts about one hour. The wooden third-class carriages were first operational in 1909 on the cog railway line, but are today pulled by diesel engine D30124. Narrow, hard wooden double benches face each other on either side of the carriage, comfortable enough for the short journey. Choose a seat on the righthand side for the best views out the open windows or convince other passengers to swap places for the return journey, as the carriages don’t turn around at Tuntang, instead the engine moves to the opposite end of the train.
The cost to hire the steam train starts at 10,000,000 rupiah for one carriage with a capacity of 40 passages. Add 2,500,000 rupiah each for additional carriage (up to three). The diesel locomotive can also be hired for private trips at a lower cost. Combine with a trip to nearby Candi Gedong Songo, one of Central Java’s oldest antiquities.
Between the two, Kampoeng Kopi Banaran is a decent, reasonably priced place to stop for lunch, although busy with local tourists, service is brisk. If you have time, you can tour the plantation here too. In Semarang visit Lawang Sewu, a former administrative building for the Dutch East Indies Railway Company, now an excellent museum.
Buses run between Terboyo Terminal in Semarang and Ambarawa (15,000 rupiah, 1.5 hours). Alternatively hire a car and driver for the day to visit nearby sights for around 600,000 rupiah. Tours are pricier and include an English speaking guide, however check that guides have knowledge of the places you intend visiting, not just that they can speak English.
Address: 40 kilometres south of Semarang
Coordinates (for GPS): 110º24'16.82" E, 7º15'52.33" S
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Admission: 10,000 rupiah for adults and 5,000 rupiah for kids
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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