Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Tea in Indonesia; one vacation's worth of experiences

Time to shift to travel-blog mode; I just spent a long week in Indonesia.  Tea was a part of it.  I visited a plantation there, and bought 8 or 9 versions of teas over the week.  Only one type and two products, white teas, versions of silver needle, seemed to be sold as higher end "specialty tea," but I've not tried any of it, so we'll see how it shakes out.  This post is about what I saw and did, so I'll check back in with the more standard reviews.

Nusa Dua beach in Bali; nice enough

Indonesia:  background

Mt. Bromo, Java, doing what volcanoes do

girl scout / unofficial translator in Yogjakarta

Indonesia is awesome.  We saw ancient temples, beaches, and volcanoes, two active ones.  All that spanned two islands, Java and Bali.  It was interesting to change environment and cultures so much within one country like that.  For example, Islam is the main religion in Java, but Hinduism is in Bali.  Bali is really developed for tourism but Java is so quiet and at the opposite extreme that cheerful little kids say hello just to practice their English.

I really won't do justice to all that we experienced but I should mention that the people were great, one of the best parts.  Taxi drivers and tour salesman looking for business in Kuta were an exception--that could get old--but in general it was wonderful that nearly everyone was so genuine and kind.  I live in Thailand (Bangkok), so I'm used to a very friendly culture here, but the people seemed just a little warmer and more sincere.  I've ran across really helpful people throughout Asia, even where cultural stereotyping runs in the opposite direction, so to me people are generally decent everywhere, it's more about how most come across.

It made for an odd contrast hearing news about people being suspicious of Muslims in general (and of course that related terrorism is a real thing), when I was talking to people on an hourly basis that were so consistently some of the nicest people I've ever met.

One person commented online that they might seem one way on the surface and be too repressed to show their real internal conflict over societal pressures.  I'll just add my opinion on that:  no, they're all good, a lot less conflicted and wound up than the American stereotypical persona goes.  Americans are fine too, by the way, you've just got to get used to a wide range of how they express themselves, and the odd idea mixed in, but being one it seems normal to me, most of it.

maybe this guy should do another kind of work

One guy we met wasn't very nice.  One Hindu temple on Bali ran a light version of a tour-guide scam, where they required a "guide" go with you to describe restrictions.  We visited a lot of temples there; only that one did that (Pura Besakih; their main temple complex, so odd it worked out like that).  He was the only person that wasn't pleasant or helpful; odd he was working in the role of guide then.

As they say, the exception proves the rule.  Traveling for a week in any country and running across only one person that's not nice is not bad.  Taxi pricing varied a lot, which people might take different ways, but that's just routine for SE Asian travel, and easy to work around.

Tampak Siring Holy Spring Water Temple, Bali

In general the feel of the places we went was also great, incredible sights and natural phenomena, temples with an amazing vibe, each so different from the last.  That wasn't as pronounced in the more urban or crowded places but even those were nice.

But I'm getting way off the subject of tea.

they really do this, carry things around that way

Online research

In the past I've done extensive online research prior to some trips, to try and pin down where I'd run across tea, shops and such.  This time I didn't.  But I still wanted to mention how one might go about that, and what worked or didn't work in this case, from the limited research I did do.

Steepster shop listings, Adagio Tea Map:  only "tea people / enthusiasts" would be familiar with these website references, which would list out lots of options for countries like the US or UK.  For Asian countries they're not really helpful.  One might still check, but they're not likely to add much.

Google / Google Maps:  lots more to go on through Google, and with Maps the great part is letting you know how close places are to where you are standing.  The problem:  not everything gets listed, because small companies aren't necessarily caught up on internet marketing, or at least aren't in English, so only a search in the native language might find them.  The plantation I visited outside Malang, Java did turn up on Maps; the franchise-chain shop in a high-end mall in Kuta, Bali did not.  Or I think it is actually a dot on this map, but the normal extra clicks identifying if they carry more than bubble-tea didn't work out, and Google had their hours completely wrong.

Online networking:  interesting, and potentially helpful, if one has the time for such things.  This approach did turn up the only tea shop that sold me tea, talking about what I was looking for in a Facebook group related to Indonesia.  I tried the same on an expat forum group related to Indonesia, in this discussion, and some comments seemed promising, but nothing worked out there.  If you can ask a tea blogger living in a foreign country what to look for there that can short-cut a lot of all that, but it didn't work to find one in this case.

Ijen volcano, East Java.  miners gather sulfur, but those are tourists (it was a national holiday that day)

Visiting a tea plantation in Java (Wonosari, outside Malang)

My first visit to a tea plantation!  Oddly it's the second time I've visited where tea was being grown, and that first time I talked to the farmer and bought tea, and walked around coffee and tea plants.  That was in Laos, in the Bolaven plateau, but that was more a small farm than a plantation.  The country I live in now, Thailand, produces tea, and I may have seen it in passing in the Chiang Rai area on earlier visits, but I wasn't really into tea back then, there last maybe six years ago.

Bromo again; cool!

The write-up about the plantation is going to seem a bit thin, because the visit was short due to not sleeping the night before, related to visiting a volcano starting at 1 AM.  Mt. Bromo was about to erupt (more on that here).  It was putting out lots of smoke and ash, and recent earthquakes had caused the national park to close the mountain, so we saw it from the next mountain over, Penanjakan.

That was probably from a safe distance, but then it seems that about once a decade a volcano does something really unpredictable in Indonesia and people die that had really seemed safe, so I'm happy to have not been one of them.  A guide told us there are currently 19 active volcanoes on Java, and in researching earthquake activity there were more than 500 in the Indonesian region in the past year, so it's just what they live with.  

A recent earthquake summary as of now:

35 earthquakes in the past 7 days
80 earthquakes in the past month
594 earthquakes in the past year

from November; nothing to worry about, most are underwater, and somehow tsunami's are still rare


The Wonosari plantation is just a bit under an hour's drive north of Malang.  It's really not that far away, but traffic is a bit much in that area, especially for it being so rural.  Upon entering we saw rows of well-tended plants, surrounded by some type of local tree (not sure what the point of that was), along with people harvesting some of the tea.  

I really should be able to fill in details about the role of those trees, or harvest timing or processing, or how they make the teas, and so on, but can't.  We essentially didn't sleep the night before, and it was around lunch time, so picking up some tea and moving on seemed enough.  If my wife were a lot more into tea, or at least drank it, I'd have probably drank a liter of tea and went on with a tour, but she doesn't and I didn't.

Wonosari plantation:  idyllic

I bought a black, green, and white (silver needle type), but it was a busy week and I didn't set aside an extra half hour to do a tasting.  The more relaxed and quiet I am the more I seem to pick up from a tea, so ran-ragged on a busy vacation schedule my impression might have been limited anyway.  

They also produced and sold a few types of tea-bag tea there, which I didn't buy.  If I run across more details prior to writing about the tea I'll add it in another post.  I might mention it was set up like a very informal resort and residence area, nothing like the horrors one keeps hearing about Indian tea plantations lately--and looked like the kind of place I'd want to live in.  That general travel reference site I mentioned--the plantation itself doesn't have a website--said:

Facilities: swimming pool, cottages, jogging tracks area, camping grounds, and many other.

an easy choice

It might sound like I stopped drinking tea for a week on the trip but it wasn't like that, although I did cut back.  Once in awhile I would make tea I'd brought with me at the hotel, I was just a bit busy to do that daily.  They served tea with breakfasts at the hotels, just nothing really interesting.  

At the Prambanan temple near Yogjakarta we waited out a short rain shower at an entry room where they served a surprisingly good jasmine black tea, probably with potential to be even nicer with more careful brewing, but that was an exception.  Indonesians drink and produce and tea (#6 on this list by production amount, ahead of both Vietnam and Japan per this reference), but coffee is more prevalent.

Tea shop in Kuta, Bali (Rollas, in Beachwalk mall)

Rollas tea and coffee shop, chain-store

The other place I bought tea was in Rollas tea shop in Kuta, Bali, with main company website here.  Kuta is a resort area that's sort of an urban hell as Bali resort areas go, like Waikiki, Honolulu, but with a bit less charm.  Plenty of build-up, right?  

I couldn't find any mention of anyone growing tea in Bali; they do coffee, and this tea supposedly comes from Eastern Java, possibly from the same plantation I visited (Wonosari).  I recall reading a reference that said otherwise, but I'll get back with more research on that.


open-air, familiar from Hawaii

I've not tried that tea either, yet, so what else to say.  A coffee lover could find 1000 versions of coffee in Bali but at best one would find tea from the next island over, the one we'd just come from.  Of course there are always exceptions, just not easy to turn those up there.

Any normal tea-lover would have just bought some tea and also stopped for a cup, given the nice cafe atmosphere.  That mall, Beachwalk, reminded me of one in Honolulu, Ala Moana.  I was busy though, torn between swimming and Christmas shopping, and mall environments are a little too familiar from living in Bangkok, so I didn't do that.

Commercial tea

tea in a Malang grocery store

Grocery store tea, written up in a blog post, WTH?  After I try what I bought I'll have more opinion if this is the rare exception where that sourcing really does work, or if this is more low-grade tea-leaf abomination.  I bought a commercial tea in Cambodia nearly three years ago that was quite reasonable, and cost next to nothing, but I've had more bad experiences with that sort of tea than good ones since.  

It's a gamble.  Being an optimist I'm hopeful.  This also relates to how one appreciates novelty in teas, or teas across a range of types and quality levels.  If someone spends thousands of dollars a year on the best teas sourced from the best producers around the world chances are slim that a grocery store tea from anywhere is going to cut it.  If someone is so open they can actually appreciate tea-bag teas of different types then this would probably work out, maybe just not for every example I bought.  I tend to save the tea-bag teas for emergencies.  I brewed one tea bag in a hotel there, with the results being what you'd expect.

surfing Lego Santa, Bali

For reference about the pricing of teas in this earlier picture currently one US dollar exchanges for about 13,800 rupiah, so that tea is nearly free. 

Value for those teas I bought is good, but of course that relates to not just cost but actually liking the tea, so maybe too early to say that.  The three teas I bought small amounts of cost around $2, as I recall.  For all of it.  If I knew anyone that really loved teas as I do where I live I'd have splurged for the extra $2 and included them in the gamble, but I'm sort of on my own with the tea thing here.  

cool statue, wearing a sarong


The trip wasn't about tea, but then I suppose that was already clear enough.  Looking through those pictures there are 100 others that stand out as a good representation of great aspects of Indonesia.  As amazing as the temples, volcanoes, and beaches were the people were just as great.  

As far as recommendations for visiting, it might have been better to start in Bali, and not spend much time in Kuta (the urban resort area), then go to Java after.  I wasn't concerned or even curious about what a Muslim-based culture would be like since we've been to Malaysia a couple times, and the answer may not be what you'd expect:  just like anywhere else.  Women tend to wear head covers (hijab; more on what that is here), beer isn't sold in as many places; otherwise no different, aside from how places naturally vary.

One nice girl we sat by on the train in Eastern Java decided for herself not to wear a hijab two years prior, even though she is Muslim.  No need to extrapolate much from that, except to say that pre-conceptions about their culture and religious observations may not hold up.

As for doing more with tea there, it depends on what you are into.  We could have skipped all those other sights and headed straight for plantations, but it would seem odd to miss so many once-in-a-lifetime sights to focus in on tea.  But then I live in Thailand now, so it's kind of local, and I can just go back.


  1. Just found your blog via tea-masters blog. Liking all the posts I've read so far! I also visited Bali around a year ago, didn't find much in the way of tea but the country was beautiful.

  2. Thanks much for the positive feedback. There didn't seem to be that much tea around in Bali, certainly no mention of anyone growing any. Java and Sumatra seem to be better places to visit related to that, but of course Bali was amazing for lots of other aspects. There's lots about teas from lots of other countries in posts here but if there's anything I could help talk about more directly let me know. I live in Thailand but I get out a bit. Of course now tea from everywhere goes everywhere, via online and by mail, with a few isolated exceptions.

  3. I think this post will be a fine read for my blog readers too, could you please allow me to post a link to my blog. I am sure my guests will find that very useful.
    World Tea Directory