For Malaysians in search of something adventurous and yet vaguely familiar, Ambon is a unique and fascinating destination.
FOR Malaysians who are bored of Bandung, Bali and Jogjakarta, the tukang cerita has a new destination – somewhere unexpected, a little raw and full of surprises: Ambon Manise (or Ambon The Sweet), the eastern Indonesian city deep in the heart of the Banda Sea and a gateway to a host of other islands: Kei, Tanimbar, Halmahera and Seram, to name a few.
For much of the past 16 or so years since Suharto’s fall in 1998, Ambon has been wracked by inter-religious violence and strife.
For this historic, and at times raucous, city of well over 300,000 (with a 60:40 Christian/Muslim demographic balance), the path to democracy and stability has been fraught and bloody but the city has now achieved a measure of peace.
Now it’s being shaken up by a wave of investment as shopping malls, hotels and housing developments sweep through its narrow and crowded streets.
I was in Ambon last week, conducting interviews and getting a sense of the place and its recent history.
While not a tourist, I spent quite a lot of time seeing the sights in between listening to the stories from both sides of the religious divide – a chasm so deep and bitter in the 1999-2002 period that much of the city was actually physically separated with duplicate set of facilities – both governmental and private sector: one serving the Christians and another the Muslims.
But Ambon, with a history stretching back well over five hundred years – with the first European incursions dating to the early 1500’s – has always been a heavily-contested part of the world.
It was a hub back then, with the clove-producing sultanates of Ternate and Tidore to the north and the nutmeg and mace-rich Banda’s to the south. Ambon was a crucial, globally-important commercial centre, all the more so when the Dutch supplanted the Portuguese in the early 1600’s.
Control over the precious spice trade led to many incidences of horrific brutality and viciousness as the Europeans (by this stage the English were also key players) jostled for supremacy along with local elites.
Amongst the most notorious was the Amboyna Massacre of 1623 when Dutch authorities seized their English competitors, accused them of treason and executed them, setting in place a series of events that was to lead to the transfer of New Amsterdam (later renamed New York) to the English in 1667.
The Ambon of 2013 reflects these events, as well as the more recent communal strife which has happily been overcome through a process of ground-up democracy and social activism as well as heavy policing.
While some Western embassies warn against visiting the city, any sensible and sensitive traveller should find it an easy enough destination to manage.
The Penang-based hotelier, Rebecca Wilkinson, who runs a full-service, luxury yacht in Indonesia called Tiger Blue uses Ambon as a staging point for the boat’s 22-hour journey to the historic Banda Islands.
As she says: “Ambon’s location is reminiscent of Rio de Janeiro or Sydney. It’s quite magnificent, especially at night with all the lights twinkling in the hills above the city.”
For my part, I spent a couple of hours walking through the town’s markets. While I couldn’t bring myself to eat sago as a savoury dish at lunch, I was very intrigued by the mounds of creamy-white, tennis-ball shaped, uncooked sago waiting to be bought and prepared.
There was also an abundance of papaya flowers and unusual-looking, snout-faced fish.
Ambon’s market-goers are themselves a source of fascination, reminding me of the Republic’s vast geographical scale and demographic diversity.
This city is not Bukittinggi or even Semarang. Instead, Ambon is redolent of Polynesia: faces are darker, features are more pronounced and the hair is curlier.
Indeed, standing by the waterfront, you can watch as travellers arrive from towns such as Sorong and Manokwari on the westernmost, bird’s head-shaped end of Papua to Suharto’s prison-island of Buru (where the writer, Pramoedya Ananta Toer, served out his exile) and elsewhere.
There’s a lively coffee-shop culture with cafes like Sibu-Sibu and Joas along Jalan Said Perintah in the centre of town. Amboinese, I’m happy to say, enjoy sitting and watching the world pass by, while sipping kopi rarobang made with ginger, nutmeg and other spices and munching on their own crunchier version of pisang goreng.
I should add that there’s a quaint museum, with two enormous whale skeletons and a beautiful, extraordinarily tranquil and moving WW2-era cemetery overlooking the harbour, anchored by two gigantic, epiphyte-covered rain trees.
So for Malaysians who are in search of something adventurous and yet vaguely familiar, Ambon (along with its melange of Portuguese and Dutch colonial history and cultural influences) presents a unique and yet fascinating destination.
It’s somewhere that’s particularly resonant for us, from the far western end of the archipelago.