Surveying the impressive array of traditional coffee-making equipment lining the shelves of Kopi Taji Lereng Bromo – from a manual espresso machine to a French press – it’s easy to imagine you’re at a retro hipster joint in Sydney or Singapore. Instead, this tiny café sits at an elevation of 1,185m in Taji, a village about 27km east of the city of Malang. This sleepy hamlet is perhaps best known for its coffee cultivation, contributing to Malang’s status as the second-biggest coffee producer in East Java.
Set within a thatched bamboo hut atop a gentle slope, Kopi Taji is surrounded by cascading swathes of green spread out in a resplendent panorama. A light breeze caresses my skin as I breathe in the fresh mountain air, and the distant sounds of birdsong lift my spirit. Time has gone to sleep here; I’ve stepped into an unhurried pace of life where one wakes up and smells the coffee – quite literally.
“Our village is best known for our Arabica beans,” barista and owner Sukron Mahmudi says as he prepares a cup using a HARIO V60 dripper. “Most of our beans are sold to cafés in Malang but I started this place as I wanted to try my hand at running my own business.” The 23-year-old picked up his skills two years ago from a friend who worked in a café in the city.
“Here, try.” The solemn-faced Sukron pushes a fresh brew towards me, aromas of caramel and almonds rising from the cup. As I take my first sip, its floral notes refresh my palate. Sukron and his father, Kambang, share more about their village. Home to just 1,450 people, the community in Taji owns 50 hectares of coffee plantations and is slowly opening up to welcome more visitors.
“Last year, we had a group of 24 international students on a university exchange visit our village to learn more about local agriculture and our way of life,” 50-year-old Kambang shares, his wizened face crinkling into a smile. Together with Malang tourism authorities, the village is now working on establishing a homestay programme for those who have an interest in the slow life.
This initiative is led by the local grassroots pokdarwis (an Indonesian portmanteau for “tourism awareness group”). Members of the group work together with the tourism board to build local skills and infrastructure, including getting certified as guides or homestay hosts. To date, Malang regency has 118 such tourism awareness groups and the local Office of Tourism and Culture hopes to take that number up to 200 by the end of this year.
Until recently, Malang used to be just a “pit- stop town” for travellers on their way to Mount Bromo or the Ijen Crater. However, with more villages introducing community homestays, it has become a destination in its own right. And with the recent opening of a new toll road linking Malang with East Java’s capital city of Surabaya, halving travel time to just two hours, access to the region is now even easier.
While the villagers of Taji find their footing in the growing tourism industry, they can look to another rural village – located about 1.5 hours away by car – as a template. Ngadas, which draws its name from the adas flower (fennel) that grows rampant around the village, has been running homestays since 2012 and today offers about 37 options for visitors, the majority of whom are passing through on their way to Mount Bromo. Perched 2,150m above sea level, Ngadas is the highest village in Malang regency. Sometimes referred to as “the village in the clouds”, it’s often shrouded in mist and from a distance seems to be floating in the air.
The village, which was first established in 1774, continues to adhere to a more traditional pace of life even as paved roads have led to a greater influx of visitors. Here, neighbours call out to each other while going about their days, slowing down to chat with friends. Children play in the tiny lanes connecting their homes, among free-roaming chickens scratching at the ground. In June this year, Ngadas was once again nominated at the annual Anugerah Pesona Indonesia (also known as the Indonesian Charm Awards), which honours the best of tourism in Indonesia.
Located within the Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park, Ngadas sprawls across 370 hectares of dwellings and farms growing crops such as potatoes, cabbage and corn. Visitors to the village are invited to go on treks in the surrounding foothills and help out with simple farming activities. Standing at the top of the village, I survey undulating green hills as they unfurl into the horizon, and golden shafts of morning light pierce this emerald sea. In the distance, Mount Semeru – one of Indonesia’s most active volcanoes – puffs out a cloud of smoke. There is a nip in the air, but the beauty of the surroundings is a warming distraction.
Sujak, an affable 64-year-old farmer who has lived in Ngadas for more than half his life and is the head of the local pokdarwis, says it’s the close-knit community that has kept him here all these years. “We have three main religious groups living here – the Buddhists, Muslims and Hindus,” the mild-mannered Sujak explains. “Everybody gets along well, and we take part in each other’s traditional ceremonies.”
One such ceremony is Hari Raya Karo, which takes place in the second month of the Javanese Saka calendar, usually around October or November. This festival is similar to the Chinese tradition of Qingming or the Day of the Dead in Mexico, and honours the Tengger community’s ancestors. Over 15 days, shamans preside over rituals that include petren (prayers), sesanti (blessing) and sadranan (prayers and meals at the cemetery).
But it’s not just in the villages where this sense of community, history and culture lingers. It’s alive and well in the city of Malang, too. Just a 10-minute walk from the alun-alun, or the city centre, you’ll find the distinct neighbourhood of Kajoetangan Heritage Village, which dates back to about 150 years ago – when Malang was still a Dutch colonial outpost – and still retains many of the buildings from that period. As I enter its leafy and narrow lanes, the noise from the main thoroughfare disappears immediately, and the air feels markedly cooler.
“Standing at the top of the village, I survey undulating green hills… and golden shafts of morning light pierce this emerald sea”
The village’s squat double-storey structures are home to 750 families but also house several shops that sell jamu (traditional Indonesian herbal concoctions) and boutiques hawking batik apparel. Miniature European-style lamp-posts line some of the small lanes, adding to the quaint appeal. There are well-placed signs and maps – although they are mostly in Bahasa Indonesia – around the neighbourhood, allow- ing tourists to navigate their way around easily. A popular stop for many is the local wet market, which used to cater solely to the villagers, but now draws curious visitors.
Sitting on a chair outside her modest home, 55-year-old Astufa starts up a conversation with me. The smiley homemaker has dwelt here since she got married at the age of 20. “What I like best about living here is the people,” she says. “Everyone is very cooperative and down-to-earth.”
This sense of warmth is not just reserved for neighbours either. The residents seem serene and unperturbed at the sight of selfie-snappers in the streets outside their homes. In an April 2019 interview with the Indonesian publication Republika, a Kajoetangan resident said that the local economy has been boosted ever since they opened up the village to tourism four years ago – each visitor pays about IDR5,000 or S$0.48 to enter the village – and in the near future, they hope to receive more support from the government in developing their hospitality skills.
As I make my way out of Kajoetangan, I can’t help but think of the tiny coffee shop in Taji village. I’m struck by how the city and the villages share similar warm vibes, a genuine spirit of hospitality that binds the people of this regency and makes Malang so special.