We were excited to be leaving Makassar and to arrive on Pulau Ambon (Ambon Island). This marked our arrival in the Maluku Islands and what we hoped was an escape from the noisy, busy towns that we had experienced so far. We didn’t know how long we would stay in Ambon as our plans from this point forward would be made up as we went, depending on local transport schedules and options between the different islands in the group.
The first step was to check out some accommodation. We had a place in mind in the main town of Ambon (Kota Ambon) so headed for there – Penginapan The Royal. The first two rooms that we saw were clean and simple – but windowless, which not only can be a bit depressing, but also means that there is a lack of fresh air moving through the rooms. Their solution is to jus heavily spray the room with air freshener as you walk in. Luckily for us, they had a handful of rooms at either end of the building so we ‘upgraded’ accordingly. It was a room fit for royalty! Maybe. If they weren’t too fussy.
Our time in Ambon ended up being fairly brief as there was a flight to Banda leaving in two days time. Flights to the Banda islands are hit and miss. They go about 2-3 times a week. Maybe. If the weather is good, if there are enough people and if the travel gods are on your side.
What was the best thing about Ambon? Surprisingly – the food! But more on that in a minute.
Ambon town was fairly grubby with many buildings in various stages of disrepair and in need of a good waterblasting. The Indonesian Independence Day was just a few days away and some people were sprucing their places up a bit for the occasion. This means slapping a new coat of paint on top of the old. Without scrubbing off the thick black mould first. It’s representative of something that we see a lot – fix something today for the short term, but don’t consider the longer term consequences. This is especially apparent with anything electrical! Just string up a wire – and don’t think about the fact that if it was installed correctly it might last a lot longer.
A foodie heaven
When travelling through Flores and Lombok a few years ago, I was underwhelmed by the food options. It was all perfectly edible – but limited in terms of options: fried rice and fried noodles was our staple. I expected something similar here in the Malukus but we have been blown away by the variety of new flavours, the incredibly tasty food and the quality of the fresh fish.
The Malukus are also known as the Spice Islands – and nutmeg, mace, cloves and cinnamon are a major export product and used in many of the local dishes. I am in spice heaven! There is also a tropical almond grown here called the kenari nut which looks a bit like an oversized almond but it’s a softer, oilier nut. It reminds me of pinenuts in terms of flavour and texture. You can eat them as nuts, you can find them made into a kind of nut bar (mixed with palm sugar) and best of all, they are turned into a creamy, nutty sauce and poured over grilled eggplant, fish, etc. It’s devine – and I will get the recipe for before I leave!
So on arrival in Ambon, we headed out somewhere for lunch. We stumbled across a small local restaurant called Rumah Beta. They had a variety of dished already pre-made and set out on a counter in bamboo baskets. You pick which items you want and pay by the dish. We were sticking to the mainly vegetable dishes and had planned to bypass the small grilled fish. That was, until a policeman who was also dining here said, with a look of horror on his face: ‘No fish?’. I think we were about to commit the ultimate sin. So, we slapped a small fish on the plate, too. And wow – it was so tasty. It was a whole grilled fish topped with a salsa-type mixture of tomato, garlic, coriander, etc. The fish flesh just fell from the bones so there was no need to filter the bones with your teeth (a process that I loathe!).
We enjoyed a variety of really tasty salads made with banana flowers, papaya flowers, sprouts, grated green papaya – and other combination of flavours. Cassava is a staple here in the Malukus rather than rice which makes for an interesting change. This meal was so good that we naturally had to go back for more the next day.
Next door to Rumah Beta is a coffee house and it quickly became a favourite. This was a funky kind of place playing local Malukan music, and the walls were covered with photos of local celebrities from the Ambon area. I reckoned one looked like an Indonesian version of Billy T James! Aside from the fact that this place offered free WiFi – they had some really interesting coffee and tea options. The most unusual one had a strong ginger flavour, and was seasoned with cinnamon and nutmeg, and had slivers of the kenari nut floating on top. Add a dollop of condensed milk and you’ve got the tastiest coffee in all of Maluku!
OK, so you’ve probably noticed that most of this post is focussed on food. For me that was the highlight of Ambon – and it was so unexpected. The town itself didn’t do much for me, and had we more days there, we would have explored the wider area and no doubt we would have gotten a better appreciation for the overall island. And who knows, with local transport being what it is, there is a good chance that we will end up back here before moving on to the Northern region.
Next stop: Banda Islands
See below for some travel tips specific to Ambon.
Lisa’s Travel Tips:
Accommodation: We stayed at the Penginapan The Royal on Jl Anthony Rhebok in Kota Ambon. It wasn’t so ‘royal’, but it was clean and comfortable – just a bit noisy with people coming and going. Costs were 200,000/175,000 for double/twin rooms with no window or 200,000 for a twin with a window. This included breakfast but it was very simple fare (as seen in one of the photos), delivered to your room. Good strong hot water showers, air con and small TV.
Eating: Sibu-Sibu on Jalan Said Perintah is a great place for some interesting and tasty coffees, teas and cakes, and to chat to locals who have popped in for a cuppa. I highly recommend the ginger spiced coffee – even better is the milk version, with a dollop of condensed milk at the bottom. They also offered free use of their WiFi.
Next door to Sibu-Sibu is Rumah Beta – also highly recommended for trying excellent local food. The have a range of dishes including cassava or rice cooked in coconut milk, papaya flower salad, banana flower salad, various fish dishes – every dish was so tasty. You pick from a ‘buffet ‘and pay by the dish. Reasonably priced, good quality, friendly staff and some of the best tasting food around. Go for lunch rather than dinner when the food is fresh.
To/from Airport: Whilst there are public transport options available, we took the easy option of getting a taxi from the airport to Kota Ambon. We paid 150,000rp after a half-hearted attempt of bargaining. The taxis back to the airport from Kota Ambon were going for 200,000rp but we negotiated one to 175,000rp.