Sunday, 14 October 2012

The Amazing Race 21, Episode 3

Surabaya (Indonesia) - Bangil (Indonesia)

Smartphones for international travel: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

2022 update: Part 1 | Part 2

Digital maps for international travel

Surabaya is one of those cities that is both large, diverse, and of significant national importance and centrality in a large country, yet a destination for very few international (or in the case of Surabaya even domestic) tourists. As such, it’s an important reminder that one can get “off the beaten path” of tourism even in a big city.

Some international tourists pass through Surabaya of necessity, since it’s a domestic Indonesian transportation hub, especially for inter-island ferries. But as the second most populous city in the next most populous country after the USA, with about five million people in the metropolitan area, it’s big enough for foreigners not to notice each other among the locals. You’re far more likely to bump into other tourists in a small village that’s well known as a tourist spot.

In fifteen years selling airline tickets around the world, I had only one client who included Surabaya on their “wish list”: a birdwatcher whose reason for going to Indonesia was the aviary at its renowned zoo. For what it’s worth, they said it was worth the journey.

Guidebooks generally have little to say about Surabaya, and most of what they do say focuses on transit facilities and routes out of town.

Bill Dalton’s classic Moon Handbooks Indonesia says of Surabaya, “Its melodious name belies the true nature of this city — a hot, dirty, and noisy industrial hub…. Travelers use Surabaya as a stopover on their way east to Bali or west to Yogyakarta or Jakarta, or as a place to hang around waiting for a ship or plane.”

Carl Parkes concurs in his Moon Handbooks Southeast Asia, adding that, “With a reputation hardly better than Jakarta’s, few travelers spend more than a single night in the city.” But Parkes acknowledges another side of the story: “Surabaya, however, is the last traditional Indonesian city in the archipelago, the final place to see old Dutch architecture on a large scale, timeless neighborhoods little changed from the 1930s, and Islamic enclaves where men in fez-like caps gather around minaret-topped mosques. This city exudes an extraordinarily strong atmosphere.” In a similar vein, the collective voice of the Lonely Planet authors and editors, while characterizing Surabaya as “a hot and dusty, crowded city with precious little to see,” also notes that, “People who do find Surabaya interesting, and to be fair quite a few people do, generally enjoy the real Indonesian atmosphere of the place.”

If there’s a lesson here, it’s not just that you might enjoy the places guidebooks pan or pass over lightly (and perhaps enjoy them for the same reasons that the guidebooks dismiss them), but that the most “typical” or “characteristic” places in a country or region are almost never the places that are well known to tourists. By definition, a heavily-touristed place is a place full of tourists, and typical — to a degree commensurate with its popularity with tourists — of transnational tourist culture rather than the culture of its own environs. When an anthropologist wants to observe the typicalities of a country, they seek out a completely nondescript town, a secondary city, or a no-account neighborhood most foreigners have never heard of — places like the city of Surabaya and the outlying town of Bangil, where The Amazing Race 21 went in this episode.

It’s easy to find tourist maps (although not necessarily good ones) for a tourist hotspot. But with few tourists, there’s little demand to drive production of good tourist maps for a place like Surabaya. Tourists in a place like this depend on whatever maps are produced and available locally, or whatever they bring with them (in print or digital form) or can find and access online.

Periplus, an international English-language publisher and distributor based in Singapore and Hong Kong, used to produce a tourist map of Surabaya. Periplus maps are typically among the best available for the places they cover, but their tourist map of Surabaya hasn’t been updated since 2005, and has been removed from their most recent catalog — probably because there weren’t enough tourists buying it to make it profitable to keep it up-to-date. Periplus has outlets at the airport in Surabaya (in the departure area, for Indonesians going abroad, not in the arrivals area for the nonexistent arriving foreign tourists), and in two malls in upscale outlying residential areas of the city. They might still have some stock of the Periplus Surabaya tourist map, or you might be able to get a copy in advance from one of their distributors in the USA or elsewhere who still has some stock on hand. Or maybe not.

Surabaya does have a tourism promotion board, and it even has a tourist map (of sorts) on its Web site, but I wouldn’t want to have to rely on it:

Here’s as much as the buggy Flash interface will show at one time of the area around the racers’ destination, Gubeng train station, full size at maximum zoom:

Since this site is probably hosted in Surabaya, the slowness with which it loads from the USA should be an indication of just how slow international Internet connections between the USA and Indonesia are, and just how slowly sites hosted in the USA will load when you’re in Indonesia.

The information about tourist attractions starts with a description of Surabaya’s shopping malls, followed by a section on Surabaya as a venue for meetings, incentive travel, conferences and expositions (“MICE”). I suspect that the tourist board has an accurate sense of the demographics of visitors to the city: primarily business travellers from other parts of Indonesia, and secondarily foreign business people. There’s little reason for the tourist board to provide a lot of information for foreign leisure travellers, since they are relatively few and far between.

(The tourist board Web site is good for entertainment, if nothing else, and a forewarning of the low standards of English in Indonesia outside the most touristed locales: “What to Buy: Antiques — Not many really enthusiastic of it, but antiques bussiness have never decline. However, this bussiness needs time to make money. More old the antiques, more money we can get. It is also happened in Surabaya….”)

All this brings me back to what I said I was going to talk about this week, following my introduction to cellphones and smartphones for international travel and specific recommendations for choosing a smartphone for use abroad:

“What digital maps are available on your smartphone, in places like Surabaya where there are no better paper maps?”

There is high-speed cellular data service in Surabaya (and Jakarta, although not yet, as of now, in Bali or anywhere else in Indonesia). So depending on the international connections from the Indonesian cellphone company to servers abroad (good luck!), you might be able to access online maps. Failing that, you could still make use of any offline maps that you had downloaded in advance to a suitable device.

As I mentioned in Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, the main online map options with semi-global coverage include Google Maps,, and, while the only otherwise comparable offline map database that will fit on a smartphone is from Nokia Maps (and generally available only on Nokia or possibly some other Symbian devices).

You can view these maps with dedicated apps or in a Web browser on any of the major smartphone operating systems (Symbian, Android, iOS, Blackberry, Windows Phone), but since the underlying detail is the same regardless of how you view it, I’ve captured screen shots from a desktop Web browser to compare.

Here are the areas around the station, enlarged to full size:

[Google Maps]



[Nokia Maps]

Each of these map services except Nokia Maps more-or-less correctly located “subeng station surabaya indonesia” with a single search. Nokia Maps didn’t find the station with this initial search, but did find Surabaya.

On the other hand, Google Maps shows four different icons for the station, in slightly different locations, all on the wrong side of the tracks. That could delay a traveller hurrying to catch a train! The original Gubeng station was on the west side of the tracks, but the current Subeng Baru (“New Gubeng”) station is across the tracks on the east side, on a different street. and each have a single icon for the station placed on the middle of the tracks, with the outline of the old station west of the tracks and no indication of the new station. There’s a “transit view” for the database that’s often helpful, but in this case it didn’t show any different or additional detail. (Pedestrian ways that are open to bicycles but not motor vehicles, as well as mass transit facilities, sometimes show up better on OpenCycleMap than OpenStreetMap. So it’s always worth checking both to see which is more useful, even if you aren’t on a bike, especially in a new city or area.)

[On Android smartphones, my friend and fellow international traveller John Gilmore recommends the OsmAnd app as the best of the available interfaces to OpenStreetMap data that allow you to download maps a country at a time for offline use.]

Only Nokia Maps shows the “new” station (built in the 1990s) at all. It correctly places and labels both the old and new stations and shows which different street each is on, although it shows two icons for the old station, one at the central entrance and one at the north end.

From the Stasiun Surabaya Gubeng Baru, the racers took a two-hour train ride to Bangil, slightly inland but along the main line towards the east along the north shore of Java:

[Google Maps]


[Nokia Maps]

In response to a search for “bangil indonesia”, Google misplaces Bangil out in the rice paddies along the highway about 5 km east of the actual town center and train station, at the edge of the next village (“kampung”). None of the roads off the main highway are named, and the road to the school where this leg of the race finished, in the Kalirejo neighborhood, isn’t shown at all at any level of zoom. shows the main highway and rail line and marks the train station, but doesn’t even show, much less label, any of the side roads or town streets or any other landmark except a gas station. This suggests that Bangil is a place the sorts of Indonesians wealthy enough to afford to spend time online updating a map wiki don’t care about and whiz right through without stopping, except perhaps to buy gas.

Nokia Maps correctly spots the town center, although it doesn’t show the train station, and shows and labels some side streets including the one that goes to the “pit stop”, Jalan Bader.

The best map of Bangil isn’t on any of these Web sites or apps, but this one posted by a local blogger. The school that was the “pit stop” for this leg of The Amazing Race 21 is clearly shown and labelled, if you zoom in, in Kalirejo on the east side of Jalan Bader just before it goes off the top edge of the map.

There are at least two lessons here for real-world travellers:

First, the places to test map coverage for world travel are places like Surabaya and Bangil, not midtown Manhattan. You need digital maps most when you’ve fallen off the edge of the tourist maps (my own neighborhood is just beyond the boundaries of most “tourist” maps of San Francisco, although it’s a sign of it’s growing trendiness that some tourist maps now show the Mission district), and perhaps have ventured into the terra incognito not covered by any detailed paper map. Having maps in your pocket on your phone that you know will allow you to find out where you are, and find the way back to where you are staying, even where there is no cellphone signal, can be the key to having the confidence to venture off the paper map in the first place. And the places off the map are both untouristed and interesting for that very reason.

Second, although this isn’t a statistically valid sample, it tends to confirm that Nokia [offline] Maps are at least roughly comparable in street-level detail and accuracy to the best available online maps. The other test cases I’ve looked at tend to bear this out.

Given the number of places in the world where the high-speed real-time wireless Internet access needed to make use of Google Maps or other online maps may be unavailable or prohibitively expensive, an offline map database that’s otherwise roughly comparable with the best online maps is clearly a better choice than an online map service to rely on as a backup to paper maps or other route-finding tools like asking people for directions.

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 14 October 2012, 23:59 (11:59 PM)

Hi Edward,

Thank you for your blog entry on Surabaya and Bangil. Being a Surabaya local whose weekly commute passes through Bangil, I can say that your description on the tourism sector of these two cities are generally correct.

Surabaya indeed is not well known for its exotic charm like Yogyakarta or Bali and not so big to be a shopping hot spot like Jakarta. Being a second city comes with its own perks: less traffic and less flooding(which many Surabayans would proudly brag to people from Jakarta).

As you mentioned, the purpose of visitors coming to this city is mainly commerce (especially from the eastern part of Indonesia, such as Sulawesi, Maluku, Kalimantan, etc).

For tourists, esp. non-Indonesians, it's a mere stop typically going to Bali from Yogyakarta by ground transportation. If they do spend some nights, they will likely do the excursion to Mt. Bromo (100+ km away) and another stop to Mt. Ijen (less frequently) before crossing to Bali.

But otherwise some interesting sites in Surabaya itself (not that many really) include:

Hotel Oranje (now Hotel Majapahit),

Museum House of Sampoerna,

Grahadi (Mayor's office) and Balai Pemuda next to it,

Suramadu Bridge,

Makam Sunan Ampel (popular among muslims),

Buddhist temple at Kenjeran Beach,

ever increasing super malls typical of Asia.

I was surprised myself when I heard that The Amazing Race was going to stop in my hood instead of the more obvious places like Bali (which they did in the following season) or Yogyakarta (which they had done).

My two cents:

I'd say TAR did their best to highlight the often neglected traditional cultural forms of this region.

I had never heard of that frying egg on a pan thing; the "lion head" aka Reog came from another town called Ponorogo in East Java (was recently caused a national uproar when Malaysia tried to claim it as theirs and probably one of the reasons why it was included in the show.. but let's just leave it here).

The karapan sapi (bull race) was not very exciting in the show but is a big thing in Madura in real life (usually some betting is involve).

All in all I think it is nice to see Surabaya in the show, whether viewers would find it to be an interesting destination, we can never tell.

Posted by: Ivan, 29 March 2013, 13:08 ( 1:08 PM)

"Nokia Maps" has been spun off and renamed "HERE Maps" or "HERE WeGo". It is now available as a free app for Android or Apple iOS devices.

Both the Android and iOS HERE apps, like the Symbian/Nokia Maps predecessor, are optimized for offline use and allow you to download the entire worldwide street-level map database onto a memory card in your phone.

The HERE maps for Android take up about 32GB, so you will probably want at least a 64GB memory card if you want to store other data on your phone in addition to world maps.

Posted by: Edward Hasbrouck, 6 May 2017, 05:54 ( 5:54 AM)
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