Almost 200 models, in a variety of colourful ensembles, gyrated in a well-choreographed dance routine at an open space. It’s not a scene to be imagined, but one to be experienced. The Banyuwangi Ethno Carnival (BEC) on the eastern tip of Java, Indonesia, is a celebration which presents both local and foreign tourists with a fantastic cultural show.

The carnival has a different theme each year, and the one that our group of journalists was privy to was inspired by the Usingnese Royal Wedding (the Using are the indigenous people of the Kabupaten region).

The show, held at Blambangan Park in Banyuwangi, was eagerly attended by locals and tourists. Although Banyuwangi is a lesser-known destination, compared to the highly popular Bali, Bandung and Jakarta, it has a charm all its own.

Banyuwangi Ethno Carnival provides an inkling to the rich heritage and colourful celebrations of the Using people.

Banyuwangi Ethno Carnival provides an inkling to the rich heritage and colourful celebrations of the Using people.

Travel options to Banyuwangi include a ferry service from Bali, or a flight from Surabaya (a bus ride takes six hours). Spurring tourism through a cultural event like the BEC, which harnesses the local community’s creativity and tenacity, seems like the perfect business model to attract visitors from all over the world.

The Banyuwangi Ethno Carnival is a burst of colour.

The Banyuwangi Ethno Carnival is a burst of colour.

At the festival, many visitors weathered the hot sun by trying to cool down with hand fans, as well as caps and sunglasses, standing beneath the provided tents while trying to catch a glimpse of the amazing traditional show on display.

And they were definitely not disappointed, as the parade had participants donning different wedding apparels and dancing their way along a 70m runway, right down to a designated spot where photographers could snap away to their hearts’ content.

The carnival had three presentations; the Sembur Kemuning, Mupus Braen Blambangan and Sekar Kedaton Wetan. The costumes of the Sembur Kemuning, the wedding ritual of the coastal people there, were dominated by yellow, orange and purple colours, forming a striking picture for the audience.

The Mupus Braen Blambangan, the middle class people’s ritual, displayed red, black and gold hues, while the Sekar Kedaton Wetan, the wedding ritual of the nobles, had its models bathed in glittery green and silver. Unsurprisingly, yet amazingly, all the wedding apparels were designed by local designers.

On the fringes of the BEC site, there were many kiosks which sold local products, such as batik and accessories, including handicrafts. One of the proprietors, Ibu Hani, the owner of SriKandi Batik art shop, said she has been in the trade for over a decade, adding that the Gajah Oleng Khas Batik clothes and materials that she sells, are made in Banyuwangi, inspired by the culture there.

The Mupus Braen Blambangan, the wedding ritual for the middle class folk of the Kabupaten region, has its garments in a combination of red, black and gold, as depicted by the male model in the middle.

The Mupus Braen Blambangan, the wedding ritual for the middle class folk of the Kabupaten region, has its garments in a combination of red, black and gold, as depicted by the male model in the middle.

Scent of an attraction

Hikers will be pleased to know that the cultural fix in Banyuwangi can be swapped for natural treats, with Mount Ijen promising an unforgettable experience. The swirling wind, which blows fine sand, as well as the scent of rotten eggs spewed by the sulphur lake at the Ijen crater, could be discouraging, though.

The pathway to the crater, which was paved with dust and volcanic particles, made it almost impossible for one to gain enough traction to hike. Still, our troop adhered to the “no pain, no gain” mantra to have us trudging along.

The Ijen crater, which is a quiet, but active volcano, offers a breathtaking view from its peak, which could easily send shutterbugs into a frenzy. High quality sulphur is mined here, with many workers walking up and down the path; some with wheelbarrows, others with shoulder baskets. The pure sulphur is delivered to a nearby town.

Mount Ijen is a sight to behold, what with plumes of smoke rising from its crater.

Mount Ijen is a sight to behold, what with plumes of smoke rising from its crater.

This isn’t a vocation for the faint-hearted, and stuck with a meagre wage, the enterprising miners try to supplement their income by selling pure sulphur stones carved into flowers and other designs, to tourists. The miners were quite friendly, waving to and greeting us when they passed us along the steep pathway.

The foot of Mount Ijen finds the Yellow River, a confluence of water which has earned its name from its sulphur content.

The foot of Mount Ijen finds the Yellow River, a confluence of water which has earned its name from its sulphur content.

Apparently, Java’s sulphur is a high-grade natural resource for sulphuric acid, which is in great demand in the oil-refining business and in the production of fertilisers. Sadly for the miners though, it is also back-breaking work.

A miner, doused in sulphur dust and volcanic ash, displays his harvest for the day ... pure, raw sulphur from Mount Ijen. - AZMAN JUMAT

A miner, doused in sulphur dust and volcanic ash, displays his harvest for the day … pure, raw sulphur from Mount Ijen.

We stopped by the Candi Ngrimbi, a resting point at Paltuding, which is 1,850m above sea level. We enjoyed cups of coffee and instant noodles to recharge ourselves before getting back on track to tackle the peak, which stands at 2,386m (above the sea level).

As expected, Ijen did not disappoint – the magnificent view, coupled with the buffeting wind, made the experience extremely thrilling; one wrong move could send a person tumbling straight into the belly ofthe crater lake. The 200m deep turquoise lake, was mesmerising, with plumes of smokes rolling above its 600 x 960m surface.

Some in our party, went a step further by getting down to the mining site. The sulphuric air is so overwhelming that breathing masks are required for a person to get down there, lest they risk inhaling toxic fumes.

The Yellow River, located at the foot of Mount Ijen, earns its name because of the sulphur content which flows down with it from the mountain. The rocks there are also yellow, no thanks to the sulphur in the water. However, it formed a picturesque and unique sight.

Kemiren village

We stopped by a coffee plantation right after coming down from the Ijen Crater. Madurese women, young and old, could be seen indulging in casual conversation while filling their sacks. They were all busy collecting and segregating the Arabica and Robusta coffee beans, dumping them into sacks.

The beans are used to make the Using Coffee (Kopai Using) at Kemiren Village, which has been gazetted by the government as Using Tribe Cultural Village.

Coffee expert, Subekti Setiawan, knows everything about making Luwak coffee and Kopai Using. - AZMAN JUMAT

Coffee expert, Subekti Setiawan, knows everything about making Luwak coffee and Kopai Using.

A village in the Glagah district, is home to the Genjah Arum studio, a traditionally-designed museum run by coffee planter Setiawan Subekti, who was present on the day of our visit. Setiawan, or Pak Iwan, as he is fondly referred to, is also a world-class coffee maestro who specialises in the production of Luwak Coffee, the most expensive coffee in the world.

He showed us the raw beans (acquired from civets excreting beans they consume) which are used to make the coffee powder. We were lucky enough to take turns to roast the beans on a traditional stove while a group of old ladies (who did not look their age) entertained us with music played by traditional rice pounding apparatus, which clearly served two purposes.

Naturally, the lingering taste of the coffee had each of us snapping up a bag of the fragrant Kopai Using. Besides, the price of Kopai Using was at least affordable. At Rp75,000 (RM22.10), it made for a more practical souvenir than the exotic Luwak, which costs around Rp500,000 (RM147.50).

Elderly women at Kemiren Village take a break from pounding rice to make music with their tools, instead. - AZMAN JUMAT

Elderly women at Kemiren Village take a break from pounding rice to make music with their tools, instead.

Apart from being a coffee master, Pak Iwan also salvaged some of the near 100-year-old traditional houses of the Using tribe for conservation. The wooden houses, in the middle of the village, have now become art centres, where locals practice their dances and other communal activities. We had the chance to watch the Jejer Gandrung, the tribe’s unique dance. The dancers even invited some of us to join them, raising the bar in entertainment value.

There’s fun and culture to be had, in equally huge doses, so, what are you waiting for?