Blue Fire Volcano

The Dark Secret of Indonesia’s Blue-Fire Volcano

Like the vast majority of Internet users around the world, I recently happened upon a viral photo set that showcases an Indonesian volcano whose flames glow blue in the middle of the night. Unlike the majority of Internet users, however, I was just days away from a trip to Indonesia.

And so last weekend, after having landed in Jakarta, chased orangutans in Borneo and explored the historical city of Yogyakarta, I caught a train to eastern Java island and hiked down into Kawah Ijen, where blue fire was but the beginning of my shock – and delight.

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Blue Sunday

Kawah Ijen became a non-negotiable part of my Indonesia trip the moment I learned of its existence – largely, I’m not ashamed to admit, because my favorite color is blue. It is for this reason that I kept my commitment to visit Indonesia’s blue-fire volcano, even though one of its neighbors erupted just two days earlier, dousing Yogyakarta in ash just hours before I planned to buy my train ticket.

Which says nothing of the risks I took upon reaching Ijen’s summit, some three kilometers above the coastal city of Banyuwangi. Along with a local guide who goes by the name of Sam, I ascended quite literally in the middle of the night, with only moonlight and Sam’s dim torch to guide my way.

 
 
 
 
 

Almost immediately upon descending into the crater, noxious sulfur fumes began blowing upward, forcing Sam and I to don gas masks as we tiptoed just inches from death (or, at best, crippling injury) in our quest for blue flames. So great was our enthusiasm upon finally reaching them (Sam, you see, is just as passionate a photographer as I am) that we stood mere inches from a molten substance that could blind, burn and/or kill us for several minutes just for a chance to get the perfect shot.

The sulfur miners, whom Sam told me had been at work for three hours already by the time we arrived, seemed less than thrilled with our shenanigans.

A Smelly Place

My favorite book during college was A Small Place, a work by Jamaica Kincaid that is actually, by some reviewers’ accounts, a novella-length rant, the subject of which is the impact of colonialism (and, by association, tourism) on Kincaid’s native Antigua. One particular quote from the book has always stuck with me, especially since I became location-independent: “A tourist is an ugly human being […] visiting heaps of death and ruin and feeling alive and inspired at the sight of it.”

It rang particularly relevant as I photographed the blue flames of Kawah Ijen, and not just because the mound of sulfur I was marveling at could easily have become a heap of my own death and ruin. It was also not just because of how annoyed the sulfur miners seemed, although that is certainly the beginning of it.

You see, although I photographed a few of the miners (for the sole purpose of highlighting their plight in this article, to be fair), I couldn’t help but notice the extent to which other tourists seemed to be taking delight in their dangerous working conditions.

 
 
 
 
 

Each grief-arazzo would offer a particular miner cash or cigarettes in exchange for humorous poses. Or, if he was extremely lucky, the chance to try and balance a heavy load of putrid sulfur on his own shoulder for just long enough to have his picture snapped.

When I say “heavy,” I mean it. According to Sam, whose father worked in the mines for nearly two decades, each basket (there are two) weighs a minimum of 40 kg, which must be hand-carried up three kilometers and then down another three kilometers, impossibly treacherous treks even for tourists – I fell three times heading back down, and I never, ever fall while hiking.

And the kicker is that they only make 800 Indonesian rupiah per kilogram, which translates to approximately $5.41 for no less than three hours of life-threatening work. I’m not sure how much profit their labor nets the Chinese-owned factory that processes the sulfur into cosmetics, insecticides and other highly-lucrative products, but I do know that none of the park entrance fees have thus far gone to make worker conditions any safer.

Village of the Water Palace

As uneasy as I felt upon reaching the base of Kawah Ijen, my visit to Indonesia’s blue-fire volcano would soon come full-circle. “After you rest up a bit,” Sam explained to me, having dropped me off at a cozy local guest house, “I’m going to introduce you to my family and the rest of the community.”

I would soon learn the name of this community to be Taman Sari, or “water palace,” a title it shares with a former royal residence in Yogyakarta. The experience I had getting to know the men, women and children of Sam’s hometown made me feel royal, alright, but not in the same way the Sultan of Yogakarta’s 100 virgins did to him.

 
 
 
 
 

Over the course of several hours, from just before lunchtime to just after sunset, I oscillated no less than a dozen times between the widest smile that has ever graced my face and gushing cascades of tears. From being cordially invited into the homes of sulfur miners I’d photographed earlier in the day, to meeting a man who was so old he’d forgotten his age, to enjoying dinner with Sam’s very own family, I don’t think I have ever felt so immediately welcome anywhere – not even my own home.

To be sure, the profound light emanating from Taman Sari is the perfect foil to the darkness that surrounds the plight of Kawah Ijen’s sulfur miners – and the perfect complement to the blue flames that drew me here in the first place. I hate telling people that they “haven’t been to [insert country name here], if [they] don’t do [describe attraction here],” so I’ll just finish up saying that I really, really hope you make it to Kawah Ijen if you come to Indonesia.

How to Get to Kawah Ijen

Kawah Ijen, which literally translates to “Ijen Crater,” is located in far eastern Java island. To reach Ijen, take the train from Yogyakarta or Surabaya to Karangasem station or, alternatively, the ferry from Bali to Ketapang. Due to the danger involved in entering the crater, hiring a guide is highly advisable. Entrance to the park costs Rp. 100,000 as of August 2014 (Rp. 150,000 on public holidays), which does not include a Rp. 30,000 camera fee.

I recommend Sam Kawah Ijen, whom I mentioned in this article, not only because his rates are fair and his service is great, but because he is a lifelong member of nearby local community Taman Sari, to whose betterment he dedicates a portion of his business proceeds. Click here to visit his website.

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About The Author

is the author of 759 posts on Leave Your Daily Hell. Robert founded Leave Your Daily Hell in 2010 so that other travelers would have an entertaining, reliable source of information, advice and inspiration at their fingertips. Want to travel more often? Subscribe to email updates today!

 

informs, inspires, entertains and empowers travelers like you. My name is Robert and I'm happy you're here!

 
 
 

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{ 32 comments… read them below or add one }

phil green July 27, 2015 at 10:58 pm

great read. ive been 3 times to ijen since its so mind blowing! the sulphur miners are the real highlight. i saw one guy put 100kg on the scales at the weigh station at 3am one morning! banywani is by far the best access and good stay is Ijen Resto at Lichin around 40mins outside of banywangi and 15km from ijen crater. they can arrange transport. heaps of guides available when you get to pos pauling which is start point for the hike. be warned the hike up to the crater is 2 hours and tough!
phil green

Robert Schrader July 28, 2015 at 4:21 pm

Thanks for the comment!

Hailey August 12, 2015 at 5:54 pm

Have u done ur research when you typed about:”I’m not sure how much profit their labor nets the Chinese-owned factory that processes the sulfur into cosmetics, insecticides and other highly-lucrative products”
It’s sound racist to me.
Kinda like your article about kawah ijen but when i read that… Based on something non factual make me think are you really write this blog trully based on ur experience or other people said about it?

Robert Schrader August 12, 2015 at 5:57 pm

I have done my research – I got this information from people who live near the volcano. And of course this is from my experience – don’t you see the picture of me there?

JavaHappyVacation September 8, 2015 at 3:30 am

wow amazing experience Mr.robert you have visited Ijen mountain. hope you fell happy with our people. and yea Sam is my friend, i also from Tamansari village hehehe

Robert Schrader September 16, 2015 at 8:05 am

Oh awesome! Terima kasih.

Lucia Wulan Rosari September 17, 2015 at 2:55 am

Great post and great photo

Robert Schrader September 21, 2015 at 5:19 pm

Thank you!

ghina shabrina September 21, 2015 at 11:09 pm

Wow! amazing photo and experience, Robert! How many times you ever visit Indonesia? You looks so blend with Indonesian culture, love it!

Anyway, when you will go to Indonesia again? I think it will so fun, if you can join our trip to other enchanting places in Indonesia 🙂

Don’t hesitate to mail me at ghina.shabrina@royaltravelo.com 🙂

Robert Schrader September 22, 2015 at 8:04 am

I want to come back next year!

Ankur Sharma September 26, 2015 at 9:32 pm

Wow amazingly captured buddy. Do read my experience here:
http://www.ultrawidelife.com/how_to_visit_kawah_ijen/

Ayu Mircahya Intan Azania October 7, 2015 at 5:43 am

OMG…such a beautiful photographs and awesome article… Im Indonesian but I never been travel to Borneo to see Orangutan or Kawah Ijen which is just 5 to 6 hours driving from my hometown. I searched about Kawah Ijen because Im planning to go there with my friends after I finish the internship in US. This article is so helpful. And I really miss my country now. We also planning to visit Bromo Mountain and Komodo Island btw.

Robert Schrader October 8, 2015 at 12:04 pm

Have fun! 🙂 Thanks for reading my article.

Ibnu Aljajawi October 22, 2015 at 8:37 pm

I’m planning to visit this crater late Nov – any news about the inadvisability to visit this place around that time. Is it difficult to reach the top? I’m a senior citizen.

Jenifer Fenton November 30, 2015 at 2:53 pm

I love your article. It is refreshing to see someone who Cares about the people not just about the photos! (My favorite is the one with you and Sams’ family..but why the peace sign? It is a distraction).
I have to be content following others adventures..and your take on this trip is refreshingly honest.
Thank you for this wonderful view!!

Robert Schrader November 30, 2015 at 3:16 pm

It’s not a peace sign—it’s a common pose Indonesians (and Asians in general) use during photos.

Jenifer Fenton November 30, 2015 at 5:11 pm

Thank you!

Evony Arty January 25, 2016 at 10:15 pm

hello.. I’m evony from Indonesia. I’m really interested with your blog, it help me to know everything about travel. I hope when u come to Indonesia i need to join with you to travel 😉

Theo Pilus January 31, 2016 at 10:41 am

Hi everyone!

i am bondowoso native and i can provide everything you want here in bondowoso or kawah ijen. feel free to contact me and asking any questions at warcrimson@gmail.com.

i can provide accomodation from any range.

Abby February 7, 2016 at 2:56 am

Hi, this may be a long shot but I’m wondering if you still have the contact information for your guide? Also, did he provide gas masks? And do you have any tips for ojek or hiring a car to Ijen? I’m planning on doing the Ijen crater trip via Bondowoso this summer.
Thanks!

Robert Schrader February 8, 2016 at 8:09 am

Just search for “Sam Kawah Ijen” on Facebook. His profile is here: https://www.facebook.com/sam.kawahijen?fref=ts

Robert Schrader February 8, 2016 at 8:13 am

Will do!

Charlie Hartono Lie February 23, 2016 at 2:09 pm

Hi Robert,

Your photos are incredibly awesome! Am wondering what kind of lens and body that you were using? Thanks, mate!

Cheers,
C

Maria May 13, 2016 at 4:29 am

In China, people pose with their two fingers in a V shape for Victory!

Maria May 13, 2016 at 4:31 am

In China, people pose with their two fingers in a V shape for Victory! Perhaps it’s something similar here!

Maria Cawley May 13, 2016 at 4:42 am

Hi Robert
Just wondering how you got from Surabaya Station to Ijen? Where did your tour guide pick you up?
Thanks,
Maria.

Robert Schrader May 13, 2016 at 8:17 am

Hi Maria:

I actually took the train to Banyuwangi, which is where my guide picked me up.

wawa ho July 8, 2016 at 7:59 pm

Hi Robert~ thanks for your sharing! I love blue fire too~ I also just back from Ijen but not managed to take such wonderful photo because i cant stay longer there due to the sulfuric gas and windy..

Blessing days ahead for more wonderful experiences~

Regards,
Eva

Robert Schrader July 20, 2016 at 1:12 pm

Thank you Eva!

Francis Santos September 2, 2016 at 10:54 am

Hi Robert, I am trying to click the link above regarding sam’s website but seems I’m redirected to another site. Is that still correct? Or would it be better to contact him directly on facebook?

Robert Schrader September 2, 2016 at 1:15 pm

That is the right website!

Indomedia Development October 15, 2016 at 2:38 pm

Nice shoot..
come with us on Ijen Crater Tour

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