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 to see the blue fire Ijen crater hides.
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 a volcano, where Kawah Ijen blue fire was but the beginning of my shock—and delight.
My Ijen Blue Fire Travelogue
The Kawah Ijen blue fire volcano 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, Sam’s dim torch and a burning desire to see blue fire Indonesia style 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 of blue fire.
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.
Seeing the Ijen Blue Fire for the First Time
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 Ijen crater blue fire, 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 the dangerous working conditions amid the Kawah Ijen blue fire.
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 Ijen Crater blue fire 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. Hoping there’s a blue fire Bali adventure? There isn’t, at least not quite. To reach Ijen, take the train from Yogyakarta or Surabaya to Karangasem station or, alternatively, the ferry from Bali to Ketapang—there’s no blue fire Bali volcano, contrary to what you might read online. 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 October 2019 (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—you’re see the most amazing blue fire Indonesia has to offer, and support grassroots tourism in the process. Click here to visit his website, which spotlights his Mt Ijen blue fire tour options.
Is Kawah Ijen Worth Visiting?
I’ll be honest: Compared to Ijen’s blue fire, Bali (and basically everywhere else in Indonesia close to East Java) pales in comparison. The sheer novelty of the sulfur-powered phenomenon is unmatched basically anywhere on Earth, but even within incredible Indonesia, it’s difficult to find anywhere that compares to Kawah Ijen.
When stacked up against the blue fire, Indonesia attractions—even those as amazing as the paradise islands of Raja Ampat and the community funerals of Tana Toraja—seem to pale in comparison. So assuming you don’t mind the prospect of an overnight hike by moonlight, and are prepared to deal with the emotional toll of seeing the miners work so hard for so little, then yes, Kawah Ijen is absolutely worth visiting.
The Bottom Line
If you’re on the hunt for Indonesia’s famous blue fire, Ijen Crater in East Jaha is where you want to head. Keep in mind, however, that seeing the Ijen blue fire is neither a matter of simply turning up (you’ll need to hike through the night, and with a guide for that matter), nor snapping pictures and videos for your Instagram and being done with it. The experience of visiting Kawah Ijen can be emotional and even exhausting, depending upon how sensitive and emotionally open you are. Need help planning more amazing Southeast Asia experiences? Hire me as your Travel Coach!