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.

About The Author

is the author of 789 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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{ 43 comments… read them below or add one }

Raphael Alexander Zoren February 21, 2014 at 10:11 am

Amazing photography! Those blue flames really come to life! 😀

Jenna Francisco February 21, 2014 at 12:06 pm

It’s hard to see the conditions people live and work in. I’m glad that your experience was capped off by feeling so welcome in the locals’ home. I found the people of Indonesia to be incredibly friendly.

Sam Kawah Ijen February 23, 2014 at 9:29 pm
Robert Schrader February 26, 2014 at 2:26 am

Yes, they are really wonderful!

Robert Schrader February 26, 2014 at 2:27 am

Thanks Raphael! It’s good to know my sacrifice was worth it.

Teguh Saparyan March 4, 2014 at 7:59 pm

Your posts and writings did justice to Indonesia and its abundant, treasured beauty. Thank you for visiting and sharing it to the world. Kudos to the photos as well, specifically the blue fire. Come back next time to explore other hidden gems of Indonesia when you’re done exploring the rest of the world.

zglar March 5, 2014 at 11:45 am

Wow, is that a lightning? That photo looks so awesome, how did you take that photo?

Robert Schrader March 5, 2014 at 4:08 pm

It’s flames inside the volcano, fueled by sulfur!

Robert Schrader March 5, 2014 at 4:10 pm

Yes, I can’t wait to return to Indonesia!

Lia March 7, 2014 at 6:18 am

Great photos!
Thanks for reminding me of how much I love my Indonesia 🙂

Robert Schrader March 7, 2014 at 11:28 am

Thanks for reading!

fenty March 11, 2014 at 6:17 am

Thanks Robert has visited Indonesia.
Even I am an Indonesian i never go to Kawah Ijen the beautiful place 🙁
I wish someday I can go there

Robert Schrader March 11, 2014 at 9:03 am

I hope you will make it there someday! Thanks a lot for reading my blog!

travellingforfun March 13, 2014 at 9:37 am

Unbelievable photos. Great story about the amazing volcano and plight of the local miners.

yann April 20, 2014 at 7:35 am

Good article but you sound patronizing towards tourists, accusing them of “taking delight in the miners’ working conditions”. No, sorry, you are not a morally superior being! I was at Ijen this morning. There were lots of tourists. Everybody looked impressed but nobody was taking delight in the horrendous working conditions!

taking
delight in their dangerous working conditions – See more at:
https://leaveyourdailyhell.com/2014/02/21/how-to-visit-indonesia-blue-fire-volcano-kawah-ijen/#sthash.xjj4gCfI.dpuf

Susan Jaquelin Mengko April 29, 2014 at 2:50 am

i got ur blog here bcoz i’m searching info about Kawah Ijen. i’m interested in that “blue fire” place. i’m an Indonesian but i didn’t travel much. i like blue so this place i think is amazing. i plan to go there, well thanks for ur recommended guide, “Sam”. i’ll try to contact him. i’m happy coz u enjoyed ur trip in Indonesia. waiting forward ur next story about another part of Indonesia 🙂

Robert Schrader April 29, 2014 at 11:00 am

Thanks, I hope you have fun with Sam, Susan!

Marta Kulesza May 2, 2014 at 8:22 am

everyday I am finding out new things about our earth. Thanks for the infos. This looks like something I really would enjoy photographing. Your shots are really cool btw.

Sam Kawah Ijen July 4, 2014 at 8:21 am

hahahhahahhahha im coming this my facebook account ( sam kawah ijen ) and this my phone number +6281913956569
website : http://www.ijenexpedition.com )

Robert Schrader July 5, 2014 at 8:14 am

Yay Sam 🙂

lizlisa August 15, 2014 at 10:00 pm

Hi. Great writing and the photos are stunning. I am not surprised about your welcomes into the locals’ homes: if you are open, the Indonesians must be about the friendliest peoples in the world. And not only the Balinese Indonesians, as many seem to believe! I am thinking of going to Ijen next week, perhaps…. so it was great to see this piece of writing from you. I believe that I can fly from Bali to Banyuwangi, which should get me close and I will contact Sam for some info about guiding. As a solo traveller, it is often cheaper to go with Ojeks, but I am guessing it’s pretty cold there in the middle of the night? Is that right? Thanks for all the wonderful information! Happy travelling…..:)

Sam Kawah Ijen August 16, 2014 at 1:38 pm

hi, oh welcome to banyuwangi,
http://www.ijenexpedition.com

Robert Schrader August 18, 2014 at 5:18 pm

Thanks for the compliment! Please get in contact with Sam – he will take care of you!

Francisca S. September 12, 2014 at 5:30 am

nice posts and great photos. I have plan to go to Ijen crater next month. I live in Indonesia but I never been there before. really embarassed. I hope I will get great experience from there.

Robert Schrader September 15, 2014 at 5:57 am

I hope you have fun! Did you contact Sam?

Francisca S. September 17, 2014 at 10:26 pm

not yet. Ok, I’ll try to contact Sam.

pkc2001 September 28, 2014 at 1:24 pm

Hi,

I looked at Sam’s website for the 1D/1N blue flame tour but wasn’t sure of 1) Do they provide accommodation for that night? 2) I couldn’t quite understand the pricing structure – we’ll be two people, how much will that cost?

thanks!

Ama September 28, 2014 at 10:21 pm

Hi Robert, I love your stories and agree with others, the photos are stunning. Just came from Bromo-Ijen yesterday. I didn’t bring a good camera to catch the stunning blue flames. Could I use your pictures to share what the “Blue fire” is… even many Indonesian never see it. I took an open trip to those places… Not to costly and not too many people (we’re 4).

Robert Schrader September 29, 2014 at 1:04 am

Thanks Ama! You can absolutely use my photos, just make sure and credit me 🙂

Robert Schrader September 29, 2014 at 1:04 am

I gave your email to Sam and he will contact you directly!

Ama September 29, 2014 at 9:59 am

Thanks Robert. Of course I will do that :-)..already share your site to friends

Sincero November 13, 2014 at 3:08 pm

I did Ijen and Bromo in a row few years back. Both are truely unique and magnificent. You really should go back and visit Bromo

Shine Holiday November 13, 2014 at 11:53 pm

Great Photos ! thank you for sharing this beautiful photos, love your blog !

Sue Msallem December 11, 2014 at 7:23 am

Great post and amazing pictures! Inspired us to book a tour with Sam for our upcoming trip to Indonesia.

Robert Schrader December 12, 2014 at 7:33 am

Awesome! You are absolutely going to love it.

Java Travelline January 22, 2015 at 7:51 am

nice picture
special price Bromo Ijen Tour package
http://javatravelline.com/

Robert Schrader January 22, 2015 at 9:30 am

Thanks!

Jatidiri Ono March 13, 2015 at 10:38 am

Great post. Well, it’s a bit odd actually with the fact that many Indonesian don’t really know about this place. Thank you for coming and your notion. Regards from Indonesia.

Ono.

Maritime Sentry May 17, 2015 at 10:39 am

I went there today, it is truly amazing, I hiked around to the far East side of the crater edge and laid down for around 4 hours sleeping. The most quiet place in Indonesia with the purest air by all means.

Robert Schrader May 18, 2015 at 7:24 am

Nice! Glad you enjoyed it!

git git May 18, 2015 at 8:58 am

I am so happy that you finally had an amazing trip in Indonesia. I remember back then when reading your post about your trip to Bali with friend (couple years ago?) and that you guys didn’t enjoy it as mush as you did with this trip (even your friend insisted to get back to Thailand :)). Don’t forget to come back again visiting us, Indonesia. Love!!!

Lily May 27, 2015 at 10:20 pm

Thanks for the article and amazing photographs, Robert. I’m planning a trip to Ijen, and if Bromo is included, that would be a wonderful plus point. So far, I have not been to Ijen, because I haven’t found a travel companion who can match schedules and interests. Am a bit jittery about solo travel now, although I did a lot of that when I was much younger. I hope Sam will be free at the time I’m ready to go.

Robert Schrader May 28, 2015 at 8:35 am

I hope so too! Also, with Sam, you don’t need to worry about being solo. He, and the villages of Taman Sari, will take good care of you.

Good luck!

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