Explore Bung Karno’s perfume factory

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(Photo: Freddy Wally)

IO – An interesting destination, unique and full of Indonesian history hidden in Tawangmangu, Karanganyar, Central Java. It seems like this place is waiting to be explored. A former citronella factory that was originally projected to be the largest fragrance oil refinery in Asia, Rumah Atsiri Indonesia.

Founded in 1963, the 23,660 square meter destination was an initiation of President Sukarno, or commonly known as Paduka Jang Mulia. Initially, this place was indeed projected by Bung Karno as one of the lighthouse projects of his vision as the leader of the state at that time.

In cooperation with the Bulgarian government, which was known as one of the countries in the Eastern Bloc and had an intimate relationship with Indonesia, the first citronella or lemongrass factory in Southeast Asia was established. This cooperation marks one of the sizable bilateral projects between the two continents and took place during the raging cold war.  

Historically, the reason the government is interested in working together is that Bulgaria is one of the countries that specializes in the manufacture of rose essential oil, apart from controlling the supply of up to 80%. Bung Karno’s vision, which initially wanted to make this fragrant oil factory from various natural Indonesian plants as one of the national assets to be proud of, unfortunately, had to be cut off in the middle of the post-G30S/PKI incident. After being neglected for decades, with several lost original assets stolen and partially damaged, in early 2020 this place with unique architecture was transformed into an Indonesian Essential Home. A place that is not only an ordinary educational destination on the slopes of Mount Lawu, but also a center for the study of Indonesia’s natural essential plants that should not be missed.  

Paulus, Founder/Board of Directors of PT Rumah Atsiri Indonesia, who is also an architect of the Tim3 consultancy bureau, said that Bung Karno’s initial vision to make this place a research center for native Indonesian plants that could be useful for the interests of the public was trying to be applied again through Rumah Atsiri Indonesia.  

“We are developing this place so the essential oil industry in Indonesia can evolve even more rapidly. Even though we are currently not producing in large quantities as this place was originally built for, visitors can find out more interesting things about essential plants, they can learn a great deal too, and soon we can stay overnight and also a spa. So you could say, this is a place that has a fairly complete edu-recreation concept,” said Paulus. 

 It is noted that there are several things tourists or visitors can do when visiting the Rumah Atsiri Indonesia, including walkers who can walk around the beautiful garden area and also spread “fragrance” and get acquainted with a series of natural essential oil-producing plants, ranging from eucalyptus, lemongrass, mint, lavender, arum dalu, rosmarin, ginger, citronella, saucepan flowers to marigolds. A total of about 150-200 plant species in this place that visitors can enjoy and learn about. 

 In the session on the process of making essential oils, which includes a tour package at the Indonesian essential oil house, tourists can also see firsthand how conventional distillation techniques or essential oil refining with special tools with unique shapes. Generally, the manufacturing process or workshop that is held for visitors is making a bath bomb. There is also a special laboratory for little ones who want to try the distillation process firsthand. 

 The architecture of the Rumah Atsiri Indonesia is quite distinctive and makes an impression on the eye. Brutalism, an architectural style that was popular during the 1960s, can still be seen today through the ventilation blocks outside the building. The harmonious arrangement of white bricks in the building structure indirectly brings us back to that era. It is said that the white bricks for the construction of this architectural building were imported directly from Bulgaria. 

 Visitors can also see memorabilia from the former citronella distillery still well preserved in the lobby, ranging from intact white bricks, plant chopping machines, to various forms of chemical tubes as a distillation tool at that time. Rumah Atsiri has developed into an aromatic wellness tourism destination pinned by the Ministry of Tourism and Creative Economy (Kemenparekraf) and the Ministry of Health (Kemenkes) since the end of 2019.  

Apart from exploring the essential garden that soothes the soul, do not miss to explore the Atsiri House Museum, whose building design has not changed since it was built 60 years ago. Visitors can take a trip to see how essential oils were first discovered and spread throughout the world, including when they entered Indonesia. There is also a history of technology to take the aroma in producing essential oils, to their use in everyday life. To enter to explore this museum, visitors buy a ticket at IDR 35,000 per person.  

After a pampering adventure in the essential garden, harvest area, and distillation area, there is still Plaza Marigold, which is no less interesting to explore. Currently, the glamping construction process is underway on the eastern side of the Rumah Atsiri Indonesia complex, whose design blends directly with the surrounding hilly nature. 

 After appreciating the vista, the restaurant in the Rumah Atsiri Indonesia complex can be an option to unwind. This restaurant, as well as a cafe with a minimalist interior design, serves a variety of foods and also typical drinks whose composition includes elements of essential oils, very distinctive, interesting, and appetizing. 

 Located in Plumbon Village, Rumah Atsiri is only about 41 kilometers away, with a travel time of approximately one hour and 15 minutes from downtown Solo. The easiest route to reach Rumah Atsiri is via the main Karanganyar-Tawangmangu road. As soon as you enter Tawangmangu District, there is a signpost for the road to the Essential House. The location is not far from the main provincial road that connects Central Java and East Java.  

Operational hours are open from 09.00 WIB and it is closed at 17.00 WIB every day. There is no entrance fee, but visitors are asked to buy a prepaid voucher in the form of a magnetic card with a minimum value of IDR 50,000 at the entrance which can be used for transactions within the Rumah Atsiri Indonesia complex, from paying for museum entrance tickets, buying essential oils, or eating at the restaurant. 

 A destination that is not only interesting to visit if you are in Solo, but can also be a choice of activities to unwind or have a weekend escape. Don’t forget to continue to follow the health protocols that were in effect during the COVID-19 pandemic that is still lurking around us. (Freddy Wally)