ConocoPhillips Indonesia: A photographer’s travel journal

Operator Adie Putra (left) and Deddy Machdan, external communication specialist

Text and photography by Patrick Currey

monument of pillar with flame on top
The National Monument in the center of Merdeka Square, Central Jakarta, symbolizes the struggle for Indonesian independence. Construction began in 1961 under the direction of President Sukarno.


Getting to Indonesia is no small task. From Houston, you can bank on burning 24 hours to arrive in Jakarta, the nation’s capital. As many as 18,000 islands form the graceful curve of this archipelago born on the volcanic ridges of the Pacific Rim’s Ring of Fire. (Krakatoa, the most powerful volcanic eruption in recorded history, occurred east of Java in August 1883.) When you see Indonesia on the globe, surrounded by so much aquamarine representing the Pacific and Indian Oceans, it seems deceptively small, but that’s a misperception. Indonesia has the third longest coastline in the world, just behind Norway and Canada. If the country were laid across the U.S. mainland, with the tip of Sumatra just off Washington state to the west, the easternmost border with Papua New Guinea would splash down in the Atlantic Ocean off New England. In all, Indonesia has a land mass 2.7 times the size of Texas.

Jakarta sits at the western edge of Java and has all the restless hum and pent-up energy one might expect of a city of 10 million. Beginning in the 1600s, the Dutch East India Company held a monopoly on Indonesia’s spice trade for several hundred years. At that time, Jakarta was known as Batavia. Remnants of colonial European architecture are still found in the heart of the old city. Even today, some of the world’s finest coffees and spices originate in this region’s lush temperate climate. It might be fair to call Indonesia a developing nation or, more properly, a “newly industrialized country.” Oil and gas infrastructure helps provide the energy that fuels the country’s economic growth, and the country is on the fast track toward realizing its ambitious first-world aspirations.

panoramic refinery lit up at night
Samuel Dorgis outside wearing hardhat, talking with someone
Samuel Dorgis


In the soft light of daybreak, before the stifling midday equatorial heat to come, Offsite Superintendent Samuel Dorgis has the bearing of an army captain, commanding respect in his bright red ConocoPhillips flame-resistant jumpsuit – ramrod straight, addressing the troops at morning formation. Members of the team stand at parade rest, alert and with rapt attention. Dorgis’ crisp hand gestures and intense gaze drive home each fine point about the critical importance of safety before the start of another workday here at the Grissik facility in South Sumatra. The end of the line, Suban, is still another grueling day’s drive away.

Brightly painted wooden boats tied to dock

Next stop, Palembang

Getting to the oilfields of Sumatra starts with a quick one-hour hop from Jakarta to the bustling city of Palembang. After that we’re driving into no man’s land. Like many locations that lie near the equator, Palembang is bursting with color, mirroring the bright palette of the tropics. Indonesia is one of the most biodiverse countries on the planet, earning the “megadiverse” classification, complete with Komodo dragons, Javan rhinos and orangutans.

Water taxis are as common as buses, and ubiquitous motor bikes seem to fill every extra cubic inch of road space – a sudden flash mob coming together surrounding your car, only to flitter away like a school of colorful fish. Palembang has been making extraordinary infrastructure improvements, welcoming competitors from around Asia by proudly cohosting, with Jakarta, the 2018 Asian Games. In all, 15,000 athletes from 45 countries competed, putting Indonesia front and center on the world stage.

From ConocoPhillips’ Palembang field offices to company assets, it’s travel by SUV from here on out. We spend many grinding hours getting to the job site. After three or four hours on rough, at times nearly impassible roads, you begin to feel like a human bobblehead.   

A confluence of pipelines and valves
Sumpal Compression Plant

Legacy operations

ConocoPhillips has had a presence in Indonesia for more than 45 years. The company currently operates three onshore blocks – the Corridor Block and the South Jambi “B” PSC, both in South Sumatra, and the Kualakurun PSC in Central Kalimantan.

The Corridor Block consists of two producing oil fields, Suban Baru and Rawa, and seven producing natural gas fields. The principal gas fields are Suban, Sumpal and Dayung. Natural gas produced from the block is sold through long-term contracts to domestic and Singapore markets.

From Grissik to the Sumpal Compression Plant to Suban, each asset is marked by spotlessly clean facilities and modern equipment upgrades; it is no small feat to maintain and upgrade in these isolated remote locations. These assets were the mission critical reason for my assignment, but it’s the unexpected discoveries along the way that form the longest-lasting impressions.

Three photos of the "spice ladies" cooking, holding bags of crunchy chips


On day two we encountered a small village nearly off the grid. It felt for a moment as if we’d stepped out of time, or at least turned back the clock to a much slower pace compared to the din and bustle of Jakarta. Wooden open-air houses stood on 12-foot stilts. The lightly painted, deeply weathered boards had a patina that only years of baking in the tropical sun can create. Colorful curtains waved in the languid breeze. Free-range roosters strutted about, overestimating their importance in the pecking order. As we pulled into the village, I noticed the sign on the sturdy concrete two story building that said, “Aroma Foods.” 

The sign proved to be a delicious understatement. Stepping into the darkened interior, I experience a wave of humidity followed by a deep piquant aroma that filled the entire room. Seven women are seated in the center on the floor, engaging in a tasty social enterprise initiated and supported by ConocoPhillips. The large cauldron is at full boil; my camera lenses are fogging up. The women are preparing sambal, a favorite culinary treat of the village with a flavor between hot Tex-Mex salsa and Asian chutney. It is a condiment that, in true global fashion, could be added to just about anything. Basic ingredients are hot red peppers, smoked fish, generous cloves of garlic and, as always, a pinch of salt. In several other deep fryers, bananas and cassava root are being transformed into delicious, crunchy chips. These industrious “spice ladies” have become local mini-celebrities after placing their products in airports around the country. Several centuries after the first Dutch traders arrived, the women are developing a new spice trade and, in the process, building a business for themselves, their families and their village.

3 photos: Man holding catfish; Man dipping net into pond; group of 10 men with thumbs up

Hatching a plan

Nearby, another fledgling social enterprise was taking place in the “catfish village.” The men are learning the science of aquaculture with farm-raised catfish. With ConocoPhillips support, the villagers have built a covered outdoor classroom where experts teach the finer points of running a fish hatchery. In the first of a series of tanks, the newly hatched small fry explore their environment. In the second tank, the water roils as the men chum the healthy larger fingerlings. By the time we get to the last tank, the men are proudly showing off their five-pound lunker, Big Daddy.

View from car windshield of road with truck and tractor
Road to Suban

The end of the road

Day three, and sunrise at the Suban facility treats us to some glints of gold reflecting off the massive 67,000-barrel crude storage tanks. Even here in this remote location, I meet engineers from the Houston office. Many of the Suban operators live in Java and make the long journey to Sumatra to work twelve-hour on/off shifts, often for weeks at a time. As the sun rises higher over the Suban plant, I think of ConocoPhillips’ human assets, the company’s commitment to corporate social responsibility, and the integrity it shows by acting as conscientious operators and good neighbors. I hold these individuals with great respect and admiration; their dedication and sacrifice are what it takes to keep ConocoPhillips a world-class organization. I feel lucky to be able to tell a small measure of their story. Over the years I’ve covered employees getting up and going to work here and around the globe – in Indonesia, Australia, Alaska’s North Slope, the North Sea, North Dakota, the Permian Basin, Colombia, Qatar and more. The sun truly never sets on ConocoPhillips’ global operations.