Gunung Merapi

Lush for Life, Part 1: Java

After the austere mountains and deserts of Central Asia, Indonesia couldn’t have been more of a contrast. The volcanic soils of Java, Bali, and Lombok have created an astonishingly fertile environment for a riot of lush green landscapes. After the sedate uniformity of Central Asian cities, Indonesia also provided a much-needed jolt of street color and vibrancy. We decided to stay firmly on the backpacker trail for our first month, hitting the well-traveled areas of Central Java, Bali, and Lombok.

We flew into Yogyakarta (Yogya) from Bangkok on one of South-East Asia’s many low cost airlines. Bangkok was the ideal place to recharge our travel batteries and plan our next steps. We gorged on the fabled street food, got pummeled at the Wat Pho Massage Center, drank beers with a Seattle friend (Kate Matthews) on the infamous Khao San Road, and shopped for beach gear at (ahem!) H&M. We also needed to pick up a 60-day visa for Indonesia and buy flights to Yogya.

Street Food Heaven
I never quite understood why we get street food so wrong at home and Asia gets it so right. Seattle is proud of its recent trend of food trucks but often they are as expensive as restaurants and hardly ubiquitous. Bangkok is swarming with thousands of street vendors selling varied and tasty food at ridiculously low prices. Many people grab a few bags of soups, curries, or noodles on the way home and never bother cooking. That makes a lot of sense to me. We had no idea what we were eating most of the time but it was invariably fantastic. And, on the odd occasion it wasn’t? Who cares? It only costs a buck or two! There was plenty of great fruit available too so we gorged ourselves on mangosteens, guava, papaya, mango, jackfruit, and the take-it-or-leave delights of durian.

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Bug snack cart in Bangkok. We didn’t indulge in this.

Mosquito and Flight booking Hell:
After our somewhat negative ‘flight from Central Asia’, we were still a tad paranoid that the gods were against us. So, we were desperate for an easy run of backpacker delights. We hedged our bets a bit with the ‘gods’ and visited a few Buddhist and Hindu temples! However, our mosquito friends seem to be immune to interventions of a celestial kind. As street food is to Buxton, so Buxton ‘food’ is to mosquito. It is a shame mosquitos don’t pay for Buxton blood since I am clearly Beluga caviar, wrapped in Fugu, and smothered in Rhino horn to them. I was bitten hundreds of times on our first night in the dorm as everyone else slept serenely.

Scratching like a lousy Balinese street dog, next day we tried to buy flights in and out of Indonesia. We had the option to obtain a 30-day Indonesian visa on arrival at the airport, but as we wanted to spend two months in Indonesia, we hoped to get a 60-day visa in advance from the embassy in Bangkok. To obtain an Indonesian visa, you need to show an onward flight ticket. We were in a bit of a time crunch since there were a bunch of local holidays, which closed the embassy.

For reasons we still don’t fully understand, many Indonesian airlines do not accept US credit cards. There are two agencies that usually accept them, tiket.com and nusatrip.com, but we struggled to buy tickets through them too, and then our credit card company blocked our cards due to “suspicious activity”! Since we couldn’t apply for a 60-day visa without onward tickets confirmed, we missed our window between two national holidays to get a visa. After numerous frustrating on-line chats, emails, and phone calls, we managed to get our cards approved by tiket.com and unblocked by our bank. Of course, this being Paul and Laura, we now missed out on the super cheap flights too! Damn, I really wished we had made a few more offerings to the Buddha at Wat Traimit in Bangkok! As we had already spent several days sweating in Bangkok while we figured this out, we decided to fly straight to Indonesia, get a visa on arrival, and renew it after 30 days.

The lesson learned here is make sure your card company at home is aware of your plans every month and get your cards on the ‘white list’ for tiket.com as soon as you know you are heading to Indonesia.

Yogyakarta: The Spiritual Heart of Java?

Probably a better description these days is ‘The Land of a Gazillion Motorbikes’. Yogyakarta buzzes. Not with the sound of mosquitoes thankfully but with the incredible amount of Javanese on two wheels. One downside of this is that locals are using public transport less and less leading to more pollution, snarled up roads, and a degradation of public systems. This is a pattern we were to see repeated on Bali and Lombok too. Motorbikes are incredibly cheap and we were told that the average family has three or four of them. The official age for a license is 16 but in some areas we saw 10-year-old kids biking to school!

Indonesia has had plenty of criticism about its environmental policies, in particular, the destruction of the rainforests and replacing them with plantations for palm oil. I am fairly convinced that for every tree that is chopped down in the Borneo rainforests, an Indonesian buys a motorbike! In ten years time, I am convinced Indonesia will look like a set from a Mad Max movie. Since public transport is dwindling, tourists are also taking to two-wheels. It is a great way to get around but adds more filth and noise to the environment.

We stayed in the backpacker ‘ghetto’ of Jl. Sosrowijayan at the rather splendid Bladok Hotel. The room was $12 and the hotel had a small pool too. Like Bangkok, Yogya has a fairly thriving street food scene. We didn’t find the crazy variety of styles and flavors we found in Thailand but when a filling flavorful meal costs only $1.50 we weren’t complaining. The main street, Jalan Malioboro, is full of cheap local eateries known as warungs, and each night we chose a different place and meal. The local specialty is gudeg, a spicy curry made from unripe jackfruit, served with tofu, chicken, and coconut rice.

Yogya has three major attractions: the 8th-10th Century Hindu and Buddhist temples of Prambanan; the Ramayana Ballet at Prambanan; and, the somewhat underwhelming Kraton (the Palace of the Sultan).

The temples are 17km from the center of town, but a pleasant air-conditioned bus runs to the temple every 15 minutes from Jl. Malioboro. The bus winds its way through the snarly traffic and takes about 50 minutes to get to the site. Prambanan is at the end of the line and the temple entrance is a ten-minute walk away. Obviously, tourists are charged ten-times the local entrance fee but for the privilege you get a free coffee and a separate air-conditioned ticket office!

We opted for an afternoon visit to try and avoid the huge amounts of tour buses that rock up early in the day. The two main sets of temples are the Hindu Prambanan set and the Buddhist Candi Sewu set. As is the case with many famous UNESCO Heritage sites these days, it is difficult to get a true sense of the majesty, serenity and original intent of the temples due to mass tourism and selfie-stick mania. Prambanan temples, dedicated to the Hindu holy trinity of Shiva, Brahma, and Vishnu are hugely impressive but as they are close to entrance they are overrun by tour groups. The temples are a riot of reliefs and statues depicting the Hindu Pantheon and scenes from the epic Mahabharata.

Prambanan pathway
Prambanan temples.

To get a bit of a break from the tourist hordes, we walked a kilometer or so to the Candi Sewu group. It is amazing that such a short distance away, but within the same park, you can find a little peace and quiet. There are 240 structures at the site but much of it is still to be restored. Many of the Buddha statues have had their heads chopped off. Sadly, and somewhat pathetically, the selfie-stick crazies were out in force taking pictures of themselves behind the Buddhas with their own heads in the place of the great master’s. I am a bit of an iconoclast myself but I draw the line at annoying local sensibilities for the sake of a crappy photograph.

Candi Sewu group, Prambanan
Candi Sewu group at Prambanan

The next day, we wandered around Yogya taking in the local markets and the Kraton. There has been a schism in the Yogya Royal Family and they occupy different parts of the Kraton and each section has a different entrance fee. The official entrance is where you want to go since it has the majority of the attractions. We sat and watched a gamelan performance in the Kraton for an hour or so. To be honest, unless photos of the Royal Family fascinate you, this is the real highlight of the palace.

The market on Jl. Malioboro is a real rabbit warren, most of which consists of an astonishing number of Batik stalls. We dug in a little deeper and eventually found what we were looking for- tropical fruit. We loaded up on delicious soursops, mangos, dragonfruit, and humble bananas. We also tried some ‘snake fruit’, which I had not seen before. They are brown tough-skinned fruits that, indeed, looked like they were fashioned from snakeskin. The texture and taste was reminiscent of jackfruit and rambutan. Tasty, but they are not as mind blowing as mangosteens or soursop.

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Soursops at the fruit market in Yogyakarta.

In the evening, we headed back to Prambanan to watch the nightly Ramayana Ballet. We took the bus to the site and returned by shared taxis, which you can book at Prambanan when you purchase your ballet ticket. We got the cheap seats and paid an extra $0.50 for a cushion since the benches are concrete. The theater is outdoors and has the temples as a backdrop. The views were great from the cheap seats and I saw no reason why anyone would want to pay 3x as much for the VIP tickets. You can get food, beer, and soft drinks at the site but, since they are at a major tourist site, you pay a premium for these services. The show plays out on a vast stage and lasts for about 2 hours. There are screens running short synopses of the scenes as the show is running and the theater provides longer synopses in several European languages. Ballet is a bit of a misnomer since it bears little relation to what we know as ballet in the West. It is traditional Javanese dance. The night we went, they performed a truncated version of the Ramayana but the real enthusiast can visit at full moon and watch four consecutive performances over four nights depicting longer versions of each scene. The ballet is based around a key story of the Ramayana- the capture, and eventual rescue of Rama’s wife Sita, from Ravana, the evil King of Sri Lanka. The show features 100+ dancers and is sound tracked by the clamorous and propulsive rhythms of a Javanese Gamelan orchestra. Some of the dancers were truly expressive and nuanced, but a few of the performers were clearly new to the dance or off their game that night. The show never dragged and the highlight was the ‘fire scene’, which absolutely would not pass code in the US!

Borobudur: Java’s Vast Buddhist Monument

Having studied Buddhism at University, I am always doubly excited to visit famous Buddhist sites. And ever since I started dreaming about travel, Borobudur has always been near the top of my bucket list. The monument sits in the middle of a ramshackle but charming town of the same name. Many people visit it on a tour from Yogya, but we opted to stay in the village so we could enter the site at 4.30am. The early ticket is almost double the regular price, but we were enticed by the idea of watching the sunrise in the company of a smaller group of tourists. Sadly, the skies were a little cloudy so we decided to get to the monument at 6am for the regular opening. There were a number of tourists at that time but it was pretty quiet as the tour buses hadn’t yet arrived from Yogya. I had always imagined Borobudur to be sitting in a clearing on top of a hill out in the wilds. The nature around the site is beautiful and you can imagine how majestic it looked when first built but in reality you know the town is hovering nearby.

The monument is not so beautiful from afar; in fact, it has a somewhat ugly and not particularly graceful profile. But, up close it looks magnificent. This is where patience really pays off; walk around each level and take in the wonderful bas-relief scenes and sculptures. It was built around the 9th and 10th centuries and the scenes depict many stories from the life of the Buddha. Guidebooks make reference to stupa being a Tantric mandala, however, I am not convinced of this. The stupa has no obvious depictions of the Tantric pantheon and seems to exist mainly to show off the traditional life stories of the historical Buddha.

Borobudur
Borobudur.

Although Central Asia is a lot tougher to travel around than Indonesia, the lower numbers of tourists mean that backpackers are not viewed as ‘walking ATM’s’ yet. My buddy Eric Sutherland coined the phrase ‘Walking ATM’ after living and working in South-East Asia for a year. This phenomenon is evident in Indonesia and was quite a contrast from Central Asia. In fact, one of the more irritating aspects of visiting Prambanan and Borobudur is that you are forced to walk through large market spaces within the sites on the way to the exit. Most of the market stalls sell exactly the same tat and I have never seen any tourist take any interest in their wares. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate that people have to make a living and tourists, with their ready piles of disposable income, are legitimate sales targets. But, please, after I have just had my mind blown by an outstanding site of spiritual, architectural, and cultural significance, let me have a least 10 minutes to take account of it all before trying to sell me a ‘I vsited Bordur Tampel’ (sic) polyester tee-shirt.

We had hoped to be able to return to the site later in the day but, alas, the ticket is for one entry only. One of the benefits of staying in Borobudur is that guesthouses can issue a voucher that gets you 15% off the standard price. Another reason to stay in the village.

In the afternoon, we took a tour out to Selo Griyo, which is a small Hindu monument set in beautiful rice paddies. The guesthouse guides (part of the local grassroots Jaker guide organization) took us out there on the back of motorbikes. The ride out and back was fantastic as we rode through rural villages and got fantastic views of three volcanoes including the highly temperamental Mount Merapi. The Hindu temple wasn’t anything particularly special but the walk there was beautiful. Rice paddies truly are the real icons of rural life in South East Asia.

Selo Griyo
Rice terraces near Selo Griyo.

In Selo Griyo village, we watched practice sessions for the local pigeon racing championship. I wasn’t too sure of the rules but from the scenes of extreme excitement and occasional disappointment, it was obvious that this was serious business. Our guide told us that the winner of the competition gets a new motorbike and that competitors would come from far and wide.

Pigeon Racing
Pigeon racing.

The volcanoes near Borobudur are usually swathed in cloud by midday, but today for once we were lucky with the weather and the volcanoes were clear all day. We had a beautiful late afternoon ride back to Borobudur with the volcanoes silhouetted against the sunset.

Java Sunset
Sunset in rural Java.

Backpacker chat: How do we get to Mount Bromo?

One constant of backpacker conversations in Java, is ‘how should we travel to Mount Bromo?’ We heard it everywhere and in our guesthouse in Borobudur the topic was on everyone’s lips. Despite its fame, Bromo is not an easy place to visit. Many travelers visit on tours from Yogya, which take in Mount Bromo, Mount Ijen, and eventually unload you in Bali. The journey sounds terrible, however, despite the convenience. Cramped minibuses with no air-con and rough roads for 10-14 hours per day. Getting there on your own involves a train journey to Surabaya, a bus to Probolinggo, and once you have been right royally ripped off at Probolinggo (a traveler’s right of passage in Indonesia) you jump on another bus to Cemoro Lawang, a town near the crater rim. Cemoro Lawang is dominated by two hotels, which keep their prices high and their service quality low. Other hotels are less convenient but equally keen on aping the poor service and rip-off prices of their rim sisters. We were having such a pleasant time in Java, the idea of a grueling trip did not appeal. Arrrgh! What to do? Bromo is one of our must-sees for the whole trip! Anyways, Bromo is not the only volcano on the block so we decided to check out Merapi while we ruminated on our Bromo conundrum.

Mount Merapi: Java’s bad tempered mountain

After Borobudur, we took a bus back to Yogya, jumped on a Trans-Jogya local bus to Condong Catur terminal, and took the minibus to Kaliurang, which is the starting point for a hike on Mt Merapi. Merapi is Indonesia’s most active volcano, which is saying something in this country of 100+ active fire breathers. It has erupted dozens of times in the last century yet still some deluded souls like to summit it. Not I!

Most people stop off in Kaliurang, an agreeable hill station with hundreds of guesthouses and villas for rent, to hike in the area. We stayed at Vogel’s Hostel, a venerable lodging house whose owner, Christian, has been leading expeditions in the area for decades. He is an expert on the mountain and volcanologists from around the world have tapped into his experience when they visit. Christian is over 70 now, and although he doesn’t lead hikes so often these days, he still wakes up at 4am to brief you on the trip. The trip costs $25 per person and includes a hearty breakfast and lunch, and lots of water.

The guides led us through the forests on the slopes of the foothills of the mountain and stop at various points to explain stories from the mountain. You get tons of information, too much if truth be told. The mountain tends to cloud over by 10am so you really want to get to decent viewpoints fast. We had an amazing view of the mountain through the jungle shortly after sunrise. Unfortunately, the admittedly fascinating stories went on too long and by the time we got to a decent clearing, clouds had consumed the mountain.

Merapi Morning
Our best view of Merapi came just after sunrise.

The most amusing, or maybe macabre, aspect of the tour is how many times the guide mentions death! At one point, we were led down into a steep and very unstable area of old lava flow, where locals dig for sand and rock for building. The guide pointed out just as we headed in, that collapsing walls have killed 5 local people this year. We were told not to touch the walls in case they collapsed. Why the hell do they bring people here? It really looks like a mine and is certainly not an area of outstanding natural beauty.

Anyways, onward we trekked! We got to what looked like a fantastic spot for views and photos of the mountain but instead we only had clouds to photo and got annoyed by the jeeps roaring up dirt tracks to deposit local tourists at over-priced cafes in the area. In the past, most people hiked in but now the jeep ride is preferred, so much so that Christian cannot find enough guides to lead the hikes. Jeep drivers earn more, wake up later, and exert themselves less than trek guides. Totally understandable but it is sad that the noisy lazy option will eventually be the only way to approach the great mountain. Mind you, I guess if the fire gods got busy, I would be the first in the jeep to get off the mountain! When the mountain is more active, the tour usually includes a visit to the lava flows but at the moment the volcano is not spewing forth.

The next day we headed back to Yogya to decide on our next destination. We were super-stoked that our decision to travel to Indonesia had come up trumps and we were keen to see more. We ended up foregoing a trip to Bromo for now. We were enjoying the stress free life too much! We decided to head to Gili Air for some beach time with a quick stopover on Bali on the way.

Coming up, we get on the tourist trail in Bali and are converted to the beach life on Gili Air.

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