Wednesday, June 24, 2009


Tropical Paradise? Tourist Honeypot? To be honest, we don't have high expectations of the island of Bali, if only because it is Indonesia's most popular destination, although we aren't so certain when we step off the ferry and find our way to the bus terminal. There is a languid air about the place and of the twenty or so people there, only four look like they are waiting for transport. Then we spot a minibus going in the direction we want, but it's jammed tight, and we aren't tempted. Soon after it leaves. And so does our hope of any further onward travel today. It's only just gone 4 on a Sunday afternoon, but there's not much action going on. What little there is focuses on the Bakso Man. We succumb. There's not much else to do but chew on the rubbery little meatballs. Time passes. We keep on chewing. What we need are other prospective passengers to fill up another minibus, but there's more chance of a snowstorm. Just after 7, whilst we're considering kipping down for the night on the benches, three lads appear. There's now 9 of us, and after a quick conflab with the flabby conman, I mean driver, where everyone agrees to pay a bit more (except us two, because the driver forgets he'd already quoted us a higher price than everyone else) we finally depart for Lovina, a quiet beachy place on Bali's north coast. I'm convinced it's snowing as we leave the terminal, but it could be a bakso-induced hallucination.

We spend a few days lounging in Lovina, a fairly peaceful place, where a few tourists come to escape the party scene in the south. There are more hotels than tourists. I'm not sure if this is a reflection on the tourists, or the optimistic locals. However, we are thrilled to have a room big enough to play frisbee in and an attached bathroom that's larger than most of the rooms we normally get. The Balinese are renowned for their friendliness and openness. So many conversations start with a hello, how are you, where are you from, where are you going? but too many end with the conversation-killing you want transport? Every shop and cafe has a blackboard offering the same services - tours, transport and laundry. One entrepreneur is even offering "laundry transport" - presumably to save you taking it down to the shop yourself. We head on to Ubud, stopping on the way in the hills to visit a small Hindu-Buddhist temple dedicated to the goddess of the waters, Dewi Danu, worshipped by all the farmers. Bali is after all a big rice-producer and there are paddies everywhere. However, we have heard that less and less people want to farm on the island, presumably as tourism is recovering from the 2002 and 2005 bomb attacks and there are other,easier, ways of earning a living. (One popular way is to stand around around on street corners, offering transport. Another one, the woman at our hotel was thinking of starting, is a laundry service for "the prostitutes that come here from Java". Hmm.) It's at the temple that we finally come face to face with Bali's mass tourism. Coach after coach disgorges tourists from other parts of Indonesia, Taiwan, Singapore, Europe, Australia and the US of A. The temple is built in Balinese style, with a series of thatched roofs, on a small island in a lake. Most of the tour groups don't stay long, unless they have opted for the boat ride around the lake. It's fresh up here and we have a chilly evening at our guesthouse chatting with a friendly Dutch couple.

The journey to Ubud seems strangely complicated. First we have to take a bemo to Denpasar, Bali's capital, then another across town between bus terminals, and then a third to Ubud, which is a little bit northwards. (If you're wondering why I'm always writing about the transport on these pages it's because it sometimes comes back to haunt me and writing is a cathartic process. And besides, this is a travel blog.) At the first terminal in Denpasar we seem to hit an invisible brick wall. There is a bemo lined up to go to the next terminal but it is empty. There are no punters waiting, just the strong smell of urine, which reminds us nostalgically of India. No problem, we can wait. We wait over an hour and a half, turning down a few offers of a "special" bemo, or seats on buses going "close to Ubud". We see only one other foreigner in this terminal and we know it's because so few actually use the public transport network. Of course, we are starting to understand why. You need the patience of a saint, and we ain't saints. Mind you we have legs, so we get up to walk. Just as we are striding off a driver catches up with us with a tempting offer to take us to Ubud. Sixty thousand. Thirty each? we ask, and he indicates to us to get in. It's double what we were going to pay, but it's still the best offer we've had. We say yes and finally depart. It all seems too good to be true, and we both have our doubts when the driver tries to dump us on the edge of Ubud into the hands of waiting hotel touts. We ask him to take us to the centre, as agreed. A couple more times he tries to offload us, but we finally reach the gridlocked centre. We pay him the fare and get out. He shouts after us. He wants another 60 thousand! We stride off down the street, ignoring him, and only afterwards do we start to wonder who ripped who off? We're convinced we agreed 60 thousand for two, but maybe......No, we're certain. However, as we walk down the street and merge with all the other tourists, we realise that as long as we're here, there'll always be a bounty on our heads. A man smiles at us as we pass him:

Monday, June 22, 2009

The Big Smoke

"Bromo?" "Bromo?" "Bromo!" A chorus goes up from the touts as we approach the minibus stand. "How much is it?" we ask in perfect Bahasa Indonesia. "25 thousand" "Oooh, that's too expensive. The usual price is 15" "Ahh, you'll bankrupt me!" says the driver. This dialogue is almost word for word from our scripted conversation from our language course notes. There's a couple of local tourists stood to one side. We ask them quietly what they're paying, but they too have been quoted the higher rate, so they're waiting to see if the driver will drop his price. We wait with them, and are joined by Francesco and Matteo, the two Italian brothers we've already met. After an early lunch and the appearance of more local punters the minibus is about to leave. We are offered twenty thousand. We take it, and are about to drive off when the driver notices the other two guys hanging back. Eventually they too agree a price and finally we're off up into the hills and are soon climbing up a good road through farmland on the edges of a huge volcanic caldera. At the top is a small village where we are turfed out. We have a magnificent view overlooking the 'sea of sands' - a vast pit full of volcanic sand in the middle of which sits a small perfectly coned volcano and another flatter crumbled cone which is belching smoke. This latter is Mount Bromo. But we are stood on the edge of what was a much larger volcano, about 6 kilometres across. Volcanos within volcanos. After the larger one had blown its top, new ones emerged in the ashes. It's a fabulous view. But the best view, we are told, is from the high point around the rim and we can go there by jeep early next morning for sunrise. Of course, there's the small consideration of a fee.
With the Italians we join the two Indonesian guys and two young Indonesian women in search for a cheap hotel and all take rooms in a simple losmen (guesthouse). Whilst the Indonesians are keen to take a jeep the next day, we decide to take the path that climbs up the ridge. Francesco and Matteo are keen too so we arrange to set off about 4 am in the dark. There are still a couple of hours of daylight so Gayle and I wander down onto the 'sea of sands'. It's only a half hour walk across to the foot of Bromo and we are soon peering over the edge into the pit of the volcano. A continuous cloud of sulphurous fumes are streaming out of the centre. Enough to put us off boiled eggs for a month. On the way back we are offered horse rides, jeep rides, motorcycle rides. "Jalan jalan" we say, just walking. But after a while there's only so many "jalan jalans" we can utter and we end up ignoring them. As the sun drops so does the temperature and there's a strange feeling of relief as we actually begin to feel cold. And colder. We're so happy to have our sleeping bags. The locals are walking around the village with towels and shawls and hats and scarves. Down below it's probably about 24C at night.
Although Bromo is quite small, it is also quite big. Big business. We haven't seen many tourists around so the next morning comes as a bit of a shock. After a good walk up the ridge we come out onto a road that is lined with old Toyota jeeps. Hundreds of them. At the viewpoint at the top there is a mass of tourists, all wrapped up against the cold. We are probably the only four people who are toasty warm. As luck has it, the sun immediately appears on the horizon, and the crowd emits a united "Ooooooh" as it lurches eastwards to the barrier to get that all important photo. About an hour later they've all gone. We can see where as down below on the sands the jeeps reappear in a cloud of dust to eject their passengers at Bromo's foot. Peace at last. And fabulous views. On the edges of the wider crater the land is green, thick with vegetation and fields of crops. Within it's a dry and fairly barren place. In the distance are other volcanic peaks sticking up above the clouds. Bromo's smoke drifts benignly across the panorama.

Later we retrace our steps down to the hot lowlands and spend a sultry night in a motel-style place near to the bus stand. It's a charming little place that looks like they'd rent rooms by the hour. But it's convenient for us - tomorrow we need an early start to Bali.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Solo (Together)

The city has another name, Surakarta, but is known as Solo. Coming out of the train station we are met by some cheery becak and taxi drivers who smell fresh blood. But we decline their kind offers of lifts to the city centre and catch a bemo instead. The banter has got us a little excitable and Gayle sticks her tongue out at them as we drive off on the minibus, to the amusement of bystanders. Our moment of triumph is short-lived when we realise it's going the wrong way. Nevertheless we're happy to escape all the unwanted attention and it's only a couple of kilometres out of our way. We have no high hopes for the city itself, with a population of over a million and a half, and counting, but it's a stepping stone in the right direction, eastwards, and there's usually good grub to be found if you look hard enough. Sure enough we find a street stall in the evening that has an inspiring number of local punters and a large team of staff to rustle up steaming bowls of seafood noodle soup. We even to get to try out our basic Bahasa Indonesia with the owner, a smiling elderly gent who turns out to speak more English than he initially cracks on.

Out of the city there's one of Java's last Hindu temples, built in the 15th century even as Islam was sweeping the island. Candi Sukuh sits on the flanks of a volcano, and is notable for it's 'erotic' carving. In fact, the carving pe
rhaps reflects the animist beliefs that most Indonesian Hinduism overlays, and the temple is reknown for its fertility symbols and powers. At least it was. The large, and judging by the photos rather graphically carved, lingam over which childless women are said to have jumped in order to improve their odds, has been removed to the national museum in Jakarta. We see no leaping ladies today. However, there is the main temple still standing amongst the trees and in the clouds, looking a bit Aztec, and several statues and carved reliefs featuring such an array of characters we haven't seen the like before. Some remind me of chucking out time at the Whitworth. (That's the pub, not the art gallery.) To add to the mysterious ambience of the place, it starts to rain and we seek shelter with two young Italian brothers, Francesco and Matteo, and about a hundred Balinese teachers who have arrived in a fleet of buses just in time to put their coats on and buy snacks from the Bakso Man. The Bakso Man looks rather unfazed by this, but he's making a killing on what looked like was going to be just another slow Wednesday morning. (Bakso is a delightful concoction of minced meatballs that are boiled until they lack almost all flavour, but at the same time retain their compacted chewy texture. They are usually served in a broth so watery it makes consomme look like porridge. This Bakso Man is serving his in tiny polythene bags with a toothpick. To be fair to him, it's a tricky operation when all your supplies and equipment are racked up on the back of a rusty old bicycle.)

After the rain has stopped we take a track that winds around and down the mountainside, through steep farmland, every fertile inch of which is being cultivated - mostly maize, potatoes, carrots, onions and enormous cabbages - not what I'd have imagined for a tropical island. Dotted throughout the verdant landscape everywhere we look are clutches of houses with tiled roofs or rusting corrugated iron. There are lots of villages and lots of people. The farming looks tough - done by hand on steep terrain - but there's no sign of extreme poverty here, that you might see in India for instance. We greet and are greeted by people we pass by and are helped along our way with directions at the various road junctions. Sometimes it's handy to be in an overcrowded country - otherwise we might still be on that mountain now looking for the right road down.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Shaken but not stirred

Welcome to our new and improved blog with the added benefit, thanks to Google's new microbiological computer interface, of Scratch-and-Sniff (c) technology. Just click on this symbol # and scratch and sniff away.

There are over 240 million people in Indonesia and half of them live in Java, which is about the same size as England. It's kind of crowded. Sometimes it seems that everyone owns a motorbike too, especially when you're trying to cross the road in Yogya. This isn't a big city by Javanese standards, so we go for a walk around, eschewing the multiple offers of a ride from the becak drivers who are everywhere. The becak is a three-wheel cycle-rickshaw, and at each one we pass we are hailed with a "Hello mister, where do you want to go?" Away from you, is what we want
to say. Down at the kraton there's a traditional puppet show going on for the visitors, accompanied by a gamelan orchestra. I'm not quite sure how to describe gamelan, which is a complex music created by striking various brass gongs, upturned pots, and vibraphonic thingummyjigs in a harmonic and rhythmnic fashion. After a while it starts to sound a bit like Pharoah Sanders' backing band. You hear this Indonesian music everywhere and it can be at turns hypnotic and/or mildly irritating. The puppet show itself is rather slow, with one man handling the two-dimensional puppets and speaking all the parts. After a long period of inaction there's a quite dramatic fight scene, which would have impressed anyone who was brought up on Sooty and Sweep. The kraton itself is a rather dull affair - a series of walled compounds with covered tiled sitting areas and some small rooms full of the kind of bric-a-brac you'd see on Antiques Roadshow. There's also plenty of batik on display. Back on the narrow maze of streets surrounding the kraton we pass by the bird market # . There's a variety of songbirds in wicker cages, alongside roosters and pigeons, bats, and boxes of writhing grubs and other critters. A flim-flammer approaches us and in his chat-up he claims to have met Prince Charles in this same bird market last year. We look suitably unimpressed.
Another morning we have a 3-hour introductory class in Bahasa Indonesia with a young student called Curri. The language seems incredibly simple as there are no verbs to conjugate, no tenses and phrases are often distilled to their core words. Mind you, there's four ways to say hello, depending on what time of day it is. After one hour we're already constructing some simple questions and phrases. After two hours we are learning numbers and carrying out some simple interactions. But after two and a half hours the heat and effort is taking its toll and soon after we find ourselves in a rather sparse market with glazed eyes and sweaty brows trying to haggle for fruit
# that neither of us wants. We eventually escape with 250 grams of (undiscounted) peanuts. As we depart Curri encourages us to practise practise practise.
Not far from Yogya are the ruined Hindu and Buddhist temples of Prambanan. They are UNESCO listed and thus attract a high ticket entrance fee. We feel slightly disappointed to find then that the most impressive temples, inside of which, according to our guidebooks, are detailed carvings of scenes from the Ramayana, are currently closed for repair work following an earthquake in 2006. (We had to be in earthquake territory - Indonesia is comprised of so many volcanic islands.) Our disappointment is tempered with the knowledge that we have used our fake and out of date ISIC cards to get in for half price. The temples we can access are still mildly interesting, and stand in green shady surroundings, and hungry for more we wander off along a side road to two more remote structures surrounded by paddy fields.
We now embark on a 3 day whirlwind of a journey that takes on 12 buses and a train, heading first into the hills to Dieng Plateau where there are the oldest Hindu temples in Indonesia. The setting is more impressive than the temples themselves, as we climb to over 2,000 metres to the plateau, which looks more like the top of a vast collapsed volcano. As all over Java, there's still plenty of people around, and no surprising, as this is prime farming country. Every inch of available land is cultivated, and the main crop looks to be potato. A good walk takes us around a sulphurous turquoise lake and to a steaming vent of broiling bubbling mud.

From here we return to Borobudur, Java's finest temple ruins, and a claim to be the world's largest Buddhist complex. Built around the same time as Prambanan, between 700 and 900 AD, the temple is laid out like a mandala but in the shape of a vast hill, built from millions of stone blocks on a large plain. The effect is of one big stupa. Get up close and each tier surrounding the structure is covered in fine relief carving. At the top are three tiers of small stupas, each containing a statue of Buddha gazing out over the land, with a larger stupa at the pinnacle. It's a fantastic construction and we are happy to see the fine carving detailing a huge variety of religious and other scenes.
Worth getting up at sunrise for, and this is quite a rare sentiment coming from me. When the temple was uncovered it was quite badly damaged, and the reconstruction is impressive. A lot of reinforcing concrete has been poured into the foundation walls to protect it from further earthquake damage.
And now another sweaty journey
# as we head east to Solo.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

A cup of Java

The trouble with travelling for a long time on a budget is the risk of losing perspective. We arrive in Jakarta late afternoon and after a long bus ride into the centre find a guesthouse down a quiet alley. The only room they have is air-con and it costs 120,000 rupiah. One hundred and twenty thousand! So we try the place next door and are shown a room for 60,000. We take it and go out to eat. When we get back to the room we instantly feel depressed. It's gloomy, sweaty and miserable. And so are we. But hey, we're only paying 4 quid. Uh oh. That means we just turned down a spotless air-conditioned room for just 8 quid. What's wrong with us? The next morning we quickly change guesthouses.
Jakarta's bigger than London and without the attractions - not the kind of place most people hang around in. We take it easy and explore the old port area of what the Dutch called Batavia. It's a tad shoddy and a bit sad. There are a few old colonial buildings still standing, some at the point of collapse, and a small number beautifully restored, but over the years the city has grown into the Jakarta of today, sprawling inland in a jumbled mess. Amidst all the big concrete buildings there are still the old kampung houses, and from the elevated train you can see red-tiled roofs tucked behind all the main road facades of shops and offices, but there's no sense of a centre and all the new growth and wealth is out in the southern districts. Down by the port the canals built by the Dutch are now stinking open sewers. The fish market is surrounded by a warren of houses and market stalls, some on stilts above the waterways.
We check out the national museum, which costs only 5 pence to enter, and we get some vfm (value for money) with exhibits on the traditions and customs of the country's varied island communities. Disappointingly, there are no shrunken heads on display. There's also a huge amount of Tang, Song and Ming dynasty china which demonstrates how long there's been trade across the South China Seas. Back on the sultry streets we soon decide to sell our souls and have an air-conditioned ice cream in McDxxxxds. Inside we could be in any country, except there's a prayer room beside the toilets.
To escape the big city we visit the botanical gardens of Bogor, a small city. But we need to move on so the next day we take an air-con train to Yogyakarta in Central Java. Actually it's more like a refrigerator with windows and I get off after 8 hours with purple-blue toes. Much longer and frostbite might have set in. But it was worth it for the scenery as we passed volcano after volcano with the vivid green foreground of rice paddies. Farmers bent double working in the slush wearing the classic conical hat of South East Asia.
Yogya is a quieter place and the cultural centre of Java. It holds a special place in Indonesia as the centre of the fight for independence from the Dutch. The sultan still governs here from his historical home, the kraton, a palace courtyard complex surrounded by low-rise houses. In fact not a high-rise is to be seen - are we in earthquake country? On our first night we catch up with Marc and his couch-surfing host, Charlie. We last saw Marc at Bishkek Open Prison, aka Nomad's Home, last June and now we are passing in opposite directions. Charlie takes us for a traditional local meal of gudeg, a stew made with jackfruit and garnished with, buffalo skin I'm sure he said. This is followed by a coffee on a street where the pavements are covered in mats and the mats are covered in students. The coffee is served with a lump of hot wood charcoal, like a smoking black ice cube, which gives the coffee a treacly flavour. This is a country famed for its coffee, but I'm not sure this style would catch on.
One for the barbecue perhaps?

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

KB to KL

Back on the mainland we catch a bus to Kota Bharu, a provincial capital, with a handful of old colonial buildings and traditional Malay wooden houses now surrounded by modern concrete high-rises. We find a cheap room in a guesthouse with partition walls and shared bathroom - this seems to be the norm in Malaysia and is a bit of a comedown after India, especially as we're paying more. But the street food is cheap and cheerful and although there are a few tourists here, there's no hassle and no-one pays us any attention. The town is known for its central market, which is housed in an ugly modern building. Inside it's a warren of stalls selling bright colourful clothes, with fresh food on the ground floor and an endless amount of dried fish and dark jelly-like substance on another level.

Our nightbus to Kuala Lumpur is uneventful, despite the driver's frenetic driving, and we arrive in the city before daylight, meeting Daniel and Alice again. They're heading back to India before their trip ends and we do a book swap with them. We feel that Malaysia has been a good holiday destination because it's ordered and comfortable to get around, but it's also rather dull if you're travelling for a while. This is inevitable I guess after being in India for such a long time, but we have hopes that Indonesia will be a bit more lively. What we have enjoyed here is the food, especially the variety, and the fact that you can eat at anytime more or less and without any fuss - most eating places are simple cafes or street stalls with tables on the pavement.

Our first task in KL is to get our Indonesian visa and we traipse out to the embassy only to find that I am not allowed to enter. The security guard points to a sign that depicts no t-shirts, shorts or flip-flops. He thinks I'm wearing long shorts, when in fact I'm wearing short trousers, but his opinion is the one that counts. While I stew outside Gayle sorts all the paperwork out. Do you have an onward plane ticket? No, not yet, she replies, because we haven't decided where we'll fly from. There's a pause. So Gayle produces a copy of our bank statement to show we're not down-and-outs. Is this in Euros? No, pounds. Ahh, then that's fine. We collect our passports later that day with a 60-day visa. This should get us to East Timor.
We spend the rest of our time here doing a spot of sight-seeing, including a visit to the Islamic Arts Museum, which is fantastic. There's a section on architecture with scale models of classic examples of great mosques and mausoleums across the world: Cairo, Damascus, Jerusalem, Edirne, Isfahan, Bukhara, Samarkand. Apart from Mecca and Medina, we recognise most of them from our journey, and hope to see the one in Xi'an soon. There's also some great textiles, most from Central Asia and Iran. KL is known for its twin towers, now no longer the tallest in the world, and there's not much left of the old city - a few old colonial buildings in a moorish style, including the Friday Mosque. The new National Mosque features a blue/green origami-style roof, rather than a dome, and looks kind of groovy in a sixties way. But the predominant buildings now seem to be the 7-Elevens, KFCs and McDonalds dotted around everywhere. Anyone for a Kenny Rogers Roaster???

Monday, June 1, 2009


Having escaped a caution for wearing an unironed shirt in Singapore, I'm happy to be on a bus heading up the east coast of peninsular Malaysia. We stop off at Kuantan and Kuala Terreganu, two sleepy towns with not much of interest except for the day-to-day life of Malaysia. We're heading for the Perhentian Islands just off the north-eastern coast for some beach time. If we're going to be hot we might as well be somewhere where we can jump in the sea. We get off the boat at Coral Bay and feel slightly underwhelmed by the view - a small bay littered with beach cafes, boats, bungalows and dominated by a huge concrete pier reaching out across the view back to the mainland. It's not too busy or noisy but I groan when someone's sound system starts cranking out the old Bob Marley. It's not quite the haven we were looking for. Undeterred, we head along a path in the jungle to a smaller beach with just a clutch of primitive beach huts on stilts where a motley bunch of people are hanging out. Everyone looks like they've been here a while and we understand why - it's quiet and relaxing and there's good swimming off the sandy beach.After a few days here I'm beginning to think the place would be a great location for a sitcom. The place is run by a Thai-Malay couple with help from three young Thai men who, when not mooching about on the restaurant veranda, appear to be relocating half the beach to a garden at the back. At meal times they also help Madame Zee in the kitchen. Mister Ahar meanwhile spends a lot of time going back and forth to the mainland in his little boat. On our first day here a crew appear to do a catalogue photoshoot. The considered collective opinion is that it's a cheap do - but it keeps everyone amused for a while. The highlight of the afternoon occurs when the model tips over off some bamboo contraption into the sea.
Then there's the other guests. Hanke & Antje look like they might live here, and have got to the point of naming the different cabins. ( Eg. 'The waiting room' - the new arrivals take this one before switching to something better when it becomes available.) We get chatting to Jessica & Calum, a lovely couple from Edinburgh, on a short holiday here. After they leave, Per asks us "Are they posh?" and we say, yes they are, but nice posh. Per is a huge friendly American with a dodgy achilles heel. He regales us with fantastic tales of goalkeeping in Pakistan and coaching in Bhutan. He just might be the first American we've met who not only plays football but calls it by its proper name. He demonstrates his skill with his hands to a young German who keeps prodding Per's achilles heel. Every day he works on rehabilitating his ankle by treading water and going for walks along the jungle paths, inviting everyone to join him. There's also jittery Adrian, who seems to swallow the ends of his sentences like a Hungry Horace, and always looks a little nervous. Now and again others arrive, but don't stay long, in search of a little more comfort perhaps. The huts come with 'residents': large colourful geckos, squirrels that chew through bags to get at food, soap-eating rats. One morning I disturb a long thin snake sunbathing on the rocks. Another day a large monitor lizard lumbers across the beach before sliding into the sea and swimming off around the rocks.
Sadly all good things come to an end, and we have to move on before a block booking of 60 schoolkids and 20 teachers turns up. By this time there's only us and Phillipe, a very funny Frenchman, left to enjoy the surroundings.
Back at Coral Bay we meet Alice and Daniel who have been travelling for a while too. Our last day on the island is a rainy one spent with them in the shelter of a beach cafe talking about Indonesia, novels, conspiracy theories, food, films and everything else (not) under the sun.
we were too timid to ask what they were selling