Itinerary: Yogyakarta – Candi Borobodur – Candirejo – Candi Prambanan – Solo – Tanwangmangu – Malang – Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park – Kalibaru – Ketapang – Gunung Iljen – Lovina – Gitgit waterfall – Pura Ulun Danu – Ubud – Gunung Kawi – Pura Taman Ayun – Jatiluwih rice terraces – Gunung Batur – Senggigi – Gunung Rinjani – Gili Meno
The most heard response to my plan to go to Indonesia was: “Haven’t you been there yet?” So no. I have been to many countries, but I had never been to Indonesia. Until now. Because on Saturday morning, August 29, after a fourteen-hour flight, we land at Jakarta airport. From there we immediately fly to Yogyakarta. At the end of the afternoon we are at our hotel. Time for a refreshing dip in the pool.
Indonesia consists of more than 17,000 (!) islands of which we will visit the modest number of four: Java, Bali, Lombok and Gili Meno. Measured by population size, Indonesia is the fourth largest country in the world: at the moment the counter stands at more than 250 million inhabitants. Sixty percent of thos 250 million live on Java – while Java only covers six percent of the surface of Indonesia. In political and economic terms, Java is the most important island and most Indonesians are of Javanese ethnicity. An estimated 300 languages and dialects are spoken in Indonesia, but even if it is not their mother tongue, which it often isn’t, everyone speaks Bahasa Indonesia.
The country has the largest Muslim population in the world: 86% of Indonesians are Muslim. In addition, animism, Hinduism and Buddhism have left an important mark on the culture of the country. The first contacts of the originally animist Indonesians (even before our time) were with traders from present-day India, through which they came into contact with Hinduism. Trade with the Chinese brought Buddhist influences to the islands from the fourth century, and from the seventh century traders arrived from the Arab world, bringing Islam with them. In the eighth and ninth centuries Hinduism and Buddhism were still dominant and from this time also well-known sights such as the Borobudur stem, but Islam quickly spread over the islands and trading places grew into sultanates (a kind of kingdoms with absolute rulers).
At the end of the sixteenth century, the first Dutch expedition arrived in Java. The Dutch East Indies Company (VOC) was founded in 1602 and in the following years the Dutch began to dominate trade on the islands more and more. The Netherlands wants to monopolize trade to and from Indonesia, by force if necessary. And to a large extent they succeed: around 1800 the VOC dominated the trade in pepper, tea, rubber, sugar, coffee and other merchandise. From the beginning of the twentieth century, the national consciousness of Indonesians grows and after the Japanese occupation in the Second World War, on August 17, 1945, Indonesian nationalists declare independence. The Netherlands responds by sending soldiers to Indonesia. What are still euphemistically called ‘police actions’ in the Netherlands is in fact a war of independence. The Netherlands receives little international support and after much bloodshed the Netherlands is forced to hand over power and on December 27, 1945 Indonesia becomes a sovereign country.
Under the leadership of President Sukarno, Indonesia turns into an autocracy supported by the military. In 1966 General Suharto takes power and what follows is thirty years of military dictatorship. The military has all the power in the country, including running hundreds of companies. There is a lot of corruption and the wealth flows to a small circle of powerful families. The Asian currency crisis in 1997 marked the end of Suharto’s rule and from then on Indonesia develops into the fairly stable democracy it is today.
Yogyakarta and the Candi Borobudur
Okay, so we start on the island of Java. The first full day in Indonesia we will explore Yogyakarta. We do this by bicycle taxi (also known as ‘rickshaw’ or ‘becak’). While the capital Jakarta is the political and economic heart of Indonesia, Yogyakarta is the cultural center. The city is located in central Java and has a population of just under 400,000. The city only has low-rise buildings and is full of restaurants, cafes and hotels. Traffic on the street is busy and dominated by scooters, mopeds and bicycle taxis. Scooters and mopeds are nowadays the mode of transport in Indonesia. Everybody uses them, young and old (some kids on scooters are so young they seem to have just outgrown their tricycle), from veiled girls to entire families (with dad in the front, mom in the back and their child in between). Scooters and mopeds are also widely used for transporting large bunches of sugar cane, piles of wood or other large quantities. Regularly a ‘moving bunch of branches’ passes by.
In Yogyakarta it is immediately apparent that Indonesia is an Islamic country. Five times a day the call to prayer is heard everywhere and also during the rest of the trip we will see that every village has at least one mosque. Indonesians deal with their religion in a fairly loose way. You see many girls with a headscarf, but also many without and many Indonesians combine their Islamic faith with traditional animistic habits. For example, many people here believe in ghosts and the effect of traditional medicines.
Yogyakarta was founded in 1775 and from that year also dates the Kraton, the palace of the sultan of Yogyakarta. The Kraton is a walled complex with courtyards, residences and open pavilions where music and dance performances take place. Centrally located in the complex is the Bangsal Kencana or the ‘golden pavilion’, which functions as a reception hall. Various items are on display in the Kraton, from musical instruments to photos of former sultans, but the Kraton is not just a museum; Yogyakarta is still ruled by a sultan today and the current sultan also lives in the Kraton. Furthermore, gamelan music is regularly played, traditional Javanese music with mainly percussion such as drums, xylophones and gongs. We are lucky: just when we visit the Kraton, a performance is taking place. After the Kraton we visit Taman Sari, the ‘water palace’ of the sultan. It is a kind of open-air swimming pool, built in the mid-eighteenth century. The water palace has long been dilapidated, but has now been completely renovated, although the water of the pool does not look very inviting.
After the gamelan music in the Kraton, we will get to know two other Javanese artistic traditions on this day. First we go to a place where wayang puppets are made. There are two types of wayang puppets: ‘wayang kulit’ are two-dimensional leather-carved puppets used for screen performances, ‘wayang golek’ are three-dimensional wooden puppets. After a short wayang kulit performance (the story of which I don’t really get to be honest) we visit a batik workshop. Batik is a way to provide fabric with color and patterns. Parts of the fabric are worked with wax, after which the other parts are dyed with dye, after which the colored parts are worked with wax and other parts of the fabric are colored. This is how patterns and figures are created and all this is done by hand (although you can also buy cheap factory batik everywhere).
On our second day in Yogyakarta we visit the most famous landmark of Indonesia: the Candi Borobudur. This Buddhist temple was built between 750 and 850, amid the fertile farmlands of central Java. That soil is so fertile because of the volcanic activity (there are 34 volcanoes in Java, 179 in all of Indonesia) and those volcanoes also provided the stones with which Borobudur was built. The amount of visitors is not too bad, I expected it to be busier at such a well-known attraction. The Borobudur is not a ‘normal’ temple in the sense that you can enter it, but more of a kind of huge stupa. The complex measures 118 by 118 meters at the base and consists of six square terraces and three round terraces on top. Stairs lead up on the four sides and on each terrace you can walk a square, clockwise, as befits a Buddhist shrine.
The six square terraces are decorated with a huge amount of carved stone reliefs with stories and depictions of Javanese life about 1,200 years ago. There are also countless Buddha statues that look out over the area (if they still have a head, because many statues lack body parts…). There are a total of 72 round stupas on the top three round terraces. These stupas have diamond shaped openings and inside each stupa sits (or sat) a Buddha statue. The whole is very impressive, especially because of its size, the large amount of Buddha statues and all those detailed reliefs. All those two million stones with which the Borobudur is built and which fit together perfectly. Very beautiful.
After Borobudur we visit Candirejo, a ‘typical Javanese village’ that attracts foreign visitors thanks to the buzzword ‘ecotourism’. In the vicinity of the village, everything is grown, including bananas, cassava, papaya, jackfruit and snake fruit or salak. At a family home we see how cassava crackers for the local market are made. They taste very different from the cassava crackers at home.
Via the Candi Prambanan and Solo to Tanwangmangu
After two days we leave Yogyakarta and drive in an hour to the Candi Prambanan. The Prambanan is the largest and most important temple complex from the time when Java was still mainly Hindu. The complex was built between the eighth and tenth centuries, but much of it was destroyed in a major earthquake in the sixteenth century. People from the area then removed many stones and used them as building material, but a number of temples have been rebuilt. Due to a severe earthquake in 2006, much was again damaged and now hard work is being done to restore the temples. As a result, the complex somewhat resembles a construction site.
But the Prambanan is nevertheless very beautiful. In the center are eight large and eight slightly smaller temple buildings, among others in honor of the three most important Hindu gods: Shiva, Brahma and Vishnu. Surrounding it are the remains of allegedly 244 other temples; Prambanan must have once been a huge complex. The highest temple (the one in honor of Shiva) is 47 meters high and all the buildings are richly decorated with reliefs carved from stone. Inside the temples are statues of the gods in whose honor they were built. It’s all very impressive.
In Solo we stop to stretch our legs and take a look at the local market. You can get everything here, from fruit and vegetables to spices and all kinds of prawn crackers. Always nice to walk across a local market somewhere. Along the way we also stop at the Candi Sukuh, which is known as an ‘erotic temple’. This one is disappointing; it is a small temple, which is however being restored and is therefore hidden under scaffolding. I think we could have skipped it.
Then we drive uphill, up the slopes of Gunung Lawu, towards Tawangmangu. In the middle of the agricultural fields, where rice, bananas, peppers, tomatoes, avocados and much more are grown, we take a beautiful walk of almost 2.5 hours. The contrast with the bustle of Yogyakarta is sharp. Every now and then we pass some houses, where children from the neighborhood always greet us enthusiastically. Locals like to stop to pose for photos. It is a very nice walk, going up and down very steep at times; luckily it is a bit cooler here at 1,100 meters. Nevertheless, I arrive at the end point wet from sweating.
Via Malang to Bromo
Wednesday is a long travel day: from Tawangmangu to Malang in East Java. We drive past endless rice fields, sugar cane plantations and fields where fruit and vegetables are grown. In many places people are working on the land and it strikes me that everything here is done by hand. No agricultural machine in sight. East Java is also significantly less populous than west and central Java; mountains, small villages and agriculture dominate here. In the evening we visit a night market, but it is a bit disappointing. Unfortunately we don’t have much time in Malang, because we leave the next morning. After an hour and a half of driving we transfer to off-road vehicles that we continue with, standing in the trunk.
On the way we are delayed because in a small village we unexpectedly end up in the middle of a kind of carnival procession. The whole village has turned out and, judging by the amount of people, the surrounding area too. There are pick-ups with large loudspeaker boxes from which loud music is played, traditionally dressed dancers, groups of children in costume and a number of Javanese carry a large carnivalesque image with them. This is a purely local party (as in: not touristy) and we’re lucky to fall right in the middle of it. And the locals are just as happy to see us here. They willingly pose for pictures and others want to have their picture taken with us.
After the entire procession has passed, we can continue. On the back of the all-terrain vehicles we see the landscape of East Java passing by. We drive mostly uphill, into the Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park. As we get higher, it also gets colder, the banana trees have given way to conifers. In the villages we pass through, we are waved at enthusiastically again. At the highest point, a beautiful panorama unfolds before us. Below is the barren landscape of Tengger crater, in front of us the conical summit of Tengger volcano and beyond that the smoke rises from Bromo volcano. It’s a beautiful view!
We drive down and from there we start walking, right through the Tengger crater, across the gray sand and the volcanic ash. It’s about an hour’s walk in this rugged environment to the base of Bromo volcano. At the foot of Bromo it goes up (quite a tough walk) and then you come to the first of 255 steps that take you to the rim of the crater of the Bromo volcano. This is where you discover that your condition is in shambles. But it is worth it. At the top you look into the huge crater. A thick cloud of smoke rises from the depths, giving off a pungent sulfur smell. An ominous growl resounds in the depths. Very impressive. For me the visit to the Bromo volcano is the highlight of the trip so far.
The Tengger crater has a diameter of ten kilometers and within it are three volcanoes: the Gunung Bromo (almost 2,400 meters high), the Gunung Kursi (almost 2,600 meters) and the Gunung Batok (more than 2,400 meters). Of those three, Bromo is the least high, but the only active volcano. The last eruption occurred in 2010. From the top of the crater rim of the Bromo you have a wide view over the Tengger crater. It’s like a moonscape. After descending again, we walk straight through this landscape to the other side, where our hotel is located, right on the crater rim. High time to wash all the dust off us. After all the effort we have earned a cold Bintang.
From Bromo via Kalibaru to Ketapang
Starting about 3 a.m., dozens of lights appear in the Tengger crater. They are the lights of the off-road vehicles that are on their way to the highest point of the crater rim in the dark. They take several hundred visitors to a lookout point where from about 4 a.m. the sunrise. It is very busy at the lookout, despite the early hour. There are coffee and eateries and souvenir sellers and especially many visitors, who, like us, are already up since 2:30. But it’s worth it; slowly the sky changes color from dark blue via red and orange to light blue and then the sun appears as a red ball above the horizon. Below are mountain peaks with a blanket of clouds and mist in between. Despite the crowds, the sunrise here is very beautiful to see. After the sun has risen, Bromo Volcano is bathed in the beautiful morning light, with the perfectly conical peak Semeru Volcano in the background, a fantastic view!
Today (Friday) we travel further to Kalibaru, a small village in East Java. Here we will stay one night and relax a bit, before driving the next day to Ketapang, about a two hour drive from Kalibaru on the far eastern tip of Java. Ferries to Bali depart from here. But first we visit another volcano: the Gunung Iljen. This volcano is almost 2,400 meters high, and together with the Merapi (2,800 meters) and the Raung (more than 3,300 meters) it sits on the Iljen plateau. About three hundred men work on and in the volcano. The Iljen volcano produces sulfur. The men cut the pieces of sulfur by hand, often with no more than a scarf covering their faces, and then they lug the sulfur in baskets up out of the crater and then down, about sixty to eighty pounds at a time.
We also have to get up early for this volcano: the alarm goes off at 4 a.m. and after we have been taken to the starting point by terrain vehicles, we start the ascent at six. The distance to the top is about three kilometers, which doesn’t seem like much, but on the way you walk from 1,400 to 2,400 meters. And that’s pretty steep. The path consists of sand and stones and a combination of the thin air and the blowing dust causes you to get out of breath quickly. We walk up at our own pace, occasionally stopping to catch our breath. Once at the top we are rewarded with a great view over the wide crater and the gray-green crater lake below. Though we have been walking among the vegetation the whole time, the top of the Iljen consists exclusively of bare rocks. There is a strong wind and I am covered from head to toe with sand and dust. But it is well worth it, the second highlight of this trip (literally and figuratively).
The descent is a lot faster than the hike up, but you have to be careful not to fall on the loose stones of the path. Because we left so early, it is only 9:15 a.m. when we are back at the starting point. Back at the hotel I dive into the pool. After lunch we leave for the ferry. We leave Java and cross to Bali. Once there, it is a two-hour drive to Lovina, a small village on the north coast of Bali, located on a beach of black volcanic sand.
From Lovina to Ubud
We are in Lovina for one day and after all the efforts of the past few days I do nothing that one day, except eat, read, swim and relax. The next day (Tuesday) we drive south towards Ubud. In Bali, mosques have given way to temples. Ninety percent of Bali’s population is Hindu. Like the Javanese, the Balinese do combine their Hindu faith with old animistic traditions; for example, daily offerings are made to appease the spirits. On the way we stop at Gitgit waterfall and at a local (but very tourist-oriented) market. We also visit the Pura Ulun Danu, an important Hindu temple from the seventeenth century. Built in honor of the Hindu god of water (Dewi Danu), the temple is beautifully situated on an island in Lake Bratan.
In the afternoon we arrive in Ubud. The town itself is very touristy. Many shops that sell Balinese art and souvenirs, many restaurants and cafes too. At the end of the afternoon I take a look at the palace of Ubud, where the local royal family lived, and at the tourist market opposite to the palace. Since the 1970s, Bali has been a tourist destination. After the bombings in Kuta in 2002, the number of visitors fell sharply, but now tourism has returned to its former level. Due to tourism, Bali is a prosperous island and things such as infrastructure and health care have been greatly improved. At the same time, the island has retained its traditional character. The strong village communities, the old traditions and the rice-growing culture have remained unchanged for centuries.
The next day I rent a car with driver to visit a number of places of interest in the area. We first drive to a village northeast of Ubud: Tampaksiring. Here is the Gunung Kawi, one of the oldest temples in Bali, probably built in the eleventh century. Via a number of steps you walk down between the rice fields, where a river flows down a lush gorge. Ten ‘candi’ (a kind of stupas) have been carved out of the rocks on both sides of the river, each eight meters high. There is no one else there and so there is a serene peace, you only hear the flowing of the river. It feels like being thrown back in time here. It’s a beautiful place.
After the Gunung Kawi we drive to the Pura Taman Ayun, a large temple complex southwest of Ubud. As a non-Hindu you are not allowed to enter the temple, but you can walk around it and view the complex over the not too high wall. Within the wall of the temple built in 1634 are at least ten ‘meru’ or pagodas of different heights. This temple is very different from the temples I have seen before on Java and Bali and this one is also very beautiful.
As a third attraction I visit today is Jatiluwih. Ancient rice terraces lie on the slopes of Gunung Batukan. They are part of the Balinese rice-growing culture which has been declared an intangible world heritage by UNESCO. From above you have a beautiful panoramic view of the rice terraces. Green rice paddies as far as the eye can see, all irrigated by an ingenious system of narrow canals that run between the paddy fields. Via a path you can walk down, along and through the rice fields, a nice walk (but also very warm, fully exposed to the blazing sun).
The next day we drive northeast from Ubud to Lake Batur. This lake fills a large volcanic crater that lies between the Gunung Batur (more than 1,700 meters) and the Gunung Abang (more than 2,100 meters). This used to be one big volcano, but since a big eruption the two peaks are separated by the crater lake. On the Batur you can still clearly see the black lava flows. After visiting a coffee plantation, we get on mountain bikes for a 25 kilometer ride. From the mountainous area of central Bali, the route mainly goes down (which means you’re braking almost all the time, because otherwise you’ll go down too fast), through villages and past rice fields where Balinese are at work. It is a very nice bike ride, which gives you the opportunity to see the local life in Bali up close. The rest of the afternoon we have time to relax.
From Ubud to Senggigi
On Friday we are already two thirds of the way through Indonesia. We leave Ubud and drive to Padangbai, where the ferry to Lombok departs. It is about an hour and a half sailing, in a not too big boat that bounces up and down on the waves (not nice for people who are easily seasick). On the way we see the three Gili islands (Gili Trawangan, Gili Meno and Gili Air) to the left. Gili Meno is our last destination of this trip. Arriving at Lombok, we moor at a floating jetty and from there it is another half hour drive to Senggigi.
Muslim Lombok, the westernmost island of the Nusa Tenggara region, is less touristy than Bali, but an island that is on the rise. Here you will also find beautiful beaches, located on bays with palm trees and an azure blue sea, rice fields, forests, the second highest volcano in Indonesia: the Rinjani. Our hotel for the coming nights has cabins built against a slope. It is a bit of a climb to get to mine, but from there I have a beautiful view over the bay and the Bali Sea. In the afternoon I dive into the hotel pool and relax on a bed by the pool for a few hours.
The next morning I have a hearty breakfast, because today we are going for a 35 kilometer bike ride. Despite it being sweltering hot, this bike tour, just like the one in Bali, is very beautiful. Every now and then the route goes slightly uphill, so unlike the bike ride on Bali, we have to make an effort here. On mountain bikes we ride along rice fields, peanut plantations and through small villages where we are greeted enthusiastically. Many people live in very primitive houses and every village we pass through has at least one mosque. Everywhere people are working on the land. We visit a local market and at the end of the bike ride we visit the Taman Pura Lingsar, a special temple, because it is used by Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims. It is a beautiful bike ride, well worth it.
After enjoying the sunset on Senggigi beach in the evening, we drive from Senggigi to Tetebatu on Sunday morning. In this (very) small village on the flank of the Gunung Rinjani, there is nothing to see or do. But when we get there, there’s a local festival going on, where traditional stick fights take place. In a meadow on the edge of the village, people (mainly men) from miles around have gathered to watch the fighting. The fights are man to man and are accompanied by uplifting music. There are some serious blows, but there is also a part show in it. The public reacts enthusiastically. It is a lot of fun to experience this, especially since it is a local event, attended by only a handful of tourists.
Because I have seen enough rice fields and villages by now, I take it easy the next morning. Then we drive from Tetebatu back to Senggigi, from where we leave for Gili Meno, in a small boat that rocks back and forth on the waves. There is no jetty on Gili Meno, so while a few men more or less stop the boat, we step out of the boat into the water and onto the beach. Gili Meno is one of the three islands off the coast of Lombok. Here we will spend the last two days of this trip. We sleep in houses close to the beach. After a short but refreshing swim in the azure water, it’s time for a Bintang and a bite to eat, on the beach, overlooking the sea, Gili Air and beyond the mountains of Lombok. Not bad and again a very nice evening.
The next morning we are picked up at 8 a.m. for a snorkeling tour. In half a day we sail along the most beautiful snorkeling spots around the Gili Islands. As soon as you jump overboard, you swim among the fish, from very small to quite large and with beautiful colors. All you have to do is put your head under water and you’re in another world. In many places the bottom is covered with coral. The coral has less color here than at the Great Barrier Reef, but here they have something I haven’t seen there: sea turtles! We see several and one swims quietly with us for a long time, apparently used to the fact that people are snorkeling around him. Really beautiful to see these animals in their natural environment. After snorkeling at five different spots, we head back to Gili Meno.
The rest of these last two days we spend on and at the beach. The weather is beautiful and it has been the whole trip. Usually around thirty degrees, sometimes a little warmer, sometimes a little less warm. Read a little, listen to a little music, eat something, enjoy the view over an azure blue sea, it’s a relaxed end to the trip.
The return trip…
On Thursday morning we sail from Gili Meno back to Lombok. Then we drive to the airport for our flight to Jakarta, where we will transfer to our flight to Amsterdam. But the return trip goes very different than planned. We are less than fifteen minutes in the air from Lombok when the plane turns around. There is a problem with the flaps of the wings. A little later we are back at Lombok airport. First, the flight is postponed. Then it is cancelled. And so we have a problem. First we are told that we have to go to the check-in desk, and then we are directed to Garuda’s office. More people are now gathering there who want their flights rebooked. What follows is a good test of our patience, tolerance and ability to put things into perspective. Someone from Garuda puts our names on a list for the next flight and then we have to wait for confirmation.
That takes a long time and then we are sent back to the counter. After waiting for a while (while three people from Garuda behind the counter are busy with all sorts of things, but we don’t hear anything) it turns out that we are not on the passenger list of the next flight, but on the standby list . So there is no certainty that we can go on that flight. Again time passes – we just ask, insist, remain friendly, wait patiently – and meanwhile Indonesians pass by left and right, ignore us, say something to the people of Garuda, wave a credit card and then leave with a boarding pass . So it looks like Garuda is giving away chairs to Indonesians and we are left where we are. Finally (more than two hours later) we are told that there are still five seats available. We are quickly check in, because the flight is about to depart, and we run to the gate.
However, the next problem is our connection in Jakarta. According to the original flight schedule, we had a transfer time of no less than six hours, so we had some leeway. But due to all the vicissitudes on Lombok, those six hours have completely evaporated. Our alternative flight arrives in Jakarta the moment our connection departs. Garuda’s people say us they will try to make the plane wait until we get there, but they can’t guarantee anything. So we can also end up stuck in Jakarta… The purser on board knows about our transfer problem and halfway through the flight he comes to tell us that the flight to Amsterdam is waiting for us. Yay!
At Jakarta airport we are the first to get off the plane (which leads to surprised looks from the rest of the passengers) and we are met by someone from Garuda, who accompanies us and collects the boarding passes for us. We are guided past the security checks and queues and delivered neatly to the gate. There we see that our flight to Amsterdam has indeed been set to ‘delayed’ and will depart with an hour’s delay. As chaotic as it was at Lombok airport, when our rebooking had to be arranged and everything remained unclear for so long, it is all so well arranged once we are on our way. And so it is possible that we arrive at Schiphol the next morning, although with an hour delay, but still reasonably according to plan. From the departure from Gili Meno to the moment I arrive home, I have been on the move for 32 hours…