Indonesia is a dramatic collage of about 17000 islands most of which are uninhabited. Each of these islands has its own distinct history, culture, ethnicity, topography, and yet when it comes to tourism, Indonesia is most well- known for good ol’ Bali. When we started to plan this trip, our intention was to cover as much as possible, and we were determined to not spend more than a day in Bali. That was before we discovered that Bali was a complex mash-up – beaches in Kuta, fields in Ubud, the dive sites of Tulamben… but let’s save that for another paragraph.
Bangalore Jakarta Yogyakarta
Our Indonesian adventure started in Yogyakarta, the cultural capital of Indonesia. The special Region of Yogyakarta, or simply Jogja, is backpacker’s haven. Keep an eye out for vibrant graffiti, street-side music performances, quaint boutique hotels & a bustling market selling all manner of trinkets for next to nothing.
A short drive from Jogja, is Borobodur. This majestic 9th century temple – the largest Buddhist temple in the world – stands proud strong despite decades of corrosive tectonic activity. Best visited at sunrise or sunset, you absolutely must take a guide, so that you can hear all about the history of Jawa (yes, Jawa not Java), of Buddhism and the kings who contributed to building this magnificent structure.
Each of the 7 visible levels is dotted with statues of the Buddha, and the trademark inverted bells. These levels are also synonymous with man’s pursuit of Nirvana. The lower levels are magnificently carved panels, depicting the wantonness of human life and as you climb higher, you will see the carvings become more and more stoic, and gradually disappear, representing supreme detachment from worldly pleasures.
That evening, back in Yogja we caught a showing of the Ramayana Ballet, performed against a backdrop of Prabanana Temple. It was such an interesting experience to watch familiar stories that are sewn into your own culture, in threads of a particular colour, being narrated through a completely different lens. Not to mention being the only group that had the complete “inside story” amidst rows of confused first-timers. We had a most amusing intermission, filling in everyone who would listen, on bits of the plot that the ballet had taken creative liberties with!.
Yogyakarta Surabaya Cemoro Lewang
Next on our list, was the highlight of our trip – A trek to Mount Bromo – one of Indonesia’s most famous active volcanoes.
Getting to Mount Bromo itself, is no easy task. A train from Jogja to the city of Surabaya, and a 5-hour car drive from Surabaya to the small hamlet of Cemoro Lawang – the last inhabited post before the massif. We reached Cemoro shortly before sunset, and checked into a non-descript apartment.
Beware, there are absolutely no restaurants in this area; we relied mainly on packaged food and a darling old woman who was generous enough to cook us a no-frills yet delectable version of Nasi Goreng in her tiny , dusty provision store. Cooked rice fried with butter, garlic, eggs, and finished off with generous sprinkling of fresh spring onions, accompanied by coke, that looked like it was bottled in 1988.
The trek to the volcano starts fiercely early. First, you take a jeep to Penanjakan peak, a hill that stands facing Mount Bromo, where you can catch the sun breaking into the skies, lighting up the volcano. You must start early, by 4:30 AM, otherwise your jeep will end up at the absolute end of a long line of parked jeeps, making it a longer walk up to the viewpoint.
This peak has a host of shops, that at 5:00 AM are ready to serve you the most essential of supplies as you trudge up in the bitter, bitter cold. Woolens, steaming mugs of coffee, instant noodles… and masks. You must buy masks, to protect yourself from the sulphur fumes that you will encounter when you make the actual climb up Bromo. Also remember to dress in layers! The temperature soars as the morning progresses.
The sunrise itself, is simply breathtaking, the dark silhouette of the volcano, far in the distance, getting sharper and sharper, as a docile orange sky quickly gives way to fiery red – quite like the realization that in a few minutes from now, not only will you tear yourself away from this placid setting and hurtle towards an actual active volcano, but you will climb up ,up, up to the mouth of the crater.
The jeeps will then take you to a point where just half a km of gritty, dirty white sand separates you from the volcano. At this point, you become increasingly aware of a consistent, omnipresent dull roar in the distance.
You can choose to either ride on horseback, or walk the whole way – both options will land you at the foot of the volcano ,where a treacherously steep flight of stairs lead up to the crater. It can get a little suffocating with the heat, and the overpowering smell of sulphur, and the mounting physical effort. Tongues of lava tamed over the years, become more and pronounced on either side of the steps. As you get closer to the Creater, (typo intended) you will be greeted with clouds of dense smoke pouring out lazily, eerily and the erstwhile dull roar amplified into a cocktail of thunder, crashing sea waves, and a thousand planes taking off at the same time
While you can’t actually see hot lava, standing at the crater is an experience like no other – and strangely enough, save but a railing no longer that 4-5 ft at the mouth of the steps, the rest of the crater rim has simply no barricade. You are expected to walk around, explore, quite literally while being on the edge.
Having conquered the world, we turned back to Surabaya, this time to Surabaya airport, and finally we were enroute to Bali.
Cemoro Lawang Surabaya Bali (Denpasar)
Bali in itself is sufficient to fill a 5-day vacation. There are options and variety in practically everything to meet the needs of the most persnickety tourists, particularly when it comes to food. While Javanese food had been an absolute delight, with its light broths and intense flavoursome meats, it was a welcome change to see familiar comfort food in Bali. Getting around is ridiculously easily, and you can rent bikes at every corner
A shopper’s paradise, you can spend hours walking around picking up delightful souvenirs, clothes at a great bargain. Watch out for specialty stores that sell jewellery, Uluwatu lace, and of course organic beauty products. If street shopping is not your style, then you can spend an evening at Bali Sky Walk, where all the big brands have stores.
We spent the first few days in Kuta. The beach stretch of Seminayak is bursting with bars and stores that you just cannot get enough of. If you want a quieter getaway, you must head to the Blue Point beach. This magical beach is a scene straight out of the Magical Faraway Tree or the Wishing Chair! The waterfront is veiled by a cliff, and cut right into the cliff, are shops selling beachwear, knick-knacks, little eateries overlooking the water, and even some extremely upmarket bars. One narrow flight of rock cut steps, interspersed with rope walkways, laces through the cliff, and is the only means for getting from one point to another. The perfect place for a swim and nibbling on bar snacks while watching surfers from across the world show off their skill against a picturesque setting sun.
Next up, was the land-locked region of Ubud. A must-do in Ubud, is an early morning walk, through the paddy fields. We spend a lovely morning in the Campuhan Ridge Walk, followed by a sumptuous lunch at Kayun Restaurant that serves traditional organic food. There are a host of activities to do in Ubud, from yoga retreats, spas, coffee plantation walks (of course, try the infamous Kopi Luwak), batik workshops and silver jewelry crafting. I even got to take a workshop on making organic beauty products.
A ferry ride away from Bali, are the famous Gili Islands. A bouquet of three islands, Gili T is paradise, its Mushrooming tourism has turned the little island into a party capital. Only mode of transport is by horse-cart. Good for a day’s visit, if you have time at hand, you must factor in bad weather, and awful ferry delays. We ended up spending more time getting to Gili and back, rather than in Gili, but it was absolutely worth the Trip.
Our 10-day holiday was over before we knew it. And we didn’t even get to cover Raja Ampat, East Nusa Tenggara or Komodo. This will require another visit to Indonesia and another post.
P.S. My home-made eye cream is now available on demand! 😀