Tour of Sumatra, Java and Bali
Mountainscapes with paddies and palm trees
On Sumatra, one can walk near orang utans in the rain forest of Gunung Leuser, visit the Adats and the Batak people's longhouses, or Samosir in the Toba crater lake and the colorful market of Bukittinggi. On Java, one should visit the Borobudur, the palaces of the sultan in Jogjakarta, Solo, the Bromo volcano and the Prambanan temple. On Bali, Lovina Beach and the botanical gardens of Bogor are visited and in Ubud, finally, tourists are used as a playground by macaques.
Travelogue & photos: Johan Siegers
Our resort can only be reached via a footbridge
Once we've passed through customs we notice how hot and humid it's here on Sumatra. A bus takes us to Bohorok, to the resort where we'll spend our first night. It takes between three and four hours to cover the 95 km distance to the resort. The road is in very bad shape, with deep potholes and parts that are washed away.
Different kinds of coconut palms grow on both sides of the road. One kind produces the well-known coconuts, the other has smaller fruits, from which coconut oil is won.
Our resort, a collection of vacation homes, is surrounded by nature and can only be reached via a footbridge. A heavy thunderstorm brings much needed cooling.
Orang utans in National Park Gunung Leuser
Bohorok lies in a rainforest, on the edge of National Park Gunung Leuser. The hike through the forest is described as tough. That is not exaggerated: it turns out that it has 35 per cent inclines. Fortunately there are people who (for a fee) help hikers who aren't fit enough to climb up and down the slopes.
The trail is covered with tree roots and sometimes really big steps are needed to climb over them, with surprisingly few footholds. On the way, we feed orang utans bananas.
On the way back to our resort, we have to cross a river, which is done by cleverly using a kind of canoe attached to a long rope.
We visit a crocodile farm where crocodiles swim in a lake. Others are kept in overcrowded basins, sometimes stacked in layers. Not a good way to house these animals.
Our next hotel is high up in the mountains, so the bus has to make a heavy climb. In the evening we hear monkeys around the hotel.
The Batak people
The traditional longhouses are shaped like ships
The authentic Karo Batak, in the mountains north of Lake Toba, still has several traditionally built longhouses. Their shapes are based on the shape of a ship. They are made of bamboo and reed.
Several families live together in a longhouse, because family ties are all-important. Inside it's somewhat stuffy, because of the cooking. Cats are warming themselves near the fire.
In the Simalungun King's Palace we see how a Batak royal family lived. The king had several wives who slept seperate from him. Every now and then they were chosen to sleep with the king. The buildings around the palace housed guards or were used for other purposes, like cooking.
Lake Toba is the largest and deepest crater lake of southeast Asia. 75,000 years ago, a volcano erupted in a gigantic explosion. The ashes spread high in the atmosphere all over the world, causing an ice age. A boat takes us to the island of Samosir, which lies at the center of the lake.
The next day we can choose between a descent along narrow sand paths and a boat trip, on which we'll also visit a school and a former execution site. The boat takes us to Honeymoon Island for a copious lunch. On the way we see elderly women in canoes, fishing. This way, people can remain active within their community until very old age.
After lunch we attend the performance of a dance which is traditionally performed at wedding ceremonies. The slaughter of a calf, usually accompanying this ritual, is fortunately left out.
Before we visit the school, we sponsor the local economy by buying pens and notebooks. I hand them over to the teacher, because I wouldn't know how to distribute them among the pupils. That is not a problem for her: she gives every child one pen or one notebook until they're all gone.
The neatly uniformed children sing two songs, one in Indonesian and one in Dutch. This last one they must have learned phonetically, because Dutch is no longer taught here. We didn't really need the singing, but apparently it's a custom here.
At the execution site we are told how the Batak used to punish criminals. For light offenses, the criminal was locked up beneath the home of the king. More serious crimes were punished by death. The criminal was decapitated, after which his heart and liver were cut up and eaten by the rest of the community. The moon calender decided which was the right date for the execution.
The way to the exit leads along the souvenir shop, of course. In June, it's still preseason. Somtetimes it's as if we're the only tourists.
Fish and chicken are fresh on the Pasar Atas, that is: alive
It takes two long days to travel from Lake Toba to Bukittinggi, southward through the Bukit Barisan mountain range. Fortunately, we stop a few times on the way, once in a traditional Adat village, another time at a sulphuric hot-water source.
The road is terribly winding. Almost every 100 meters there is a sharp turn. Several members of our travel group experience different degrees of carsickness.
I'm glad I don't have to drive here. We frequently see cars overtake others when they really shouldn't. But in these cases, both cars just partly drive on the roadside. We also see packed taxi vans with people sitting even on the roofs.
We spend the night in Sipirok. On a herb plantation we watch a trained monkey pick ripe coconuts from a tree. He is rewarded with pieces of coconut. We still think it's not right. The monkey should be free and live in the forest.
Because the whole area is hilly, rice is grown on terraces. The terraces' raised edges prevent the water from flowing down immediately. An irrigation system keeps the rice plants wet at all times.
It is labour-intensive. Not only are rice plants planted and harvested manually, the raised edges of the terraces also need constant attention and maintenance.
At the equator there is the well-known show in which water flowing into a drain turns clockwise in the northern hemisphere en counter-clockwise in the southern hemisphere.
If it hadn't rained, I might have wanted to show how I can make the water turn either way by tilting the funnel and pouring the water either left or right into the funnel. This gives the water a "push" which is stronger than the rotation of the earth at 50 meters from the equator.
In stead of joining the group that is going to hike in the canyon near Bukittinggi I decide to visit the nice, compact center of Bukittinggi. But first I wave goodbye to the hikers from a lookout point which is populated by monkeys.
Though it's clear they hope to get food, they haven't been spoiled to the point where they become agressive or pushy. We have a great view of the Sianok Canyon here.
The Pasar Atas is a colourful market where the local population sells fruit, clothes, jewelry and other merchandise. Of course, there is also fresh fish and chicken: that means they're alive, or they wouldn't be fresh. On request, the chickens are slaughtered. A chicken is beheaded and processed under my nose.
Nearby is a big belltower, built in 1920 by the Dutch, who at the time still were the colonial rulers of Indonesia.
The fort, the zoo and the museum made a deal, so one can't visit one without also visiting the others. In and by itself, that's not a problem, but 100,000 Rp to bring a camera with you is for Indonesian standards a ridiculous price (without camera, the entrance fee is 8,000 Rp).
Instead, I have a delicious lunch at the Apache café, a kind of backpackers hangout. In retrospect, I'm happy with my choice. All that's left of Fort de Kock is a water tower and the zoo is described on wikitravel.org as a pathetic show of depressed orang utans and obese bears.
At sunset we return to the lookout point to watch the megabats (also called fruit bats or flying foxes). They fly from the canyon to the fruit trees in the forest around this time.
The hike to the Maninjau crater is too hard for me, so I stay on the bus to a resort on the Lake of Maninjau. Enjoying the view of the crater lake, I spend the time reading and listening to music on my terrace.
On the other side of the lake clouds hug the mountain peaks. Tomorrow we'll take an airplane to Java from Padang.
The Borobudur has over 2,600 relief panels
The Borobudur is a Buddhist landmark from the ninth century. The compound is shaped like a pyramid and has over 2,600 relief panels and 500 Buddha statues. When its construction was finally finished after 75 years or so, the building was covered in a thick layer of ashes from several volcanic eruptions.
The temple was abandoned and forgotten until it was discovered in 1814. A long and difficult process followed of cleaning away the ashes and restoring the partially collapsed temple. Eventually, the temple was completely taken apart and rebuilt on a new foundation. The Borobudur is on the Unesco list of World Heritage.
The stone reliefs tell the story of Buddhism. All the way up are several stupas with Buddha statues. Early in the morning it's still reasonably quiet here, but soon it gets more crowded.
Nearby is the Mendut temple from the same period. It's smaller than Borobudur but has a large Buddha statue in good condition. Remarkable is that this Buddha doesn't sit in its usual lotus position, but with both feet on the ground, as if it's sitting in a chair.
Batik is a method of dying fabric, in which the parts that should not be dyed are covered with wax, an extremely labour-intensive job. When this is done, the fabric is submerged in a dye bath and the parts that are not covered with wax absorb the dye. In this way, the fabric is dyed one colour after another.
The fabric is very expensive for Indonesian standards. But for us, Westerners, 50 euro for a 80x80 cm piece of fabric is affordable. They take their time to show us how the fabric is made. The assortment in their store indicates that there is another workshop elsewhere.
The palace and the private swimming pools of the sultan
In Jogjakarta we visit the Kraton Ngayogyakarta Hadiningrat, the former palace of the sultan. It was built in 1755 and, according to our standards, it is not exactly a paragon of luxury. The extensive explanation of the daily life of the sultan leaves me with the feeling that we haven't seen everything and that the tour is more about the sultan than about the palace.
The Water Palace (Taman Sari) is named for the large number of swimming pools it houses. In the past, these ruins were the private swimming pools of the sultan. Now they're all abandoned, partly because the pools were damaged by earthquakes.
Afterwards we pay a short visit to the bird market; they really sell birds there. Mostly pigeons for flying competitions, but also decorative and song birds. We return to our hotel by becak (bicycle taxi), but not without stopping in the center of Jogja, as the city is called here. It's a big city with modern department stores full of luxury commodities. Because I want to eat something that is not Indonesian, I eat at McDonalds (shame on me).
In the evening we visit a performance of the classic Ramayaa ballet, accompanied by a gamelan orchestra. The costumes are gorgeous, but one and a half hours of dance is a little bit too much of a good thing. As pretty as the subtle hand and foot movements are, after a while it all looks the same.
It turns out that I'm not the only one who feels this way: after an hour some people in the audience leave quietly.
The Prambanan temple is the largest on central Java
The palace of the sultan in Solo can't be visited, unfortunately. It is closed because of wedding preparations. We can only admire the golden carriages, some of which are Dutch made. Everywhere people are braiding wreaths and flower garlands.
The Prambanan temple between Yogjakarta and Solo is the largest Hindu temple on central Java. Unfortunately we can only see the outside: the temple was severely damaged during the last earthquake in this area, about two years ago. There is danger of collapsing and people are working hard to restore the temple. Everywhere in the compound stones lay scattered which are part of the temple, but have been set apart after earlier earthquakes, to be replaced later.
The Sukuh temple, built in 1473, has some erotic images, even though nowadays we aren't shocked anymore by the relief of a man with a clearly visible penis. In the past, the temple was used for all kinds of fertility rituals.
On the way to Malang we visit a cane-sugar plant. We see how the sugarcane stems are ground, sprinkled with hot water and lots of other things. I don't understand the process completely, partly because it so noisy and dusty that I can't hear everything that is being said, or because I choose to keep a distance. Eventually the raw sugar is filtered, washed and bleached and sugar remains.
A constant stream of sulphuric vapor rises from the crater
On the way to Bromo we pass the gorgeous tea plantations of Wonosari, where we will take a walk. Our bus is unsuitable for the last part, so we are transferred to a truck. Standing on the partly open loading platform we bump over the paths.
Even though the path is strewn with rocks, it's a beautiful walk. In the fields the tea pickers are harvesting tea leaves. The upper two leaves are top quality and a few leaves below those produce a lesser quality of tea. Large groups of swallows float over the fields.
We spend the night in the Lava View Lodge. "Lava view" is at this time slightly exaggarated, but we do have a view of a valley with several volcanoes, among which the ever-smoking Bromo.
The next morning we board jeeps at 4 AM. It's only 5 degrees centigrade, so a coat or fleece jacket is in order. The caps and gloves that are sold here seem a little too much of a good thing, though.
In the dark, the jeeps take us to an altitude of 2770 meters on Mt. Penanjukan. Some of us initially hoped we would be the only ones at the lookout point, but the number of jeeps arriving from the hotels grows quickly enough to crush that hope.
From this lookout point we see the sun rise. It's very impressive. In the valleys around the volcanoes the morning fog hasn't lifted yet.
To the south we have a view of the Semeru volcano, which spits out a large plume of smoke every 20 minutes. The Semeru is still active and sometimes produces pyroclastic streams of lava. Those are the most devasting, consisting of lava, gas, rocks and ashes.
The sun rises fast this close to the equator. You can literally see it rise over the horizon.
When the sun has risen, the jeeps take us into the crater of the age-old Tengger volcano. In this gigantic crater lies the Bromo volcano which we are going to visit. The last part is covered on horseback. That saves us the climb to the foot of the volcano. If you'd rather walk, that is possible too.
It takes a little getting used to if you've never been on horseback, but at a footpace it's not hard. The horse responds to minimal pulling at the reins. For the most part, I let it find its way by itself. It probably knows the way much better than I do.
The stone stairs with almost 300 steps we have to climb ourselves. The steps go up steeply all the way to the edge of the crater, but there is a handrail and it's possible to take frequent breaks.
Once there, you can see the inside of the Bromo volcano. The volcano is not yet extinct and sulphuric vapors constantly rise up. Luckily, the wind blows them away from us: sulphuric dioxyde smells like rotting eggs.
At the top there are people who sell small bouquets which one is supposed to throw into the volcano to appease it. But also without flowers it fortunately doesn't erupt right away.
After admiring everything we return to our hotel for breakfast. The rest of the day we'll be en route to Kalibaru. The distances are huge and traffic isn't always moving as fast as it should. Overloaded trucks that won't go faster than 30 k/p/h up a mountain and light motorcycles, often with lots of luggage, have to be overtaken at the rare moments that there is no oncoming traffic on the busy road.
We had a few of those long days of travel and to be quite honest, I'm getting fed up with them. There is enough to see outside, but constantly sitting in bus seats gets upleasant. Mountainscapes with paddies and palm trees also become common sights after a while.
Sunday in Kalibaru finally is a quiet day. We sleep in and have a late breakfast. It may sound strange, but this is what we needed.
In the afternoon we tour a kampung (village), followed by a ride on a diesel train. One of our traveling companions works for a railway company and talked to the staff of the diesel train. A small group is allowed to ride on the engine, the rest sits in the carriages. It is a unique experience.
Two stations later, we get off the train and return to our hotel in a horse-drawn wagon.
The macaques in Ubud use me as a playground
The ferry takes us from Java to Bali in less than an hour. Until the ferry leaves, we amuse ourselves with throwing coins in the water, which then are brought to the surface by children.
On Bali we visit the Hindu Pulaki Temple, west of Lovina. We all have to wear wraps that cover the lower part of our bodies, even when you already are wearing long trousers. The temple is simple, but beautiful. We are not allowed to see everything, some spaces are sacred. Food offerings are kept behind fences to prevent monkeys from stealing them.
It's a lot hotter on Bali, around 34 degrees centigrade. Bali is also a lot more touristy than Sumatra or Java. The landscape is still gorgeous: paddies, palm trees and mountains in the distance.
Our accommodation for the next two days is by Lovina Beach, which has black volcanic sand. Not appealing to lie down on.
Women who sell cloths and offer massages (non-erotic) walk along the beach. I notice that lots of Indonesians have their vacations here as well. And of course Australians: Bali is only a short flight from there.
The town center of Lovina is at a 10 minute walking distance from our hotel. It has mostly souvenirshops and restaurants. The sidewalks are in bad condition. They consist of slabs of concrete, placed over one meter deep (and wide) gutters that provide drainage for rain water.
Nothing wrong with that, except that in some places slabs are missing or have big holes. You really have to look where you're going.
On the way to Ubud we stop at some outlook points, like the Ulun Danu Temple in Lake Bratan. The botanical garden in Bogor is with its 15,000 different species of plants from all over the world the largest one I ever saw. Unfortunately only a few plants are in bloom, I guess it's the wrong season.
At a gallery we see painters work who are still being trained. The quality of their work shows it. It doesn't appeal to us.
It's quite mountainous here. Our bus apparently has a weaker engine than the one we had before and sometimes it has difficulty riding up a mountain.
Once we're in Ubud I take a swim to cool down. Then I visit the Sacred Monkey Forest Ubud Sanctuary, a place where monkeys roam free. You can walk among them, in a forest with temples here and there (which explains the 'sacred'). At the entrance you can buy bananas to feed the monkeys.
I don't do that and just sit down somewhere. Soon a group of monkeys (macaques) discovers me. They clamber all over me, use me as a play ground and sit on me.
One of the monkeys notices that there are things in my trousers pocket. It bites the pocket to find out if it's edible. When it accidently pulls open the Velcro of the pocket, the sound scares it. But soon it recovers and tries to get its little hands in my pocket. To prevent it from stealing my wallet, I quickly close the pocket. The monkey looks angry at me, but doesn't threaten yet. I don't feel like getting bitten by a monkey, and avoid a confrontation. Instead I get up, usually a good way to get rid of monkeys. It tries to hold on to my shirt, but has to let go and jumps to the ground.
Ubud is a very touristy place. It has lots of stores with wood carvings and paintings, varying from kitsch to art. Eventually I can't resist the temptation to buy a souvenir: a pretty wooden mask.
The asking price is 450,000 Rp (ca. € 32). One has to bargain here, so I look doubtful and look at other masks.
The salesperson immediately says that he also has other, cheaper masks. But they don't look as good as the first one, so I return to my first choice and ask if I can buy it for 300,000 Rp. The salesperson takes 50,000 off the price, but that's not enough. Eventually we come to an agreement. I probably still pay too much, but for western standards it's cheap and so both of us are happy.
We take a workshop Balinese cooking. The basic ingredient is a mixture of spices, bumbu Bali, of course made from fresh ingredients. We have to cut ginger, garlic, peppers and other spices into small pieces and then ground them into a puree in a mortar.
With this bumbu we make cram cram soup, two chicken dishes, chicken sateh, a mixed vegetable dish and a sambal (hot red-pepper condiment). Our instructor fries everything.
The rest of the day we take it easy. That is nice as a conclusion of our vacation. Tomorrow we go home.