Travel Blog – Indonesia
My sister’s work colleague (Toro) has a saying about Japanese temples: if there are no school kids around, then it’s not a real temple. Well, what is true in Japan is also true in Indonesia.
Kids: We are working on a school project and have a few questions for you. May we have few minutes of your time?
Bruce: Of course.
Kids: Where are you from? … How long are you staying in Indonesia? Do you like Indonesia? Do you like the food? What do you think of the people? How is our English? And, can we take a picture with you?
If you’re Asian like I am, then the above only happened several times. However, if you are tall, blonde and have blue eyes (like Bruce) then imagine the above multipled by 50. Welcome to the world of ‘tourist hunters’. Thankfully, instead of pickpockets and thieves, the hunters were the flocks of school kids on assignment to practice their English with foreigners. And, _everyone_ wanted to practice their English with Bruce! And given that we were such an ‘odd couple’, we really stood out amongst the crowd and immediately drew the attention of the school kids like bears to honey.
It was interesting to watch the school kids operate around the temple grounds. They mostly traveled in packs and the most audacious in the group would shout out ‘hello’. If you hello back, then you’re automatically hooked. And, usually only one or two in the group would do the talking (which defeated the purpose of getting all the kids to practice their English). So, my strategy was to ask each kid for their name and age and once the rapport was established, the conversation became more dynamic. As enjoyable as it was to interact with the school kids, we started to attract a crowd. So, it soon became a never-ending queue of school kids wanting to practice English with us. Hence, we spent more time being interviewed then actually visiting the temples! In the end, we spotted another group of Westerns and started to tail them. This served to load-balance the interview queue and ultimately, we managed to engineer a few brief moments to ourselves while on the temple grounds.
And temples we did visit! Temples to culture. Temples to religion. And temples to the beaches. We’d organised our holiday into three phases: first, five days in Ubud to absorb the Balinese culture; then, four days in central Java to visit Borobudur — the largest Buddhist temple in the world; and finally, two days in Bali to soak up the beach. Because each phase was so different from each other, we felt that we had three distinctive vacations back-to-back. It was such a wonderful way to explore and enjoy Indonesia!
According to the locals, Ubud during peak season is insane with the tiny town inundated with tourists. Fortunately, we arrived just a few weeks shy from the start of the peak season so we had the best temperature but without the traffic madness. And, it meant that we had no difficulties getting dinner reservations at the recommended restaurants. There were two Balinese dishes that we were absolutely determined to try — bebek betutu (slow roasted, leaf-wrapped duck) at The Dirty Duck and babi guling (suckling pig on a spit) at Ibu Oka. The former required 24-hours advance notice because the duck is slow-cooked. The latter does not, but, it required getting to the restaurant early because the babi guling often sell out quickly.
As tourists, we were spoiled for choice in terms of evening performance — every night around the Ubud palace, there were traditional Balinese dances at various venues. The performances in front of the ‘lotus pond temple’ was one of the better ones. At night, the area was lit up with candles and the temple served as the backdrop. In the vicinity were restaurants with views of the stage and thus it was possible (usually with advance reservation) to have dinner whilst watching the performances. (No surprises — the food was distinctively mediocre as the restaurants relied solely on passing tourist trade.)
But the most memorable performance we found was actually well off the tourist path. We came upon Kecak – the Monkey Chant Dance — quite by chance as it was not on the hotel’s radar of cultural things to do/see. Instead, we found this performance as a result of checking the local papers. (Travel tip: always read the local papers and ask the locals. Don’t depend solely on the hotel staff.) We had no idea what to expect as we went to the performance on a hunch. And, it was well worth the effort — it was stunning, captivating and engaging.
Kecak is based on the Hindu epic Ramayana and is told as a dance. It is not accompanied by any musical instruments. Instead, a chorus of approximately seventy men imitate the sounds of musical instruments, tell the story, and provide sound effects.
Another fond memory from Ubud was the fantastic Bird and Reptile Park. We typically don’t visit zoos when we travel, but, we had a spare afternoon. Perhaps we enjoyed it because we had low(ish) expectations. Regardless, the park was well designed (with a walk-thru aviary) and it had wide variety of healthy birds (plus one Komodo dragon). One in particular caught me attention and it was very patient with me as I’d clicked-clicked-clicked away with my Nikon.
Although Ubud is famous for it’s art galleries, we avoided hitting the galleries and shops as we were more interested in going off-the-beaten track. As such, we hired a car and driver and drove around the vicinity checking out the local temples. En route to a temple, we saw a group of women harvesting rice and we immediately pulled over. They were so amused and perplexed that we wanted to photograph them working. In fact, the ladies giggled solidly throughout the entire impromptu photo session.
On paper, getting to Borobudur from Bali is a simple one-hour flight away. In reality, it took almost a full day in transit (mostly due to the crazy road traffic). Thankfully, we allowed ourselves extra time and thus didn’t stress out when we crawled along the main road connecting Yogyakarta to Borobudur. It was particularly entertaining to see the local Javanese turn a two-lane street into a four-lane road. At one point, an ambulance with sirens on came blazing by and made space thru the traffic jam. And although we were not surprised to see a few cars ‘cheat’ and follow the ambulance, we were not expecting to see an entire (new) lane follow the ambulance. In the end, the new ‘ambulance chase’ lane stretched for about 1/2 mile long until the traffic on the opposite lane finally forced the ambulance chasers back onto their own lane. Our driver was completely non-plussed as this was everyday normal for him!
Although Borobudur is mana for temple fans and could rival the likes of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, Borobudur has less development. As far as we could see, the amenities in the area was very limited and thus we had to rely on our hotel for all meals and for travel logistics. Luckily, our hotel looked after us exceptionally well and we managed to explore Borobudur several times — at sunrise, at midday, and at dusk. In addition, we hired a car and driver to take us to the Prambanan temple complex and to the smaller (and less crowded) temples in the vicinity.
Even though neither Bruce nor I are sun worshippers and beach goers, we organized a two night stay in Bali to ease ourselves to the end of our holiday in Indonesia. Not content to just sit on the beach (although we definitely had to do it once and it was great — the hotel had a private beach and the beach huts had WiFi !!!!), we organized outings as well as a souffle cooking course with the Executive Chef. It was a fabulous way to unwind and to prepare ourselves to say goodbye to Indonesia!