Saturday, 26 July 2008

25-26 July 2008: Jogja Round up

Yesterday afternoon we walked to the Kraton which is where the Sultan now lives. On our way there, we stumbled across a festival celebrating the Air Force. Walking passed the crowds, we were lucky that the sky divers didn't land on top of us. We were also the focus of media attention, with long lens paparazzi taking our photos and TV cameras thrust in our faces. Hopefully, we were not on the local news channel.

Further on, we visited the Bird Market. A slightly sorry affair where animal welfare officers would have had a busy time. Now, my Mum has always warned me about strange men inviting me to see their puppy dogs. But what do you do when someone invites you to see some snakes? Our instant friend took us to see the collection of reptiles which he 'owned'. These pythons were huge and, unfortunately, not kept in anything resembling their natural habitat.

Our new found friend then took us on a tour of the Taman Sari or Water Castle. A war and a couple of earthquakes have reduced much of building to ruins. However, several parts have been restored including an underground mosque and the tunnel leading to the palace. Here, the sultan entertained his harem.

On our return, it transpired that our guide neither worked in the Bird Market nor was a professional guide for the area (but he did give a good tour). The hard sell then started, turning into comedy as 'expensive' batik paintings started falling over. There was even a sharp intake of breath when we suggested that some of the paintings might have been printed. After what seemed like an eternity, we made vague excuses about wanting to catch the sunset and left.

On our last day in Jogja, we visited the nearby Prambanan temple complex, easily reached by the Trans-Jogja public bus (1A). The area houses an impressive collection of Hindu and Buddhist temples built over 1,000 years ago. Although damaged by earthquakes – most recently in 2006 – the site has undergone a series of restorations and is listed as a World Heritage Site.

Highlights of Jogja have also included the doughnut shop in the mall which has a viewable doughnut production line. Doughnuts can be bought in boxes of 24, and we saw people buying multiples of these boxes. That said, they did look like regular customers! The staff were surprised that we only wanted one doughnut each (this is in addition to the free doughnut which accompanies every drink)...

With only three days left in Indonesia, its off to Bandung and then onto Jakarta. From there, we fly to India on 29 July. Our next posting may be a few days after arriving, so expect radio silence until then.

Thursday, 24 July 2008

Postcard from Yogya

The difference between Java and the other islands we've visited is huge. Java, which has half the country's population, has a public transport infrastructure, roads in excellent condition and all the goods you'd expect to find in the West. It's like we're visiting a different country.

We got to Yogya by public buses from Bromo, via Surabaya (10 hours, about 100,000Rp). The journey was very interesting with countless food vendors and amateur musicians coming on board. Andy even had a fresh coffee – and it arrived in a little plastic bag with a straw! The vendors and other passengers were very curious about us, as there were no other Westerners on board. They thought we were hilarious, but we're not sure why...

Once in Yogya, we headed to the mall for some long overdue haircuts. (Need to look smart for the airport). The mall had a very good music shop and old habits die hard. Although Andy's singing was pretty ropey, the staff were able to identify the songs we'd heard along our travels, and we left with four albums. In the mall, there were also some shops with great names (see below).

Six weeks of Nasi Goreng and western staples have left us yearning for something a bit different. The last couple of days we've been sampling street food - meatball soup (not sure what the meatballs are made from, but they're very tasty), fried shrimp cakes, corn on the cob and - a first for Andy - chicken heads.

Borobudur, 42km from Yogya, was very impressive and an easy day trip. Nowadays, the temple is the most visited tourist attraction in Indonesia. Wrapped around a hill side, the temple was built over 1,200 years ago. It is covered in stone carvings depicting Buddhist teachings. At the top, stone stupas with Buddhas inside crown the temple. The volcanic eruption of Gunung Merapi in 1006 AD covered the temple and left it hidden for 800 years. It was only rediscovered in 1815, when farmers working in the area stumbled across some interesting artefacts.

When we reached Nirvana at the top of the temple, our guide encouraged us to reach into one of the stupas and touch the hands and feet of the Buddha. This is thought to bring good luck. (Short-armed Andy was struggling a bit here). We thought that the Buddhas would become damaged if thousands of tourists did this every year. However, this wear and tear is negligible compared to the effects of high-level corruption. Stone blocks with carvings are going missing at an alarming rate from the temple.

Travelling to Borobudur by public transport was fast, painless and cheap (12,500Rp). The alternative is one of the many tours. These take you there, but on the way back you have to make interminable, surprise stops at silver and craft workshops.

Night life here is very good. There was an excellent covers band taking requests and we were happy to oblige. They did a near perfect version of Guns and Roses 'November Rain', and they thoroughly enjoyed playing Deep Purple's 'Smoke on the Water'.

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

20 – 22 July 2008: Gunung Bromo

We were determined to use public transport as much as possible to get to Bromo. First, we caught the Damri bus from Surabaya to the Purabaya terminal (15,000Rph). At the terminal, a really kind uniformed lady whisked us through the crowds to stance 2, putting us on the bus to Probolinggo (23,000Rph).

Probolinggo is well known for its pushy touts, and we ended our bus journey outside one such office. A very shifty character wanted us to sign up to various packages. Eventually he offered us a bus to Bromo and wanted 50,000Rph per person. According to him, all the hotels were full (wrong), his bus was leaving in 10 minutes (wrong), all the public transport had finished (possibly true) and the public bus would take four hours (wrong – it only takes two hours if that). Not standing for his nonsense, we offered 30,000Rph. It was turned down, so we got up to leave. This dropped the price to 35,000Rph per person. Afterwards, another couple went into the office and got 30 minutes of his torture – finishing up with over-priced Bromo and Ijen plateau tours.

When we arrived in Bromo, two out of the three hotels had lots of space. Indeed the hotel we were staying in – Hotel Bromo Permai – had loads of rooms free and for good reason. Dead flies lined the window sills in the restaurant, the rooms were cold and filthy, and the washing water was about one degree above freezing.

Most people seem to rush here, get an overpriced Jeep to drive them around and then whizz off to Ijen. Taking a leaf out of Taavi's book on Flores, we got up late and decided not to go to Bromo. Instead, we walked up a beautiful old road to Gunung Penanjakan (2,770m). In its prime, the road must have been an important trading route. However, after years of landslides, the road was now impassible to motorised traffic. In a few more years, we wonder if even people will be able to get up it. On the summit, we had hazy views of Bromo. However, we did manage to have a nice cup of Java coffee, sit around a fire and watch some TV. Including long rests, the round trip took about five hours.

On the morning of the 22 July, we got up at 4am and did Bromo proper. Everyone looked like bandits from an old Western, with scarfs covering their faces. A cloud of sulphur hung over the crater, obscuring the sunrise. The morning light was welcomed by a chorus of coughing.

The Bromo Tengger-Semeru National Park is a very special place. However, the BNI (Bank Negara Indonesia) branded staircase and pillars on Bromo don't blend in very well with the surroundings. That said, they'll probably go the way of the last set of steps and get destroyed by the volcano. The Jeeps and motorbikes ferrying tourists in can also create a fair bit of noise pollution. Some visitors we saw came in on horseback which is more in tune with the environment.

Now safe and well in Yogyakarta.