Lombok: meh

I am sure my 4 to 5 readers have been truly devastated by my lack of activity recently, but I’m back now. There’s a lot to catch up on, particularly my adventures in Australia (spoiler alert: I got pecked by an emu), but I want to finish up the Indonesia trip first.

Expressing my views on Lombok is quite the moral dilemma for me: basically I hated it, but I want more people to go there.

I had loved Indonesia so far, and Lombok was billed as the more chilled out, laid back, less touristic version of more well-known destinations – “like Bali 20 years ago”. Beautiful beaches, mountains and waterfalls without the tacky bars and crowds of pretentious travellers, finding themselves and updating their blogs (cough).

To be fair, it is a beautiful island and the scenery is excellent. So it’s a shame that it’s quite dirty and the beaches are visibly polluted with plastic. Apparently there is no refuse collection on the island, so people tend to throw their rubbish into the sea or burn it – both unpleasant and environmentally horrible options.

As for the “not touristy” claims – I beg to differ. I did expect that there would be people making their living trying to sell to us, and I don’t have any objection to that. But I didn’t appreciate people stopping their cars or scooters at the side of the road to try and sell us stuff as we walked along the pavement. Then driving on and pulling over to repeat this again, but pushier, 10 steps later after we’ve already said no thanks. We had people selling everything from souvenirs, jewellery, boat trips, drugs and taxi services following us around the town, waiting for us to come out from shops or restaurants to pressure us again. One guy actually came into a restaurant and sat at our table, then the one beside it, trying to make us sign a very suspect agreement to hire a scooter while we were trying to get some lunch. Basically, I didn’t feel comfortable exploring this place on my own, which is a big deal for me, and didn’t particularly enjoy going out at all as I always felt we were about to be scammed, followed or harassed. Once I started feeling on edge, that suspicion and lack of trust in the back of my mind was unfair to the people who were honest and reasonable. The atmosphere was bad for everyone. There was also an unpleasant situation at the place where we stayed, but it’s not fair to tar the whole island with that nasty brush, so I won’t go there.

I’m aware that it’s difficult to criticise Lombok without sounding heartless and insensitive. It is often hit by earthquakes and there was some serious damage done in August last year. This naturally caused devastation to the people who lost family and shelter but also their income source, as tourists are less willing to go there. I can see how such a disaster would leave people feeling desperate, and it somewhat explains the more aggressive tactics we encountered. I get that – but I still can’t pretend I had a good time.

We were warned to avoid certain areas as they were not safe, that there were some temples and sights where tourists were targetted by criminals, and to watch out for scams. Having read a lot of other peoples’ experiences in Lombok, this is not unique to us or to the fact that we visited in the months following an earthquake. I know lots of people enjoy it and have a great time, but plenty of people also report the negative experience that I had.

Logic tells me that people who need tourism to thrive would be aware of the fact that visitors who have a nice time are more likely to talk about it and recommend it to others, thus boosting future tourism, etc. I feel this all over Malaysia, where the locals are friendly, kind and keen to know that you are being treated well and enjoying their country. On one view, it’s because they’re nice (and I believe that), but even taking a pragmatic view, they feel that tourism and their international reputation is important, so they treat people well. At the risk of sounding really patronising, it’s a shame that a similar culture hasn’t developed in Lombok.

I’m in a catch-22 situation when it comes to describing this part of the trip. I believe that if more people visit, creating more stability and sustainable income, the incidents of scamming, crime or generally making people feel harassed and uneasy would subside, so the right thing to do would be to encourage more people to go. But I can’t recommend it as a destination based on my experience, because I simply didn’t enjoy it. For now I can rest assured that I’m not exactly a major influencer and my opinion, one way or another, is not going to change anything. But I do hope that something changes, because the situation as it was during my time there was not positive for anyone.

Let’s finish on a high. Here are some of the best bits, including the pool, sunsets on the beach, and a cat that joined me for a beer:

 

 

 

Mount Bromo: feeling tiny, scared, happy and amazed

For someone who is basically afraid of everything, I am proud to say that I climbed to the crater of a live active volcano and it made me feel amazed and amazing.

Indonesia is part of the “ring of fire”, so is vulnerable to earthquakes, tsunamis and volcano eruptions. I read up about it one morning and was horrified by the risks people take by just living here and how often homes, towns and families are destroyed. For visitors like us I wondered if it was worth putting ourselves in danger to see some beautiful things, but my experience here was so much more than that. There was something about Java and the people that really touched my heart. We, and loads of people like us, are lucky to visit these places and make wonderful memories, and the local people clearly love to welcome us and show us what they are rightfully proud of in their country. So for all of the positive things I took away from this trip, which were immense and overwhelming, it was worth it. It is possible that I’d feel differently about it if we had experienced a natural disaster, but luckily I don’t know the answer to that.

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Mount Bromo is an active volcano near Surabaya (using the word “near” very loosely here). For one of the main attractions in east Java, it is remarkably difficult to organise a trip there independently. There are many tour companies offering very expensive trips, but we feared a repeat of the Cameron Highlands experience and being shuttled around from location to location like a herd of cattle. We did eventually manage to arrange a trip for ourselves with a local guy we met in Surabaya. The cost of getting there and into the national park this way was significantly cheaper than anything else we could find, and the best part was that we could plan our own itinerary and missed the crowds of the sunrise tours. Oh yes, the dreaded sunrise tour again. Why does EVERYONE want us to do sunrise tours?

Presumably the reason is because sunrise at the volcano and surrounding mountains is beautiful. That’s fine and I appreciate that. But everything I read also mentioned hoards of tourists and it being really busy. I know that I’m a tourist too and I’m part of the problem, but I really hate being unable to appreciate something in its natural glory because I’m in crowds of people taking selfies and shoving past each other.

Following the success of our trip to Borobudur at sunset, we decided (against all advice) to go to Mount Bromo for the afternoon and sunset too. This blog is difficult to write because I can’t express in words how special it was and how I felt that day.

It’s a weird landscape, because after climbing (via jeep, not feet) up quite a lot of mountain, you reach a big sandy plain that looks like you’re at ground level and there’s a volcano and some mountains there, but you’re already super high and this doesn’t come across in photographs. After driving up through thick rainforest and lively mountain villages, suddenly it feels like you’re on the moon.

From this sea of sand we went up Mount Pananjakan which is the main lookout spot over the volcano, and then we climbed (on foot this time) up Bromo itself. It’s over 2,300 metres high but not a difficult climb (and you obviously don’t start at sea level). I became a bit breathless close to the top but I think it was due to anxiety and altitude more than physical exertion of the climb. It’s quite terrifying as you begin to hear the ominous bubbling, rumbling sound of the lava and you can see is the smoke gushing out above you. And the smell that we all describe as rotten eggs, although I’m lucky enough to have never encountered a real life rotten egg, so this is speculation on my part.

I actually became quite over excited and hysterical and silly at the top, and tried to video call people to share the experience with them. I took an accidental selfie and I am genuinely laughing an hysterical, mouth-open laugh in it while gazing wide-eyed into the smoke. I thought it was hilarious.

Nobody was available for a video call and that is probably for the best, because it didn’t take long for me to really contemplate where I was, become absolutely terrified, and urgently shuffle my way back down the slopes expecting lava to engulf me at any moment. Every time the bubbling noise stopped, or changed, or the direction of the smoke altered, it is impossible to assume it’s benign, because it might not be.

Somewhere in between those extreme reactions, I had moments of quiet amazement. This was undoubtedly helped by the fact that we were literally the only two people up there. I have seen photos of Bromo at sunrise and it’s just SO jam packed with people, I can’t imagine the atmosphere is the same.

Back on the sandy moon-like plain at the bottom of the crater I relaxed again and felt like I was having an outer body experience as I watched the sky change colour as the sun set, the smoke rising out of the volcano, and then the full moon rise and shine brightly over us. I couldn’t have imagined a more perfect set of circumstances and I’m so happy I experienced this night.

Next stop, Surabaya!

I’m going to start this post with some basic geography. This is not my picture, but I googled it and it amazes me. Indonesia compared to Europe:

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HUGE! Java is the relatively small island stretching out across the south of France in that image, and this island alone has over 141 million people (the UK only has about 66 million). Surabaya is in Java and is the second biggest city in Indonesia, which means it’s absolutely massive. We decided to travel there by train. Choo choo! All aboard the Surabaya express!

Ok, it wasn’t an express, but it was a train and it took 4 and a half hours from Yogyakarta. I  love long train journeys so was pretty excited about this, and it turned out to be even more fun than expected.

The station at Jogja is hectic and when a train pulled in, at the exact time our train was due, at the exact platform where it was due, we were told not to get on, because it wasn’t our train. We were pretty sure it was our train but have learned to trust people more than official schedules by now. They were right, our train actually appeared about 20 minutes later, but I’m not sure how we would have worked that out if I hadn’t kept asking people. It wasn’t announced or displayed anywhere. Anyway, I bounced on board prepared for some chill time with my kindle and some podcasts at the ready, but bringing my own entertainment wasn’t necessary. The train had comfy seats, more leg room than I’d ever need, and they were showing episodes of what I assumed to be the Indonesian Thomas the Tank on screens. And that’s not even the best part. They also served food, but we didn’t have to walk to the carriage serving it like schmucks. No no no. Just whatsapp them with your order and they’ll come and serve you at your seat! One of the big differences between Indonesia and Malaysia is that fewer people speak English here, and we can get out of our depth trying to communicate in Bahasa Indonesian. So sometimes Google Translate still makes me LOL hysterically on a train while trying to order a hot chocolate:

Surabaya itself is underrated in my opinion. Even taxi drivers and people we met there said if someone asks what there is to do in Surabaya, they say “nothing”. But it’s just not true! It’s definitely a good place to go if you’re interested in Indonesian history. The museums are a little bit weird, like the cigarette factory that for some reason inserts a small section on the evolution of man itself into the story of the evolution of the tobacco trade. This was the House of Sampoerna, which was genuinely an interesting place to spend a few hours learning about the man who started this business, his rags to riches story, the evolution of man (of course) and the tobacco trade, and you can see the workers still packing the cigarettes in the working factory today. It even inspired me to take up smoking (not really).

Another point of interest is the Heroes Monument, which celebrates Indonesian independence with some serious attitude. ALLIED FORCES GO AWAY! Fair enough.

Speaking of allied forces, the museum at the monument mainly focuses on the Battle of Surabaya, fought between Indonesian independence fighters and the… British. Knowing that Indonesia was a Dutch colony, this greatly confused me. What the hell were the British doing there? And why did I have to say I was from the UK to the girl at the door? How embarrassing. The museum does a great job of casually celebrating child soldiers who fought for Indonesia and also not explaining what the British were doing there in the first place. I assume most people would also know that this was a Dutch colony and be confused by the context surrounding this battle, but we had to resort to our own online research to get a proper explanation (and it still doesn’t make much sense, but that’s certainly not Indonesia’s fault).

My favourite story from this museum was the story of the flag (you can take the girl out of Northern Ireland…etc.) Some young fighters climbed on top of the Yamato Hotel in Surabaya, took down the Dutch flag, ripped off the blue strip at the bottom, and hoisted it up again as the Indonesian flag (the remaining red and white stripes). Although it seems like the red and white flag was used before this by an old 13th century empire in Java, the ripping of the Dutch flag still happened, and I love the symbolism.

Other interesting things to do include the Arab quarter, where you can buy all the dates and Muslim fashion you’d ever dream of, sunset by the harbour, Chinese and Hindu temples, and some rooftop bars. I thought it was a pretty cool city with a nice vibe. We made a bunch of friends too which really made our experience a bit more special, although it’s basically impossible to not make friends here as the people are ridiculously nice. By the way, if you’re getting bored with me just loving everything and having a great time, sit tight. It doesn’t last. But can I get a WOOP WOOP for Surabaya (and these explicit Neanderthals from the cigarette factory)?

 

 

Borobudur at sunset

The Borobudur temple is one of the main reasons people go to Yogyakarta. It’s a Buddhist temple about an hour outside the city. Actually it’s the biggest Buddhist temple in the world, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Having an accolade like that, it surprised me that I hadn’t really been aware of it before, and we often mispronounced the name (we misprounounce a lot of things, recently telling a taxi driver in Lombok, an island about 500 miles away, that our address on the hill was Borobudur). This was the outsider’s unenlightened ignorance, and we all know the best place to become enlightened about anything is a Buddhist temple.

But I now realise that the temple’s image is often used to promote Indonesia and Java in particular. It’s on the front cover of our Indonesia guidebook, for example, and once in Jogja, it’s clear that going to Borobodur is the thing to do. The most commonly promoted way to see it is with a one day tour along with Prambanan (the Hindu temple where we saw the traditional ballet), which doesn’t make a lot of sense because they aren’t connected in any way and are in different directions once you leave the city. It seemed like it would be a long day, we haven’t had good experiences with organised tours before, and I didn’t want to risk cultural fatigue. Nobody wants to be that idiot who turns up to the world’s largest Buddhist temple and thinks, “yeah, fine, it’s another temple, I’ve seen like 10 of these today”. I don’t really think that is possible now, having been there, but I still prefer to spread things out.

Whether you do it on its own or with Prambanan and other temples, the recurring theme with Borobodur is SUNRISE. Sunrise tours are highly reviewed online, tour companies and locals encourage people to get up early and see the sunrise there. I have no doubt that it’s beautiful at that time, but for various reasons, I decided we’d go for sunset instead.

The practical reason was that Joe is working on this trip, and needs to be doing [insert whatever it is that Joe does] by 7am in this particular timezone. So getting to Borobudur for sunrise and back in time wasn’t really an option, unless we waited until the weekend, and as you’ll know from my last post, we had loads of other stuff to do at the weekend. Like launching my pottery career. I also like to be asleep very early in the morning, and love the golden hour of sunset almost anywhere in the world.

Based on its popularity, I was pretty sure the temple would be swarming with tourists and photographers early in the morning, which is fine, but not conducive to an enlightened, peaceful experience (or the best photographs). I can also tell you something else that isn’t conducive to an enlightened, peaceful experience: being stuck in traffic on your way to Borobudur with the sun quickly setting, thinking you’ve ruined the whole trip by not just doing what EVERYONE told you to do, and going for sunrise.

But guess what? I didn’t ruin it! We made it before sunset and it was absolutely bloody beautiful.

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It’s massive, impressive, imposing, peaceful and eerie all at once. There were a few people there with us, no more than 8, and they seemed to be professional photographers. Borobudur has 9 levels and is quite steep to climb, but there are about 500 Buddhas around to encourage you to keep going. Mostly they are inside the bell-shaped domes, although some of them have been opened up or broken, and you can see their calm sweet faces. I read that it was built around the 8th or 9th century, but spent hundreds of years hidden under volcanic ash and jungle after it was abandoned (presumably due to the volcanic eruption) and I kept imaging how it must have felt to be one of the people who rediscovered it all those years later. It’s an amazing thing to see, even when you know it’s there.

I think my photographs of the temple could be on the cover of a guidebook. I’m obsessed with them. This might sound arrogant, and I just took them on my phone, but I can imagine many people having a similar experience, looking back at their own pictures of Borobudur and thinking THAT LOOKS AMAZING. It’s not that I think I’m an excellent photographer, it’s just that this is one hell of a photogenic temple.

Falling in love with Yogyakarta

Everyone has heard of Jakarta, but I hadn’t heard of Yogyakarta before I started planning this trip to Indonesia. I have a lot to say about this city, but if you want the short version: I love Yogya and Yogya loves me (or at least someone there does, according to this water tank):

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It’s known as Yogya, Jogjakarta or Jogja to the locals, and people like me who want to pretend they’re locals. One of the reasons I loved this place so much is because I was made to feel like part of the community wherever I went. The people were overwhelmingly friendly to us, and I felt completely safe and at ease exploring and making friends here. It may be a sweeping generalisation to comment on the personality of ALL the people, but it’s one I’m happy to make, because in my experience it’s true and I want to acknowledge how much positive difference it made to my time here.

Apart from the people, why did I love Jogja so much?

Initially I chose it because it’s a good location from which to visit two major temples in Java – Borobudur (which is going to get a blog post all of it’s own!) and Prambanan. But I can’t understand why Jogja is not more well known as an amazing destination in its own right. The city itself reflects the open-minded people and culture, with the mosques taking inspiration from old Javanese and Hindu buildings rather than the dome-shaped mosques I’ve seen elsewhere. No skyscrapers or high-rise apartment blocks in sight. It’s a really fascinating place and doesn’t feel like anywhere I’ve been before.

Kraton: this is where we stayed. It’s basically a walled city within the city, and officially part of the Sultan’s palace. You can walk around the walls and have to go through the gates to get in or out, but they’re always open.

Yep, Jogja has a Sultan who has actual decision-making power, although it is a hereditary title. The current one has no sons and has named his eldest daughter as the heir, apparently with some resistance. Many people think his brother should be next (including said brother), but if you’re going to have a Sultan, it may as well be a woman.  That’s what I always say, and maybe Jogja will too when the time comes.

Kotagede: another area full of ancient buildings and ruins and mosques. Beautiful and interesting to walk around, especially if you have a lovely new friend to explore with like I did.

Alun Alun Kidul: this is one of two main squares in the Kraton area, with food stalls and the two trees challenge. If you can walk across the square blindfolded and still walk between the two trees then, congratulations, you’ll have good fortune! I didn’t try this so my future fortunes are as much in doubt as ever. There’s a buzzing atmosphere at night, with peddle cars taking people around the square, blaring music and blinged out with neon lights ranging from ‘I heart Jogja’ (can’t argue with that) to random cat and turtle designs (ok I can’t argue with that either).

If you want some cheese and chocolate on toast, this is also the place for you, but who are you and why do you want this? The blip in Indonesia’s otherwise amazing food for me has to be the disturbing trend of chocolate and cheese.

There was some kind of festival on in Alun Alun Lor, the other square, including a huge market and some kids on stage singing and dancing. It was possibly the cutest thing I’ve ever seen in my life, and I look at a lot of dogs on instagram.

Taman Sari: the water castle which was part of the palace and is now open to the public. It’s a bit run down, but in a kind of charming way.

Prambanan temple: unfortunately we didn’t get to spend a full day here, but we did get to watch the traditional Ramayana ballet here at night. It’s an outdoor performance, with the beautiful temples lit up behind the stage, traditional live music to accompany the show, and really impressive performers dancing, singing, backflipping and fire twirling across the stage. I managed to follow the story pretty well, partly because they had screens with some basic plot outlines, and partly because the story also featured in one of my favourite childhood movies, A Little Princess. So this was an extra delicious nostalgic treat for me.

Javanese pottery: one of the most fun things we did was making pottery with two ceramics students who have their own studio. We just happened to see a poster for it and spent a morning getting mucky and laughing and making disastrous items that we’ll call plates and cups. It takes about a week to finish off the firing and glazing processes and we were leaving the next day, so I suggested they keep our pieces and sell them. They didn’t seem interested in that offer for some reason, but kindly agreed to post them to KL for us when they’re ready. I want to use these myself, so please don’t bombard me with offers to buy them.

Ahh, Jogja, I miss you already.

This little piggie went to Jakarta

I may as well have been an actual little piggie if the reaction of local people was anything to go by. One of my lasting memories of my first day in Indonesia will be the crowds of children following us around the old town square trying to practice their English and take pictures of us. It was quite intense but I don’t want to complain about it because they were very endearing, sweet and polite. Except that girl who kept calling me “mister”.

What made me uncomfortable was that adults also openly stared at us, took photos of us often without asking, without attempting to say hello or speak to us like the children did. I saw one man pointing us out to his friends, by literally pointing at us. It’s hard to believe that we are that unusual a sight in a huge city like Jakarta. It is possible that there aren’t many tourists in the city, or that it’s just become socially acceptable to point at us here – the more people do it and we awkwardly smile, the more other people will do it. And there is a chance that I am the palest person in Indonesia, even with my “tan”.

We only had one day here so we spent time in the old town, including  Fatahilla Square, the History Museum and the Wayang (puppet) Museum. Puppet theatre is big here, and I’m hoping to go to a puppet show somewhere in Java after seeing the museum. They are very artistic and intricate; some of them cute, some of them downright sinister.

Then we took a tuk-tuk (actually called bajaj in Jakarta but I wanted to say “took a tuk-tuk”) to the National Monument. We went inside but the tickets to the very top were bizarrely sold out. I don’t really understand this as it was still early afternoon and didn’t seem very busy, but there was quite a good museum inside on the history of Indonesia, so as a nerdy traveller I enjoyed this.

Finally, I have to mention the absolutely delicious vegetarian food in Indonesia. The most popular street foods here generally involve spicy peanut sauce, deep fried crispy things, or both. Need I say more?

 

Sparkling Singapore

On one hand, I expected Singapore to be similar to Malaysia. I knew that it was an island at the southern tip of the Malaysian peninsula, and that it had been an independent country for a relatively short period of time (about 50 years), so I wondered how different it could be. On the other hand, I also knew that it was famously wealthy, modern and super clean, and these aren’t words often used to describe Malaysia. I pictured something like the business district of New York or Dubai supplanted into this region, all the corporate glam and none of the culture and personality that is bursting all around you in KL. All in all, I wasn’t that excited about the trip. But now that I’ve been I can say that Singapore is a brilliant place to visit, I’ll definitely be back and I’ve eaten my words (yum).

First of all, it is immaculately clean and that is (no disrespect to Malaysia) a noticeable contrast. To be fair, it would be a huge contrast if we’d come straight from the UK too. I understand the reason for this is very strict laws (the chewing gum ban is still in force), but it certainly works. Here I am advocating for state control over chewing gum when all you wanted were a few anecdotes and pictures of Singapore, but I’ll get to that.

The area we stayed in was Tiong Bahru. It is an old housing development in Singapore, with an art deco style rather than the high-rise swanky apartment blocks I expected to see everywhere. It also has a big market with clothes, flowers, fresh food, and hawker stalls selling local delights such as pig organ soup. Yep. A vegetarian’s dream. There are also trendy bakeries, beauty salons, yoga studios and book shops in the area. I could easily imagine myself living here and having a great life. I just need that well-paid Singapore job first, preferably one that lets me clock off at 1pm to sit in cafes and eat cinnamon sugar muffins all afternoon.

Speaking of food, we ate some good stuff, but Malaysia definitely beats Singapore in this category. Take that, sparkly clean streets!

Here’s a run down of some of the things I did on this short trip:

Masjid Sultan: we were allowed inside, robed up and appropriately covered. This was my first time in a mosque and it was really worth doing. They welcomed tourists and had information about their beliefs and culture, which I’m keen to know more about as I’ll be spending most of my time in predominantly Muslim countries here.

Chinatown: spent a morning strolling through the stalls and buying some traditional gifts for unnamed people who may or may not be reading this blog.

Sentosa beach: this was a really nice beach, but not my favourite. Overshadowed by the beautiful island experiences I had off the west coast of Malaysia recently, it had some tough acts to follow. Although it’s naturally beautiful, it’s also expensive, busy, and the bay is full of what look like industrial container ships.

Marina Bay Sands: I obviously wanted to experience the glamorous side of Singapore too, and what better way than having Singapore slings on the roof of the famous MBS? The views are amazing, and for a swanky bar the atmosphere was still fun, friendly and non-pretentious (although they did have a dress code after 10pm, and we left before that).

Gardens by the Bay (daytime): the gardens are huge and varied, and not just for garden-lovers (I’m generally not one). There are several themed gardens (Malay, Indian, Chinese, Colonial) and two massive air-conditioned greenhouses. The flower dome was lovely but also a bit weird because it’s almost Christmas, so the exotic plants and palm trees were next to Christmas trees and what I consider to be very wintery festive decorations. The cloud forest has a huge structure in the middle covered in plants and a waterfall, and inside you can walk around different exhibitions about how humans are destroying the planet.

Gardens by the Bay (nighttime): this was the best. We got tickets to go up onto the skyway and we arrived just in time for the light show in the supertree grove (see pictures). This could all sound a bit tacky, and it probably would be if it wasn’t such a slick operation and amazing location. I simply won’t criticise a place where you can walk (dance) in the treetops, that’s still warm outside after dark in November, with the bay on one side and the skyline of Singapore on the other. I simply won’t do it, so don’t try me.