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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Travelling Light

After the Cameron Highlands, it was back to KL for a few days. It felt lovely to be back. We didn’t have a view of the famous Petronas Towers, but I still love to have any view of the city at night, especially when the sky lights up every few seconds with fireworks (it’s Diwali) or lightning (it’s stormy).

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It’s worth going to see the towers up close anyway, I think they’re beautiful.

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The next part of the trip will be Singapore for a couple of days, and then Indonesia for 4 or 5 weeks.

Welcome to the “Travelling Light” experiment!

It has been a real (mental and physical) pain hauling 3 heavy bags around Malaysia. We only took one flight – KL to Penang – with hand luggage each and one checked-in bag. But even when travelling by bus or train, and moving every week, or every few days sometimes, exhausting and annoying to have so much stuff. I know that I could have survived with WAY less, particularly as we always had access to a washing machine or laundry service. So this time we’ve got one backpack each and this is ALL we’re bringing with us to survive the next month or so across Singapore and Indonesia.

Personal context: the first time I went for a weekend trip to London (i.e. two nights) I brought a large hand luggage bag and a small suitcase to check onto the flight. What can I say? I like to have options. So for me, this is a very unnatural step and a particular challenge. Will I survive? Wish me luck!

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Cameron Highlands: a bit nice

I have used the odd phrase “a bit nice” because it’s how I feel about the Cameron Highlands, but also because it reminds me of a scene in Peep Show.  Without including any mildly rude material on this innocent blog, all I’ll say is, “maybe it is a bit…nice?” I can’t assume everyone is a Peep Show fan, so I’ll move on.*

As I mentioned before, the Cameron Highlands, or CH as I’ll call them, have been described to me several times throughout Malaysia as “VERY COLD”. I’ve now discovered that this means about 23 degrees Celsius. I can understand why Malaysians love this, it’s a more comfortable climate than the humidity and 32 degree+ heat that I’ve experienced everywhere else so far. But it’s not cold.

It’s also described as having beautiful scenery, and it does. There are some pictures below.

However, it is also a bit soulless. There are two main towns, Brinchang and Tanah Rata, and we stayed in between the two, thinking this was a good idea. It wasn’t – we were stranded, surrounded by empty modern blocks of apartments presumably built for tourists, nothing within walking distance, and dependent on local expensive taxis. It just felt a bit bleak. Both of the towns were, um, a bit nice.

The main “things to do” in the CH are visiting a tea plantation, seeing the sunrise over the mountains, the Mossy Forest (apparently the oldest rainforest in the world – although Google disagrees) and other sweet little things like strawberry, bee and lavender farms. On Saturday I arranged a sunrise tour that would take us up early to see the sunrise over the mountains, a trek in the forest and then the tea plantation. It was NOT EVEN A BIT NICE!

Firstly, we arrived at the viewing spot by 6.20am, and told the sunrise would be about 7.30am, so we could go out for a walk until then. In the total darkness and the rain. What’s the point? So obviously nobody did that. Then the sky gradually became dull and the sunrise was never alluded to again, as we sped up to the Mossy Forest, rattling around in an old jeep.

The guide then told us that the Mossy Forest is in fact closed, so “don’t tell your friends you were here” (oops). I asked if it was safe, and he said yes, as he helped us climb under a big red sign saying to keep out. I was having a bad time, even before he warned us not to touch the moss on the trees because it was full of poisonous spiders. To be fair, the walk was actually fine, considering it was dull, cloudy and rainy. We went up a lookout point and the view was… also fine.

Around the tea plantation the scenery is beautiful, but the factory/museum part was unremarkable, even the 5 minute factory tour. I was reliably informed by an Indian tourist that it was the worst tea he’d ever tasted. As someone who doesn’t like tea anyway, I didn’t bother with it. On our way there, the guide (on two separate occasions) made comments along the lines of this being private land, so if anything happens to you here there’s no point in telling the police or the authorities, they’ll just throw the report out. Now what the F is that about? Just plain sinister. We didn’t get robbed, and nothing bad happened, but he sure did imply that it might.

Anyway, back to our lonely isolated weird apartment block for 10am, watched the Lion King, had a nap. So all’s well that ends well.

 

*https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NkO7GgJrVxs

Destinations so far

This blog is already about 6 weeks out of date, so this post is just to fill in the blanks of some of the places of interest I’ve been so far in Malaysia. Then I’ll keep it current, with an occasional spot of time travel back to one of these:

First stop: KUALA LUMPUR! The title of the blog! I instantly liked it and there’s so much I could already say about KL. As a reminder to my future self, I should include the Batu Caves, Thean Hou Temple, Chinatown, Sri Mahamariamman Temple, and the fabulous people and food of “Little India” in future posts about KL.

Second stop: George Town, Penang. Colonial town on Penang island which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, full of interesting culture, Chinese clan houses, good food and the occasional mean-looking dog.

Third stop: Langkawi. A tropical island that is everything you would want a tropical island to be, but more fun. My favourite place in Malaysia so far, and it will be hard to beat. An absolute dream.

Fouth stop: Ipoh. Back to the mainland and another colonial city, but lacking the charm of George Town unfortunately.

This brings me up to date, to the Cameron Highlands. Famously “VERY COLD” and popular, but what do I think of it? You’ll not have to wait very long to find out, as I’m going to do a post about it next (and may have already whatsapped you some photos).

In the meantime, here’s a photo that I love from my trip to Thean Hou temple in KL:

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