It’s been a strange time to be in Indonesia. Inevitably the local news has been dominated by the Lion Air crash into the Java Sea a few minutes after take-off from Jakarta. As more information emerges about the troubled history of the aircraft it does seem incredible that it was permitted to fly. We mentioned the Lake Toba ferry disaster in our previous blog – another local example of where safety seems to have taken second place to profit. Indonesia certainly presents travellers with food for thought. On the one hand this huge sprawling archipelago of islands offers the opportunity to visit unique, unspoilt and stunning scenery, incredible historical sites, jaw-dropping endangered wildlife, and meet the friendliest people imaginable. And it goes on and on and on….we still haven’t got our heads around the geography of thousands of islands that make up the country – to explore Indonesia properly would probably take at least six months.
However, it’s the first place we’ve been to where we have been aware of heightened security – routine checks at hotel’s and shopping centres mean you get routinely screened walking into both whilst our taxis are stopped and the boot checked and the car scanned before being allowed to proceed to the the drop-off at the hotel lobby. Indonesia has been hit by numerous terrorist attacks over the years, many in areas popular with Western visitors, so these actions are both necessary and likely to remain in place. Meanwhile the road’s outside Cities can be horrendous, and certainly the worst we’ve encountered, with some hair-raising driving to boot. Add to this the seemingly slip-shod approach to safety, plus unavoidable natural disasters such as the earthquake and tsunami of recent months, and it leaves you thinking twice about where to go in Indonesia, how to get there, and how to travel on. We’ve moved from quite care-free planning to much more careful consideration of our itinerary.
Just a few days after the air disaster, we flew from a very small airfield in Sumatra to Jakarta. We are not overly nervous flyers, but on this occasion we both felt tense, and you could sense our fellow passengers unease by how quiet the plane was as we started to taxi for take-off. The mood wasn’t helped by an astonishing announcement from one of the cabin crew “Let us all take a moment to pray to god and wish for a safe flight.” We prefer to put our faith in having a plane and pilots that are fit for purpose rather than putting our trust in some unspecified deity who – if you follow the logic of our steward – was untroubled about 190 people perishing in the sea a few days beforehand. The country and its people deserve better and need to find a way to ensure that Government and business delivers on promises of improved safety and accountability. I’m afraid that at the moment the reassurances all ring a bit hollow.
It’s not often you book a hotel solely on the basis of its name, but the Morrissey Hotel in Jakarta was too good to miss. We had visions of a bizarre boutique hotel inspired by the songs of The Smiths and all things Mozzer. Reviews were good and a hotel that provides an in-house laundrette warms the heart of bedraggled travellers – good times for a change.
Please, please, please let me get what I want.….but sadly, like the theme of most of his songs, heightened expectations were crushed, replaced with disappointment on arrival – no Smith’s knick-knacks, no pictures, no posters nor sign of Manchester (…..so much to answer for), not even Reel Around the Fountain piped through the sound system by the Pool. To be fair having a hotel located in the Southern Hemisphere but themed on lyrics of English northern misery probably isn’t the most brilliant marketing strategy. Loved the motorbike and sidecar on the forecourt though….
We were warned about Jakarta, but told to look beyond the mayhem to find its charms. So, on our first day we strolled to the striking National Monument celebrating the nation’s struggle for independence from the Dutch.
As we made our way to the monument tower we suddenly had a sense of deja vu – people smiling and staring at us. Before we knew it we were being asked to pose for photos with young and old alike.
It was a small taste of celebrity and we can confirm that the novelty wears off pretty quickly – just about as long as you can maintain a rictus grin on your face for shot after shot after shot….”just one more Mister”, “please Missus”. It’s impossible to refuse and flattering that anyone should take an interest.
Inside the monument, circling a huge hall, was a series of really quite brilliant dioramas detailing Indonesia’s history and rebellions against colonialist oppression. Inevitably, the British managed to play yet another less than glorious role in this story after the departure of the Japanese from Java in 1945, so any hope we had of enjoying some moral superiority on the Dutch was short lived.
From our very lofty position on the tower viewing area, we spied Jakarta’s Mosque and Cathedral, conveniently located a few yards away from each other and we agreed to visit them the next day. On checking the map, I calculated that by hopping in a tuk-tuk we should take about 15 minutes to get there. What we hadn’t bargained for was a combination of Jakarta’s awful traffic – the worst we have encountered in the world – combined with a demonstration at the Mosque. So it was that we found ourselves in a tuk-tuk oven, slow cooking at about 40 degrees in seven lanes of standstill traffic, breathing in horrendous fumes: the most uncomfortable experience of our trip so far. With nothing moving we agreed it was best to pay our driver and hop out, snaking our way between idling vehicles to the sanctuary of the pavement.
As we neared the Istiqlal Mosque, the crowds got bigger and we realised that it wasn’t going to be possible to see very much of anything, and we were feeling acutely “other”. In Indonesia the clothing is far more modest than in some parts of SE Asia and we always aim to respect the mode of dress, covering shoulders, long trousers rather than shorts etc, when the need takes. However, around the mosque this became more marked than in the rest of the city. Nobody was dressed in Western clothing and the few women we did see were wearing veils. Although we felt safe and nobody approached us, it was clear the demonstration was attracting large crowds, and today was not the day for two heat and traffic weary Westerners to request to take a look inside the mosque. We detoured to the neighbouring neo-gothic Cathedral which gave us a welcome respite from the stifling heat. The building has fascinating iron spires sitting on more traditional stone and some part of it is open to the elements as birds flutter around the roof space swooping over what was a growing congregation gathering for a mass. The proximity of the Mosque and Cathedral is no accident, being designed to highlight the Indonesian philosophy of harmony in diversity (the cannibals on Samosir Island didn’t get that memo!).
Two days in Jakarta was enough to get a bit of a feel for the Capital and a longing to be back out into the countryside for the highlight of our trip to Java – Borobudur. We flew to the pleasant town of Yogyakarta, or “Yogya” as its called locally and stayed in a lovely old colonial hotel in the town centre. Yogya is the base for trips to Borobudur and other local historical sites such as Prambanan. On arrival we were asked an unexpected question: “Are you here to see Mariah Carey?” “No – we will never be anywhere to see Mariah Carey!” Mariah must be doing her “Ancient Monuments” tour (cue the take one to know one joke) as she was performing at Borobudur the day after our visit. Briefly I had unkind visions of her entourage descending on a windswept Stonehenge in November.
Borobudur is the largest Bhuddist Temple in SE Asia and is close to Angkor Wat in its beauty, if not on the same scale. Sitting on a hilltop overlooking lush jungle and distant mountains Borobudur was built in the 9th Century and remains in superb condition despite centuries surviving earthquakes, jungle and erupting volcanoes. Indeed it was lost to the jungle and covered in volcanic ash until being rediscovered in 1815.
What Borobudur manages to combine so brilliantly is a sense of impressive almost intimidating scale, combined with stunning intricacy, being adorned with kilometres of carvings telling the story of Bhudda that circle the temple layer upon layer. The detail of the carvings was remarkable – with a depth that made them truly three-dimensional….
…until you reach a higher level where Borobudur’s iconic bell-shaped Stupas sit:
..accompanied by over 500 Bhudda statues
It’s a remarkable monument that made the trip to Java so memorable.
From Borobudur we visited other local temples before heading to Prambanan, one of the world’s largest and most ancient Hindu temples. After Borobudur there is a risk that everything that follows will underwhelm, but Prambanan does not disappoint. Also built in the 9th century the temples celebrate the Hindu gods Shiva, Brahma and Vishnu.
Like Borobudur, the shape and silhouette of Prambanan casts an iconic image over the landscape which is truly breathtaking.
Once again the detailed decorations have survived the passage of time and like its more famous neighbour it has been lost, found, restored and rightly granted Unesco Heritage status.
After the heat, pollution, hustle and bustle of Jakarta, the mystical and spiritual treasures of Yogya shed a beautiful light on the glorious ancient history of Java.
Java enjoys an unexpectedly good rail system, which we took advantage of by hopping on the local service from Yogya to Solo – just over an hours journey for next to nothing.
Apparently there is something of a rivalry between Yogya and Solo when it comes to claiming the status of true historical capital of Java. Solo (aka Surakarta) has the distinction of hosting two royal Palaces both of which can be visited. Our favourite was Manakunegaran where you can stroll with your guide quietly thrilled in the knowledge that members of the current royal family might pop out from the adjacent residential quarters. Our guide told us that on occasion the King has met and chatted with visitors and had a cup of tea with them! The King is now a ceremonial one only and as far as we could make out has a real job – a refreshing model of royalty that would not go amiss elsewhere.
While not as grand as Manakunegaran, Keraton Surakarta boasted some fine looking guards in traditional attire who seemed to take a particular delight in brandishing their swords, well you would wouldn’t you!
Our time in Solo wasn’t completely without incident as I managed to lose one of my bank cards. Unlike back home the ATM’s here give you the cash first, card second. As we withdrew some Rupiah from an ATM I was distracted by the promise of some rather tasty ice cream, took the cash and marched off in search of gelato. Presumably the ATM sat there with my card sticking out waiting for me to take it and after a short while duly swallowed it. On returning to the hotel I realised my mistake and ran back to the shopping centre where despite their best efforts the staff couldn’t locate my card. Given that we were leaving Solo the next morning I thought I wouldn’t get it back. However, the staff at the Mall checked the CCTV and confirmed that my card was in the ATM. The staff at our hotel then contacted the Bank and with just an hour to spare before we caught our train to the airport arrangements were made for me to pick up my card at the Bank. This was fantastic customer service from everyone involved who could not do more to help reunite me with my card. I know that in an ideal world this is how things should work – but let’s face it we rarely see things play out how we hope. It was another example of the fabulous hospitality and friendliness of Indonesian people. One of the many reasons that makes Indonesia a wonderful place to explore.
Rather than continue eastwards to Bali, our journey now takes us north and back to Thailand where we will spend two weeks with Sam’s holidaying sisters’s Tina and Sandra in Bangkok and Krabi. We plan to return to Indonesia in December….in search of Dragons!
Top Travelling Tips
We aren’t really ones for promoting particular products or services on our blog but its worth mentioning the incredibly convenient service Starling Bank provides to travellers. It’s an App only bank that offers the best rates in terms of charges and during the lost bank card dilemma rather than cancel the card, and trigger all sorts of logistical difficulties, I could simply press a button on the App that deactivates the card. Once I got the card back, I opened the App pressed the button to switch the card back on and hey presto everything was back to normal. Incredibly convenient and through the App the Bank provides loads of other features that are ideal for travellers. Plug over!
Next Up: Bangkok and Krabi