Travel stories from Indonesia
I visited Indonesia for approximately two weeks with my partner. We decided to divide our time in the Yogyakarta part of Java island, and at the Nusa Penida island off the coast of Bali. It was my first visit to a South East Asian country, and the experience was immensely memorable. These parts of Indonesia were very easygoing and relaxed, and people were immensely friendly.
I spent about five days in the Yogyakarta city and neighbouring areas, the only part of the Java island that I saw. Coming from Jakarta, the flight circled around Jogjakarta, giving us extensive views of the volcanic mountains, lush forests, and endless mosaic of rice paddies scattered around a conglomeration of houses with red shingled roofs. A train connects the city to the airport, other options being incredibly slow and crowded buses, or taxis.
Jogja (spelled Yogya) is a small city of few hundred thousand on the island of Java. It is renowned as a centre of education, classical Javanese fine art and culture such as batik, ballet, drama, music, poetry and puppet shows. The city is named after the Indian city of Ayodhya from the Ramayana epic. Yogya means “suitable, fit, proper”, and karta, “prosperous, flourishing” (i.e., “a city that is fit to prosper”). As my first real stop in Indonesia, I liked it instantly.
The centre of Jogja is laid out as a grid and is quite easy to orient. Jalan Malioboro is the main north-south artery that runs (in that one-way direction) from the Yogyakarta Stasion. The main ‘pasar’ (bazar) is located along this street, and so are many tourist hostels and homestays. On all the days we were here, this street was always crowded – with traffic, with people, with hawkers, and all other types of chaos. However, everything was still very low key, quiet, and clean.
The palace was pretty – one storey, open concept, with large courtyards surrounded by leafy trees. Clearly designed for the tropics. The décor was light, unlike many European palaces, and the airiness of the space made me feel more welcome. At a distance, you could hear the Gamelan – an Indonesian orchestra that originated in this region. I was fascinated by the gamelan and the assortment of various predominantly percussive instruments and tools it had. As the traditional ensemble music of Java and Bali in Indonesia, we would be hearing this music being played and rehearsed often, especially in Balinese temples.
The palace patronizes various traditional arts and crafts, and puts on a show for tourists every day of the week. The day we visited was a puppet show, alas all in Bahasa Indonesia or in Javanese, neither of which was understood by us. The puppet show appeared to be a story of a woman being abducted and then rescued. Considering how commonly the stories of Ramayana and Mahabharata are recited, I’d guess it was a scene inspired or directly followed from one of these epics.
Prambanan and Borobudur
I rented a bike to visit some of the Buddhist temples, called Candi, around Borobudur. This region was dotted by a number of Hindu-Buddhist temples and many of these are now protected and undergoing restoration. What’s amazing is, that these temples are sprinkled along a straight line that ends with the Borobudur temple on one end and the Gunung Merapi volcanic peak on the other. Quite fascinating.
The bike ride was fun, because the traffic keeps left, like in India. My brain needed some reprogramming to make sure I wasn’t looking at the wrong side before crossing the street. The bike itself was functional, perfect for a day trip across narrow streets and fast-moving traffic. The countryside was lush, reminded me of the Konkan coast of Western India; lots of rice paddies and coconut trees all over, with a large mountain range always visible at a distance. Hundreds of little streams crisscrossed the landscape, making it a puzzle to navigate around – if you miss a turn on the path, the next crossing was a few sweaty cycling kilometers away.
I visited three temples, which had few local visitors as well. Overall, I found the people very respectful of their heritage and took pride in their Buddhist-Hindu past. I also ran into a number of people on bicycles – you can sign up for a tour of these temples as well as some local villages where they put on a music/dance/cultural show. Could be a nice excursion if you are into it. Among other interesting sights were these village entrances every now and then that were decorated with pillars that bore the Buddhist “Panch Sheela” icons and sculptures of mythological creatures guarding the gates. Very non-Islamic I’ll say.
Cutting across the town, I cycled to a viewpoint called Punthuk Sethumbu from where one can view the Borobudur temple at a distance. It was a nice sight of the town and the region around it – very green, very lush, and lots of rice fields.
I recommend doing the sunrise tour of Borobudur. You need to get up early, at 4, to catch the much popular picture of sunrise behind a meditating Buddha statue. You need to arrive at the gates of a hotel in the temple premises, pay them an extra sunrise entrance fee to enter the complex. The ticket cost double, but I think it was totally worth it in the end. For a moment, we were spared from the throngs of visitors that would crowd the temple for the rest of the day – not sure how this ancient monument can take so much traffic and selfie-clicking tourists.
After a peaceful sunrise view, with a hundred other tourists who had paid the premium price, I loitered around the temple complex with my partner, slowly descending each level of the complex, admiring the sculptures and scenes carved into the walls – wars, celebrations, routine occasions, it had it all.
These old temples at Prambanan were dedicated to the Hindu trinity – Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, and their vahanas. The temple site was swarming with tourists, us included, but the complex is large enough to hold the volume. Adjacent to the Hindu temples are some old Buddhist temples; the distinctions not always clear since the pantheons cross over.
The Denpasar airport in Bali is set up to receive international tourists. It is decorated with Balinese art and you hear gamelan music throughout the terminal. Bali is Indonesia’s only Hindu island, and this fact becomes obvious as soon as you step out of the airport and are greeted by a magnificent statue of Vishnu at a busy roundabout. Numerous shrines dot the streets, with people making offerings of flowers and incense in the morning, the fragrance of which lingers in the air.
We decided to head to a little island, called Nusa Penida, off the coast of mainland Bali, about an hour away by speed boat. The ferry ride across the Java sea was fun – high winds, cloudy blue sky, frothy water left behind by the boat as it cut the waves. At a distance as you saw the coast of Bali fade away, other islands in the vicinity came into view, most notably the island of Lombok which is famed for watersports.
I woke up very early to catch the sunrise and take pictures of the volcano Gunung Agung that had shown some activity only few weeks ago. The volcano occasionally burps a cloud of volcanic ash, but the potential for an intense volcanic eruption always exists.
There were Balinese Hindu temples and shrines very frequently and all over the island. These temples are typically open-air, and are dedicated to a patron deity with smaller shrines to other deities. Men are expected to wear a sarong before entering the temples.
↑ Absolutely gorgeous beaches await
We rented scooters to tour the island, and I really recommend everyone to do that if you wish to have autonomy and freedom to explore the island. We visited some spectacular beaches along the western and eastern edges of Nusa Penida. Some of these were: Atuh, Suwehan, Kelingking (raptor beach), and Bilabong (broken beach). Pictures will speak to you about the utter beauty and dramatic setting of these beaches.
We finished off our trip to Indonesia with a snorkelling trip to some coral reefs around the island.
Food was definitely a highlight of our travel. Everywhere we went, the food was fresh and very tasty. Couldn’t get enough of it!