Category Archives: Indonesia

Welcome to Java?

(Java, Indonesia – 25 Jan, 2014) From the island of Bali we traveled west to the much larger island of Java, crossing the Java Straight in a ratty old ugly ferry. We were told the ferry ride was a half hour, but our slow-boat rust-bucket took a full hour to chug across the gap.

Before boarding, I was accosted two different times by friendly locals. They asked where we were from, what’s my name, etc. Nothing too notable. In the end, I was handed a card of their friend that runs tours to the nearby volcano- Kawah Ijen -in case I was interested.

Just as we exited the ferry on the Java side, weaving our way off the dock amid the motorcycles, cars and trucks, a little guy approached me and asked, “You are Gary from America?” He introduced himself as “Pepe” and started chatting us up (in pretty good English) about our plans. Obviously, he’s the ‘friend that runs tours’ to the volcano, having been called or texted by his scout on the Bali side. Being ambushed in this way was a little disconcerting, but ultimately harmless. Pepe was a young guy and outgoing as hell. Clearly entrepreneurial and a fast talker but never pushy. We actually enjoyed talking to him and he helped guide us to the “bemo” (local van-bus) that took us to our hotel.

Java Vibes

Unlike the Island of Bali, Java is predominantly Muslim. That alone changed the whole vibe. Seeing nearly every female above 12 wearing a headscarf brings forth a mixture of unpleasant emotions- discomfort, disappointment, even low-level anger. It’s the subjugation of women on an industrial scale protected from scrutiny by the shield of religion. I freakin’ hate it! To be clear, the Muslims we saw in Indonesia did not wear burkas (the black full-body cloak), but they all did wear a headscarf to hide any trace of their hair. Sure, head scarves are less bad than burkas, but they’re both symbols of suppression and control.

Last word on it…. Islam is only shades different from any other religion. They all have their bronze-age rituals and beliefs that require leaps of faith that attempt to build bridges from the rational to the magical. While no religion is all bad, some are definitely worse than others. I count any religion that requires its followers to wear funny hats, grow bushy beards or curly sideburns, or dress in any particular way to be among the most offensive.

Now that my anti-religion rant has concluded, I can add that never did we meet anyone in Java (Muslim or non-Muslim) that was anything less than nice and helpful towards us.

Here’s one of the many mosques we zoomed past while in Java.


The city closest to where the ferry delivered us was Banyuwangi; not a tourist destination for good reason. The one night we stayed there was plenty. The other downer was that we couldn’t find a way to squeeze in that hike to the Ijen volcanic crater. Pepe’s tours started at 1 AM! The reason for the painfully early start is to put you at the crater’s edge before the sun rises, the only way to catch a view of the blue flames rising from the toxic steaming waters that fill the crater’s mouth. Unfortunately (or fortunately), we never saw any of this because we couldn’t go up to the crater and back before our train departed Banyuwangi for Yogyakarta, the final destination of our visit to Indonesia.

Borobadur- Over 500 Buddhas Strong

We spent about 9 hours on trains crossing Java to reach Yogyakarta. At least a very impressive treasure awaited us… and that was Borobadur- the largest Buddhist temple IN THE WORLD. It was built over about a 100 year period sometime between the 8th and 9th centuries A.D. Stone by carefully sculpted stone, the temple rose above the landscape, the Buddhist’ grandest physical contribution to the world of religion.

Walking towards the monument, we turn around for a pic.

The monument has the general shape of a pyramid, four sides, rising to a peak at its center. However, the structural intricacies abound within each of its four levels. For example, the walls on either side of the inner walkways are carved with the history of Buddha in storyboard form.

Here is our guide explaining how the story of Buddha is carved into the walls that line the monument corridors.

Following the complete path to full enlightenment, in other words, starting at the bottom and walking around and up the entire monument, would cause you to cover a distance of about 5 kilometers (3 miles).

All of the Buddha statues look identical at first glance, but a closer look finds the positioning of their hands vary depending on what level of enlightenment is being represented.

I’m standing on about level 3. The circle of stupas (that’s what those bell-shaped things are called) starts on level 4.

There are Buddha statues on every level and facing outward on every side. Altogether, there are over 500 hundred statues of Buddha precisely placed throughout the site. This guy sure has a lovely view.

A group of kids enrolled in an English class asked me to be in their group photo.

Inside each stupa is a Buddha statue. One of them is displayed without its topper to give visitors an unobstructed view of the meditating master.

Jessica stuck her camera inside a stupa and caught this Buddha in mid-meditation.

Many of the Buddhas have lost their heads over the past many centuries.

Also of great interest is the fact that Borobadur lay unknown and hidden from the world until it was ‘unearthed’ by a Dutch engineer in 1814, buried beneath layers of volcanic ash and dense vegetation. How it came to be that Borobadur was abandoned and allowed to deteriorate so much that it literally disappeared from view is largely a matter of speculation. My money says a close succession of volcanic eruptions in the area caused the local population to give up on it and relocate to Bali.

The photos we took do an overall poor job of communicating the true brilliance of Borobadur. The dark stone from which it was built could be interpreted as giving it an ominous tone. In person, it is grand and simply amazing in only a positive way.

Bird Market

Yogyakarta is a busy city with a lot going on. There is even a bird market. (If your brain just said, What’s a bird market?, No worries; ours did too.) We strolled through this interesting and smelly outdoor pet store on a Friday afternoon not knowing what to expect. We saw lots of birds for sale, but there were large stalls containing tanks full of fish, too. Down another aisle and it was cats and dogs for sale. A short turn to the left and there was a cage occupied by three fruit bats. A guy told us the bats are sold to people who have asthma. I forget which part of the bat they ate to cure their asthma, but I don’t think I care to remember anyway. A few more steps and we ran across large cages containing huge boa constrictors. What’s next, giraffes?


The whole place wasn’t that big and it didn’t take long before we were ready to go…driven out by the sadness of seeing animals in cages and by the sometimes awful smell. But then we noticed a larger gathering of people towards the back of the market. Curious, we walked towards the people and wound up stumbling on a songbird competition. What the PEEEEEP?! Who knew such a thing existed? (Not us.)

Every Friday, songbird owners and trainers (yes, each bird has its own “trainer”) enter their bird into the venue to be scored by a band of judges for their singing abilities. The bird who captures 1st Place can win up to $1,000 for its owner. We stood ringside for the crudely run spectacle and were thoroughly flabbergasted by the whole thing. We saw (and heard) several rounds of the competition with different species of birds competing. The classic Canary was the only bird name we recognized.

Birds were judged on how actively they sung and the quality of their song, too. Birds who get stage fright won’t go far in this arena. It’s pretty hilarious to see the trainers trying to wave signals to their birds in order to get them to sing better/more.

Sultan’s Palace

A real live current-day Sultan lives in a palace in Yogyakarta…and we went there. The palace is open to the public and one day we hitched a ride on an becak (equivalent to a pedi-cab in the states) to pay the Sultan a visit. Riding in the becak was an adventure all its own. Those drivers have no fear of death and will pedal out into the street on faith (and stupidity) alone.

Yogyakarta is the only city/province of Indonesia to be governed by a Sultan. Today the Sultan and his family have only ceremonial duties, but it wasn’t so many generations ago that the Sultan’s word was law. Based on our visit to the Sultan’s Palace it seems many of those laws were designed to bring benefit to himself….and his many wives.

The collage below shows the entrance to the courtyard, the Sultan’s residence, and the biggest drum I’ve ever pounded on. Back in the day the drum was used as an alarm. Thumping on it makes a low-pitched tone that can be heard over great distances.


Most interesting was to see the Sultan’s swimming pool. It was actually in quite a poor state of repair, (so hard to find good help these days), but you could see the Sultan’s tower hovering over one side of the pool. Supposedly, the creepy Sultan would lurk up in the tower and pick out his next wife from the bathing beauties in the pool below.

“Where Does It Come From?”

In the neighborhood of the Sultan’s Palace there was a big open grassy area. I hesitate to call it a park, because it honestly wasn’t nice enough to qualify as a park, in my snobby opinion. My snobbery notwithstanding, the locals made good use of the space- playing soccer and other games on it throughout the day. At night the park took on a festive atmosphere. These neon-lit pedal cars are for rent.


One afternoon, I went to the grassy area with my frisbee to see if I could find someone to throw with. A group of about 7 young guys were walking around the park and I motioned with my Frisbee like I was tossing it to them. Soon they were all involved in throwing the Frisbee around like small children. A couple of them spoke a little English and after some time one of them pointed at the Frisbee and asked, “What is this?” “Where does it come from?” I didn’t understand what he meant at first, but it became clear once he told me, “It’s my first time to see this.” Wow!

They were having a blast throwing it around, but were comically bad at it.

One thing we noticed frequently about men in Indonesia, most of them carried what could most accurately be described as a purse or handbag. These cases were more masculine than a typical purse, but clearly served the same function- a place to keep your things. It was funny to see the guys running to catch the Frisbee, but first asking their friend to hold their purse.

While I was teaching Ultimate to my new friends, Jessica was making a few friends of her own.


Indonesia is not a typical vacation destination for Americans, but perhaps it should be. It has so much to offer and is absurdly inexpensive. It’s the kind of place one could explore for months on end and still leave wanting more. For us, and for this pass through the area, our two weeks in Indonesia must suffice… for now we move on to Singapore and then Hong Kong. Stay with us.

Never Thought We’d Be In Bali

(Bali, Indonesia – 20 January 2014) Friendliest people on Earth are in Bali, Indonesia. I’ll grant you that a big spoonful of that sugar helps the Balinese sell souvenirs to tourists, but that cannot explain the positive, welcoming, helpful spirit that seems to pervade the culture. One of our days in Ubud we rented a scooter. While late in the day and on our way to return it, I felt the tell-tale softness that comes from a tire that’s nearly flat. Moments later and we were riding the rim.

Help literally came in seconds. A house under remodel was to our left at the point we could ride no further. A small man in the short, covered driveway motioned for us to roll the scooter over to him. He then disappeared into the house and re-emerged a flash later with a pig-sized air compressor riding on his hip. He quickly aired us up and we were able to roll again. “Terima kasih,” we nodded several times. (That’s ‘Thank you’ in Bahasa, the primary language of Bali.) The little man smiled big and seemed so pleased to have helped us.


Sanur and the $3.50 Massage

Bali is one island of literally thousands that make up Indonesian archipelago- part of the largest island chains in the world. Denpasar is the main city on Bali’s southern end and where we landed on our flight up from Australia. From the airport we traveled by taxi to a hotel in Sanur. I’m not sure if Sanur is a resort town next to Denpasar or considered part of Denpasar, but I do know our hotel was located just 5 minutes from the beach by foot.

Having just come from the are-you-kidding-me expensive Australia, Bali was a welcome relief to our pocketbooks. About $30/night got us an air-conditioned room with a balcony overlooking a luscious green courtyard with a cool blue pool. Breakfast was included and there was no extra charge for wifi (like we’d seen so many times in Australia).


Our hotel was located on one of the main drags and everything we would need was just a few steps away. Our first full day in Sanur and Jessica went out for a mani-pedi for around $10 US. Less interested in the mani or the pedi, myself, I became enticed by the super cheap massages. I could have gone foot, head, Tai, full-body or heated rocks, but in the end zeroed in on a simple 30 minute back massage. The US Dollar is pretty strong right now in Indonesia so the cost to me was about $3.50. Of course, it was actually more than that after I left a $4.00 tip.

Aside from the cooking class I talk about next, we did a whole lot of nothing special in Sanur. Jessica caught up on some books, I blogged about Australia and went for a long jog down by the beach. And we ate out every night with no threat to our budget. Good food, too. Plus, we found THE BEST gelato stand! Our favorite flavor was called, Cherry Float.


More pics from in and around Sanur.


Enjoyed a rock cover-band at a neighborhood bar. The drummer sure got a lot of sound out of one bongo drum. Dog’s a rocker, too.


Cooking Class

It wasn’t all about the three R’s- rest, relaxation and restaurants. We also signed up for an Indonesian cooking class on our last day in Sanur. Straight from the hotel to the local food market was how our morning of cooking began. Dewy, our instructor, led us on a tour through the market and had us taste and smell some of the local flavors. Among the items we tried was jackfruit, a melon-sized oddity covered with rough, prickly green skin. It’s a huge fruit, though only a small part of it is typically eaten, the yellowish lining around the seeds. For such an ugly monstrosity, it sure tasted sweet.


Here is what Jackfruit looks like in the trees.


From the market, our driver took us to Dewy’s house. There we found a spacious covered outdoor kitchen/patio set up and waiting for our group of five students. The patio roof kept us nice and dry as it started raining, heavily on occasion. Helping her with the set-up were three assistants. Tea or coffee was offered upon our arrival for that added welcoming touch.

Every person in our group played a role in preparing five dishes that morning. Whether cutting up ingredients like lemon-grass, garlic or onion, or manually grinding them together with the additional spices (in a shallow stone bowl with a stone mallet), we all got involved. (Yes, even Jessica cooked!)


It was great fun and a wonderful learning experience. Hats off to Jessica for delivering the line-of-the-day. She offered loudly, “I figured out how you can get me to cook more. Find me three assistants and I’ll cook every day.”

Eating the food we’d prepared for our lunch provided the perfect conclusion to the class. Yum!


Getting Cleansed in Ubud

Ubud (pronounced oo-bood), a busy little city only about an hour north of Sanur, was our second stop in Bali. We’d heard good things about it from our friend Boris, who traveled to Bali last year.

The street where our hotel was located was noisy, narrow and not lacking in touristy shops. Great for us, because it made us feel like we were in the thick of all the hub-bub. The rooms of the hotel were set far enough back from the chaos so that slipping behind the hotel walls brought immediate and welcome tranquility.

Ubud surely grew into a lively tourist destination because several prominent Hindu temples were built in and around it. One such temple was smartly placed on the site of a natural spring, called the Holy Springs by the locals. To reach the Holy Springs we chose to rent a scooter (yes, this is the same scooter that winds up with the flat tire by days end), and brave the 50 minute ride into the rural outskirts of Ubud. Our route took us through the rice paddy terraced countryside and several tiny villages before we reached the springs’ obscure hiding place. (I say it was “hiding” because we saw zero road signs pointing to it and relied solely on gestures and nods from villagers to find it.)

We had such a blast that day. Even before the springs, we scooted over to the aptly-named Monkey Forest. For more reasons than just its monkeys, the whole place was very cool with temples, statues and hidden pathways all winding beneath a thick forest canopy.



Next we toured the art museum of Antonio Blanco. The grounds of the museum were as good as the art itself.


The scooter ride to the Holy Springs was quite an adventure. While on the streets within the town, we felt like a bee moving through the hive. Other scooters buzzed us on all sides…sometimes coming within inches. It was exciting indeed. Once we’d cleared the busier city streets and motored to the edges, we were amazed to see shop after shop of eye-catching artwork. Furniture makers, sculptors, painters, glassworkers, wood carvers and more…all displaying their incredibly beautiful works at roadside. What a dream place this would be for a buyer from Gardenridge.

Once at the Holy Springs we participated in a cleansing ritual. This involved wearing a sarong and bathing in each of the spring-sourced fountains- bathing meant three splashes to the body, three dunks over the head, and three swallows of the water. Then repeat that ritual at each of the dozen water shoots feeding into multiple bathing pools. Jessica did it all, except for swallowing the water. She kinda pretended to drink it. Perhaps a wise move since we’d already laid eyes on the larger spring-fed pool from which this water flowed. It had plenty of algae growing in it and quite a few fish. I drank my three swallows from the first shoot, but then thought better of it and faked the rest.

We could have visited the Holy Springs and never taken a dip; plenty of people were there simply observing. But that’s not how we roll. Getting ourselves immersed in the culture was far more fun. Plus, who doesn’t need a little cleansing from time to time?



The clean team.

A Hellish Turn at the Holy Springs

One more tidbit related to our visit to the Holy Springs, mentioned only because it is somewhat emblematic of one of the least pleasurable aspects of Indonesia- the shopping. Due to the nature of our trip, Jessica and I are not able to buy pretty things; we simply cannot carry more items in our already stuffed packs. However, we do sometimes enjoy “window shopping” to see the kinds of interesting things for sale in whichever country we’re in. What we found frequently in Indonesia were shop owners that had taken the concept of friendly to an uncomfortable extreme. Meaning, they would occasionally cross the line and become pushy and desperate for a sale. That had the immediate effect of turning us off like a switch.

When we exited the Holy Springs we entered an area with a row of souvenir shops. All too soon we were barked at so aggressively by the sellers we just wanted to run screaming from the area. Not even this did they make easy, the row of shops we’d entered turned left and right without ending until we were sure to be caught in a hellish labyrinth. Finally, we saw an escape route to the parking lot and ran for our lives. Ugh! Don’t they know they’d sell 10 times as much merchandise if they didn’t scare people off?

Thankfully, this style of salesmanship was not everywhere. We did enter shops in other areas of Bali and enjoyed the experience very much.

Also in Ubud…

We went to a classic Balinese dance. The performers knocked our socks off! The whole thing was simply mesmerizing. We’d never seen anything like it. So precise were their movements; even the dance of the eyes. We were thoroughly impressed.

Shipwreck Diving in Amed

Amed is a part of Bali located along the upper portion of the eastern coast. I’m really not sure if Amed is a city or just the name for that region. It’s not like we saw any big signs that said, Welcome to Amed. Neither city, nor town, nor even village would be a fitting label, anyway…at least not for what we found. There was basically one asphalt road that curved in unison with the coastline and that was it. Small hotels, restaurants, mini-stores and dive shops fit in uncrowded clusters along either side of the street for a couple-mile stretch. Nothing too fancy, mind you…no name brand hotels or restaurants were seen. We saw only sweet little family-run operations that were generally well-done, comfortable and very cheap. Amed has so far been untouched by commercialism and greed. Hallelujah!

Most people come to Amed specifically for the outstanding diving and snorkeling. In fact, many of the hotels and guesthouses are physically connected to dive shops and operate together as one business. This was true with regard to where Jessica and I stayed.


Just down the walk from our bungalow was the staging area for fitting divers with their equipment. On the morning of our dives, we gathered there (along with 5 other divers) before loading into a van and heading down to the dive site- the USAT Liberty shipwreck. Ketut was the name of the guide assigned to just Jessica and me by the dive master. (So much different than the group of 10 or so we were a part of when doing our Great Barrier Reef dives.) Ketut was a supercool Indonesian dude around 25 years old. He spoke very good English and smiled easily, showing a great set of white teeth every time.

The USAT Liberty was a military transport ship torpedoed by the Japanese in World War II while carrying rail ties and rubber from Australia to the Philippines. It was damaged heavily in the strike and took on water, but somehow managed to stay afloat. Tow ships pulled it to the beach in Tulamben, Bali where its cargo was salvaged. (Tulamben is one click north of Amed.) Abandoned, the ship remained beached at the water’s edge for 21 years….until tremors associated with the 1963 volcanic eruption of Mount Agung jiggled it into slightly deeper waters just offshore where it finally sank completely once and for all. Another fifty years has passed now and marine life has taken firm control of the ship.

Today it’s become a popular dive site. In fact, VERY popular, we were told. They say that during the high-season you can barely find a vacant spot on the beach to put down your things. Thankfully, while we were there it was not so crowded.

Diving at the USAT Liberty was so easy because we simply had to walk into the water from the beach and there it was. Such a contrast from the Great Barrier Reef; there we boarded a boat and trotted out to sea for 90 minutes before reaching the dive site. Ketut and others from our dive team helped Jessica and I get ready with our oxygen tanks, masks and fins. Then we locked arms and marched into the water. From the moment we lowered our masked faces into the water we saw fish- just little ones but they radiated blue color. Oh yeah, this was gonna be good!

The water was clear like a swimming pool. Ketut led us around the outside of the sunken ship, pointing out various marine life as we swam along easily. Here we are posing with the deadly scorpion fish in the foreground. I kept wanting to call it a rock fish, (for obvious reasons, right?).


Fish are so amazingly varied in their color-schemes. Wish I could upload all the pics, but….this will have to do.



We saw a couple of turtles. One of them is in the collage above. Sorry for the blurry pic. It’s really hard to hold the camera still in the water. Plus, whenever I see something cool, I want to rush and take the picture before it swims away. With turtles, however, (at least these turtles) that’s simply not an issue…they make no effort to swim away. I’m no marine biologists, but I think this is a loggerhead turtle just like the one we saw lay eggs in Australia.

We completed two brilliant dives that day. Best diving EVER!

From the island of Bali, we ventured westward to the island of Java. Our adventures there will be posted soon. Stay with us!