A return to Borobudur after 27 years

Allan first visited this part of Indonesia many years ago. This was Allan’s first holiday outside Europe, an eye-opener to an entirely different part of the world and his almost constant wanderlust can probably be traced back to that trip. One of the highlights of that trip back in 1990, was coming to Borobudur.

We tried to visit here back in 2010, but the nearby mega-angry Volcano (mount Merapi) decided to blow its top, resulting in severe damage and loss of life. So, it was a relief when our Bob Marley loving taxi driver delivered us to our guesthouse in the small town of Borobudur, only seven years later than planned.

Our guesthouse (Efata Homestay) is reasonably basic, but perfect and a breakfast that I’m sure Buddha Himself would approve. Our hosts are lovely and genuinely want us to have the most perfect of times. They fuss after us with coffee, get us to try new things such as snake fruit, provide reading materials on the temple and give us recommendations for cafés and restaurants. What a difference from our bland, musak nightmare of a hotel described in the previous post and half the price as well!

Onto the main event. Borobudur Temple. This is the biggest Buddhist temple in the world and was built around 1300 years ago. There are mysteries around this site including exactly when it was built, why such a huge Buddhist temple was built in Java (thousands of miles away from India) and why the site was totally abandoned not long after it was finished. It’s massive. 9 stories high with over 500 buddha statues and the base is over 100x100m. From the top we can see the temperamental Mount Merapi and many other mountains in all directions.

Weekends at the temple are very busy with local tourists. So, we sensibly decide to go on a Monday instead. However, our knowledge of Indonesian public holidays isn’t what it should be, so we end up going on a very busy day. It really didn’t matter, in fact, seeing loads of people having a great time was good fun.

Being western tourists, we get stopped numerous times by friendly locals who want photos with us. We ask, “Really? Are you sure you want red-faced, sweaty tourists in your photos? Are you really sure?” and the answer was always a very smily “Yes”. We must be in hundreds of photos.

95% humidity, 30c heat, the numbers of people and the many sellers of tourist tat didn’t spoil Borobudur. It is still a magical place – but if you plan to go, just look up dates of Indonesian public holidays and get ready to smile for the cameras.

The strange case of the lift with no music

We enjoyed our hotel in Sanur so much that we decided to move back to it after our trip to Ubud. Four days and nights passed with very little to report apart from short visits to the beach and dinner at some lovely Indonesian places – including the café barely 20m from our bungalow. Talk about winding down.

Next up was Yogyakarta in Java. We flew here to save some time and it promised so much as it is the home of culture, batik and meant to be a shopping paradise. Allan came here 26 years ago and found it a charming, if slightly grubby, town where he purchased some magnificent batik prints and equally magnificent shirt and trousers.

Unfortunately we didn’t find that charming town from all those years ago. We found a grimy, dirty, hectic, traffic-heavy and, frankly, stinky city. Seeing a squashed rat on the side of the road beside various food outlets probably did more to turn our respective stomachs that anything on this holiday so far and has even turned Chloe vegetarian for the short-term. I’m sure if we were 20-somethings this wouldn’t be a huge problem, but for us 40-somethings it definitely is.

What hasn’t helped our general lack of bonhomie was our choice of hotel. We chose a mid-range hotel called Lynn Hotel. It promised “world class hospitality with an Indonesian flavour”. Quite a promise and, no, we didn’t fully believe that, but…

What the hotel did deliver was:

  1. A hotel with over a hundred 16-year-old school kids in residence. To be fair they weren’t being bad, but that many kids staying in a hotel that obviously thought any sort of sound-proofing was an optional extra is pretty disturbing
  2. The many staff who thought the idea of hospitality is to open a door for us. Not cleaning up room service that had been left outside rooms for over 24hrs or other such basics
  3. On the map, it suggested a short 10 minute walk to the main tourist shops & restaurants. It took a lot longer due to crappy pavements and don’t forget to avoid the squashed rats!
  4. Wifi. Simply don’t even bother.
  5. Hosting corporate events including Karaoke blasting out from 8am in the swimming pool area. At least it stopped us hearing the musak (see below)
  6. The strange case of musak (you know, that annoying lift music). Well, Lynn Hotel’s idea is to play it in the room corridors at loud volume from 5.45am until late at night. And not just room corridors, it was in reception, it was in the restaurant and even outside in the swimming pool area. In fact, everywhere apart from the lift. How bloody odd

Ok, we know are moaning now. So here’s some good bits.

We did find a lovely restaurant called Via Via that did great Indonesian food and even a bit of Jazz on Friday nights. We had an Indonesian language lesson. We saw spectacular lightening and very loud thunderstorms. We loved the battle of the “call to prayer” between two nearby mosques.

And, of course, Allan did finally buy another magnificent shirt – so all is well with the world again. Tomorrow we go north to Borobudur and say our not so fond goodbyes to Yogyakarta.

Ubud: botany, bikes and bikinis

It’s no surprise that Ubud is busier than the last time we were here. It’s not even surprising that the number of businesses appears to have doubled. Ubud has a reputation of being artsy, cultured and ‘right on’ – the hippy capital of Bali. What is surprising, then, is that the visitors who throng the streets looking for a taste of the ‘real’ Bali are now mainly offered cocktails, toasted sandwiches and the chance to shop until they drop. Many behave as if they were at a beach resort, including walking about shirtless or bikinied, which is a bit shocking when you need not pay too much attention to see how modestly everyone dresses. We’re all for wearing what you want but when in Rome and all that.

Given the heat and humidity, we decide to be realistic about what we’re likely to achieve while we’re here. Even a relatively short walk tends to be accompanied in short order by the need to lie down under a fan. Luckily for us, there are a few interesting things to do nearby.

For a start, our hotel is on a pretty little side street. Its start is unpromising, a slightly bleak concrete road up the side of Starbucks, but it soon gives way to little houses, warung (local restaurants), B&Bs and other businesses. As it narrows, temples punctuate its length and tall bamboo ‘penjor’, put up during the latest Galungan festival, overhang the road. The only sensible vehicle here is the motorbike, but that does’t stop the unaccountably wide tourist taxis from giving it a go.

Our street is so quiet that, on our balcony, we are treated to a constant soundtrack of birds, drums and gamelan music. The wildlIfe even seem to have a schedule: first are tiny swifts scooping up the early morning insects, then the cicada chorus begins and the larger pigeons start to coo, dragonflies and massive wasps get their hour at about 10am. As evening draws in, moths and mossies appear along with their natural predator the gecko, while bats dart among the trees.

A little further up the street is Ubud Botany Interactive, where we take a class in ‘botanicals’, essentially how to make our own shampoo and deep heat out of local ingredients. In a town full to brimming with a lot of nonsense, its founder is a science graduate. She wanted, she says, to find out whether there was evidence to support the efficacy of traditional preparations used here for centuries. The answer is sometimes ‘partly’ and sometimes ‘definitely’ – she will make no unsubstantiated claims. However, beyond efficacy there is a conversation to be had about economic, social and environmental sustainability. All ingredients grow locally, all are safe to eat and none will tax the local infrastructure to breaking point. Besides which, we got to squeeze aloe, pound galangal, sniff essential oils and generally make a right mess!

Just past the end of our road is the Ubud Art Museum. As we walked into the gardens, more like a palace grounds dotted with various mini galleries, our visit seven years ago all came back. No photography is allowed, so you’ll have to take our word for it that there are magnificent examples of Balinese art here, largely from the mid-20th century onwards but with enough older pieces to help us understand how styles and techniques have developed. Chloe remembered a particularly arresting sculpture of rice goddess Dewi and (hoorah!) it was still there, so we looked our fill and tried, tried, tried to fix it in our brains. Imagine the sculpture on the left reimagined by Rodney Matthews drawing Michael Moorcock’s Elric.

And the Starbucks? We won’t lie, we purchased lattes with extra shots a couple of times. But at least Allan had the decency not to wear a bikini when he went in…

Arrival in Bali

We have good memories of Bali. It was our first stop for Hardcowtravels Part One, back in 2010, and we ended up staying a whole month.

A five hour flight from Melbourne and we’re here. The humidity and heat hit us immediately, even though it is 10pm. It feels like Bali has enveloped us in a big, wet hug.

 

 

 

 

 

We book the same hotel as on our first stop six years ago – Flashbacks – and it is exactly the same calm and leafy oasis. The staff are friendly, the food is fresh and excellent quality. The town we’re staying in, Sanur, is still pretty much laid back especially compared to the party town of Kuta a few miles away although has got a bit more lively. Three nights in Sanur passed without very much happening, which, to be fair, was our plan.

Now onto Ubud. During the journey the clouds get darker then, suddenly, rain comes down in a deluge the likes of which we’ve rarely seen in the world. Roads flowing like rivers, house steps running with waterfalls and drains struggling to cope. Homes and streets are largely designed to cope with torrential rain, funnelling water through an exit and putting living areas up a few steps. However, thank goodness we’re in a reliable 4×4 with an extremely good driver.

 

 

 

 

We wake up this morning and, apart from the 90% humidity, it’s like the rain never happened. It’s sunny and bloody hot. All that greets us is the noise of birds and insects with a view over the trees to the distant summit of Mt Batur, the volcano Allan climbed last time we were here. And, being on the third floor of our hotel, there are no loud cockerels prowling around outside our balcony to wake us up at 5am. Nice.

 

When you’re smiling

As a Londoner, I was initially very suspicious of the amount of smiling that goes on here. ‘What do they want?’, I thought. Of course, lots of them did want something – to sell us a scarf, to hire us a taxi, to take us to see a dolphin. And lots of them were making sure that, as cash paying tourists vital to their economy, we had a good time. Very sensible.

However, lots of people just wanted to practice their English, pass the time of day, tell us about their country and ask about ours. Like the old man we met on the beach in Pemuteran, on a day trip from Java with his family, who was fascinated by the idea of the welfare state. He was such a lively, inquiring man and great company for half an hour. But like any self-respecting grandfather, he also wanted to embarrass his shy granddaughter by insisting she speak English to us at the drop of a hat!

And smiling is very much part of social interaction. The Balinese, like many south east Asian societies I think, abhor confrontation. Everything is done with a smile, which only gets wider the more difficult the situation.

So, yes, Bali is a land of many smiles, but they don’t necessarily indicate a state of perfect bliss.

Taruna Homestay – Pemuteran, Bali

In a sleepy village on the north west coast of Bali, Taruna Homestay is the guesthouse we dreamed of finding. Taruna and his family have built three beautiful rooms behind their home, in an immaculately landscaped garden, on the main road into town. It’s easy to find because it’s directly opposite the less salubrious (and higher priced, now that it’s in the guidebooks) Jawuna Homestay.

Taruna has spent years working in Bali’s hospitality industry, and it shows. Breakfast is served on your veranda (fruit, fresh juice, eggs, nasi goreng, toast, pancakes, banana dumplings – you choose). Rooms are smart, comfortable and cleaned often. Bathrooms are open to the air but protected from the rain – you can brush our teeth with a view of the nearby hilltops.

On our last night, Taruna made us a Balinese family-style dinner of octopus satay and fish soup. Taruna told us about changes in Pemuteran over the years and how he came to open the homestay (he was 2cm too short to join a cruise ship, so he brought the world to him). Allan, Luc, Lisa (two Dutch guests) and I told him about Europeans’ obsession with knowing the weather (in Bali, he said, you only need to know if it’s hot or hot and wet) and how sound changes after heavy snowfall.

Prices are fair. We paid 287,500 rupiah including taxes – about £20 – for the air conditioned luxury room. There is one other air con and a fan room.

If you are ever in Bali, get yourself to Pemuteran. It has a local rule against street selling, which is like cool water flowing over your brain after weeks of ‘Transport? Sarong? Art gallery? Dinner? Picture with snake? Cock fighting?’. The local people have taken real control of their village, including setting up the world’s largest artificial reef to restore the coral that was dying until a few years ago. Every Saturday night, Taruna runs a 45 minute walking tour of the village, which is free, so it’s worth timing your visit accordingly.

Taruna Homestay, Desa Pemuteran, Gerokgak, 81155 Buleleng, Bali

Tel: 081 338 536 318

Email: taruna.kadek@yahoo.com

LLOYDS VERSUS THE VOLCANO

Welcome, ladies and gentleman, to the sinister world of travel insurance. Do you dare enter a reality where the laws of logic hold no sway..?

With a bloody great volcano going off in central Java, and ash raining down upon Yogyakarta, our departure point from Indonesia, we consulted the Foreign Office website for the latest travel advice. It told us not to go there.

The obvious solution was to fly to Singapore from Bali instead and catch our connecting flight to Phuket (Thailand) as planned.

Luckily, as Allan is ‘a valued Lloyds Gold Account customer’, they fell over themselves to help him upgrade to all-singing, all-dancing travel insurance – designed to meet almost every eventuality. We called their emergency hotline (yes, even in an emergency, menu options must be selected) and were told that, as flights were still leaving Yogyakarta, they could not cover the cost of the Bali flight.

‘But we can’t get to Yogyakarta. There’s a bloody great volcano going off.’

We suggest you go there and, if your flight is then cancelled, you can travel back to Bali and we will cover your flight out of there.’

‘But our insurance is invalidated if we travel against Foreign Office advice. If we ring you from Yogyakarta and make a claim, you’ll tell us it’s not possible because we shouldn’t have entered the area. Er, did you hear us? There’s a bloody great volcano going off!’

‘You are only covered if your flight is cancelled.’

‘But if we go to the airport and fall down some stairs, we’re not covered because we’re in the danger zone voluntarily?’

‘Yes.’

‘And if our flight is subsequently cancelled, there’s a question about whether we could claim for that anyway because we’re in the danger zone voluntarily?’

‘Yes.’

‘This makes no sense.’

‘Let me put you through to someone else…’

Three transfers later, we had progressed no further, except to discover that we had failed to purchase a top secret extra schedule called ‘Travel Disruption’, not mentioned in any of the policies, pamphlets or other literature that Lloyds sent us. Or, indeed, by the salesperson Allan spoke to before we left, who sold us everything but the kitchen sink.

They promised to ring us back. They didn’t.

We will keep ringing them, arguing, investigating misselling and complaining to the ombudsman – we have a lot of time on our hands. It will fairly swiftly cost them more in mobile phone calls to Bali, staff time and administration than if they had simply paid the £104 additional flight cost.

We hate them. They smell and are incompetent. We will not be defeated.

Splendid Machine Book

Return airfare to Singapore – £800

Night in lovely Balinese homestay – £20

Diving off shipwreck – £70

Amazon Kindle book reader – £149

Free Internet access on Kindle to look up at 4am NUFC 5-1 win against the Mackems… PRICELESS

Extra week in Bali

With lots of horriber stuff going on with Mount Merapi near where we were due to fly from and FCO advice saying not to go, we are doing a change in plan and staying in Bali an extra week and flying straight from here to Singapore even though travel insurance believes we should go to within 15 miles of a volcano exploding (more on this in the next post).

Currently in a lovely homestay called Tuwana in the north coast beach village of Pemutaren and will be moving closer to airport down towards the south in a couple of days. More posts when Internet connection gets quicker than a very slow snail…