Should I Go to Indonesia?

In the past month, Indonesia has been hit with several devastating earthquakes. Many of the people I met in Lombok and on the Gili Islands were surely affected by these deadly events. I’ve found myself thinking about our time there a lot.

Below is a post I began writing in Spring, but never got around to finishing until now. Through this post, I hope to inspire people to visit this beautiful island country and to better understand it as well. Whether you are an avid traveler, or simply dream of one day being able to travel, this post is full of all the reasons why I would recommend Indonesia as a travel destination for pretty much anyone.

In the last 4 years, I’ve done a lot of travelling. I’ve had a lot of experiences, eaten a lot of different food and met a lot of different people. From the Hongs of Thailand, to the Thar Desert in India, I’ve never visited anywhere that didn’t offer some sort of spectacular adventure.

Sometimes though, you find a country that offers more than just destinations and good food. Those countries captivate you and take a piece of your heart. They change the way you see the world. Cambodia did that for me, and it became the country I compared all other countries too. Now, Indonesia has also been added to that list, and today I’d like to tell you why.

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Cambodia had it all: Beautiful architecture, rich history and kind people

Diversity & Tolerance

Before going to Indonesia, I’d read a lot of things. I knew, of course, that Indonesia is the country with the most Muslims in the world. I also knew that for the most part, Indonesia’s a pretty peaceful place. We’d heard of some problems in Jakarta, so we avoided the city, but even there, you’re never in any real danger.

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We read ahead of time that some of the guides in the Bukit Lawang area could be pushy. We experienced nothing but awesome interactions with both of our guides, as well as every guide we ran into. When people asked us if we wanted to book a tour, we politely told them we already had. In many other countries, guides will keep hounding you and chasing you. In Indonesia, people politely wished us a good trip.

Similarly, Aceh province has a bit of a bad reputation, as its provincial government tries to enforce shariah law. There is a large group of fundamentalist Muslims in the area, and as a result, Indonesia makes news headlines with some of the things that happen there. The important thing to remember, however, is that Aceh does not represent all of Indonesia. Everyone we went in the rest of the country, we saw tolerance and friendliness.

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I was honestly very surprised by the diversity in Indonesia. Right from the moment we arrived in Sumatra, we saw it. On Samosir Island, you find Christianity and Batik culture. When you move to Bukit Lawang, you see more Islam. Jogjakarta is also primarily Muslim, but the world’s biggest Buddhist temple is nearby along with a very famous Hindu temple. Flores was Christian while Lombok and the Gili Islands had several mosques. There are all sorts of people in Indonesia, and contrary to some of the things I’ve read in the news, everyone seems to get along pretty well. They were polite and friendly not only with tourists…but also with each other.

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Many women in Indonesia wear Hihabs. I loved the way these ladies contrasted with the beautiful stone behind them

Ecotourism & Positive Tourism Experiences

Of course, ecotourism was a huge pull for me in Indonesia. All over the country, responsible tour operators are running businesses that encourage care for the environment and all the living things within those environments. With Bukit Lawang Jungle Trekking, we were able to experience Orangutans in their natural environment. In addition to learning about these beautiful primates, we also learned about the other flora and fauna in the area, and about what it’s like to grow up in Bukit Lawang. Getting to know Sardi and Jimmy was one of the absolute best parts of my time in Indonesia, and I feel good about having chosen Bukit Lawang Jungle Trekking for my tour, because I can see the difference they are trying to make their community better through a variety of initiatives.

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Bukit Lawang Jungle Trekking employs excellent guides who help protect the animals and the environment in Gunung Leuser National Park. This helps to protect beautiful orangutans, like this one.

Similarly, when we decided to go Komodo National Park, we looked at many tour operators before choosing Flores XP Adventure. While we did have some problems with the boat they rented, overall, Komodo XP was an excellent Eco Tour operator. Archer was very knowledgeable about the marine life, as were the rest of the XP crew.

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Manta Rays are just one of many marine species that live in these waters. Komodo National Park actually boasts some of the most incredible marine diversity in the world, so it’s very important that companies like Flores XP Adventures

Most importantly, Flores XP takes ecological conservation seriously. No garbage was left on Padar Island when we left. Archer stopped the boating crew from fishing more than once (they were not part of the XP team, but had been hired out because the XP boats were in for maintenance.). I like that Archer and his team followed the laws that were set to help protect this incredibly bio diverse area.

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The last thing I want to do is to mess with this kind of beauty!

Even Jogjakarta was a good destination for good tourism practices. Our hotel was run by two of the nicest people I’ve ever met in my life. Similarly, the staff at ViaVia, a fair trade store Dave and I discovered, went above and beyond to make our experience a good one. The money spent for our time at the two temples on Java was also put to very good use. The restoration and protection of both Borobudur and Prambanan was evident and we felt good about spending a bit more to be a part of preserving the culture on Java island.

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We were so happy to discover Viavia! Not only did they sell fairtrade goods, but the staff were incredible too!

The People

Which leads me to the #1 reason why I loved Indonesia so much.

If you ask most people who travel extensively, they’ll tell you that it always takes a day or two to get a handle on what things are suppose to cost. Currencies are different from country to country, after all, something that costs $2 in Canada, might cost 5000vnd in Vietnam.

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When I go to the ATM in Canada, they give me $20 and $50 bills. In Vietnam, you get 500,000 bills. Inflation is crazy!

Foreigners are also charged extra in many places, to the point where the practice has been dubbed ‘the foreigner tax’. When you combine that tax with a new currency, it’s a recipe for scams and rip offs. So, when we arrived in Sumatra, and everyone kept charging us 3500rp for water, we just assumed the real price was 2000.

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India had the highest foreigner taxes we’ve seen. Foreigner entry prices were usually 4-5 times higher than local prices, with even more additional fees added on for the use of a camera at those sights.

It took us a few days, but soon we realized that the prices we were being given, were legitimate. People in Indonesia simply charged us the cost of the water, without additional fees. It wasn’t long before we realized that even when vendors did bring up their prices a little bit for us in the market, it was never outrageous. We simply weren’t ripped off in Indonesia.

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I don’t know what these things cost, because signs rarely include prices there, but I can tell you that I’d probably pay the same amount for magic mushrooms as a local…if I ever felt like doing them, that is!

But the honesty we saw in Indonesia wasn’t even the thing that made our interactions with locals so good. What I loved most about the people in Indonesia was how incredibly welcoming and warm they were. Everywhere we went we were greeted and welcomed by locals. Every now and then someone would want a picture of us, but usually, they were happy just to say hello.

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This is one of my favourite pictures I took during our entire month in Indonesia.

The Negatives

Of course, no country is perfect. There were some things about Indonesia that I wasn’t crazy about. Their coffee, for example, was a bit disappointing. Although some of my favourite beans come from Sumatra, coffee culture within the country is not what I expected.

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Although coffee grows all over Indonesia (each bean on the map represents a coffee growing zone), they mostly sell their beans to other countries for roasting and production.

More importantly, while Sumatra, Jogjakarta and Lombok were full of honest and friendly people, The Gili Islands and Labuan Bajo were actually a bit disappointing. In Labuan Bajo (the capital of Flores island), the service industry is very lacking. We honestly felt that we weren’t wanted at our hotel. The employees were often absent, or sitting around, talking with friends, and any time we tried to order food or drinks, we were told they were out. Worst of all, the Wifi at the hotel wasn’t working (and Dave had a deadline to meet), although it was working everywhere else on the island. When I asked about it, I was told that I ‘should have gone to Bali’.

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The hotel looked fantastic. The pool was clean and the rooms were nice. Unfortunately, the staff really didn’t seem to care for their jobs or the tourism industry at all. We talked about this with our tour guide in Komodo and he said that although things are slowly changing for the better…this is just the way Labuan Bajo is. It’s strange because it’s SO different from everything else we experienced!

Gili T is well set up for tourists, but there, you encounter the ‘foreign tax’ that didn’t exist elsewhere in the country. The people were nice, but we were paying 3-4x more to do basically anything on Gili Trawangon.

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Boat prices were the same for everyone, at least, but with no cars on the island, the horse and buggy prices sky rocketed if there was even a bit of rain, if it was after dark, or if they could think of any other reason why they could double the price.

A perfect example of this was when I sent my post cards in Lombok. I had people dropping what they were doing to help me put stamps on all the post cards. We chatted and laughed together and raced to see who could finish first. When I tried to buy stamps on Gili T, the guy at the post office tried to tell me that the stamps were 4x the price I knew they should cost.

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I’ve been particularly worried about these people since the Quakes hit. They all worked at the post office and helped me send my postcards. Unbelievably friendly and warm people. Although we clearly had different beliefs and cultures…everyone was nice to everyone else. There was no element of discomfort or of judgement or racism.

To Summarize

One last thing that is worth mentioning, is that this was MY perfect trip. I love wildlife. I love ecotourism. I love culture and I love adventure. I also don’t mind getting dirty or being cut off of the internet now and then. Bukit Lawang was what some people might consider ‘rugged’ and a lot of work. That was very much part of the appeal for me. If you like staying in a 5 star resort with a saltwater pool and a swim up bar, Sumatra might not be the best place for you, and perhaps Bali is a better option.

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But if you do have an adventurous spirit….definitely consider booking with these guys! They made our trip such an incredible experience!

The way you travel will also affect your experiences in the country. I’ve heard from many people that taking long distance buses in Indonesia is a nightmare. Dave and I opted to pay a bit more and fly for time’s sake. We also rent motorbikes whenever possible so paying taxis and taking public transit was never really necessary. These are all things that can impact your holiday.

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Our flights in Indonesia were pretty spectacular as well!

So, should you go to Indonesia?

Yes….Because from Bali to Bajo, there’s something for everyone!

Island Hopping in Indonesia

There are more than 17,000 islands in the country of Indonesia.  In total, we were able to visit just 9 of them, but each provided us with new adventure.  From the architecture on Java, to the volcanoes of Sumatra, each area of the country was different and interesting in its own way.

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One of my favourite Sumatran moments

Though many people travel to Indonesia for a particularly beautiful island called Bali, our last 10 days in Indonesia were split up between 3 lesser known islands:  Flores, Gili Trawangan and Lombok.   Here’s a little about each.

Flores

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Flores is a beautiful island south of the equator.

Our time in Flores was short, but it served a very important purpose:  it where we flew in to see Komodo National Park.  Although there is more to see on the island than just Labuan Bajo, it’s all we had time for.  We spent the day before and the day after our trip cruising around LB and the surrounding area, enjoying the scenery and sunsets.

We rented a motorbike while we were there so we could make the most of the short time we had.  There are several great places to see sunsets, so we definitely did our best to check them out.  I’m glad we did.

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We also spent Valentines day cruising around the countryside.  I can’t say the day was particularly eventful, but we met some very nice people and ate some beautiful and fresh avocados while we waited for a monsoon to pass.

Lombok

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Lombok is only a short boatride away from Bali.  It isn’t quite as touristy as Bali, but it’s quickly rising in popularity.

Our next stop was Lombok, though the first time we were on this island, it was just to transfer to Gili.  Unlike Flores, which was primarily Christian (we actually saw people leaving church on Ash Wednesday while we were there), Lombok is predominantly Muslim.  When we took a daytrip onto the island, we drove out to see this beautiful mosque in Mataram city.

Other than our trip to the mosque, we spent the day driving around, picking up final souvenirs for people back home and then had back to Gili island, where we were actually staying.  It was a nice day trip to break up the week of relaxation we were enjoying on Gili T.

Of course, we did have to go back one more time, because we flew back to Shanghai (via Malaysia) from Lombok airport.  Our final moments in Indonesia were spent on that pretty little island.

Gili Trawangan

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There are 3 Gili Islands in total, and they’re all off the coast of Lombok.  They’re very small islands, without any cars or transportation aside from bicycles and horses.

Of the 3 Gili Islands, Gili T is the most popular and busy.  We chose this island because we thought there would be more to do there, and although our goal for Gili T was to relax….we knew we’d get stir crazy before long.

We did a few things on Gili T, like silver making, and our trip to Lombok, but mostly, we just relaxed.  We stayed at a beautiful little hotel called Marigio, which is owned by an Italian woman named Alessandra.  Her hotel was impecably clean and each day we ate an incredible Italian breakfast.  I spent a lot of time by that pool, working on my tan, finishing several books, and catching up on my journal.

Of course, sunsets on the Gili Islands are world famous.  There are a series of swings set up around the island where tourists can get pictures.  Dave and I aren’t big into selfies, but I loved the way the swings looked in the fading light.

The night market was also a pretty cool experience.  It was packed with people (a good sign) and all the vendors seemed to make a lot of the same stuff, but we could have probably eaten there every night we stayed on the island and tried something new each day.  The selection was great, and from what we saw, it was pretty clean!

My favourite experience on Gili T however, was not the sunsets or the food.  My favourite moments spent on Gili were spent in the ocean, ‘stalking’ sea turtles.  There is a sanctuary on Gili T and the turtles are protected in this part of the country.  So, if you are patient, you can often find these giant creatures chewing on seagrass near the beach of Gili T.

Sea turtles are very endangered at the moment, so sanctuaries and protected zones like this are extremely important to the ocean’s health.  After all, sea turtles keep reefs healthy and are an important part of the ocean eco system!

Dave even got this really cool video where you can see how close we were and how big this guy was!  We watched him for close to an hour.  What amazed me most was how he could stay underwater for so long without air!

 

So, this is how we spent our last 10 days in Indonesia.  We saw some beautiful sunsets, enjoyed some great food and had fun with local wild life.  I can’t think of a better way to finish a holiday!

I’ll be back soon with an overview of our experience in Indonesia, as well as tips for anyone looking to travel there soon!

Komodo National Park

After leaving Jogjakarta, we flew to the city of Labuan Bajo.  We already knew we wanted to see Manta Rays in Indonesia, if possible, but when we learned that they can be found in Komodo National Park, there was no doubt we were going to visit this area of the country.

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For those of you who have been following along, we started in the north of Sumatra, then down to Java.  Our 3rd stop was Komodo National Park

About Komodo National Park

Komodo National Park is more than 1,700km square and consists of 3 major islands as well as many smaller ones.  It was founded in 1980 to help protect the very rare Komodo Dragon, but since then has become a protected zone for many other animals as well.  Roughly 4,000 people live in the park, and many of them work in the tourism industry.

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We visited both Komodo and Rinca Island, but Padar Island took the cake

The park itself is pretty undeveloped and Dave and I were both pretty disappointed that more of the very high entrance fees weren’t used to keep the parks looking a bit nicer, but I wouldn’t say our visit was a waste of money…and it definitely was worth the trip to this area of Indonesia.

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This display was effective enough to show what the Komodo Dragons eat, but I feel like some write ups about the Dragons in a learning center would have been nice. All of the information we learned about the park came directly from the employees, which was a problem if you couldn’t hear them because you fell behind getting photos etc.

The Dragons

The dragons are what bring most people to Komodo, and they’re quite the sight to see!  I can’t say I have a lot of love for them, but definitely respected them enough to keep a safe distance.

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Yeah….that’s blood on his face…

They’re clearly fed by locals because as soon as you arrive on Komodo Island, you see them all huddled around the restaurant where locals eat.

We saw plenty of other dragons along the way, and we learned about some of their rather nasty habits.  Did you know Komodo Dragons spend their first few years living up in trees?  They need to hide from other Dragons because these giant lizards are cannibalistic.  They’re also terrible mothers, and do nothing to care for their young after they hatch.

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Perhaps their poor manners have to do with their non-existent upbringing!

As I’ve been researching for this blog, I’ve  been learning more about these animals and sadly, I’m seeing that at least some of the information provided at the park was false.  We were told multiple times that what kills animals from Komodo bites is the various types of bacteria in their mouths.  Scientists recently discovered though, that a dragon’s mouth is no dirtier than any other animal’s.  What kills their prey is a venom that they release when they bite.

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It’s a very slow acting venom that can take a week to fully kick in. It’s not good to be a deer or buffalo on this island…

This is actually why I enjoy when there is posted information available at parks and animal reserves.  We had the same thing happen in India, and I’ve learned to fact check things before posting them in my blog.  Apparently, you can’t trust everything local guides tell you about the animals native to their countries!

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The guides did point out this Komodo egg den for us.  That information seems legit 🙂

Rinca and Komodo were virtually identical in most ways.  Both islands had dragons…and both islands were incredibly hot.  We were marched around by guides who told us about the flora and fauna in the area (sorta…).  We saw 1 massive buffalo, but the guide chased it away before most of our group even knew it was there.  We also saw deer, birds and even some monkeys.  I was already suffering from some heat exhaustion, so I only took 2 or 3 photos on Rinca, which is pretty regrettable.  It was definitely the nicer of the two islands.

Padar Island

Padar Island was actually our second stop (Komodo Island was #1 and Rinca was #3).  We arrived on the island shortly before sunset.  Now, I should add that nothing was really explained beforehand on this tour…we would just arrive and do things.  Any time I asked what was next, our guide would tease me for ‘worrying too much’.  So, when we arrived on the beach of this little island, I figured we’d be spending some time watching the sun set from the pink sand.  As it turns out, we were climbing a small mountain…

Now, I should also explain why this small hill was a big deal for me.  I mean…I did a much harder climb than this in Kuala Lumpur and our Jungle Trek was WAY more intense.  The problem was, at this point, I was suffering from pretty bad heat exhaustion.  I was having a hard time catching my breath and I was completely and totally exhausted.  If our guide had told us we’d be climbing, I probably would have stayed in the boat.  So, I guess it’s lucky I didn’t know what to expect because….

When we arrived at the peak, we sat around, sipping beer and cold water, and chatting about life in Indonesia.  Before we knew it, the sun had set and we had to climb down the ‘mountain’ in the dark.  We all used our cell phones to light the way and it was probably pretty dangerous, as the path wasn’t really much of a path.  But…at least it wasn’t all done in the sun!

Time In The Water

Dave and I were both really excited about snorkeling in Komodo National Park because we’d heard that it’s home to so many sea animals and beautiful coral reefs.  The rumours were true, and it was a beautiful place to both dive and snorkel, but what I didn’t know was that about 30% of the sea life in Komodo National Park seem to be jelly fish!! If I didn’t get stung 50 times, I didn’t get stung at all!!!

The snorkeling was good, but as my heat exhaustion worsened, my tolerance for jellyfish lessened.  Soon, I made the decision to stay out of the water until there was something REALLY interesting to see.

Of course, the real reason we were in the area wasn’t for the dragons, or even for Padar Island (we had no idea it was going to be that beautiful!).  The real pull for us was the chance to see Manta Rays.

Manta Rays are intelligent and curious and we heard from many people that swimming with them is quite the experience!  They’re huge, gentle and majestic and I was very  much looking forward to seeing the giants in person.  This was actually at the top of Dave’s bucket list too, so it was important to me because it was important to him.

Of course, things didn’t turn out the way I’d wanted.  I woke up the day of our trip to Manta Point and ended up fainting in the shower….twice.  I was so sick from the heat that if the sun touched my skin for even a moment, I became too dizzy to stand.  So, while Dave and everyone else went swimming with the mantas…I sipped Sprite under the comfort of my over-sized hat, and tried not to throw up….

I was lucky enough to see 1 Manta right near the front of the boat.  It came up to the surface and I was able to watch it from the safety of shade.  Mostly, I’m just happy Dave got to see them, because it is truly an incredible experience.

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Dave loves diving as much as I love the jungle!

So, I didn’t quite have the experience I’d hoped for in Komodo National Park.  I hope to go back some day, to see the sea life and maybe do that discovery dive.  Until then, I’ll just have to hang onto the memory of that 1 kind Manta who swam along the surface so that I could admire it’s graceful beauty.

Check back soon!  This won’t be my last post of the week!

Jolly Jogja

After an incredible week in Sumatra, we carried onto the next leg of our journey; Java Island. Many people choose to visit the capital, but we’d heard that there wasn’t much to do in Jakarta, and that it was crowded and polluted, so we opted to stay away. Instead, we zipped over to Yogyakarta (which is mostly referred to as ‘Jogja’ in Indonesia).

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We arrived late at night, and although the airport was crawling with cab drivers trying to take foreigners for a ride (in the figurative sense), we quickly found a company who was giving legit pricing, and we were on our way to our tiny little Bed and Breakfast in downtown Jogja.

 

There were 2 reasons we wanted to visit this Yogyakarta: Borobudur and Prambanan. These two beautiful temples are very different from one another. One is Buddhist and the other is Hindu. They don’t really share much in terms of architecture, but they are both located about an hour outside of Jogja (in different directions), making this small city a popular destination for tourists going through Java.

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Gudeg is Jogja’s most traditional and famous food. Cooks take chicken, eggs and goat skin and stew them in a special jackfruit stew for hours. It’s served cold. I had a hard time with the idea of eating cold chicken, but it was a really neat blend of spicy and sweet!

Prambanan

We decided to hit Prambanan first, as it was a little closer to Jogja, and we had begun our day a little later than we’d intended. It was a nice hour-long drive to the temple, that gave us a chance to see a bit of this lovely little city.

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Apparently, I forgot to take pictures in Jogja….but I did find this one online. It gives you a feel for what the city looks like.

We were a bit taken aback by the entrance fees to the temple, but we figured it would probably be the only chance we’d ever have to see Prambanan and Borobudur, so we bit the bullet, as they say, and forked over the $80 it cost to get us both into both temples. Of course, once we were inside, I ceased to worry about the pricing, because the money is clearly being put to good use.

 

Before even entering temple grounds, we saw an incredible photo opportunity.  There was a section of rubble in front of one area of the temple, where tourists were able to take photos.  It took us a few tries, but we finally got a couple of good shots ourselves (we were using a timer…10 seconds is not enough time for me to scramble on top of rocks!)

 

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Once entering the temple, we were impressed by the level of detail on the walls, and were very quickly reminded of our time at Ankor National Park in Cambodia. There were clear similarities between Prambanan’s and Ankor Wat’s architecture, so it didn’t surprise me to learn that Prambanan, like Ankor Wat, is a Hindu temple.

 

 

We spent a few hours walking around, admiring the temple.  There were many other tourists there, but they were mostly from Indonesia, as we visited during the off season (something I highly recommend…as long as you aren’t too afraid of a bit of rain).

 

The park was quite big, and we wandered around to check out some of the smaller and less glamorous buildings.  The park’s general upkeep really impressed us both.

 

The stone carvings at Prambanan were really something to admire.  If it hadn’t been so hot out, we probably could have spent an hour or two longer walking around, just admiring the architecture.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before the heat became too much and we were forced to hop on our rented motorcycle and head back to Jogja.

 

Borobudur

Borobudur was my main reason for wanting to go to Jogjakarta.  Built at around the same time as Prambanan, Borobudur is the largest Buddhist temple in the world.  The architecture there is very different from the many Hindu and Chinese Buddhist temples we’ve seen over the last few years.

 

Borobudur was built in the shape of a  Mandala, which represents Nirvana, or Heaven in both Buddhism and Hinduism.  There are 9 levels in total, which include more than 2500 relief panels (art depicting Buddhist stories) and 72 Buddhas.

 

Every inch of every wall at Borobodur is covered in carvings that depict a mixture of Buddhist and Indonesian stories and myths.  We walked around a good portion of it, but it would have taken hours to study really examine all of the carvings.

 

A lot of Borobudur’s history is unknown, but what we do know is that it took about 75 years to build, and at some time around the turn of the 1st millenium, it was abandoned.  There could have been several reasons for this, but the two most likely are that:  A.) people had to leave due to the very active volcanoes nearby or B.) Indonesia began converting to Islam, and Buddhist Temples became less important.  Either way, the temple was all but forgotten, and was slowly taken over by volcanic ash and jungle.

Until it was rediscovered in the 1800s.

 

While Borobudur’s history fascinates me, it isn’t what pulls thousands of tourists to the site each year.  The Bells and 72 Buddhas on the top levels of the site are what drive the tourism.  Each bell has a Budha within it, and several bells have been left open so the Buddhas are exposed. It’s an incredibly photogenic place and I’m glad we had some blue skies while we were there.

 

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Borobudur is one of the nicest and most interesting temples I have ever visited, but it pains me to say that its in trouble.  Between the volcanic ash that plagues the building, and tourists who insist on touching everything, officials have considered closing the site to unguided tourists.  While we were there we saw all sorts of bad behaviour.

 

The worst case of this behaviour was an elderly Chinese woman, who climbed onto a bell and reached inside to try and touch the Buddha.  This didn’t seem to be as much of an issue at Prambanan, where tourists were allowed to walk on certain areas of the walls.  I think because of the acid in the volcanic ash that routinely covers Borobodur, the site is especially at risk.

 

 

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Mount Merapi erupting in the distance

In short, if you’re stopping by Java Island, definitely take the time to stop by these incredible temples.

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One of my favourite pictures of the trip…for once it was Dave who was asked to cover up! I was fine!!!!

 

Sumatra – Bukit Lawang – Part 2

After 2 nights in the Batu Kapal Guesthouse, it was time to set off on our over-night jungle Trek. Sardi arrived as we finished our breakfast, and before long, we were on our way.
Jungle Trek – Day 1

On this 2 day trek, we were joined by a second guide, named Jimmy. Sardi explained that Jimmy’s English was better than his, and that Jimmy knew more about the surrounding area and could better explain all the flora and fauna we’d be seeing on our hike.

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In fact, I wish Jimmy had arrived a tad earlier, so we could have asked him about this gorgeous little bird we saw while we were eating breakfast at the guesthouse!

It wasn’t long before we started seeing wild life. Before we’d even entered the park, Jimmy spotted a Silver Leaf Monkey, far up in a tree. They’re quite shy, so I was happy to have a proper camera (with zoom) along with me.

As we entered the park, Jimmy stopped to tell us how to stay safe in the Jungle, and to warn us about 2 particularly feisty orangutans who were known to behave badly around humans. Many of the great apes found in this area of the park have been rehabilitated and set free after being in captivity, so it’s natural that not all the orangutans were going to be perfectly comfortable around people. (Personally speaking, I’m BARELY comfortable around people!)

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This was taken by a visitor back when the feeding platform was still open to the public. From what I understand, they are no longer feeding the Orangutans this way, but it’s still a popular hang out for them nonetheless.

Our next animal encounter was with a pair of Hornbills, who were high up in the trees, but very difficult to miss, as they were quite clumsy moving around and squacking at each other. They were super noisy, though I didn’t actually catch that on video.

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Beautiful birds!

I did, however, get a video of one of them eating a berry!!

While we were busy admiring these beautiful birds, Sardi went off on his own to ‘find me a baby orangutan’ (something he’d promised he’d try to do). When he called us over, I don’t think I could have possibly moved more quickly than I did!

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Quite the sight!

There she was. A 3 year old juvenile, eating leaves and playfully hanging from the tree. I stood there and stared for a while, before Dave reminded me that I might want some pictures of her!

Soon, her mother came swinging by on the trees. She was much bigger than I’d thought she’d be, and she didn’t seem the least bit worried about the humans who were watching her child. In fact, she swung across a couple of trees about 6 feet from where I was standing. Sardi had to tell me to back up, because I was too close!

I would have stayed there forever if they’d let me, but after a while we had to move on. Jimmy guided us to an area where we could have some lunch, and we unpacked, pulled up some tree trunks and enjoyed some jungle food.

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Nasi Goreng (Fried Ride) a la Jungle

That’s when we started hearing rustling in the bushes….

There was never a shortage of fresh fruit on our tour, and as Sardi took out the passion fruit…and papaya….and bananas…the rustling got a little closer.

It wasn’t long before we spotted the family of Thomas Leaf Monkeys circling in on us. Now, I’ve mentioned these cute little primates several times, but I’ve waited until this moment to show you what they look like.

Because…they’re flipping adorable!!

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Who? Me????

These little ‘punk-goth’ monkeys spent the next half hour eyeing our fruit. We were on an eco-tour though, and part of being an ecotourist is knowing that you cannot feed the wild life. It’s bad for them and it can be dangerous for you. So, as much as I wanted to pass off some bananas to these funny little dudes, I refrained, for the sake and well-being of the jungle. I did take lots of pictures though!

I didn’t get much footage of them when we were eating (I actually wasn’t feeling very well at that point. More on that later…), but I did get an awesome video of them when we were at the guesthouse!

We continued on our Jungle walk, stopping now and then to admire a lizard or a tree that had been destroyed by termites.

Unfortunately, I was really struggling at this point, because, as tends to happen when I go on holidays, my stomach hadn’t really been agreeing with the local food. My fussy stomach has forced me to miss out on adventures in Cuba, India and worst of all, in Laos…but not this time! I dragged my butt through that jungle (and thankfully, Sardi picked up on the fact that I was sick, and he and Dave kept close watch over me the whole way to the camp)

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Seen here: Marie, barely holding it together. Sardi: Really hoping he wasn’t going to have to chase me down the river…like he had his flip flops…twice…as they slipped off my feet

Reaching that camp was such a relief, I nearly cried. It wasn’t that the trail was particularly hard. It was a good level of difficulty and well worth the hike. But, when your body isn’t digesting food properly, the jungle might not be the best place to go. I wouldn’t change it for anything though…not a single moment.
The Camp

As soon as we reached the camp, I got into my bathing suit and went and sat in the river to cool down. It was a lovely spot, quite sheltered and the river was very clean.

As I began to relax, Jimmy pointed out that I had a rather large friend heading my way, and I turned to see a meter long monitor lizard swimming lazily nearby. I would have bolted, but I was too tired, so I slowly wiggled my way away from the lizard. I don’t really think he cared much either way.

A 3rd guide had been waiting for us when we arrived. His job was to bring our sleeping gear and food and to cook us dinner and breakfast. Even with my upset stomach, the food was great!

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Mawan also prepared clean water for us for the hike the following day

That night is one of my favourite memories of the whole trip to Indonesia. We sat out with our 3 guides and chatted about life in Indonesia, life in China and life in Canada. We told us about the frustrations we face living in the big city of Suzhou, and they told us about their 105 year old grandfather who demands that they fetch him mangoes whenever they see him (Sardi and Jimmy are cousins and their grandfather is toothless and more than happy to send his grandsons on quests for soft fruit!)

I don’t have any pictures of that night. It was dark, and I was tired, but if I I could have held onto that peaceful moment forever, I would have. The sound of the river was hypnotic and I found myself falling asleep long before I meant to.
Jungle Trek: Day 2

Mawan prepared us a delicious breakfast of fruit and sandwiches the following morning. My stomach still wasn’t feeling too hot, but I had more energy and I wasn’t nearly as weak as I had been when I’d arrived at the camp the previous day.

We were getting ready to leave, when out of nowhere, a family of 15-20 macaques came parading through the river in front of the camp! They’d smelled the fruit and showed up, hoping for some left overs.

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I’m not particularly fond of macaques. There are hundreds of them living in Guiyang, and I’ve had them steal right from my hand! These guys weren’t as aggressive, but I wasn’t entirely trustful of them nonetheless

Most of them spooked easily and ran away when they saw us, but one particularly brave macaque hung around and nabbed some watermelon. I watched as he greedily shoved 1/4 of a melon in his mouth, all while looking over his shoulder, making sure none of his family members had returned to rob him of his trophy!

Soon, we were on our way back through the jungle. We took it a bit more slowly on our second day, with both guides now knowing that I wasn’t at 100%. Sardi found us wild cinnamon (it was disgusting) and we saw plenty more birds and even heard gibbons calling out in the distance.

Sardi disappeared again, and before long, he was calling us over because he’d found me another ‘orange friend’. This time, I got smart, and I filmed our walk to find her. I tried not to shake the camera too much, but I really wanted people back home to see how beautiful the forest was and how exciting it was to get your first glimpse of one of these jungle beauties.

Once I got a closer look, I asked Jimmy why she looked sad. I expected him to laugh at me and tell me I was projecting human emotions onto her, but he replied quite simply “Her baby got sick”.

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Jimmy continue to tell me Juni’s story, while we watched her sit, lethargically in the tree. As I write this, I wonder if she’s been reunited with her young one.

As luck would have it, I caught a video of the only time she moved in the 20 minutes we watched her.

I’ll never forget her, I’ll tell you that much.

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Eventually, we had to move on. We stopped for lunch, and our guides cut up some papaya for me (the only thing that was appetizing at that point), and before long, we were on our way to meet Mawan on the bank of another river.

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Instead of doing more hiking, our trip ended with a rafting ride down the river back into Bukit Lawang! It was a tonne of fun, and it made me VERY happy that we still have our old water proof camera!

I even kept my wits about me and got a video!!

So, in short, if you are reading this because you are considering taking a tour with Bukit Lawang Jungle-trekking, contact Janine NOW! It was the experience of a lifetime, and I would honestly go back and do it all over again tomorrow if given the chance.

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That night, after we’d had a chance to shower and rest, we head back to the clubhouse for Jungle Trivia! We were ‘Team Lao Wei’ (team foreigner), and we even won!

I’ll be back soon with a post about Jogjakarta and our stay on Java Island!
A few more notes about Bukit Lawang-Jungle Trekking:

If you’d like to read more about Bukit Lawang-Jungle Trekking, you can go to their website here, or check out their Facebook page, here.

You can also check out all sorts of cool initiatives they have going on in Bukit Lawang for eco-tourism, environmentally friendly alternatives and the school where they hook up volunteers to teach adorable Indonesian kids!

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Dave and I with our guides and Dodi, the co owner of the business (and Janine’s husband)

Sumatra – Bukit Lawang – Part 1

Ecotourism has become increasingly important to me over the last 4 years. When I know that my money is being put to good (both for the good of locals as well as for the environment), I enjoy myself more. So, when I began planning our holiday in Indonesia, one of the first things I checked for was “Eco-Tourism in Sumatra”. There were quite a few options to see Sumatran wildlife all over the large island, but one company in particular caught my attention.

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Click Here to learn more about this wonderful company! You can also click here to go to their Facebook page!

I sent them a message and within a few hours I’d received a response from Janine, who proceeded to help me plan out our entire stay in Sumatra.

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Visiting with the lovely Janine after our 2-day jungle trek

There were 2 parts to the tour I booked with Janine. Part 1 took us to Samosir Island, which we toured on our own. Part 2 of our trip was an eco-tour we booked in and around Gunung Leuser National Park. We were very happy to have hired a driver for the 7 hour drive to Bukit Lawang; the little jungle town just outside of the national park. Enok was professional, friendly and even made some interesting stops during the 7 hour drive from Lake Toba to Bukit Lawang.

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Including this volcano, which blew up in a pretty major way a few weeks later! (don’t worry, no one was hurt!)

We arrived in Bukit Lawang after dark and in the middle of a massive thunder storm. Our guide, Sardi, arrived with an umbrella for me and a flashlight for Dave and we got our first glimpses of this sweet jungle town.

It seemed like Sardi knew everyone. He greeted people by name as we walked past the restaurants and bars, and everywhere we passed, we heard a chorus of people welcoming us to Bukit Lawang.

It was a fantastic way to start our 4-day Eco-Tour.

Day 1 – Getting To Know the Area

We spent our first day hiking through rubber plantations and visiting some of the area around the Gunung Leuser National Park. We saw some wild life while we were out and about and learned about the locals from Sardi.

There were 2 main activities planned for our first day. The first activity was to visit the Bat Cave. As you may have guessed, it is home to 2 different kinds of bats, who were equally cute and sleepy when we arrived. Sardi informed us that pangolins are sometimes spotted in the Bat Cave, which got me pretty excited!

Pangolins are currently the most illegally trafficked animal in the world. They’re killed for their meat and their scales, which are used in traditional Chinese medicine. They’ve been hunted to the verge of extinction, and up until we reached the bat cave, I didn’t even know there were any of these interesting animals left in Asia!

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Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see any, but it was still exciting to know that there was a possibility (however small). We also got to chat with Sardi about the poaching of pangolins in Indonesia. He told us that several of his family members had been poachers in the past, but was able to get them to understand the importance of protecting these animals and now, those same family members are working to protect them.

Our second big activity for the day happens to be one of my favourite memories of our whole trip. Sardi lead us to a beautiful little spot on the river, where he spent the next hour preparing us an incredible Indonesian-style barbecue. Dave and I spent the time cooling off in the beautiful river, which was much needed after our hike to the cave. We even spotted a family of Thomas Leaf Monkeys while we sat and enjoyed the cool, clean water! It was quite the sight!

Sardi prepared some incredible bbq fish and chicken along with a gorgeous fruit platter. We all sat together beside the river and enjoyed his beautiful meal. We chatted about Sardi’s family and about our lives back in China. It was a gorgeous way to spend a few hours!

After lunch, we made our way to the guesthouse where we were spending our first two nights of the tour. It was a beautiful spot, and with no electronics with us (we left them at our hotel in Bukit Lawang), we were forced to just sit back and enjoy the peacefulness of the area. We walked around a little bit and enjoyed the stream that ran through the property. We spotted some more Thomas Leaf monkeys and laughed at their antics, as they played in the trees. It was the most relaxed I’d felt in months.


Day 2 – Sumtran Culture

Day 2 of our time in Bukit Lawang was spent quite differently from Day 1. The focus was more towards the local culture than the local wild life. It was a nice shift and it provided us with opportunities to try out some things we’d never done before.

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I tried my hand at coconut carving. I didn’t do very well, but you can learn more about that here.

We spent a lot more time with Sardi, walking through the jungle and even taking motorbikes through the trails. At one point, we reached a rather muddy area, and I noticed there was a woman (also on a motorbike), waiting patiently for us to make it through before she went herself. I laughed and told Sardi that if the same situation were to arise in China, everyone would try to go at the same time, and we would have scared any animals away with all the honking that would surely have ensued.

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I took this picture on our way back from coconut carving. I really feel like it’s one of my most representative photos of the whole trip. People in Indonesia were so warm and friendly both to us, and to one another.

My favourite part of day 2 was our cooking class back at the guesthouse. We learned how to make traditional Indonesian dishes, such as Sambal, Tempe and, my personal favourite, Pepes (a way of cooking fish in banana leaf, over a fire).

As good as the meal was, the company is what made it so great. There was quite a mixture of people at the guesthouse that night and we got to know them all a bit. In addition to the Indonesian staff, there was a woman from Switzerland and a woman from Germany, as well as a Dutch man who was about to begin a 7 day jungle hike. We sat around for hours, chatting about our travel experiences. Both of the European women were in the area doing humanitarian work, which was very appealing to me (perhaps, one day…). When it was time to go to bed, I was both sad to see the night end, but excited because the following day…our jungle trek to see wild orangutans would begin!

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Sitting down for dinner at the Guest House. For the most part, the guesthouse goes without electricity (it’s about 5km from town), but at night they have a generator for necessities. It’s a shame I couldn’t get a clearer picture, but I ‘m glad I thought to get one at all! It was such a perfect way to end Day 2.

Next time, I’ll be devoting an entire post about our Jungle experience with the Sumatran Orangutans, so stay tuned!

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Let’s just say… I made good use of my camera!

Sumatra – Samosir Island

Around 75,000 years ago, the world experienced its largest ever volcanic eruption. This event covered all of South Asia in about 15 centimeters of ash, and cooled off our planet for the next 6-10 years.

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Toba is one of our planet’s 3 supervolcanos

The sheer size of this eruption is difficult to understand without comparing it to other large volcanic events. I’ve always been fascinated by volcanos, and the Pompeii eruption in 79AD interested me so much that I ended up with minor in Classical History! But Vesuvius’ eruption had NOTHING on Mt. Toba.

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To put this into context…Mt. Toba’s eruption was 2800x more powerful than Mt. St. Helens’

Our first stop in Indonesia was to see Ground 0 of this disastrous historic event. Like Yellowstone, you wouldn’t necessarily know that you were on a massive volcano. This is because the last time Toba blew, it resulted in a crater lake so big that there is an island the size of SINGAPORE inside it!

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Modern Samosir Island

Samosir island is located in Northern Sumatra, near the city of Medan (about 5 hours away by car). We got in touch with an tour company ahead of time, and arranged for a driver to pick us up from Medan airport. We’re really glad we went this route, because the car was comfortable and safe (as oppose to many of the other vehicles we saw on the road). We arrived in Parapat, a small town across the lake from Samosir, and before long we were on the ferry and on our way to our hotel in the little town of Tuk Tuk.

Samosir is a popular tourist destination for foreigners and Indonesians alike. The island has many attractions, which has allowed beautiful hotels and bungalows to pop up all over the island. We got to see a lot of those bungalows during our ferry-ride.


On the Island

There’s lots to do on the island, especially if you rent a motorbike. We didn’t have much time on our first day, but we did drive into town from our bungalow and see some of the sights.

Our second day on Samosir was more eventful. We took a drive out to the island’s waterfall, but discovered that the trail had been washed away from a mudslide a while back. We tried to climb it anyway (in our flip flops…), but I eventually told Dave I was turning around with or without him, because it just wasn’t safe.

We also dipped our toes into Lake Toba, which is crystal clear and gorgeously warm. Unfortunately, it was quite windy that day and the water was very rough, so we didn’t actually get to go swimming.

There are a tonne of restaurants on the island where you can enjoy some Indonesian food. We found a restaurant that rated well on Trip Advisor and enjoyed a FANTASTIC BBQ meal from Joe and his wife.


Batak Culture

The most popular thing to do on Samosir Island is to see the Batak culture and history. The Batak have lived on Samosir Island for hundreds of years (some say thousands…), and they have heavily influenced the area with their architecture and traditions. There are plenty of modern buildings that have been constructed in Batak style on Samosir Island, and you can see some old artifacts as well.

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You can find Batak architecture all over the island.

We visited 2 Batak historical sights. The Stone Chairs are the island’s biggest cultural draw, so we set out to find them first. We DID find stone chairs, but it turned out they weren’t the ‘right’ ones. Either way, they ended up being my favourite spot on the island. There was something beautiful about them.

We found the ‘real’ Stone Chairs later in the day. Their fame comes from the fact that ritualistic cannibalism was practiced at that particular sight. Criminals were tried and sentenced by the King, who consumed parts of their bodies after they were killed for their crimes. If you take a tour of the area, you are given all sorts of information about the cannibalistic rituals of early Batak people, but we went on our own and were spared the gory details.

The sight was beautiful though, and I’m glad we stopped by.

My only regret about Samosir Island is that we didn’t have enough time there. It’s a gorgeously relaxing place to spend a few days, and I’d recommend it to anyone with an interest in culture or geology.

I’ll be back soon with my second post about our time in Sumatra. Spoiler: Orangutans will be involved!!!