Sunday, June 14, 2009

More Java and Sumatra

Next was Yogyakarta or Jogja. A short train ride from Solo, just one hour. I found a hotel and went out for a nosy. Walking took me to Jogjatronic, the wonderfully named electronics mall. After a spot of browsing in air-con goodness, I decided to stroll back.
The next day it was off to the Kraton, a walled village in the city. People here get to live for free, my becak driver informed me, but they can’t sell their houses. Guidebook says 25,000 people live inside the compound. Outside there was a bird market, with some bird food, such as maggots, ants and beasties squirming around in trays, ready to be served up to hungry feathered diners.

One night I decided to take in some culture and headed to the open-air Ramayana performance. The bus took us to the Prambanan temples, which is the backdrop for the theatre. A sheet of paper in English tells about the story, you can follow along here


One of the big attractions in Java is Borobudur, an ancient Buddhist temple built around 800AD. A very early morning bus from Jogja meant arriving there at 06:00. I was still expecting throngs of tourists, as it is Indonesia’s most popular tourist attraction, but it was surprisingly peaceful, well, in the beginning. Built on a hill, with the early morning mist sitting in the valley and surrounded by several active volcanoes, the Borobudur setting is spectacular. The stupa is huge, sitting on a 118m by 118m base. There is a north, south, east and west staircase leading up to the top, where the top stupa resides, amongst three circular levels, below which again are six square levels. The recommended route, is to walk clockwise around each level, progressing up one when a circuit is completed, a total walk of 5km. On the walls as you walk round are sculpted panels depicting Javanese life over a 1000 years ago, as well as images of Buddhist doctrine. Over 500 Buddha statues are also carved out of some of the 2 million estimated stones which make up the temple. At the top you get questioned by more students eager to practice their English for class, here easy prey is found due to the amount of tourists coming in on buses!


Onto Jakarta the capital of Indonesia, a massive city with a population around 8.5m.
I got reception to call me a taxi to take me to the train station as the guys hanging about outside were pedal-powered. 10 minutes, apparently, but nobody turning up. She said not to worry as the trains were usually late anyway! Reception phoned again, eventually the taxi turned up, by now time was short. He headed down the road, but it was blocked by the market, after a slow five (yes five) point turn, we were on the way, he charge along with the horn blasting. Then had to stop at the lights and get overtaken by all the motorbikes again. Arriving at the train station, I sprint (well lumbered as burdened by backpack) into the station. I jumped on the train, the last person to board, and the train left inside 30 seconds. Perfect timing :) After seven or eight hours the train lumbered into town. I was staying in the central Menteng area. This area seems to be home to some big houses, on surprisingly quiet side streets. Almost all the houses have large fences, or walls, topped with barbed wire or broken glass and a bored looking security guard outside. A shortish walk brings me to the oh-so-fancy Plaza Indonesia, where all the hi-so types hang out and do their brand-name shopping. I decided to take in some music, and went off to check out BBs, a small blues venue. After lots of wandering around, I finally gave in and asked for directions! Then I was pointed round the corner. The band wasn’t bad, except for a random karoker joining in who couldn’t sing. Another night I had a look in the Hard Rock Shop Café. Their definition off hard rock seems different to mine. The band were playing this

I left Jakarta for a few days heading to the slighter cooler climate of Bogor, about an hour away on the train. It’s a busy market town outside the train station, I walked out and down a street, took a couple of rights turns, along some more to find my hotel, turns out I could of just walk out the back of the train station, as I ended up 2 minutes from where I started. In the centre of Bogor is a large botanical garden, so I went for stroll around there. At the top of a small hill, overlooking the gardens, is a nice café for bite to eat. I had a fried banana with chocolate and cheese (complete with a red glace cherry on top).
Chocolate and cheese is quite popular in Indonesia!


As my flight to Medan was out of Jakarta I had to return back there for the hop across the water to Sumatra. This would be my fifth island visited in Indonesia (Sumatra, Java, Bali, Lombok & Gili Air) Only another 17503 islands left!
Once I found somewhere to stay, the first thing that struck me was the unusual minibus in Padang, it’s like Xzibit heaven, all the rides are painted bright colors and covered in stickers, with really low trims. Such as this

More here

I was staying not far from the coast, but not much of a beach in the city, rather brown with a lot of branches and junk on the sand. I went for a look at nearby museum and ended up with a guided tour as a student wanted to practice their English again. I headed for some Texas Fried Chicken for a quick dinner. I wanted to head for Bukittinggi, about 900m above sea level. I ended up getting a Kijang (Indonesian for deer, but actually a popular large car/people carrier) from the guesthouse. The driver zipped off to pick up some more passengers (and some medicine) to transport to Bukittinggi. The ride wasn’t bad, I was up the front, so plenty of space and only a few hours to get there, an unusual event for Sumatra as I would find out.
In Bukittinggi I headed to a masakan padang restaurant.

Beef rendang was very tasty, not sure about some of the other stuff!

I left my main bag at the hotel and went traveling light, after seeing some pictures and paintings in the museum I wanted to head to the Harau Valley to see the natural scenery. This was easier said than done. I got a bus from Bukittinggi to Payakumbuh and then jumped on the back of a motorbike taxi to the Echo Guesthouse, another guest took 5 local buses to get here! The problem with buses here is the only leave when full.

I got a basic room here, and went for a walk around, being dwarfed by the cliffs on either side. Very nice scenery, but not a whole lot to do. I went to the waterfall, but no recent rain meant no waterfall. That night we had a bonfire and some roasted corn.
I also wanted to visit Maninjau lake, which meant backtracking through Bukittinggi. With a German tourist I endeavored to get back. This meant a walk down to the village, then some waiting for a motorbike taxi, this had a sidecar which allowed a view while traveling instead of the back of the drivers head. This took us to the bus station, where the bus sat empty, a very bad sign. A long wait was inevitable; a local English teacher was sat in the bus station having tea, so we talked to him for a bit, and Ricky, who instantly pointed out his green eyes, which makes him very unusual for Indonesia.

After an hour or so the bus turned on the engine, which usually means only another hour or so to go! Eventually we rumbled off, only to stop after about 500m, now we wait on the main road, instead of at the bus station, for reasons we can only imagine. After another hour or so, with a slow dribble of passengers, they decide it is enough and we are on our way. After a total of about 6 hours I arrive back in Bukittinggi, with a distance travelled of around 45km! I would have been quicker on a bicycle.
Anyway I get some good luck and after only ten minutes the bus to Maninjau departs. I was shocked! A windy drive was the order of the day. The final descent is down through 44 hairpin bends, so you better get used to being thrown from side to side on a bus.

Down at lake level, I get off the bus as I’m told this in Maninjau, but have no idea where I actually am, I pick a direction and walk, aha, a guesthouse. I have a nice view of the lake out my window. But not doing much for the rest of the day, I have a bit to eat and an early night. The next morning I go for a walk west to the next village, but I left my hat and suntan lotion in my main bag, and get cooked in the strong sun. I find a small museum, but it doesn’t mean much it’s all in Indonesian. I hop on a motorbike taxi to take me back the 7km or so I walked. The driver gets me back in record time!

Small fish farms dot the edges of the lake, when I have a look in the other direction; I came across another English teacher, who talks better English than me. Turns out he used to work in Jakarta for 15 or years, before moving back to his village here. I have a drink and a chat with him. At another point, I see people pulling bags up from the lake filled with the fish, these will be off to markets all around Sumatra. Strangely enough there aren’t many lakeside restaurants but I do find one, with a little extended decking out on to the lake, making it a very nice spot for a meal and a drink.

Back to Bukittinggi, another bus, another twisty trip, this time we have a puker on board. Not just a little bit either, a full-on Exorcist event. Anyway I get back to Bukittinggi where I get all my stuff together, laundry washed etc. Now comes the fun bit, a 14 hour trip to Lake Toba, yay!

Around 4pm I left for the bus terminal in an angkot. This would weave its way through town before getting to the terminal. Meanwhile on board, a couple of locals thought the foreigner was strange and amusing so whipped out their cameraphone to snap a picture of me.

When I arrived at the bus station around 4:30 the bus was nowhere to be seen. A couple of touts latched on, trying to sell me tickets. I told them I had a reservation, for ALS (the bus company the hotel had made the reservation with) and he said I had to go to the office to get the bus. At this point you don’t know who to believe but as the bus was nowhere in sight, I hopped on his motorbike and off we went to the office. Seemed to be okay as the bus was there and I had ten minutes to spare. Or so I thought, of course the bus didn’t even come close to leaving at the scheduled departing time of five o’clock.

The usual thing in Indonesia is to try and get you on the bus and sit you down, and then you have to sit on the hot bus and be patient. Sometime the driver will come and turn on the engine and leave it running, a sign that you probably have another hour to wait!
Another Medan bound bus was at the terminal I had a peek inside and it was much better than my “executive” class bus, it was “super-executive” with 3 big reclining seats and even looked clean and new! But it was going past my stop of Parapat, it was heading North first.

My bus was full of bags of goods, wrapped in hesian sacks lying down the centre aisle. And some big bags crammed up the back making it impossible to get into the toilet, real handy on a 14 hour ride. I went to complain to the ticket man, he told me they would be taken off at a stop in a couple of hours time. Hmm, I was thinking he also told me the bus would leave an hour ago!

Eventually we got moving and hit the twisty road of Bukittinggi, like a series of connecting u-bends. These roads definitely weren’t built by the Romans. Things straighten out into just s-bends. And after a few hours, sure enough the big bags blocking the toilet were to be removed. Except nobody seemed to know how they got them on the bus in the first place, so lots of pulling and shoving, and squeezing and grunting got the heavy bags out in a timely half-hour or so. Then we shot off 1 mile and ended up outside the hospital, I asked somebody what was going on? “Accident”. Not quite sure, anyway we say there for another hour or so, before the busboy who was helping with the big bags, came out with his foot in a splint, I think he broke his toe by the looks on things.

We were off again, I was grateful for my new purchase of headphones, which plug your ears like, well, earplugs. This way I can listen to my own choice of music, and try and doze. Around midnight we stopped at a restaurant for some supper, not that many people seemed to be eating, but another hour stop, doesn’t really take that long to have a drink, but never mind. The rain had come on now, and it was pouring down. Slowly the bus filled up again, and off again. Past a precariously angled truck which had cut the corner too tight, and the tyre had slipped into the mud. Trundling on through the night, through the darkness (There are no street lights) Parts of the road are just mud and dirt, but mostly tarmac. Try and sleep, but head lolls off to the side as you go round incessant corners. I almost dozed off, but wake up and my head bounces off the chair.

Dawn slowly comes, not before the kid across from me puked up, but then the outside brightens up. We are still rolling along, now we stop for breakfast. Not feeling hungry, so just a cup of tea. Teh Manis is popular, comes out boiling hot, so just pour it into the supplied saucer and let it cool, then slurp it up. Except we stop here for almost two hours so not much rush. The spare wheel is added to a suspect looking gauged and baldy back tyre. Instead of replacing it, the just push one on beside it. And we’re off again, this time I spot a sign saying Batak, the people of Lake Toba. Can’t be far right? Wrong! The man behind points out Lake Toba, well so he says but it is still another couple of hour before I finally arrive at Parapat, the only person to get off. I disembark to the lonely Parapat bus station, look around, wait for the tumbleweed to roll out the way. Then somebody comes along asking if I want to go to the ferry, but I’m done with travel for today, I just want to get to a hotel and lie down. I get an angkot and end up in the nice Hotel Asari, aaah I finally made it. Tomorrow I can catch a ferry across to Tuk-tuk in Samosir, the large island that sits in Lake Toba.

Lake Toba itself was formed after a super volcano exploded 25 million years ago, a cataclysmic event which nearly wiped the humans off the face of the planet. It would make Krakatoa explosion seems like a pop tart. Off the ferry I found a room a short walk from the ferry. The small village of Tuk-tuk is set up for tourists, full of guesthouse and restaurants and shops, except nowadays there is hardly any backpackers in Sumutra, compared to the heydays of the 70s when it was firmly on the backpacker trail.

The guesthouse had some nice areas, ideal for lazing around and reading a book, while taking in the views. Actually kinda looks like Scotland, strangely enough! A short trip to a neighbouring guesthouse for a bit of variety and a spot of dinner. These were some really tasty chips, not French Fries, but proper chips! I made a mental note to return for some more. But tonight there was some entertainment at the guesthouse, some Batak music and dance would be performed. First the dancing, which was… underwhelming. It mostly involved clasping your hands together and waving them up and down, and then… well that was about it. Then came the second dance which involved the dancers clasping their hands together and waving them up and down. The handful of tourists watching were somewhat bemused. A third dance followed which had a bit of variety and by the fourth they had dragged up some spectators to join in.

After that the real action began, some Batak singing. Imagine a Mexican marriachi band with a Swiss yodeller and you have the beginning of a Batak band. Sprinkly liberally with some hearty shouts of “HORAS!” and it’s complete. Then came the drinking song, and the guy that looked like an Indonesian Freddy Mercury was hamming it up, staggering around drunk, lurching from table to table, clinking glasses.
Here is an example of Batak Singing

The next day I just had a walk through Tuk-tuk to the other side of town, very quiet here. Still I found somewhere for a bacon sandwich (according to some “Batak” means pig-eater!). Back near my guesthouse, there was a small dilapidated 4 hole crazy golf course, so I easily conquered that (in 50 odd shots). Another day I set off the next village over, an hour or so walk away. More of the stranged curved roof shops and houses, said to resemble buffalo horns, the roof slope off to points at each corner, looks needlessly hard to make, but still they most be able to cut the metal to fit otherwise it couldn’t be done!
When I arrived at the village, turned out to be a popular stop for a ferry cruise to stop and do a bit of shopping, so lots of Asian tourists cruising through the market, the boat soon left and it went back to being empty. After refuelling with some Pocari Sweat I strolled back home, for some dinner.

Time is running short and I need to be in Medan for my flight to Kuala Lumpur, so I had to set on an another long journey, a morning ferry ride back to Parapat, and then 4 or 5 hours on the bus to Medan, and a ride in a sidecar to the hotel. Anyway I arrived in Medan, just had one full day to nose around here. Seemed to quite a lot of old Colonial building but most of them had seem better days. The new building were the near omnipresent megamall, aaah air-con. Medan has year round humidity rate in the high nineties. The last day it was up and out early as my 08:45 flight had been moved forward to 08:00.

Everything went smoothly, and I arrived in KL, getting past the Swine Flu detectors (actually just heat dectors, checking for fevers) and immigration, then downtown where I tried to find the hotel I stayed in a few years ago, when I was last in KL. I remembered getting off the monorail at Imbi, so I repeated that. Then after a short walk realised I made the same mistake last time, should of stayed on till the Bukit Bintang stop, not that far a walk, but a bit harder in the sun with the pack. I was looking for the hotel but I came across another close to the same spot so just planted myself in there instead. After a couple of days in Kuala Lumpur nosing around some old spots, getting lost in the massive Times Square mall, watching Terminator Salvation and eating Secret Recipe blueberry cheesecake, I decided to leave the 35C heat and head for the somewhat cooler climate of the Cameron Highlands.