Indonesia

Indonesia - Our Route & Numbers

Alex & Madie’s travel route in Indonesia.

Some Final Thoughts

Indonesia was a dream to travel through. A new country for us both, and one we were exploring on our own, this was essentially the real start of our trip. The towns we visited were largely undeveloped (less Ubud), leaving a very raw and unspoiled beauty for us to discover. The landscapes were incredible, the wildlife even more so, and the people... the people were some of the warmest we had met, all eager to share their cultural and religious histories, and their own struggles, passions, and fears. For me, this is why we were traveling; to enrich, enlighten, and to exchange stories with one another. Simply, to connect. And we did that there. 

We were also met with many challenges, slowly overcoming them as we journeyed east to west, learning daily how to cope with being Westerners from San Francisco. My only regret is fabricating a story that I was in fact from the Philippines and that we lived in France, for fear that our American identities would inflate the prices we would pay for even a bottle of water. And this was a huge peeve of mine - being taken advantage of - something we did not have to deal with in the Philippines. (There’s a reason the first question you are asked is, “Where are you from?” Even when you look like a local!)

It was a timely coincidence that I stumbled across this quote by psychologist William James in an article about becoming a better traveler:

“The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook.”

In effort to not let this be the crux of our trip, we started playing the game. After two weeks we had found our rhythm and strengths, and once our bargaining voices became second nature, Indonesia revealed even more of it’s beauty. Twenty-seven days is not nearly enough to see even a fraction of what the vast island nation has to offer. As Alex noted, we skipped a few popular destinations, with the idea in mind that we will be back soon.
 

Numbers from Indonesia

  • Days in Indonesia: 27 days
  • Our daily average cost for lodging and food per person: Rp 400.000 ≈ $15.00
  • Cost of a 1.5L water: Rp 6.000 ≈ $0.50
  • Cost of a medium latte: Rp 20.000 ≈ $1.50
  • Cost of scuba diving: Rp 1.500.000 ≈ $115.00 for a three tank dive
  • Cost of renting a scooter: Rp 70.000 ≈ $5.25 for 24 hours
     
  • Total time on an airplane: 9 hours and 5 minutes
  • Total time on a bus: 11 hours
  • Total time on a train: 12 hours
  • Total time on a boat: 16 hours
     

How we got around

 Alex & Madie’s mode of transportation in Indonesia.

Alex & Madie’s mode of transportation in Indonesia.

Indonesia - Greens & Oranges of Bukit Lawang, Sumatra

 Our trekking mate Joh and the last group of orangutans that we played with at Gunung Leuser National Park in North Sumatra, Indonesia. Truly an amazing experience.

Our trekking mate Joh and the last group of orangutans that we played with at Gunung Leuser National Park in North Sumatra, Indonesia. Truly an amazing experience.

Beirut - After the Curtain

We are on the last leg of our trip in Indonesia, heading to its west-most island, Sumatra. Despite its proximity to Malaysia and Singapore, it is a detour few people make - with fewer roads, smaller airports and any destination within the island is bound to take a day or two. But we come with two specific goals: the jungle and the orangutans of the Gunung Leuser National Park.

A short flight from Jakarta bring us to Medan in the morning. Having read too much about the bus stations scams and the touts, we do our best to avoid them and try to talk directly with the minibus driver, to no avail. We’re not very good at it, this time, losing our wits and forgetting to walk a little more to avoid them; we’re a little pressed for time if we want to get to our destination before nightfall. After paying too much, we finally hop into a small rusty 10-seater for the bumpiest ride we’ve ever had; for four hours, we’ll be jumping off our seats as the driver goes through large potholes on dirt roads, a real gold mine for a suspension repair shop (its a few days later that we’ll understand it could have been worse - the return ride to Medan will be filled with 24 people). With our spines a couple inches shorter, we finally get to Bukit Lawang, a small village at the entrance of Gunung Leuser National Park, home of wild orangutans, elephants, and tigers.

  It was a day-long journey to get to Bukit Lawang from Jojga - two flights, two buses, a tuk tuk, and a walk uphill in the rain (in flip flops!), but it was worth it. This village is a secluded playground set in the jungle next to a river, with warm, resilient people. In 2003 there was a devastating flash flood that took the lives of 239 people, and destroyed everything in its way. It took 8 months to rebuild the town and reopen. Today the younger generations are helping ecotourism thrive again, as many of them speak English, and are training to become jungle guides.

It was a day-long journey to get to Bukit Lawang from Jojga - two flights, two buses, a tuk tuk, and a walk uphill in the rain (in flip flops!), but it was worth it. This village is a secluded playground set in the jungle next to a river, with warm, resilient people. In 2003 there was a devastating flash flood that took the lives of 239 people, and destroyed everything in its way. It took 8 months to rebuild the town and reopen. Today the younger generations are helping ecotourism thrive again, as many of them speak English, and are training to become jungle guides.

Feeling a little bitter about the last scam, we proudly decide to walk to our guest house instead of taking the local tuk-tuk. An easy two-kilometer stroll to relieve our legs? It could have been, yes, if it wasn’t for the torrential rain, creeping twilight, unsteady flip flops and getting lost in a small village. Google Maps did not know that this town is separated by a river, with only a few bridges to traverse it that small cars or tuk-tuks cannot cross - hence not showing as streets. A nice local gets us back on track and points to the closest bridge. “Thomas’ house is on the other side, on the right after you cross.” Ah... the bridge - a skinny wooden white bridge in a tall arc, maybe a meter wide and 50 meters long, cables swinging in the rain, almost no light in the dark night of the surrounding jungle, and, of course, dubious wood planks. It had a real uncanny resemblance to many nightmares I had when I was young (read: 30 y-o). Madie and I look at each other - “Are we really doing this?” I ask - “I guess so.” She always finds the words to make me feel better. We take slow steps, clinging on to the ramp; I’m doing my best to look at my feet without looking at the void below. A third in, the side ramp is broken for a couple meters, removing all notion of security (as if I had any). And for the full cliché, there are few missing planks halfway through the bridge. Lovely. The thing with nightmares is that they’re a lot less scary in real life. For the first time in all my dreams, I manage to step over the gap and pass the bridge, drenched in the rain. I add an evil laugh for full effect.

The infamous bridge of nightmares, which we had to cross in the dark and in the rain.

We cross a bit of jungle (only because I miss the real pathway 10 meters away) and get safe and sound to Thomas’ Retreat, a beautiful guest house set against the jungle and with a view of the river. We fill up on warm pumpkin curry and chicken satay, chatting with the young hosts, jungle guides in training. We learn about the remote girlfriend tradition (apparently a real thing, western girls enamored with the jungle and their adventurous guides - like me, right Madie?), the concert they’re playing at later tonight and the park we’re about to trek in. Their excitement about the jungle is contagious; they want to show people their beautiful country and, more than anything, educate so it doesn’t go away. Tourists are welcome here because they bring an economy that does not destroy the forest, unlike the palm plantations causing devastating deforestation all over Sumatra. We stroll around town the first day, crossing all the skinny bridges connecting the two sides of Bukit Lawang, looking at naked kids jumping in the river and going down the currents. We prepare ourselves for a two-day trek hoping to see as many orangutans as we can.

 The beautiful riverside town of Bukit Lawang is the gateway to Gunung Leuser National Park in North Sumatra, Indonesia.

The beautiful riverside town of Bukit Lawang is the gateway to Gunung Leuser National Park in North Sumatra, Indonesia.

 Trekking through the jungles of North Sumatra.

Trekking through the jungles of North Sumatra.

We leave early the next morning, filled with banana pancakes, and covered with Deet to fend off the mosquitos of the rubber plantation. Johnny, our guide, sets the pace in front as we approach the park and gives us the ceremonial talk. There are simple rules: be nice with the orangutans, approach carefully, and start walking away if told to. We walk up and down the many hills of the park for a couple hours, using lianas to support us, always wary of where we put our hands (you don’t want to wake up a snake).  At the top of a hill, we finally see the first ones, a mother and its infant nestled in the trees. Female orangutans only have one child at a time; the child will stay with her for 8 years before leaving, slowly learning the ways of the jungle: how to make a new nest every day, how to find food, and how to stay out of trouble. The males are harder to find, as they constantly travel between tree tops, in search of the next female. After a couple hours of dense jungle, it suddenly feels that we’re in their home, and it’s an unforgettable moment. Orangutans look at us with human eyes and so much meaning, with more human expressions than my 10th-grade German teacher. We touch their hands and fur; some guides give them fruits - the orangutans know exactly how many are behind their back. We stick around just to be with them.

 Up close and personal with one of the orangutans at Gunung Leuser National Park in North Sumatra, Indonesia. It was a joy to observe them eating fruits, playing in the trees, building nests, and interacting with each other.

Up close and personal with one of the orangutans at Gunung Leuser National Park in North Sumatra, Indonesia. It was a joy to observe them eating fruits, playing in the trees, building nests, and interacting with each other.

Throughout the day, we also encounter white-handed gibbons and Thomas Leaf monkeys; we meet Mina, an old orangutan known for her aggressive behavior (she’ll follow us to our lunch spot, making us flee away and lose tomatoes in the process); we meet Jackie and her child, another famous orangutan, this one known to be nice and hold hands with passing tourists. Jackie is holding a tourist’s hand and is pretending to bite it as she looks at the guide, hoping for some fruits in exchange. The trek continues through the jungle; we climb down hills holding on to lianas larger than my arm, pass small rivers at the bottom, only to go up again a steep path - a slow but exhausting walk through the lush emerald jungle. A large rhinoceros hornbill quacks and flies over us at the top of the hill, landing on a nearby branch, showing proudly its beak and horn.

After 7 hours of trekking, we finally get to the camp for a well-deserved rest. Johnny has to go back to town already - he feels compelled to thank us for visiting his jungle and respecting it; we feel thankful and blessed to have met him. He leaves us in the good hands of Olo, the camp cook and master entertainer, and Sonny, our guide for the next day. We stay with our new friends, Marine, Joh and Manu, and spend a night of game and laughter with Olo and his crew, deep in the smell of the clove cigarettes - Olo’s laugh is as contagious as it gets. Joh took a silent wish for the duration of the trek; her face lights up when we try to cheat during the games. We solve brain teasers and learn the tricks of the 3-4-5-6 stone game scam. We talk about life in town and in the jungle; we learn about the flash flood a few years ago, taking the life of a few hundred people in Bukit Lawang in less than 15 minutes. We all head to bed in the camp, and again, I can’t truly believe we're sleeping in the jungle.

 Our jungle kitchen and shelter for one night. We drank river water boiled over a fire pit, and ate the most delicious bergedel, chicken rendeng, tempeh, and some of the sweetest fruits we’ve ever had. 

Our jungle kitchen and shelter for one night. We drank river water boiled over a fire pit, and ate the most delicious bergedel, chicken rendeng, tempeh, and some of the sweetest fruits we’ve ever had. 

Sonny takes us all back the next day (after a heavy breakfast), and after a short raft ride down the river, we stop for another 3 hours of trekking and more orangutans. We stay with a mother and its infant for another hour, as Joh and Marine slowly fall in love with them. I understand then that Joh’s silent wish is to experience this trip to the fullest and be most mindful of this experience. I might try it, I tell myself, but only when I can make sure Madie won’t feel too lonely. As we get back in town, her wish ends - and her voice starts filling the room. She has a lot of catching up to do, and we all have a lot to talk about after such an experience.

After the blues of Komodo and Kawah Ijen, after the bright colors and pretty pastels of Bali and Yogyakarta, Sumatra and Bukit Lawang took us to verdant greens and bright oranges. In Indonesia, we saw nature as we never imagined, from the depth of Komodo to the lush jungle of Gunung Leuser; we swam with manta rays and counted oranges with orangutans. We explored the Hindu and Buddhist past in Bali and Yogyakarta, marveled at the vibrant canang saris and waterworn walls of the water palace. We lived Ramadan in the streets of many cities, listening to the Muezzin’s song, getting filled with street food at the wrong time. We went up the raw paths of volcanoes at dark hours to tickle our throats; we drove on a motorcycle in the pouring rain. We haggled, avoided tourist traps, still paying too much the scammers. But maybe more importantly, we went through it all with the warmth of the Indonesians, guiding our way to make sure we saw the beauty of their country. There would be too many names to write and to thank, but we remember all of them, their smiles, laughs and clove cigarettes.

Indah means beautiful in Indonesian, coincidentally giving root to a well-named country. In 28 days, Indonesia took us through quite a trip, with all its colors and characters, each island with its identity and richness. We saw too little of Indonesia in the end, but it will bring us back, cantik Madie and I, to the jungle, the sea or the temples - or maybe next time to the tribes near Papua New Guinea. For now, it’s time for a short flight to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia.

Tips and Links

  • The Gunung Leuser National Park is a protected forest and is part of the World Heritage site: the Tropical Rainforest Heritage of Sumatra. It is one of the only two remaining natural habitats for Sumatran orangutans and is also home elephants, tigers, rhinoceroses and more.
  • Oil palm farming and illegal logging are still large threats to the park and its diversity. This is from a report in 2011: “Despite being protected by federal law from any form of destructive encroachment, illegal logging is still rampant in the forest, with the foliage of the Leuser ecosystem disappearing at a rate of 21,000 hectares per year.” How to help? Support low-impact ecotourism to provide another economy to the region, buy sustainable palm oil FSC-certified products, and go visit the orangutans!
  • Bukit Lawang is the village at the entrance of the Gunung Leuser park. It’s a little bit of an adventure to get there. We roughed it up with a bus ride, but you can also find private drivers through your hotel for Rp 500,000 - 600,000. More info at bukitlawang.com/Transport 
  • Thomas’ Retreat was a great place to stay, with some of the best food in town. They also organize treks in the jungle.

Indonesia - Candis, Colors & Pastels in Yogyakarta, Java

 The amazing Candi Prambanan on the largest Hindu temple site in Indonesia, just at the border of Yogyakarta and Central Java.

The amazing Candi Prambanan on the largest Hindu temple site in Indonesia, just at the border of Yogyakarta and Central Java.

Serge Gainsbourg - La Javanaise

After a short break in Surabaya, we are on a scenic train ride to Yogyakarta in Central Java, a city known for its nearby Buddhist and Hindu temples. We come for the history and old relics, but find so much more: bright colors of street art, pastels of old walls, a complex religious past and a present full of character. 

Our hotel is hidden amongst maze-like alleys; no way to book online or call, even though the place had many positive reviews on TripAdvisor. It’s called “La Javanaise,” from a famous Serge Gainsbourg song about a special night with Juliette Gréco; the walls are full of photographs of the late singer and author. The hosts are called Puquito and Paquito, an elderly couple; they wait on the main street at night to guide the passing backpackers into their hotel. Along with free coffee and banana pancakes, there was no way we could have stayed anywhere else - I wouldn’t dare deny her of her favorite breakfast. We even met new friends, Nico and Marion, at the end of their 11-month travel.

After the charm of Bali and the fires of Kawah Ijen, Yogyakarta is yet another Indonesia: we get lost in the small streets; scooters swerve between cars and horse carriages; street vendors fill up the curbside; and scammers are aplenty. It only takes a few minutes after we settle, when one of the hotel workers takes us to a ‘local art gallery’ of Batik paintings. He speaks French and assures us that this is the last day of the exposition - his friend is featured in it. It’s free, of course. After a few minutes inside, arguing why we won’t buy anything, we finally leave and read over lunch about the ‘art gallery scam’ we just went through, apparently a well known thing around here. It turns out our French-speaking friend was not even from the hotel, but just waiting there for the candid tourist. Yogyakarta is full of these: the art gallery scammers, urging that they close tonight until next year; the unwanted guides at the entrance of various sites, pretending to be mandatory; the mini train driving only for a 100-200 meters; the numerous tuk-tuk drivers, sleeping on their ride until you pass by, and not understanding why you’d choose to walk. For some reason, I look like an easy target (must be the irresistible charm) - I’m just glad they think Madie is Indonesian and opt to talk to her all the time.

 Colorful tuk-tuks line the streets as their drivers take their midday siestas.

Colorful tuk-tuks line the streets as their drivers take their midday siestas.

We decide on renting a scooter from the hotel to roam the street of Yogyakarta and get to the temples. The driving is fun and chaotic, with large honking buses, slow cars and other speeding scooters. I reminisce of the 16-year-old me speeding between cars in France; I’m twice that age now and with a much more precious package hanging on to me, hence a lot more careful. We make our way to the breathtaking temple of Borobudur, reading the life of the first Buddha on its walls (by surreptitiously following behind another group with an English speaking guide), and walking around it three times clockwise to pay respect. To add to its charm, the temple was hidden in the jungle for hundreds of years before being dug out in the 1800s. 

 The beautiful stupas at the top of Borobudur, with the grand park below. Admission to this UNESCO site is a bit high, but once you see how well the grounds are maintained, and the amount of work that was and continues to be done for the restoration and upkeep of the temple, you’ll see why.

The beautiful stupas at the top of Borobudur, with the grand park below. Admission to this UNESCO site is a bit high, but once you see how well the grounds are maintained, and the amount of work that was and continues to be done for the restoration and upkeep of the temple, you’ll see why.

Walking up the steep stone steps to the top of Borobudur.

There are thousands of stories carved into the stone walls of Borobudur.

On the way back, we decide on the less advised countryside route (thanks, Google Maps) and drive through the beautiful Javanese landscape. We’re reminded of where we are by the heavy tropical downpours, soaking us to our bones while we drive back. I drive through the ankle-deep puddles; it’s just as fun as it is scary (and of course, wet). No one cares, so we pretend we don’t and enjoy the coolness of the rain at the slowest speed, as we make our way back to La Javanaise.

 Just a small example of the candy-colored umbrellas you’ll see at the candis of Yogyakarta. Here we are at the steps of the epic Borobudor, a complex with  2,673 relief panels and 504 Buddha statues.  It’s difficult to tell from this angle, and to even capture it in one photo, but this monument is the largest Buddhist temple in the world... and it was unearthed only 200 years ago. Amazing!

Just a small example of the candy-colored umbrellas you’ll see at the candis of Yogyakarta. Here we are at the steps of the epic Borobudor, a complex with 2,673 relief panels and 504 Buddha statues. It’s difficult to tell from this angle, and to even capture it in one photo, but this monument is the largest Buddhist temple in the world... and it was unearthed only 200 years ago. Amazing!

The next days are just as picturesque, and much better told with her photos: the high towers of Shiva, Brahma and Ganesha in Prambanan, among a classroom of loud Chinese girls; the large palace ruins of Ratu Boko, where we can explore at will and play real-life video games, crossing what may have been a forbidden sign to find a fisherman on one of the ponds (achievement unlocked - I did not ask him for a side quest). We get lost in the pastel colors of the water castle, Taman Sari, an 18th century bathing complex which was at the center of an artificial lake, now filled with small houses and narrow streets. I daydream at my favorite spot, the ‘Sultan's View,’ on top of a small tower overlooking the main pool where all of his wives bathed. I get a pinch on the arm for thinking about ‘many’ wives.

We spend the next days strolling in the city. The beautiful sights of Yogyakarta told us of its Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim past, colonized by the Dutch and English. The grit of Yogyakarta is its present, with its street vendors, food and scammers - who we come to love just as much. We buy a couple bracelets we haggled hard for to save a few cents, starting a new tradition; we eat doubtful street food for a couple dollars on the outskirts of a bazaar with overwhelming smells of dried fish; we walk through the maze of small streets with graffiti reminiscent of Barcelona; we finish the unnecessary two bottles of large Bintang while eating Bakwan at Bladok (yes, we did this three times). At night, the city wakes up with the many Mosques signaling the end of the day fast - we peek on a schoolroom teaching the prayer to young kids. 

What we will remember most of Yogyakarta (or as Madie says “Djog-Djaaaah”) are old walls with bright touches of colors, whether they’re from a graffiti, an unexpected umbrella, a neon sign or a hijab - somehow perfectly representing what this city has become. Candy colors on Candi - the word for temple in Indonesian (see what we did there? I wonder how many will actually read this far).

But it’s already time to leave Java, we’re off to Sumatra to try to find our cousins, the Orang-Utans.


Links

  • Yogyakarta, the picturesque city of Central Java, is easily accessible. We got there with an easy six-hour train ride from Surabaya, and left with a one-hour flight to Jakarta.
  • The Borobudur temple and surrounding park is a short one-hour scooter ride from the center of town. If you don’t feel comfortable driving on the left among speeding trucks, there are plenty of organized tours. We were lucky to visit it during the early days of Ramadan and visited an almost empty park.
  • The ruins of Ratu Boko was our favorite spot in Yogyakarta, with much to explore if you don’t care about staying on the paved path.
  • The Prambanan and Plaosan temples are worth checking out, but offer a little less to explore (and likely too many tourists for a good picture).
  • The baths of Taman Sari are an easy walking distance from Malioboro Street in Yogyakarta.
  • Malioboro Street is the most lively street for tourists and easy shopping. Make sure to haggle hard, and don’t fall prey to the Batik art gallery trick!