Indonesia is big. Really, really big. So perhaps rather than saying “I visited Indonesia”, let’s say I visited parts of Bali, Java, and Komodo National Park in Indonesia over 30 days in September 2019.
Let’s start with a bit of history - I think this is always helpful, and puts everything else in context.
The Netherlands began colonizing the area that is now Indonesia in the 17th century, and kept their hold (with brief interludes from some other colonial European powers, as well as occupation by Japan during World War II) until 1949, following an armed as well as diplomatic conflict.
It was at that time that the Indonesian language - bahasa Indonesia -was born; it’s a modified form of Malay, with many words borrowed from Dutch. There are over 700 local languages, which locals still speak. Even schools are often taught in the local languages rather than in the official bahasa.
Bahasa is a very interesting language. It has very low specificity (check out this article for a fascinanting discussion of linguistic specificity): there is no conjugation or tenses, and there is only one word for he/she: “dia”. Plurals are formed by repeating the same word twice - for example, “kucing” is cat, and thus “kucing-kucing” is cats. This repetition pops up elsewhere, too - “hati-hati” is “be careful”, for example.
The country is developing quickly, with GDP growth hovering around 5%. You can see this in the high amount of construction happening all over. Some of the large projects are financed through China’s Belt and Road initiative, which does make some locals nervous.
In Bali, for example, there is lots of investment into infrastructure for tourists, with many new resorts and restaurants. A lot of the restaurants were quite nice even by Western standards, and were sitting mostly empty even at dinnertime. Either a lot more tourists will come, or I don’t think they’ll be able to stay open.
My good friend from LA, Julian, moved to Bali years ago. The surfing is great, the lifestyle is great, and the cost of living is substantially lower than LA… so why not? Julian now owns TYGR Sushi, which is a great place, and I strongly recommend you visit it if you’re ever in Bali. Julian built up the Bali branch of Deus Ex Machina (who are famous for their beautiful custom motorcycles)… and now rides a perfectly ordinary scooter (though it naturally has a surfboard holder).
And me, well… after seventeen years of living in LA, I finally learned to surf - over the course of three days in Bali.
The photo above is from day 2 - during day 3, I was able to catch some 5-foot waves, feeling like I finally got it… like I was a long-lost son of Poseidon, riding his waves and good vibes. I get why people wake up at 5am for this.
Bali is a great place to learn to surf - lessons cost about $20 for two hours, which is way less than they’d cost in LA. The ocean is warm, so there is no need for wetsuits. The waves are perfect. There are lots of Austrlians in Bali - it’s to them what Mexico is to Californians. Interestingly, I don’t think I met a single Australian during my time in other parts of Indonesia.
After my time at the beach, I headed up to Ubud. Ubud is… crowded. Like, really, really crowded. I think it was easily the most touristy place I saw during my time in Indonesia.
One of my favorite experiences in Indonesia was at the Pura Gunung Kawi hindu temple, a half hour north of Ubud. After exploring the main areas of the temple, an old woman flagged me down from a nearby rice paddy. “Temple temple?” she said. “Yes,” I said. She beckoned for me to follow, and so I did. She led me away from the main areas, walking through the rice paddies and down into the valley, where we forded a stream:
On the other side of the stream, we hiked up the hill, and finally arrived at another, more secluded part of the temple. It was beautiful - and the experience of getting to it through the rice fields and the forest made it even more so.
In Indonesia, people traditionally eat with their hands off large leaves - no utensils or plates needed. I tried this out when I bought street food outside just outside of the Pura Gunung Kawi temple… and I think this was tastiest food I had during my time Indonesia. I wish I knew the name; I only recognized it as a traditional vegetable dish.
I had a motorcycle rented during my time in Bali, and rode it up to the lava fields around Mt Batur. This was a great experience; it felt like entering a moonscape:
Traffic is crazy here. Most of the traffic is scooters, and I would say they lanesplit a lot… but really, the lanes are seen mostly as guidelines; it’s more of a forward flow with constant weaving in and out and around. I’ve seen scooters split between two car lines in the middle, on the outside of the outside lane, as well as on the inside of the inside lane. Where there’s room, they’ll go. Cars, too, will lanesplit between two motorcycles. Motorcycles lanesplit in opposite directions - if one is passing a car, it might share the lane with a motorcycle going in the opposite direction. The horn is used for everything from “I’m about to pass you” and “I’m going” to “don’t cut me off” and “I’m here”.
You see whole families on scooters. I’ve seen two parents and two kids - one kid stands in front of the driver, the other sits on the passenger’s lap. Similarly, scooters can also double as utility vehicles, and even food trucks:
MotoGP is very popular, and especially Valentino Rossi - he’s on billboards selling Yamaha scooters, and there are lots of scooters around branded in his livery. Also a lot of scooters with the recognizable Honda Repsol livery.
After Bali, I hopped on a quick flight to Yogyakarta, aka “Jogja”. The main sights around Jogja are nearby temples.
Borobudur Temple is the largest Buddhist temple in the world; it is as impressive as you would expect. The temple dates back to the 9th century. I went there in the early morning to watch the sunrise. It is amazing:
Prambanan Temple is a large buddhist temple, also from the 9th century. In my mind, it is just as impressive as Borobudur:
In Jogja, I stayed at the Happy Buddha Hostel. The great thing about hostels is that they bring travelers together in a way that no hotel does. This was particularly so in the case of Happy Buddha, and the company also included locals - the owner, and employees, and their friends. This is especially nice when you’re travelling alone, as I was during this part of the trip. Here’s a photo from a dinner to mark the occasion of one of the employees moving on, as well as the birthday of one of the owner’s friends (note the lack of cutlery):
After Jogja, I took the train to Surabaya to get ready for a tour of the volcanoes Bromo and Ijen.
In Surabaya, I got some sambal for dinner. “It’s a little spicy,” the waiter said. “A little spicy is perfect,” I told him. Well, it was one of the spiciest meals I’ve ever eaten. The staff watched me make my way through it with concern, as sweat began to appear on my brow, and my nose started to run, and finally my eyes water. Soon, a waiter brought some napkins so I could dry the various fluids welling up from the heat. A minute later, a waitress brought a glass of water out of her own initiative, perhaps noting that it might work to alleviate the heat better than the hot tea I’d ordered. I suppose “a little spicy” translates to “too hot for you, white boy”.
The Ijen volcano is on eastern Java, and is the site of an intensive sulfur mining operation. Workers break up chunks of sulfur at the bottom of the crater, and carry it in wooden baskets weighing up to 70kg on their shoulders up to the crater lip, and then down to a nearby village to get paid. All the while they need to (or should, in any case) wear gas masks, as the sulfur gases are poisonous.
I woke up half an hour after midnight to hike up there to see the “Blue Fire” - ignited sulfuric gas, which emerges from cracks in the ground. It can only be seen during the nighttime.
There is a highly acidic lake in the volcano - in fact, the largest such lake in the world. Per Wikipedia, “The pH of the water in the lake’s edges was measured to be 0.5 and in the middle of the lake 0.13 due to high sulfuric acid concentration.”
After the nighttime hike, I was happy to spend the day relaxing at the Margo Utomo Eco Resort. The place is nice, and the best part is their pet bat:
One thing that struck me all around Indonesia is how frequently people burn trash. This is the case over all the islands I went to, and it was the case even while walking around the back area of the “Eco Resort”:
From there, I headed to Mount Bromo, another volcano on Java, where I again woke in the early morning to watch the sunrise:
The way to get up there is somewhat rugged, and so for the last stretch of the journey, everyone takes 4-wheel drives - specifically, Toyota Land Cruisers J40, the series manufactured between 1960 and 1984. My guide, Angga, said that Angga said that over one thousand descend (or ascend?) upon Bromo from three separate bases. I definitely saw hundreds.
To climb to the edge of the Bromo crater, one has to cross the “sea of sand”. You can easily do this on foot… but you can also pay about $5 to do this on horse. Not a bad deal!
Here’s a photo of Angga, my guide, and myself:
Angga started learning English so that he could understand the lyrics in Queen songs. When he realized that my own knowledge of Queen was good (and that I too spent much time trying to transcribe and translate Queen songs during my youth), he would sometimes speak to me by quoting suitable Queen lyrics - an impressive feat. I must say, his knowledge of Queen music is deeper than mine. To my shock, he has not seen Flash Gordon the movie; I recommended that he rectify this post-haste. He worries about the burning of the forests on Sumatra, and about government corruption. There were many student protests around Indonesia during my time here, though none in the areas where I was.
After Bromo I went to visit the Madakaripura waterfall. The last part of the way there is closed to outside traffic; you have to be driven to the start of the hiking trail on the back of a scooter driven by one of the locals. I asked if I could ride one of the scooters there instead. “No,” the guy said. “It’s OK - I have a motorcycle license; I ride all the time,” I said. “No, because the road is very bad,” the guy said. “That’s OK,” I said, “I ride offroad all the time. It’ll be fine.” “No,” he said again, “because the motorcycle is bad, too.” I finally assented to riding on the back.
And so, because the road is bad, and because the motorcycle is also bad, and for safety in general…. I rode on the back of a dodgy scooter, driven by a local, with his 5-year-old son standing on the front, none of us wearing helmets:
Komodo National Park
Komodo National Park is the only home of the primordial Komodo Dragon, the gigantic, ancient, cannibalistic, venomous, badass reptile.
I knew I wanted to visit there, but hadn’t managed to book a tour online, so I was planning to do it in person once I arrived in Labuan Bajo. However, on the plane to Labuan Bajo, I started a conversation with the fellow next to me - Ian from London.
Ian had a private 2-day tour already booked starting the next day, with a couple of extra cabins on the boat. Why not tag along? And so I did. Here’s the boat we had:
Ian reads detective novels, and spent much of the substantial travel time on the boat listening to a selection of his favorite albums - Pink Floyd, David Bowie, Genesis - while gazing off into the distance, thinking deep thoughts. I spent much of the time reading, finishing up Robert Fulghum’s All I Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten (which is excellent and you should read it), and making my way through Tao te Ching on the second day.
The main attraction of the trip for me was Rinca Island, where we hiked and looked for some Komodo Dragons. It did not disappoint:
I had seen Komodo Dragons before in zoos. Let me tell you - having one walking towards you on the trail you’d just been hiking on is a very different experience. We respectfully got out of the way.
We spent the night in a bay along Padar Island, and hiked up to watch the sunrise:
We also snorkeled a whole bunch, and this was a great experience. I saw manta rays 2-meters across - amazing creatures. I tried to chase one at one point, and it literally took just a single flick of its wings(?) for it to disappear in the distance. I also saw beautifully colored sea turtles, in addition to a huge amount of fish and reefs. Unfortunately I had forgotten my GoPro in the hotel, and thus don’t have any photos or videos from snorkeling. Take my word instead: go to Komodo and snorkel or dive. It’s amazing.
In our second evening on the boat, we waited outside Pulau Koaba for the 100,000 bats sleeping there to awaken with the dusk and rise into the sky to fly off towards Flores and Rinca islands in search of fruit. When they did, it was impressive. Bats upon bats upon bats, and they just kept on coming and coming. Here’s a video, though it doesn’t quite do justice to how many bats emerged over the course of the evening:
Our guide, Silvester, grew up in one of the small inland towns of Flores, and told us that as kids they would try to shoot the bats with slingshots… and when successful, would then grill and eat the bat. They did the same with rats and snakes. “We eat everything,” Silvester says, smiling.
After Komodo, it was back to Labuan Bajo for me. I got a fresh-caught fish in the local fish market, cleaned and cooked while I waited for about $5. It was delicious.
People are friendly here, everywhere. I felt safe everywhere I went.
A lot of people smoke cigarettes here - in fact, “smoking rates among men (76%) are the second-highest in the world after Timor-Leste, which itself used to be part of Indonesia.” source
They love football (soccer) here, which makes for an easy icebreaker. The most popular teams here seem to be Manchester United, Barca, Real Madrid, Manchester City, and Juventus - no surprises there.
Ride-hailing is as popular here as in the US. In Indonesia, there are two main companies - Grab and Go-Jek. Grab hails from Singapore, while Go-Jek is Indonesian. More frequently than cars, though, people opt to for a scooter. You request one, someone shows up a few minutes later, hands you a helmet, and off you go. It’s very affordable - a half-hour scooter ride in Jogja cost me about $3 USD.
Travelling solo definitely has its cons, but it does also have pros. One of those is that being alone naturally helps you open up to the world and the people around you - both other travellers as well as locals.
I’ve already mentioned some in the text above. Here are just a few of the other characters I’ve encountered:
- Noel from Ireland, who spent some ten years of his life living on a sailboat with his wife. They had a daughter during that time. Eventually his wife got a teaching job on Sumbawa. Joel doesn’t have a job, and spends his time motorcycling around Indonesia on his Royal Enfield Himalayan. What a life! Noel found out about Instagram three days prior to when we met, but has been a dedicated poster since then. Here’s his account.
- Eugenia, a German spiritual healer, who is a firm believer in the power of The Secret, through which her new apartment was manifested in her life, among other things. Looking at this from the angle of how important positive affirmation and visualization are (which has been scientifically demonstrated), I agreed with her on more things than I would have expected.
- Qiri and Niddia, a dutch couple who started a microbrewery in their garage (which has since grown beyond it). Check out the brewery
- Doni Wijayanto, freelance photographer, with credits for Discovery and National Geographic, who loves shooting volcanoes. He calls drones a “fucking toy” - he gets his photos while paragliding. He’s thinking about launching his own travel agency for photography expeditions - he’d take you all over Indonesia over two to three weeks to the best spots for photography and teach you how to get the shots. But he’s not good with computers and isn’t sure how to make a website to get started. Doni’s instagram is here.
Selfies are all the rage now - I literally had complete strangers walk up to me, say “photo photo”, get a selfie with me, say thank you, and walk away again. In some instances I got a selfie also. I think I’m going to start a new rule: everyone that asks me for a selfie, I’ll get one too.
Here’s a collage of the ones I found from this trip (where I’m playing loose with the definition of “selfie”):
Indonesia is beautiful and very, very big. There are many things I did not get to do during this trip - each of them is a great reason to come back. Here are some of them:
- Multi-day trekking / backpacking
- Explore Flores island via motorcycle
- Explore the crater around Bromo via motorcycle
- See orangutans in the wild in either Borneo or Sumatra
- Dive in Komodo National Park
Thanks for reading!