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Indonesia is one of the countries in the world that I feel like home. I definitely felt comfortable in this vast archipelago whose shores are splashed by the Banda Sea, by the South China Sea, by the Philippines Sea and by the Pacific Ocean. When I planned my trip through South East Asia, Indonesia had a central role. After visiting the country, it has a more important role in my imagination and in my life plans.
The archipelago has 17,500 islands (only 6,500 of them are inhabited) so a whole life would not be enough to visit all of them. The most striking characteristic of Indonesia is its diversity, so much so that the national motto Bhinneka Tunggal Ika (in old Javanese) means “unity in diversity” (if you want to know more about this principle you can read the article “Pancasila: unity in diversity“). And, luckily, it is not only a motto hanging from a wall: I encountered diversity on every step of the road. Landscape diversity, with mountains, beaches, volcanoes and waterfalls; religious diversity, with Muslims harmoniously living with their Hindu neighbours, their Buddhist neighbours, their Catholic neighbours, their Protestant neighbours and their Evangelist neighbours; language diversity, since they speak Chinese, Malay, Balinese, Javanese, Rejang, Batak Dairi, Toraja, Toba Batak, Banjarese and others; culinary and architectural diversity, since the islands were colonised by British, Dutch, Chinese and Indians. And I could continue with the enumeration, since diversity in Indonesia does not understand borders.
To be able to cover a considerable portion of this country, it is necessary to plan the trip to get to the most remote areas. We organised the trip with Damián Almua (nomadic photographer) to be able to visit some really striking places and this is a summary of our adventures in the real land of the smiles.
Bali Island tends to be the entrance gate for visitors to the country, but unfortunately, the majority of the people stay in the island and their idea of Indonesia is restricted to this extremely small portion of territory (The Reason For Leaving Bali Or The Real Indonesia).
On 100 B.C. marks the arrival of Hindus to Bali. The Mayapajit Empire dominated the area since then and until the colonisation by the Netherlands, so the Javanese cultural elites sought refuge in the island during the expansion of Islam. This combination of events turns Bali into an extremely rich island in artistic terms: their architecture, their handicrafts and their clothes are unique in Indonesia. The predominant religion on the island is Balinese Hinduism, that combines the belief in Hindu Gods and teachings with animist beliefs and the adoration of Buddhist saints.
Once we landed in Denpasar, we went to Kuta, one of the most densely populated areas in Bali and one of the hottest touristic spots in the island. Kuta is a beautiful maze: to move around the city, you have to go through small alleys and narrow streets, with motorbikes and cars speeding in all directions.
Kuta beaches are visited by surfers from around the world, since their waves are sequenced and long. Kuta also has a very interesting nightlife, with international tourists mixed with locals. Maybe that is the reason why you can buy any psychoactive drug available in the market (specially magic mushrooms, which are endemic to the island).
Ubud is two hours away from Kuta. However, the physical distance does not reflect the difference between the cities: they could even belong to different islands. The religiosity that peeps in Kuta, behind the clubs and bars, takes a leading role in Ubud, which is surrounded by jungles and tropical forests. Everything looks like a temple: houses, hostels, restaurants and even the temples themselves.
Ubud conveys peace. Traffic is always intense in Bali, but in Ubud the amount of cars and motorbikes is smaller. The countenance and the tone of Ubud citizens is definitely more peaceful than that of the inhabitants of other parts of the island. That may be the reason why it is a globally recognised destination for practising yoga (in its different variations).
Besides practicing yoga, you can walk around the monkey forest (there are hundreds of them in Indonesia), you can check out the rice paddies, the Balinese Hindu temples, you can attend a Balinese traditional dance show and you can try the authentic Balinese coffee.
But Ubud’s coffee is very special: it is the most expensive coffee in the world, Luwak coffee. This coffee has a very peculiar elaboration process, which may scare some consumers away. My advice is that you should not get intimidated: it is, beyond the shadow of a doubt, the most perfect coffee I tasted in my entire life.
The star of this coffee elaboration process is the Asian palm civet. This small animal eats the coffee grains directly from the plant, they go through its intestinal tract without being completely digested, and they are later expelled in the faeces. During the process, coffee grains remain intact regarding its aspect, but they obtain an additional flavour from the enzymes of the animal’s stomach. The farmers collect those grains, they clean them and dry them. It does not sound really appealing, does it?
However, and even though it seems unlikely, this coffee is delicious and it has been labelled as the most expensive coffee in the world: it has an estimated price of 400 Euros per kilo. In Bali Pulina Agro-tourism, you can get a free guided tour in which they show you the elaboration process and they also provide a free tasting of all the types of tea and coffee they produce in the premise. If you want to taste Luwak coffee you have to pay for it, but it is totally worth it. The view from the tasting living room is truly shocking, turning this farm into a must-see for coffee lovers and for those who want to delve their way into this world of flavours.
Recommended hostel: Sunshine Vintage House
This hostel is located in the heart of Ubud and the rooms are wonderful. Nick, the hostel’s owner, also offers transfers from Denpasar Airport. You can contact him using WhatsApp at +6287889046155.
With Damián, we stayed in Ubud and explored the rest of Bali Island by motorbike (which I strongly recommend). In that ride, of approximately 90 kilometres, we visited Pura Ulun Danu Batran temple, the Twin Lakes and Tanah Lot temple.
PURA ULUN DANU BATRAN
On the road to Pura Ulun Danu Batran temple, it started getting really cold. And it was predictable: Lake Bratan is located at a height of 1200 metres above sea level. This complex is the most important water temple in Bali and it was built in 1633. Here, they make offerings to the Balinese Goddess Dewi Danu, the rivers, water and lakes Goddess.
The site is located in the shores of Lake Bratan and it has several remarkably garnished temples. Due to its popularity, this site receives foreign and local tourists.
After spending some hours walking around Pura Ulun Danu Batran temple, we got up on our motorbikes again towards the Twin Lakes. These lakes are half an hour away from the temple and they offer a delightful view of the Balinese woods. Just like in all of Bali, there are several temples nearby that you can visit, but our route had to continue towards the South.
To get to Tanah Lot temple, we made our way to the South-East part of the island, driving for approximately one hour. We calculated the route to arrive to this spot at sunset, together with the last sunrays, so we could appreciate a dreams version of this ancient temple.
The temple of earth in the sea (as Tanah Lot is also known) is located 100 metres from the coast, in an islet that gets almost completely covered by water except for some hours a day. The temple was built by a priest in the XVI century and it is dedicated to the guardian spirits of the sea. After enjoying the view and the sound of the waves hitting against the temple, we went back to Ubud with the motorbikes, satisfied and exhausted after a beautiful ride through the unparalleled Bali Island.
Lombok Island is located East of Bali. To get to our first destination in this archipelago, we took a bus from Ubud to Padangbai port and from there a ferry to the Gilli Islands.
The Gilli Islands, an archipelago made up of Gilli Trawangan (the biggest and most crowded of the three islands), Gili Meno and Gili Air, are (together with Kuta Bali) the capitals of partying in Indonesia. But, in contrast to Kuta Bali, the Gillis are a snorkel and diving paradise.
We had thought about staying in Gili Trawangan for three days, but the island captured us and we had to stay for a whole week. There are no vehicles in the island, so the only three means of transport are bicycles, horse-cars and human feet. In two hours you can circle the island through the coast line by bike, so this is a very tiny and cosy island.
Partying is serious business in Gilli Trawangan. In the downtown area of the island there are dozens of clubs and bars, and narcotics are sold in broad daylight. At three in the morning, all bars and clubs close except for one, which rotates depending on the day of the week, and it gathers the entire population of tourists that are looking for the last rounds of Bintang (the delicious Indonesian beer that belongs to the Dutch factory Heineken).
During the day, the activity is also frenetic. You can take several boat tours to snorkel around the three islands in which you can see sea turtles, multicolour fish shoals and impressive coral formations. The only moment of the day in which activities come to a halt in Gilli is at sunset: these magnificent islands have the most dramatic sunsets I have ever seen in my life. Bintang in hand, feet on the sand, locals and tourists enjoy the show day after day. When the sun finally hides away, the bars speakers take back the central role.
From the Gilli Islands, we took a boat to Bangsal port and from there a minivan to Kuta Lombok, in the southern end of Lombok Island. Due to our extensive stay in the Gilli triplets, we just had an afternoon to walk around Kuta Lombok’s beach. On the following day, very early, we took off from Bandar Udara International Airport to Flores Island.
Flores Island is located in the Eastern Nusa Tenggara province, between the Savu Sea and Flores Sea. The main tourist attraction of this Indonesian island are the Komodo dragons. But this island does not only have a really striking fauna: its inhabitants and its landscapes are completely exotic and they are totally different from the rest of Indonesia. In our trip through this island, we explored four cities: Labuan Bajo, from where we visited the Komodo National Park, Bajawa, Ende and Moni, from where we visited Kelimutu volcano, one of the most spectacular sites in Indonesia.
LABUAN BAJO AND KOMODO NATIONAL PARK
Getting to Labuan Bajo is really simple, since it has a recently renovated airport. The city is small and cosy, but it does not have many attractions, apart from its port and its street food stalls (specialised in fresh seafood and fishes) located in the coast line. However, excursions sail off from this port on a daily basis towards Komodo National Park.
On the following morning, we boarded the ship towards Rinca Island, our first stop in Komodo National Park. The boat trip was similar to the one around Ha Long Bay, with magnificent rock formations capriciously rising up on our sides. Protected by our park ranger, armed with a stick and a lot of confidence, we started walking the island in search of the last dinosaurs living in our planet: Komodo dragons.
Luckily, we did not have to walk much to find them. A group of dragons was resting below the grocer’s (which is also the kitchen) that is located a few metres away from the entrance to the park. The smell of human food also attracts dragons, they told us.
They also told us that dragons are ferocious creatures, that they hunt wild boras, monkeys and even deers. The dragon’s offsprings, as soon as they hatch, climb into the trees and hide away in the trunk. Why do they climb? Because if they do not do it, their mothers will eat them. Why do they hide away inside the trees? Because if they do not do it, birds will eat them. Hell of a first day for the small dragons.
After a two-hour walk, we set off for Komodo Island to check our luck again. This island has a completely different flora and geography. In spite of the discouraging comments of a ranger we came across on the trail, we were lucky again; but this time, we did not find the dragons placidly resting below the kitchen, but in their own habitat: in the deep jungle. Before we embarked again, we crossed another dragon, another wild boar and a deer: they all came to the party and they wanted to say goodbye. To round up a dream tour and an exhausting first day, we moored in an uncharted bay and we witnessed a bat migration. We had a lot to talk about in that dinner, before we slept under the stars in our small but cosy boat.
The second day of the tour included one of the highlights of my trip around South East Asia. After navigating for two hours, we were getting ready to do some snorkelling when our captain saw something in the water and screamed: ¡Now! ¡Now! We jumped and there they were. A group of around seven manta rays were elegantly swimming in unison. The image is still very fresh in my mind and it will probably be so for a long time. It was a truly moving performance. All of a sudden, and to complete the show, a reef shark passed by when nobody was expecting him. The sea current and the depth created a dramatic setting, and we had to come out of the water, exhausted, but immensely happy.
After another sailing hour, we moored in a small beach with shallow waters to enjoy another snorkelling hours. Even though we were really tired, nobody stayed on the boat. And it was definitely worth it: the views under the water were magic, and we swam just like the other fish between the blue, pink and white shinning coral reefs, which had an almost radioactive colour. We had lunch in the boat and again, and until we arrived in Labuan Bajo’s port, we had a lot to talk about.
The road from Labuan Bajo to Bajawa was definitely tortuous. We travelled in a dilapidated bus, full of people and packages (even a motorbike on the roof), with loud Indonesian pop through a ridiculous amount of curves. If we consider the completely unnecessary stops and the all-aged smokers on the bus, it looks a lot like a nightmare. Roads in Flores Island had to be adjusted to the geography of the island, so moving within it takes loads of hours.
Bajawa is a small town ingrained in the jungle mountains of the centre of Flores Island. Its main attraction are the Ngada mountain tribes, which are spread all around the area. They have an ancient way of life -they raise cattle, they cultivate the land and then they reap the benefits. They are very spiritual people and they practice a religion that mixes Catholic concepts with pre-Christian beliefs.
When we toured around the tribes with a local guide, he told us that they perform many rituals for different holly festivities. When someone in the village gets married, they sacrifice buffalos and roosters, and they sing and dance. He also told us that women are in power and they administer homes. Ngada people are exceptionally skilled weavers and they have also mastered wood carving arts. We visited the villages of Gurusina, Bena and Luba by motorbike, passing through small trails that seep in the deep jungle.
The other great touristic attraction of Bajawa is Mount Inerie. It is located at a height of 2245 metres above sea level and it has a very distinctive pyramidal shape. To reach the summit, you need between two hours and a half and four hours, depending on your physical condition. The views, as may be expected, are breathtaking, even for the most experienced travellers.
Bajawa’s surroundings are full of waterfalls and hotsprings. The most attractive hotspring for us was Malanage. In this precise spot, the hot volcanic water stream mixes with the cold water descending from the mountain, creating a natural pool in which, if you move slightly, you can regulate the water temperature to suit your taste: boiling hot, very hot, hot, warm, cool, cold. After so much walking and touring, we jumped into the hotsprings for hours to replenish our energy. Bajawa, indeed, has plenty to do.
Indonesia is a continuous surprise and Ende is not the exception. As we may have expected, the trip from Bajawa to Ende was not less complicated than the previous one. Even though it is a small city with the smallest and most rustic airport I have ever seen, Ende has a very peculiar site: blue stones beaches.
Locally known as Penggajawa beach, it is located some 25 km from Ende’s downtown (on the road between Bajawa and Ende). Those who have not been there yet should hurry up, because stones are extracted from the beach by the locals who sell them in Bali or in Java as a decoration, or they even export them. Another peculiarity in this greatly diverse country.
MONI – KELIMUTU NATIONAL PARK
Before planning our trip around Indonesia with Damián, we made a thorough research about this beautiful country. Where do we want to go? Well, almost everywhere. What is reachable? Barely anything… But we spotted that some interesting sites were located in Flores Island, and that is why we flew there. One of the most attractive places in our list was Kelimutu National Park.
To get to Moni, the closest town to the National Park, we hired a private mini-van, since public buses did not longer run (it is advisable to look for buses early on in Ende). Loud music, as always, curves, uphill and downhill slopes, as usual, and a lot of patience on our part. The road was being renovated, so we had to wait for a couple of hours on the side of it. More patience…
Moni is a tiny agricultural town of the central mountains of Flores Island. To visit Kelimutu National Park at sunrise, you have to leave Moni early (around three in the morning). After a half an hour bike ride, you reach the base, from where you have to walk (in pitch dark) some 40 minutes until you reach the volcano’s summit. From there, weather permitting, you have an astonishing view of the surrounding mountains and of the craters of Kelimutu.
This volcano is very peculiar because, in the summit, there are three lakes. But it does not stop there: depending on the oxidation status and on the balance between gases and rainfall, the colour of the lakes changes. The three lakes change colours independently, since their connection with the centre of the volcano is independent. Thus, local inhabitants have given them different names: Tiwu Ata Bupu (Elders Lake), Tiwu Ko’o Fai Nuwa Muri (Youngsters and Ladies Lake) and Tiwu Ata Polo (Enchanted or Bewitched Lake). Gifted with a very diverse fauna (especially birds), this site is a must see for all nature and hiking lovers.
BANYUWANGI – MOUNT IJEN
If you want to read the full article of Mount Ijen, you can do so here.
To get to Banyuwangi, we had to arm ourselves with patience again: we flew from the tiny Ende airport to Denpasar (Bali) and from there we took a bus to Gilimanuk port (in the Northwestern tip of Bali) to cross into Banyuwangi. Once we arrived, Ben, a warmed-hearted Javanese with a moving hospitality, picked us up. We chatted for several hours and we rested for a bit as well to get ready to climb the volcano. At one in the morning, we left the homestay and at two we were starting the ascent.
Mount Ijen is an open pit sulphur mine. Miners start working every day at midnight until sunrise in miserable conditions (only some of them use bandannas to protect their mouth from the gases). They work during the night since the day heat would be unbearable and the working conditions would be even more dangerous since they would not be able to identify the gases pouring from the volcano.
The ascent is really demanding and, the closest you get to the summit, the most difficult it is to breath. Once we made it to the top, we had to start the descent into the crater (the toughest part of the trekking). The landscape in the summit is completely surreal: if we wanted to fake a Mars landing, this would be the perfect place. Smoke makes it hard to see and the path is made up of loose stones; however, miners load up between 80 and 100 kilos in their backs in exchange for an insulting sum of money.
Once we reached the bottom of the crater, we witnessed the unbelievable: the blue fire flaming amok. The colour is a result of the combination of the gases used to extract sulphur and it burns only until five in the morning.
Currently, tourists are not allowed in the crater. We can only reach the summit of the volcano to see miners work from there. The government has realised it is a very dangerous site and they have restricted the access. However, miners still get a miserable reward for the sulphur they extract, which is handed over to a Chinese company in the volcano’s base. This site clearly represents the omnipresent contradictions of Indonesia: the beauty of the blue fire and of the sulphur stones against the working conditions and the poverty of miners. Mount Ijen is, beyond the shadow of a doubt, the true hell.
PROBOLINGGO – BROMO NATIONAL PARK
Exhausted and with a dry and scratchy throat due to the exposure to the sulphur, we took a train from Banyuwangi to Probolinggo. We wanted to stay in Cemoro Lawang, in the foothills of Bromo National Park, but we did not succeed, because public transport is suspended at approximately three o’clock in the afternoon.
Very early, on the following day, we rented a motorbike and we drove to Cemoro Lawang. The town is very small and it is surrounded by tidy extensive crops over terraces dug on the side of the mountains. Actually, the clothes of the local inhabitants and the encircling mountain ranges could have been confused with those found in postcards from Kathmandu.
After taking some pictures from the viewpoints located around the volcano, we began the long walk through the dessert that separates it from the town (the locals call it “Sand sea“). The mount’s name comes from the Javanese pronunciation of Brahma, who, according to the Hindus, is the Creator God, and it has 2,329 meters high. In the volcano’s foothills, there is a massive Hindu temple and then the toughest part of the walk: the ladder to the top is ridiculously steep.
Oddly enough, the volcano is formed by thin volcanic sand and it is one of the most active volcanoes in Indonesia, with more than 50 eruptions in the last 250 years. Safety measures in the area are non-existing, so we have to move around carefully. However, the view from the volcano’s fumarole is astonishing and its constant roaring highlights nature’s power. With our legs full of sand and our eyes full of Bromo, we went back to our bike to go back to Probolinggo to round off our trip around Indonesia.
When you travel, sometimes, things may not run smoothly as expected. However, we have to be ready and face challenges with bravery. If you want to read about the worst bus trip of my life, you can do so in this link.
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