Friday, 29 October 2010

Java: Prambanan

Wednesday 27 October: Prambanan is a large 9th century Hindu temple complex now a World Heritage Site and since the 2006 earthquake has been mostly covered in bamboo scaffolding or fenced off.
Thursday 28: Television coverage is dominated by news of the Mt Merapi (Fire Mountain) eruption. Five villages have been destroyed, many animals and 29 people are dead from breathing hot winds and ash from the volcano. The air temperature at the cone is 600°C and plumes of volcanic ash are settling up to 100 miles away to the west. I'm still based in Yogyakarta, about 20-miles to the south - Borobudur, where I was on Tuesday, is now coated in thick layer of grey ash and is closed to visitors.
Photos of Prambanan temple.
Friday 29: The Mentawai tsunami, with a death toll estimated at 400, and the Mt Merapi eruption remain very much in the news, Son of Krakatoa has also sparked off. Merapi erupted three times today - lava and hot gas pyroclastic flows are pouring down the upper slopes, ash billowing upwards - hospitalised cases have burns and breathing problems - the death toll is now 36.
It's time to leave, the
Bima sleeper train departs Yogyakarta for Surabaya tonight at 12:47am.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Java: Borobudur

Tuesday 26 October: Borobudur is a glorious Buddhist temple, with seven levels of carved stonework, built around 800 AD. The site is ringed by volcanic peaks and the temple lies in the shadow of Mt Merapi, one of the world's most active volcanoes. Now a World Heritage Site, for many centuries Borobudur lay overgrown and buried under layers of volcanic ash before Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, governor of Java, cleared the site in 1815.
Lunch at the Lotus Guesthouse is a delicious bowl of Soto Resah, chicken and shredded vegetables in a rich yellow coconut-milk soup. The chef has won awards for this dish and it is now, deservedly, the restaurant's most popular meal.
Nearby, the small but delightful Mendut temple has a living Buddhist community and a wonderful 15-foot high stone Buddha, unusually, sitting in the upright position, western style.

In the evening, an alert from the Foreign Office tells me:

Mt Merapi in Yogyakarta, t
he most active volcano in Indonesia, started to erupt on 26 October. The mountain is now closed to climbers and people living within a six-mile radius have been evacuated. There have been a number of fatalities.

I wanted to climb Mt Merapi (at 9,813ft when last measured, it's twice the height Ben Nevis) from the south, Kaliurang side, but now the whole area is an off-limits disaster zone.
Photos of Borobudur temple.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Java: Yogyakarta

Sunday 24 October: Arriving at Yogyakarta's (pronounced Jog-Jakarta) fine art-deco station at 5:00am, I'm surprised to be served an early breakfast on arrival at Tiffa Losmen (guesthouse) - my home for the next few days. Settled in, I grab a map from the tourist office and head for the old Dutch barracks, Veredeburg Fort, now a museum of local Indonesian struggle for independence.
Monday 25: Now I have a full-day sightseeing. First is the kranton or Sultan's Palace completed in 1790 and still in use, then the secret Water Castle or Taman Sari meaning 'fragrant gardens' where sultans were once entertained, in their towered bedchamber, by females bathing in the pools below. The bird market nearby is the nearest I'm likely to get to caged females.
A British Foreign Office e-mail alert tells me:

On 25 October, a powerful 7.5 earthquake hit the Mentawai islands off the coast of Sumatra resulting in a tsunami which killed over 100 people.

My first choice route from Sumatra to Jakarta was via Padang and I had planned to spend a few days relaxing on the Mentawai islands while waiting for the ferry but Pelni had taken the ship out of service. This disaster is big news here taking up much television time.
Photos of Yogyakarta.

Monday, 25 October 2010

Java: Jakarta

Thursday 21 October: The Kelud docks at Tanjung Priok, Jakarta's port, eight-hours late - I'm now in the southern hemisphere, south of the equator. I've missed my onward train south, away from Indonesia's sprawling capital. At Tanjung Priok and in Jalan Jaska tourist strip, despite carrying a rucksack, I'm importuned constantly, and my hotel of choice is full. It's late and dark, so I stay in a nearby flop-house but save my evening with several cold beers in this lively hotel-bar back street.
Friday 22: It's the start of the weekend and fast trains inland are all full, so I reserve a seat on Saturday's night sleeper south from Gambir station. Central Jakarta is dominated by Monas column, started by outgoing president Suharto and completed in the mid-1970s, it's
known locally as Suharto's last erection. Clad in imported Italian marble and topped with gold leaf it's a 430-foot high public extravagance that towers over Jakarta's shorter, privately-funded skyscrapers.
While moving to the pleasant Hotel Tator for the night the skies open and
Jalan Jaska becomes a river - remarkably it's bone dry the next morning.
Saturday 23: The National Museum has more human sculls than you can wave a femur at. In the pretty colonial courtyard a Sumatran king's colossal statue tramples enemy sculls - the sculls of ancestors make unusual household ornaments, hello grandad what beady eyes you have! - a tiny 'Flores hobbit' scull and the scull and femur of Java man look very much like reproductions.
I can't leave Jakarta without taking the lift (75th mode of transport) to the top of Monas column with views over the large Catholic cathedral, the massive mosque that dwarfs it, and Cambir station where, at 8:45pm, I take the
Taksaka first-class sleeper train to Yogyakarta.
Photos of Jakarta.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

The voyage to Jakarta

Tuesday 19 October: Pelni, Indonesia national ferry operator's, ships depart from Belawan port, 17 miles north of Medan. This is where I board the KM Kelud bound for Jakarta (74th mode of transport) and take tea in my cosy first-class four-berth cabin. At midday a lunch of roast chicken, battered fish, spicy vegetables and mango is served, plus hot water but, sadly, no alcohol. At 1.00pm, pilots in place, we cast-off.
The Kelud is a fairly new (1989) German-built, 14,655 ton, 480 foot, vessel with capacity for 1,900 passengers, of which I am one. Decks 2 to 4 have economy-class dorms (1,398) plus a cinema, deck 5 is second-class cabins (364 passengers) and deck 6 is first-class (124 passengers). Deck 7 is the sundeck plus the mosque - the largest cabin on-board. The class distinctions on Pelni ships are thus: 1st class 'A': two-berth outside cabin with window, hot-water, en-suite bathroom and shower, TV and a complimentary hot-water thermos flask, 1st-class 'B' (which I'm in) is as 1st-class 'A' but it's a larger four-berth inside cabin with no window. 2nd-class 'A' and 'B': six-berth outside with port-hole and eight-berth inside cabin respectively, both with shared bathroom in the corridor.
Joy of joys - I have the cabin all to myself - in fact there only 24 first-class passengers aboard - great.

Wednesday 30: We dock at the Batam islands, just off a misty Singapore and cargoes are off and on-loaded by various means - walking, steel box-container, cargo-net, strap-and-pallet and humped by an army of dockers, the old-fashioned way - it looks like an IKEA forecourt on a sunny Saturday afternoon, but it's imports from Malaysia. I just love the hand-signals to coordinator uses to the crane operator: index-finger waving skyward - up, thumb pointing to the deck - down, fingers and thumb opening and closing, imitating a woman nattering - fast, imitating a man talking - slow, clenched-fist - stop.
Joy of more joys - I still have the cabin to myself - there are now only 14 first-class and 12 second-class passengers at dinner. The Indonesian passengers mostly stay in their cabins watching TV - the sun is shining, the sea is calm and I have a whole cruise-ship to myself - wonderful.
Photos of the voyage to Jakarta.

Monday, 18 October 2010

Sumatra: Lake Toba

Thursday 14 October: Ringed by high volcanic mountains Lake Toba, the largest lake in southeast Asia, remained inaccessible until late into the 19th century. So, unlike the coastal areas, avoided conversion to Islam from the sea-going Arab traders. But missionaries from the expansionist Christian religions found it - the early ones met their end in a cooking pot or on a spit-roast - at least they were of some use. I'm staying at Liberta Homestay in Tuk-tuk and have a split-level three-bed Batak-style house all to myself, it's nice.
Tuk-tuk is a small peninsula town, almost an island itself, on the eastern shore of Samosir Island and I spend the whole day strolling the three-mile coast road circuit around town. I just love the traditional Batak houses with their little short doors and splendidly elegant tin-roofs, all corrugated iron rather than the original palm-thatch.
Unlike the coastal Muslim folk, the Bataks like a drink so there's beer-a-plenty, 'arak' distilled from palm sap, 'jungle juice' palm wine and also 'magic' psilocybin mushrooms, which are legal here, sold fresh, frozen, dried or simply scattered across your pizza. I stick to Bintang beer, served cold and slightly sweet.
Friday 15: Hiring a mountain bike from the craft shop I set off to see the 300-year old stone chairs at Ambarita were the Batik community once held court before punishing the guilty by inserting garlic and chili into their sliced-flesh prior to decapitation and perhaps the pot - shame to waste all those cloves and peppers. Behind the chairs, Protestant Batak-house style tombs shelter the dead.
It's a hilly ride south to Tomok's pretty church and King Sidabutar's stone tomb, the Batak ruler who first adopted Christianity, duped by a successful seasons harvest.
Batak's love guitar music and a dinner of lemon-steamed carp from the lake covered in a tasty peanut sauce is served at Jenny's restaurant (somewhat bizarrely) accompanied by Ralph McTell's greatest hits, a beer and a conversation with Jenny - a good day.

Saturday 16: To see a bit more of Samosir Island I hire a motor-scooter (73rd mode of transport), it's automatic with no insurance. I take all day to drive slowly round the northern tip of the island and back by rough boulder tracks over the hilly inland plateau. Full-size Batak houses, little multi-level tomb-houses and small lakes litter the landscape - lakes on an island in the middle of a lake on an island in the Indian Ocean. Coming down off the escarpment there are great views over Lake Toba and back home towards the Tuk-tuk peninsula.
Photos of Tuk-tuk and Samosir Island.
Sunday 17: Boat back to Parapat and minibus to Medan (5 hours), for a two-night stay, to reserve first-class passage on the weekly, Tuesday morning, Pelni ferry to Jakarta and Java.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Sumatra: Berastagi

With a lively main-street and fruit market, Berastgi is a convenient base for climbing Mt Sibayak, Sumatra's most accessible volcano, and Mt Sinabung, Indonesia's most recently active one. I'm staying at the helpful Wisma Sibayak Guesthouse which offers free local maps and friendly money-saving travel advise.
Monday 11 October: A blue 'Kama' minibus drops me off at the ticket office from where it's a three-hour hike to Mt Sibayak's 6,873ft summit (one-and-a-half times higher than Ben Nevis). Foreigners climbing alone have got lost and perished but I decline a guide. It's mostly a steep winding track, then up steps to a path past powdery-yellow fumaroles hissing-out hot sulphurous steam. The small water-filled crater is unexciting but the views to Mt Sinabung make the climb worthwhile. I bump into, Juha Jarva, a Finnish traveller who has taken the Trans-Siberian Express route to Vladivostok then through China and down through Vietnam by Russian-made motorbike, which he as since sold and bought a local one in Sumatra to ride through Indonesia. We take the more tricky steep-slippery route down, both happy not to be climbing alone, and soak away the pain in the hot sulphur springs at Semangut Gunung village a short bus ride from home.
Tuesday 12: Both Juhn and I have been strongly advised not to attempt the ascent of Mt Sinabung (8,041ft) without a guide - it erupted on 29th August and on 3rd September, and again on 7th (the most violent) - it had been dormant for 410 years. But it's a perfect morning for walking and we arrive at the trailhead at Lake Kawar at 8:30am. A light noodle breakfast and off we go, only to be stopped by a heavily-armed police unit who are investigating terrorist activity in the area - they strongly recommend a guide. We decline (I tell them we are not going to the top - just half-way up - they let us through) and we head past vegetable fields and onto the steep jungle trail. On-and-on the muddy path goes through hanging greenery, over knotted roots and fallen trees, always up.
After a couple of hours, past a Dutch climber's grave, it's up a slippery, near vertical, rocky gorge - a steep valley - another boulder-strewn gorge - then the vegetation clears to a flat rocky ledge overlooking the jagged-steamy crater, it's a new crater - just five-weeks old. We've made it - this is not an angry volcano, just a grumpy one. Silent wisps of steam suddenly change to noisy hissing belches. Whiffy clouds of sulphurous fumes engulf us then disperse, just as quickly as they appeared, to an eerie silence. My feet ache (I've been wearing sandals for six months) but I keep my boots on, just in case.
It's 2:00pm, the mountain is in cloud and the terrorist police are not happy - they have seen us on the summit. After a few anxious moments they smile and then give us a lift to the main road in the back of their serious-looking police wagon (72nd mode of transport). I'm sitting opposite a young officer in jeans and tee-shirt who is totting a menacing-looking assault rifle - I don't think this would happen at home.
Photos of the ascent of both volcanoes from Berastagi.
Wednesday 13: Minibus to Kabanjahe, 'Sepadan' bus to Pematang Siantar (3 hours), minibus to Parapat (2 hours), MK Carolina across Lake Toba (40min) to Tuk-tuk on Samosir island.

Sumatra: Bukit Lawang

Friday 8 October: Bukit Lawang is a cheery riverside village in the Sumatran highlands where the happy, smiling faces of both adults and children beam a welcoming "Hello Mr" as you walk past ("Mr" is a term of respect). Following the river path north the last guesthouse is Jungle Inn where I'm in an en-suite room with a rustic four-poster and balcony - at 50 Rupiahs (£3.50) a night it's a bargain.
Just strolling along the river and across the swinging footbridges
is fantastic - locals and visitors alike have fun shooting down the river in inner-tubes rigged with knotted-rope seats. Walking along the canal is an even more fascinating insight into village life - teeth, clothes, bums and whole bodies are brushed and scrubbed in the clear fast-flowing water. The main reason people stay at Bukit Lawang is to visit Mt Leusar National Park, but the village itself is a joyful place with a happy simplicity missing from western lifestyles.
Saturday 9: The National Park is all about primates - long and pig-tailed Macaques, Baboons and, more importantly, the big shaggy-orange apes we'd all love to hug, Orangutans - the planet's largest tree-living mammal.
Across the river by dug-out canoe (71st mode of transport) is the park entrance and a short hike uphill is the feeding platform from where a bland but nutritious diet of bananas and milk is fed to semi-wild Orangutans twice-daily. These are mostly rescued or hand-reared animals finding the transition back to life in the jungle difficult. A richer more varied fruit and fibre diet can be found under the forest canopy.
First a male appears high in the trees but keeps his distance, then a female with a youngster. She leisurely swipes aside bothersome Macaques who try to steal her bananas.The male watches on as the two feed before swinging down onto the platform to grab a few bananas for himself. This is a magical experience and I feel very privileged to see these wonderful animals in their natural habitat. All too soon they quickly disappear back into the forest.
Photos in and around Bukit Lawang.

Sunday 10: Minibus to Medan's Padang Barsi terminal (3 hours) and quick change for local bus to Berastagi (3 hours).

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Sumatra: Pulau Weh

Monday 4 October: Indonesia's most northwestern island, off the most northwestern tip of Sumatra. This is where I planned to start my journey down the vast Indonesian archipelago, and finally I'm here.
Tuesday 5: Raining all day. Hitting Indonesia after Ramadan, I'm travelling southeast in a weather window, hopefully in front of the sweeping monsoon (I had planned to be here a fortnight ago).
Wednesday 6: Pulau Weh's best scenery is not the landscapes or seascapes but the undersea views and I spend the whole day snorkeling in the gin-clear waters. In the morning, close to shore and in the afternoon I swim over to the reefs at Pulau Rubiath, the island opposite. The shoals of multicoloured fish and corals are specular. Unfortunately my camera doesn't work under water but my video camera does, after a fashion, when it's taped to my mask - the colours are no match for those in reality.
In the evening a huge lizard, about a foot long, appears on my hut wall
, crunching mouthfuls of insects - I like lizards.
Thursday 7: It's an early start to catch the 8:00am slow boat KMP BRR Aceh back to Banda Aceh to begin the long-haul southeast. While Pulau Weh escaped the worst of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, Banda Aceh did not - 170,000 people in this province lost heir lives. Poignant evidence of this is the 2,500 ton fishing boat carried by a colossal wave more than two miles inland and wedged in the first-floor of a house - remarkably this saved the lives of the 59 aboard. Most of the town's infrastructure is now repaired - new ferry port, roads, homes, mosques - but hearts and minds take longer.
Photos of Pulau Weh and undersea videos of Iboith Bay (to follow when I find a fast internet connection).
Overnight bus (15 hours, it broke down) to Medan's Padang Baris terminal, 11:00am local bus (3 hours) to Bukit Lawang.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Indonesia: North Sumatra overland

Indonesia is the only country in the world privileged to be named by a Scotsman, James Logan. In 1850, Logan from Berwickshire, editor of the Penang Gazette, shortened 'Indian Archipelago' to Indonesia and the name stuck - what a great claim to fame.
Thursday 30 September: The 10:00am Indomal Express
(three hours) arrives at the port of Dumai in east Sumatra and I'm nodded through immigration in minutes. Motorbike taxi to the bus station, 3:00pm local stopping bus to Pekanbaru (6 hours), and taxi for an overnight stop at Poppie's Homestay in this dull, oil-rich administrative centre.
The most important form of transport in the east Sumatra is not the train, nor the boat, not even the bus or motorbike - it's the pipeline and oil pipelines criss-cross the landscape, more numerous than the bumpy pot-holed roads. This is not a good introduction to Indonesia but I'm heading north and I know that overland travel here is tough. Sumatra's a big island, the world's sixth largest.
Friday 1 October: A two-hour wait at Pekanbaru's new bus station to catch the 7:30pm overnight bus to Medan's southern bus station at Amplas (13 hours). It promises much - reclining seats,
toilet, air-con, karaoke. I read this as cold and noisy so pack a fleece pullover, but actually it's pleasantly cool with a subdued music video, blanket and pillow - it's comfortable and I sleep well.
Saturday 2: Motorbike sidecar (70th mode of transport) to stop overnight at Angel Guesthouse in central Medan and see the old colonial Tjong A Fie Mansion and the Deli sultan's Maimoon Palace.
Sunday 3: Rested and ready to go again it's a 6:00pm motorbike sidecar ride to the northern Pinang Baris bus station and the, much less comfortable, 7:00pm overnight bus to Banda Aceh (12 hours).
Monday 4: Motorbike sidecar west to Banda's harbour at Uleh-leh for the 9:30am fast Pulo Rondo (one hour) to Pulau Weh's ferry-port, then minibus to the island's main town of Sabang, and motorbike taxi 15 miles to the little sandy-rocky beach strip at Iboih (pronounced ee-boah). Phew.
Photos: Medan to Pulau Weh.

Sunday, 3 October 2010


Sunday 26 September: Train to Tampin, bus to Melaka and local town bus to the old colonial square and Eastern Heritage Guesthouse's spacious attic dorm, which I have to myself. First stop is the Indomal Express ferry office to secure a return ticked to Dumai in Sumatra. That done, there is just time get passport photos taken (with a red background - I have a stack with a white background in my bag) and explore the port a little before dusk falls.
Monday 27: Bus back to KL.
Tuesday 28: I arrive back at Melaka's out-of-town bus terminal late, at 6:00pm, but can't resist the superstore opposite. Surprisingly, Tescos makes me feel a little homesick so I go on a spending spree - new sandals, salt (most Asian restaurants don't have it), Australian Cheddar cheese, compact SD memory card reader, travel toothbrush, plastic file-wallets (mine have long since split) and a few beers - yes, now I feel better.
Wednesday 29: Having recced the old port on Sunday, today I stroll around the town in roughly historic order. Melaka was captured from the ruling sultan by the Portuguese who built a fort in 1512. Of the original, only Porta de Santiago gateway remains. The Dutch enlarged the fort and added an inscription in 1670. In 1807 the British blew-it up. The Portuguese also built a chapel, Our Lady on the Hill, from where St Francis Xavier's corpse was dug-up and moved to
the Basilica of Bom Jesus in Goa, India (see my Old Goa entry). The Dutch arrived and renamed it St Paul's. When the British arrived in 1795 it was used as a warehouse - well, they needed somewhere to store all those gunpowder kegs.
The Dutch also built Christ Church and the town square. The British topped the bell-tower with a weather-cock and consecrated it as Anglican. Today, the centrepiece of the square is a fountain built by the people of Melaka in 1904 to commemorate the reign of Queen Victoria.
Over the river in Chinatown there are pretty streets, decorated shop-houses, ornate temples - some burning incense sticks as big as your leg, and a mosque with a pagoda-style minaret. The riverside is pretty too and I finally see a Water Monitor slow enough for my camera - it's a small one, about 5-foot long. I'm told they're carnivorous but harmless to humans. Even so,
I'm convinced that, if angered, even this one's jaws could take your leg off.
More of a exhibition of finely-crafted boats, the Maritime Museum is housed in a replica Portuguese galleon.
Behind the museum the Indomal Express-2 passenger ferry is moored - I'll board her tomorrow morning to cross the Strait of Melaka, Indonesia bound.
Photos of Melaka.

Friday, 1 October 2010

Kuala Lumpur

Wednesday 22 September: Outside Kuala Lumpur's modern Sentral Station (local spelling) is KL's Monorail (68th mode of transport) which takes me to Bukit Bintang and the nearby guesthouse strip of Tengkat Tong Shin. I'm staying at Trekker's Lodge a little to the north of this.
Settled in, I immediately e-mail the ferry operators in Melaka and ask them to send me a copy of a return ticket to Dumai in Sumatra so that I can present this to the Indonesian Embassy's visa section with my application . . . and wait. If they send it quick, maybe I could have my visa before the weekend? A tandoori set meal and a cold Tiger beer finish off the day.
Thursday 22: In the afternoon, to get an overview, I take the KL hop-on, hop-off open-top double-decker bus (69th mode) around the city. First hop-off is lowly Chinatown with skyscrapers and the monorail towering above, then the Grand Palace with it's spit-and-polished guards, British fashion.
Friday 23: I continue hopping on and off the bus - KL Tower is impressive and is actually physically higher than KL Twin Towers, but only because it's built on a hill. KL Twin Towers is more majestic and impressive backed by ornate gardens with an asphalt running track used by joggers of all shapes and sizes, very civilised.
Saturday 24: Picking up a useful city map from Malaysia Tourist Centre I'm off in search the old colonial district and little India, both of which I have seen from the bus in the rain. The British designed, Moorish style white-domed, old railway station is fantastic.
Fluttering from Merdeka Square's 310ft British flag-pole is the Malaysian 'Stripes of Glory' flag. Skyscrapers old and new overlook the grassy square, St Mary's Church and the Selangor Club.
It's on to Little India's Masjid Mosque and a thali lunch in one of the strict vegetarian Hindu restaurants nearby.
Sunday 25: No e-ferry ticket has materialised so this means a return trip to Melaka to buy one, three hours by train and bus then back on Monday morning, well that's the plan.
Monday 26: My early bus back from Melaka arrives at 10:30am so I take the light railway from Bukit Jalil bus station straight to the Indonesian embassy, undated return ferry ticket in hand. Photocopying is free at the embassy, this helps. I hand over my passport, ticket and passport photocopy, passport-sized photographs and 170 Ringgits (
£35) in payment.
Tuesday 27: Yes, I have a 60-day Indonesian visa! Plus, I still have an extra photocopy of my undated ferry ticket up my sleeve - I can use this again if I need to do a visa run - great.
Photos of Kala Lumpar.
Bus, from Bukit Jalil, back south again to Melaka.