If you’ve been following this blog, my apologies for the lack of posts in April. The delay in posting has been due to my lack of extensive reading during the month. For one, I’ve taken on a very long read with Thomas Pynchon’s 760 page Gravity’s Rainbow, which has kept me occupied, but the larger distraction has been my recent two-week whirlwind trip through Singapore and Indonesia.
Singapore was only meant to be the starting point for the South East Asia trip since my wife and I met two friends who were on a longer trip through Malaysia and Brunei in addition to Indonesia. During the Singapore leg of the trip we kept busy and on the move as we dined on the cheap Singapore food and expensive Singapore drinks as we traveled around the city/country relying on the very brief Lonely Planet Pocket Singapore guidebook to help us navigate the metropolitan international city. The guide book was helpful in directing us to some of the top spots that we enjoyed such as the Night Safari, the tree-top walk (which we aborted due to heavy monsoon rains), and the very modern temple of Buddha’s tooth. However, the recommendation to see the historical Raffles Hotel was one of the many disappointments we faced since the guidebook didn’t prepare us for the astronomical prices of the cocktails ($26 Sing or or $22 USD for a Singapore Sling) with outright robbery prices for beer ($20 Sing or $17 USD for a pint of weak-ass Tiger Pilsner). We quickly figured out that the best place to grab a drink was the back alley of Chinatown where a 620 ml bottle of Tiger (i.e. Heineken) only cost $7 Sing ($5.80 USD). In my opinion, two days is enough to get a taste of Singapore. The 50 year old city/country is a blend of Vegas and Hong Kong: it lacks cultural depth and survives primarily as an economic crossroads between the East & West. In other words, there isn’t enough to quench a discerning traveler’s hungry palette for culture and nature.
From Singapore we traveled to Yogyakarta in Java to begin our Indonesian adventures. Since Indonesia is a sprawling country (it is the 4th most populous nation in the world and encompasses 17,508 islands) it was difficult to pick a good guidebook for our Java leg of the trip. There are guidebooks that cover all of Indonesia, but they are very broad and narrow in their coverage and there isn’t any one book focused on Java. One of our travel partners did use the Lonely Planet Indonesia guide to help plan the trip, but the 916 page behemoth was too thick to lug along on the extended backpacking trip.
We stayed in Yogyakarta with the primary goal of visiting the nearby Buddhist temples of Borobudor and Pramanan (which are both spectacular) but in addition to these toursit hot-spots we were serendipitously surprised by the joys of Yogyakarta revealed to us by the Dutch expat that ran the bed & breakfast we stayed at. We lovingly dubbed Frans, “Uncle Frans” because he treated us like long-lost family, taking us around the city and showing us how the people live, often walking us into their homes and workplaces, showing us the many hand-made crafts that are produced by the resourceful Javanese people. We were exposed to hand-made pottery, hand-made tiling, hand-made rice-crackers, and most amazingly, hand-made paper bags. Uncle Frans took us to rice fields and showed us how the rice is painstakingly planted by hand, harvested by hand, and sun-dried by hand. Uncle Frans took us to the best restaurants (that only cost $1-2 USD per person) and jokingly revealed the many absurdities of the Javanese life, such as the fact that everyone parks their motorbikes inside their homes and the police stop working at 4 pm. None of these pleasures and revelations would have been revealed to us if we had relied upon a guidebook and I am grateful we left the bulky 916 page Indonesia guide at home.
From Yogyakarta we traveled by train and a nail-biting, death-defying taxi ride to Mt. Bromo, an active Volcano in Eastern Java. The views of Bromo are spectacular and the main goal of this leg of the trip was to catch the spectacular sunrise and do a little hiking. We were able to climb up to the edge of the Bromo crater, which is actively steaming with noxious sulfur fumes. The volcano has erupted three times in the last ten years (most recently in 2011) and it is absolutely crazy to think that we slept within sight of the active volcano and actually hiked up to the edge of the steaming crater, but as we had learned from Uncle Frans, just about anything goes in Java, and “you do what your like” was the motto of the trip.
From Mt Bromo we spent a tortuous day of travel to Bali that included a van, a train, a confusing argument with ferry operators, a near miss bus ride, a tortuously long ferry ride across the Java-Bali straight, and a face-palm slapping “2 hr” bus ride along the western Bali coast that took 5 ++ hours. Since we had woken up at 3 am to catch the Mt. Bromo sunrise, our Java to Bali travel day turned into a 24 hr nightmare. For the Bali leg of the trip we relied on the Rough Guide to Bali & Lombok and the Lonely Planet Pocket Guide to Bali. Neither of these guides had prepared us for how difficult the travel would be along this leg of the trip and I would urge anyone to just head to the Surabaya airport after Mt. Bromo.
Once in Bali, we did enjoy ourselves, but we only saw about 1/4 the goals of our itinerary because getting around Bali was painfully long. The heavily touristed island lacks the infrastructure to support the many tour buses, taxis, and motorbikes that clog the two-lane roads. At one point it took us about 2 hours to travel 5 miles to head home after our dinner on the Jimbaran Beach. We spent most of our time relaxing on the beach and swimming in our private pools in the towns of Seminyak and Ubud. Seminyak is an upscale touristy beach town that did provide some nice luxuries and great food, but the upcountry town of Ubud was more intriguing because it represents the heart of Bali’s arts and cultural center. We did spend a very long day travelling to northern Bali to check out some remote waterfalls (our driver had to stop about seven times to ask for directions on the rough, single-lane gravel road) and this part of our Bali trip was my favorite because we got to see the off-beaten-path of the Bali that once was before its beach towns became overrun by tourism. The charms of Bali are its natural beauty and Hindu culture, and on this waterfall trek we were lucky enough to chance upon a funeral procession that combined both of those beauties in one as the entire village walked along the road to celebrate the passing and cremation of a fellow villager.
Overall, the trip was a blast despite the many travel headaches. The enjoyment was primarily due to the company of my two friends and my wife as well as the company of Uncle Frans and our Bali driver named, I. Wyan, who made the trip an enjoyable and laughable feast. As for the tour guide books we used, I wouldn’t recommend either the Lonely Planet Pocket Guides or the Rough Guide because they didn’t really prepare us for the trip and weren’t very helpful during our trip. We found that using trip adviser on the fly was was far more helpful than the books’ recommendations, and our Java and Bali friends Frans and Wyan helped us far more than the books ever did.