I am pleased to report that I am back in pampered hotel land, from Indonesia. My hotel in Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, only has a five kitchen café this time, but it still does a buffet. And I can see the Petronas Towers, dominating the skyline, as always, from my window. Though I’m not sure how sensitive it is of the Malaysians to refer to them as 'the tallest twin towers still in existence'.
KL has definitely changed since I was here last - ten years ago. (read about KL and Borneo here) many more skyscrapers and when I venture out I might mistake this for the UK, or possibly the USA. The busy mall opposite is very up market - Chopard, Tod’s - although there are also McDonalds and M & S. It’s five minutes’ walk, but the hotel runs a buggy service there. In Malaysia, the people don’t like walking and they love shopping. The guide tells me they select hotels based on their proximity to the malls. He also tells me they are thinking about building drive-in mosques, where you don’t even have to get out of your car. I’m not sure if that was a joke or not.
Malaysia is a federal connotational monarchy, divided into two regions: Peninsular Malaysia and Borneo's East Malaysia. These are subdivided into thirteen states and three federal territories.
Malaysia was ruled by various Malay kingdoms, until it became subject to the British Empire, from the eighteenth century on, Malaya was restructured as the Federation of Malaya in 1948 and achieved independence on 31 August 1957. The independent Malaya united with the then British crown colonies of North Borneo, Sarawak, and Singapore, on 16 September 1963, to become Malaysia. In August 1965, Singapore was expelled from the federation and became a separate independent country. The ruling political coalition, Barisan Nasional, has been in power for more than 50 years.
This is a very diverse population. About half the population is ethnically Malay, with minorities of Chinese, Indians, and indigenous peoples. The country's official language is Malaysian Malay, whilst many people also speak English.
It is still de rigueur, however, to shorten city names in Malaysia. Kuala Lumpur is KL and Joha Baru JB and so on. I’m off to Malacca today, which they can’t shorten, but they do spell it Melaka. I think it will be a gentle jaunt through some rural scenes and I can take photos. The road is a three-lane highway, indistinguishable from the M1 most of the way (except for the palm trees and the lack of road works). After two hours, the driver says he will take me the last stretch in to town by the country route, which turns out to be a two-lane highway. The weather pattern is currently sunshine in the morning and rain in mid-afternoon I’m informed. What countryside there is, is swathed in haze. This is blamed on the Indonesian forest fires.
Malacca has a very interesting history. It was first a fishing village and then the location of one of the earliest Malay sultanates. The area was inhabited by Malays and Indians, amongst others and utilised by first the Siamese and then the Chinese, as a trading base. It prospered, in control of major trade routes, especially with Arabia, India and China.
This all changed, when when the Portuguese conquered Malacca in 1511. Rather than achieving dominion over the network the Portuguese, had instead managed to disrupt it significantly. Malacca changed hands to the Dutch (far more concerned with the east Indies) and then, to the British in 1824, (first by the British East India Company and then as a crown colony). After the dissolution of this crown colony, Malacca (along with Penang) became part of the Malayan Union on 1 April 1946. There are still the remains of the old Portuguese fort to see.
The head of state is called the Yang di-Pertua Negeri or Governor, rather than a Sultan. (Great name.) Malacca City is lovely. More how I had expected China to be. Maybe they are just better at renovating here. The capital of Malacca State is divided by Jonker Street. Chinatown is also replete with quaint antique shops, merchants’ houses, old craft workshops and a night market.
Then, there are the colourful religious buildings. coexisting peacefully. The seventeenth-century Chinese Cheng Hoon Teng temple has ornate decorations and multiple prayer halls. And the green, three-tiered roof on the eighteenth-century, Kampung Kling Mosque. Not to mention the beautifully decorated trishaws. Tricycle rickshaws are stationed on all the street corners. The more competitive drivers have smothered theirs with artificial flowers. One even has spinning windmills and an inbuilt music system. Singapore in miniature, but probably with more character. Back in my room, I’m passing on dinner tonight. I’m still full of buffet from yesterday.
It’s all very easy here, too. Everything in Malaysia is written in English - most things are very English. It's Asia for beginners. There’s a national day looming soon – August 31st and the flags are coming out. Why don’t we have one? The flag of Malaysia looks to be an Islamic version of the stars and stripes.
I am driven into the Cameron Highlands. It’s a very posh little SUV, but even this has hardly any leg room. Everything is made for tiny people - Lilliputian. More motorways, complete with English style service areas including Dunkin Donuts and KFC. Though a bit of Asian bazaar does creep in, with some tourist tat and some very glittery versions of Claire's Accessories. The last part of the route today is indeed rural and winds continually and nauseatingly for over an hour up into the clouds.
The Cameron Highlands are Malaysia's first real tourist area. The table land is 800-1600 metres above sea level, Named after geologist and explorer, William Cameron the plateau is noted for tea plantations. It's also (relatively) cool and pretty with waterfalls, rivers and lakes.
Tea plantations, so velvety green they are begging to be stroked. And little towns straggling the backs of ridges with timbered architecture that could almost be Scottish, except that the effect is more Super 8 Motel. It’s parky enough to be Scotland, a bit of a shock to the system.
I wander into the nearest town. Strawberry farms are the order of the day: Healthy Strawberries, Biggest Red Strawberries, all sorts of strawberry confections, as well as the golf course and the Ramadan Market. It's Ramadan at the moment, and folk flock round the stalls to buy food treats, after dusk. The newspapers have reported at least one death already from eating like this. The other hot news is that Golden Churn butter has been deemed to be non Halal and Muslims are ordered not to eat it. It contains pig’s DNA.
The hotel is ‘the epitome of colonial England’, all wood panelling, afternoon tea and log fires. There's a delightful dining room, the windows festooned with strings of white lights. It’s a shame my bedroom hasn’t got a log fire too. Though it has got a huge four poster bed, so it’s quite cosy.
The staff here all call me Miss Susan. Very deferential - I think. It’s the first time this trip I’ve actually stopped and done nothing, or very little anyway. I read in bed for a while and then I spend the rest of the morning in the spa. As tea and strawberries are the local specialties they feature heavily. I am supposed to have a relaxing tea bath. (Another first.) It looks great, with rose petals and chrysanthemums floating on the water. There is a tray resting over the bath that contains sugar scrub for my body, tea scrub for my face, lime slices for my elbows and knees and a tea bag for my eyes). There are even headphones to wear, if you like repetitive plastic music. Then I have a brilliant body scrub and a very long massage. Well, after that I am really good for nothing.
However, I crawl out to do the Jim Thompson Mystery Walk, later on in the afternoon. I should have learned by now that in Asia the word walk is synonymous with sliding down narrow, muddy rainforest tracks, whilst simultaneously trying to avoid being garrotted by tree roots growing across the path. There is only me and a guide, exploring the Mossy Forest. (It's deemed to be the oldest forest in Malaysia -around 200 million years.) To add to the enjoyment, it starts to rain and he issues us with plastic ponchos. So there we are like two pixies tottering around. The terrain necessitates him holding my hand quite a lot.
The secondary forest here is being eroded, as the wood is deemed useless and all the rare orchids superfluous. The land is being developed for palm oil or apartments. A giant oak tree has fallen across our path and the guide suggests a long detour. I demur as I don’t want to prolong the excitement (especially the hand holding) and we hack our way through. Then I collect a leech, which is another first. The little bugger takes more than a sample test tube’s worth. The blood’s still trickling down my leg.
The guide also tells me a very long and complicated story about Jim Thompson. I have only previously associated him with restaurants that sell Thai food and his house/museum near Bangkok. An ex-architect, a retired army officer, hotelier, a one-time spy, a silk merchant and a renowned collector of antiques, Time magazine claimed he "almost singlehanded(ly) saved Thailand's vital silk industry from extinction". However, it seems he disappeared from the bungalow up the road here one afternoon in 1967 and never came back. The story involved communists, hordes of local witnesses, assassinations and the CIA and was far more involved than the one I have just perused on Wikipedia. Quite exciting though.
Yesterdays’ exertions and massage certainly had an effect. I slept for over eleven hours last night. When I finally emerge from breakfast I get a taxi to take me up the mountain, through the tea plantations. The driver is a happy little soul. Ignoring the extra £12 he has extorted from me for going up the mountain, he complains all the way about the state of the road (it isn’t great, but might have qualified as an A road in Indonesia).
Then, he goes on to say that it is a waste of money going up the mountain anyway as it is always cloudy. (It is a bit cloudy, but I do get a view). Next, he starts on the tea pickers’ rickety wooden houses, saying how dirty and horrible they are. He says he used to be a tea picker and it was awful work. (It’s mostly mechanised round here now). I wonder if he makes much money taxi driving, as he obviously didn’t want this commission, even though he is being paid by the hour.
“You go back to hotel now? Good.”
Nevertheless, the plantations are stunning. (Far more picturesque than any I have seen in India, Sri Lanka or China). I visit the famous BOH plantation for a quick look at the ancient sorting machinery, much to my driver's disgust.
It is raining again this afternoon, so I have no choice. I have to head back to the spa.
I pulled this morning. A retired Aussie cattle rancher, who has had some kind of stroke, asked me to go out for the day with him. His wife is ill in bed and wasn’t consulted. But I have to leave for Penang. This state, part on an island, part on the Malay peninsula, was founded by Captain Francis Light, together, with its capital city of George Town, in 1786. ( His son, William founded Adelaide in Australia). It's an uneventful drive to the island, over (what was) the longest bridge in Asia (13.5 km). Driving reminds me that I forgot to mention the incursion of Tesco. The stores are everywhere - all sizes. The locals seem very proud of them.
I was really looking forward to this hotel in Georgetown and it has lived up to its promise. It’s even more colonial than the last one, marble, palm trees and white shutters. A four page cocktail list. I decide it looks like a smaller version of Raffles in Singapore. Then I find out that it was built by the same people - the Sarkies brothers - so not really surprising. The E and O Hotel boasts it has an Otis lift, which is one of the oldest operating in Asia. I am not as impressed by this information as the hotel intended. I have been stuck in lifts before.
My room is palatial. I have a sitting room with orchids, a bedroom and a huge bathroom with two sinks. There’s even a duck to float in my bath and brass switches, one of which is the call button for the butler. I’m terrified I’ll press it by mistake. The window looks out over the sea and the swimming pool. It’s good to be back in the balmy heat of the lowlands, but it is pretty humid. I open my window and within 30 seconds all the mirrors have steamed up. (Not, I regretfully hasten to say, because there is any action going on). The service is assiduous, if not obsequious. Though I still grapple with some hotel customs. Here are my questions:
Breakfast is absolutely sumptuous, on the veranda, with the boats sailing by. You’re probably sick of me going on about food by now. This dining room has juice made to order from every fruit imaginable. I eat some sushi – and I’m still contemplating the chicken curry and the also made to order Asian soups and stir fries. Maybe tomorrow.
Then I ‘do’ Georgetown. Light named Georgetown after George III and developed it, as an entrepot, a port for importing and then exporting more or less the same goods. It developed rapidly, but eventually gave way to Singapore, in terms of importance. First impressions are that it is less colourful than Malacca, but I soon realise that’s it’s actually more authentic. It's a really excellent and rewarding place to explore.
Like Singapore, there are Little India and Chinatown. It isn’t too obviously touristy, with all the locals going about their business. Little India, for example, is full of saree shops, curry stalls and Hindu temple offerings for sale. I wander down Harmony Street, where there are temples, mosques and churches of all persuasions, coexisting happily together. Then, past all the British colonial buildings and the fort.
Far too many Chinese Temples for me to admire today, beckon. They demonstrate clearly the domination of the Chinese people here. The Goddess of Mercy Temple in Pitt Street, Penang's oldest Tao (and Buddhist) temple (1728), the Hock Teik Cheng Sin Tao Temple, in Armenia Street and the Han Jiang Ancestral Tao Temple, to name just three. One has a sign ‘It is forbidden to roll the granite ball in the lion’s mouth’. I hadn’t even thought about doing that, until I saw the notice. The Khoo Kongsi, with its magnificent gilt decoration, is is the grandest clan temple in the country. It is also. I understand one of the city's major historic attractions My route home takes me past the Christian cemetery. The Chinese name for it is ‘place for people with red hair’
It also seems that there are even more celebrations going on or imminent. The newspapers and shops are full of them. Not only is it National Independence Day this month (Merdeka), it is Malaysia Day next month, when Sabah and Sarawak joined the union. (Singapore did too, but we won’t mention that.) It’s Ramadan the whole of this month and Eidhilfutr (spelled every way you can think of in the papers) or Hari Raya the whole of next month of course. And for the Chinese it’s the Festival of the Hungry Ghosts for a month. They have to leave out a lot of food to feed all the family ancestors, so there are banquets and food of all kinds in the temples.
Back at base I lounge by the swimming pool. A little man asks me if I want a foot massage and it seems churlish to refuse.
I have resolved to lodge a stiff complaint with the hotel management. My duck will only float on its side. Now I shall have to seek some other amusement.
Management turn out to be otherwise engaged today. They are filming the final of Asian MasterChef here and there are cameras and film crew (who all look about 16) everywhere. They are posing little groups of Asian beauties on all the staircases. The bar is full of slightly older Chinese men talking about Nigella Lawson as if they know her intimately. I haven’t seen her yet. We have to take a very circuitous route to breakfast. Then a very arduous day. I take the hotel shuttle bus up to the sister hotel in the north of the island and sunbathe by the pool there. I stroll on Batu Ferringhi Beach, but there are jelly fish warning signs and no-one (unsurprisingly) is in the water. Then I come back and sunbathe by the pool here.
Off to Langkawi Island today, for my last four sleeps. I can’t believe how quickly the time has gone by. I am flying, from Penang, instead of taking the ferry, because the travel agent told me to. I've been told the sea can be uncomfortably rough here, so hopefully this is the best option. It is chaotic at the airport, as they are building a new terminal. I can see why as I am waiting for my flight; it is raining (despite the rule about it only being allowed to rain in the afternoon) and water is dripping through the roof onto my head.
Maybe the flying wasn’t such a great decision. We take off. The illumination on the seat belt sign pings off and the stewardess throws us a packet of peanuts. Immediately afterwards they announce it is time to land. Great, short flight I think. But we don’t land, because there is bad weather in Langkawi. there is even more illegal rain there too, which isn’t great either for the plane or for my holiday prospects. We circle for a while and I start to worry about us running out of fuel. That is obviously on the captain’s mind too as we then fly back to Penang. We wait half an hour and then take off yet again. Everything is played out in rewind, but this time we actually arrive.
The resort is very different to my last hotels in Malaysia, but a perfect place to finish. It’s ultra-modern: big white umbrellas and infinity pools. The view is gorgeous, a string of little islands across the bay. It’s really pretty at night with the swimming pools and trees all lit up, very romantic..... And there are about 20 really posh little villas. The hotel calls them ultra-luxurious. They have their own swimming pool, massage area and staff quarters.
My room is lovely. There is a huge TV set into half a wall (honestly). It's a shame there’s nothing, on except bad Australian movies or the fighting in Libya. Anyway, back to the hotel and cocktails. There’s a martini bar and a mojito bar. What’s more there’s a free martini every night. This must be what heaven’s like. It’s just a shame that it’s still bucketing down and the forecast for the next four days says heavy rain.
More excitement: thunderstorms all night and a power cut this morning. I’m also covered in incredibly itchy sand fly bites. So much for a tropical paradise. There is still a sprinkle of rain this morning, so I saunter into town. It’s a duty free island and to be honest, some of it looks like the hypermarket area near Calais. There are heaps of fake clothes and handbags. I am quite excited by the bags until I realise that they aren’t even copy designs. Similar items are labelled Jimmy Choo, Mulberry, and so on. Even if I had wanted to make a purchase it would have been difficult. Ramadan seems to be taking a toll on the shop assistants. Most of them are asleep under the counters.
The highlight for me is watching a troop of monkeys make a raid on a deserted bar. They swarm across the trees and slide down the telegraph poles much faster than firemen. Then they turn over all the bins and even remove half full glasses of juice (or cocktails?) Perching out of reach they scoop the liquid out with their paws. Many of the macaques are mothers with babies, who crawl out from their fur beds and sit on their mum’s backs to watch the fun and beg a bite or two. When it is all over, they return via the telegraph poles, the mothers stuffing the babies back into their furry stomachs before they vault up into the trees.
The rain holds off enough for more sunbathing and then the hotel lays on unlimited free cocktails and canapés to make up for the power cut. So I don’t need to buy any dinner. And I have a very nice half hour’s flirtation with a much too young Dutch hotel manager. He is avoiding having to speak to other hotel guests and I have had too much to drink on an empty stomach.
I shall close my diary, do my packing and watch the rain!
My tour group, travelling from Medan in Sumatra catches the ferry from Jave to Bali today; the land of curly roofs. Bali is the westernmost of the Lesser Sunda Islands. It is the only Hindu-majority province in Indonesia, with 86.9% of the population adhering to Balinese Hinduism. Otherwise, Bali probably needs little introduction. It's a world renowned tourist destination, beaches, coral reefs and highly developed arts: traditional and modern dance, sculpture, painting, leather, metalworking, and music.
We arrive in the port of Gilimanuk, to be greeted by a decorated arch and tall gates. You're not far from a temple, anywhere in Bali. First stop, after that is Pemuteran on the north coast. Here, we have access to West Bali National Park, the island's only national park. Most of it is off limits but there are walking trails, and deer. There are also reefs off the beach and Menjangan Island, home to ancient Hindu temples.
The snorkelling is really excellent. Myriads of coral scattered with Fox's Glacier Fruit fish, gorgeous sandy beaches and iridescent blue water.
It’s been nice to escape the group. Though I’ve just remembered that I’m supposed to be having a fish barbeque with them on the beach.....
Now I’m on Lovina Beach, (middle of the north coast) and am a little worried, because I don’t remember much of it from when I was here 10 years ago, after travelling from Flores. I’m not sure if it’s changed out of all recognition, or if it’s just that I spent quite a lot of time trying out the bars on my last visit. But I don’t even really recognise them. The black volcanic sand beach, though, is still the same.
Besakih, the biggest and holiest temple in Bali, lies 1000 metres up the slopes of Mount Agung, Bali's largest volcano. It is actually an extensive complex of 23 separate temples. The largest and most important is Pura Penataran Agung. The temple is built on six levels, terraced up the slope, with the entrance is marked by a traditional Balinese candi bentar (split gateway). Besakih, as a religiuos site, probably dates from prehistoric times. It was certainly used as a Hindu place of worship from 1284 when the first Javanese conquerors settled in Bali. Each of the houses has its own intricate shrine, so the whole countryside is littered with curlicues and carvings. Shimmering green lakes and skirted statues galore.
The Klungkung kingdom was considered to be the highest and most important of the nine kingdoms of Bali from the late seventeenth century to 1908. It was also the last. The Klungkung Royal Palace was destroyed by the Dutch, but enough of the carved arches, painted roofs and floating pavilion remains to appreciate the amazing craftsmanship. The most fascinating part is the Kerta Gosa pavilion , the Hall of Justice. in the north-eastern corner of the palace compound. Unresolved cases were referred here, to three Brahmana priests. Those in the dock were treated to views of the ceiling which depicted different punishments in the afterlife, the results of karma.
The route that passes all these beautiful temples with thatched wedding-cake towers. has taken us from Lovina in the north to the fishing village of Candidasa on the south coast, climbing over volcanoes on the way. It's a touristy area, with a lot of hotels, but there's a pretty, water lily covered lagoon in the centre. It's real name is Segkidu Village, but it's known as Candidasa for tourists. I'm struggling to understand why this appeals.
No muezzin, a beautiful balmy sea breeze and a ten o’clock start, gorgeous. Tenganan - an immaculately manicured Bali village. According to legend, the people of Tenganan Pegringsingan were selected by Indra, the Hindu god of storms and warfare to live out his divine plan, to be a microcosm of the world. I suppose, like the Amish in America, they wanted to keep their world pure and clean. They were an entirely secluded society until the 1970s. Today, their tranquil village is on the tourist circuit. We endure sales pitches for weaving, as soon as the guide thinks he can get away with it.
Terta Empul Hindu Balinese Water Temple, I do remember from before. There are tanks with scores of fountains and the locals come to bathe for ritual purification and generally have fun. The temple, dedicated to Vishnu, is divided into three sections: Jaba Pura (front yard), Jaba Tengah (central yard) and Jeroan (inner yard). Jaba Tengah contains two pools with 30 showering spouts.
Then, Gunung Kawi, another temple, this time with hot springs and some royal tombs at the bottom of some even more amazing rice terraces. Gunung Kawi is an eleventh-century temple and funerary complex in Tampaksiring. It is spread across either side of the Pakerisan river, which originates from the spring at Terta Empul.
There are 10 rock-cut candi (shrines), carved into seven metre high niches on the sheer cliff face. These funeral monuments are thought to be dedicated to King Anak Wungsu of the Udayana dynasty and his favourite queens. On the east side there are five temples that are dedicated, (according to one theory), to King Udayana, his queen, Mahendradatta, and their sons. The temples on the west side are dedicated, (according to the same theory), to the king's minor queens or concubines. It's simply stunning.
There are several celebrations going on at Pura Penataran Sasih, a Hindu temple in Pejeng village. It was founded, according to a modern chronogram displayed at the entrance, in 1266 AD, and served as the state temple of the Pejeng Kingdom. There's a very tall, stone Seat of Ganesh (elephant) in the middle of the main courtyard and a revered colossal bronze drum, the celebrated Moon of Pejeng, Several legends attach to this
The temples are full of men and women weaving and conjuring up baskets full of offerings, like pig’s heads and coconuts. The temple grounds at Pura Pendataran resemble giant school fetes with harvest festival going on at the same time. There’s also of course National Day looming and the flags are still multiplying. They are now appearing on all the cars too. We only get this in England when we are playing in the World Cup.
The people are incredibly friendly and seem very gentle but there is another side to them too. There are rows of cockerels in baskets all along the waysides. They are being sold ready for the regular bloody bouts of cock fighting. And the tourist routes at the temples are all cunningly contrived, so you have to weave your way through endless stalls when you exit. It’s quite hard to get out unscathed and without being assaulted by women waving sarongs. I am very tempted to treat them as if they are toreadors. But local names are easy to remember. There are only four Christian names, one for the eldest, one for the second born and so on. If a family has more than four children they start again with the first name.
The food in Bali is more varied and many places have a good stab at western style food. Chicken Gordon Blue is noteworthy on several menus. I’ve also noticed lots of western style advertising hoardings. Most of them seem to be promoting cigarettes. Apache seems popular. The guide says the people like the Red Indians.
My last day in Bali is to be spent in and around Ubud, the gorgeously spiritual heart of Bali..This I also remember. It’s just like Glastonbury - health food shops, reflexology and palm readings. Cafes, juice bars, designer everything and yoga. Serendipitously, I'm staying in the same delightful lodging, as on my last visit. Artini 2 sits right in the middle of the paddy fields. We visit a school where ceremony fever seems to have taken over and the teachers have given up. Some boys are conducting an interesting experiment with matches in one corner of a classroom.
There’s even more ceremony fever right in Ubud town. There’s to be a big cremation soon and the locals are building all kinds of artefacts at the palace in readiness. A huge bull will hold the casket. A very tall totem pole affair has been rigged, so that the body canbe launched. It appears that it will travel down a long garlanded roller coaster, until it enters the bull. We can’t work out how the body is going to get up the totem pole to begin with, but it’s wide enough to fit a hoist inside. It’s all fascinating.
Goa Gajah or Elephant Cave has more intricate carvings. Wikipedia contradicts itself on its age, so it may or may not date from the eleventh century. It's characterised by menacing faces that are carved into the stone facades. They're to ward off evil spirits. The main figure was once thought to be an elephant, hence the nickname Elephant Cave although there is another theory, that it is named after the stone statue of the Hindu God Ganesh found inside the temple. There's also a bathing pool here.
Then Yeh Pulu. It is located in a ravine and you have to descend a forest trail to get to the paddy field, freshwater springs, more tombs and an impressive 25-metre-long array of carvings etched into a rock face. They're presided over by delightful couple, the guardians.
Close by, another festive temple, with a school attached. Ceremony fever seems to have taken over and the teachers have given up. Some boys are conducting an interesting experiment with matches in one corner of a classroom.
I say my farewells to the odd ball group and head to the airport. The mad lady has disappeared. Ian is desperate to get home for some decent food (he signed off the tour as soon as it hit Ubud, saying he couldn’t stand any more temples) and Jim is staying on to ‘get some action’.
Denpasar is the capital of Bali. The road to Denpasar Airport takes me through Kuta, the Aussie version of Benidorm. Indonesia has continued to offer more that is curious and unusual than almost anywhere else I have travelled.
Yet another early start to catch a plane to Java, (I will get some sleep one day). Well, two planes, from Sumatra via Jakarta to Yogyakarta, half way down Java. I am a bit apprehensive, as the Indonesian national carrier, Garuda, has been banned from Heathrow for years. However, the flights are fine. Though I was complaining about the lack of even a drink on board, until I remembered that it was Ramadan. I'm on a group trip travelling through Indonesia from Medan, in Sumatra to Bali.
Java is the world's most populous island, home to approximately 56% of the Indonesian population. And it's probably the most important of Indonesia's many islands. The capital city, Jakarta, is on Java's northwestern coast. Many of the best known events in Indonesian history took place here. It was the centre of powerful Hindu-Buddhist empires, the Islamic sultanates, and the core of the colonial Dutch East Indies. Four of Indonesia's eight UNESCO world heritage sites are located in Java.
Pramabanan temple, close to Yogyakarta, is one of those UNESCO sites and we have time to visit the big ninth century Hindu temple complex here (still being reconstructed). This is the largest Hindu temple site in Indonesia and the second-largest in Southeast Asia, after Angkor Wat. It's reminiscent of Angkor too, with its soaring pointy towers. The central building is 47 metres high and that nestles inside a large complex of individual temples -240 altogether. Wow is the right word.
It also has a restaurant that serves food other than fried noodles. And the hotel for the next two nights is lovely. Real food and a swimming pool. We are in Java now.
Despite my lovely hotel, I have had yet another dodgy attempt at sleep. This time something was banging in the bathroom all night. The relentless pace has not let up. We have been whisked off to a batik shop/demonstration and another silversmith’s (ouch!). Naturally we are encouraged to go to the shops where our tour leaders get the most commission and they are always described as being ‘really, really fantastic’.
In the spirit of south east Asian nicknames Yogyakarta is usually known as Jogj. There's another sultan’s palace to view here (though the Dutch allowed the sultan of Yogyakarta to stay around and he still lives there.) The palace complex, or kraton, was built in the mid eighteenth century, designed to reflect the Javanese cosmos and the country's ancient beliefs. It links god with humans and nature, facing Java's Mount Merapi and the Indian Ocean. It was sacked by Stanford Raffles leading a British and Irish force in 1812. This palace was built by Sultan Hamengkubuwono VIII ( 1921 to 1939), and was rebuilt again after earthquakes in 1876 and 2006. It's now a museum of Javan artefacts, including cars and a set of old gamelan instruments.
Back west, to another UNESCO centre, the largest Buddhist temple in the world at Borodupur. It is presided over by Merapi, the most active volcano in Indonesia.
Borodpur Temple dates from the ninth century and consists of nine stacked platforms, six square and three circular, topped by a central dome. It is decorated with an astonishing 2,672 relief panels and originally 504 Buddha statues. The central dome is surrounded by 72 Buddha statues, each seated inside a perforated bell shaped stupa. The temple fell into decline in the fourteenth century, when the Javanese turned to Islam, but it's still a key Buddhist Pilgrimage site .There's a lot of scrambling to be done, following the route of ancient pilgrims, circling the mandala-shaped structure from the early realms towards Nirvana.
Today, Mount Merapi (also meaning Mountain of Fire) just smokes quietly and eludes our efforts to take a decent photo, by hiding in cloud most of the time. It has erupted regularly since 1548. Located just17 miles north of the city of Yogyakarta, which has a population of 2.4 million, it's a threat that folk here live with daily. Thousands more inhabit the actual flanks of the volcano, with villages as high as 1,700 metres above sea level. There was a big eruption in 2010 and the bulldozers are still out, clearing the lava from the main street of the small town and the riverbed.
Two miles east of Borodpur, is another, even earlier, Buddhist temple, Mendut. Mendut was built towards the beginning of the ninth century. Basically one massive plinth, with a 26 metre temple tower on top. It forms an interrelated cluster with Borodpur and a third temple called Pawon. Mendut also incorporates a Buddhist monastery. During full moon in May or June, Buddhists in Indonesia observe the annual Vesak ritual by walking from Mendut through Pawon to Borobudur. They chant Buddhist prayers and perform pradakshina (circumambulation) around the temples.
A lovely meal at a great restaurant next to the hotel. Proud of myself for sticking to Indonesian and not being tempted to have steak. The cheesecake is a different story.
Absolutely not allowed to sleep. Knocking in bathroom cured, but up at six yet again for another long day on the road. The traffic is solid. I have discovered what the extra man on the bus is for. He waves his arm out of the window, palm upwards to indicate that the bus is going to overtake in a particularly dangerous spot, despite the fact that there is no room between the vehicles in front to pull in. After the driver has forced his way in, the gesture turns into a thumbs up.
The bus isn’t exactly speedy. The wheels are out of alignment and every time we do get up enough speed to overtake it begins to judder alarmingly and we have to fall back again behind the endless line of trucks. However, we still have the pastoral scenes to entertain us.
Completing the top part of our circular route now, back east, to Surakarta. This city is also known as Solo. There are two more royal residences. The eighteenth-century Keraton Kasunanan in Solo, todaya museum of heirlooms,. Mangkunegaran Palace is one kilometre north. Prince Sambernyawa – who took the official title of Mangkunegara I commissioned his palace after winning an ongoing argument with Suraakarta, Yogyakarta and the Dutch East India Company. They eventually relented and gave him his own realm to rule.
Mangkunegaran Palace consists of separate buildings erected for specific purposes. There's the Pendopo Ageng (Great Audience Hall) and the Dalem Ageng, once reserved for the Mangkunegaran court’s newlyweds. Today it houses a collection of weapons, medals, and artistic artifacts owned by the royal court. Surrounding the chambers are beautifully manicured gardens decorated with elaborately painted pavilions.
Most of the sightseeing in these involves oohing and aahing over the assortment of gifts that the sultan has received. Quaintly, some of these are gold and silver chastity belts for both sexes. The male contraption looks especially lethal, with various spikes protruding.
We have lunch at another Padang. This is a bit like tapas - lots of small dishes but they put them all out on the table and you pay for what you eat. Not a noodle in sight.
Java has even more traffic and much more urbanisation than Sumatra. The roofs are also different again, much squatter and far less elaborate. Perhaps they are fertile enough already down here. We are stopped by the police for an imaginary traffic infringement. The guide tells us that Indonesia is not nearly as corrupt as it used to be.
That's not the end of the palaces. We are staying in one of President Sukharno’s old residences tonight. (There were six of them). It's all Dutch colonial, carved teak and garuda birds. Nevertheless, there is a cockroach waiting to greet me in my outside bathroom with mandi. I scoop it up and flush it down the toilet. I don’t want to tread on that in the dark. They are impossible to kill by squashing. Now I’m wondering if it’s safe to sit on the loo.
Yet another early start, yet another long day in the bus. Although it is a new (well different) bus, the malingerer having been retired. It is becoming increasingly clear that the itinerary is a creative fiction. Twenty minutes at another Hindu temple complex. the Candi Penataran temple in Blitar. It's dedicated to Shiva.
Then, an hour in the town of Malang. The bird market contains a whole assortment of wild life, some of it definitely not of the avian variety, crammed into rows of wooden cages toppling into a narrow road. There are puppies and, more surprisingly, mongooses. ‘Visiting the Dutch colonial buildings’ turns out to be an ice cream in an old café. and there's an old Dutch Colonail bridge to be admired. Otherwise we motor on relentlessly. I was going to say speed but that is definitely not the right word. Not even a lunch break is permitted and I have to beg for a toilet stop.
Endless rice terraces, with all stages of the growing cycle in evidence. Harvesting, threshing, tilling, harrowing, and ploughing (with hefty buffalo). The countryside is becoming increasingly bedecked with bunting and banners, mainly in scarlet and white. The guide explains that there are a several celebrations going on in August. It is Independence Day on August 17th and it is also Ramadan of course.
Many shops and restaurants remain closed during the day because of the latter. Although there seems to be a lot of cooking taking place, so that the people have nice things to eat when sunset comes and they break their fast. Most of the goodies seem to be very sweet, involving lashings of palm sugar and coconut. It’s a bit like celebrating the end of Lent with an Easter party every day for a month. Then there is Eidh, which is a very big party to celebrate the end of all the small parties. Some of the rules also seem to be open to various interpretation. If you travel a long way you can eat during the day, but are expected to extend your fast by another day.
Sadly, Iconic Mount bromo is off limits. its erupting and we aren't allowed anywhere near it. The Earth is busy at the moment. So, even further east to Ijen, right at the eastern tip of Java. Ijen is a volcano complex - a group of composite volcanoes known for a blue fire, acidic crater lake, and very labour-intensive sulphur mining. The larger Ijen caldera Ijen, is about 12 miles wide and the highest point is the Gunung Merapi stratovolcano (yet another Mountain of Fire).
A much too early start for the group to brave the volcanic slopes of Mount Ijen - superb views across a cobalt lake, accompanied by steam from countless fumaroles and the stench of the sulphur, which is collected and bagged up here. It's also made into numerous souvenirs.
Kalibaru is a tranquil spot, a plantation town, clinging to the cool foothills, of these lofty ranges. It's encircled by coffee, rubber and cocoa. In Kalibaru town there are umpteen shops selling metal spires for mosques. Guide Eddy tries one out as a hat.
My diet today has been disgraceful. I have had coca cola, ice cream, dates, chocolate (well you have to support the local plantations) and sweets.
Now we catch the ferry to Bali.
I'm travelling through western Indonesia, Sumatra to Bali, on this leg of my trip. I've joined my group in Medan, Sumatra, flying in from Shanghai. The tour leader is an Indonesian called Eddy. Selamat datang! Welcome to Indonesia! He’s not very steady and certainly is never ready and he’s not really a leader either. There are four staff on the bus. Eddy, a driver, a backup driver, who holds the microphone cable for Eddy and a boy to keep the bus clean (though I haven’t seen him do anything yet). He stands up the whole way.
Who wants to be a millionaire? Move to Indonesia - Eddy lent me some cash as the ATM wouldn’t work and I now owe him a million rupiah.
Medan began life as a fishing village in the marshes and evolved into a trading port and commercial hub. one of Indonesia's largest cities and the northern gateway. Several buildings in the Old Town testify to the Dutch colonial period. These include the old City Hall, the Medan Post Office, Inna Dharma Deli Hotel. The two main sights are the Maimoon Palace (1887–1891), where the Sultan of Deli still lives (though he no longer holds any official power) and The Great Mosque of Medan (1906). The mosque is small and pretty. The sultan's palace is more interesting, but not much larger with only one room that is open. to visitors. there are also a sprinkling of Tao, Buddhist and Hindu temples and a cathedral, built by the Dutch.
Then we set off, in very slow moving traffic, west, to see the orang-utans. At this point one of the party announces that she has left her luggage in her hotel room, as she thought we were staying in the same place again tonight. So we have to go back and fetch it, amidst ever increasing traffic. Well, at least the bar is set pretty high for any acts of doziness that I might commit in future.
Bukit Lawang is the most famous spot in Sumatra, for going in search of these beautiful, very endangered red apes, It's really the only place where a sighting is guaranteed. Even this isn't easily accessible. There's a long march on the banks of the Bohorok River, past a village. Tourists in linked rubber tubes bob over the mini rapids, screaming. Half of Sumatra wans tips for helping us across wobbly bridges and up (steepish) steps when we didn’t need help.
As with the centre in Borneo, this place started as a rehabilitation centre with the aim of returning the apes to the wild. But this led to a host of problems with semi wild animals, some becoming quite aggressive. Now, guides are not supposed to interact or feed the primates. Naturally, these edicts are ignored, in order that the tourists get good photos. I still get a thrill out of seeing them, swinging around their platform, even if I do feel guilty. It's an (almost) unique experience. One the return journey, a bar on the riverside that serves up a whole variety of different cocktails. That is also fulfilling.
Now, south. The journey continues to takes forever, partly because the Sumatra traffic is so awful and partly because the road is so awful. Miles of palm oil plantations and the accompanying mills. One article in a conservation centre says that the production and burning of this bio-oil actually consumes three times as much carbon dioxide as diesel. This is because they clear the old established forest to plant the palm oil.
This is more the Asia that I know. Still hot, but not absolutely roasting. Endless little booths, contents spilling out onto dirty pavements that have open sewer manholes all down the middle; roads jam-packed with a fascinating melange of strange vehicles, people and animals. Palm clad volcanoes, paddy fields and masses of exotic fruit, both growing and being sold from the stalls. Eddy has made us eat rambutans and mangosteens today. Both delicious, but lethal to clothing.
Then, on to Berastagi or Brastagi, depending on which sign you believe. It’s a thousand metres up, in the Barisan Mountains and a little chilly for Indonesia. There are two active volcanoes; Mount Sibayak and Mount Sinabung. Mount Sibayak has hot springs baths, so we stop for to swim in those. In the town centre, a colourful fruit and vegetable market, with some gorgeous flower stalls. Berastagi is famous for its passion fruit. The transport of choice here is the cidema, horse cart
We scramble into Karo Batak long-houses with thatched trapezoid roofs, veering awkwardly into the sky and then join a village celebration. As one does. Swaying dancers, elaborate costumes and wonderfully contrived hats. A dressed-to-the-nines couple sitting on thrones and piles of presents. The groom, self consciously bored, checks his phone throughout and takes selfies. Afterwards, when we are discussing the nuptials, one of the group suddenly says, “O was that a wedding?” We are obviously a bunch of intellectuals. We are spared the wedding feast. Two local delicacies are fried fruit bat and the partially digested grass from the stomach of a cow,
Back at our hotel, I find that my expensive six week supply of shampoo has leaked all over my doomed sponge bag. I wash my hair with what I can scoop out. This wash is going to have to last a long time.
Dinner is a delicious medley of Indonesian fare in a little local café. Most of the group opt out and go to the Chinese down the road, on the grounds that the food is too spicy.
Today, we're heading for Lake Toba. First, the 120-metre waterfall of Sipiso-Piso. It was formed by a small underground river on the Karo plateau. Water cascades from a cave in the side of the Lake Toba caldera down to lake level, forming Indonesia's highest waterfall.
Then, skirting the lake to a special Rumah Bolon (traditional house in Sumatra), the former residence and palace of Batak King Simalungung, built in 1515. This complex has 20 households; one household for each of his wives. The main dwelling has a long room for all the wives and their children and a small boxy room for the king. He gets the guard to summon the lucky wife and the guard then takes up position in a horizontal cubicle underneath. If the sultan has taken some potion, the guard might get to summon another wife later on. Today's museum has a buffalo horn to represent each king and list of rulers, with their dates.
Next the small port of Parapat and a one-hour boat transfer to Tomok on Samosir. an island in the centre of gigantic crater lake, Toba. The lake, formed more than 75,000 years ago, after the eruption of a super-volcano. is about 100 miles long, making it the largest volcanic lake in the world. The island is about the size of Singapore.
A suckling pig banquet tonight. Not so long ago in these parts it could have been long pig.
A boat trip round the pretty island and a swim in the lake. We are accompanied by four musicians, who don’t let up for the whole day, except to try and plug their CD. I am up the back of the boat, where I can’t hear too much of what sounds like cats’ wailing. More Batak houses at Huta Siallagan. A house with a hidden entrance staircase signifies a house for females. A horn above the main door indicates the king’s house. Main doors usually have a low ceiling so that people have to bow when entering.
This time, the houses also have a meeting place, with stone chairs to try offenders and a stone block to decapitate those who are judged to have transgressed severely. There’s a prison under the king house where prisoners are kept while waiting for judgement day. The criminals were believed to possess black magic, so the execution day had to be chosen carefully. Torture took care of the black magic After the guilty were executed (the head was thrown into the sea), the heart and liver were eaten. The last reported punishment of this type was in 1819.
The Karo peoples who inhabit these areas are mostly Christian, so the children are in school on Friday. They play safe by incorporating various animalistic deities into the ornate church steeples, as well as the boat like houses. There are plenty of grave sites, ancient and modern. King Sidabutar’s ornate carved tomb is the best example. The Simanindo Museum (in another traditional king's house) follows. There's an assortment of Batak artefacts: swords. agricultural implements, sculptures, fabrics. A ‘cultural Batak show’ is laid on for us, with Manortor traditional dancing round a buffalo - I try and behave myself in case they reintroduce the old laws.
A climb up to a viewpoint, through paddy fields, with a panoramic vista of the lake and the surrounding Sumatran countryside. Marilyn, a scatty, retired New Yorker has spent the whole trip losing things or wandering around looking bemused. She bought an Indonesian sunhat today (which she lost three times). Whenever you try and take a picture there she is in the background. It'll be like playing 'Where’s Wally?' when I get back.
Lunch is getting depressingly familiar. The anglicized Indonesian sateh is elusive. You can choose either fried noodles, or noodle soup or fried rice. I abstained from all three today. The inevitable stomach upset is threatening. And the excitement generated by the extensive drinks menu at our first stop has dwindled. Not a cocktail in sight, although avocado juice with chocolate is going down well with the group. They are less keen on Pocari Sweat, an electrolyte drink that seems popular amongst the locals. However, everything is incredibly cheap in Sumatra and the money is going a very long way. I’ve been here nearly a week and I’ve only spent about £70. (And that’s eating in ‘upmarket’ restaurants.) It makes my Shanghai banquet appear to be the height of extravagance.
Woken much too early by a huge row in the next room. Two women in the group don’t seem to be getting on terribly well. Some very unladylike words are exchanged. Then a very long day on the road, with just brief stops. Well, they were intended to be brief, but we are competing with a Belgian tour bus that seems to get to every place just before us. The road is so bad (partly because of landslides and partly because of disrepair) that we even have to walk at times. It’s almost impossible to overtake and the journey is excruciatingly slow.
Fortunately, there is plenty to look at when I am not dozing. The mountains and paddy fields are becoming increasingly beautiful. It is Sunday today, so the Christians are out walking out in their church finery. The Muslims are gathered in their hundreds in the rivers, washing in preparation for Ramadan tomorrow. The houses along the way vary in both decoration and opulence. There are numerous tin shacks, but even the majority of these have incongruous great satellite dishes. The buses are colourful and the vehicle of choice for families and taxis, appears to be a motor bike with some sort of sidecar attached. These also vary in decoration and opulence, but many are elaborately painted. The poorer families make do without a sidecar. We count mother, father and four children on one bike.
We are clearly moving into a more strongly Moslem area. I have been provided with a prayer mat in my hotel room.
Woken up at 5.30 a.m. by Eddy - an unasked for early morning call. A scheduled even longer journey day that is extended by another four hours because of a lorry accident. It’s quite good fun watching all the traffic trying to squeeze through the small gap left between the two injured lorries. One has a broken axle and the other is overturned, hanging half over a ravine. It seems easier just to push it over, but no. The police blow whistles to absolutely no avail. The passengers and drivers mill around, many just squat on the road and the little coffee shops do a roaring trade.
Eddy eventually commandeers a local bus to take us the rest of the way, with the luggage to follow in our own bus - when it can. This seems a good idea, except that three of our party have misunderstood his instruction to walk up the hill and wait for the bus. They are eventually found three kilometres up the road and still walking.
The local bus is amusing. The owners instruct me to sit in the front with them and they giggle all the time as we hurtle along. The driver is texting with one hand and trying to put on a pornographic DVD for the delectation of the rest of the group in the back. I manage to persuade him that this is not appropriate. We eventually receive the news that our bus has made it through the gap and we have to disembark and wait another 20 minutes for it to catch up, as Eddy won’t fork out any more for the extra bus than he has to.
We arrive in Bukit Tinggi (wonderful name) at ten o’clock, shattered. It was too dark to see the Equator signs properly, as we crossed over, and the Islamic Heroes’ Museum was certainly closed. We did manage to get to the Islamic boarding school earlier, but that was also empty, because of Ramadan. Hundreds of teeny beach huts for the students’ accommodation-most of them pretty decrepit and empty inside, other than the insects and the remnants of their last lunch.
Despite all this time travelling, we are still not even half way down Sumatra.
Yet another early awakening. This time it’s the muezzin at 4.30 signalling the Ramadan prayers. As they also woke me at 10.30 last night when I was trying to get an early night I am extremely sleep deprived now and grumpy. My room is next to the mosque and we are here for three nights.
I have also discovered why they have covers over the drains in the bathrooms. If you don’t put them back the cockroaches creep out during the night. The hotels all have western style toilets with flush cisterns. However, most of the other toilets are squat style, with mandi tanks adjacent. You just dip in the plastic ladle and wash it all down after you. Even the western toilets in the towns of Sumatra have mandis, which makes for a pretty wet seat. The locals tend to squat, even on the western toilets. You can tell by the footprints.
Back on the bus, for a tour of the Minangkabau homelands. Eddy is hot on his schedule. The seats on the bus are incredibly small. The spacing makes Ryanair look generous. Fortunately, I quite often get one to myself.
Even more stunning rice terraces, the local king’s palace (still being rebuilt after it got struck by lightning) and a monkey on a chain that had been trained to climb up palms and throw down the ripe coconuts. He looked very unhappy and we feel very sorry for some of the animals here. We have seen birds in tiny cages, a beautiful owl with its wings clipped severely so it cannot fly at all and fruit bats, also in cages, as they are fried and eaten as a cure for asthma.
A guided walk through the rainforest that seems more like a route march down a steep slippery track, and through rice farms, to a lake that we can’t see because it is too hazy. Another admirer in the fields tells me that he thinks I am nice. Because I look like an Indian in a Bollywood movie.
We stop in a little craft village and I spend more than I have laid out on food this week buying the lovely filigree work.
What else have I seen ? There are lots of cats in Sumatra. Some of them are in reasonable condition but many have been born with short, fat tails. And the architecture has changed. The roofs are more ornate. Many are multi gabled, like Thai temples, with concave sides, and are very pretty. They are supposed to represent buffalo horns, symbolising fertility. So great attention is often paid to the roof of even the meanest shops and houses. Though many of the mosques have tin roofs. I have even observed a minaret shop or two. Much is closed because of Ramadan and most of the locals are not eating, drinking, smoking or having sex between dawn and dusk.
Then an exploration of Bukit Tinggi proper. It sits on the edge of a pretty canyon, which we view from the Panorama Park, along with the monkeys. Then we venture into town. East meets west meets Spanish colonial. A square, complete with clock tower, horses and carts, KFC, giant tiger statues and a Muslim market. This area is shown on the map as ‘Up market’. Further south is ‘Down market’.
The highlight of the day is the eruption of Mount Marapi (Moauntain of Fire), one of two volcanoes which sit either side of the town. It pours out ash for several hours, darkening the sky and covering the streets and cars with a grey flaky layer. I’m getting quite blasé about volcanic eruptions, after last year in Costa Rica and now this.
Now I'm flying - to Yogyakarta in Java
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