You know how people talk about “the trip of a lifetime?” I think I may have just experienced mine — three weeks of temple touring, volcano hiking, scuba diving, motorbiking, beach lounging, and Komodo dragon-spotting in Indonesia added up to one unforgettable experience.
I may be a self-proclaimed frugal foodie, but some things are worth the splurge, and this trip was worth every penny. Besides, it was in the works for a while which gave me plenty of time to budget for it.
So, why Indonesia, anyway?, you may be wondering. Kris — I mean, Dr. Grajny! — was going to have a few weeks off in between graduation and the end of all his free time, aka, the start of residency, and since I’m lucky enough to have quite a few vacation days with my work, as well as my office’s blessing to leave for a good chunk of time, we knew we wanted to travel. Thanks to one Ms. Ainsley Singleton studying abroad in Sydney this past semester, we also wanted to go somewhere close enough that she could come join us. Indonesia was on the radar as a good friend of mine honeymooned there last summer, so we decided to follow suit and jet to the other side of the world.
Indonesia is made up of a staggering 17,000 islands, so we spent our three weeks doing some island hopping and seeing the tiniest of slivers of the country’s incredible diversity.
We charted a trip between islands on the southern part of the archipelago: Java, Bali, Lombok, and Flores.
We left JFK the morning of Friday, May 22nd and didn’t land in Jakarta until early Sunday May 24th, with a 10-hour layover in Dubai.
We were able to leave our bags at the airport and explore the city for the day. The desert heat was oppressive, and after an hour or so wandering around the spice markets of old town, we began to understand why everyone retreats to the air conditioned malls for entertainment.
We were glad to board our cushy Air Emirates plane for flight #2, and even happier to land in Jakarta and have a welcoming committee at 6am. Kris’ family friend lives in Indonesia and picked us up from the airport and hosted us for the first 24 hours of our trip. Through my fog of jet lag, I managed to glean the following about Jakarta: traffic is bad, unless it’s any sort of peak commute time, in which case it’s downright horrible.
The trip really got going for us in earnest when we flew to Yogyakarta (pronounced “Jogjakarta” and usually shortened to “Jogja”), the second largest city on Java and a major tourist destination due to its proximity to Borobudur, Indonesia’s most famous attraction. We stayed right off the main market area, in a little neighborhood known for its tiny alleys, and immediately became acquainted with Bintang, Indonesia’s homegrown beer (which is basically a Pilsner, and is presumably influenced by Indo being a former Dutch colony).
Right off the bat we went off the beaten path, quite literally, when we decided to rent bicycles and pedal out to Prambanan, a temple complex somewhere east of town. I am still chuckling to myself and shaking my head in disbelief that we made it out there and back in one piece. Not only did we navigate roundabouts filled with zooming motorbikes; successfully haul our bikes over and across three highways each time the path abruptly dead-ended; and survive both a surprise rainstorm and a spill (damn those sensitive brakes…); but we did so based on the following directions: “Just go through town, bike along the canal for about an hour, and start asking for directions when you’re 7 kilometers away.” Simply finding the start of the canal was an Odyssey-esque adventure involving asking polite but ultimately unhelpful passersby for help, and wondering many times over why Indonesians seem to really like changing street names roughly every block. The next hour or so entailed more of the same, as we continued on our scavenger hunt for the at best semi-contiguous trail out to this temple that was beginning to gain myth-like status in our minds.
Earthquakes, especially a recent one in 2006, have caused a great deal of damage to the temple complex, but they were still astonishing works of architecture. The most remarkable thing about Prambanan is that it’s home to both a cluster of Hindu temples (above) and Buddhist temples, virtually side by side, and all structures date to the 8th or 9th centuries.
The next temple on our list was the famous Borobudur, an enormous Buddhist temple also constructed in the 9th century, but then, after all that effort, abandoned only a couple hundred years later, as Islam spread throughout the region and ultimately became Indonesia’s primary religion. Its sheer size — 9 stories — is impressive, but the real beauty and mystique lies in the narrative relief panels along the lower levels that depict millennial-old Indonesia royalty and their elephants, celebrations, and music-making. Some of their faces were so full of personality that I found myself wondering at the lives their actual contemporaries had lived.
Borobudur is about 45 minutes away from Yogya, so there was no bicycling involved in that trip! We joined a van of other foreigners and made it out there at 6am, in time to see the temple bathed in a golden misty glow from the early sun, and to have a few moments of solitude before the real throngs of tourists arrived.
Other highlights of Yogya include: happy hour at the grand old Phoenix Hotel, live reggae music, tooling around in rickshaws, exploring Yogya’s main market (which had everything on offer from dried fish to batik cloth), taking in a traditional Indonesian dance performance, and getting called up on stage at a bar to join the band in singing a couple of songs.
After a few days of experiencing urban, landlocked (read: hot and crowded) Indonesia, we were itching to see the ocean. I mean, with that many islands and therefore miles of shoreline, we almost had to try to avoid the coast! A friendly member of the wait staff at one of our dinner spots grew up along the southern coast of Java and recommended spending a day or two down there. With little more than her advice, a two-paragraph inset in our guidebook that offhandedly mentioned this region, and a new map app, we rented a motorbike and set off.
The drive took us through villages and rice paddies, and up and over a small mountain range. I spent most of the time either attempting to check the map — without dropping my phone — to make sure we were still on course, or clanking helmets with Kris as we alternated between revving and braking along the tiny roads. Our trusty steed served us well and a couple hours later we were pulling up to the Indian Ocean. We had the stunning views virtually all to ourselves. Not only have foreigners not discovered this gem, but Indonesians don’t seem to frequent it much as a tourist destination either: electricity came to this cluster of beaches a mere three years ago, in 2012. We found a tiny guesthouse and rented one of their two rooms for the night. We ordered lunch by attempting to match up vocabulary from our guidebook to what we saw on the menu, and ultimately settled for smiling and pointing. Whatever we had — some variation on the standard fried rice and fried noodle staples — was delicious and came to a combined total of less than $2.
A lack of tourism means a lack of infrastructure, so when the sun went down the town effectively closed for the night. Once we got over the shock of no happy hour (“What do you mean, you don’t have Bintang?!”), we enjoyed our coconut water and random mystery fish dish, and found our eyelids growing heavy at 7pm. Hey, when darkness falls at 6pm and there are barely any lights… That night I had the most deliciously deep and peaceful slumber I’ve had in a good long while. We woke shortly after dawn to a fresh day and the sound of the waves crashing on the beach all of 30 feet from our doorway.
Goodbye, paradise. Please don’t change.
To be continued!