Snorkeling and diving in Komodo National Park is supposed to be excellent and that’s pretty much what we came for so N and I signed up for a day trip with a dive operator, popped our motion sickness pills and headed off early one morning on a big wooden double-decker boat with eight adults, three kids and a baby. We were immediately off to a good start as the boat got snagged on the anchor rope of another boat, and one of the staff had to go diving underneath to untangle us. So we sat there inhaling the acrid fumes from the boat’s engine and about fifteen minutes later we were off for real.
We met Kirsty and Emily, a British lesbian couple, who were the first British travelers we’ve gotten to know during our travels over the past year and a half. We shared travel tales and we realized that these 20-something kids were much more hardcore than us. For example, instead of going to Bukit Lawang on the Banana Pancake Trail which most people follow, they went to some remote remote area in Sumatra to see orangutans. While we were being carried up and down the mountain like royalty in a touristy area practically Justin Bieber-style because we can’t handle anything, they went on a more authentic experience by taking a tour on some rickety boat whose engine died halfway through on their way back. They were only saved by a passing boat which saw their captain waving a pole with a life jacket attached to the end of it. While we (I) would’ve spent the rest of our travel money extracting myself from that situation — via helicopter, G7, speedboat, or inflatable raft — and flown back to Tokyo in a traumatized daze, they kept calm and carried on (I had to use that somewhere in this post cuz you know, they’re Brits).
Besides them there were two quiet German guys who were snorkeling too, and a young globe-trotting Swiss family with a billion children (well, four). They were a hot mess even with two of the dive school’s staff on the boat to watch over the chirrens, and I wondered how they managed to travel around the world with their brood in tow. The kids immediately started tearing into bags of crackers and cookies, which they proceeded to stuff their faces with, spewing cookie crumbs and partially-masticated crackers all over the blankets laid out on the deck where we all sat. Not like a few crumbs here and there, but like a thin layer of them coating the floor. The parents didn’t seem to care, scooting all over the crumbs to talk to us and the German boys. My OCD was going out of control.
We got to our first snorkel/dive spot and N and I donned our masks and fins and watched scuba divers struggling awkwardly into their suits and equipment. Scuba diving reminds me of skiing but worse. There’s so much prep work needed before you actually go out and enjoy yourself. At least with skiing, you don’t have all these potentially life-saving computers and gear hanging off of you.
I don’t know if you can talk about Ubud and not mention Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir, Eat, Pray, Love. It was made even more famous by Julia Roberts when she played the author in the movie based on the book. I didn’t read the book, but I did watch the movie on one of my trans-Atlantic flights back in the day when we were corporate slaves who could only travel to distant locations once a year. I never gave that movie a second thought and probably wouldn’t have watched it if I wasn’t stuck on a plane with nothing else to watch. I didn’t even know that the “Love” part of the movie took place in Ubud until I got there and saw all sorts of references to the movie.
I’m sure you can find love in Ubud, maybe not with Javier Bardem, but there are plenty of healthy, single people there and if you can’t speak Bahasa Indonesia, don’t worry about it. Based on my unscientific eyeball-census, I wouldn’t be surprised if at least forty percent of the population is European, Australian or American. Since Kanako is already desperately in love with me, we skipped the “love” part and went straight to the “eat” part. Ubud is the perfect place to fill your belly with all sorts of tasty food. You can also get delicious Western food here that you’d be hard-pressed to find in other Indonesian cities. Of course, the prices for some of these Western establishments are high for Indonesia, but it’s still very reasonable. It’s even affordable for backpackers who are tired of insanely cheap, but repetitive rice and noodle dishes. Of course, we still ate at some warungs, small Indonesian eateries, that were fantastic too.
From what we experienced Ubud didn’t have any particular food specialties, so we’ll recommend specific restaurants that we enjoyed within walking distance of our accommodations on Monkey Forest street and Hanoman street.
Kafe: Our first meal in Ubud was lunch at this chill spot. The menu advertises that they wash their fruits and vegetables with purified water. Score! Seriously, if you’ve been unlucky enough to surf the Hersey Highway more than once in SEA, but you still want to eat raw veggies then this is a big deal. We decided to trust them and order a couple of sandwiches. They both turned out to be very tasty and we didn’t get Bali belly. Thanks, Kafe! We came back here a few more times and once Kanako had the burrito which I thought was a bit skimpy for the price, it was actually only half of a burrito, but she said it was the best burrito she’s had in awhile. Then again, I don’t know how much that’s worth since she hasn’t been anywhere near a burrito in almost two years. They also have a tantalizing display of desserts which I found to be hit or miss. The raw chocolate pie was just ok, but the walnut carrot cake was lovely.
Address: Jalan Hanoman 44b
The Pond: I love roast duck. Especially when the skin is crispy and the meat is moist. Mmmmm. We passed by Bebek Bengil Dirty Duck Diner after dropping off laundry one day and I decided that I had to have some dirty duck. Unfortunately, we read that Bebek Bengil is not so great and has become an overpriced tourist destination. My sweet boo did some research and found that foodie bloggers were getting their dirty duck fix at a place across the street called The Pond. So, we headed there for dinner and ordered the duck and pork ribs. The duck was much larger than any duck dish that I’ve had in Western countries and the skin was delightfully crispy. The ribs were also very tasty, but don’t bother trying to eat them with a fork and knife like I saw some silly woman doing. Just use your hands and then lick your fingers when you’re done. Ain’t no shame in that.
Address: Jalan Raya Pengosekan, across from Bebek Bengil
Down To Earth: We came here a couple of times for lunch and to use the internet in their breezy upstairs dining area. Kanako had the Dragon Bowl for lunch and it was large and in charge. It was also very tasty. I had an avocado sandwich that should be renamed an alfalfa sprout sandwich because there were much more sprouts than avocado. It was still good though. Don’t order the walnut brownie unless you like dry brownies that taste like they forgot to put cocoa in the mix. The ground floor is a shop for local hippies that sells things like raw chocolate, argan oil, alfalfa sprouts, and a bunch of other hippie stuff.
Address: Jalanl Guatama Selatan
I’m not a huge coffee fanatic like what seems like the majority of the world nowadays, but I do know how to enjoy a good cup and N certainly loves the stuff. So it was a bit of a surprise to me when I became hooked on the stuff at Seniman Coffee Studio, one of our best finds in Ubud. What we expected to be a one-time visit turned into two, three, four, then five because once we had this coffee, we really couldn’t have it anywhere else. It was mindblowing, even for someone like me who doesn’t know shit about coffee. A bonus was meeting one of the owners, Rodney Glick, a contemporary artist and coffee enthusiast who taught us about Ubud, coffee, and the art world.
We stopped into this place after we met the owner of another cute coffee shop in Denpasar who recommended Seniman and also recommended the coffee I ended up falling in love with: the Papua cold-drip on ice (five cups made per day). I didn’t know that coffee could have such complex flavors, or that it could taste completely different when made the same way by two different people. The young Indonesian boys and girls working there take their coffee very very seriously, and watching them diligently learning from Rodney and making a cup sort of reminds me of the kind of concentration and meticulousness seen during a Japanese tea ceremony.
We landed in Bali and immediately went about getting our visa extensions, which ended up taking longer than expected. We didn’t care at all because Ubud ended up being the perfect place to laze about and recharge and we did just that for two weeks. This town made popular by “Eat, Pray, Love” with sinewy yogis and young women trying to “find themselves” was also chock full of good, healthy, organic(-inspired) food and a great vibe for creative inspiration.
Every morning we woke up to a beautiful sunny day and ate a leisurely breakfast on our balcony in our pajamas. We eventually left our room to get lunch, explore and walk around the town. Maybe we should’ve been less lazy and done stuff like see the traditional dances or gone on tours of the coffee plantations and temples in the area, but we seriously needed some down time. It’s strange because while we never felt like we really needed to take breaks during the Europe leg of our adventure, Southeast Asia’s been a little more mentally taxing for some reason. We love it here in Indonesia but sometimes we need a “taste of home”. Ubud was perfect because it gave us just that and then some.
The afternoons were hot. We walked around the quiet town peeking into cute shops selling organic soaps and clothing, and stopped into cafés and restaurants when we were hungry. During the day, van loads of pale Chinese tourists descended on Ubud from the busier parts of the island like Kuta and Seminyak, fanning themselves under the identical cheap straw hats they probably bought for too much somewhere.
I have a newfound fascination with volcanoes, thanks to Mount Bromo on Java. She isn’t very beautiful by any stretch of the imagination. Her top is all blown off and disfigured from recent eruptions, but she’s a vivacious, vocal and volatile volcano (I did that on purpose). N and I had never been to an active volcano, so we figured we would visit Mount Bromo, known to be one of the most accessible volcanoes in Indonesia and didn’t require a challenging (multi-day) hike.
It was a real pain in the ass to get to there from Yogyakarta, but having read loads of blog posts about it, we were mentally prepared. A little discomfort wasn’t going to keep us from looking down into the depths of Mount Bromo’s soul. After braving a packed economy class-only train, and then an ancient minibus ride up the mountain in the dark which felt like some kind of nightmare rollercoaster experience, we arrived at the village of Cemero Lawang to find out that the overpriced hotel we had emailed to hold a double room for us hadn’t held onto that room. So we paid for an overpriced triple room, which was a dark, musty room with a hot water heater that barely worked. And we really needed that hot water. The nighttime temperature on the mountain at our elevation of 2,217 meters (7,218 feet) dropped to close to 5 degrees Celsius (about 40F), which isn’t that cold but it is for a couple of people who have acclimated to SEA nights, which are mostly sweat-inducing. The fleece jackets we rarely had any use for (except for on buses where they crank up the AC) came in handy, and carrying them all through sweltering SEA suddenly became totally worth it. Since we had an electric water heater that came with our fancy room, we added boiled water to the barely lukewarm water from the shower and bathed Indonesian-style (using a bucket and ladle) as fast as we possibly could. The next day erased all of our lingering annoyances about this town and the highway robbery of the minibus drivers and hotels in the area. While most visitors pile into jeeps at the buttcrack of dawn to drive up to a vantage point to see the sun rise before heading to the crater in droves, we opted instead to have breakfast before setting out on our hike to the volcano. This ended up being the best decision for us because we hate crowds and even in the midst of one of the most touristy attractions in Indonesia, we like to pretend like we’re the only people who discovered it.
The hike wasn’t really a hike. It was more of a walk. We passed jeeps coming back from the crater and unloading hungry tourists in front of their hotels. With the morning rush finished for the day, enterprising moped drivers and horseback guides called out to us. As in most developing countries, they seemed perplexed when we told them we wanted to walk. Why walk if you can afford a cheap ride all the way there? And because they never understand that we walk because we want to, they slowly followed us and whittled down their initial prices.
We started walking through the Sea of Sand, a flat expanse of sand leading up to the volcano. I finally called out to two approaching horse guides and asked them how much for a ride back. 100,000 rupiah (about $8) each there and back, they said. We insisted that we only wanted a ride back, and that we wanted to ride the horses ourselves. Totally unconcerned if we had any sort of riding experience, they agreed to 50,000, turned their horses around and followed us. Fine sand blew into our eyes and mouth, and we trudged on as the guides occasionally offered the horses to take us the rest of the way up “if we were tired”.
We were tired. The elevation was killing us, and this was on relatively flat land. In the not too distant distance, there was a photogenic little volcano next to a larger one that looked like it had its top blown off. The pretty one was Mount Batok, and her neighbor was Mount Bromo, one of the most active and volatile volcanoes in Java. According to volcano experts, she’s ready to erupt at any time. We walked on, huffing and puffing up the short but steep slopes leading up to the stairs to the crater. The horse guys just watched us in silence, most likely wondering why we were being so damn cheap and subjecting ourselves to this much physical discomfort.
Sometimes we do really silly things, like wake up at 3am to take a one hour ride to a 40-minute hike to get to the summit of a small hill to see a less-than-spectacular sunrise over an ancient Buddhist temple. In theory, it sounded like a wonderful idea and in pictures it looked amazing. In reality, we were tired, sleepy, and surrounded by about 50,000 other people, some of whom spent more time taking selfies than actually watching the sunrise. Although I can’t say I blame them. It was hazy, cloudy and far from amazing.
About 30 minutes after the sun rose, we made our way back down the hill to get back in the van to head over to the temple. Did I mention that we were dumb enough to go here on a Sunday? In addition to all of the foreign travelers, there were a ton of locals there too.
We have a dear friend back in New York who is a master in the art of persuasion. Besides being stylin’ and easy on the eyes, she’s an expert salesperson. Roz is N’s nightmare when it comes to shopping, because she can easily convince me that I really need those $400 shoes. But she is also a professional negotiator and knows how to get a good deal. Over the years, I’ve watched her work on some of the toughest people, including Turkish salespeople in the Instanbul tourist markets. They literally have fun with the sport of bargaining, and they’re a tough bunch.
Roz recommended Yogyakarta to us, and I don’t want to age her but she went about a billion years ago when it was still an emerging tourist destination and Indonesia in general really wasn’t on anyone’s tourist map besides, of course, Big Bad Bali. She sold it to us without much effort because we had heard from other travelers that it was Indonesia’s creative capital. Plus, it was also the most convenient base from which to visit Big Bad Borobudur. Yogyakarta is the CliffsNotes of Indonesian (Javanese) art and culture. It’s a good place for people who don’t have months to immerse themselves in Indonesia but want a taste of what the country’s culture is all about. It had changed a lot since the last century when our friend visited and it ended up not being one of our favorite places, but there was plenty to keep us entertained.
Yogyakarta was our first real big city in Indonesia, and our first stop on the island of Java. Like other cities we’ve been to in this country, it is dirty, congested and polluted. So chokingly polluted from vehicles spewing dark exhaust that riding a becak (rickshaw) in traffic is suffocating. It is the bustling home of traditional batik artists and shadow puppetmakers. It also happens to be overrun with touts and scam artists preying on tourists to get on overpriced becak “tours” around the city’s sights and buy fake batik textiles and other random junk they probably get manufactured for cheap in China.
Our first full day in Yogya, we ran into a Spanish-German couple who was on the same plane as us from Medan. The German girl was friendly as expected, and the Spanish guy was probably the second quietest Spanish guy we’ve ever met. We’re starting to suspect that Catelonians are really quiet compared to the extremely vocal groups of Spanish tourists we encounter, who sound like they learned how to whisper in a sawmill and are in some kind of competition to outtalk each other at the same time. We eventually found ourselves at the Water Castle, and a not-so-random local approached us. This man became our impromptu guide for the Water Castle, taking us down the narrow alleyways crammed with little houses and art studios.
As was his intention from the beginning, he casually stopped in front of a batik workshop where two artists worked on a beautiful sarong. He explained the process and the different artistic styles used in batik textiles nowadays. It was hard not to be impressed. I won’t go into the process here because it’s lengthy, but these guys were legit. They knew what they were doing, and we watched as one of them expertly applied dye to the waxed cotton.
Our “guide” spent the next few hours educating us on Sumur Gumuling, an underground rest area and mosque used by the sultan and his ladies, and then onto the Water Castle (Tamansari), gesturing for us to follow him from one place to another. By this time we were already wondering how much we should tip him at the end.
Over 70,000 years ago a massive eruption on the Sumatran island of Indonesia created a volcanic crater that would eventually fill up with water and become what we now know as Lake Toba, the largest volcanic lake in the world. Sometime after the volcanic eruption, the magma chamber filled up, creating a resurgent dome (I read that on Wikipedia) that is now the island of Samosir in the middle of this large lake and that’s where we decided to relax for the past week.
Lake Toba is one of those places where relaxing comes easily and naturally. Lodging and food are very cheap — our room was less than $9 per day with a balcony overlooking the lake — and even though it’s considered a worthwhile place to visit, there are not that many tourists. It used to be much more popular, but outside of the Chinese New Year holiday in January/February, the island only gets a slow trickle of foreign tourists during the rest of the year. This is our kind of place. The food is also surprisingly good and affordable for an island. (Go to Maruba for the avocado salad. It’s life changing.)
Getting to Lake Toba is relatively easy if you’re coming from Medan. You can take a once-a-day train for Rp 20,000 (less than $2 USD) that drops you off in Siantar, hop on a becak for Rp 10,000 to get to the minibus area, get on a minibus for Rp 20,000 for a 45-minute ride to the ferry, and finally, board a ferry for Rp 10,000 to head over to Samosir Island. Hmmm, it doesn’t sound that easy, but it was. We originally planned to get a private taxi from Siantar straight to the ferry, but we met an Indonesian army fella on the train who decided that two women were incapable of getting to Samosir without his manly assistance. I thought our incomplete knowledge of the area had more to do with the fact that it was our first time in a foreign country where we didn’t speak the language and didn’t have reliable transportation information due to the lack of a well-established tourist infrastructure, but maybe he knows something about the female mind that we don’t know. We’re just girls, ya know. Anyway, we did appreciate his help, but we would’ve appreciated it more without the healthy dose of sexism.
On a day we had originally designated to being a lazy one, a solo Dutch traveler we met at our guest house convinced us to go inner tubing with her. We didn’t have anything better to do so we changed into our swimsuits and met up with Marijn in the restaurant lounge area, where the young local guys lazed about in the downtime when the tourists were all out hiking the jungles.
When Putra — one of the intrepid jungle guides — came into the lounge with a guitar cradled in his arms, Marijn asked him to come along. He shrugged and agreed, put down his guitar and led us across the river to a small restaurant/inner tube rental shop where we rented two large inner tubes. There were no helmets or life jackets offered or even for rent, nor were there waivers to sign. But that was expected. We carried the inner tubes to the river below, and after we clumsily clambered on and situated ourselves inside, we pushed off.
We immediately got wedged on some rocks in the river while Marijn and Putra drifted ahead of us. Putra noticed, jumped out of his inner tube and came to our rescue to pull us off and back onto the current. This was the first of many times he had to save us from something; there would be spiders, brambles hanging in the water, heavy machinery and more rocks coming up. We didn’t have any string to tie the inner tubes together so we wouldn’t go drifting off again, so Putra held us together with his arms, all 90lbs of him. This was a guy who wrestled Mina — an aggressive female orangutan feared by all jungle guides for attacking humans — off of a tourist, and bears the scars from her bite marks on his arms.
It was a sunny afternoon, and the cool water felt amazing on our hot skin. We bounced along the shallow and light rapids and twirled around in the calmer waters, and got to a gravelly sandbar where we got out to take a rest. Well, more like to let poor Putra rest since he was doing all of the work. We sat on the tubes and talked with Marijn about her five-week travel plans in Indonesia while Putra smoked nearby, most likely regretting having agreed to come along with these useless tourists.
We’re not jungle people, but we hadn’t done much naturing lately so we decided to immerse ourselves in it by going to the jungles of Sumatra in search of orangutans and other wild animals. As mentally prepared for malarial mosquitoes and lunging leeches as we could be, N and I decided to visit Gunung Leuser National Park in northern Sumatra.
We arrived in Medan and spent a few days hanging out in a mall there, recovering from stomach issues we got on our way out of Penang. Medan proved to be a pretty crappy city (to put it nicely), with nothing interesting to see or do. The traffic and pollution are horrible there, making it nearly impossible to go anywhere anyway. So we spent too much time at Centre Point, a new mall near our hotel, and ate at the mediocre restaurants and wandered around it. To say the least, it wasn’t a good first impression of Indonesia.
Because we heard horror stories about minibuses in Indonesia (and driving in general), we took a private car to Bukit Lawang for $45 instead of the minibus fare of about $6 per person. A bit of a splurge, but we’re fancy like that, and we had promised ourselves to spend a little bit more on safer modes of transportations while in Indonesia.
We passed Malaysian palm oil plantations and arrived three and a half hours later in a small town split in half by a river. This would be our home for the next five days, complete with a cold shower and no AC.