Thursday, 6 August 2015

Indonesia

The next chapter in our adventures would begin with Bali, Indonesia. Although I was sad to be leaving Australia after a whirlwind visit, I was excited to push the boundaries again and experience new cultures. This excitement was tinged with apprehension however as Mount Ruang, an erupting volcano on an Indonesian island, threatened to delay our departure due to strong winds blowing an ash cloud over Bali, grounding flights in and out. Luckily a window as clearness appeared for us and we made our flight as scheduled, landing in Bali and being hit with a wall of humidity and heat - just what we were wanting!!

We were staying in Seminyak which is in the southwest of the island, an area extremely popular with tourists due to its proximity with the airport, it's never-ending beaches and a tourism industry creating a home away from home experience.

The next day, having spent the previous afternoon relaxing by the ocean, we caught a boat to Gili Trawangan, an island across the Lombok Strait, which is a popular destination for tourists seeking the paradise experience. 
When we were arrived I was taken aback by just how many tourists there were; other than the shopkeepers, hotel owners and restaurant workers, not a local was in sight. Those local that we did come into contact with were unapproachable, unfriendly and glum-looking, perhaps a side-affect of being swept up in the tourism machine that is consuming the island. We found a quaint guesthouse to stay away from the main strip and ventured down to the beach where we stayed for the rest of the day. The island itself is naturally beautiful. Although the sand is mainly made up of spiteful sharp coral, the water is a hazy aquamarine colour and with gentle waves lapping the shores it is easy to float in the balmy waters. 

We enjoyed some street food that evening at an open-air food market. It was abit of a steal for the variety and range we got, essentially from a glorified buffet, considering how expensive even the most basic foods were in the restaurants. We soon found out that the aggressively advertised drinks were also expensive, which was no skin of our nose as the thought of neon-lit bars offering drinking games and karaoke didn't really appeal to us.
The next morning we got the boat back to Bali, all the while feeling glad that we had only stayed one night on Gili T. Perhaps in hindsight we should have gone to lesser frequented Gili A or Gili M for our peaceful island retreat. 

Straight from the quay we went off to Ubud which is in the northern direction, closer to the centre of the island. Along with the Seminyak area, Ubud holds the duopoly over tourism in Bali. However it has fiercely held on to its traditions and culture making it a place which we thoroughly enjoyed. When we arrived we went to Mandala Wisata Wanara Wana or The Sacred Monkey Forest to you and I. This sanctuary's mission is to create peace and harmony for the visitors, in line with Hinduism philosophy, and is also home to three temples and five groups of Balinese long-tailed Macaque monkeys. The dense swatch of jungle creates the perfect atmosphere to wander around in, taking in the not-so-cute monkeys and holy temples.

After we'd visited here we spent the afternoon exploring Ubud where we saw traditional dance shows, important for their role in passing stories from generation to generation, and children's organisations taking to the streets dressed as dragons to the sound of music to raise money; all examples of how proud the locals are of their culture and that tourism won't change that. 
We got a bite to eat at a restaurant-come-living room of the chef where we sat on wicker mats under a single light bulb devouring delicious homemade dishes. I would have really liked to stay longer in Ubud however we had to get back to the airport for our flight to Yogyakarta, Java. I have to admit that Bali didn't quite live up the expectations I had (don't watch the film Eat, Pray, Love if you're planning to come here!) but between its sandy beaches, impossibly green rice terraces and strong religious and cultural influence, it really has alot to offer to a menagerie of travellers! 

After a quick flight we arrived in Yogyakarta, a city which quickly found a place in my 'favourite places' list. Although it is one of the bigger cities in Java, the pace towards modernisation is slower and in turn has sustained many a traditional aspect on daily life and according to Lonely Planet it is "a city of art and culture and a hotbed of Javanese intellectual and political thought." 
On the first day we went off to the Kraton, or palace, of the Sultan with images of glittering palaces and treasures at the front of our minds. We were sorely disappointed however when we arrived to find a sparse compound of burnt grass with pavilions housing weird mannikins displaying life at the Kraton - perhaps we should have known what we were letting ourselves in for paying only 7,000 Rupiah (around 30p!). We aimlessly wandered around the city that afternoon in the baking sun, having dinner in a rooftop cafe down a hidden gang, or alleyway. 

We were up literally at the crack of dawn the following morning to catch the sunrise over Borobudor temple, one of the most important Buddhist sites in the world. The sunrise was disappointing as a blanket of cloud obscured our view and it wasn't quite the intimate special moment I had in mind; perhaps the 200 other tourists thought the same thing! 

The temple itself though is an impressive monument, one that was built to represent a mandala, the symbolic circular figure. Steps leading up through carved gateways lead to the top which represents the journey to nirvana, the Busdhist heaven. It was difficult to get a sense of spirituality because so many people were there pushing and shoving and asking us for photos, which is a bizarre experience. By the time we left we felt like celebrities! Although the religious aspect goes over my head, Borobudor is an extremely impressive work of art.



The next day we set off to Pranbanan temple, this time on our own rather than as a tour like we had done the day before. Jogja, the affectionate nickname for the city, has a well developed transport system so we rode the bus through neighbourhoods for around an hour before we arrived at the temple. Pranbanan is the grandest Hindu temples complex in Java and is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 
It was built in the 9th century and consists of three main temples for gods Shiva, Brahma and Vishnu then has more than 220 other temples and shrines near by. Many of the structures suffered extensive damage in a 2006 earthquake and whilst restoration work is ongoing, it is slow with many still in a dilapidated state. For me, the cracks and crumbling blocks give the site even more character to make it an unmissable historical item on your 'must see' list. Similar to Borobudor, the place was heaving with tourists, many of whom were here to celebrate Ramadan so we took a walk around the complex which sprawls for miles and took in the other smaller temples in the sunshine. Even if temples and religion are not your thing, Pranbanan offers the setting for a nice relaxed day to meander around the grounds, have some lunch or even play on the swings! 



That evening we explored the rabbit warren of alleyways trailing away from our hostel, like kids at a maze and happily got lost, investigating all the little shops tucked away. After another tasty dinner - Javanese food is exceptional - we retired to bed as we had an early morning flight to Singapore! Whilst nothing special to look at, Jogja provided up with a great couple of days and should definitely be held in its own light and not just a place to stay to explore the neighbouring temples.