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Indonesia

INDONESIA | Thursday, 2 December 2010 | Views [577]

Airport hall at Kuala Lumpur looks very tidy and for few minutes we think total renovations have been done recently but NO, ‘beauty is in the eye of beholder’, it is only in our brains … four months in India have changed our perception of tidiness and cleanness. We are catching a connecting flight to Sulawesi island which opens our way to Indonesia with a promise of best snorkeling in the region. Shortly after landing in Makassar we get swamped with touts offering guided tour to Tana Toraja. “What the heck is Tana Toraja?” we ask. “You must see funeral ceremony, now it's high season” they reply. Totally baffled we ask staff at New Legend hotel for an explanation … Tana Toraja is a region at central Sulawesi, populated mostly by Christians practicing very unique funeral ceremonies. Well, on Saturday morning we buy tickets to Rantepao and then we’ll see. ‘Ten hours of windy road through lush green jungle’ could be words describing that day. By late afternoon weather deteriorated and at 8pm we rush from the bus to gates of Duta88 hotel in heavy torrential rain. Next morning we join German tourist Nicole to share a car with driver and guide Agus to visit local village where funeral ceremony takes place. Stopping at few cave burial sites Agus explains how dead bodies preserved with formalin can be kept in family house for years until the family is ready for ceremony – usually after they bunch up enough money. One of grandmothers from this particular noble family died 5 years ago and her funeral ceremony is today! Apparently for all those five years she has been lying in her bed and family members talked to her every day … just that she never replied. Occasionally she got a lit cigarette … very bizarre! We arrive to the village at around 11am, already there must be well over 1000 people present, 28 buffaloes and many pigs to be slaughtered later, provisional houses were built and colorful dancers are ready for sharp 12-noon start. Using large PA system the M.C. officially opened the ceremony – procession starts with buffaloes followed by ladies dressed in black and about 30 males carrying the coffin decorated in Torajan style. In disbelief we watch jungle-crazy ritualistic jumping with almost devilish laughter while they carry the coffin with dead body inside which must have been tossed around hundred times. No one shows any signs of grief or sadness, in contrary people are very joyful and obviously enjoy themselves. We certainly feel out of place when few buffaloes are sacrificed with a single slit through throat, we happened to stand just few meters away. Definitely not our cup of tea, after fours hours we can’t take any more and decide to leave. Later we learned that this ceremony continuously lasted for four days and cost family over US$200,000! Unbelievable! Apparently, deceased woman planned her own funeral with all family members many years before she died. We are looking forward to few days in Togean islands indeed so on Wednesday morning we leave Rantepao by a northbound bus. Never thought until now how large Sulawesi island is – 12 hours later we are dropped off on main road somewhere near Tentena, and we are nowhere near Togeans yet. It is 9pm, dark and raining. In very basic English few locals offer overnight taxi to Ampana for 900,000 IDR ($100) which is overpriced and we rather decide to walk into dark and find some place to sleep… tomorrow we can catch public bus. We walk and walk ... hey, there is small hotel but nobody is around, even loud bashing on doors does not produce any response. Finally caretakers come out … but in the same time two stylish black cars appear out of darkness and drivers offer to take me and Iva overnight to Ampana harbor for 300,000 IDR so tomorrow morning we could catch last public boat to islands before the end of Ramadan celebrations start (apparently nothing will work for next three or four days!). Well, price is right … let’s go! As the road winds through pitch dark jungle we both start thinking: “Who are these two guys? We do not even know their names, nothing about them. We are in hands of two complete strangers. Was this safe thing to do?” … These sort of questions rush through our heads and driver's suggestion to take a nap sounds as complete nonsense. Ha, we fall asleep and you will … who knows what!? Relief came after midnight during brief stop at roadhouse where we asked many ‘tricky’ questions … and now it all makes good sense. Drivers, working for a travel company are going to pick up six Dutch tourists at Ampana and extra cash from us was just a nice bonus. Now we can have good sleep in comfy reclining seats without any worries and the rest of night was actually quite pleasant. At 4am we arrived to Ampana harbor but it is still too early and we need to kill few hours as boats do not leave before 9am. Seven hours on public boat for a price of private one! We are getting first taste of being seriously ripped off but no one can speak English and we must pay if we do not want to be stuck in boring Ampana for next 3-4 days. We arrive to beautiful Palau Kadidiry at 5pm on Thursday 8th September. Seawater with many shades of blue and green is also crystal clear and we smile at each other thinking of next few days ahead. Staying at Paradise Resort is not really a matter of choice and even at 400,000 IDR per night ($50 including three meals per day) we decide to stay here – competition on this island is limited to three. Pretty poor choice but anyway, we have come for coral and fish so let’s enjoy it. What a magic world this underwater kingdom is! … only if it was not spoiled with smell of raw sewer and floating plastic bags just around the corner. These people do not know what treasure they have … and hence do not care about it. Coral is not anyhow extraordinary but varieties of tropical fish are astonishing – endless myriad of shapes, sizes and colors, the most abundant are combinations of yellow, blue, green, purple and all the others from rainbow. Cute Nemos seem to enjoy my teasing game and always charge at my finger from their safe homes. Spectacular tropical aquarium! “Dobry den” I say, overhearing two girls on beach, speaking in Czech … and we become quick friends with Katka and Renata, both enthusiastic divers. Well, end of Ramadam celebrations have finished and apparently public (= cheap) boats work again… 14 hours overnight trip on overcrowded timber boat Puspita was not exactly snugly but when we land at Gorontalo at 6am, we are happy again. One more day on bus to Manado is all between us and so acclaimed Bunaken Island, The Mecca of all divers, and snorkelers too. Manado is busy modern city with many shopping malls, boutique shops and hotels of all budgets … our pick at hotel Regina is little expensive (200,000 p.n.) but clean and comfy, not too far from the harbor and one night will not break our budget. We have only one important question: “How do we get to Bunaken Island?” Public ferry goes once a day at 3pm so next day after lunch we walk to the harbor and guess who we see … Czech-chics Katka and Renata already negotiate transfer to Bunaken with private boat owner who offers free boat ride if we stay at Daniel’s Homestay. Hmm, after few clarifying questions the deal is done - we join girls and all four of us are on the move to the island. Color of water gradually changes from murky brownish (decorated with plastic rubbish) near Manado to deep blue-turquoise (almost undecorated) shades of mamma nature. Daniel’s Resort located on east side of Bunaken is nice and clean with all bungalows scattered through tropical garden just 50m off the beach. True paradise. Similarly as in Togeans all meals are included, free coffee, tea and drinking water 24/7, and all that for 300,000 p.n. ($36). Next day sunny morning is just too much of temptation so after breakfast we hire two sets of snorkeling gear and rush to the reef which is less then 100m from shore. Initially shallow reef suddenly drops off into a shear vertical wall and it is here where the marine life is ballistic. If we thought Togean islands were beautiful then this reef is unbelievably wonderful. I have never seen anything like that before – we do not even have to move our flippers because underwater life makes this extravagant performance for us. No surprise that Bunaken Island is top diving destination around the world! Many hours we spend suspended in the air, err .. in the water, watching and exploring life below. We see lion fish, many Nemos, turtle, box fish and endless palette of colors and shapes. At dinner we browse through Atlas Of Tropical Fish but it is impossible to remember all creatures we saw, let alone their names. Well, we’ll have no chance becoming marine biologists but definitely we have become marine admirers. Three days and nights of really good time come to the end and on Saturday 18th Sep we leave Bunaken Island to stay one more night at Manado before catching early morning flight back to Makassar. Two tasks we have to do: 1. Find out how to get to Flores island by boat. 2. Extend our tourist visa by another 30 days. We struggle with both. Every time we ask relevant questions we get different answers … it is so frustrating. Ferry goes, ferry does not go, ferry goes on Sunday, ferry goes on Wednesday … who can we trust? Eventually pattern starts to crystallize and Sunday seems to be likely day when ferry leaves from Pantai Bira to Labuan Bajo. Ok, one problem solved. As for the other we get three different addresses for Immigration Office … which one is correct? Again, following laws of statistics we incline towards the most frequent answer and on Tuesday we catch local public transport pete-pete (mini-van) to get our extensions. Hmm, after filling multiple forms we are asked for a proof of out-bound air tickets (within time limits of original visa-on-arrival received at the airport) which we obviously do not have because we want to stay longer. Hello! Is anyone home! Why would we have outbound tickets if we ask for visa extension? Ohh, these administrative bureaucrats make us mad! We book two dummy ($45) tickets from Medan to K.L. (which we’ll never use, of course) before we return to immigration office in the same afternoon. Now we are almost sure we’ll get extension stamps without any more problems. Wrong! “Come back on Friday to pick up your passports” female officer says. “What? On Friday? Can’t we get it today? It is only one stamp in each passport.” is our reaction. Then female officer invites me to her office (Iva must wait outside) and she offers expedited service at an extra ‘fee’ 150,000 each, ehm … you mean a bribe. It is too expensive and we refuse … now we are stuck in Makassar at least until Friday but ferry leaves on Sunday anyway so there is no major rush right now. On Thursday we must pay regular extension fee of 250,000 each (~$30), Friday morning we pick up passports and by noon we are on mini-bus to Pantai Bira where we get confirmation that ferry leaves indeed on Sunday night. Bira sits on beautiful white sand beach and it is definitely much nicer place to wait for ferry then Makassar. Usual beach bum activities fill our time and on Sunday midnight we board large ferry to Flores. Exactly 24 hours later we step out at Labuan Bajo at 3am (we left Bira 3 hours late), not exactly best time to look for a place to sleep. Luckily we met two Canadian girls on boat who had previously been in Labuan Bajo, and they suggested we can relax few hours on sofas at The Lounge restaurant until sunrise… that was great idea. Today is Tuesday … next island hopping boat to  Flores and Lombok leaves on Friday … we have missed one just by few hours. Bummer! We are stuck in Labuan Bajo … never mind, cancel all appointments and enjoy free time, ha,ha. Million dollar views from our bungalow at The Gardena home-stay compensate for our suffering (poor guys) so we do not complain too much, it is also good time to catch up with stuff on internet. Young Czech couple Jira and Svetla move into room next door and we kill some time chatting about travel. Boat operators let us sleep on the deck Thursday night for no extra cost and on Friday morning we start three days & nights cruise from Flores to Lombok. Bon Voyage! Apart from four-membered crew it is only two of us on the boat – we discover enormous advantage going from east to west, compared to travelers doing the trip in opposite direction. More then 90% of travelers start at Bali (probably flying first to Denpasar) and move eastward so boats are always full to their capacity of 12-20 people… we can have as many sleeping mattresses as we want, whole sleeping deck is ours and we can place them anywhere we want. When guys catch fish they share it with us (probably would not feed 15 people) … simply put, we love this trip. Snorkeling around Sumbawa island is simply amazing (here we also saw small moray eel) and short visit to Komodo National Park with its prehistoric looking dragons are just two of many highlights on the way. For total price $360 all inclusive this ‘island hopping’ was worth of every penny and that even includes transfer to Senggigi on the west coast of Lombok. So much talked-about Senggigi with overpriced restaurants does not make any special impressions and we do not understand why it has gained such wide popularity. Staying at Sonya Homestay ($12 p.n.) and eating at Warung Amalia were good values. Where to next? Of course, another famous magnet are Gilies, set of three small tropical islands: Air and Meno are smaller and quieter, party live Trawangan is more touristy. More then hour’s long wait for a boat going to Gili Air (boats do not leave until full - minimum 20 passengers) is too much, and we change to Trawangan instead, as boats fill very fast … every young traveler goes to Gili Trawangan. So do we. Beach dotted with restaurants, cafes, bars, homestays, shops and diving centers is a typical picture of tropical vacation. I am disappointed with snorkeling here because much of the coral is visibly damaged with dynamite fishing practices of the past and mama nature will take many years to revert human carelessness… saying that I watched large turtle peacefully swimming by. One day we hire pushbikes but we could not go too far as sandy path gets very difficult to paddle on. On Friday 8th Oct we continue our journey by boat-bus-ferry to Padang Bai in Bali. Original plans were to leave Padang Bai next day but few tourists at dinner mentioned nice snorkeling spot at Blue Lagoon, just walking distance over the hill… so we stay for one more day. Picture perfect little bay does not match Bunaken or Komodo islands with marine life, though I guess it will be very difficult for anything to beat those two locations. Satisfied with many gorgeous beaches lately, we crave for a change … small hill town Ubud seems to be the right choice and our guesthouse owner offers his luxury car for the same price as shared mini-bus. Without any questions we accept and by noon we stroll through Ubud looking for suitable accommodation – Donald Homestay is just as good. Overly touristy but picturesque town is not annoying, good selection of restaurants with frequent Happy Hours make this place actually very enjoyable. Monkey Forest Sanctuary within walking distance from our homestay is well managed jungle reserve full of Macaques monkeys, living in their natural habitat but close enough to enjoy their comedian and mischievous behaviour. Tired I sit down and within few seconds two teenage rascals climb on my shoulders, one plays with water bottle while the other gives me grooming session in my hair, then I feel warmth on my back … it is wet, you little bugger you pissed on me! It does not smell and dries quickly so he (or she?) is forgiven. Afternoon we get Balinese massage done at our homestay ($5 for one hour) and we conclude evening with few Mojito cocktails … how much harder can it get? Not knowing the answer to that question, next morning we are heading to beaches again, this time to lovely Lovina at north Bali. Very pleasant and laid back Lovina has potential to spoil even the hardest workaholics, and we exploit exactly that over next three days. It worked. Hiring a brand new 115ccm motorbike for $5/day is irresistible and nature is calling … jungle covered hills with stunning waterfalls accessible through coffee plantations fill our lust for adventure and 100km driven today went quick like this. Black sand beaches around Lovina are definitely interesting and even exotic but we must admit white or gold sand is our preference. On Friday 15th Oct we leave Bali on ferry to Java. Few touts immediately appear as soon as we step out of ferry, we follow one dressed in uniform and ‘pretending’ to be from government tourist office nearby. He actually was… and he offered reasonable deal – two nights at hotels and transfer in private car with a driver to Ijen and Bromo volcanoes. Our previous experience with slow and infrequent public buses helps to make quick decision to accept, we even get free first night upgrade to ‘deluxe room’. Next morning we leave by jeep at 4am, firstly passing through busy night veggie & fruit markets, then we slowly immerse into thick green jungle dressed in early morning fog. Jungle starts to wake up and morning sounds are amazing. Few times we must get out of car and walk uphill as badly worn tires keep slipping on rough and steep terrain … just before 6am we arrived to parking lot, still some 500m below Gunung Ijen. Quick coffee and sandwich for breakfast, and we are on the way 3km uphill to the rim, sharing the path with many miners. It is hard to believe what we see for next few hours - miners carry loads up to 90kg of yellow mineral from the bottom of 200m deep crater to its rim, and from here they have to walk another 3km downhill. I try to grab one of loaded baskets but no chance, it is just too heavy to lift it, let alone walk with that on my shoulders. These guys are very tough … and paid peanuts - $0.08/kg which translates to about $6-7 per average load. Some can do three runs a day but mostly only two. From the rim we attempt to descent to bottom but thick chocking smoke made of steam, sulphur dioxide and dihydrogen sulphide makes this very difficult … about half way down we call this mission off and we climb up back to the rim where fumes are dispersed by light winds. “Hello Ivanci” we hear from the crowd, somebody is waving hands up there … Jira and Svetla from Labuan Bajo. Having different transport arrangements we agree to meet at Cemoro Lawang near Gunung Bromo for dinner tonight. Café plantations and conical shapes of distant volcanoes give this six hours drive some extra flavor, at about 5pm we arrive to hotel at …. Only to find out that someone stuffed booking of our room (made by tourist office) and we need to be transferred to a different hotel… apparently with better views of Mt Bromo and Tengger crater. Room is very simple but the views are breathtaking! Ooo! Wow! This hotel is built right on the rim of huge caldera and Mr. Bromo puffs its smoke in front of our eyes. We enjoy this amazing sight until darkness sets in and slight chill moves us to restaurant. “Where might Jira and Svetla be now?” we speculate and knowing slow pace of public transport we do not actually expect them soon. Surprise ... they just walked in and we can start ordering meals. Next morning we wake up at 3:45am, it is not that cold as everyone portrayed and by 4am we are supposed to leave on 4WD jeep to Gunung Penanjakan from where we should have superb view of sunrise over the caldera. Jeep left late and we miss the sunrise … anyway, thick cloud totally obscured the sun and patches of fog cover the caldera below. Hmm, not that spectacular this morning but never mind … back to our jeep … but where is it? There are hundreds of 4WD’s and all look the same. It is weekend and the place is swamped with thousands of local tourists, not the best idea to visit Bromo on weekends. Anyway, we are here so let’s make the best out of it … we try to see anything from the rim of Mt Bromo after conquering hundred steps but no luck – fog mixed with fumes prevent any decent views. Ok, looks like Mt Bromo is not going to be the best sightseeing in Indonesia. By 8am we are back in our hotel and fog starts to lift exposing patches of blue sky – now we can shoot those famous postcard pictures! Irony of all is we did not have to leave hotel early at all – the best views came about 8 - 9am from restaurant. Jira and Svetla have just returned from their adventurous early-morning hike to Mt Bromo, and together we leave on comfy minibus for a long and tiring journey to Jogyakarta. First impressions are very positive – maize of narrow streets and pathways promise challenging fun, food and beer signs are posted on every corner and choice of homestays looks also pretty good. We like this town. Touristy but not annoyingly busy. We have only three days to visit two major temples and for Wednesday 20 September we have booked flight to Padang, Sumatra. Having an advantage of being a group we can negotiate good price for private car to Prambanan Temple (Hindu) on Monday, and Borobudur Temple (Buddhist) on Tuesday. Both sites definitely worth visiting and even after four months in Full-Of-Temples-India we enjoyed a scroll through. Good bye to Jira and Svetla over last supper, and very early Wednesday morning we catch taxi to the airport. Not seriously considering spending any time in Padung we catch direct minivan to Bukit Tinggy. Young crazy driver overtakes everyone, multiple scars on his face are probably leftovers from previous accidents and we are glad to see first streets of Bukit Tinggy after four hours of sweating (it was hot too). Small pleasant town offers few decent café-style restaurants with free wi-fi, monkey controlled Taman Panorama park with great views over Sianok canyon, and a multiple of good hotels. We stayed in LP-listed Hotel Khartini (good value breakfast included) for first two nights before we hopped on public bus for an overnight trip to Danau Maninjau (large lake formed at bottom of ancient volcanic crater). Good decision … views of lake while the bus was descending through 44 sharp bends were truly spectacular. Quiet and non-touristy village Maninjau seems to be occupied with only one activity and that is fish-farming … we just sit and enjoy relaxing sunset over rim of the crater. The best pancakes in the world start our next day before we hop on local bus back to Bukittinggy … one more night and on Saturday at 5pm we leave on overnight (sitting and freezing) bus to port Parapat on Danau Toba from where we catch small public ferry to Tuk-Tuk located on Samosir island. Truly relaxing place! For each tourist there seems to be hundred of hotel rooms available, we do not understand such high vacancy rates … Lonely Planet explains how this island was once busy full-moon party destination but since late 90’s this was somehow taken over by Ko Pha-Ngan in Thailand … and now all resorts are empty. Maybe sad for locals but we definitely enjoy very relaxing and slow motion atmosphere of present-time Somosir. Cheap motorbikes, tasty fish, clean and inviting lake water made our stay here very pleasant … except it rained a bit every day. Four days evaporated like morning mist, our visa is getting shorter every day and we yet want to see orangutans … time to move on! Pre-booked 8-seater van left Parapat on time (9am) arriving to Bukit Lawang at 6pm. Long and tiring day! Endless palm oil and rubber-tree plantations replaced wild jungle where orangutans used to live and we start to realize the extent of negative impact of this industry on our mother nature. Well, once in Bukit Lawang, Garden Inn guesthouse is about 15 minutes walk from taxi stand and we can sense those orange furred beautiful creatures somewhere nearby … they must be there in dense green jungle on the other side of river. Over dinner we agree to join a group of 3 other travelers for 2 days / one night jungle trek starting tomorrow morning ($170 for two). Our last adventure in Indonesia is about to begin! After breakfast we enter Bohorok N.P., walking path gets sometimes very narrow and slippery as we negotiate quite rugged terrain. Steep gradient makes this hike difficult regardless if we go up or down, luckily jungle trees offer many roots which we can hold on … here they are! We all point our eyes up to canopy where crunching sounds can be heard from, then we see our first “man of forest” hanging between branches … and it has little baby on its back! Our excitement is boundless and just like they would know this little baby performs its own acrobatics on lianas. Amazing and cute. We see many more later, somebody counted 9 adult orangutans, many with babies. One female with baby can be apparently quite dangerous (= protective)  and we are strongly advised to keep safe distance … appropriately her name is “Meana”… later in day one guide is actually bitten by her. We are very lucky today and besides many orangutans we spot Thomas Leaf Monkeys, Gibbons, and of course ever present mischievous Macaques … tasting of quinine complements lessons on jungle flora. Later afternoon we descend to camp site set on banks of Bohorok River … crystal clean water is pleasantly refreshing and we enjoy the rest of afternoon before nice dinner. Sleep on thin matt is not so comfy but what the heck … it’s only one night. Next morning we get few visitors … few macaques hanging around our campsite wait for any opportunity to steal whatever looks like food, they even went for Iva’s swimmers in plastic bag but luckily realized soon it is useless and dropped it before disappearing in jungle. Large monitor lizard posed for few pics and wait … there is more … something orange is coming out of woods … mother with baby is coming for drink of fresh water. What an expedition! With more seen then we ever expected this is definitely our highlight. After lunch we pack up and get back to town on rope-tight-5-tractor-tubes raft. Excellent fun. On Sunday morning we visit feeding platform to learn more about orangutans … few semi-wild rehabilitated creatures come to drink milk from cups. It is not any different from children, very cute! Ok, time to say goodbye to Sumatra and after lunch we catch public bus to Medan airport. This is the end of our two months travel in Indonesia.

 

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