Indonesia: From Ruins to Beaches

On our RTW trip, whenever we go somewhere I’ve been already, it’s tough not to make comparisons of how places are today versus the last time I was there. In most locations, I’m surprised that things haven’t changed much. I had optimistically thought that 16 years of progress would alter most places for the better. Such was my hope for Indonesia.

I went to Indonesia about 16 years ago to visit my friend, Don. It was an unforgettable experience, mostly for all the wrong reasons. I came down with a bad case of dysentery from some bad food I had in Jakarta and spent a couple days between the bed and toilet at Don’s parent’s home. Even with such wonderful memories, I still decided that Indonesia was worth a repeat visit. However, I didn’t want a repeat of what happen to me to happen again with Sheri during this visit so we took the usual precautions to avoid stomach problems.

Our visit to Indonesia had a similar itinerary as my last visit and began in Jakarta. It’s a sprawling city without a well-defined central downtown area. If I asked people where the center of town was, I got different answers. We stayed at the Oria Hotel, a reasonably nice hotel located near the train station. We spent only one night in Jakarta, eating at a relatively safe restaurant and avoiding the numerous street food stalls. The city hasn’t changed much, nonetheless, it’s hard to describe Jakarta. It’s a large city that seems to want to embrace Western culture, food, and secular capitalism, as evidenced in the numerous malls with Western brands, but is still trapped in its small village culture and Islamic ideology. It’s a strange juxtaposition of old and new as we wander past street market stalls, fly infested platters of food, and hijab covered women just outside our thoroughly modern hotel, down the street from a Starbucks. Yet it’s so familiar that I don’t even think to take a picture of this scene.

dsc_5311We arrived at the train station the next morning and I realized a few things haven’t changed much since the last time I used public transportation here. Signage is still entirely in Indonesian, English still isn’t widely spoken, and the train timetable is as impossible as ever to decipher. Yet I manage to muddle my way through the process and purchase two tickets to Yogyakarta. At least numbers are the same and finding the correct platform proves to be less challenging. The train journey is a story in itself and I go into more details in my post, Riding the Rails Through Asia.

We arrived in Yogyakarta with plenty of daytime left. Our hotel was only a few blocks from the train station, so we make our way past the pedicab and taxi drivers trying desperately to get our business and make our way towards our hotel. The Hotel 1001 Malam is located on a small alley that wasn’t very easy to locate, however, its proximity to the train, shopping, and restaurants made it perfect for our needs. We were also able to arrange a tour to the two temples that were the major attractions in this area—Prambanan and Borobudur—both on the outskirts of the city. Since my last visit, Yogyakarta, or Jogja as it’s often called, has grown tremendously. I don’t even recognize the quaint little town that I wandered into at 5 a.m. so long ago. The city is sprawling and built-up with shopping malls and multi-story buildings sprouting up all around.

Prambanan in 2000. Dirt paths and no ticket office or manicured grounds. Quite the contrast to the 2016 photo featured on this post.

Prambanan in 2000. Dirt paths and no ticket office or manicured grounds. Quite the contrast to the 2016 photo featured on this post.

But progress comes with a price, and it usually falls on tourists to pay it. My last visit to these two temples cost me nothing except for the cost of a ride on the back of a motorcycle. The temples had not yet been administered by the government, so there were no entrance fees or nearby facilities. Today, they are protected national monuments, UNESCO World Heritage sites, and expensive tourist attractions. I hardly recognized Prambanan. Instead of a temple that sits unobtrusively in field out in the middle of nowhere, today it is a large fenced-in compound surrounded by manicured lawns and gardens, containing several temple complexes instead of just one. Restoration work was in progress on several of the temples, so it was good to see that our expensive entrance fees actually were doing something beneficial. Despite a recent earthquake that caused a great deal of damage to some of the temple structures, they appeared to be in great condition and much like I remembered them. Seeing all the temple complexes really wasn’t necessary, but I did it anyway—passing by several that were encased in bamboo scaffolding—and it still took nearly two hours. As we exited the compound, we had to pass through the obligatory gauntlet of souvenir vendors and food stalls, resisting the temptation to purchase anything to cram into our already overstuffed luggage.

P1020182Timing was everything as we happened to be in Yogyakarta during Chinese New Year, although we didn’t know something was about to happen. As we walked into the center of town to find dinner, I commented to Sheri that it seemed unusually busy along the streets, even for Asia. She said they were probably getting ready for a parade, otherwise, why would everyone be standing around on the sidewalk. Sure enough, she was right. As we were inside a nearby mall eating, we heard drum beats and music outside. Certain that it wasn’t simply a very loud car stereo, we headed outside just in time to see a dragon dance passing by our location. Marching bands and lion dancers followed, however, we were most impressed by the Indonesian Air Force Band playing in full flight gear, helmets and all. With temperatures easily in the high 80s, we were sure the flight suits doubled as literal sweat suits.

The next morning, we awoke at 4 a.m. to go and see the sunrise over Borobudur. We were told it was worth the extra cost since we were able to enter two hours earlier than normal tourists. Despite the supposed exclusivity of our status, we weren’t the only tourists with the same idea. With quite a crowd near the top of the temple, patience and careful timing were necessary to get the shots I wanted. In the end, sunrise wasn’t nearly as spectacular as I would have hoped, but I did the best I could with what was given. We walked the top levels of the temple and circumambulated around the grounds surrounding it just to appreciate the enormity of this, the largest Buddhist temple in the world. Afterward, we were able to enjoy a light breakfast at the nearby lodge before returning to our hotel. Was it worth the extra money to see the sunrise? Considering that it used to be free to see the sunrise at Borobudur, probably not. However, since we were not likely to ever come back here again in this lifetime, then, yes, it was worth it.

We probably should have stopped in Surabaya on our way to the island of Bali, but aside from Mount Bromo, we had seen enough mosques, churches and temples, and didn’t feel the need to see more. Our overnight train was yet another complicated exercise in patience, involving multiple hit or miss queues. I couldn’t figure out from the signage which queue I needed to be in. The journey to Bali from Yogyakarta also included a ferry crossing, bus, and an unexpected taxi ride. Check out my other post if you’re curious about our trip.

The last time I was in Bali, it still meant drunken festivities for those from down under, especially in and around Kuta. At that time, there was a definite touristy vibe on the island, yet aside from Australians, it hadn’t yet gained international popularity. Since so many people I know in the U.S. had recently visited, with very positive experiences, I was curious to see how Bali—especially Kuta and its beach—had changed since my last visit. However, we were quite tired from our nearly sleepless train ride, so we decided to wait until the next day to go to the beach.

Our hotel, the “b” Hotel, though relatively inexpensive, wasn’t conveniently located to many things. Add to that the lack of proper sidewalks, and it made walking to places to eat downright dangerous. I was getting a little tired of eating the national dish of Indonesia, nasi goreng, so we made the treacherous walk to a nearby Japanese restaurant. It was good to have a change in diet every so often, and it really made me appreciate the variety of food easily available in the good ‘ole U.S.A.

dsc_5534The next day, we decided to combine a visit to Kuta Beach with a trip to the Hard Rock Cafe to collect another souvenir pin and have their fabulous BBQ ribs for lunch. We arrived to find that Kuta Beach had gotten worse over the years. The hawkers were still there trying to sell you trinkets, weave your hair, or give you a surfing lesson, but added to it now was an enormous pile of trash at the water’s edge. Literally a swath of garbage a meter and half wide all along the water and also in the water. It was disgusting. We observed only one person trying to clean up the beach. I couldn’t believe that the hotels in the area wouldn’t make more of an effort to clean things up. After all, their guest are mostly the ones using the beach.


Cafe Wayan in Ubud

We didn’t spend much time in Kuta and I’m glad for that. We made our way to Ubud in the middle of the island. The last time I visited Ubud, it was an artsy small village. The whole yoga thing hadn’t caught on yet and the small town had a few hotels and guesthouses, and even fewer places to eat. Not surprisingly, in 16 years, the place had grown significantly. I hardly even recognized the main roads since additional houses and businesses had filled in all the available spaces.

Our small guesthouse, the Indira Cottage, was very close to the Monkey Temple, which we visited during our stay, and just down the road from the one restaurant I remember well from my last trip: Cafe Wayan. They were still in business and had expanded quite a bit. The food was still delicious and the atmosphere was just as charming. And just as I remembered, the mosquitoes were still plentiful and just as hungry. However, the bites were worth the seating in the garden. It was here that we also sampled some Indonesian wine and like many wines from little known wine producing areas, it had potential, but certainly wasn’t good enough for mainstream wine drinkers.

dsc_5599My last visit to Ubud was memorable not because of the town itself, but because of the people I met—from a young woman who operated a fresh juice bar to earn money for school, to a talented young man who sold me some very detailed pen and ink drawings of Balinese daily life. Unfortunately, Ubud has become so commercialized that we didn’t encounter any artists, just the galleries that sold works of local artisans. The vibe in the town isn’t what it used to be, but that just meant we were able to see things that were new to both of us. Of course, the occasional downpours made it difficult to get out and see as much as I would have liked.

dsc_5710The monkey temple is an obvious tourist trap, but still worth a visit. Monkeys roam freely around the grounds of the temple and the surroundings make for some memorable photos, but we had to be on our guard. The monkeys are very bold and have learned to reach into pockets and unzip purses to steal food and often valuables—anything shiny that catches their attention. Younger monkeys jumped onto my back or climbed up my legs, muddy paws and all. They also bite when provoked or if you try to shoo them away. We stayed long enough to take photos, capture a video of monkeys on my back, and get out before we became targets.

No visit to Ubud would be complete without venturing out into one of the local rice paddies. Luckily, there’s one close by that starts off in a winding alley between some high walls and ends at a nice little out-of-the-way bar in the middle of the rice field. It was the perfect place to grab a cold beer in the heat of the day before heading back to our hotel.


On our way to other activities, we stopped at a local temple to observe both men and women preparing for the upcoming Balinese New Year celebrations called Selamat Hari Raya Nyepi. Women wove small baskets and assembled food for offerings, while the men whittled skewers used to grill meat. On New Years day, the island goes dark. No one works, no one is allowed on the streets or beached, there is no electricity, no fires, and total darkness is observed for 24 hours to make the entire island appear silent so that evil spirits will think it’s uninhabited and go elsewhere. Tourists are not exempt and it’s probably best not to schedule a trip to Bali during this time.

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We went snorkeling at Blue Lagoon Beach and while it looked so nice when we first arrived, we quickly learned that the heavy rains washed all the trash strewn about the island into the waterways and eventually into the ocean. It wasn’t a pleasant experience to swim through all that plastic, but knowing that all the rest of the organic waste was also in the water made it even worse.

The afternoon continued with a visit to a natural salt maker, demonstrating the centuries old traditional way of extracting salt from the sea water. The process was labor intensive and time consuming, relying on sun and wind for evaporation, but I’m sure the salt making process would work much better with more sunshine and less rain.

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dsc_5781Our tour of the island ended with a visit to the Bat Cave Temple, a Hindu temple located next to a cave where bats roost. The rain made it difficult to actually see the bats at first, but upon closer inspection, we noticed thousands of bats clinging to the ceiling of the cave. Since it was a working temple with people praying, we had to wear a sarong and sash to enter. Since the temple was open to the weather, we decided not to spend too much time here since we’ve seen bats before.

We concluded our stay in Indonesia and Bali by staying at the Griya Santrian Resort on the beach. It was located in the Sanur area on the eastern side of the island. We spent three relaxing days doing absolutely nothing except take naps by the pool, be served drinks with little umbrellas, and eat fancy seafood while watching the waves and storms roll in. It was a great way to end our time on the island.

Indonesia has changed greatly since I last visited, some for the better, but progress has created some changes for the worse, especially in Bali. Nonetheless, Indonesia remains a popular destination and depending on where you go, what you plan to do, and where you stay, it can be a true slice of paradise with a long colorful history.

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