A lot of budget travelers to Indonesia prefer to spend more time in the Java island when compared to the other islands mainly because of its superior public transport infrastructure and the ability to travel long distances for a very small price. Trains and buses forms the bulk to the public transport system while there are taksi (taxi), ojek (motorcycle taxi), becak (3 wheeler cycle rickshaw), bajai (3 wheeler auto rickshaw), angkot (mini van) and more. Out of these, the trains offer the most comfort and are ideal to commute long distances.
During my last 3 weeks in Java, I have taken the train 4 times. I took the Executive class from Jakarta to Yogyakarta, the Executive class again from Yogyakarta to Malang, the Economy class from Malang to Banyuwangi and the Bisnis Class from Banyuwangi to Surabaya. For me, all classes were comfortable even though each journey was a minimum of 6 hours.
The thing to understand with the trains in Indonesia is that the cost of the trains vary with train type and class type. The Executive trains are the fastest, but also cost the most. All the compartments on the Executive trains are the Executive class, which is the highest class. There are no sleeper berths on the trains in Indonesia. All of them are seat type like the airplanes.
The Executive class has individual seats with push back option, pillow, blanket, and lots of leg room (I am a 191 cm guy and I was very comfortable). The Executive compartments are completely air-conditioned. The Bisnis class is also air-conditioned, but the seats are shared and the leg room is slightly lesser. Pillows are provided upon request. There are 2 types of economy class. One is economy with AC and the other is Economy with fan. Both of them are shared seats with very less leg room. Pillows are provided in this class too, but for a price. The cost decreases as you move from Executive to Bisnis to Economy AC to Economy.
Most of the trains have an attached pantry car that serves food. In the Executive trains, pantry attendants come to take personalized food and beverage orders, but in other trains, they just sell the wares. In economy trains, local vendors get into the train at each station and sell the wares. All the train compartments have attached toilets that are always maintained very well. While most of it is squat style toilets, some Executive trains have WC style toilets too.
The Executive trains take the least time to travel between 2 destinations because they either don’t stop at all destinations or stop only for a very brief period of time. They also get premium treatment over the other trains. The economy trains are much slower, but they stop at stations where the Executive trains do not stop. They get much longer than the Executive trains to ply between 2 destinations.
The thing to keep in mind is that in Indonesia, the Executive trains leave from a different station, while the economy ones leave from a different one. To ensure you have a comfortable train journey, carry a jacket and/or blanket with you if you are traveling in an air-conditioned compartment. The trains in Indonesia love to keep the AC very cold. Also, buy water and food as required from a supermarket before entering the train. Even though food is available on the train, it may or may not be fresh and is slightly more expensive than the supermarket.
The best thing about the trains is the ease of booking. One can either book the tickets directly at the train station, online at Kereta API train booking website and/or book at the nearest Indomaret supermarket (you pay 7,500 rupiah more for using this option). Unless it is a holiday, you should be able to book a train ticket one day in advance. Sometimes you can also get the ticket at the train station just before the scheduled departure of the train.
Friday, May 31, 2013
A lot of budget travelers to Indonesia prefer to spend more time in the Java island when compared to the other islands mainly because of its superior public transport infrastructure and the ability to travel long distances for a very small price. Trains and buses forms the bulk to the public transport system while there are taksi (taxi), ojek (motorcycle taxi), becak (3 wheeler cycle rickshaw), bajai (3 wheeler auto rickshaw), angkot (mini van) and more. Out of these, the trains offer the most comfort and are ideal to commute long distances.
Thursday, May 30, 2013
Kawah Ijen or crater Ijen is the world’s most acidic lake. It is also a volcano and sulphur gas continues to show its face here at all times. But, it is not for this reason that Kawah Ijen is famous. It is instead of the sulphur miners who go into its bowels to collect sulphur for a living.
They wear no protection, they brave the poisonous sulphur gases, they solidify the liquid sulphur and carry more than their body weight to the dropping site which is about 5 kms away through narrow, steep and dangerous paths. And all this for a pittance of a pay. But, in spite of all this, they always seem to enjoy themselves a sport a broad smile. Wish I could do this. May be, I should stop complaining about how hard my life is!!
In Indonesia’s Java, it is very difficult to find backpacker like hostels as everything is geared towards a couple traveller with provisions for rooms and if you are a single traveller, you end up paying double occupancy charges. Hence, I was very elated when I came across the Kampong Tourist backpacker hostel near Malang’s city center. I liked the place so much that I ended up staying 6 nights here. Below review is based on my recent experience of staying here.
1) Kampong Tourist has both dormitory and private accommodation. A bed in their dorm costs 50,000 rupiah, while if you want a double bed in their dorm, it costs 90,000 rupiah. Their private huts or gazebos cost 125,000 rupiah. For this price, they offer quite decent facilities and service.
2) The dormitories are bamboo styled accommodation with a big mattress for each bunker bed. There are private lights and private charging points. Safety lockers are provided, but one needs to bring their own padlocks. There are no fans in the dorm, but the weather is very pleasant in the night to the extent that you might feel cold.
3) Shower rooms and toilets are plenty and clean and are shared by all customers (dorm and gazebos).
4) Free wi-fi is provided and it has lightning speeds. I had bad connectivity for 2 days though.
5) The location of the hotel is fantastic. It is a short walk from the train station and is located close to most of the main tourist attractions of Malang. Since, it is located on the top floor of the luxurious Helios hotel, safety, location, parking and other amenities are taken care of.
6) They also provide the services of a travel company located downstairs to take care of all your travel needs.
7) The hostel arranges free city tours (run by students who are learning English) to all its customers if they are interested.
8) They have an in-house restaurant and bar that is open from 7 AM to 12 midnight. Their food is good and the prices only a slightly higher than the street outside. Do remember to try out their Javanese wine. Even though it is fruity, it can give you a good buzz in no time.
9) The reception is very friendly and try their level best to answer your queries. If they cannot, they point you in the right direction.
10) Since the hostel is situated on the 4th floor of the building, one can see lovely views of the mountains (on clear days) and of the colonial style architecture of Malang from the top.
11) The only negative thing that I can think about the hostel is that they don’t provide a towel. While this irks most of the travelers, most of the backpackers are prepared with their own towels.
I really loved this place and would love to stay there again when I return to Malang. If you are a backpacker or a budget traveler, I recommend you try out this place.
Wednesday, May 29, 2013
Warungs are a way of life here in Indonesia. They can be found almost everywhere in this archipelago. In fact, their existence can be found even before the colonial times. These warungs can range from small cigarette shops to cafes to fully blown local restaurants. The word actually means street side shop, but in today’s Indonesia, it means more a place which sells food.
If traditional food is what you wish to have in Indonesia, you have to go to a Warung. The dishes sold in a Warung vary with location. There are generally no menus and no one speaks English, but if you can bye-pass all that, you can taste some delicious local food. Even though I am a vegetarian and a foreigner who dibbles and dabbles in Bahasa Indonesia, I get what I want and end up going with a full stomach and a contented smile and all of this for a very low cost. I would always recommend warungs if you want to taste the local Indonesian food.
Tuesday, May 28, 2013
How are you able to travel for such long stretches of time? Who funds your travels? What is your job? I want to do this too, but whenever I travel, my money runs out faster than I anticipate it to. These are some of the reactions my friends and fellow travelers have when they see me traveling for many months. I thought it was best if I wrote about some of the techniques that I use to sustain travel for long periods of time. These are tips based on my travels and from ideas that I have heard from other fellow travelers, but have never come to terms with using them. I have split them into ‘how to save money’ and ‘how to make money’ while traveling. I hope this list of tips helps you plan a longer holiday for the same budget.
How to save money while traveling?
1) Never take a tour, a package or buy some service from a travel agent. You are always going to pay his margin, which could take precious dollars away from your budget. Go to the agent to get an idea, but always book things on your own directly from the service provider.
2) Be ready to walk and walk long distances. Sometimes even with a heavy backpack.
3) Always take public transport. This is generally the cheapest form of commute all over the world. And when you book such public transport, book it directly with the train/bus/ferry provider.
4) Travel as light as possible. This will help you be very mobile and also help you save cost with these low cost airlines who charge extra for check in baggage.
5) Stay in hostels, dormitories and cheap guest houses. Not only does it help you save cost, it also allows you to meet like minded people. These places are basic, but are generally pretty sufficient for backpackers with all the basic amenities.
6) Try and eat street food as much as possible. Not only does it give you a local taste, it also helps you save on some money as street food is the cheapest in every country. If you feel street food is not hygienic or if your stomach is a little too weak, either cook your own food or find out some cheap, yet safe restaurant.
7) If you are traveling solo, always be mentally prepared to meet strangers, make friends with them and share accommodation with them in places which don’t offer dormitories or hostels. This can apply to men and women and helps both the parties save on the cost of hotel rooms.
8) Make a list of all the low cost airlines in the world and ensure that you subscribe to their offers and email updates. You might get some insane deals. Air Asia, Tiger Airways and Ryan Air to name a few have thrown some mind numbing offers in the recent past and below $20 flights are still common to even this date.
9) Make lots of friends during your travels. If ever they offer to host you in their house in their country, remember that offer and take it when the opportunity presents. Not only does it allow you to catch up with your friend, it also helps you get a local flavor without spending money on accommodation. You can always repay your friend in kind or host him/her when they come to your country.
10) Use Couchsurfing. A lot of people use couchsurfing to cut on the costs of accommodation. While, this is a great way to meet local people, understand the local culture from them and save on the accommodation costs, I have personally never done couchsurfing before even though I am a member. I have heard some good reviews from fellow travelers, though watch out for people that solicit sex with couchsurfers.
11) As much as possible, try and walk into a city and search for accommodation. Generally, this means walking a lot and finding out the cheapest hotels in town. If you book via the booking websites, you will always end up paying more unless they are running a special scheme, in which case, keep a tab on it. It is also smart to check in with other backpackers and travelers to get a quick idea of which area is the budget area and what kind of prices do they have. I have more or less done this always in my travels where I have gone to a restaurant, introduced myself to other travelers and understood the local hotel topology.
12) Carry a hammock with you always in your backpack. In case, hotels are sold out, it is high season and it is expensive or the accommodation is way above your budget, you can always put your hammock on the beach or in between some trees and spend the night. This can sound scary to some, but it works out sometimes.
13) Try and avoid long day travel as much as possible. It is always good to do night travels as it will allow you to save the cost of accommodation while allowing you to cover long distances.
14) Always do research when it comes to financial transactions. Many banks charge a fee for international ATM transactions. Some banks charge lesser than the other, while in some countries, banks do not charge a service fee at all. Find out such banks and save on the service fees.
15) Always be ready to talk to fellow travelers. Everyone has interesting stories to share and some of them include some unbelievable tips. Learn from them.
16) Use free wi-fi as much as possible to stay in touch with friends and family. Most of the hostels, hotels and guest houses offer free wi-fi. If you don’t find such places, find a shopping mall, coffee shop or restaurant which offers wi-fi for free. Only take a local data plan only if you need to be connected always.
17) Buy a local sim card only if you have lots of local friends and you need to keep in touch with them. Else, avoid it.
18) At no costs, use a local phone to make an international call. They are always expensive. Use that local phone or your international roaming phone only in emergencies. Instead, use skype. Put credit in it or buy a country subscription and make international calls at local prices.
19) International Roaming is always expensive. See if you desperately need your international phone number. You can always buy a local one and share it with people who have to reach out to you.
20) Build your immunity. Drink filtered local water instead of bottled mineral water. A lot of cities provide filtered water. Ensure you always refill your water at such places. Water is such an important resource, but in many countries, bottled water is fairly pricey and hence can have a significant drain on your wallet.
21) While traveling, always keep some food and water with you. This will stop you from paying exorbitant prices for food and water while traveling.
22) Medical care is always expensive in any country you go to. Hence, always carry a basic first aid kit for small needs and go to a clinic, doctor or hospital only during emergencies.
23) Have a good travel and medical insurance plan with you that takes good care of you during emergencies. This will help alleviate all your stress during contingencies and emergencies.
24) Try and control your drinking and smoking in countries where it is too expensive. If you cannot control it, try the local beer/liquor and local cigarettes. They always tend to be much cheaper than the international ones which are imported. While doing this, beware of spurious products.
25) Keep your valuables safely with you and always on person with you or in safety lockers. Any loss will mean significant drain on your finances.
26) Stay flexible and ensure that you are able to change your plans at all times to save on cost.
27) Having a travel ATM card always helps. Depending on your country and bank, such cards do not charge any fee for international transactions. But, they might need you to keep large sums of money in your bank account. Every bank and country have their own clauses. Be sure to read them properly.
28) As much as possible, do not use your credit card to withdraw cash. You will end up paying significant interest to your bank. Instead, use your debit card and only spend the money that you have in your bank account and not what you don’t have.
29) Make sure you can sleep with noise and lights around you. If you cannot, then keep eye blinds and/or ear plugs ready.
30) Don’t shy away from leveraging your contacts and network in every country that you go to. Sometimes, these contacts are happy to host you or give you excellent local tips that might help you save some serious dollars. At the other extreme, don’t push them to the limits by staying with them for long periods of time.
How to make money while traveling?
1) Go on a working holiday and do some part time work. Some countries allow tourists to do part time work and get paid decent sums of money. Some countries like Australia promote working in farms.
2) Work part time jobs in the tourism industry in places where you can stay for long periods of time. These jobs can be bartending, waiting tables in a restaurant, managing the front desk of a hotel or be a hotel manager. Most tourist countries like expats who can speak many foreign languages. Keep in mind the rules related to your visa. Sometimes, this might be illegal as employment is mostly prohibited for people traveling on tourist visas.
3) Do a job that doesn’t require you to be in a specific location. All you might need is internet connectivity. These can be jobs in information technology or computers, media, design, journalism, writing and many more.
4) Maintain a travel and/or photography blog and make some advertising revenue from it.
5) Do writing and photography assignments if you think you can be a good photographer or a writer.
6) Take language translation assignments if you are good with the local language. Sometimes, you can become a guide if you speak the local and the international language. For example, take French, Spanish or Japanese lessons online in order to bolster your ability to find work in countries who speak these languages.
7) Partner with a local and start a business: a hostel, a guest house, a dive shop, a travel agency, a travel outfit or something else that allows you to make money and also travel. Keep in mind that this might require some initial seed capital.
Monday, May 27, 2013
A lot of us knows that Jakarta is a large metropolis that has grown quite a bit in popularity in South East Asia, but to assess and understand it’s true size and power, one has to be in Jakarta and see and feel it from inside. Apart from being the capital of Indonesia, Jakarta is also the largest and the most crowded city in Indonesia.
But, that is not where it stops. While the rest of the country has not really exploded in size, Jakarta has grown all around as can be seen by the length and breadth of its spread. And it has also grown vertically, which can be seen through its skyscrapers. To see how many people live in this mighty metropolis, look at the daily traffic snarls during peak hours.
In spite of all the high population, it still is a great city to explore and has a lot of Indonesian character to it while moving towards the style of the Western world. To get a good idea of Jakarta’s size and spread, one can climb the Monument Nasional (Monas) building in the center of Jakarta. As a foreign national, you need to pay 15,000 rupiah to climb up to the very top.
The top floor gives you panoramic views of the entire city, its skyscrapers, its harbour, its train stations, its key buildings, its dense greenery and the sheer density of this city. It takes quite a bit of wait to reach the top as there is only one lift to ferry all the people up, but the view is definitely worth the wait.
This place is very popular with the local Indonesians who come from different islands to Jakarta to climb Monas and see the view. Foreign tourists also come and visit, but a lot of them do not end up waiting to climb to the top.
If you are staying on Jalan Jaksa or at Jalan Cikini Raya, a 15 minute walk can take you to Monas. You can also hire a ojek or taxi to reach here. The timings for monas are 7 AM to 3 PM. It is better to go during week days and before 12 noon as it gets crowded at other times and especially during the weekend.
This place is one of the top attractions in Central Jakarta and should not be missed if you want to see Jakarta’s skyline view.
I hope these pictures entice you to go to this place, understand Indonesian history and see Jakarta’s dense and packed skyscraper view from the top of Monas.
Every city and region has its traditions, culture and food and as a traveler it is special when you get to see all of it without moving between many places. The Inggil restaurant in the center of Malang is one such place. This restaurant, which began operations in 1949 is completely modeled after East Java, has people from East Java as its employees, plays East Java traditional music and serves only East Javanese food.
The place appeals to you as soon as you enter it. It has an archaic touch with old telephones, an East Javanese artistic touch with pre-independence paper cuttings, posters from that era, memorabilia from East Java and finally everyone dressed up in typical East Javanese style. This place is more or less full every evening as the restaurant hosts a live musical performance based on East Javanese traditions. The songs can be a bit slow, but it is supposed to portray events from the daily life of East Javanese people.
The place is not real up market, but the ambience is definitely unique and the food is also very tasty. Even as a vegetarian, I found many options. And the best part is that the food is not expensive and in fact very affordable. We had 8 dishes and 2 juices and the cost came to about 80,000 rupiah (~8 USD). In case you wish to try out this place, it is on Jalan Gaja Mada and near the Tugu monument.
Most of the large cities of the world have a sky dining concept. And most of them are super luxury ones which means you end up paying a premium for the sky dining experience. But, in Jakarta, the spiel is very different. It offers a great sky dining experience within a variety of budgets.
There are restaurants on the 9th and 10th floors of a building that is located right in the heart of the city and offers a great view of the city skyline and the myriad of lights below. The place is in Plaza Semanggi, a popular shopping mall of Jakarta. Here in the 9th and 10th floors there are coffee shops, bars, lounges and restaurants offering some excellent Indonesian and continental fare. Since there are many restaurants offering a variety of cuisines and catering to a variety of budgets, it is very popular with the locals especially the middle class of Jakarta. It is close to the main business district and also to the universities and hence sees a lot of customers every evening. The sky dining experience opens at 6 pm and goes on till 11 pm. The price of the food varies from 30,000 to 80,000 rupiah depending on restaurant and fare. And I think for that price, the overall ambience is a great deal. If you are in Jakarta, you definitely have to check out this sky dining spot.
Sunday, May 26, 2013
If you got your Indonesia visa on arrival, then as per the current immigration regulations, you are allowed to renew it once for an additional duration of 30 days. But, to apply for this type of visa, it is better to inform the immigration officers of your intentions to renew at the time of getting your visa on arrival. The initial visa costs USD 25 and is valid for one month. The extended visa also costs an additional USD 25 and ensures you get one more month to stay in Indonesia.
One can get this extension done at Jakarta, Yogyakarta, Surabaya, Bali or any other city that has an immigration office that handles visa extensions. I did mine at Yogyakarta. I went on a Friday afternoon to just understand the process, but thankfully, I had all the necessary documentation to file my visa extension on the same day.
The front desk at the immigration office hands you a file folder with the visa extension form. After that, I took a token to understand the process at the immigration counter. Here I was told that I need to provide the following:
1) Passport with Indonesia visa in it and Indonesia departure card
2) Duly signed and completed visa extension form
3) 1 copy of passport
4) 1 copy of Indonesia visa
5) 1 copy of Indonesia departure card
I was told to leave the documentation behind and come back on Tuesday morning to pay the fee of 250,000 rupiah or ~USD 25. I paid the fee on Tuesday morning and came back to collect my passport with the extended visa (a new stamp next to the visa sticker) on Tuesday afternoon. In sum, I got my visa extension done in 3 days without any sweat. The imigrasi office at Yogyakarta (Jogja) is very professional and prompt. They live up to their timelines. I have heard pretty bad visa extension stories in Bali and Jakarta and I am happy that I did mine at Yogyakarta. If you plan for a visa extension in Indonesia, I would recommend getting it done at Yogyakarta.
Musicians all over the world have always created style statements. Be it long hair, weird tattoos, piercings and/or use of metal accessories. Well, today’s street musicians are no different. While I was exploring Jakarta, I dropped by Taman Suropati one morning to see these street musicians teach music to young kids.
This was also the time when I got to see and meet these street musicians. Not only did they play good music, but they also looked the part. One of them had such beautiful long straight hair that even girls would feel proud of it. And I met one more guy who not only had long hair, but had also painstakingly braided it to such extents that he can never remove the braids but cut it in case he wanted his natural hair back.
Both these street musicians were friends. While one played the guitar, the other was a vocalist and between the two they compiled some great songs. It was a pleasure to know both of them and I hope to see and meet such special street musicians in Jakarta and all over the world.
Saturday, May 25, 2013
Every city has so many secrets that are never seen by the typical traveler, either due to being on a short time leash or because it is not too popular. My urge to explore and the tip of a local Indonesian friend took me to Taman Suropati park in Central Jakarta. This is one of those places that locals visit to see street musicians in action.
On a Saturday night, these street, musicians play and enthrall the crowd, while on Sunday morning, they teach music to kids. I missed the Saturday show, but was there on a rainy afternoon to see scores of kids protecting their violins, guitars and other musical instruments from the rain.
As soon as the rains stopped, all of them got ready and multiple classes in different parts of the park got into motion. I came to know that these were different classes based on the skill level of the students. Some of them were beginners while the others were taking advanced courses.
While some were learning how to play the violin, the others were learning the guitar and all of these in the company of street musicians. It was great to see street musicians share their love for music with the interested kids for free.
Apart from seeing these street kids in action, you could also see local Indonesians bring their pets to the park. There were pythons, iguanas and rare creatures from Kalimantan, Molucca and Papua, the names of which I don’t even know.
Thursday, May 23, 2013
Apart from its many tourist attractions, if there is one thing that all the tourists will unanimously like is Yogyakarta’s (Jogja) food. One can find all kinds of food everywhere. From dirt cheap to cheap to value for money. T
he cost has to be less as this is the university town of Indonesia and students who predominantly eat all their meals outside, but cant afford to pay a lot for their food.
This unique cost and value mix and coupled with the excellent Central Java cuisine has ensured that Jogja has a wide variety of food that is sold from the wee hours of the morning to the late hours of the night. Even if you have stayed here for a week, like I have, it is difficult to sample as its delicacies. If you are running short of time, you should find this restaurant behind the Sultan’s palace near the Malioboro street, which has a great assortment of dishes in their buffet menu, but you pay for what you eat. I am sure you will end up licking your fingers and lips the entire duration of your stay in Yogyakarta.
Wednesday, May 22, 2013
Are you “Saya Tidak Makan Daging”? That means are you a vegetarian in Bahasa Indonesia. Well, if you are you need to know certain Bahasa Indonesia words and also the dishes that you can eat as Indonesia is a country that fiercely loves its meat. Be it fishes, white meat or red meat, the people of Indonesia likes it in all their meals. At first, this might seem like a big problem for vegetarians traveling to Indonesia, but once you understand the system, you will also find out that they have some of the best vegetarian foods too. It is better if you as a vegetarian can consume eggs (Telor) and peanuts (kachang). If you have an allergy to nuts and are a true vegetarian, then your options will be limited.
Below are the list of vegetarian (sometimes with eggs) dishes that I have been sampling in Indonesia over the past 2 weeks in this country. Since I am a strict egg-atarian, I have had to dig deep.
1) Gado Gado: This is my absolute favorite: This assorted vegetables with rice dumplings and one egg in a peanut sauce is the best lunch I have had in Indonesia. The rice crackers and a cold iced tea (Es Teh Manis) go perfectly with it.
2) Lotek: This dish is pretty similar to Gado Gado, but is pure vegetarian and comes with more greens, tofu and no eggs. Again, this is created in a peanut and chilli paste.
3) Cap Cai (pronounced Chap Chai): This is an assorted set of vegetables and mushrooms with or without eggs in either a fried form (goreng) or as a broth (kuah). This is best had with plain rice (nasi).
4) Nasi Goreng: This is your stereotypical fried rice with vegetables. If nothing works for you, this should definitely come in handy.
5) Nasi Gudeg Telor: One needs to acquire a taste for this traditional food from Yogyakarta, Java. It is rice and jackfruit served with egg curry. Cooked jackfruit always has an indifferent taste, but I like it.
6) Nasi Rica Rica (pronounced as Nasi Richa Richa): This is rice served with eggs in a spicy onion and tomato sauce.
7) Nasi with Sayuran and Sambal: If you wish to create your own food, then ask for Nasi (rice), Sayuran (vegetables) and Sambal (spicy onion and tomato paste). This will ensure that you have no need to consume any animal products.
8) Martabak Telor: This is a thick egg pancake that is perfect as a evening snack or on a rainy day.
9) Martabak Manis: This is a sweet egg pancake served with lots of sugar and sometimes chocolate or other flavors.
I hope if you are a vegetarian who is interested in traveling to Indonesia, this list gives you a fresh breath of life.
Monday, May 20, 2013
Gunung Merapi! This name is pretty much unknown in the tourist world, but it is almost one of the top 10 names in the list of the deadliest volcanoes in the world. A lot of tourists who visit the central Java region of Indonesia do not even know about this active volcano. Even if they do, they give it as miss, as unlike the Gunung Bromo and its easy views, one needs to do a 3 to 4 hour trek to reach the top of Merapi.
It is only those tourists who either have local friends or are couchsurfing who end up climbing this mountain of fire. This mountain is very popular with the local Indonesian people and attracts hundreds of trekkers every weekend. In line with this Indonesian trend, I joined my Indonesia friend and his group of friends to climb Mount Merapi last weekend.
About 12 of us left Yogyakarta at about 2 pm on Saturday and reached the base camp (spot for parking and has some small shops) after sunset. The drive should have taken us just 2 hours, but the weekend traffic and the heavy rains ensured that we reached late. A glass of the the tawar panas (hot sweet tea) woke us up and gave us warmth at the nippy base camp.
It took a while for everyone to assemble as everyone seemed to have gotten delayed due to the rain. Once all of us were together, we started climbing in what was a steep climb. There were hardly any flat stretches as the climb was continuously a steep ascent. Some of us reached our camp site in 3 hours while the other slow ones reached in 4 hours. The ground was slippery, some people got cramps and the weather was giving everyone a chill.
By about 1 AM, we had pitched our tents and were brewing a much needed cup of hot tea to warm us up. I was one of the few you came very badly prepared for this trek. First, I had no warm wear with me as a backpacker travels light and doesn’t expect to be cold in tropical south east Asia. Second, I had no trekking shoes, but my sandals. The worst was no sleeping bag. Hence, I had to sleep on the floor of the tent for close to 2 hours.
In the end, all I managed was 40 minutes of sleep. It was more or less the same that everyone else got. Some could not sleep at all. We were all terribly tired, but the excitement of seeing sunrise from the peak was beckoning all of us to start walking. In a short while from our camp site, the forest cover ended and the walk was through black stones and rocks.
Between the peak and the campsite, there is a place that is somewhat like a memorial to pay respects to the kids who lost their life during a trek when Merapi exploded. From the campsite to the peak was about 2 hours and as we were approaching the top, I got heady due to the sulphur gases and could not proceed any further. It was also the sunrise time so I went to quickly find a spot to perch myself and my camera. Some folks proceeded further to the peak to see the crater and the lava flowing underneath and the others made themselves comfortable in their own sweet spots.
The sunrise was sharp at 5:05 AM and it was beautiful to see the sun rise beyond Gunung Lawu and the city nights below were still twinkling. Slowly, you could see Mount Merapi, Mount Merbabu, which is opposite Mount Merapi and the two mountains that are situated a bit far away. The views were surreal as the weather stayed really clear. The colors of the sun, the landscapes and the views of the mountains kept all of us dumb struck for a long while.
As the sun rose up from behind the mountains, the clouds also seemed to rise with it making the entire world below seem like a maze of clouds. Once the maze of clouds dispersed, you could see the greens that covered these volcanic mountains. The slopes of Mount Merapi was a contrast of sorts with the top slopes being black while the slopes below were fresh green.
In a couple of hours, the cold winds of the night died down and the sun started warming up the entire place. Soon, all the warm clothes got replaced with summer clothes. By about 8 AM, all of us were back at the campsite and looking at the pictures.
While some of us were looking at each other’s photographs, some of the others were kind enough to brew some hot kopi (Indonesian coffee) and start with the breakfast. After a hearty breakfast, we started our descent back to the base camp.
Descent was quicker, but was very slippery with slimy mud and lots of pebbles and rocks. I fell on my backside 3 times, but it was part of the fun and the overall experience. The descent is actually tougher than the ascent as it has stretches all your leg muscles completely. After reaching the base camp, all of us celebrated with iced tea, some bananas and a group photograph. Then, we sleepily drove back to Yogyakarta.
If you wish to do this trek, do ensure you have a guide to help you guide as you might get in the upper stretches and especially in the night, when you have no sense of direction. Plus, it is good to have a local who is aware of the latest activities in the volcano and knows which side of the mountain is safe and which is not. There is also a permissible limit in certain parts of the peak as the sulphur gases might cause trouble if you breathe them for a long while. If you wish to visit an active volcano and/or explore Central Java like a local, Gunung Merapi has to be on top of your bucket list.
The place is called Yogyakarta and is in the Central Java area of Indonesia, but locals prefer to call their city Jogjakarta or Jogja. I had taken the day train from Jakarta and reached Jogja by about 5 pm. After dropping my bags at my friend’s place, he took me to the area surrounding the sultan’s palace. This is where I saw an interesting local ritual, which officially welcomed me to this young and vibrant city as a photographer.
There were these interesting decorated motor carts and cycle carts that had lights all over them. They had interesting shapes and designs and most of them had Jogja written in front of them. Locals like to take a ride in it and listen to some loud music while exploring the heart of the city in it. It is very popular with young couples and sometimes young families too. A great welcome for me to Jogja to see this colorful evening ritual.
Friday, May 17, 2013
It it not just me who is saying that the Six Degrees Hostel is the best in the world, but the entire world is. Everyone seems to give them a great review and this has ensured that this fairly new hostel has risen to stardom in a very short span of time. Be it hostelworld, hostels.com or any other hostel booking site, these guys seem to be on the top. I was lucky to stay here for 5 days and 4 nights and the below review is based on my recent experience of staying here.
1) The best attribute about this hostel is that it has been designed by backpackers and that is why every backpacking need is kept in mind.
2) The place comes with air-conditioned dormitory pods and individual rooms. There is a common lounge area with a movie theatre setup, a billiards table, a reading area and a computer area.
3) The place comes with lightning fast wi-fi and all bookings come with free breakfast. Coffee, tea and water are free throughout the stay of the customer.
4) Smoking is not allowed in the lounge area and in the rooms, but one can smoke in the roof top terrace that offers great views of the city while listening to some great music.
5) This place is run by two English guys and two Indonesian girls and all four of them are young and are interested in making great friends with their customers. This ensures that the customers automatically find a place that is like home.
6) The folks running the place offer great tips and are perfect in guiding around to the various hot spots in the city of Jakarta.
7) The dormitory pods have a well thought through setup with great soft mattresses, private reading lamp, private charging points, a fan (over and above the air-conditioning), a safety locker and a curtain for the pod for those who seek privacy while sleeping.
8) The other great attribute about this place is its centrally location and proximity to the tourist attractions. Restaurants, ATMs, shopping malls, train stations, key tourist attractions and many more can be either walked from the hostel or is a short drive away.
I really liked this hostel and know where to stay whenever I visit Jakarta again. According to me, it is perfect for backpackers, budget travelers and even families on a tight budget. You get all the above for 135,000 rupiah (~14 USD) and in my opinion that is a steal when you compare it to the rest of Jakarta.
Thursday, May 16, 2013
For all those who don’t know, Borobudur is the largest Buddhist temple in the world. It used to be one of the seven wonders of the world, but is today a busy UNESCO World Heritage site near Jogjakarta in the Java island of Indonesia. But, this interested travel snippet is not about this massive temple, but about the unique culture of making all visitors wear a sarong. And it doesn’t make a difference whether you are a local or a foreigner. All have to wear it and irrespective of the length of your dress.
And what better material than the batik to wear as your sarong. The area of Jogja is very famous in Java for the production of Javanese batiks and it is not only Jogja, but most of east Java that is famous for their batiks. And the visitors are made to wear these batiks free of cost while they tour the Borobudur temple campus. The color and design of these batiks vary every day and today, while I was there at the temple, the colors in vogue were black and white and navy blue with white.
Sunday, May 12, 2013
Most of the tourists visiting Jakarta stay in and around the Jalan Jaksa area of Jakarta as it is close to Central Jakarta, the bus and the train stations of Gambir, close to the main monuments and museums, close to the restaurants, bars and shopping malls and more so close to all the embassies in Indonesia. On my first day in Jakarta, I too stayed in the Jalan Jaksa area at Hostel 35. The below review is based on my experience of staying one day and one night at this hotel.
1) This hotel is located in one of the side streets connecting to Jaksa and hence is not too noisy as the hotels in Jaksa.
2) This hotel has been recently renovated and hence the lobby, the rooms and the entire hotel looks good and has some great woodwork, a nice pond and great ambience.
3) They have a variety of rooms (fan and air-conditioned) for single and double occupancy from 150,000 to 450,000 rupiah. Bargaining is possible depending on occupancy rates and longevity of stay.
4) Breakfast is included into all room tariffs and is provided between 6 am and 12 noon. Breakfast is a simple affair with white bread, margarine, marmalade and tea/coffee.
5) Wifi is free and is available in the lobby and in some rooms.
6) Since the place is near Jalan Jaksa, it is close to all the happening areas, the restaurants, bars, clubs, shopping areas and key tourist sightseeing areas.
7) The hotel is a 10 minute walk away from one of the city’s main bus and train stations.
8) Jalan Jaksa area and the hotel are also close to the local train service that connects to the Greater Jakarta area.
9) The folks running this place are helpful I guiding you to the right places for more information or assistance.
10) The place is clean inside, but the roads outside and to the side of the hotel are a little dirty and smelly drains, but that is the case with the whole of Jalan Jaksa.
Overall, Hostel 35 is a decent place to stay in Jakarta for a budget traveler and backpacker. It is not very seedy like the rest of the other places thanks to its newly renovated status.
Falooda! A lot of people haven’t heard about this dessert drink. This drink originated in erstwhile Persia and came to India during the Mughal empire and spread its wings far east till Burma during the days of the British colonial rule. Today, it is very popular in Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Burma. While I grew up drinking this summer drink during my childhood days, I hardly find the authentic ones any more in India and if I do find it I end up paying a huge premium. But, in Myanmar, that is not the case as it is found almost everywhere and it is a huge favorite with the locals.
This cold drink consists of milk, sago, vermicelli, ice cream, jelly, cherries, lots of sugar and saturated milk fat. One can get a full glass of Falooda for 1200 to 1500 kyat in the best shops in Yangon and Mandalay. The best shops in Yangon are Shwe pa Zun and Inwa cold drinks. If you taste this drink in the countryside markets, then you pay only 300 kyat, but then the quality has been sacrificed, though the drink still tastes very good. Keep in mind that unlike other desserts, this one is very heavy and filling. So, do remember to leave some empty space in your stomach for you to be able to enjoy this summer dessert drink completely. And I hope you have a sweet tooth!!
Friday, May 10, 2013
Indonesia is one of those countries in the world where the Indian passport can get a visa on arrival. In fact, the process was so simple that they hardly bothered with return air tickets, enough money to support, hotel address or any of the usual questions. All I did was go to the VOA counter where I was asked to pay USD 25 for the visa. Then I stood in the immigration line and when my turn came up, the immigration official saw my passport, smiled and said ‘Acha Acha’. I smiled too as I had just heard from my fellow passengers on the Air Asia flight about Hindi movies being popular in Indonesia.
The only question I was asked while I was waiting for my visa and stamping is the purpose of my visit. I said ‘tourism’ to which the immigration official jokingly enquired if I was sure. I said of course as I am on a long holiday. Thus my visa got stamped. Generally, all VOA into Indonesia are valid for one month only. However, if you wish to stay longer, you have to let the immigration official know that you will need to extend the visa. I did the same and I was told to get my extension done around the 18th at Jakarta, Yogyakarta or Bali. For this extension, I will have to pay USD 25 more at that time.
The process is really simple and for once I did not feel the pain of traveling on an Indian passport. I am already loving Indonesia.
P.S. I came to know all of the above at the Soekarno Hatta International airport in Jakarta about 60 minutes back.
Thursday, May 09, 2013
Everywhere I travel to, I try and taste their local food as long as it is vegetarian. While I was in the Shan state of Myanmar, I got the opportunity to taste two yummy snacks, Hin Tou and the Tea Leaves Salad. These snacks are so good that the locals seem to enjoy it every evening.
Hin Tou is pounded rice with onions and greens steamed in a banana leaf and then served with roasted garlic, oil and fish sauce. Tea Leaves Salad is a salad with some greens, tomatoes from the Inle Lake and a variety of roasted and deep fried nuts and beans that include peanuts, broad beans, soya beans and more. The salad is served with chillies, coriander leaves, roasted garlic, oil and fish sauce.
If you are a vegetarian and/or do not like the taste of fish sauce, you can tell them to skip the fish sauce for your snack. The rough cost of a plate of either of these snacks should be 700 kyat for a small plate and 1000 kyat for a large plate. These are costs of the street and hence the prices will be higher if you order them in a restaurant. Both these snacks are addictive, so be prepared to eat more than one and may be skip your dinner.
Every country has its specialties. In Burma, the fishermen of Inle Lake, called the Inn Thars have to be one of the more special ones. The reason is because of their unique fishing style that makes them famous all the world over. In fact, such is the popularity that these fishermen have been on the cover page of magazines and books for many years.
The Inle lake, unlike other freshwater lakes of the world has a lot of undergrowth that keeps floating in the water and it seems like the fishes hide in these plants. Hence, in order to catch these fishes, the Inn Thar people devised their own interesting technique. They oar with their feet to disturb the water and as the fishes rise up from the plants, they use a large net to trap them. Then they use sharp spears to kill the fish inside the net. I captured this photo around sunset in the middle of the lake.
Wednesday, May 08, 2013
Getting from the airports to the city always seems to be the most expensive commute and also the most time consuming especially in some of the larger cities in the world. This rule applies to Bangkok too. While, the more popular Suvarnabhumi airport has an airport express train service that connects to the Bangkok skytrain network, the other Don Mueng international airport doesn’t seem to have any such express train service. For all those who fly Air Asia or the other low cost airlines or are flying domestic routes in Thailand, this is the airport that they use and I hope this post will help those travelers find some effective ways to commute from the downtown part of the city, especially the famous Khao San road and the airport and vice versa.
There are 4 broad options to make this commute:
1) A taxi from Don Mueng international airport to Khao San road. This should cost you between 300 and 400 baht depending on traffic conditions. It will work cheaper per head if you can share the cost with someone else. This will also take a long time if you arrive during the day.
2) A shared van from the airport to the city should cost you 150 to 200 baht. This option will take you the most time as you will have to wait till the van is full and when you do the return trip from Khao San to the airport, the van will invariably pick up all the guests from their different hotels around the city and this will take a lot of time.
3) You can take a taxi or bus to the nearest sky train or the Mo Chit sky train station and from there take a sky train to Siam central. From here, a taxi should cost you 70-100 baht, depending on traffic.
4) The cheapest option is to walk out of the airport while following the directions for the railway station. At the Don Mueng railway station, buy a ticket for either Samsen station or Bangkok (Hua Lumpong) railway station. This ticket should cost you 5 baht and there is a train running every 20 minutes. The journey to the final destination should take about 40-45 minutes. From here, you can take a taxi to Khao San road for 50-60 baht.
I hope you find this information helpful and I hope it helps you save some money while traveling from the Don Mueng airport to Khao San road and vice versa.
Monday, May 06, 2013
Myanmar (previously known as Burma) is one of those countries where one can see very interesting behavior that is different from the rest of the world. This is primarily due to the fact that Myanmar has been locked from the world for a good six decades since their independence. I spent 25 days in Myanmar across Yangon, Twante, Bago, Nyaung Shwe (Inle Lake), Bagan, Mandalay and Mytikina. Below are some thing that I found interesting about Myanmar. I hope it is a great read for you and helps you understand something about this culturally vibrant country with the best people in South East Asia.
1) A lot of Myanmar cities have a colonial look and feel.
2) The national dress of Myanmar is the longyi. While the men wear more boxes and checks, the women wear more floral and colorful patterns. Everyone in the country wears their national dress proudly.
3) Nearly all of Myanmar people have red teeth as they love to chew the betel leaf and the betel nut. They also like to spit it anywhere on the roads.
4) Electricity supply is sporadic everywhere in the country.
5) The domestic flight tickets are more expensive than international flights of the same duration.
6) The Burmese have an obsession with the word ‘Shwe’ that stands for ‘GOLD’.
7) The water festival of Myanmar is one of the craziest festivals you can ever participate in.
8) There are so many Indians in Yangon and Mandalay that you think whether they are cities in Myanmar or India.
9) Even though the Myanmar Kyat is the national currency, tourists have to pay in US Dollars for their hotel accommodation, flight tickets, train tickets, ferry tickets and entrance to monuments or tourist destinations.
10) Nearly all the cities have ATMs that work with international cards. KBZ is associated with visa, while CB Bank is associated with Mastercard.
11) Cellphones are picking up craze in Myanmar and internet connectivity (though a tad slow) is available at all towns.
12) Healthcare, even for the locals is very expensive in Myanmar.
13) The National League for Democracy (NLD) headed by Aung San Su Kyi has a lot of supporters in Myanmar.
14) The Buddhists of Myanmar have a lot of animosity for Muslims of their country.
15) Street food is the norm in all towns and cities.
16) Thanaka (made from bark of a tree) is the national cosmetic for the face and also acts as a coolant.
17) Like the temples of South India, pagodas or phayas, the Buddhist temples are found everywhere in Myanmar. Sometimes, their high density bewilders people.
18) When entering a pagoda complex, people are not supposed to wear footwear or wear shorts or sleeveless clothes, but there is no rule that stops the people of Myanmar from smoking inside the temple complex.
19) Even though the people of Myanmar believe themselves to be stout followers of Lord Buddha, they do not believe in his principle of not drinking alcohol. This can be seen at around 5 pm when all the men start drinking beer or spirits in a communal fashion.
20) The people of Myanmar believe that development of their country is only a couple of years away. But, I tend to disagree as the country will take a decade to two to get its act right and be anywhere close to any of its neighboring countries.
21) China is helping Myanmar in setting up a lot of its infrastructure in return for its famous forests of teakwood, sandalwood and other hardwood.
22) Garbage disposal and recycling is still forgotten in Myanmar. One can see huge mounds of garbage all over the city and highways.
23) Myanmar drives on the right side of the road (like USA), but still has vehicles with right hand drive. It is only the new vehicles that come with left hand drive.
24) The unanimous voice in the country is that they want to grow and grow rapidly.
25) The trains in Myanmar have so much sideways movement that even ships rolling under monstrous waves and monsoon winds can be put to shame.
26) There are many models of Japanese and Chinese cars in Myanmar that I have never seen. May be, they used to exist before I was born three decades ago.
27) The art of hand made crafts still survive in many parts of the country.
28) There are places where they grow vegetables on water and not on land.
29) They make threads for the weaving industry from the stem of the lotus plant.
30) While most of the monks in Myanmar smoke and chew betel nuts, there are some monks who drink alcohol too.
31) Even though the country has started to open up, most of the people of Myanmar are still very poor.
32) Myanmar beer, owned by the government is more expensive than Chang beer, which is imported from Thailand.
33) Hotels in Myanmar are very expensive when compared to their quality, standards and service.
34) Burmese people connect their arms when placing, giving or taking anything from anyone.
35) Burmese people bend a little low while going between 2 seated people.
36) An owl is believed to bring good luck and money.
37) The government of Myanmar does not charge for the water during the 4 day water festival.
38) The people of Myanmar love to stare at tourists. It is may be because as a country they have been locked up for such a long time and have never seen people apart from their kind.
39) Myanmar’s favorite sport is played with a hollow ball made from bamboo cane.
40) There are mountains of jade and precious stones in the Kachin state of North Myanmar.
41) Chinese products (Motorcycle, TV, Electronics, Electrical Equipment) are very popular in Myanmar owing to their lower costs.
42) Even though Naypitaw is the capital of Myanmar, hardly any buses or trains lead to that city. It is like Myanmar’s ghost city.
43) There are some domestic airports that finish as soon as you take 10 steps out of the aircraft. It is here that your baggage is dropped at your car/taxi by the aircraft ground staff.
44) People of Kachin state closely resemble the people of North East India.
45) Most of the music in Myanmar is a copy of Western music. This applies to their film and individual music albums.
46) Myanmar is big on Karaoke. Karaoke shows attract big crowds in Myanmar.
47) Fish sauce is considered a delicacy in this country. All their favorite foods (including Mohingha noodles, their traditional dish) seem to have fish sauce in it.
48) There are plans to make Yangon like a Singapore and/or Hong Kong. Apparently, a Japanese company has won the contract to do the makeover.
49) Music is played on the aircraft flying domestic routes.
50) The men use a kissing sound to call other people like waiters in hotel, a cab driver, a tri shaw driver or even their subordinates.
Burma has possibly some of the sweetest people in South East Asia. They have retained their broad smiles in spite of being locked from the rest of the world for many decades. They will stare at you, but only with a pleasing bewildered look because they don’t see much apart from their own kind. I got the opportunity to photograph many of them in their own environment and doing their thing as I traveled across the country from the south to the north. Here goes the photo series on the people of Myanmar.
The Burmese women/girls like to wear Thanaka on their faces. It is believed that this makes their skin soft while keeping them cool and protecting them from sun burn.
Myanmar girls do a lot of work in the local cheroot industry.
Old Burmese Woman weaving the ubiquitous Burmese Longyi for the Burmese women.
A poor Burmese boy makes his living by selling cigarettes, gum, facial tissue, lighters and other small items on the Yangon – Dalla Ferry. In spite of his hardships, he can afford to sport a smile.
Paho Tribal Women smiles as she is helped off a boat at Inle Lake. Paho tribe is one of the many tribes living in the large Shan state of Myanmar.
With increased mechanization, hand-made pottery is seeing a slow death all over the world. But, there are still pockets in Burma where this art is being preserved and used as a livelihood.
Buddhist Monks can be seen everywhere. Unlike other countries, Buddhism is followed with more fervor in Burma. Right from the morning alms ceremony to not eating food after the only meal, the Buddhist monks seem to do all the right things.
Thanks to its large rivers and big lakes, Myanmar is very rich in fishes. Its Inle Lake with undergrowth requires a different type of fishing with large fishing nets and an awkward way of disturbing the water with the feet.
Many people like them make a living out of taking passengers on a motorcycle/tri shaw in Myanmar. They are lucky if they make anywhere close to 15,000 kyat or about USD 18 per day. The tri shaws make significantly lesser money per day.
Myanmar kids are very affectionate and smart. With the right education and healthcare, they will do great things for their country. But, right now, they live in poverty with very basic education.
An inquisitive and stylish kid from the slums of Myitkyina, Myanmar.
Even though street food in Myanmar is not as hygienic as the other South East Asian countries, it is still very popular with the locals as it offers a much cheaper option when compared to the restaurants, which work out to be expensive for the locals who live on a meager income.