Saturday, January 6, 2018

Travels in Indonesia: Jakarta, Yogyakarta, Bali




I have just got back from a two-week trip to Indonesia.

Indonesia is probably the most important country in the world that I had yet to visit. This enormous archipelago stretches 5120 kilometers from East to West, longer than the already astonishing distance from Beijing to China's Westernmost point, and longer than the distance from London to Tehran. And while it's population may only be a fifth of China's or India's, that's still an awful lot of people. In fact, Indonesia happens to have the largest Muslim population of any country in the world. And not even all Indonesians are Muslim, far from it.

The fact that the country is spread across a vast number of rugged islands means that it is culturally and linguistically very diverse. Of course, a big chunk of the population is concentrated in crowded Java. But some of the other islands, especially further East, hide small cultures that have developed in almost complete isolation. The most extreme case is West Papua, where much of the population was literally living in the stone age until a few decades ago. But even in other islands across the archipelago, small pockets of hunter-gatherers still survive, and ancient animist rituals still persist in villages whose inhabitants might be classified as Catholics or Protestants on their IDs (Indonesia's citizens have to choose between one of six official faiths for their ID. Well, they are allowed to leave that section blank in theory, but not always in practice).

I started my journey off in Jakarta, Indonesia's sprawling, vibrant capital. Only after going there did I find out that Jakarta's wider metropolitan area is the second largest urban agglomeration in the world after Tokyo-Yokohama, with an incredible 30 million people. Just like many other things about Indonesia, this fact should probably be more widely known than it is. The city is exciting, but also congested and polluted. It is the biggest city in the world that doesn't yet have a subway (although it is now being built), and as you might imagine there is some terrible traffic. On my first day I learnt to get around with the local bus system, which consists of air conditioned buses that travel on special lanes that are physically separated by a barrier from the rest of the traffic, as a result of which they run nice and fast. It was hard to navigate the system without speaking much Indonesian, but the attendants always went out of their way to help me buy tickets and find my stop. This was something I kept coming across in Indonesia: while the country is still quite poor and, just like in much of the tropics, things are not always on time or efficient, the vast majority of the people are extremely friendly and helpful with outsiders.

I visited Kota, the city's old colonial centre built by the Dutch, full of crumbling old buildings that now host museums and cafes. I entered the Museum Wayang, dedicated to the traditional wayang puppets of Java, and then the history museum housed in the building that used to be the Dutch colonial headquarters, the epicentre of the whole colony. The stately building includes a prison in its basement. I then walked on to Glodok, the Chinese quarter further to the South. On the way there I walked down pavements where everything seemed to be going on, from people playing chess and napping to little sweatshops and restaurants doing their business. The street market in Glodok was quite memorable, fulfilling anyone's stereotype of an old Chinese market, with bustling lanes and little shops with red lanterns selling traditional Chinese medicine and other assorted Chinese items. The neighbourhood was the centre of the dreadful anti-Chinese riots that rocked Jakarta in 1998, after Suharto's regime lost power and all of Indonesia's ethnic grievances suddenly exploded into the open, including the resentment against the Chinese-Indonesian minority.

Taman Fatahillah, the square that was the hub of Dutch Indonesia
The street outside my hotel

My own hotel was in Grogol, another area further to the south. It was located next to a huge multi-lane highway, on the other side of which there was a fancy shopping complex and a luxury hotel. Once you walked over the pedestrian bridge that ran over the highway to the side my hotel was on, however, you found yourself in a maze of little alleys where people live in one storey houses with little porches and front yards, and where children play on the streets as their parents chat to each other. The area had the feel of a village in which everyone knows each other. It seemed poor, but not desperately so.

After a couple of days in Jakarta getting my bearings, I decided to take the train to Yogyakarta. 425 kilometres east of the capital, Yogjakarta is located right in the middle of Java. Although it is far smaller than Jakarta, with only 400,000 people in the city proper and about 4 million in the metropolitan area, it is an important cultural and educational centre, and the heart of traditional Javanese culture, arts and language. It is also located close to the ancient Buddhist temple complexes of Borobudur and Prambanan, so tourists use the city as a base to visit these.

The train ride from Jakarta to Yogyakarta took 8 hours. When I got to the station the only tickets left were for the economy class, so the whole trip only cost the equivalent of about 5 euros. The attendant was doubtful that as a foreigner I really wanted to travel in the economy class, but it turned out not to be too bad. Everyone had a seat, and there were no people sitting on the floor or standing as you would find in the cheapest class of a Chinese train. Attendants regularly came round selling drinks and snacks. The biggest problem was that there was not much space between the seats, and I was stuck competing for leg space with a local family.

The long train ride afforded me a good look at Java's landscape. For the first few hours of the ride, the scenery was an endless sprawl of houses and buildings. With 140 million people, Java is the world's most populous island by quite a long shot. The next most populous one would be Honshu, Japan's main island, which only manages 104 million, followed by Britain with 60 million. When you realize that Java only has 2/3 of Britain's size and more than double its population, you appreciate how crowded it actually is. Later into the train ride, as we reached central Java, I did see some pretty spectacular tropical rainforests from the train's window.


After getting to Yogyakarta I checked into my guesthouse, which had its own pool. My room only cost about 13 euros a night, and while not amazing it was decent. Prices in Indonesia are considerably lower than they are in China. I was the only guest in the whole place for two of the three nights I spent there, meaning that I had the whole courtyard with a pool to myself. Not bad at all. I was staying in one of Yogyakarta's two tourist enclaves, and yet there appeared to be relatively few foreign tourists in the area, at least compared to the number of hotels and restaurants obviously catering to them. I was there in the rainy season, which is low season. But I suspect that the recent volcano eruption in Bali might well have affected a lot of people's plans to go to Indonesia, and tourist numbers were down as a result. Staying in hotels with almost no one in them was going to become a constant of my journey through Indonesia.

The next day I visited the Kraton of Yogyakarta. Kraton is the Javanese word for a royal palace. The palace is the seat of the sultanate of Yogyakarta. The unexpected thing is that the sultanate is still active, and the current sultan is the official governor of the city. Yogyakarta is the only place in Indonesia to still be governed by a pre-colonial monarchy. This is the historical result of the strong support that the sultan gave the War of Independence against the Dutch. When the Dutch re-invaded Indonesia after the Second World War and took Jakarta, Yogyakarta became the capital of the Indonesian Republic from 1946 to 1948. After independence, Sukarno thanked the sultan for his support by allowing Yogyakarta to become a special administrative region with the sultan at its head. The current royal family, the Hamengkubuwono, have been in power since 1755, and the current sultan is the tenth in line. He has managed to stay in power even after Indonesia became a democracy in the late nineties, and all other provincial governors started to be elected by popular vote. In 2010, a suggestion by the central government that the sultan should be elected by the people provoked riots by angry Yogyakartans, ready to fight for their right to remain disenfranchised. In 2012 the proposal was shelved for good.

The palace complex was built in 1755, when the current family came to power. The large complex, right in the middle of the city, was meticulously built to reflect the Javanese view of the cosmos, and its every feature is shrouded in symbolic meaning. The palace contains a museum that displays the sultan's artefacts, with unfortunately little in the way of explanations. What I found more interesting than the artefacts themselves was the army of dignified elderly retainers walking around the palace grounds, all barefoot, dressed in traditional garb and carrying daggers for good measure. The palace was also dotted with writing in the traditional Javanese script, that has now been replaced by the Latin alphabet for practical purposes. The Javanese language is spoken or understood by almost 100 million people, making it the world's biggest language to have no official status, since Indonesia's only official language is Indonesian.

Staff at the sultan's palace with traditional garb and daggers, Yogyakarta 


A lot of Indonesian visitors stopped me and asked if they could take a photo with me. This used to happen a lot in Chinese tourist sites: visitors from remote parts of the country asking foreign tourists if they could take a photo together, as if the foreigners were a bigger attraction than the actual attraction. In China this has diminished a lot in the last few years, but in Indonesia it's still commonplace. I always oblige to such requests in China, and I did the same in Indonesia.

Outside of the innermost group of buildings, for which a (cheap) ticket is necessary, there is an area that is still within the outer walls of the palace where about 25000 people live and work. About 1000 are in the pay of the sultan. It is quite interesting to walk around. Unfortunately the whole area is also infested with touts, who will try and strike up a conversation with tourists and then take them to a workshop where they can buy examples of batik, the traditional Javanese dyeing technique. I was accosted by one such tout who took me to a workshop where I ended up buying a traditional Javanese wooden mask, very authentic but no doubt overpriced. To their credit, Indonesian touts tend to be gentle, polite and charming in a way that their counterparts in other countries could really learn from. There is none of the irritating pushiness you could find in countries like India or Egypt, or the brusqueness you might find in China. The country's generally relaxed and gentle behaviour clearly washes off on everyone.

The next day I visited Borobudur, Indonesia's answer to Angkor Wat. Borobudur is a huge stone structure built in the 9th century, considered to be the world's largest Buddhist temple. The temple was abandoned in the 14th century, when Java turned Muslim, and it lay forgotten into 1812, when the British ruler of Java Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles rediscovered the monument. Hotels in Yogyakarta all offer tours to Borobudur (and the other nearby complex of Prambanan, which I did not visit). These tours are all quite expensive, and what's more they all seem to leave at ungodly hours like 4 or 5 in the morning. This is both because watching the sunrise from the top of the temple is supposed to be a magical experience, and because in the middle of the day it can be scorchingly hot and/or pour with rain, so it is advised to get there early. I didn't fancy the idea of waking up so early, I'm not a huge fan of sunrises, and I didn't want to pay that much money, so I resolved to go by public transport. I took a public bus to Borobudur at the much more reasonable time of 9 in the morning, only to discover that the bus stop where I was advised to get off was actually quite a distance from the temple complex itself. I asked a man sitting by the side of the road in my very limited Indonesian how far the temple was, and discovered it was another seven kilometres. I ended up taking a taxi, and was charged an extortionate price which made me wish I had taken the tour after all.

The temple itself was spectacular. It is built in ziggurat fashion, with nine different platforms, the first six square and the last three circular, topped by a central platform with dozens of stone statues of the Buddha in the lotus position. When seen from above, it looks like a gigantic Buddhist mandala. The building is built to represent the three different realms of existence: the base of the building represents Kamadhatu, the world of desires where ordinary sentient beings live. The next five square platforms represent Rupadhatu, the world of forms, where beings go once they have abandoned their earthly desires: they see forms, but are not drawn to them. The top three circular platforms represent Arupadhatu, the formless world, where full Buddhas go beyond all form and perceive world as the formless ocean of Nirvana. Every platform is surrounded by stone reliefs representing that particular level of existence. Sitting on the top platform looking at the surrounding hills was a special experience.

The top platform of the Borobudur temple

Thankfully there were relatively few visitors around, and most of them were Indonesian. More strangers asked to take photos with me. While visiting the museum I got caught in a tropical downpour, and had to take shelter under a tent for about an hour. Once I was out of the temple I managed to identify a bus back to Yogyakarta and get back without mishap. That evening I went out in the Sosrowijayan area, a part of the city that gets lively at night. I ate in a very authentic little restaurant, where the food cost almost nothing and the diners sat on carpets on the floor. Sitting on the floor comes extremely natural to Indonesians, and a lot of street food stalls arrange carpets on the pavement for the customers to sit on while they eat. As a Westerner eating in such a place I drew some attention, and a tourist from the Indonesian Moluccas (the "Spice Islands") sitting at the table next to mine got up to greet me, shake my hand and ask where I was from in passable English. I ordered duck with rice, which turned out to be pretty tasty.

Later that night, back in my guesthouse, I tried to decide where to go next in Indonesia. The country is so huge, with a myriad different islands with different cultures and natural environments, that once you leave Java choices are almost endless. I also had to factor in the time and expense getting to some of the more far flung places would involve. The classical tourist thing to do would have been to fly to Bali, only a short hop further East. But I am not the kind of traveller who wants to stick to the beaten path. In the end I decided to visit one of the islands in Nusa Tenggara, the area consisting of the dozens of islands scattered across the ocean east of Bali and south of Sulawesi. After reading up on the different islands, Timor caught my attention. West Timor, the Indonesian side of the island, sounded fascinating, and was clearly not very often visited. I looked up flights and discovered that getting from Yogyakarta to Timor would invariably involve flying through Bali in any case. I decided that I might as well take a couple of days in Bali to rest and see what the place was like, before heading on to Timor.

Next afternoon I took a flight to Denpasar, the Balinese capital. Once in Bali I caught a cab to Kuta, the town on Bali's southern tip where most of the tourists are concentrated. The ride only took about twenty minutes. Kuta's streets looked like Ibiza, or any seaside tourist resort around the world. It was extremely overdeveloped, just hotel and restaurant after hotel and restaurant. Tourists from all over the world crowded the streets. I saw lots of Westerners of course, but also quite a lot of honeymooning Indian couples, which apparently represent a big new market for Bali. What seemed to be totally lacking were Chinese visitors. This was apparently because the Chinese government had warned Chinese tourists not to visit Bali due to the volcano eruption. Flights had been grounded in the previous weeks because of the dust from the volcano, but by the time I got there flights were running as usual, and there was no risk at all to being on the island (the volcano is in the north, quite far from the southern strip were most tourists reside).

I had dinner at a stall by the beach where it was possible to pay for the food with WeChat, and the owner spoke a bit of Chinese he had picked up from tourists. He lamented how there had been no Chinese for the past weeks, and how tourist numbers in general were down due to the volcano. I don't know what Bali is normally like, but apart from the lack of Chinese there still seemed to be plenty of tourists, certainly much more than I had seen or would see in the whole rest of Indonesia put together.

Before going to Indonesia, I had heard rave reviews of Bali from people of all kinds. "Simply magical" and "fascinating" were among some of the descriptions. Both Beijing hipsters and taxi drivers in Jakarta had told me that I just had to go there. Bali has had a special hold on the world's imagination for almost a century. Western tourists had already started to travel there in the twenties and thirties, and a number of Western anthropologists and artists who spent time on the island in those days contributed to mythicise it as a mystical land with a unique religious and artistic culture in a pristine setting. The island's culture certainly is unique within Indonesia, as it is the only place in the country where Hinduism is still followed, although what is called Hinduism in Bali has diverged considerably from the beliefs found in India itself. The island now serves as a getaway for people from the East and West alike, all attracted by the promise of a tropical paradise that offers both beaches and culture. Still, I saw no glimpses of the local culture in Kuta. There are certainly many Indonesians there, but I suspect many of them are not Balinese, and all of them work in the tourist industry. Walking down the back streets, I was treated to a constant chorus of "mister, transport" and "mister, massage" ("mister" is how Indonesians normally address foreign men). At night people would call out to me with more raunchy, illegal propositions.

After spending the first night in a dingy backstreet guesthouse, I decided to splurge and relax in a nice hotel on the waterfront for my second night. In the evening I went to drink a beer on the beach and watch the sunset, like all the tourists do. Kuta Beach is where tourism to Bali began. Although the atmosphere was nice, I was amazed to see a trail of plastic rubbish stretching across the beach, at exactly the highest point which the tides had reached. I hadn't seen this on any beach in South East Asia. I got chatting to a Belgian young man who lives in Jakarta. He told me that the trail of rubbish stretched all around the island. He also told me that it is particularly bad during the rainy season (which we were in), when the rivers overflow and carry the rubbish from all over the island out to sea, after which the tides wash it up onto the beaches. He commented that the local government should organize someone to clean it up, or tourist numbers will be affected in the long run. That night I walked along Kuta's bar street (the one where the 2002 bombings occurred), and found it to be more wild and frenetic than any bar street in Soho or Sanlitun.

The trail of rubbish strewn across Kuta beach, Bali

Kuta's bar street

Although staying in Kuta did allow me to relax and recharge for the next leg of the journey, what I saw of Bali certainly didn't seem to justify the hype. I suppose I was just in the wrong place. If I'd had more time, I would have taken a week to travel around Bali and get a better picture of what it is really like. Still, I was not unduly bothered. My next destination was Timor, which promised a lot more excitement.

2 comments:

Richard said...

I like Bali but hate Kuta - if you go there again atleast visit Ubud.

Ji Xiang said...

Hi Richard, If I go to Bali again I'll stay in Ubud and travel around a bit. Kuta was ok too for relaxing on the sea, it just didn't justify all the rave reviews of Bali I'd heard.