Scotsabroad's Weblog

February 22, 2015

Jayavarman 7

Filed under: Holidays — scotsabroad @ 12:36 pm


A God-king. His creative ambition and spiritual devotion – along with a wee bit of self-defense against the Vietnamese Chams – resulted in the magnificent temples and fortifications around Angkor Wat. Surayavarman the second may have built the most famous. The legendary Angkor Wat Temple. But, Jayavarman the seventh built the magnificent city of Angkor Thom – the capital of the Khmer Empire. This city boasted a population of one million when London was a small town of 50,000. He also built the incredible temple of Bayon. After his death in 1219 the empire went into steady decline. Angkor Wat was restored in the 16th century by the Khmer royalty as a Buddhist shrine. The rest of the area was left to the jungle for many centuries. 


We tried hard to read up on the Buddhist myths and legends and identify the motifs, symbols and characters carved within the temples. What is the Churning of the Ocean of Milk all about? We were all too familiar with Lingas.



On our first afternoon in Siem Reap we visited the Angkor National Museum. The galleries were okay. The gallery of a thousand Buddha’s was okay – although some were a bit on the small side. But, we learnt later that when the state religion reverted to Hinduism a lot of Buddhist sculpture was vandalized or altered. Certainly, there were numerous headless Buddhas scattered around the Angkor Wat site. We also thought that many of the treasures in the museum would have looked better back in situ. But, then we found out that there is an attempted theft of an artifact from Angkor Wat on a daily basis. Big artefacts too. Also, over time sandstone tends to dissolve when in contact with dampness.


Our greatest pleasure was just cycling round the monumental site that includes Angkor Wat. We hired bikes and bought a three-day ticket. Exercise, fresh air and culture ticked all our boxes.


The first bridge at the South gate to Angkor Thom is just wonderful. A balustrade of warriors on each side taking part in a monumental tug-o-war. Each guardian with a different dour expression of determination. We crossed this bridge every day on our way into the archaeological site.




On the first day we cycled to the furthest away sites. Neak Pean was a large square pool used for ritual purification rites. We reached it by walking across a long wooden pontoon over partially flooded ground.


Then we clambered over the ruins of Preah Khan. Piles of sandstone blocks lie piled against lichen-clad walls and blocking corridors. 



The next day we visited Prasat Kravan, Banteay Kdei and another pool of ablutions, Sra Srang. Then it was on to Ta Prohm. Film set for Lara Croft in Tomb Raider. Ta Prohm had literally been swallowed by the jungle – but now only the biggest and most photogenic trees and root systems remain. Many corridors are impassable, too many tourists and clogged with piles of stone churned up by the roots of ancient trees. An army of labourers rested under a crane or on the roofs of damaged galleries. Others stood around a stone block probably guessing where it could go. You can’t imagine how they get the pieces back together. 


Then we decided to walk round the outside of Bayon. We marveled at the 54 gothic towers decorated with 216 faces of Avalokiteshvara. 


Everyone was trying to take a picture that would capture this mesmerising temple. But we just sat and watched a massive swarm of bees clustered above an entrance. Every so often a ripple moved across the body of the swarm – making it look as if the stones themselves were moving. Angkor Wat looks good from a distance. Up close, Bayon can’t be surpassed.



While Lucas took a catnap at the shaded entrance to Baphuon Temple, we walked the 200m elevated causeway, held up by hundreds of pillars. Baphuon was a pyramidal representation of the mythical Mount Meru. It certainly was a steep ascent to the top.


We found it hard to believe that this temple had lain in 300,000 pieces for about 25 years. Restoration had halted during the Khmer Rouge years. Indeed, the Khmer Rouge destroyed all the records and cataloged details of how to put it back together.


On our last day we stopped at Baksei Chamkrong, a small temple from the 10th century. It was a challenging climb. Inside Lucas was rewarded with another good luck blessing.



We then headed on towards Angkor Thom. We stashed our bikes across from the Terrace of the Leper King. We walked the Elephant Terrace. A viewing stand for public ceremonies in the central square. The walls were decorated with parading elephants, trunks holding tails and carrying their mahouts. We walked back on the terrace and entered the royal enclosure. There is little left of the actual palace but the palace temple of Phimeanakas is still there. In need of some TLC. We climbed to the top – as you do.


We then headed for Bayon with the intention of going inside.   We were not disappointed. We followed the bizarre directions through stooped corridors, avoiding descending tourists while passing precipitous flights of stairs. Eventually, we were allowed to ascend a flight towards the towers. It was incredibly busy up top but we still took in the wonder of the place – our progress monitored by the coldly smiling enormous faces. 


We then headed for lunch and a final visit to Angkor Wat. I read it took 300,000 workers and 6000 elephants to build. But, they still didn’t finish it. It’s hard to predict how many elephants you need. It was an exciting walk towards the temple. It was mobbed with Cambodians and tourists of all nationalities. The temple is massive, believed to be the world’s largest religious building. We walked around the sides and back looking at the outer wall bas-reliefs. We decided not to queue for access to the third level.



We sadly headed out of Angkor Wat for the last time. But, grateful to have been so lucky to experience the place. I now have a brass head of the great king on my bookshelf.


One of our last posts?


January 6, 2015

Cold Curry Cows and Cricket

Filed under: Books,Holidays — scotsabroad @ 8:23 pm


We were not prepared for the weather encountered in Agra, Delhi and Rajasthan. We felt the cold everyday. The classic shot of the Taj Mahal does not show it shrouded in heavy mist. We experienced the mist straight away on our arrival to Delhi. We crawled to Agra through the fog in about five hours following the fluorescent paint on the road. However, the mist took nothing away from the magnificence of the place.


I read Diana and Michael Preston’s delightful book, A teardrop on the Cheek of Time – the story of the Taj Mahal, a few months ago. This was a great potted history of the Moghul empire – and preparation for some of the extraordinary palaces we encountered in the region and the remnants of Moghul opulence we discovered as we drove around the region.


In Agra we also encountered the first of many local school excursions and waves of modern Indian tourists enthusiastically visiting their country’s historical sites. They often brought warmth and colour to some sun-starved places.


Some memorable moments…


Standing at the bottom of the steps of Buland Darwaza (Victory Gate) at Fatehhpur Sikri. This fortified ancient city was magnificent. We walked the courtyard where Akbar is said to have played an ancient version of ludo using colourful slave girls as pieces. And the site of public executions where Akbar’s favourite elephants trampled on convicted criminals.


Drinking creamy lassis in the early morning from a clay cup in Jaipur.




Enjoying some early morning warmth in Jaipur. Stopping to view the outside of the Palace of the Winds. Lucas befriended a snake charmer. Climbing the Iswari Minar Swarga Sai (Heaven Piercing Minaret) above the Tripoli bazaar at sunset. Walking the streets around the City Palace and visiting the extraordinary Jantar Mantar – an observatory built in 1728, with its large sculptures that are incredibly accurate instruments of calculation.


The boys sitting on the wall outside the Sun Gate to the Amber Fort for about an hour watching an unbroken line of painted elephants negotiate the steep ascent into the main courtyard. Tourists are now deposited in the courtyard, replacing the war booty once displayed here to the populace. This was our favourite palace and fort.


Visiting a paper-making factory near Jaipur after an unsuccessful tiger safari in Ranthambhore National Park. Getting a tour of the premises. Sheets of fabric paper hanging to dry from the ceiling. Everything from lightshades to notebooks produced mostly for export.


The highway was the domain of magnificently un-aerodynamic lorries. Tata or Ashok Leyland trucks rumbled across the country many with tasselled and tinselled mirrors. Massive, slow-moving cuboids with rear painted messages such as, Blow Horn and All India Permit.


Lucas delights us, innocently reading aloud another common message on the back of trucks, use diaper at night. After our laughter subsides in the car we get to thinking of the advantages of wearing one while driving in India. No disgusting service stops for a start.



We visited the mighty fort of Mehrangarh as the sun was setting and looked down on the blue city of Jodhpur.



We visited the wonderful old clock tower in the heart of Jodhpur’s Sardar Market. The old mechanical time-piece struck ten as we reached the top.






A stop for lunch (and jewellery shopping) at a 300 year old heritage hotel at Rohet. Bruce Chatwin stayed here when he wrote (bizarrely) his book about the Aborigine people. His book, Songlines, describes the importance of ancient markings and songs to the Aboriginal’s nomadic lifestyle and their ability to travel across vast distances. I read it years ago when we lived in Harrowden Road.


We admired the many Royal Enfield motorcycles on the road. Still produced in India, they may not go fast but they look good and sound menacing.


We visited a showroom in Jaipur and I ended up buying a t-shirt. On the road to Udaipur we stopped at The Motorcycle Temple.


Om Bana Temple was mobbed. A garland-decked Enfield Bullet from the 1980s is seriously worshipped. Om Bana died when his motorbike skidded into a tree. The bike was taken to the local police station but then mysteriously twice made its own way back to the crash site. Travellers along the road also started seeing visions of Om Bana.


Only Lucas was brave enough to accompany me in and have his forehead smeared with a blessing. A cow was chased away as it made a grab for the flower garlands. 


We visited the amazing Jain Temple at Ranakpur. Built in the 15th century from white marble. 1444 individually carved pillars. 


Udaipur’s Lake Pichola. Four years ago there was no lake due to drought. Very touristy but stunning none the less. We sailed to Jagmandir island as we watched locals wash their clothes and perform washing rituals on the steps. We looked on Jagniwas Island. Roger Moore swam here, disguised as a crocodile, in the film Octopussy. Indeed, many hostelries show the movie daily. We explore the City Palace. I pick up an elephant head carving from an artisan outside the palace gates.


Stunning architecture. Detail in everything. Even the glass adornments high up on the top of gates and arches catching the light.





We visited the Monsoon Palace on top of a mountain above Udaipur. The boys oblivious to how high up we were and lack of safety barriers.


On advice we drove to a remote Mewar fort called Kumbhalgarh instead of the bigger Chittorgarh Fortress. Rulers used to retreat here in times of danger. It was only taken once in its entire history and only then by the combined forces of three armies. And they only held onto it for two days. The walls were magnificent, wide enough in some places for eight horses to ride abreast. We walked a small section of the twelve kilometres of wall in the warm afternoon sun.




A clogged street runs up from the Palace gates to the footbridge for Hanuman Ghat in Udaipur. Tourist-tack, tourist cars and beasts of burden vie for space. I’m sure the horns are pitched louder in Udaipur.



On our final morning in Udaipur we squeezed in a cooking class at the Queen’s Café. We shivered in Meenu’s home kitchen. While drinking Chai, we found out about the basic spices and the amounts to use in a curry. Cumin seeds: 2 pinches, mustard  seeds: 2 pinches. Then coriander, red chilli powder, salt, turmeric and garam masala in decreasing amounts of 5,4,3,2,1 pinches.



We… okay, Lucas made pakura, wet and dry masala, chapattis, paratha, poori and naan. We couldn’t really appreciate the food as we had been poisoned the night before in an expensive, dangerous roof-top barbecue restaurant. We certainly were not prepared for all the unwashed fingers in the mix. On the whole the food during our holiday was fine, especially since it was mostly vegetarian. Once our friends asked for mutton at a roadside service restaurant.  We think we got the gist of what the waiter said – something like it wasn’t being served today because the last diner who ate it had got a worm. This was before we ate. Kingfisher beer seemed to kill most bacteria at mealtimes.



Then there was Delhi. We flew to Delhi from Udaipur and stayed at some dodgy bed and breakfast. Freezing and not enough hot water. We welcomed the new year in with a rat in the kitchen and an intruder up at our bedroom window. For our last two nights we decamped to the Holiday Inn. Delhi was cold and dirty and hard to love.

However, we managed to see a fair bit of the city as we zoomed around in auto rickshaws. At other times we braved the underground.



We visited to Jama Masjid, India’s largest mosque. In our socks, we climbed the filthy steps of the narrow southern minaret for a view of the old city. We stopped outside the Red Fort. We did not go inside. The British had gutted the place after flushing out a last troublesome Mughal emperor in 1857 and upgraded it to an ugly military barracks.


We had an interesting tour of the Sisganj Gurdwara on Chandni Chowk. This Sikh shrine was mobbed. We got to see the community kitchen, providing food for twenty to twenty five thousand devotees, pilgrims, visitors and the hungry each day. Huge cooking pots and chapatti making machines. If you are hungry the last thing on your mind is prayer, explains our guide. We taste the sweet wheat halwa distributed on small foil plates to devotees entering and leaving.


We visited the Qutb Minar Complex. Dominated by the victory tower and minaret built in 1193 to proclaim Muslim supremacy over vanquished Hindu rulers. At the foot stands the first mosque built in India. Built from materials taken from demolishing idolatrous temples, the buildings are carved with recognizable pieces of Hindu and Jain masonry – some quite explicit.


Standing inside the complex is an iron pillar. It is 7 meters high and predates all the surrounding monuments. Originally from a Vishnu temple it might date from around AD 375 to 413. Mystery still surrounds how it was made – scientists can’t work out how the iron, which has not rusted after 1600 years, could be cast with the technology at the time. Still, wouldn’t stand a chance after a few winters in Greenock.


Our final day was spent at the National Museum. Some of the carvings  downstairs (from the Harappan Civilisation?) matched the best we saw in Egypt. The  surviving jewellery from the Moghul Dynasty amazing. Did I see that on the turban of the Khasi of Kalabar (Kenneth Williams) in Carry On Up the Khyber? Sorry.


A sombre visit to Gandhi Smriti. His family house where he spent the last 144 days of his life before being gunned down in the garden. Great man. When Gandhi was asked what he thought of Western Civilisation, he replied that it would be a good idea. A flying visit to one more tomb before closing time. We started our time in India with a visit to Akbar’s Mausoleum and end with Humayun’s Tomb. It too alive with green parakeets. Bicycles… dogs…


Cricket. The most popular sport in India. Being played by the young in every conceivable place – mosque ground, parks, streets and in the roundabouts and under flyovers on our way out of Delhi.


India. What a fantastic place. Well, we only saw a bit. Love Rajasthan. Our little, point and shoot, Canon IXUS tried its best. In fact, I think this post includes just about all the pictures it took. Our penultimate foreign holiday. We will remember this one for a long time to come.

December 22, 2014

Love Central

Filed under: Holidays — scotsabroad @ 11:02 pm


August 21, 2014

Nathaniel’s Place

Filed under: Books,Holidays,Indonesia — scotsabroad @ 8:48 pm


Ever changeable transport connections made the Banda Islands an awkward place to reach. But the wonderful week we eventually had on Banda Neira made all the logistics worthwhile. We found an amazing, as yet undeveloped place that brought Giles Milton’s book very much to life. Many people have been asking us for details about getting to the islands so I hope the information included in this blog helps in some way. 


Nutmeg, one of the medieval world’s most expensive commodities was once produced almost exclusively in the Banda Islands. Things started to go wrong for the islands when the Europeans arrived and demanded a trade monopoly. Milton’s book describes the rivalry and hostility between the Dutch and the British at this time. The book makes you want to visit the islands of Rhun and Ai. We were told that we would find discarded cannons lying in the streets. We did. But we found so, so much more.


We booked a Garuda flight from Jakarta to Ambon a while back. Going to the Garuda office and paying with cash at Dharmawangsa Mall got us a special deal. This gave us about a two-week window to hopefully use the Pelni Ferries that stopped at Banda Neira.

The company only publishes it’s timetable a few weeks in advance so we anxiously waited to find out if we could go and for how long. We used the services of Joyce at Morning Star Tours and Travel in Jakarta. ( She kept her eye on the Pelni website and let us know when we could purchase tickets. We had to send her photocopies of our Kitas and she bought the tickets for us. We thankfully bought first class. I suppose you could use any tour operator.

Flying into Ambon on the Saturday, it turned out that we could sail the next evening at approximately 6pm aboard the KM Tidar. Having bought supplies we made our way down to the docks. We were told that the ferry was late and was now due at 8pm. We decided to stay. All around us vendors were selling pieces of matting. People were buying these to sit on. The waiting area and docks outside began to fill up with hundreds, if not thousands, of people.  Eventually the ship sailed into port about three hours late. The crowd swarmed towards the ship as passengers also tried to disembark. I still can’t believe we managed to make our way through this crowd to the gangplank. I hope the picture gives some idea of what we waded through. Not for the fainthearted.


Once on board we discovered the stairwells and corridors were already full of humanity. Stretched out on their matting and corralled within their bags and chattels. If this ship was going down any reported passenger numbers would have been just an estimate. There does not seem to be a maximum capacity for Pelni Ferries.


Stepping over some bodies we were glad to get into our first class cabins just so we could dump the bags, find a space and have some privacy. The cabins stank and we spent the night with the light on as I hit cockroaches with Shona’s Havaianas. Not the most pleasant of cruises for eight hours. The light of day brought a sighting of Banda Neira in the distance and  the ship’s rats up close. We sailed right into Banda Neira. Disembarking was easier. We waved to the remaining passengers on board – many who had found space in the lifeboats. Later, from our guesthouse balcony, we watched the ferry leave after three long horn blasts . It began raining.



We stayed at the Delfika 2 guesthouse down by the town’s public jetty. We had the only two rooms facing the water and use of the balcony and the private jetty. We had a spectacular view of a small volcano called Gunung Api. Clean and very reasonably priced (250k a night for a room with a volcano view) but no toilet roll or hot water. Breakfast was prepared by the housekeeper. They also did a great laundry service. I’ve never had my boxers look so white. Bhari runs both Delfika guesthouses. He doesn’t have great internet connection but he speaks excellent English. He was prompt and helpful with information when I booked. Indeed, he supplied the ferry information and timings before the travel agent.        tel: +62 910 21027

The Delfika 1 is an old Dutch mansion in the town and has a reputation for its café. We used it a few times but were not impressed. Perhaps, because it was Ramadan, the family seemed less than enthusiastic – especially about feeding us during the day. But nothing wrong with the location and the accommodation at Delfika 2. We had the place to ourselves. The other guesthouses are listed below.

First morning, Shona and the boys relaxed in the guesthouse as I went out to explore the town and buy some toilet roll. A quick mango juice at the Nutmeg café and a clamber around the fortress of Benteng Belgica. More cannons lying in the grass. Old colonial mansions left to slowly decay. In some places it felt like I was walking around a historical film set in the rain.


At other times we all walked around the town exploring the old colonial buildings and the older fort of Benteng Nassau.We got into the deserted Istana Mini, the residence for the Banda’s Dutch governors, and found the bust of Dutch King Willem 3 just rusting away quietly in the garden. The house that Hatta lived in when he was exiled to Banda Neira was worth a visit. We got access to the Rumah Budaya Museum which wasn’t great and it was blatantly selling artefacts. We resisted the temptation to buy small cannon-shot and padlocks with the VOP emblem on them.




On our way back to our guesthouse we often passed through the narrow market area to buy fresh fruit and delicious cinnamon snacks. We watched the islanders sell their produce and bring in their nutmeg in plastic bags to sell to one of the several collection centres. The distinct smell of nutmeg hung around the alleyways.



On our second day we chartered a boat to take us to Pulau Ai and Pulau Rhun. An adventurous and rough crossing in parts – being monsoon season. Not much left of the forts on both islands but magnificent old almond trees used to shade the prized plantations of nutmeg. Almost every household has nutmeg and cloves drying in the warm sunshine. The nutmeg is individually harvested by hand when the flesh splits to reveal the red layer below. The outer fruit of the nutmeg is dried for candy and jam making. The remains of the plant’s flower is this red layer within the fruit. When dried this is mace. Then there is the nutmeg itself left at the core, left to dry in its outer shell.


Rhun is a lovely little village, very friendly and colourful. We stumbled up to the site of the ruined fort in the rain and then walked the village that rises quite steeply from the shore.


We swim and snorkel off the island that the English gave to Holland in exchange for Manhattan in 1667. We then beached the boat for lunch – on a beautiful deserted strip of white sand on Pulau Neilaka. We looked back at Rhun while wading in the warm water amazed at the enormous (fossilised?) clam shells – like old open dinosaur eggs.



We also chartered a boat from the public jetty to Banda Besar a couple of times. We asked to be put ashore at Lonthor. This is Besar’s biggest town that steeply rises from the shore. We climbed the extremely long and steep steps that double up as Lonthor’s main street. We walked around the Kelly plantation at the top and then looked for Benteng Hollandia. Nutmeg trees are almost defiantly growing over the entrance. This overgrown fort was shattered by an earthquake in 1743. Great views of Gunung Api.





The boys decided to climb Gunung Api on the Friday morning. Api is 666m high. We were warned it was a steep climb and to take a stick to wave away the spider’s webs across the trail. Also, it was easy to lose your way on the top if the clouds came down. But worst of all was the descent on very loose scree. The last eruption was in 1988. However we had perfect weather. I was impressed with the boy’s climbing. We stopped a few times to empty our water bottles and watch the Tidar leave Banda Neira on its return journey to Ambon.


We walked around the old crater and edged over to the new. There was the distinct smell of sulphur and a few bubbling, steaming crevices. We could feel the heat under our feet. The decent was rough but we made it down. We got delayed at the bottom trying to attract the attention of a boatman across the water. Unfortunately, the mid-day mosques were on maximum volume and our whistles and shouts were drowned out. We sat in a shelter waiting. It was only after I slid off the concrete shelf that we noticed I had been sharing it with a snake.



Once we hired Ojeks to visit a beach on Banda Neira and passed the airstrip. We heard news that subsidised flights from Ambon to Banda Neira were just starting again. Two flights a week on a Thursday and a Monday. Thursday’s inaugural flight had been cancelled and was rescheduled for the Sunday. We knew some people leaving on this flight and decided to wave them off. We thought of our ferry leaving early the next morning. It was the Kelimutu, a smaller, slower, more congested and infested ship than the Tidar the locals said. We decided, having seen the plane land and take off successfully, to try to buy tickets for the Monday flight. A one hour flight to Ambon rather than a ten-hour ferry journey. The ticket office for Aviastar (the new operator) was a lady’s front room near the airport. Tickets were the same price as the ferry. Our only concerns were that the ferry was now leaving at 4am instead of 7:20 am. Also, the World Cup final started at 4:30 am. If the plane didn’t fly the next day we had no way of getting off the island. The ferry would have sailed. If using the ferry, check the Pelni shack to find out if there are any changes to sailing times. Anyway, we gave our first class ferry tickets away to the American brothers and optimistically turned up at the airport for 7:00 am the next day. A siren was sounded and fires were extinguished – and islanders were discouraged from crossing the runway. The plane came into view and landed. The pilots got out, shook hands with everyone, smoked cigarettes and then got ready to leave. We shook hands with the pilots, climbed in and we took off. The views were stunning as we said our farewell to Banda Neira. We landed in Ambon at 9:30 am. Brilliant.


Loved this holiday. Loved Banda Neira. Lovely people. Can still picture the corrugated roofs and brightly painted houses. The smell of paint in the streets as people freshened up their homes for Eid. Huge skies. 


Other Banda Neira guesthouses:

Mutiara Guest House

+ 6281330343377  I wish someone had recommended Abba’s place to us. If money is not an issue (and it is not really that expensive to stay here – 350 000 for a room) this is the only place to be based for comfort, brilliant food and great hospitality. We booked dinner there most nights for 200 000 Rp each. The children were half price. Abba’s wife is a great cook and prepared a fantastic selection of local dishes for us to try – she eventually got a bit stressed trying to cater for this vegetarian. Abba made his money trading in pearls but has a hand in many ventures around town. He is a great entrepreneur and his guesthouse even sells copies of Giles Milton’s book, nutmeg jam, his own postcards and pearl necklaces. A marsupial called a cuscus, unique to the region, visited his garden in the evenings. He hired out good snorkel gear and flippers. I liked Abba and didn’t really mind him taking my money. He was helpful arranging boats and even gave me a lift on his scooter to buy our return air tickets. I would have had a hard time finding the place as it turned out to be a family’s front room. He’s building a new imitation Dutch mansion beside the post office and Benteng Nassau. Can’t beat a bit of nutmeg inspired bling. VOP sells.

Vita Guest House  Cheap at 150k a night for a room. No food but cold beer. Great location on the waterfront tucked in behind the market street. Young caretaker and his wife lovely. I bought my beer here. They also let me and Cairo knock their door at 5am to watch some World Cup games on their small television set. We got to know a fellow Scot from Oban who had been staying there for a month.

Bintang Laut              

Some young American brothers were staying here and a young German couple. Again, down on the waterfront with its own jetty. Looked clean and sold beer. The water below the jetty teeming with life at sunset. We chartered a boat from them to go snorkeling off the lava flow and a boat to try to get to Banda Hatta – the sea conditions were mad after we turned past Besar and the boat began to slam violently into the waves. The boys were genuinely afraid in their fibre-glass coffin so we turned back. We were told the weather had not been good enough and we should not have been told by the guesthouse operator that the trip was possible.  


Being Ramadan the days were quite tough. However, the Nutmeg Café did some good mango juices. We ate lunch at the Delfika twice but both times the food was poor and they definitely do not do the best pancakes in town. If not at the Mutiara we used the Namasawar Restaurant just up from the port. Meals were cooked to order in the family’s kitchen and if they didn’t have enough ingredients family members were dispatched to the market. Clean and cheap but painfully slow. We used them for packed lunches too – 100K for four Nasi Gorengs to go. Snacking, we feasted on peanut and almond brittle, local bananas and cinnamon biscuits.




August 16, 2014

Before and After

Filed under: Holidays,Indonesia — scotsabroad @ 10:39 am


We spent some time in Kota Ambon and on Pulau Saparua before and after our journey to the Banda islands. The airport in Ambon is miles away from the town’s centre across the bay. A bridge is under construction to reduce the journey time but progress has halted. The navy have found out that some of their larger warships will be unable to pass under the bridge to their base. While we were staying in the Swiss Belhotel a conference was being held to discuss the matter. Also, some people were saying that the concrete used for the support pillars was crap. Anyway, thank god for the Swiss Belhotel. It provided comfort in this drab city. We took a walk around the port area looking for the Pelni ferry terminal. As the Lonely Planet says… sights are minimal and architecture wins no prizes.

We visited the Commonwealth War Cemetery. On the sight of a Japanese prisoner of war camp the beautifully kept graves were shaded beneath huge trees fuzzed with epiphytes.


On our return to Ambon we also visited the Siwa Lima Museum. In Lonthoir on Banda Besar, Lucas had found a small model boat on the beach. He showed it to some local kids who threw it into the waves. At the museum we found out that it was a doti-doti – a voodoo-style curse boat. We recognised the Nutmeg collector called a Takiri. Model Belang boats were on display. We bought one in Banda Neira. Early European ships would be met by these boats possibly with as many as twenty eight rowers. Now they are used for competitions between villages, each boat having their own distinct colour scheme.


Having exhausted the things to do in Ambon we decided to get a ferry from Tulehu to the island of Pulau Saparua. Not surprisingly, the ferry was jammed full of people. We got off at Kota Saparua and got a bemo to a beach resort called Putih Lessi Indah Kulur. The island seemed very religious and crosses adorned houses among the numerous churches. First impressions of Putih Lessi Indah were good. Great communal area, right on the beach and Bintang. However, the food wasn’t great (problems for the only time on the whole trip) the beds were disgustingly soiled, the place was crawling with red ants and they ran out of beer. For this they were charging 300k per person a night. However, just up the road from the place was Goa Puteri Tujuh or the Cave of the Seven Princesses. These were amazing pools of crystal clear water that had religious significance to the island.




We decided to check out and head back to Kota Saparua. We checked into the Penginapan Perdana. Full of cockroaches and mosquitoes and a television left on all night – but reasonably clean beds and two rooms for 330k a night. A wonderful street restaurant across the road (Dulang Raja) that we used for lunch and dinner.


Another Dutch fort, Benteng Duurstede. It was locked at first and we sat forlornly on the beach covered in driftwood and rubbish. We eventually found the caretaker who let us in and into the museum opposite. We felt obliged to sign the visitors book and make a donation. The museum had several dioramas to do with Pattimura but the lights didn’t work and most were in darkness.


Next day we were quite glad to catch the 7am ferry back to Pulau Ambon and leave behind our melancholic mood.

July 20, 2014

Mixed Spice

Filed under: Holidays,Indonesia,politics — scotsabroad @ 9:15 pm


We have just returned from visiting a bit of the original Spice Islands. We discovered in Maluku the complex mix of history, religion, loyalties, politics and culture. We didn’t know what to expect travelling during the holy month of Ramadhan, during a presidential election and also during the monsoon season. There was a lot to get your head around but we have returned in awe of the region.

We knew a bit about the historical significance of the Moluccas having read Giles Milton’s wonderful book, Nathaniel’s Nutmeg. It was his book that had inspired me to try and plan a trip to the Banda Islands. The book does not hold back on describing the brutality of the Dutch as they tried to control a spice monopoly in the region. On our trip we explored many of their forts, built to guard against other European interference and enforce their will – and that of the Dutch East India Company (VOC). Uncooperative islanders on the nutmeg and clove islands were simply massacred and replaced with compliant slaves from other regions.


All the Dutch brought in return was Christianity.

The Dutch held power over the region until after WW2, resisting Indonesian independence until 1949 – when they handed the Moluccas over to the predominantly Muslim Indonesian Republic.

On this holiday we didn’t expect (much to Cairo’s disgust) to see any of the football during the last two weeks of the World Cup. It turned out we managed to see all the games on a small television set at a guesthouse in Banda Neira. We couldn’t believe many people’s genuine affection for the Dutch and their World Cup squad. Surely their desire to see the Dutch beaten was like the Scot’s delight at seeing England humbled? 

When we landed in the Maluku capital of Ambon we knew instantly that flags were big in town. We saw numerous Dutch flags. Neighbours seemed to be trying to out-size neighbour and have it flying higher than anyone else. Lots of people proudly sported orange tops. Some houses and many Bemo stops were painted red, white and blue… and The Orange. The islanders were besotted by the World Cup and it was all everyone talked about.


We wondered about this allegiance to the Dutch. We eventually got an understanding of the past and the present. The predominantly Christian Southern Maluku panicked when the Dutch gave up their resistance to independence. They decided to try to resist Muslim control and attempted to form their own independent republic in the early 1950s. It didn’t work. Many thousands of Maluku troops had served in the Royal Netherland Indies Army (KNIL) during the war and had stayed loyal to the Dutch during the independence struggle. They now feared reprisals. Thousands were resettled in Holland where a large Indonesian community still lives. Some descendants of these repatriated returned to the region, others still send money to family members on the islands and encourage them to study and work in the Netherlands. Some professional footballers in the Netherlands are from Indonesian descent including some in the national squad. And I suppose, there are not many descendants of the original islanders left to bear a grudge.


I had very little recollection of Ambon’s more recent conflict between Muslim and Christian factions in the late 90s. Indeed, we were surprised to read on the commonwealth graves website that you are still meant to contact them to see if it is safe to visit the city. We saw a few bullet ridden buildings, reminding everyone of the Beruit-like situation that ended just over a decade ago. We came across the cheesy peace gong downtown and reference to the Ambon Declaration of Peace.


The island of Ambon seems to have a fine balance of Muslim and Christian inhabitants. In our part of town, the port district, it seemed to be overwhelmingly Christian. Elsewhere it is either Mosque or Church in the kampungs.  People had crosses made out of painted water bottles hanging from their porches and kampung gateways wished you a perpetual Merry Christmas. We sailed into the port of Kota Saparua and faced an enormous white cross on the shoreline. I was asked about my soul after death by a missionary in the foyer of the Swiss Belhotel in Ambon. OMG. We later on established that parts of towns and individual islands are either predominantly Muslim or Christian. It might be the weather, but there is a sense of melancholy – and a feeling of  just below the surface prejudice and displays of provocation. The support for the Palestinian cause you can understand from the Muslim population. But then you have the Star of David displayed on a youth’s scooter tank and on the walls of a house close to a mosque in Ambon. God knows what is going on inside the head of one resident who has a swastika in the middle of a German flag painted on his garage door. You feel the violence could all kick off again quite easily in Ambon.


On safer historical ground you have two major Indonesian heroes, significant to the region, that everyone seemed to embrace. Hatta was exiled to Banda Neira by the Dutch authorities for encouraging Indonesians towards independence – albeit peacefully. The house where he stayed is now a museum. We managed to get inside to see his bedroom, one of his suits and a pair of his distinctive glasses. Among the pictures, a lovely old black and white photograph of him returning to the island. He also ran a school for local children while he was in isolation. Hatta became vice-president of the first Indonesian Republic. 


Another more gung-ho anti-colonial hero was Pattimura. In 1817, he briefly took over the fort of Benteng Duurstede at Saparua and kicked some Dutch butt. But his uprising was eventually crushed and he was executed by the Dutch. His image adorns Indonesia’s 1000 Rp banknotes. We got inside the fort (once the key-holder had finished his lunch) and inside the museum commemorating Pattimura’s exploits. But we couldn’t see  all the dioramas because the lights didn’t work. I bought a t-shirt at the airport with his image on it.


Modern day entrepreneurs are tapping into this history. History now serves a purpose. That of making money. Abba runs the Mutiara guesthouse in Banda Neira. He is a lovely, charming fella. He has decided to embrace the whole colonial (VOC) era and use it to promote his new tourist trap on the island. We fall for his current hospitality hook-line and sinker. His new place, due to open soon, is built like an old Dutch colonial mansion and even has nutmeg motifs carved into the furniture. He has commissioned imposing metal gates displaying the VOC logo and adorned with nutmegs. His guests will soon be able to relive the lavish lifestyle (hot water showers) of the VOC employees. At a price. He is still looking for a suitable name for his property with a nutmeg theme. I told him about Elvis Presley’s place called Graceland, suggesting he could call his palace, Maceland. I honestly think he took me seriously. I do think Banda Neira is in danger of becoming a historical theme park in the future as transport links become easier, quicker and more comfortable. Old Dutch mansions are just waiting for restoration and transformation into boutique hotels.

Then there is Indonesia’s future. The presidential elections were held on July 9th. The polling stations on Banda Neira seemed very busy. An ex-army general wanting to lead the corrupt status-quo against the untarnished, dynamic, young  governor of Jakarta, Jokowi. No competition there you would think. On polling day we stopped for some coffee at a house at the bottom of the steps in Lonthoir and found ourselves in the family living room watching the results. Surprisingly, voting percentages were just about even and both sides were declaring they had the support of the population. We will know on Tuesday.


We met some lovely fellow tourists on our travels and some horrible ones. There were two charming American brothers backpacking around South East Asia and having the experience of their lives. And one loud German expat living and working in Indonesia. This did not prevent him from ridiculing the superstitious nature of the Indonesians and their belief in ghosts. We couldn’t but overhear his conversation to do with his company’s new site and the workers who believe the toilets are haunted – so they will not go alone. They visit the toilet in pairs. He scoffed that this is not an efficient use of manpower and the best use of time. But he’d got the place sorted. A colonial mind still to be found in this arrogant and bigoted wanker.  He’ll take the cheap accommodation and the beautiful beaches though. Travel does not always broaden the mind.  Give me Indonesians any day.

Perhaps we shouldn’t try to think too much about it all. This diverse country is just incredible and so are its people. Maybe we should just be thankful for being allowed to travel around and experience it all.

April 28, 2014

Bukit Birthday

Filed under: Holidays,Indonesia — scotsabroad @ 2:23 pm


I don’t suppose many children born in Inverness 14 years ago had the experience of spending their April birthday jungle trekking in Sumatra looking for orangutans. We have all just had an incredible holiday in North Sumatra. We flew to Medan a couple of weeks ago and got driven for about four hours to Bukit Lewang, meaning, door to the mountain. It is on the edge of the Leuser National Park on the Bohorok River. We stayed at the Ecolodge and it was there we met our guide Adi, who talked us through the next day’s itinerary. He also helped us negotiate the town in the dark to look for the Lewang Inn and dinner.


A fun walk with torches, over rickety bridges in heavy rain accompanied by the constant roar of the river. It was only on our return to Jakarta that I read about the town being extensively damaged by a flash flood in 2003 that killed over 200 people. That might have accounted for the height of one of the suspension bridges over the river. On this night there was a power cut and the Lewang Inn lay in darkness. Undeterred, it welcomed us in with oil and candle light and we listened to our dinner being cooked in the dark. Delicious. We spent our first night getting used to the sounds of the jungle. We are already quite used to sharing our toilet with toads.


Early next morning we set out into the jungle looking for orangutans. We headed to a regular feeding site and instantly came across two  casually taking the free bananas on offer. We then spent the rest of the morning walking through the jungle. Magnificent trees, some two or three hundred years old, various monkeys crashing through the branches, the shrill noise from acadia, suspended termite nests and some challenging slopes – all of us soaked in sweat and being bitten at every stop by large mosquitoes.


We came across the notorious Mina, a fiery female orangutan who has bitten many people. Our guide was openly concerned for our safety (has he just taken the  safety clip off his large knife?).We retreated from her neck of the woods and then came across one of her daughters, also with a child, and quite temperamental too. We do not know how lucky we are to have seen four orangutans until speaking with a German couple a couple of days later. They did the same trek on the same day and saw no orangutans. Lunch is another memorable nasi goreng, produced out of a rucksack, by a river.


Then it was tubing ( inflatable truck inner tubes tied together) down the rapids, back down the river to the town and another dinner at the Lewang Inn. They even made Cairo a birthday cake. Great place. On our drive to and from Bukit Lawang we passed through encroaching miles of palm oil plantations and large processing factories welcoming lorry after laden lorry bearing the fruit. The biggest risk of all to the magnificent orangutans and their incredible habitat.


We moved on heading back to Medan and over the Batak highlands to Danau Toba. We saw Gunung Sinabung from a distance. The volcano has been active recently and we could see its smoky plume mixing with low cloud. A huge drive to Parapat with a stop at a traditional house. The only other stop is at a big run-down, empty, fly inhabited rest house for lunch at Simarjarunjung. We were told we would be able to see Lake Toba on a clear day from the windows. We couldn’t.


We arrived at Parapat to catch the 6 o’clock ferry to Tuktuk on the island of Samosir. The boys had time to play some football in the square and we had too much time to look at the condition of the ferry.




Between 75,000 and 30,000 years ago Mount Toba erupted in what was the biggest catastrophic event in the history of mankind, destroying all life in the area, covering South East Asia in volcanic debris and plunging the earth into years of darkness which created a mini ice age. The mountain collapsed into a deep caldera that filled with water but the island Samosir erupted upwards as a cinder cone. Once the dust finally settled Sumatra had the world’s largest and deepest crater lake and the largest island (nearly the size of Singapore) within an island – although it is actually joined to the mainland by a narrow isthmus at the town of Pangururan. We stayed at Tabo Cottages. Good rooms, good food and singing waiters.


The weather changed and we had blue skies and warm temperatures. We used the resort’s boat (waiters included) to head for a swim at a waterfall. As part of the deal we stopped at a local mainland village. We were shown the school. We felt a bit uncomfortable interrupting the lessons and resisted the invitation to sit at the front of a class and be sung to by the children. We waited outside while listening to My Bonnie lies over the Ocean (honestly) as I slipped the uniformed headmistress some money.



The boys loved jumping off the boat by the waterfall and the picnic lunch was delicious. The singing waiters were wearing a bit thin, as was their repertoire on the return journey, so we retired to the front of the boat. No thoughts about health and safety. On our return to Tuktuk Cairo and I borrowed the resort’s bikes and headed for the Stone Chairs. Before the island became 100% Christian, about 150 years ago, the Batak people followed traditional animist beliefs and rituals. The 300 year old stone chairs was where village matters were discussed and wrongdoers were tried. Above the chairs (as the lonely planet describes) … was where the accused were bound, blindfolded, sliced and rubbed with chilli and garlic before being beheaded. We all hired crap bikes next day to look for the King’s Tomb. The tomb is in Tomok about 5km from Tuktuk. He was the king who adopted Christianity. There are protestant and catholic churches in every town. Don’t know what he would have made of the giant Wicker-Man we saw on the shores of the lake. The whole village of Tuktuk is very laid back. Second hand book shops, beautiful old scooters and wood carvers. Shona secures a medicine box stained with shoe polish and I pick up a traditional house carved by one of his apprentices. Great place and great people (apart from the woman who rented us the bikes – hand me the chilli and garlic).



We headed back to Medan. On Samosir and on the roads through every town to Medan we constantly saw older school children riding atop school buses or on  scooters, their white school shirts covered in pastel paints and markers. Some rode in good-natured packs, yelling greetings to others. We established that this was an end of exams ritual in Sumatra.

We were to spend a night in Medan before flying to Bandah Aceh next day. Medan, Indonesia’s third largest city, is grim by day but sad (almost hopeless) at night. Very much like Jakarta but somehow without the colour or the noise – or the hope? Early next morning we head for the airport and a 45 minute flight to Bandah Aceh. From 100% Christianity a few days ago to what we thought would be 110% Islamic fundamentalism. The lonely planet describes… this far-flung corner of Indonesia has recently grabbed headlines for all the wrong reasons. Earthquakes, tsunamis, civil war and sharia law are what people think this northern state is all about. Aceh has always been different.


We landed and had a tour of the town. The town was hit bad by the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004. One, still hopeful, outcome of the tsunami was that it provided the opportunity to open the almost sealed province to relief organisations and to renew peace talks between Jakarta and the GAM (Free Aceh Movement). At the moment Aceh has a lot of autonomy, most aid agencies have pulled out and there is still peace. The Acehnese people we met were friendly, fiercely proud of who they were and optimistic. They don’t mention being Indonesian ever. It was difficult to imagine the nightmare of 2004 when 61,000 Acehnese were killed by the tsunami. NGOs responded vigorously to Aceh’s plight after the tsunami and the results were both positive and negative.  



We visited the Tsunami Memorial Museum. The photographs are incredible. We watched shocking film footage of the tsunami as it hit Aceh. Until there was a power-cut. We were ushered out of the building. I am disappointed not to have seen the clock that fell from the grand mosque. A cool water memorial on the lower level with a sphere for every country that came to the aid of Aceh. We visited the most famous of the tsunami sights, the boat in the house and the 2500 tonne power generator vessel that was swept 5km inland by the wave. The ship was still able to generate power for a month after the disaster. We also visited the Museum Negeri Banda Aceh. They seem proud of having had women rulers in the lineage of the Sultans of Aceh. We took in the beauty of the Grand Mosque but did not enter. We drove down to the fish farms and the grey sandy beach. Our driver lost his fish farm and his lucrative prawns in December 2004. They were ready to be harvested but he wanted to wait until the price went up closer to the new year. We drove down to the harbour and saw the traditional shark fishing boats. Pointed fronts and squared off backs. Tiger shark skins and other shark bits were drying in the sun. The Acehnese eat the meat and sell the rest. Some impotent Chinese a ready market. We drank delicious coffee at a local café and ate sweets flavoured with coconut. Aceh is a cool place and has a lot more to offer than just memorials to the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004.



After all the travelling, we were looking forward to ending our holiday by catching the ferry from Aceh to Pulah Weh and spending a few days in the same place. Getting on the ferry was a bit stressful, especially with our bags, as we squeezed in as other passengers squeezed out – and we were directed to a lower deck area with airline seating, cockroaches and frosted windows. Very claustrophobic. Thankfully, the journey to the island was only about 45 minutes. We went up-top on the way back. Weh is a tiny tropical rock off the tip of Sumatra.

We arrived at Sabang and drove to Freddies. Red lifebuoy soap and a noisy rooster with no idea of time. No phone service and no wi-fi. No problem but Dundee are still in the promotion race. Owned by a South African who arrived as part of the relief NGOs in 2004 the place is well-known for his cooking. We didn’t meet him but his assistant produced some lovely food out a very interesting kitchen. Sell by dates don’t apply here. Great place. We spent the week on the beach. Cairo devoured book after book from the second-hand bookshelf or swapped with other guests. Lucas fished unsuccessfully but it was a pleasant way to spend some time for his dad. He also played with local kids, collecting hermit crabs and playing football. A clean stretch of white sand heavily armed with local policemen for the first few days. They fished and relaxed before heading off on patrol.


An old WW2 pill-box on the beach is a reminder of the Japanese invasion and a Michael Morpurgo book called Kensukes Kingdom. Easy to believe that the last Japanese soldier stationed on a Southeast Asia island surrendered in 1974. 


The only exploring we did was to point zero. The furthest West you can go in Indonesia. The place was mobbed with Indonesians taking selfies and countless photographs of each other. An entrepreneurial restaurant owner produced certificates from 0 km. Her young son typed in our family name on the computer and a generator brought the printer to life. We stopped at a busy dive centre at Teupin Layeu on the way back. The overwhelming colour was orange, as visitors put on their buoyancy aids, tried on their masks and snorkels and headed to a boat.


Sumatra is a brilliant place. We are now looking forward to heading to the Banda islands in July. Getting everything into two bags might be a challenge. Indonesia is a wonderful place to travel. We are so, so lucky.


Sumatra even encouraged the boys to reflect last night. 

My favourite part of the holiday was the orangutan walk. I particularly liked this part because of meeting the orangutans and the river rafting. I also enjoyed the beach and the warm sea. (birthday boy)

My favourite thing about Sumatra was walking in the exotic forest and surprisingly seeing Mina. Mina is an orang-utan with anger issues described in the guide book as aggressive.We had to make a quick change of direction when we met her. At the time she had a baby so she was very protective of her baby. There is a story of Mina grabbing on to people’s packs for at least half an hour. Later on during the hot and humid walk we met Mina’s sister Jackie. (Lucas)

March 3, 2014

Beach Boys 2

Filed under: Holidays,Indonesia — scotsabroad @ 4:31 pm

photo (1)

We have just returned from a brilliant mid-term break in Bali. There wan’t a lot of sitting around. It is amazing what you can pack into a week – especially if Shona has done the planning. The boys had three mornings of surfing lessons at Kuta. Two and a half hours of instruction does not sound much but by the last morning I didn’t have the strength to push myself up on my board. On the last morning the surf was very strong and it was a real effort to get out beyond where the waves were breaking. However, great fun and very satisfying. We all progressed on to hard boards – but it’s a young person’s activity. The boys were incredible.


Another day we were picked up early from our hotel and driven a couple of hours to the village of Munduk. This was basecamp for an adventure company who use an Indonesian built off-road vehicle called a Fin Komodo. It all started rather tamely. We got the hang of the two-stroke vehicles and set off down the hill on tarmac and then dirt roads. We stopped at a lake and paddled a log canoe for a while. Then it was back in the vehicles. A quick hand signal from the lead vehicle and we basically went off-road. These are before pictures. If we had not seen the first Komodo tackle the rocks and mud we would not have imagined the proposed ascent possible. Quite incredible vehicles. We stopped for a quick walk in a rainforest and then the heavens opened. We learned, if offered waterproof trousers before a walk in a rainforest during a thunderstorm – take them. We then spent the next hour in this thunderstorm driving back down the hill being soaked to the skin and beginning to chill quite alarmingly. The route became a muddy river in places and the boys were quite scared. Shona was magnificent the way she handled her vehicle. We stopped at a coffee farmer’s shack and the family very kindly lit the fire for Lucas who was blue with cold. They served us glasses of sweet coffee. It was only after we got introduced to the family cat that we realised what we were drinking. Coffee Luwak . Couldn’t taste the difference to be honest.



Not many photographs from this memorable adventure, especially the scary bits. We arrived back at base camp for a hot shower, a change of clothes and a splendid lunch (Bintang never tasted so good). Despite the cold and rain and the fear we all agreed we would do this again. But, I would take something waterproof to store my iphone in. Mine’s still sitting in a bag of rice at home drying out – but not looking good.

When Shona said she had booked a Balinese cookery class for us all on our last day it hadn’t set the heather on fire. After all the activity in the water and in the off-road vehicles it sounded a bit tame. However, I was pleasantly surprised.

We drove to Ubud and met the lovely Ibu Puspa. She gave us a tour of Ubud market explaining and naming all the local fruit and vegetables – and the herbs and spices used in Balinese cooking.


We then drove to a rice field on the outskirts of town. We found out about the rice growing process and land ownership from Ibu Puspa’s charming husband.


Then it was back to the family home. This was a very slick but intimately enjoyable experience from start to finish. Everything was prepped for us. Very clean and hygienic. Vegetarians had been considered. We chopped, crushed (in a traditional Balinese lesung) mixed and cooked for a few hours. Snake beans, lemongrass, coconut oil… nutmeg.


The result was a colourful banquet of Balinese food that tasted delicious. Clear mushroom and vegetable soup, yellow sauce, chicken sate and tuna in banana leaves. My favourite Indonesian dish, Gado Gado, except the Balinese mix all the ingredients together with the peanut sauce. Deep fried tempe in sweet soy sauce is about to be tried at home soon. We felt we had done enough to say we had played a part in the preparation and cooking. It was a bonus not having to do the washing up.


December 19, 2013

Burj Khalifa

Filed under: Holidays — scotsabroad @ 1:47 am


August 12, 2013

Back in Jakarta

Filed under: Holidays,Indonesia — scotsabroad @ 12:23 pm


While Shona was away in Scotland the boys did a wee bit of travelling around Java – in just over a week. We’ve returned home having clocked up about 1675 Km exploring some obscure towns and finding some memorable places – despite some very inaccurate information in the guides.

Our biggest and longest journey was Surakarta (Solo) to Cipanas when we managed 326 Km in roughly 12 hours. I can’t praise the car enough as it handled some extremely bad roads, dodgy petrol and some unbelievable gradients like a real 4WD. She has a few battle scars after a horse and trap came out of nowhere in the town of Wonosobo. The boys were also extremely resilient and accepted the hours on the road and the road conditions without complaint. They also put up with very bad food, cold temperatures, lots of insects, including ants in our supplies and in our bed on the last night, a massive spider, a rat that joined us for dinner one night and a snake. The Sat Nav proved less of a team member, shutting down on several occasions, often in the dark, making us turn to small maps in the Lonely Planet (not recommended) and a complimentary Pringsewu Map of Java (think the equivalent of Indonesia’s own Little Chef). We often stopped to ask some wonderfully helpful people.


We set off from Jakarta a day late – having moved house. We headed for the city of Cirebon on the sunburnt North Coast and arrived late afternoon. Next morning we tried to find the town’s main Kraton (walled city palace) but the town’s crazy one way system kept us going round in circles. We decided to stop at Kecirebonan and explore this smaller palace. It turned out that this is the current royal family’s residence and we were helped to park our car by Princess Yani. We were then given a guided tour by Yani of the areas open to the public for a small donation. The Sultan drives a Jaguar. Cairo was the first to sign the pink visitor’s book in the museum. We made a big donation. Not much to look at but after this experience we thought the other Kratons could not be so special.

Yanivisitors book

So, we drove around Cirebon looking for Gua Sunyaragi, described in Lonely Planet as a cave with secret chambers, tiny doors and staircases that lead nowhere. Originally it was a play-park for a sultan of Cirebon in the 18th century. We had somehow imagined a sea-cave but this grotto was right in the city itself. A popular hang-out with students, the boys explored the site with their torches, resisting, as much as they could, invitations to get their photograph taken.


We then drove away from the North coast heading all the way down South. Our destination was the port of Cilacap. We lost about an hour on the way in the town of Ciledung, getting trapped in market traffic and another crazy one-way system. Distance wise, this journey was not far but we had no idea the road conditions would be so bad. Indeed, it might have been my imagination, but as dusk fell there seemed to be a tyre repair shop beside the worst potholed parts of the road – proprietors sitting waiting patiently for unsuspecting motorists to take their stretch of the road too quickly. However, endless cornfields bathed in sunshine and open stretches of beautiful countryside with the mountains beyond, made this an enjoyable journey – before it got dark. We eventually arrived at the best hotel in town. We got chatting to another guest (the only other guest) who told us he worked for an Indonesian Oil Company. He was in town to discuss with one of his company’s tanker captains, why 30 odd Iranian refugees had been found onboard his ship when it arrived at Cilacap. He also asked us what we were doing in Cilacap.


Next day we headed for a Dutch fort not knowing what to expect. We drove to the beach of Pantai Teluk Penyu, a filthy, popular stretch of brown sand, hosting an incredible number of stalls (all stocking the same stuff but nobody going all out to sell) cheap batik clothing, seaside memorabilia – and especially nasty shell art. The place was dead. We walked the beach and climbed all over an old beached fishing boat for something to do.


The Dutch fort was also not what we had imagined. Benteng Pendem is like an overgrown, miniature Fort George. Built in the 1870s, recent modifications include a few concrete dinosaurs, crumbling concrete picnic tables on the ramparts and (my favourite) three tied up swan-shaped pedalos in the moat. Not a cannon in sight. However, we did manage to explore the remaining buildings and tunnels that weren’t flooded – until Lucas screamed SNAKE. You could just imagine being a soldier posted to this place.


Then it was on to Wonosobo. The town is the main gateway to the Dieng Plateau. At 900m above sea level in the central mountain range it claims to be at the very centre of Java. We eventually found our homestay called the Pondok Bamboo Sendangsari in a village out of town. We loved this place. Theresia and Sinyo made us feel so welcome and were so generous and helpful. The best homestay in Indonesia we would say.


We took a walk and came across a group of young men gathered around a site marked out with colourful poles. This turned out to be a landing area for pigeons. Owners got mobile messages to say their birds had been sighted and enticed them home by holding a couple of flapping females and with shouts. We sat transfixed as pigeons plummeted from the sky and swaggered across to their baskets. Some pigeons had a whistle attached to their wings, the feathers of others had been dyed. Early training seemed to be short flights, birds taken away in cages by a young boy on foot or further afield by scooter. The pigeons seemed to be having the most fun out of it all. We are also easily amused.


We returned to our homestay to meet Daisy. She was to be our local guide the next morning. We got up at 3am after a freezing night in our bamboo hut. Daisy met us at the homestay and we drove up to the village of Sembungan. At 2300m above sea-level Sembungan claims to be the highest village in Java. It must be one of the coldest. We parked the car and set off in the dark up Sikunir Hill. The boys had great fun using their torches but found the climb tough. Perhaps it was the altitude, lack of calories or the cold. We waited for the sunrise over Mount Sindoro and Merapi beyond. The wait was worth it. Stunning. Despite the cold, a beautiful golden sunrise.


Then it was time to explore the Dieng Plateau. Home to some of the oldest Hindu temples in Java – the name means Abode of the Gods. We visited the impressive Arjuna complex, flower scented in the early morning sunshine and later the museum.


But this isolated region’s natural wonders were the most amazing. We did another small climb, this time in the warmth, to view Telaga Warna, a beautiful lake with turquoise hues caused by the bubbling sulphur deposits. Agriculture clung to every conceivable space. Daisy said potatoes are not a traditional crop. Cabbages are. Potatoes are more profitable but cause major soil damage and now there is widespread use of fertilizers.




We carefully climbed through these (unorganic) carrot and potato patches and rows of cabbages to view the lake. We then headed down to the shores of the lake and walked among the caves – important holy sites for meditation. We then drove to Kawah Sikidang, a stinking volcanic crater with bubbling mud ponds. Wonosobo is the best place in Java.


Our next destination was Solo (Surakarta), one of the least westernised cities on the island. Solo would be our base for visiting the temples of Candi Sukuh and Cetho. We found our hotel called the Roemahkoe. Looking unremarkable from the street and hidden behind an ugly concrete wall this is a real heritage hotel. The place was once the house of a wealthy batik merchant. Built in 1938 it had real charm. Our room’s door and shutters opened onto the central courtyard. Dark wood and stained glass windows, old photographs, antique furniture and the staff made it a special place. The restaurant and stinking drains did not.

A couple of hours out of Surakarta, on the slopes of Gunung Lawu, 900m above Solo plain, sits Candi Sukuh. Built around the 15th century it is not a large site but its pyramid shaped temple and beautiful (if explicit) carvings, along with its isolated location make the journey worthwhile. We also had the temple to ourselves. A 2m lingam once topped the pyramid until Raffles removed it to the National Museum in Jakarta.

SukuhSukuh statCetho


However, the highlight was Candi Cetho. Higher up the slopes at about 1400m the drive was unbelievable through tea plantations and forests. The last section up through the village of Cetho felt almost vertical. Some cars parking had the lingering smell of burning clutch. No buses come here. Thought to date from 1350 this large temple has several terraces climbing up the hillside into the mist. A group of Hindus (perhaps from Bali?) were visiting the sight when we arrived, making offerings and adding to the atmosphere. A fantastic place.


We then spent a while asking for directions to Grojogan Sewu, a 100m-high waterfall. A small sign post in a hillside town is all that directs you. When we got there it was very busy with Indonesian visitors scrambling over the rocks and feeding the bad-tempered monkeys. The dirty, muddy pool at the bottom of the fall was not inviting.


We decided to cut our roadtrip short and head back to Jakarta. Eid was coming and we were constantly being told about how bad the roads would get over the holiday period. Next day we aimed for Garut. We decided to head for Yogya and then towards Bandung – roads we had travelled before on our last roadtrip. Not attractive but heading home. We stopped at a Pringsewu and passed the strawberry farm restaurant just outside Garut. We eventually reached Cipanas. A village fed with constant hot water from hot springs. We arrived in the dark and found the place gearing up for Eid. That also included a remarkable mark-up in the cost of a room. We checked into the Danau Dariza, a huge complex with a hot-spring boating pond. A bit tacky and run-down, smelly, expensive and with very nasty food. We had a boat but no paddles. The end of Ramadan that night was celebrated with maximum volume from the mosques and fireworks all night.


Next day we walked the town. Beautiful location, warm sunshine and warm water flowing down the streets, also feeding the local public baths. We used our spring-fed hotel swimming pool and the travelling tensions of the day and night before were soothed. We headed for Bandung and then Jakarta. Traffic going out of Jakarta was horrendous. All these vehicles will be trying to get back to Jakarta in a few days time. You can almost believe the stories of motorists being trapped in their cars (not going anywhere) for up to 30 hours. However, we had a fantastic time driving around this enormous, magnificent island.


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