Indonesia - couldn't it be easier?!

Trip Start Jul 02, 2003
Trip End Aug 03, 2004

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Flag of Indonesia  ,
Friday, October 3, 2003

If the buses are anything to go by we didn't fancy getting a plane to Sumatra from Malaysia. This was a slight snag as Vicky had also vowed never to get on another boat after the ferry trip from Pulau Tioman. Aside from swimming across we had no other option but to endure the 5 hour speedboat trip to Belawan. And Vicky had had good reason not to want to use sea transport again!! The crossing was fast but that was the main problem as it was very bumpy and stomach-churning. The plan was to travel along the well worn route from Medan, capital of the province of North Sumatra, to Padang, capital of the West Sumatra province. South Sumatra is still very primitive and interesting sights there are few and far between.

The single night that we spent in Medan was very unmemorable. The first thing that greets you when you arrive is a herd of in-your-face, money-sucking locals offering all sorts of 'services'. One of which was transport to other places in Sumatra - very tempting at the time!!

Medan was a disappointing introduction to Sumatra. The place was very busy, dirty, heavily polluted and uninspiring. We spent one night and quickly (in a manner of speaking) moved onto Lake Toba, home of the Minangkabau people. Without a doubt, the bus journey was the one worst yet!! It felt a lot like being on a cattle bus - similar comfort and smell! Even the bus wasn't a safe haven from hagglers with locals actually clambering into the bus at every opportunity! Needless to say, neither of us were particularly happy after spending 6 hours on a '4 hour' journey.

The beautiful scenery we saw on the boat trip over to Pulau Samosir helped make the journey feel a bit more worthwhile. The island, which is the size of Singapore, is situated in the centre of a large lake created by a volcano which collapsed on itself after erupting 100,000 years ago. We stayed in a small village called Tuk Tuk but thankfully there were no tuk-tuks in sight!! The houses in the village have batak-style architecture - simple huts with bull-horn shaped roofs. Legend has it that when the Javanese sent an army to conquer Sumatra, which was ruled by the Malay kingdom of Minangkabau, the chiefs of both sides agreed to settle the issue with a fight between two bulls. The Malays starved a calf for ten days and bound knives to its horns. The calf, mistaking the Javanese buffalo for its mother, stabbed it to death trying to find milk. To commemorate the victory the Malay conquerors named their land and people 'Minang Kabau' or conquering buffalo.

The place that we stayed, Samosir Cottages, was fantastic and had more of a hostel feel about it. There wasn't a huge amount to do and we spent most of our time playing ping-pong, pool and lounging in the sun! And when it got too hot we just jumped into the freezing cold lake! No ATMs on the island and an almost-empty wallet meant that we reluctantly moved on. The journey back to Parapat, a town just an hour away, took us 4 hours in total and meant that we missed our night bus to Bukittinggi. To add to this, the only ATM within an hour radius wasn't working. Fantastic!! The bus company had informed us we'd have to pay for the bus we had just missed and the next one we were due to catch. After trying to reason with them we managed to pay just for the next bus using our few remaining Rupiahs and the emergency 25 quid we had stashed away!!

After the stress of getting a bus, we were relieved it was a pleasant-ish ride to the dump known as Bukittinggi. The name is a pseudonym for 'Big Clock Town' but should in fact be called 'Nothing-but-a-big-boring-clock Town'. Was it really worth travelling here?! It had nothing to offer and it was even difficult finding food. The Lonely Planet had made it sound quite modern with lots to see and do but we must have been in a different Bukittinggi!! We stayed for a couple of nights hoping we'd stumble across all the spectacular sights. No such luck.

'Swiftly' onto our next stop: Danau (Lake) Maninjau. The journey was another cattle-smuggling exercise through 44 hairpins on a narrow cliff edge. The lake is much smaller than Danau Toba but we managed to find a comfortable guesthouse in a good location - literally out the door and into the lake. When it eventually stopped raining we witnessed the most amazing sunset either of us had ever seen.

Leaving on a high (and wet) note we headed towards Padang airport seeing more of the Sumatran countryside which consisted of rice fields and more rice fields. We caught a flight to Jakarta, Java, where after the recent bombing, we decided to jump straight on a train towards Bandung, west Java. Being the third largest city in Indonesia, we expected it to busy, bustling, and fumey, but this really was a hole!! We felt as if we had spent the last couple of weeks travelling a lot and getting to many places not worth going to. Each place was difficult to get to and difficult to stay in. Not wasting any time in Bandung we quickly moved onto the next major city: Yogyakarta, central Java. The train was relatively efficient by Asian standards but the journey wasn't very pleasant as Vicky was feeling sick for the whole 10 hour journey, with no food or drink (or Mum!). We had heard good reports about Yogya and when we arrived it was a relief to find that it was indeed a nice place. We ended up staying longer than expected and saw some of the sights. We visited the Kraton (Sultan's palace), which was a bit of a tourist-trap as it looked more like a deserted market than a palace. On the way to the Taman Sari (water palace) we passed through the bird market where literally hundreds of birds were caged and half-dead. The name 'water palace' is slightly misleading as there is in fact no water or palace for that matter! The place is actually a mass of ruins that was once a complex of canals, pools, and palaces before being destroyed by an earthquake 300 years ago. We had also planned a trip to Gunung Merapi - a large volcano just north of the city. Unfortunately, we both spent a couple of days cooped up in our hotel room entertaining some virus. But perhaps it wasn't such a bad thing seeing as the volcano has a reputation of being the most dangerous in Java and a tendency to spew lava every so often.

While in Yogya we weighed up the options of travelling to our next destination: Bali! We had the choice of either enduring an 18 hour coach and boat trip or a two hour flight... As the countryside in between doesn't have much to offer and we'd had enough of buses to last a lifetime we opted for the flight.

We decided to stay in Kuta, the main tourist area of Bali, although we hadn't quite appreciated how touristy it actually is!! I think it is safe to say that all of Bali's charm has been completely lost in the mass of restaurants, clubs, hotels, shops and market stalls. It's not possible to walk down the street without being offered transport, watches, sunglasses, manicures, hair braiding and drugs. And that's just to name a few! Although Vicky has been trying her hardest to resist shopping, the many shops selling DVDs for a pound each tempted Moz. This meant we had to hire a DVD player for a few days to check that they all worked!

We spent a couple of days on Kuta beach, which is long and relatively clean but even there you get hassled. We decided to get away from it all for a day and went on a small tour to visit the real Bali. Heading north we visited the volcano Kintamani with stops along the way. Each town we came across had a theme running through them - one sold woodcarvings, another jewellery, while the next was geared towards paintings. The most interesting stop was in the woodcarving village where we saw and learnt their trade, and weren't hassled to visit the onsite shop! The volcano was beautiful and you could clearly see the cooled lava flows down the mountainside alongside a picturesque lake. This was to be our lunch stop but we had spent our last cash on wood ornaments! Bananas all round!

Another day we splashed around in the nearby Waterbom Park. Here we spent hours racing each other down the many water slides, eating ice creams and basically being big kids!

Although there's much more to Bali than we've visited, our general feeling about Kuta is that it's over-rated. Not our idea of a good holiday spot but maybe that's because we're now getting very excited about going to Australia!!
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