Indonesia: Bali, Sumatra, Java, and Nusa Tenggara

Trip Start Sep 16, 2013
Trip End Aug 07, 2014

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Flag of Indonesia  , East Nusa Tenggara,
Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Indonesia is as diverse a country as one can experience. Composed of over 17,000 islands, 8,000 of which are inhabited, we barely scratched the surface of this vast country in two months of travelling. Most islands retain their own distinct culture and language. Locals speak their regional language (Javanese, Balinese, Achenese, etc) as their primary language, and Bahasa Indonesia as their second common language. The older generation may also speak Dutch, as the country was under their colonization until 1945. Within Indonesia, faiths of Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Animism, and Christianity are practiced. Indonesia is home to 250 million, the worlds largest Muslim population, and the third largest democracy.

Our first destination in Indonesia was the ever popular island of Bali. The predominant reverence for Hinduism was clear in the offerings set out on the street in front of businesses and homes. Offerings of flowers and food are placed neatly on the ground to appease the good sprits and to placate their evil counterparts. Our first experience of Bali was the frenzied pace of Kuta. It is loud, crowded, and rude. We were appalled to see kids on their motos honk at senior pedestrians to get out of the way on the narrow tourist streets. However, we did see a few beautiful sunsets on the white sand beach that stretched out for miles and had a good time watching the World Cup final at a crowded bar at 4am. After a few days, we decided to leave crazy Kuta for the 'cultural capital of Bali.' We drove north east for two hours to Ubud; however, we did not escape any urbanized area. It made us reflect on the dense population of Indonesia (250 million people) and how fortunate we are in Canada to have so much space. While in Ubud, we experienced two different forms of Balinese dance, Kecak and Lagong. Kecak trance dance depicts a Hindu epic tale of Prince Rama and his wife Sita. Captured by the evil demon army, Sita is saved in a dualistic battle between the figurative good and evil spirits. The tale is told through interpretive dance, while a hypnotic chant by over a hundred men dominate the background. The Lagong dance contained gamelan music (using xylophone-type instruments), detailed costumes and masks to represent gods and goddesses who have went down to earth to keep peace and order and to "spread spirit." Performers displayed carefully controlled, yet fluid motions of their hands, necks and erratic eyes to express the intensity of the story.

Our next destination was the large, more remote island of Sumatra. Sumatra is a completely different place to Bali: it is less travelled by foreigners and it has a rugged beauty for the adventurous traveller. Upon arriving, we received countless stares from locals, kids who eagerly waved and called you 'mister' regardless of your gender, and teenagers who wanted to take a picture with you, often while giggling. Many gazes were friendly and curious, while others made us feel somewhat uncomfortable. To our surprise, we could travel for days without seeing another foreigner. The roads in northern Sumatra are very rough, often washed out or closed due to landslides, and are dangerously windy. Public transport is not for the faint of heart. Minivans are hot and crowded, drivers weave in and out of traffic erratically, using the middle of the road as a lane. Instead of using caution (or seat belts), a signal light 'safely' alerted the oncoming traffic of their distance to the approaching vehicle. The narrow, windy mountain roads were the cause of at least four people to puke during our time in public transport. One major frustration for us travelling through Indonesia--often highlighted by public transport--was the prevalence of smoking. In every van, bus, or taxi, passengers were forced to breathe in the thick stench of chain smokers' fumes from both the driver and other passengers. Indonesia has one of the highest smoking rates in the world, with cigarettes costing less than $1.00 a pack. Everywhere you looked, people were smoking: on motorbikes, in restaurants, and hotel lobbies. Once again, we appreciated our country, but acknowledged the cultural differences that comes along with travelling.

Our journey to Sumatra began with our flight to the city of Medan. The next day, we took the local transport to the nearby volcanic town of Berastagi. A unique cultural location, Berestagi has a large Christian community, the second largest Buddhist temple in Asia, and numerous Muslim mosques. We stayed at a home stay with Jimmy, his wife Mariel, and their son Louis.
Jimmy took us to a bamboo forest, to drink tea at one of the many 'warungs,' and to his own organic garden. We climbed Mt. Subayak volcano with his son Louis, went to natural hot springs, and visited a traditionally made Batak home. We were fortunate to try many traditional Indonesian dinners including beef rendang (spicy curry) nasi goring (fried rice), fried tempe (fermented soyabean), sate (meat skewers with peanut sauce), and homemade sambal (a spicy chile condiment). We enjoyed great conversation and played guitar over countless cups of tea. Although tea is more popular in Sumatra, Sumatran coffee is excellent. It is usually served very strong, often thick like molasses, and with a ton of sugar, which we would politely decline. Some cups of "java" are nutty tasting, while others are robust. The flavours of coffee are varied, as many varieties of both arabica and robusta beans are grown. Although we carefully conserved precious backpack space for almost a year, we bought four kilos of Sumatran coffee to bring home. We also learned that Sumatra exports the world's most expensive coffee, Cafe Luwak (Civet) derived from the beans expelled from a cat.

Heading into a more remote area, we visited the small village of Ketambe, where we hiked into the jungle to see Sumatra's wildlife. We started into the jungle and within twenty minutes, we heard a black-headed gibbon high up in the trees. We maneuvered around the trees to catch a rare glimpse of the large primate. We also came across a poisonous black snake, many species of monkey, and numerous alien-like insects. The highlight of our experience was dashing through the jungle along a steep bank with our guide to track an orangutang in its natural environment. As he swung from tree to tree with his big arm and human-like hands, we were in awe to see him stop and look straight at us without much apprehension. That night, our guides Pindra and Ewe cooked us a traditional Indonesian meal over a wood fire that we ate--as customary in Indonesia--with our hands. At night we listened to the sounds of the jungle and the nearby river. When we woke up, a massive spider had nestled itself on our tent, but was kind enough not to wake us.

Continuing north along with two other travellers, we hired a private van for an eight hour trip to be more comfortable than the crowded public vans. Our"best laid plans" went "askew"as we came across a broken-down vehicle on the side of the road. We added four more people, two gargantuan bags of rice, a giant log, and a box of live chickens. One of the Muslim ladies we had picked up awkwardly straddled the gear shift as the chickens clucked. At times such as these while travelling, we couldn't help but laugh at the ridiculouness of the situation. Our adventure continued as our very full van came across a roadblock due to a landslide. We waited for four hours hours while crews 'cleaned' up the road. Accustomed to these delays, locals set up a makeshift tent, started a fire, made thick Sumatran coffee and sacrificed one rooster to cook and share amongst the group. During our wait, we enjoyed meeting a Muslim woman named Anna, who spoke a bit of English and had a lighthearted sense of humour. Locals laughed as she entertained them by teaching us a few words in Bahasa Indonesia. Although most of the local men seemed to chain smoke, Anna was the first Muslim woman we saw smoke in Indonesia, which made us like her even more for her intrepid behaviour.

As we drove north, we reached Aceh, a Muslim province under strict sharia law. Under this law, Islam takes a more conservative form than other areas. Alcohol is banned, dress is very conservative, and even small displays of public affection are deemed unacceptable. After a terrible sleep in a dingy hotel in Takengong, we went on a search for anything other than "nasi goreng" (fried rice) or prepackaged food for breakfast. Although dressed appropriately in our long pants and long sleeved shirts in the scorching hot sun, we received many awkward stares and felt uneasy by some of the local men's responses. Even though many locals told us that female travellers did not have to wear a hijab, my hair tied securely in a bun seemed to draw unwanted attention. We also encountered many women fully covered by burqas. We were less comfortable staying in this area than many others locations in our travels, but it was nevertheless a lesson in culture.

We finally reached Banda Aceh, the northern tip of Sumatra. Travelling in our becak (cycle rickshaw), it was difficult to imagine the modern city was the site of complete devastation from the 2004 tsunami. The city where over 60,000 people lost their lives is now marked with memorials and mass grave sites. Incredibly, the tsunami's force carried a 2500 tonne ship from the sea to the city centre. After the tsunami, many new hotels were built for NGO's. A decade later, many of these hotels or sections of them are closed. Although the hotels seemed empty when inquiring for a room, the first hotel was 'full' when we asked to stay for a night. When we found a hotel that had a rooms available, we were given two rooms until we explained that we were married and wanted one room. They obliged to a room with separate twin beds after seeing our wedding rings.

Our travelling adventure through the strict Aceh province was rewarded with the beauty of Pulau Weh, an island off the northern tip of Sumatra. Pulau Weh is an unspoiled, quiet island, where the white sand beaches were empty and the ocean boasted five shades of blue. We dove for a number of days and enjoyed the amazing visibility, large schools of fish, and variety of species. We boated by a pod of dolphins, but they were shy when we tried jumping in the water with them. At our dive shop, we got to know our dive master, Bos from Banda Aceh. After a number of diving days and visiting in the evening, he told us that he had lost his entire family in the tsunami when he was only sixteen. It seemed as though diving was not only a profession for him, but also an outlet and a place to be at peace. The dive shop owner, Mous, also told us the story of the day of the tsunami, where the water in the entire bay was swept out. He described the surreal image of fish flopping in the empty bay, the noise of the giant tidal wave, and people frantically running up the steep slopes. Luckily, the higher ground helped to save people's lives, but he described the island as a war zone in the tsunami's aftermath. Meeting these wonderful people and hearing their stories made us realize the aloof separation one can have when we hear of a story on the news and how after visiting the country changes the way you think about an event. While on the island, we also met many wonderful people including Sunny, Olive, and Nyko from Jakarta. They were travelling around Sumatra and offered to take us for the best coffee and sunset on the island. We went for dinner at a "warung" street vendor and had great conversation about Indonesian culture.

While in Pulau Weh, the holy month of Ramadan commenced. Ramadan is a Muslim holiday where followers of Islam fast from sunrise to sunset and must participate in 'namaz' (prayer) several times a day. After sunset, the fast is traditionally broken with sweets, dates, or fruit, followed by a large family meal. Children (after 12pm), pregnant women, and the elderly are exempt to the fast. Embedded in provincial law, those who are not practicing must be sensitive to those fasting by not eating or drinking in public. After one of our dives, our dive shop in Pulau Weh was warned by local officials with a fine after serving us tea on the tables outside of their shop. Many of the restaurants are closed for the entire month, while others serve food only after sunset. We found a few places to eat behind blinds or by taking our food to go and eating in our room. Many times throughout the day, including at sunrise, the call to prayer in Arabic resounded through the loudspeaker of local Mosques. The end of Ramadan is marked with a mass exodus of people to their home towns and large celebrations with family and food.

After a number of weeks in Sumatra, we boarded a flight to the island of Java. Transiting through the overpopulated city of Jakarta, we flew to the cultural centre of Yogyakarta. We visited the 9th Century Buddhist site of Borobudur and were in awe of its giant bells (symbolizing good fortune), intricate carvings, and overall scale. After a few days, we boarded a bus to eastern Java for a chance to cast our eyes on the island's natural beauty. We travelled for an entire day in a small van through towns and rice fields. The next day, we woke up at 3 am to view the sunrise from Java's most famous volcano, Mt. Bromo. The postcard view was strikingly beautiful, despite the huge crowd of people around us. After another day of travelling and another morning of waking up at the crack of dawn, we hiked up to the very active Ijen crater. The smell of sulphur filled the air as we started our climb just as the sun was rising over the volcano. We hiked alongside sulphur miners who were eager for company, as they hiked up and down the volcano several times a day. The miners worked from sunrise to sundown, carrying as much as sixty kilos on their shoulders in one haul. Although the miners carried a friendly disposition, their faces and shoulders told a different story: a life marked with years of labor and struggle.

We travelled further east through Java until we crossed the ferry to the island of Bali. We then hopped over to the island of Lombok in a "vomit comet" ferry to the Gili islands off the northern coast of Lombok. After three hours into the scheduled one hour trip, we stopped for a fuel fill, an oil filter change, and frequent puke breaks, before we arrived at Gili Air. The journey was worth it as the ferry slid on to the white sand beach of the island and we hopped off in our flip flops. Gili Air is a beautiful, tranquil place; one where motorized vehicles are not allowed. The island atmosphere was laid back and the beaches were clean. Although Gili Air was a nice place to relax, we were anticipating the diving in the area. Unfortunately, the diving was disappointing, due to the destructive impact of dynamite fishing. We were disturbed by the condition of the reef and the lack of fish, although there were many turtles on dive sites due to the conservation program of nearby Gili Meno. Despite the diving, we met new friends on the island and enjoyed the tranquil environment, as we knew our time travelling was soon coming to an end.

Our final ten days in Indonesia were dedicated our shared passion for scuba diving. We flew to the island of Flores in the chain of islands known as Nusa Tenggara. We embarked on a ten day diving liveaboard on the Komodo Dancer's sailboat. The liveaboard promised many dives in various locations and a number of land visits, including one to see Komodo dragons. We visited the islands of Komodo and Rinca where we came within meters of Komodo dragons freely roaming around the island. Known for their poisonous saliva and predatory nature, Komodo dragons are exclusive to four islands in the world, all within the Nusa Tenggara region. Along with our local guides armed with the safety of pointed sticks, we caught a rare glimpse of two dragons mating, which can apparently last for hours. We also saw water buffalo on the island. As one of our land visits, we visited a small island in the region where locals lived off the land with subsistence farming, artisanal fishing, and trading for basic goods. Our dive boat arranged an agreement with the island to allow for our visit by providing basic supplies and staples such as rice.

The diving in the Nusa Tenggara region was beautiful. We were in awe of the brilliantly coloured soft and hard coral, large coral tubes, and giant sea fans. We saw many amazing creatures such as cuttlefish and octopus that can change colour to blend in with the coral and scorpion fish, who are poisonous and seamlessly mimic their environment. On our night dives, we spotted flying gurnards who swim with wings, decorator crabs who collect debris to put on their shells as camouflage, and many tiny cleaner shrimp and crabs. We were amazed at the macro life (small creatures in the diving world) such as the illustrious pygmy sea horse that is a mere ten millimetres in size, the tiny ornate ghost pipefish, and the courageous mantis shrimp who will fight against a predator twice it's size to defend its territory. Colorful nudibranchs, moray eels, sweetlips fish, large napoleon wrasse, green sea turtles, and clown triggerfish were other highlights of our dive experience. We adored the playful clownfish, who would come out of their anemone's and swim right up to our masks with curiosity. A few days into the diving, we were fortunate to encounter manta rays feeding on plankton. The manta rays we swam with were over three meters wide and at one point, there were eight of them above us. It was a privilege to share the water with such a majestic and typically shy animal. Along with the great diving, we also met many wonderful people on our trip. It was truly a great experience to end our year abroad.

Travelling through Indonesia gave us a a chance to experience many new cultural regions, to meet many new people, and to appreciate the country's natural beauty, both on land and under the water.

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Raija on

I can't believe your travels are over and you are on your way home already! This past year went by incredibly fast!! It looks like you had an amazing trip. Can't wait to see you both in person soon!! xoxoxo

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