Category Archives: Indonesia

A Feast for Papuan

West Papua, Indonesia’s eastern most territory, is a land full of contrasts. Tropical forests and paradise beaches, from where the Allied Pacific offensives where launched during World War II, or sky high mountains rising 15,000 feet above sea level, snow capped peaks and isolated valleys where an agricultural people developed complex irrigations systems thousands of years before Mesopotamia. With over 250 languages, dozens of tribes, a complex political context, a troubled history and a very uncertain future, West Papua is a difficult place to understand. Here, I want to introduce you to a more simple side of this beautiful place, its cuisine. Lets have a feast, let’s have a bakar batu.

The bakar batu is an ancient way of cooking large amounts of food, and each tribe has its own style. But the principle remains the same. You first need to dig a hole, its size depending on the number of guests you are expecting.

Long grass is carefully set into the hole in order to insulate the future content of the hole from the earth. In fact, the hole is going to become a kind of giant steamer with an in-built source of heat.

Meanwhile, youngsters light a large fire on which large stones are piled up. These stones are going to heat up for a couple of hours, and become extremely hot. Children are pushed away to avoid accidents, as the stones sometimes explode, sending pieces flying in all directions.

Once the stones are red hot, they are set on a nest of grass.

They are then covered with another layer of grass, then a layer of sweet potatoes, sweet corn, ferns, taro and more of nature’s edible gifts. This layering of stones and vegetables is repeated, with the addition of chicken or pork. If you are vegetarian, no worries, the meat can be separated from the rest by a layer of banana leaves which will prevent the juices from flowing all over your veggies!

A juicy mix of water, oil, spices, salt, chillies etc. is sprinkled over the whole thing, which is then closed up tightly. All you have to do now is wait while the stones bring up the heat, slowly steaming all that deliciousness to a perfect consistency and taste. Just sit, relax, smoke some cigarettes, tell some stories and discuss the latest events of the village.

Once the giant parcel opened, the food is shared amongst all the guests. You can now stuff yourself with corn, sweet potatoes, ferns, chicken, pork and taro, with a delicious sauce of the Pandanus fruit, an amazingly oily and nutritious food with potent curative powers, according to the Papuans. Enjoy!

Backpacking through Tana Toraja

The ground fell rapidly away into the deep valley that ran parallel to this section of road and stretched down for miles towards the floodplain. Every inch of the valley was covered in a patchwork of emerald green rice paddies that shimmered in the wind. We turned another bend on the switch back road and came across a small cafe that hugged the slope on the edge of the hairpin bend. There was a table outside and we dropped gratefully into the seats. Nobody had the energy to talk and so I just stared glassy eyed across the floodplain to a crescent of hills that obscured the horizon. From this height, our starting point, the provincial capital of Toraja, Rantepao, was little more than a few dots that spread across the floodplain; it had been a long walk.

Tana Toraja the Highland

This was my third day in Toraja in the highlands of Sulawesi and the region had simply blown me away. The area is most famous for its unique architecture with the distinctive arched roofs that from the side resemble buffalo horns. These buildings, many of which are actually large family crypts, are closely linked to the lavish funerals, where buffalo costing as much as $40,000 a piece are slaughtered as part of the funeral celebrations. In fact, death is probably the biggest industry in Toraja. Most tourists who come to the region will try to attend a funeral and visit the local burial sites.

Burial grounds in Toraja are many and varied. There are the baby graves, where the corpses of infants are placed in the trunks of living trees. The bodies of the dead are placed in natural caves. More elaborate tombs have been hacked into the side of the cliff face while outside the graves wooden likenesses of the dead stare out at the world. Yet the work that has gone into these burial grounds is nothing compared to Londa. Here, in the middle of a modern cemetery is a stone circle constructed from enormous pillars of rock that was created hundreds of years ago. Like Stonehenge, the rock was transported across huge distances to create an animist monument to the deceased. The most common method of burial however continues to be the small family mausoleum.

Almost every house in the countryside has a mausoleum attached to it. One however is often not enough and the larger houses often have four, five or even six tombs lined up in two rows in the front garden. The older mausoleums look like they have been transplanted from some dystopian vision of the British countryside; small buildings with thatched roofs and wooden walls.

Before arriving in Toraja I thought that the traditional Torajan family mausoleums were made popular and largely maintained for the benefit of the tourism industry; while there is an element of truth to this, three days in Toraja makes it obvious just how alive these traditions still are. New buildings are springing up everywhere and topped with corrigated iron roofs they are easy to identify.

In fact, rather than tourism pushing these traditions forwards, the local government has inadvertantly played a pivotal role in the increasing amount of money that is being spent on mausoleums and on funerals. In December 2011, 350 buffalo were slaughtered for a yearly festival that was funded by the local government.

Tana Toraja Indonesia

Buffalo have always been central to the life of the Torajan people, they are a sign of wealth. Traditionally small numbers of buffalo were slaughtered at a Torajan funerals. The death of a rich tribal chief would see just 20 bulls slaughtered. However, from the start of 2012 this changed. The number of buffaloes slaughtered at funerals has surged and with it the price of the bulls.

The people of Toraja are now going through a period trying to keep up with the Jones’ as each funeral becomes more lavish than the last. All of this is paid for by the wealth that is being drawn in from remittances and tourism dollars. How sustainable this will be hangs in the air, but for the moment the funeral industry in Toraja is thriving.

Toraja trip

Instead of attending a funeral however, I had opted to go hiking through the rich and fertile valleys of Toraja. Sitting in my seat waiting for my coffee, I reflected that I had made the right choice. The buffalo I had seen so far on my trip were all alive and healthy, the people I had met seemed happy and perhaps most importantly for me, the sun was shining and my feet had stopped aching.

The Beauty of Mt. Merapi

Mt. Merapi is an ancient and sacred volcano in the heart of Java. Its as beautiful as it is dangerous. In fact, this is one of the most active volcanos in the world – its erupted twice in the last decade. On its slopes lies the cultural hub of Yogyakarta, one of Indonesia’s oldest and most storied cities. Yogyakarta is a center for arts, culture and learning. Much of its tradition and lore is wrapped up in Mt. Merapi, which to some is still revered like a god. The city has evolved with the volcano, its center moving further and further south through the centuries as its northern reachers were destroyed in successive eruptions.

You can climb Mt. Merapi, despite its high level of activity. The hike is usually done at night and rewards intrepid climbers with one of the most stunning views on earth – the sun rising over a Javanese landscape dotted with volcanos from east to west. Lucky for you, the hike only takes 10-12 hours round-trip. Guides cost between 50-100 dollars, so its affordable and easy to do in a day.

Tips for Traveling Indonesia

As I’m on my way to Southeast Asia (I’m writing this from Dubai airport – 11 hours layover), I thought I would share a few tips on planning your trip to Indonesia. It’s a huge country, and with its 15,000 islands and 3,275 miles West to East span and some of the highest peaks in the region (Puncak Jaya is 16,000 feet high), it can be a daunting prospect to plan a trip there. But I’ll give you a few tips on the what, how, where and whens of your holiday to Indonesia

1. How ambitious can I be?

Unless you have a few months to spare, you will have to compromise and choose a couple of key islands or destinations in the country in order to really feel the place and get a good sense of what Indonesia is really about. If its your first time in Indonesia, take it easy and sharpen your sense of humour, because the Indonesians love a joke and you might be the butt of one of them. The different islands have quite distinct cultures and traditions, and its a good idea to explore these to understand the miracle and challenges of building a nation ! The largest islands are Sumatra, Java, Borneo, Bali, Sulawesi and Papua. Except for Papua, travelling within these islands is relatively easy. (For travelling within Indonesia, see below).

2. What about the visa?

If you travel in Indonesia, you only have 30 or 60 days. So you need to plan in order not to get stuck somewhere and have to rush for the border… Indonesia requires most visitors to have a visa, except if you come from the list of 11 countries including Chile, Malaysia, Morocco, Brunei… For the others (or most of the others) you can get a visa on arrival (VOA) which will cost you 25US$. You can renew this visa once for another 25$. If you don’t want to have to bother with renewing and you plan to stay two months, you can apply to the Indonesian embassy in your country to get a two moths tourist visa. Easier, in my opinion, and it’s the same price. You can find a list of the Indonesian embassies around the world here.

3. How do I get around?

Roads

Depending on the region, roads are relatively good in Indonesia and public transport is ever present, if slow at times. It is the best way to see the country, but obviously requires a lot of time. On the 5 main island, during the day, buses and mini-buses connect all cities, and it is possible to get off anywhere you want, but might sometimes be difficult to get a bus back the other way. Signs and destinations can sometimes be confusing and unclear, in particular in smaller cities, so don’t hesitate to approach people and ask. “Minta maaf ibu/bapak, bis ke (destination) yang mana?” – “Excuse me madam/sir, which is the bus to (destination?)

Trains

On Java and Sumatra, the train network is very useful to get around. Although it is a little rusty, the network on Java will get you to all the major cities pretty safely, if slowly. On Sumatra, the network is much less devellopped and is geared towards freight rather than passengers. You can check times for trains as well as book your tickets here (but some credit card acceptance problems have been reported). If that doesn’t work, try tiket.com or Mau Ke Mana, two reliable agencies that can book your tickets for you for a (very) small fee.

Boats

Indonesia being an archipelago, boat travel is ubiquitous between islands. There have been a string of accidents though, and many travellers have felt rather unsafe on boats. I have never had any problems. For long haul travel by boat, you can take Pelni boats to all the major islands plus smaller ones. Check destinations, schedules and cabin types here. It is also possible to island hop by asking fishermen to take you to the next island, but this is hit and miss. You really need to have some time to do so.

Planes

Travelling by plane within Indonesia is probably the easiest way. Although some of the flights and airlines are quite cheap, you miss out on the slow pace of the boat, train or road transport. For flights within Indonesia, you can try Airasia, Lion Air, Silk Air, Garuda, Merpati and a host of others. The country is pretty well covered, and the less popular destinations, particularly in the east of the country, are mostly serviced by Merpati. In some places, such as Papua, the plane is the only way to get around within the island. Indonesian airlines are also known for having their mishaps, from miscalculated landings to pilots on crystal meth or hitting a cow on the runway.

4. Is it safe?

In general, Indonesia is a safe country. The crime rate has been increasing in recent years, but it remains mainly non-violent. However, you should be careful, as always. There are some pickpockets around in the cities, and you should not flash expensive belongings in public places. Keep your eyes and ears open. Don’t let yourself be distracted by strangers in bus stations, don’t accept drinks from people you don’t know…

Indonesia is also a country with some civil unrest, such as in Papua. If you go to Papua, do NOT FILM or PHOTOGRAPH any DEMONSTRATIONS you might encounter, as this could land you in jail and get you kicked out of the country. It could also endanger the lives of the protesters.

5. Rainy season… is it a problem?

Indonesia has two seasons only. Dry and rainy. But it’s all relative really, because it still rains during the dry season, it just rains less. The rainy season in most of Indonesia, including Java and Bali) is from November to March. But the country is so large that this can vary, with some areas experiencing more or less rain. So is the rainy season a problem? In my opinion, not at all. It especially rains at the end of the afternoon, so you can plan your day and get back before the downpour. Sometimes it is actually a relief to feel the wind pick up and see the big dark clouds rolling in, holding the promise of a drop in temperature. The rainy season mught be a problem if you are planning to visit places way of the beaten track were there are no paved roads. These might then be boggy and places difficult to access.

If you are planning on diving, then the dry season is definitely the best time to go as the underwater visibility will not be troubled by sediment brought in by swollen rivers.

The Sounds of Indonesia

Every night Indonesia’s street vendors trudge down rutted roads and little known backstreets pushing their small portable kitchens in front of them. These wooden carts, barely bigger than a cupboard, are all they need to prepare their single dish. A green gas canister attached to a single hob serves as the stove, with a cutting board and a knife they have a kitchen.

The street vendors serve the original fast food of the Orient. Meals prepared in a minute for hungry workers and lazy cooks. Spicy fried rice cooked over a flickering blue flame, steaming chicken soup kept warm in large metal pots and sweet ginger and coconut deserts that keep those with a sweet tooth satisfied. Never taking the same road twice in a week, it is pot luck just what will come down your road, but there are signs for those with sharp hearing.

Each class of food vendor walks to his own beat. For local Indonesians these sounds are readily identifiable; the soft tinkling of chopsticks against a bowl means the person is selling chicken soup, the sharp shrill blast that sounds like the whistle of a steam train is corn soup. Mixed in with the traditional sounds of age old Indonesian dishes are newer imports, like the bread salesman who cycles along to an electronic eighties beat.

Whatever food the vendors happen to be selling, there will always be someone happy to see them. Tonight I’m waiting for my mystery dish to appear. I’m not sure what will appear on my doorstep, but one thing is for sure, whatever it happens to be I’m going to eat it.

The Strangeness of Lapindo

People who have not visited Indonesia before have probably never heard of Lapindo. Unlike Pompeii, It is not old enough yet to be classed as an exotic ruin, the death and destruction caused are too fresh. Yet despite this fact there there are many parallels. The It is a modern version of Pompeii, except that the disaster was caused by people and not mother nature.

Lapindo is the largest mudflow in the world and is located near to Surabaya on the Island of Java. For almost five years now Lapindo, steaming hot mud has been pumping out of the ground. Stumped at how to stop the mud from pumping out of the ground, the worlds brightest engineers have instead decided to contain it. The whole site, which encompasses an area so vast it takes almost thirty minutes to drive around it, is surrounded by a thick mud and concrete embankment.

A trip to Lapindo is a strange almost post apocalyptic journey. As far as you can see in any direction is an endless expanse of mud. Steaming water vapor emits from cracks in the ground. As you drive around the mud flow you pass buildings and factories, the roofs popping out from below the ground. In total, the mud flow has submerged almost five villages and displaced tens of thousands of people.

The tour guides who will show you around the site are actually ex-residents of the villages that are now submerged beneath the noxious mud. They will take you around the site, pointing out old and now forgotten landmarks. Many of them will even be able to show you where they even lived, though their homes ate now beneath the mud.

So how was this mud flow formed you might be asking yourself? For the record, Lapindo was actually caused by an earthquake and not by the oil drilling that was occurring in the region. The fact that the site is named after the oil company that was operating in

Tana Toraja

The highlands of Sulawesi are one of the most beautiful areas in the world that I have ever visited. The region is crisscrossed by thousands of emerald green paddy fields that cover the valley floor and terraced hillsides. Here and there between the fields and forests are hundreds of picturesque small villages and hamlets. The buildings share the same unique architectural characteristics of the region; thatched roofs that curve up at each end like the horns of a buffalo. The sides covered in striking geometric designs painted in black, red and yellow.

Tana Toraja, which is the name given to the region, is also famous for the great coffee that is grown in the soaring highlands. However, it is neither the coffee or the landscape that attracts so many tourists to Tana Toraja, but the funerals and the cemeteries that draw in the crowds.

I knew about the funerals before I arrived in Tana Toraja, but I was still surprised to be invited to one the first time I was approached by a tourist guide. He talked about It in such a casual way, as if he was inviting me to a party. “There’s a funeral on Sunday. Do you want to come along? It will be a good one.” Oh well, that’s okay then I thought. I’d hate to be invited to a bad funeral, that would put a dampener on things.

At this point I should probably fill you in on exactly what to expect from a funeral in Tana Toraja and why they attract so many tourists. In Tana Toraja funerals it is traditional to sacrifice buffalo at a funeral. In Tana Toraja however, a buffalo can cost as much as $40,000 a bull, and with three or four bulls being sacrificed at a time, which makes funerals extremely expensive.

Anyways, I digress, back to the funeral. I have been to a lot of different places over the years, but I have never been to anything quite as strange as this. Let me explain myself; the funeral was not strange; there was a family in grief, a widow crying and the friends of the deceased having hushed conversations. What was really strange were the tourists sitting at the back and taking photos of everything. My advice, if you are planning on visiting Tana Toraja, stick to the beautiful scenery and great coffee and give the funerals a miss.

Flashpaking in Wakatobi

It was difficult to seperate the colours, it was all just shades of blue. On the horizon the dark cobalt blue of the ocean met the clear blue sky along a thin shimmering line. Closer to the shore, the sea was transparent, the boat appearing to float on a layer of condensed air. Everything was completely still, the ocean flat as the surface of a millers pond. I took a final breath and fell backwards into the ocean. This would be my first dive in over ten years.

Wakatobi is a divers paradise. This group of three major islands (Wangi-wangi, Kaledupa, Tomia and Binongko) located off the eastern coast of Sulawesi is at the centre of a large marine national park. All around the islands, the waters are teeming with fish, while the golden sandy beaches and hot tropical sun makes this the perfect place to get away from it all.

Although the beauty of Wakatobi is well known, the islands are difficult to access if you are on a tight budget. The direct flights that link Makassar and Kendari to the airport on Wangi-wangi will be out of your budget. Instead you will have to get a ferry from either Kendari or Bau Bau to Wakatobi. If you are taking a slow ferry then you will be in for an overnight 10 hour trip. There is also a fast ferry, but this only leaves on odd numbered dates (1,3,5, etc.) from Bau Bau to Wakatobi and even dates from Wakatobi to Bau Bau.

Once you arrive in Wakatobi you will find that there is not a lot of choice when it comes to accommodation. What is available is a mixture of all inclusive resorts and homestays. The prices vary tremendously and range from a couple of hundred dollars a night at places like Wakatobi Dive resort down to just ten dollars for a simple bed.

Diving in Wakatobi is more expensive than in the popular tourism hotspots like Bali and Lombok. A single dive costs around Rp350,000 ($40). The price will drop if you book a diving package at one of the resorts. However, as I sank below the waves I pushed all of these thoughts out of my mind. I needed to remind myself how to dive, it had been ten years after all since the last time I had done this.

Exotic Birds of Indonesia

Indonesians love their birds. Their cats and dogs…not so much. One visit to the Sunday animal market in Yogyakarta – the cultural capital of Java – proved to me this much.

The main plaza of the market is lined with prized show birds in finely carved wooden cages. The air is filled with their song, as elaborate and unfamiliar as the exotic tropical rainforests from which they’ve been plucked. Their proud owners mill about admiring one another’s birds, exchanging advice and smoking clove cigarettes.

As I made my way deeper into the market I found hundreds of cages full of more birds. Everything from baby chickens dyed hot pink to the orange-headed thrush, which intensely sings complex songs for up to an hour at a time in an effort to out-do its male competitors. In fact, this bird is the key competitor in the annual “Perlombang Burung,” a massive birdsong competition that draws national audiences in Indonesia (Java alone has over 50,000 song bird enthusiasts).

Flourescent Chickens

Towards the back end of the market, the well-kept birds gave way to steel cages filled with starving cats and dogs, sickly fruit bats and pacing civets (the animal responsible for 10 dollar a cup coffee luwak).

The simple truth is that in Indonesia dogs are mostly reviled as unclean and dangerous or considered food, while cats are better suited to the street than a family’s home. This means they are not often kept as pets, and like in puppy mills in the west, are treated as a disposable commodity by sellers rather than an animal that needs care.

To me it felt a bit like visiting a prison camp where half the inmates where on death row. This was in stark contrast to the part of the market where the healthy, pampered birds were kept, singing their hearty and happy songs. My advice to you, go to the animal market for the birds, its well worth it, but avoid the back half with the furry mammals. If you’ve ever had a cat or a dog for a pet, it will break your heart.

Day Trekking to Rinjani Indonesia

Fancy a challenge and the chance to take on the task of climbing an active volcano?

Head to Mount Rinjani in Indonesia and experience this impressive volcano yourself. Mount Rinjani is located on the small island of Lombok in Indonesia. It was the first UNESCO approved geological park in Indonesia and it’s the second highest volcano in Indonesia at 3726 metres. Rinjani has an amazing 50 square kilometre caldera with a crater lake. The crater lake is called Segara Anak which means ‘child of the sea’.

If you are planning a day trip to Rinjani then be aware, it is a very active volcano. Recent eruptions within the caldera have formed a conical small mountain within, named Gunung Barujari which means finger mountain. The caldera lake is very warm and a May 2010 eruption rose the temperature for a while from 21 degrees C to 35 degrees C. From April to May 2009 huge eruptions with smoke and ash climbing as high as 8000 metres made the ascent routes close to the mountain.

It is quite a tough trek and it takes 2 days (including one night) to the caldera, with amazing sunrise photographic opportunities where you can capture Bali to the west, and Sumatra to the east. If you stay overnight then you can sleep in an enchanting geological park by a river and waterfall. You can attempt a quite tricky descent into the caldera lake, where you will be rewarded with a warm, soothing bath when you finish. There is then a further day and night trek to the summit of Rinjani. The best time to attempt the climb is the dry season between April and November, but don’t be fooled by the base temperatures. It can be very cold at caldera height, and near to freezing at the summit. Warm waterproof clothing, good quality boots and hiking sticks to help are essential.

Some good trekking clubs to assist you with your climb include Rudy Trekking and Johns Rinjani Adventures. These clubs will provide you with essential guides, porters and camping equipment for a reasonable fee, and all the information you need. Booking a trip with a trekking club is advisable for novice hikers. A sensible starting point is Senaru village, where trekking clubs can easily be found. The trekking tours will most likely take you to the summit, the lake and the crater of the volcano.

If you are there are the right time, you could end up witnessing the annual Hindi ceremony of Mulang Pakelem, where 100’s of white clad Hindu pilgrims will sit and pray at the sacred lake. It’s a very uplifting and fascinating experience.

It’s not just the trekking experience people visit Rinjani for; it’s also a great place to see some wildlife. The lower levels of the volcano are forested, and it is possible to see fig trees, long tail macaques, and even the rare ebony leaf monkey. You will also hear, and maybe see parrots in the forest. It’s an ideal experience for wildlife enthusiasts.

Mount Rinjani is a spectacular volcano with many charming qualities. It is easy to see why so many people like to embark on a trek to Mount Rinjani. Tripadvisor lists Mount Rinjani the number 1 attraction out of 24 in Lombok. The surrounding area is also a fantastic place to explore and switch off after a difficult climb. After the 4 day exhaustive trek, plan a trip to Senggigi beach for a spot of rest and recuperation. It’s the perfect reward for all your hard work.