Indonesia: the verdict

Medan, North-Sumatra. 25 December

It is Christmas day and we are checked in at an airport hotel before flying on to Malaysia. RedDoorz has pulled out all the stops: one smallish Christmas tree, one banner reading Merry X-mas, and one very disinterested member of staff who makes us wait until check-in time even though the room is already available.

The room actually looks not bad and even has a freestanding bath tub. As we have come to expect of airport hotels however, there’s a slight catch. In this case the tap doesn’t work. At least the hotel hasn’t burned down like the last one.

Utilizing our last rupiahs we put together a Japanese-style Christmas feast: a bucket of KFC. Meri Kurisumasu!

Now that we’ve come to the end of our time in Indonesia, as is our custom, let’s put some digits on the board, starting with the price of a pint.

Indonesia’s beer is Bintang. In Bali we’ve also drank Bali Hai, but Bintang is the clear winner in our opinion, and it is readily available all over the country. The odd thing about beer in Indonesia is that it’s actually cheaper to buy it at restaurants or hotels than to buy it in a shop. We’ve paid as much as 50,000 rupiah for a large bottle (700ml) in shops, and as little as 20,000 rupiah (£1) for the same at our hotel in Tanjung Benoa.

Travel stats (Indonesia) By land: 530 km. By air: 2,309 km. Duration: 14 days.

Travel stats (total) By land: 10,930 km. By water: 415 km. By air: 27,952. Duration: 149 days.

Now finally, what you have all been waiting for, the final scores as given by our honorable house judge Lauren!

The people score 8/10. Friendly, helpful and sweet at times, Indonesians more than pass the mark. With the exception of RedDoorz, the hospitality at hotels and restaurants has been exemplary.

The food scores 8/10. Though Western food may be expensive and underwhelming in Indonesia, even the most touristic spot has Warungs offering tasty and cheap Indonesian dishes. The Nasi Camphur is my all-time favourite, as are the freshly made iced teas and banana fritters desserts. High marks for this one!

The transport scores 5/10. Passable, as booking.com would say, Indonesia is the first place where we were close to being attacked by local Bemo mafia. The public bus service is practically non-existent and taxi’s aren’t always cheap. On a positive note, Bali has Kura-Kura. Cheaper than taxis, and equipped with airco and wifi, these little Japanese turtle buses save the day!

And with that said, I’m happy to announce that Indonesia has earned Lauren’s Certificate of Excellence. Well played!

Bukit Lawang: Hostage Situation!

Bukit Lawang, North-Sumatra. 21-24 December.

After landing in Medan we travel on to Bukit Lawang, home of the Sumatran orangutan (lit. jungle people).

We stay in a small tourist village on the Bahorok River, which is the main access point to Gunung Leuser National Park. The park has a population of around 5,000 orangutans.

The local rehabilitation centre for orangutans was founded in 1973, its purpose to preserve the decreasing population due to hunting, trading and deforestation. The centre closed its doors in 2002 as it had become too crowded with tourism.

Today in Bukit Lawang, the situation has changed much for the better. Although big palm oil and rubber plantations are still a threat to the jungle and wildlife, local rangers have successfully rehabilitated captive apes into the wild. Feeding platforms are no longer needed and thanks to a newly adopted ethical approach to tourism, the population is once again on the rise.

From the airport in Medan we take the local bus halfway to Binjai. From there we plan to take a local van to get us to our destination. In all fairness, the official Bukit Lawang tourism website does explicitly warn tourists not to use the local vans, as the guys running the service are “all drug-addicts who can’t be trusted”. Reviews on TripAdvisor confirm much the same, but for some reason we feel obliged to see for ourselves. Famous last words.

So..

When we eventually find a van that can take us to Bukit Lawang, our bags securely tied on top, and we ourselves crammed inside together with 19 locals, shit hits the fan. Six guys start banging on our window demanding money. We insist we will only pay the driver once we’ve reached our destination. The driver meanwhile shrugs his shoulders, pretending not to notice what’s going on outside the vehicle. Lauren quickly makes friends with the girl sitting next to her, who confirms none of the other passengers have paid upfront and the argument continues for what feels like an eternity.

Some of the guys are getting pretty aggressive now, but we’re not impressed. Realizing he’s not getting anything from us, a fat man comes walking up, points at us and shouts: “You! And you! Get out!” Our reply is synchronous: “Not a chance!” I’m now shouting on the driver to go, before anyone gets the idea of taking our bags down, and some of the locals join our cause. Faced with a whole group of annoyed passengers, the driver finally starts the car and drives away. The biggest smackhead of the bunch chases us down the road for a bit, but only manages to punch the van and we can relax. Lauren’s made a new friend, who is clearly impressed with her courage. The Binjai mafia has learned a valuable lesson today: The most dangerous animal of them all is a lioness from Scotland.

In town we’re collected by Erwin, who walks us to our hotel. He’s very likeable, and when we ask what he does for a living and it turns out he’s one of the rangers, we quickly decide to go trekking with him.

First we rest up a bit at the hotel after a long journey. There is a bat cave not far from the village, a complex of four different caves, each housing unique wildlife: spiders, scorpions, snakes, frogs, stingless blue bees, swallows and both small and large bats. We tunnel through small crevices from cave to cave for a peek into the habitat of some incredible nocturnal creatures.

In the midst of the wet season in Sumatra, the rain never stops coming down at night, but the following morning is bright and sunny when we prepare to go trekking in the jungle. The day couldn’t start off more auspicious with our first orange sighting, high up in the trees on the opposite side of the river that runs by the hotel.

To enhance our chances of a close encounter we’ve booked in for the 2-day trek and spend the night inside the park. It’s almost the season for Durian, aka king of fruits, so perhaps unsurprisingly it doesn’t take long at all to find our first great apes close to the park’s entrance; a mother and her teenage son, who tries to show off his skills to us by swinging dangerously from a branch. The branch breaks off mid-swing and with a thump the ape lands on his back and takes off in a huff, while mum isn’t moved at all. She casually sits munching a piece of fruit through the whole ordeal.

The same day we also spot a big male, and a female with a tiny baby, high up in the trees. Then there’s two types of macaque, a white-handed gibbon and a very chill Thomas leaf monkey.

Haven’t we all been there, Monday morning, on the bus, going to work?

The trek itself at times is pretty challenging, consisting almost exclusively of steep climbs and descents. Finally we reach the campsite by the side of a stream. After a long and taxing day we enjoy an ice-cold, refreshing bath, until we see the giant monitor lizards that had same idea.

At dinner Erwin tells us about Mina, one of the orangutans in the park, who has recently become a grandmother. He has known Mina since she was still in captivity as a pet to one of the villagers. Back then she was already known as aggressive, and ever since she was released into the wild, has become infamous for biting people, our ranger included. As if the lizards roaming free around camp weren’t enough to worry about.

The next morning we wake up with the light and after breakfast set off on the second trek. After a little while we strike lucky again. A full-grown male comes up close to get a good look at us all.

After just about the steepest, most dangerous decline, when we’re just beginning to think our luck’s dried up for today we suddenly hear Erwin shout: “Orangutan!” He’s worried it might be Mina, and leaves all of us scrambling to safety while a dark figure appears overhead. “No worries, it’s Jackie!”, we hear him breathe a sigh of relief. Jackie is meant to be a playful orangutan, so equally relieved, the two of us slow to a halt and look up to see a big orange figure slide down a big tree and jump onto the path beside us.

Relief quickly turns to mild anxiety when Jackie runs straight at us with her giant powerful arms and mild anxiety quickly turns to panic, when the first thing Jackie does is grabbing a firm hold of Lauren’s wrist and dragging her back up the steep incline we descended a moment ago. Once at the top, Erwin tells Lauren to sit down next to her new friend and right there and then a little baby pops its head out from under its mothers hairy arm. How about this for a Christmas card?

Mere seconds after this blissful scene, suddenly we’re in a reallife hostage situation. Jackie refuses to release Lauren and even threatens to bite off one of her fingers. Erwin freaks the fuck out and does not manage to diffuse the situation. He’s threatening a slap but Jackie is unfazed and lands a punch in his gut. Only after enough fruit is piled up for her does she choose to let the hostage go. So now we know how much Lauren is worth: No less than 6 pieces of fruit, thank you very much! 3 rambutons, 1 mandarin, 2 bananas. Jackie quickly gathers up the ransom and bounds up a tree with her baby.

The trek resumes. Just when we’re all fully relaxed again, once again Erwin sounds the alarm. He’s spotted Mina, of course, or rather, Mina has spotted him! No need to tell us twice, we’re already running. Behind us we hear the sounds of branches breaking and Erwin shouting. When we arrive at a clearing we turn around. There’s Erwin coming up on the path, followed by Mina. The thing is with Mina, she can smell fear, and she doesn’t like it if people are impolite. Just the other month, one of the rangers, who, in his panic, threw all his fruit down on the ground for her, got bitten. Erwin knows. Staring death in the eyes, this time he remains in complete control of the situation. Showing no fear, he politely hands her bits of a mandarin, while we safely escape behind him. Erwin kens how to treat a lady.

When we get to the river we’re exhausted but fully satisfied. Trekking over we’re heading back to the village in style: we’re tubing back down river for the perfect end to a memorable two days in the jungle.

It’s Christmas eve, we’ve just finished our first Christmas dinner of mash potatoes and chicken, wonderwall is being performed on guitar by a member of staff and we’re getting to ready to say goodbye to wonderful Bukit Lawang. Stay tuned for tomorrow’s Christmas special straight from the Reddoorz airport hotel in Medan!

Pitstop in Kuala Lumpur

Kuala Lumpur, 20 December

We’ve had a glorious week in Bali, but all good things must come to an end as we prepare to travel on to North-Sumatra.

Somehow we make it onto one of the rare public buses to the airport (none of the locals seem to know when, or where these go, and indeed we are its only passengers).

At 9PM we board our to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia to spend the night there, before flying on to Medan in North-Sumatra the next morning.

A bit sleepy and travel-weary we finally land in Medan, excited to visit our furry cousins the Orang Utans!

South-Bali: The Endless Summer

Tanjung Benoa, Bali. 17-19 December.

It’s mid-December and we’ve been in summer for the past six months. I expected Bali to be rainy this time of year, but on the south coast the weather is simply magnificent, too hot if anything.

We spend three days in Tanjung Benoa reading in the shade of the hotel’s garden, lounging by the pool, and bumming on the beach. In fact, between driving around on the open roads and considerable amounts of sunbathing, my tan got a tan. Life here is good.

With warm water year-round, world-class waves and accommodating infrastructure, Bali is perfect for surfing. In the 1930’s, American Bob Koke was the first surfer in Indonesia at Kuta Beach. Decades later, the first professional surf competition, the Om Bali Pro, was held in 1980, but what really accellerated the popularity of Bali as a surfing destination was the 1972 film Morning of the Earth. It has turned Uluwatu into one of the most famous surfing spots in the world.

Green Bowl, Nyang Nyang, Padang Padang, Bingin, Dreamland and Balangan Beach are some of the world-renowned surfing spots in the Uluwatu area. We visit Balangan for its smaller crowds, white sandy beach and dramatic rocky hills. The warm water is as clear as can be and we sit back and relax while the locals showcase their awesome skills on a board. At the far side of the beach is a perfect secluded cove.

This sums up our time in South-Bali; extremely relaxing and pretty uneventful, except perhaps for one strange occurrence: a monkey taking a shit in our semi-open bathroom at the hotel. One more monkey profanity to add to our ever-growing list of incidents. Let’s hope it’s no bad sign of things to come when we visit the Orang-Utans in North-Sumatra next!

Ubud: Temples, rice paddies and waterfalls.

Ubud, Bali. 13-16 December.

If you don’t like temples, rice paddies and waterfalls, Ubud is not the place for you. But what’s not to like? Though very touristy (due to the Australian summer holidays), we immediately fall in love with this place.

Our first mission after landing in Bali is to crack the code of public transport. At first it seems that only taxis are an option, and fares at the airport are pretty inflated. Stubborn as always, I set myself the task of finding an alternative. A few years back an attempt was made to roll out a public bus service on Bali, but today only two lines have survived: one to a nearby beach resort area, the other the one we take, which gets us halfway to Ubud. From there we plan to take a Bemo (public van) to Ubud, but no such luck, as the Bemo terminal doesn’t exist anymore.

Just a random guy in a car offers us a ride and after a bit of negotiating we’re on our way and make it into Ubud.

First impressions of Bali are nice. We drive through beautiful surroundings with loads of greenery, it’s clean, sunny and the roads are in excellent condition. I think we’ll be okay here!

On top of that, our hotel has a pool, which is extremely welcome in the hot Balinese weather, and the room is an absolute bargain at £15 a night: One of the best we’ve stayed in so far!

First we set out to explore the town. There are more than 20.000 temples and shrines in Bali, and even restaurants and homes are built in similar fashion, each one sporting intricate stone carvings. Ubud Palace (or Pura Saren Agung) used to be the royal residence and is just around the corner from where we stay.

Right next to the Palace is the Saraswati Temple, dedicated to the Hindu goddess of learning, literature and art.

We get talking to a girl from Germany and grab a coffee in one of the many, many coffee places the town has to offer. With about 120 active volcanoes in Indonesia, the rich volcanic soil and hot climate are ideal for coffee growing. Balinese coffee contains loads of caffeine; ideal for two junkies such as us. Kopi Luwak, or civet coffee, is brewed from partially digested coffee cherries, eaten and defecated by the Asian palm civet, which makes for a less bitter, slightly sweeter taste.

On the edge of town you can walk over the Campuhan Ridge, with views over rice terraces and Mount Agung, an active volcano and the highest point on Bali.

We finish our tour of Ubud at the Sacred Monkey Forest, which has about 700 Balinese long-tailed macaques roaming free. I don’t know what it is with Lauren and monkeys, but even the chilled-out, old, blind one tries to bite her, after first delighting in her attention for a while.

We explore a bit more of Bali by scooter, starting with the famous Tegallalang rice terraces for the perfect photo opportunity.

I’m glad I learned how to drive a scooter in the Philippines first, as the traffic in Bali is quite hectic with vehicles coming in from every direction. Though the condition of the roads is good, they get very steep and bendy, with little room to overtake slower vehicles. It’s the rainy season and when we leave the rice paddies a tropical rain turns the road into a river for a pretty intense ride. After Ubud I’ve definitely become a more confident driver.

Goa Gajah, or Elephant Cave, was built in the 9th century. The exact origin of the cave is unknown, but the complex contains both Hindu and Buddhist imagery.

This place has it all: the coastal path takes us to Blue Lagoon (it lives up to its name) for a refreshing dive in the clear water of Bali Sea.

Our final stop is Mount Lempuyang where we visit the temple complex hidden away on its peak. It’s a long, arduous drive up, but has amazing views, you can practically see the entire island from the top!

After a long climb we pass by the different temples forming the complex on top of the mountain. It’s quiet and empty except for a few monkeys and well worth the trouble of getting there.

At night in town we sample as much Balinese cooking as we can. Across from our hotel, Sun Sun Warung is the best place for dinner (judging by the long queue out the door) and we eat our way through half their menu. The Nasi Camphur, the sateh, and esspecially the pisang goreng are absolutely delicious, along with Indonesian ice tea flavoured with a pandang leaf, just incredible!

In Ubud we’ve had it all: a great hotel, great food, temples, rice paddies, waterfalls and even a beach. Add to that a shop selling cheddar and french bread, good coffee and tea and a whole bunch of little boutique shops and it’s unanimous. We’ll be coming back here in the future.