Indonesia by the Senses

Indonesia is intense. It's big, both in terms of size (17,000 islands) and population (267 million). It's a study in contrasts, with different religions, languages, customs; dense jungles and clear cuts for palm oil; remote islands and smog-filled cities. As our guide at Prambanan explained, the patron Hindu god of Indonesia is the god of destruction, Shiva, because the country has been so many times destroyed and reborn by earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis, and colonization.

When I was thinking about how to explain my experience in Indonesia succinctly, how to sum up three neighboring islands (Bali, Java, and Sumatra) that are sometimes in such stark contrast, I kept returning to the five senses. Indonesia is at times a delight for - and occasionally an assault on - the senses. Bold flavors, distinct sounds, dramatic scenery. One way or another, it is likely to evoke strong feelings.

We started in Sanur, a beach town close to the airport, where we spent a few days getting over our jet lag, drinking Bintang beers by the water, and figuring out our next steps. Following friends' advice, we skipped Ubud and headed to Munduk, a small mountain town surrounded by rice paddies and beautiful waterfalls. Then we moved to the north coast to a sleepy beach town called Pemuteran that many people had recommended. We stayed in a $9 a night bungalow with an outdoor shower and a friendly resident cat, rented snorkels to see the fish at the biorock conservation project just offshore, and visited nearby temples.

See: waterfalls and rice paddies
Smell: incense from the morning and evening Hindu offerings
Hear: tinkling bells from the temples
Feel: sand between our toes
Taste: earthy and spicy - nasi campur (first picture below- rice and side dishes including vegetables and tempeh), coconut pork, coffee

Clockwise from top: Nasi campur in Sanur; breakfast view in Munduk; At a temple near Pemuteran; the black sand beach in Pemuteran

From a hill by our guesthouse in Pemuteran we could see the massive volcanoes of Java and they called us west. We hopped on a ferry and then a train, intending to stop for one night in the tiny town of Kalibaru where we stayed in an old house with a beautiful garden. Due to train schedules (and the lovely pool and garden), we wound up staying three nights - all of which were interrupted around 4:30 am for the call to prayer, followed by about 12 hours of bass-heavy music from a wedding in the village. (Despite all that, it was a beautiful place). We then hopped on a 12-hour cross-island train ride (Java is huge) to get to Yogyakarta. We used Yogya as a base to visit 9th-century Buddhist and Hindu temples, ate the famous stewed jackfruit (gudeg), and got a lesson in how to make batik.

Our next stop was the Dieng Plateau - a beautiful area of countryside high up in the mountains. We quickly noticed that while it was popular with Indonesian tourists, there were very few foreign tourists. While I love getting off the beaten path, the lack of foreign tourism infrastructure did make for some challenges with transportation and communication (despite my attempts at learning Indonesian via DuoLingo, the Google Translate app was a must-have). Still, the warm days and chilly nights in Dieng were perfect for hiking up volcanoes and through terraced fields, fueling ourselves with lots of mee goreng and nasi goreng (fried noodles and fried rice).

See: volcanoes and temples
Smell: fried noodles
Hear: call to prayer at 4:30am, requests for photos from Indonesian tourists 
Feel: cold enough in Dieng to need my puffy coat!
Taste: sweet and salty - fried chicken, sweet and fruity breakfast pastries, gudeg, shrimp crackers, my first taste of dragonfruit 

Clockwise from top: Posing with school kids at Borobudur; volcano views on the Dieng plateau; breakfast of sweet and savory pastries in Yogyakarta; our tour guide-in-training at Prambanan

Our number one reason for going to Indonesia was to see the orangutans, so we flew from Yogya to Medan and made our way via train and a very dusty minibus ride to Bukit Lawang. Our guesthouse, Cheeky Monkeys, was probably my favorite place we stayed on our whole trip. The owners loaned us a motorbike to join them on an afternoon swim in the river, and took us out on the town with their friends. They also arranged our two-day trek through the national park. It was the sweatiest, muddiest, scrambly-est hiking I've ever done (there are easier paths, but our guide liked to get away from the crowds). We saw 12 adult orangutans, almost all with babies or adolescents. We camped along a creek where we saw monitor lizards and spear fished with our guides. We tubed down the river with our bags wrapped up in tarps to get home. It was amazing and will make you never want to eat anything with palm oil in it ever again (palm oil plantations have taken over the orangutans habit outside of the national park). 

After a brief stop in Berastagi, during which we were both sick and ate a lot of soto ayam (chicken soup), we headed to Lake Toba. Lake Toba is the caldera of a super volcano that will basically kill us all if it ever explodes. Despite that, the island (Samosir) that rises up out of the lake is a beautiful and peaceful getaway. We ate a lot of lake fish, rented a motorbike to drive around the island, made friends with some cats, and enjoyed the sunset views from our balcony.

See: wildlife (orangutans, moneys, monitor lizards, water buffalo) and palm oil plantations, Batak architecture 
Smell: the damp, verdant smell of the jungle
Hear: jungle sounds; singing Country Roads with our guest house owner and his friends
Feel: sweat coming out of every pore; the relief of a swim in a cool river; sore bum from long motorbike rides around Samosir Island
Taste: smoky and spicy - grilled fish with sambal, spicy pumpkin curry

Adolescent orangutan in Gunung Leuser National Park; fried lake fish; our favorite spot on the back porch at the guesthouse in Bukit Lawang; Batak architecture on Samosir Island in Lake Toba 


Popular Posts