Indonesia – Bali

We landed at Denpasar Airport Bali from Yogyakarta around 4pm on Sunday September 27th. Our luggage came through very quickly for a change and after a brief stop to seize a rare opportunity to buy a bottle of wine in the airport (we had so far found alcohol, other than beer, difficult to find virtually everywhere in Indonesia) we were soon out to meet our driver who would take us to Gajah Biru (meaning Blue Elephant) Bungalows and Spa aka GB in the artists’ village of Penestanan on the outskirts of Ubud.

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Ubud is a popular inland tourist destination famous as an arts and cultural centre and also as a centre for meditation, yoga and alternative life styles. From that description you can guess the place is full of art galleries, cultural sites, hippy types, spas and places to learn how to find oneself – whatever that means…

The journey from the airport took around an hour to a town which is surrounded by rice fields. We were warmly welcomed at GB with the customary cold towel and drink and quickly shown to our room which was more than acceptable being a large first floor room with a huge and comfy four poster bed with mozzy net, a nice dressing area and bathroom and with a mini bar that wouldn’t break the bank. Beer and wine both on offer here at very reasonable prices. This was the first time we had come across a minibar with wine in Asia and Ann was made up – until she remembered we had decided to have a dry October which would start in a few days time!

The room had a super large veranda with a nice sofa for relaxing and a dining area where breakfast, made to order, was served each morning. The veranda was totally private and not overlooked at all and with beautiful gardens and pool – we loved the place from the outset. There were a few minor issues during the week but these were fixed immediately.

Gaja Biru

Our fab room at Gaja Biru
Our fab room at Gaja Biru
A generous private balcony with views of the garden and pool
A generous private balcony with views of the garden and pool

The room has a very private balcony with nice views of the garden and pool

 

In Bali the Frangipani tree is considered holy. They are seen everywhere in gardens at temples ,hotels and houses.They are used in offerings and women put a flower behind their ear after praying.
In Bali the Frangipani tree is considered holy. They are seen everywhere in gardens at temples, hotels and houses. They are used in offerings and women put a flower behind their ear after praying.

 

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It’s often the staff that make a hotel and this place is no exception. We thought the staff were excellent, always anxious to provide great service and always in a warm and friendly manner. We soon learned these were typical Balinese characteristics – they really are lovely people.

Having done a quick inspection of the room and completed our normal check on numbers of electrical sockets and the like (important given we have a laptop, 2 iPads, 3 phones and 2 cameras needing constant charging), we quickly dropped our the bags in the room and asked for a ride into town – there’s a free shuttle to take guests on the 5 minute drive – very handy.

Ubud is very different from anywhere else we had visited in Indonesia so far. The town is a reasonable size but by no means huge but is busy busy busy with cars, motor bikes, tourists and small groups of men stationed seemingly every 30 yards along every street offering taxi rides. Despite all of this activity and heavy tourist stuff which normally we hate, we both immediately liked the place. On top of everything else, the streets are clean and litter free, a big plus against much of the rest of Indonesia seen so far where even on the beautiful Gili Air, littered roadsides and streets were the norm. Also, although there’s lots of traffic in town, its not aggressive and it moves slowly and as the streets are only one lane each way they are not too difficult to cross.

Ubud traffic - looks manic here but its not too bad!
Ubud traffic – looks manic here but its not too bad!

 

Our driver dropped us in town at the central market, a brilliantly colourful market and a lively place to wander around. The town is stuffed full of tourists of every nationality which again is quite different to most places previously visited in Indonesia where very often we have been almost the only white faces in town! This place is very popular with Australians, Russians, French and more.

After a quick walk around the market we carried on walking the streets and window shopping until round 5pm when we walked back to the hotel which takes about 20 minutes and went through our ritual of unpacking, putting gadgets on charge and checking emails.

The Gaja Biru’s restaurant and bar, the Round Bar, is actually just outside the grounds of the hotel thus breakfast, which is excellent, is delivered to your room.

On our first night we enjoyed drinks and a complimentary dinner in the Round Bar courtesy of the hotel’s charming owner Surinder, a much travelled Indian gentlemen married to a local lady Sumi. Surinder is both hotelier and entrepreneur running a business manufacturing, selling and exporting products made from re-cycled materials. Once you have been at the hotel for a couple of days you begin to notice pieces of garden furniture and quirky ornaments and other paraphenalia that he has made – very clever!

 

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The restaurant is managed by Sumi and the food was very good indeed and excellently priced. As curry addicts we were delighted to find a few indian dishes on the menu as well as standard Indonesian food, pizzas etc.

The food was great and our choice of hotel looked good. Already we were thinking of extending our stay….

We were booked into Gaja Biru for seven nights which we thought would be a generous amount of time even though this week we would need to visit Denpasar at least 3 times to renew our 30 day Indonesia visa and to sort out a 60 day visa for our upcoming trip to Thailand.

The following morning after a leisurely breakfast, we met up with the hotel’s driver Made to arrange our transport for the week. We had read that the renewal of visas in Denpasar was a pain not least because it needed 3 visits to the Immigration Office. Some people use visa agents as much as possible but that means entrusting them with your passport which we didn’t much fancy. We arranged that Made would drive us into Denpasar first thing the following morning to take us to Immigration and then take us on a temple tour. We would need to return to Immigration the following day or the day after to have photos and fingerprints taken and then return a third and final time to collect passports with visas – not just a pain but a horrendous waste of time and expense for us!

Visa trips and a day out with Made sorted, we had what remained of the week to chill. We hadn’t planned anything really except that we hoped to do a lot of walking and get to at least one of the traditional Balinese dance performances which take place nightly. We did both.

The week flew by with leisurely breakfasts, a lot of walking, window shopping, cheap massages (though not as cheap as Thailand) eating and drinking – at least up to Thursday when we went dry. We loved busy Ubud and there were lots of highlights, particularly rural Penestanan Village itself which is only a few minutes drive from Ubud but totally different.

Some of the highlights…….

Shopping

We enjoyed the shopping (can’t believe I wrote that) even though we bought very little. Shopping is actually a very time consuming business here. Shopkeepers are stopping you constantly to say hello and chat and there are distracting photo opportunities every few yards. There are lots of little side streets with nice shops, cafes and coffee shops and with a stop for lunch the day passes very quickly.

The shopkeepers are friendly and of course you are constantly beckoned and asked to “just look” but it’s all good fun and not in any way aggressive. The market, full of pictures, paintings, textiles, fancy goods, housewares, clothing, basketry, wood carvings and lots more has little of interest to us whilst travelling but we saw lots of stuff we could have bought for our place in Turkey had we a limitless luggage allowance. Like most places in S.E. Asia, prices are generally low for goods which are nice enough but mass produced in China or Vietnam or somewhere similar. However, Ubud is different in that in addition to the usual tourist tat shops there are many individual shops such as fashion shops, jewellers, galleries and the like, offering good quality Ballinese designed goods, original paintings etc at affordable prices. Ann loved it !

 

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Temples, shrines and offerings

Religion is one of the most striking things about Ubud and of course temples are central to it. There are temples everywhere. It is said that there are over 10,000 religious sites on the island and you see these even in the most remote rural and mountainous areas. In town there seems to be a temple every few yards. They are all different and some are large and some are tiny. In addition hotels, many shops, restaurants and even offices have a small shrine and every house has a temple area at which to pray. The temples are for the most part quiet serene places but become hives of activity when a ceremony is being prepared or taking place.

Temples of any size usually consist of several buildings called pavilions and are surrounded by walls to keep out evil spirits with some kind of Guardian statues, usually warriors or demons, either side of the entrance way. Even the temples of large houses will consist of several pavilions each having its own use and again having “Guards” at the entrance and there will always be a shrine where ancestors can be remembered.

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The Balinese are very devout people and Hinduism is practiced by 85% of the population (the figure for Indonesia in general is only 1.5%). No day goes by without making offerings to the gods and you see the offerings sat on the pavements, perched on walls or statues and adorning almost anything that has a ledge to hold something. They will be found at virtually every building in Ubud and will also be found on the edges of rice fields where offerings can be made with prayers for a good crop or for thanks giving.

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This tradition of offerings to honour the ancestors and gods and to ward off evil spirits is a very significant part of the life of Balinese women who can be seen every day sat outside their homes or places of work weaving the baskets or trays from palm leaves and arranging the offerings within them. The offerings will be placed with burning incense sticks, a prayer and some ceremony in various places and at any shrine in and around the building and the compound surrounding it and including the pavement outside the building. This ceremony will be performed every day by the wife in the household or by a designated person in a shop or restaurant, usually wearing traditional sarong and sash. The offerings are cleared away and replaced by new ones every day and of course all this ceremony and colour adds to the already colourful streets and also results in a very pleasant smell of incense wherever you go. What makes it so special is that these traditions exist and continue not because of tourism – the faith of the Balinese is at the centre of their lives and is clear to see everywhere in young and old alike.

There is always a ceremony going on somewhere here whether it is to celebrate a special religious day or just a family ceremony, wedding or funeral. Offerings for such ceremonies will be rather more substantial with people giving whatever they can and baskets of fruit, cigarettes, eggs, rice and other food beautifully packaged in baskets are the norm. Most days when travelling you will come across women carrying these baskets on their heads (the most sacred part of the body) to the temple.

Not only is religion a very time consuming business for the Balinese but it’s also very expensive. The Balinese generally earn very little money but ceremonial dress and offerings are expensive and if there is a ceremony that a Balinese person must attend then he or she must attend and that will almost always mean taking time off work and losing wages.

Pura Tirta Empul Holy Spring

We visited several large and important temples on our tour with Made but this was the most impressive and a definite highlight of our week. A water temple built around a large water spring discovered in 962AD. At the front of the temple are bathing pools with the holy spring water spouting out of sculptured spouts under which the pilgrims will bathe moving along the pool from the first spout to the last. Behind the bathing pools is a large courtyard and beyond that the temple proper.

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The temple is interesting in itself but we were lucky in that we visited on a day of Full Moon celebrations. Full Moon in Bali is a special holy day and hundreds of ceremonies take place all over the island. There is ceremonial dance and music and the proceedings involve offerings of food fruit and flowers. As you can see from the pictures the result is a fascinating riot of colour.

 

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Penestanan Village

This is a lovely little village known as the Painters Village since the 1930s when it was home to a famous artist. There are still some arty businesses here but it’s also known as a centre for yoga and meditation.

The village is largely residential with a few hotels, including Gaja Biru, some B&B type properties and some rental villas. There is a smattering of restaurants mostly of the local warung style selling local food and a few coffee shops and mini-markets with very limited stock.

Once you come off the main road from Ubud there are no roads as such and access to the aforementioned properties not on the main road and to the rice fields is via narrow lanes wide enough only for motor bikes and pedestrians. Thus everything that needs to be brought in must be carried or brought in on a motor bike.

The rice fields are being gradually absorbed as the village grows bigger and we saw a number of new properties in various stages of construction. Motorbikes ridden by men and loaded with bags of cement went constantly back and forth along the lanes whilst women, mostly middle aged, carried roof timbers balanced on their heads or pushed wheel barrows along carrying sand and building blocks. The women here seem to do most of the manual labour but we shouldn’t have been surprised as by now we have seen women doing heavy physical work on road works and building projects in a few places in Asia.

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Lots of new villas being built around the village – how long before the rice fields are gone?

 

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Penestanan is clearly a thriving and popular area. It’s also clear that it will be a different place in 10 or even 5 years time as it becomes more developed but for now it’s a really lovely area and it’s great to just wander and explore around the lanes and between the rice fields to see where the paths take you.

We were booked into Gaja Biru for a week but after four nights we had decided to extend our stay for a few more nights. Sadly GB had no rooms available and so we booked into Bali Dream Resort only 150 metres away from GB down the lane leading into the rice fields.

We moved over to Bali Dream on Sunday October 4th for four nights. This is another super hotel with beautiful manicured gardens and 2 nice swimming pools. There are various room types but our budget gave us only a quite modest room albeit adequate for just a few nights. There is every comfort and the only downside was rather poor wifi reception in the room although it was good in the open Reception/Restaurant area. City had a match one evening whilst we were at Bali Dream and to the surprise of the overnight Security Man, we turned up at the restaurant at 4am to watch the game live on-line (I know we are mad!) – he seemed to be glad of the company but soon returned to his slumbers!

The restaurant here is very good serving an excellent breakfast and we had a couple of nice dinners here. The staff are fabulous – not just on Reception and in the restaurant but throughout the hotel including Housekeepers and Gardeners who all had a ready smile and a hello for you. We liked this place so much that we returned for a few days later in our trip !

Here are some pictures Bali Dream.

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Some of the amazing staff at Bali Dream
Some of the amazing staff at Bali Dream

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Rice Field Walk

There are a number of walks to be done around Ubud. This walk was recommended by the hotel but we somehow managed to go off piste and walk which should have returned us to the hotel after an hour or so became a three hour walk which ended in the centre of Ubud! This was a really nice walk through awesome countryside passing the odd farm, hotel, warung, coffee shop and artists studio and although its a popular walk there were very few other people around on the day we walked. Here are some pictures…

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There are several traditional Balinese dance shows performed every night of the week at various temples in and around Ubud and at Ubud Palace in the centre of town.

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Permuteran

We left Ubud on Thursday October 8th for the 120 km drive to Permuteran on the North coast of Bali where we would stay for a week at Taruna Homestay. This is a scenic drive through mountainous rural Bali that can be done in two to three hours depending on how many times you stop for photographs and sightseeing. In the event our only real stop was at Ulun Danu Water Temple on Lake Bratan in the mountainous area near the town of Bedugul. The lake is an important water supply and so it’s an important temple and offerings are made to Dewi Danu, the water, lake and river goddess. There was a ceremony just finishing as we arrived and so were not so lucky on this occasion, missing most of the proceedings.

A few photos taken en route to Pemuteran

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Pemuteran is small laid back fishing village on the north coast of Bali. As far as tourism is concerned it’s a strip resort running 1km or so either side of the coast road. Virtually all of the hotels, resorts, restaurants and other businesses are on this coast road which has a surprising amount of traffic. It isn’t the most attractive road.

The backdrop to Pemuteran is the mountain range that we had crossed and apparently there is good hiking to be had as there is in the West Bali National Park to the west but with temperatures hitting 30 degrees every day our boots stayed in the bag.

The main activity here is diving and snorkelling and with lots of dive operations here – there is a lot of marine conservation work going on here with a coral reef repair project ongoing just off the beach, Menjangan Island, part of the West Bali National Park, is a famous snorkelling spot a few miles away.

I’m glad to say that Taruna Homestay lived up to its excellent reviews. It’s a homestay in name only in that its a family owned business but in truth this is a very nice hotel with spa. Great accommodation, beautiful manicured gardens with swimming pool and a very good restaurant. Lovely staff, eager to please as we find throughout Asia.

 

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The garden has very atmospheric lighting at night time
The garden has very atmospheric lighting at night time

We had a standard room which wasn’t overly equipped but still very comfortable with beds turned down by a housekeeper each evening with a mosquito killer plugged in and coil lit in the sitting area outside the front door.

We dined in the restaurant a couple of evenings and although it gets rave reviews, we were a tad disappointed with the local food which was toned down for westerns despite requests for “real Thai food.” We found better and cheaper local food elsewhere – notably at Tirta Sari and Hungry Army Warung.

A major let down of Pemuteran was the beach which should have been beautiful and was in places but was mostly covered in litter washed in from elsewhere. Those resorts and hotels which have beachfronts clean their own frontage and so those areas are fine but it seems the rest is left untouched although someone said that it is cleared from time to time.

Pemuteran beach is fine near resorts and near the village
Pemuteran beach is fine near resorts and near the village
But sadly, elsewhere its mostly like this...
But sadly, elsewhere its mostly like this…

So our beach holiday in Pemuteran didn’t occur on the beach! We spent most of our time by the hotel pool with daily excursions for walks, massages, lunch and/or dinner with an excellent snorkel trip to Menjangan Island. We took the trip with Sea Rovers, a very professional outfit and were lucky to have the boat to ourselves with just one other couple who were completing a dive course.

Menjangan Island

The snorkelling and diving here is regarded as some as the best in the world and after our excellent trip out to the Great Barrier Reef some months ago we thought we should give it a try. It wasn’t the clearest day and we didn’t see a huge variety of fish (and unfortunately no turtles) although the two divers on board were luckier. Nevertheless, we had a great day out with Instructor/Guide to ourselves.

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All's good with Mrs E.
Thumbs up from Mrs E

 

Smoke break for our Guide Opix
Smoke break for our Guide Opix

Here are a few more photos of our time in Pemuturan including a visit to a couple of local temples, both over-run by monkeys.

 

We didn’t fall in love with Pemuturan as we have with many other places but it was certainly interesting and most interesting of all was getting a close up view of a Balinese cremation. The deceased, Wayan, was the cousin of our hotel owner and ran his own Homestay across the road. He had passed away a couple of days before we arrived in Pemuturan.

We thought it rather odd that total strangers should be invited to such a private gathering but it seems that the whole community and outsiders are welcome to attend and are even encouraged. Funerals are very expensive for the Balinese and it’s often the case that the ceremony is delayed for quite some time after death. The body is buried and later exhumed when funds are available and even then the ceremony might well be a communal one for a number of deceased villagers who have died and been buried over a period. That wasn’t the case here – apparently Wayan was quite well to do!

The ceremony is ultimately a happy occasion for the Balinese because it results in re-incarnation – the beliefs about death and the traditions that come into play are quite fascinating. There is loads of interesting stuff on the internet but there is a brief article about it here for anyone interested.

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2396549/Sixty-bodies-burned-mass-cremation-Bali.html

The entire ceremony takes place over three days and involves lots of prayer, feasting, the cremation, returning the ashes to the sea and then a big celebration. We attended and followed only the procession for the cremation to the Temple of the Dead just outside the village and quite close to the sea. We were obliged to wear appropriate clothing which we already had by now having visited many temples but our hotel Receptionist kindly gave me the special funereal head dress which I didn’t have. Quite a few other Westerners attended including a few random who just happened to be passing by and joined the throng – without the necessary garb of course.

The procession and cremation itself took perhaps two hours. Music was played throughout ( by the Guys wearing the purple shirts in the pictures below) and in addition, the Koran was read throughout by a group of Priests who took turns to sing the words into a microphone. It was all a bit surreal but even so Ann and I were not surprised to find a small group of street food vendors gathered under the shade of some trees nearby and not long after the procession arrived at the place a few small groups of people were tucking into lunch. The Thais just love to eat!

Once the cremation was done, most of the throng drifted away and we did the same. We were invited to attend the celebrations, feasting and dancing that would go on to 4 or 5am but we felt already that we had been intruding (eventhough we hadn’t) and so we gave it a miss. It had been an interesting day….

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We walked back to the hotel behind a woman with grandchild who had managed to bag herself a live chicken somewhere !
We walked back to the hotel behind a woman with child who had managed to bag herself a live chicken somewhere along the way !

 

Pemuturan wasn’t our favourite place in Bali and I doubt we will return unless the beach pollution is addressed – this seems unlikely as this is a common problem almost everywhere in Indonesia and there seem to be no signs that the Government will do anything to address the situation.

Amed

 

On Thursday October 15th we checked out of Taruna Homestay to travel the coast road east and then south down the east coast for about 140 km to Amed using the hotel’s shuttle service. It was a nice drive which passed through a number of towns and past Mount Agung, an active volcano and Bali’s highest mountain but the traffic was slow going through the towns and the journey took over 3 hours.

Mount Agung
Mount Agung

Amed is the collective name given to a string of seven small villages including Amed village itself. The area is still fairly new to tourism with the first tarmac roads laid as recently as 2000 and telephone lines installed in 2003. It’s off the beaten track but popular with divers and there are plenty of hotels and dive shops catering to their needs.

We had booked a room at Arya Amed Hotel for 2 nights with a plan to move on to Sideman for a few days before a final week in Nusa Dua. In the event we loved Amed and decided to extend our stay for a few more days and then return to Ubud before going to Nusa Dua.

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Arya Amed is in Amed Village itself. It’s a lovely hotel with beautiful manicured gardens and pool with direct access to the beach. There’s a nice poolside restaurant with good food and the rooms whilst not the biggest are more than adequate.

We stayed around the hotel for our first day venturing out only for a walk along the beach and an inspection of the village which didn’t take long at all as it’s tiny!

We were looking forward to snorkelling in Amed which has a reputation comparable with Permuteran with clear water and lots of fish but the beach in the area of the hotel is very stoney making it a tad difficult to get in and out of the water. After some research in the evening, the next morning after breakfast we got a taxi to the next village, Jemeluk, where we rented sunbeds for the day outside Coral Villa, a guest house which sits directly on the beach. This is a great spot. The Guest House has tables on the beach and serves good food all day and night; the beer is very cold and prices are cheap.

Best of all is the snorkeling. No boats needed here – you can walk directly out into the sea and have fish around you in a couple of feet of water only a few steps of the shore. There is good snorkelling to be had in various places off this stretch of coast, including at least one over an inshore wreck. We had a great day and wanted to experience more of it. We decided to extend our stay and as luck would have it Coral Villa had a room available for the following two nights. Sorted!

After our day at Jemeluk we returned to Arya Amed and then went out for dinner at The Grill, a place that gets rave reviews but we thought very average.

We checked out of Arya early the following morning. We had arranged for the same taxi to pick us up with our bags and take us back to Coral Villa – and made sure that he would give us a good rate and not let us down by promising him a trip to Ubud a couple of days later.

Coral Villa - a tad rough and ready but friendly service -just about as laid back as it gets !
Coral Villa – a tad rough and ready but clean with friendly service and good local food -just about as laid back as it gets!

There followed two lovely days on the beach at Jemeluk – the first time we have spent two consecutive days on any beach in a long time. There isn’t really a village, just the coast road with a few dirt tracks off it leading to houses or villas but it made for a pleasant alternative to a walk along the beach. Here are a few pictures of the beach and around downtown Jemeluk….

The beach at Jemeluk , seen from Coral Villa .
The beach at Jemeluk, seen from Coral Villa.

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Beach restaurant
Beach restaurant

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And here are a few underwater photos. There’s no sunken wreck here but there is a sunken temple! The water clarity was much better than we had experienced so far on our travels and so there’s quite a few pics…

 

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Nusa Dua

After two nights at Coral Villa, Amed, we returned to Ubud to be spoiled for a few more days at the lovely Bali Dream Hotel. The staff made a big fuss of the fact we had returned so soon and seemed genuinely sorry to see us go!

On 24th October we south moved to Nusa Dua, our final stop in Bali.

Not much to say about Nusa Dua really. Very unlike the places we have visited so far in Bali and not really our (my) kind of place. This is a five star enclave in the South of Bali, a very smart resort with wide avenues lined with manicured lawns and hedges which somehow reminded me of affluent parts of Florida we have visited. Immediately outside the “city limits, ” just as soon as you pass through the large “Gates” into/out of Nusa Dua village, you find the more usual scruffy streets with local restaurants, street food vendors, motor bike repair shops and massage parlours seen everywhere.

Grand Whizz Resort Bali
Grand Whizz Resort Bali

 

Needless to stay we didn’t stay in one of the five star havens but we did stay in a very nice four star – The Grand Whizz, neighboured by the likes of Sofitel, Club Med and Westin, Grand Whizz is a contemporary spa hotel with all the facilities you might possibly need but with affordable prices. The place was full of Russians and Australians, with very few Brits.

I hadn’t really been looking forward to Nusa Dua – I was expecting it to be a very westernised and sanitised and I don’t think I was too wide of the mark. For the most part the beaches are clean and beautiful and of course the nearer you are to the hotels the cleaner the beaches. Every day there are teams of municipal workers wandering around cleaning up litter which they say mostly comes in with the tide ( but they say that everywhere – just whose litter is it!) and so its mostly very nice albeit the main beaches are covered by sun beds belonging to the posh hotels and the non-resident punters seem to be excluded from the best bits – we asked if we could rent beds for a day at a couple of places but it wasn’t possible – maybe they thought we couldn’t afford the food and drink on offer – they would be right 🙂

What there is here in Nusa Dua which we didn’t find elsewhere in Bali was western standard retail therapy with a modern shopping mall, Bali Collection, a twenty minute walk along the beach from our hotel or a five minute ride in a free shuttle bus. We visited two or three times walking there and getting a ride back with our shopping bags. Its actually quite a pleasant place consisting of a number of buildings with the main building air-conditioned and so a good place to escape the thirty degree heat. There are shops of most persuasions with lots of eateries and a supermarket so with the free shuttle it was very handy to stock up on bottled water and beer letting the shuttle take the strain – as usual we continued to rely on public transport or taxis to get around.

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Mrs E enjoying a pre-dinner drink at a nice restaurant on Nusa Dua Beach
Mrs E enjoying a pre-dinner drink at a nice restaurant on Nusa Dua Beach

 

Nusa Dua

 

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We spent a week in Nusa Dusa and apart from a brief visit to Kuta, Bali’s premier resort town for Australians, for debauchery and a mess a place, we didn’t wander far. Ann enjoyed Nusa and it a nice place with some very good restaurants – we tried a few – but I found Nusa Dusa a pretty soul less place. You could have been anywhere in the world, so no experience of the spirituality and beautiful traditions of Bali. Three days would have been plenty but the longer stay as always, did allow us some free days for planning, budgeting and writing up this blog – which is now only 3 months behind as I type this!

On October 31st, 35 days after arriving at Denpasar Airport, we left to fly to Langkawi. The next instalment will follow soon.

Indonesia – Prambanan Temple Compound, Java

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Prambanan Compound is the official name given to this site.

We visited on September 25th 2015, after our sunrise trip to Borobudur Temple about 50km away. Like Borobudur, this is another World Heritage Site which was also built around the ninth century. It is the tallest and regarded as the most beautiful Hindu Temple in Indonesia
(some say the world) and it’s interesting, given the equally enormous scale of the Buddhist Borobudur built at the same time just down the road, which presumably indicates that the 2 religions existed harmoniously side by side.

Prambanan is the name given to the site but Prambanan actually consists of a main temple surrounded by many others, over 200 in fact, the complex being extended over a long period until around 930 when it was abandoned, probably due to an eruption of nearby Mount Merapi which is still very active.

The place was “re-discovered’ during the time of the British rule in the early 1800s but significant restoration didn’t begin until the Dutch started work in 1918. The main temples were finally restored in the 1990s but an earthquake in 2006 caused very significant damage and still, in 2015 there are large areas undergoing works with the public excluded.

There’s loads of facts and figures available on these sites if the reader cares to Google…

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Unlike Borobudur which sits on a hill, Prambanan is on the flat. The architecture is equally impressive and the scale of it is huge but after a couple of hours at Borobudur and a couple more here in the heat of the day, we were templed out – after all see had been up since 2.30am!. Given the chance to re-visit we would definitely do so but you could easily spend a whole day at each site if you were so inclined. We would visit the 2 sites on different days and that’s what we would recommend to anyone planning to visit.

We returned to the hotel around late afternoon and whilst Ann crashed out for a couple of hours I went for a massage and did the same! Later, after a couple of Happy Hour beers we went out for a pizza and salad dinner at Aglioo Restaurant nearby on Jl Prawitoraman.

Indonesia – Borobudur Temple, Java

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On Friday September 25th, our driver Decky picked us up from our hotel at 3.30am for the 40km drive to Borobodur. We thought this a tad early for sunrise around 5.30 but Decky explained that we would be getting a special pass to get early entry before sunrise and before the crowds arrived – and we would need to queue to buy tickets.

Manohara Hotel is on the edge of Borobudur Temple site and entry was via the hotel where we paid for our entry ticket and collected a torch – its not a huge distance from the entrance to the Temple but it was very dark on a night when cloud cover meant no moonlight.

The hotel sold a package including entry ticket, loan of the torch and a snack breakfast with hot drink on exit. Cost was under £10 – expensive by Indonesian standards because of the Temple’s World Heritage status.

We reached the hotel within 45 minutes, bought our tickets and reached the Temple itself around 5am. The temple sits on top of a hill and has impressive views of the surrounding countryside. We were by no means the first to arrive but there was plenty of room for everyone and we soon found a good place to park ourselves to wait, in hope, for sunrise. Actually, given the cloud cover we were expecting to miss out on seeing the sunrise but the cloud largely blew over and we did get a sunrise of sorts which gave us some quite atmospheric photos with the low mist that was hanging around. Later we felt quite lucky about the weather because once the cloud cleared and the sun shone brightly, the light was quite difficult for photography – thus the dodgy photo above, taken as we were leaving in bright sunshine. We were also chuffed that we had such an early start as decent photos would have been difficult with the crowds that started to pour in post 6am.

First a few facts about Borobudur Temple courtesy the inter web, followed by some snaps.

  • The Temple is of uncertain age but thought to have been built in the 9th century over a period of between 75 and 100 years. This puts it 300 years older than Angkor Wat.
  • The building is essentially a huge pyramid decorated with miles of relief panels and 504 Buddha statues although some of the statues are missing and some are broken.
  • There are 72 Buddha statues seated within 72 perforated bell shaped chedis
  • The site was abandoned in the 14th Century possibly because of the Javanese conversion to Islam. It was re-discovered in 1814 at a time of English rule of Java and has undergone several restorations since, the most significant between 1975 and 1982 by the Indonesian Government and UNESCO.
  • The Temple is still used for pilgrimage by Indonesian Buddhists once a year.
  • Borobudur is Indonesia’s most visited tourist attraction.

 

This is 5.07am on September 25th. Already there were dozens of people here trying to find a good spot from which to take photos
This is 5.07am on September 25th. Already there were dozens of people here trying to find a good spot from which to take photos

 

Now its 6.06am - people still arriving
Now its 6.06am – people still arriving

 

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Sometimes you just can't escape the crowd..
Sometimes you just can’t escape the crowd..

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There are 72 chides such as this. Each contained seated Buddha which can be seen through the small “windows”

 

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There are over two miles of relief panels
There are over two miles of relief panels

 

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Borobudur is the largest single Buddhist structure on earth and whether you are into temples or not, you can’t fail to be impressed with it. We left the Temple around 7.15 when already the crowds were streaming in – if you are planning to visit then be sure to book for the early entry. We had a quick coffee and pastry and then headed off for Prambanan calling at a couple of smaller temples en route – Decky was anxious to give us bang for our bucks!

 

Candi Sambisari

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This is a modest temple when compared to Borobudur and Prambanan but it was en route between the two and its interesting in that it was built as a Hindu temple in the 9th century but at some point became buried in volcanic ash from nearby Mount Merapi and was only discovered in 1966 by a farmer working on the land. The site was excavated and reconstruction works completed in March 1987. This is Indonesia’s most significant find in recent years.

 

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Candi Sari

 

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Like Sambisari, Candi Sari is very small in comparison to the others and perhaps not worth a visit for its own sake but both were en route to Prambanan and Decky quite rightly thought it worth stopping a few minutes.

Sari was built in the 8th century. Originally a 2 storey Buddhist temple building with timber beams and floor. Its thought this was a monastery for monks who served at larger temples nearby. The ruins were discovered in the 1920’s and reconstruction completed in 1929/20 but is incomplete as there are parts missing, apparently. Small it might be but the building decoration is ornate and impressive.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Indonesia – Yogyakarta, Java

We left Padang, Sumatra on Wednesday September 23rd and arrived at Yogyakarta Airport at around 4pm for a four night stay at the Gallery Prawirotaman Hotel. We were picked up by the hotel’s limousine and checked in half an hour later, welcomed with cold drink and cold towel.

Gallery Prawirotaman is a 3* but felt more like 4* hotel as its quite new with large well furnished rooms, nice staff and everything you expect in a modern hotel, including fridge and good wifi plus a big TV ( although sadly no live Premier League footy). The included breakfast was awesome and there is a pleasant top floor bar with happy hour and a nice swimming pool which we didn’t get round to using much but it was usually empty. Whilst is some some distance from the city centre, it was convenient for what we wanted to see. All in all great value for money and recommended.

The splendid pool and poolside restaurant at Gellery Prawirotaman
The splendid pool and poolside restaurant at Gellery Prawirotaman

Like most people, the reason for our visit to Yogya was to visit the Borobudur and Prambanan temple complexes. We have enjoyed visiting temples in Asia as they are a big part of the rich tapestry of colour but we are certainly not temple addicts. However, there are places where the temples are the main attraction and the temples of Borobudur and Angkor Wat stand out as must visits if in the areas. Since we were travelling south down the Indonesian archipelago we had to pass through or over Java to get to Bali. We were unlikely to pass by Java again any time soon and since Borobudur gets a great write up as the oldest and biggest Buddhist temple in the world, we thought we would call in. There are also good trecking possibilities to be had here but that would have meant extending our visit by at least a couple of days which was problematical for us.

We did look at flying to Jakarta for a few days and then catching a train to Yogy (a long journey) but we really didn’t fancy Jakarta and whilst we got all excited about what is said to be a scenic train journey, we were getting conflicting views on this. So we took the easy route and bought Garuda flights Padang to Yogya.

Four nights at the hotel effectively gave us 3 full days in Yogya, 1 day for temples, 1 day for other sightseeing – if any, and a day for R&R by the pool.

Since its customary to visit Borobudur for sunrise, the early start means that with a car its easy to visit both the main temple sites in a day even though the places are 50km apart.

Soon after we arrived at the hotel on Wednesday evening we phoned a local english speaking Driver, Decky, to arrange a tour for the Friday. The day would involve an early start for sunrise at Borobudur followed by a visit to Prambanan, another large temple site. That done we retired to the bar for a drink and a snack followed by bed!

The following day, Thursday September 24th, after a leisurely breakfast, we strolled around the neighbourhood of the hotel, window shopping and sussing out places for dinner. The main attractions, palaces etc, were closed for Ede celebrations and so it was quiet and there was little to be done. We lunched at the impressive Via Via around the corner from the hotel and then allowed a tuk tuk driver to persuade us to take a tour of the streets which in the heat of the day was the best way to do it.

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Eventually Mr tuk tuk dropped us in the Malioboro shopping district which was packed with shoppers and folk dining.

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Thursday evening, after an average dinner at EasyGoin’ Mexican restaurant it was early to bed – we had to get up well before dawn to be picked up at 3.30 am for our Temple tour. As is often the case when you need to be up especially early, we didn’t sleep very well!

Friday was our Temple Tour for which see separate reports.

We were woken from our slumbers on Friday night when an earthquake shook the building. The shaking probably lasted only 15 seconds but seemed a long time and we could here the sound of breaking glass elsewhere. Once the shaking stopped Guests poured out into the corridors and were ushered down the stairs by staff who all seemed very relaxed about matters. We hung around the ground floor of the building for 10 minutes or so until the building was declared safe and then returned to our beds.

On Saturday, exhausted from the previous day’s excursions and lack of sleep due to the earthquake, we did absolutely nothing other than sit by the pool at the hotel although as ever free time means a budget update exercise and more internet research for our journey ahead. We dined at Via Via again that evening and again fairly early to bed as the following morning we would need to pack and check out around 9.30 to leave for our flight to Bali.

Indonesia – Sumatra

After an unscheduled week in Bangkok we returned to Medan on September 11. We had booked a night at the Grand Aston Hotel again and we were looking forward to it but unfortunately our flight was delayed and we didn’t arrive at the hotel until 10pm. We hadn’t eaten since an early lunch in BKK and we were hungry but room service came to the rescue with sandwiches and we got to bed about 12.30.

We were to travel through Sumatra with LiteNEasy Tours, a guiding company based in Bukittinggi West Sumatra that we had chosen after much internet research. The company and its owner Fikar get consistently excellent reviews and we were able to agree an itinerary that met our requirements at the right price. Fikar agreed to drive and guide us personally but for the Northern Sumatra part of the tour we would have Fikar and one of his guides Andres in addition. Fikar’s professionalism and attention to detail is outstanding and when he is travelling away from his home patch around Bukittinggi he likes to double up with a second guide as a contingency plan just in case of unforeseen events. Travel around Sumatra is fraught with difficulty and there are frequently long delays due to small earthquakes, landslides, floods and roadblocks caused by breakdown or overturning of overloaded HGVs. Fikar’s base in Bukittinggi West Sumatra is a distance of over 600 km and even without roadblocks is a drive of over 14 hours. There is only one road and several places present bottlenecks with potential for incidents and so when starting a tour from Medan, Fikar aims to be in Medan 2 days before the start of the tour to allow for delays. To prove the point, his journey north to meet us was delayed for several hours in a queue of traffic several km long following the turning over of an HGV.

Next morning, after a fab breakfast, we checked out at 09.30 just as Fikar and Andres arrived to pick us up. With introductions done we hit the road. Our trip would take us South from Medan via Berastagi to the famous Lake Toba and Samosir Island, major tourist destinations for Indonesians as well as Malaysian and Singaporeans. From there the journey goes on to West Sumatra to visit the various highlights of that area. The end of our tour would be Padang, a large seaside town on the coast where we would stay for 2 nights before flying to Java.

Berastagi lies in the Karo Highlands 70km South of Medan. It’s a pretty scruffy place by Western standards but then that goes for just about every town here. It is a decent sized town with a population of around 45,000 and its economy is based on tourism and agriculture with a fruit and vegetable market selling local produce – passion fruit, mandarins, avocados, cabbage, carrots, peas and a host of other stuff. Tourism stems from the proximity of two volcanoes overlooking the town, Mount Sibayak and Mount Sinabung, popular with hikers.

Traffic was horrendous as we were leaving Medan and continued to be slow through the suburbs but eventually we got away from the city traffic and with a brief lunch stop to break the journey we arrived in Berestagi mid afternoon.

Downtown Berastagi

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Taman Alam Lumbini

First stop in Berastagi was a golden Buddhist temple and garden complex. This stands outside of town and down a pretty rough track which is apparently kept rough to deter tourists! It wasn’t on our original itinerary and I think we visited only because we were ahead of time.

This is quite a new temple built in a Burmese style but although its all nice and shiny it isn’t as impressive as the Temples we had seen in Thailand the week before. However, it is interesting that there is a mix of religions here with Buddhist Temples, Mosques and quite a few Christian churches around. In addition, we learned that the local Batak people hold animist beliefs.

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Berastagi Market

After the temple visit we drove back into town for a walk around the fruit and vegetable market, sampling a few things we have never seen or heard of before let alone eaten. For example snake fruit which we have since discovered is the fruit of a type of Palm which is native only to Sumatra and Java. Nice it was too.

Ann with Andres at Berastagi Market
Ann with Andres at Berastagi Market

 

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Whilst wandering around the market we seemed to become the centre of attraction with everyone wanting to say hello and particularly a group of young girls who became very giggly in our presence and asked if they could have a photograph taken with us. We obliged of course…

The people here are typically very warm and friendly and love to say hello and more if they have any english. But then again we have found this everywhere we have travelled so far.

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After the market we called at a local shop to get new Indonesian SIM cards and then Fikar and Andrés dropped us off at our hotel around 5pm. We would be left to our own devices each evening and Fikar recommended we eat in the hotel rather than use the local restaurants. Having seen the local restaurants, we weren’t going to argue!

The Mutiara was one of the best in the area according to Fikar but we had been a tad concerned as we had seen some pretty awful reviews in recent times. This is a big hotel with perhaps 150 rooms, 5 minutes or so outside town. But it was very quiet and only around 25 rooms were occupied. Having seen the poor reviews we had asked to be upgraded to the best available room and this was done at no extra cost. We were given a suite with two double beds, a large bathroom and balcony overlooking lawns. It’s fair to say the room was tired as was the rest of the place but nevertheless this was a very pleasant place to stay with lovely staff as ever and decent food albeit both evenings we dined in a massive restaurant that probably doubled as a ballroom with only 2 or 3 other tables occupied as most of the Indonesian guests seemed to prefer to eat out in the local restaurants. Overall we were very pleasantly surprised with all aspects of the hotel room, service and food – especially the hotel grounds which comprised lovely gardens with a very attractive large and very clean swimming pool. The gardens had lots of nice features including an outdoor gym for those so inclined but unfortunately we only had time to look around. 

The Grand Mutiara

Although a tad run down the Hotel was very comfortable and held some nice surprises for us including a lovely swimming pool shown below. Also an outdoor gym although we didn't get to use it!
Although a tad run down the Hotel was very comfortable and held some nice surprises for us including a lovely swimming pool shown below. Also an outdoor gym although we didn’t get to use it!

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Mount Sibayak

The following morning we set off at 9am to drive over to volcanic Mount Sibayak.

Sibayak hasn’t erupted for over a century but it’s activity level in terms of steam vents and hot springs is apparently increasing thought to have been triggered by the activity within Sinabung and/or recent earthquake activity elsewhere in Asia.

Mount Sinabung was dormant for 400 years until an eruption in 2010 followed by 2 more in 2013 with a further 3 in 2014. A total of 16 people were killed in one of the 2014 eruptions and thousands were evacuated – many people still haven’t been re-housed and further eruptions in 2015 mean that tented villages remain in the town housing evacuees. This at September 2015. We saw Sinabung still rumbling and spewing out smoke and the volcano is no longer open to walkers.

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Fikar drove us to within an hour and a half of the summit of Sibayak and we walked the rest of the way to the top with Andrés. This wasn’t difficult hiking though it was steep and muddy in places and there were places we needed to scramble and pull ourselves up by tree roots etc. We enjoyed the climb very much. With the heat we needed to stop frequently for water and to take photos of the stunning scenery although unfortunately once again, as in Borneo and Penang, our photography was frustrated by the forest fire smog. On a good day we would have had a perfect view of Mount Sinabung but the haze meant we couldn’t get a decent photo although smoke can clearly be seen coming from the top.

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Mount smouldering a few kms away
Mount Sinabung smouldering a few kms away

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The first volcanic ash and steam vents as we approach the summit
The first volcanic ash and steam vents as we approach the summit

There were lots of other folk walking up with us, mostly young Indonesians from Medan out on a day trip. Most of them said at least “Hello, where are you from?” with several of them asking to be photographed with us. By now we are getting used to our new celebrity status!

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Passing some campers en route, surely not a great place to camp given the constant stench of sulphur, we reached the summit above the water filled crater similar to the Kelimutu craters in Flores, around 11.30.

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Andres posing on top of the mountain
Andres posing in his new favourite hat on top of the mountain!

We hung around taking photos and chatting to people for 15 minutes and then made our way back down via a slightly more circuitous route stopping to have a look at some of the gas vents We were back down the mountain to meet Fikar around 1.30pm.

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Lunch today was a local restaurant well known to our Guides – grilled fish with sambal, rice and veggies. And Bintang of course. Excellent! We then did a scenic drive around the area including a local beauty spot, Gundaling Hill, with the idea being to take some panoramic pictures above Berastagi. In the event, the smog meant that scenic photos from the lookout point were out of the question. Disappointing but still we got some nice pictures of the countryside around the area if not from above it!

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The Boys dropped us back at the hotel around 4.30 pm.We were keen to get back to try to suss out the likelihood of being able to watch Crystal Palace v Man City on TV that evening. The likelihood turned out to be nil but thankfully we still have access to on line footy and so we were able to watch via iPad using 3G as the hotel wifi, decent in the lounge/dining room, is non-existent in the rooms. Result 0-1, a great result for us with Chelsea losing again…

Berastagi to Lake Toba

Next day, Sunday September 13, we set off for Lake Toba stopping en route to visit Dokan Village, a traditional Batak village in the Batak Highlands South of Berestagi. Batak is a collective term given for a number of different ethnic groups or tribes in Central North Sumatra. A little like Flores, these different groups have their own individual but related languages and traditions. Some of these different groups can understand some of the languages of the other groups but not all and so as always Bahasi Indonesian is used as a common langiuage when needed.

At Dokan the local people although part of the wider Batak culture apparently prefer to be referred to as Karo rather than Batak. The touristic attraction of this village is the traditional Batak houses that remain here. These are homes built of bamboo and timber gathered from the jungle and whilst there are several Batak villages in the area there are few remaining traditional Batak Houses with high roof and featuring a buffalo head at the top of the roof – the official emblem of Batak Karo and a symbol of strength seen throughout the village. These houses can stand for more than 200 years as the bamboo becomes preserved by the smoke constantly wafting through.

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There are five of these traditional houses at Dokan still occupied as homes. In return for a small “donation” visitors are welcome to go inside one of these houses which house 5 or 6 or up to 8 families related by blood or marriage, each with its own kitchen area with hearth for burning wood fires for cooking. There is a “living” space next to the kitchen and each family seemed to have a wardrobe and area to store things but there was little or no privacy.

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Each family living in the house will have its own friend kitchen area.
Each family living in the house will have its own fire and kitchen area.

The rest of the villagers live in much more basic homes, some more basic than others as can be seen below. We saw here as everywhere that whilst the local people are as poor as poor can be, it’s the norm and they think nothing of it and they go through life with a smile on their faces.

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Sorting and drying coffee beans - a picture seen throughout Indonesia
Sorting and drying coffee beans – a picture seen throughout Indonesia

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We left Dokan to continue our journey towards Lake Toba. The scenery here is absolutely stunning with mile after mile of greener than green hillsides covered with fields of produce of all kinds.

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We passed through several small and usually scruffy villages and this being Sunday we heard hymns being sung in outside services at some churches whilst services were finishing at others and we came across congregations leaving church with women smartly dressed in brightly coloured “Sunday best” clothing. It was all very picturesque although seemed a little odd in a country which of course is predominantly Muslim.

We passed several churches,this one catholic, just as the congregation was leaving
We passed several churches,this one catholic, just as the congregation was leaving

Our next stop was Sipisopiso waterfall which with a drop of 120 metres is the highest waterfall in Indonesia. The waterfall is the outfall from an underground river which comes out of a cave in the Lake Toba caldera and falls down to the lake level. The viewing point for the waterfall is on a hill across from the waterfall and also gives a lovely view of the Lake – or it does when the sky is clear. On the day we visited the lake could barely be seen because of smog!

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Lake Toba - barely visible in the haze!
Lake Toba – barely visible in the haze!

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Smog notwithstanding, the place was busy with locals and visitors from Medan (including yet another group who wanted their photograph with us) and indeed a few Europeans.

As always wherever there is some kind of tourist attraction, there are plenty of shops catering for folk with the usual tourist tat, tee shirts of the ” I Love Sipisopiso” variety etc and cafes selling local food.

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After an hour or so at Sipisopiso we left to drive on for another hour to our lunch stop at Simarunjung Village. This is a regular spot on the tourist trail to Toba as there is a very nice restaurant at which to enjoy lunch with another great view of the lake – or it would have been a great view had it not been for smog. The food was good – beef rendang for me and sweet and sour chicken for Ann.

More photographs with locals - this time at
More photographs with locals – this time at Sumurungung

Our final stop before reaching Lake Toba was at Pematang Purba a village where we visited restored tribal houses of the Simalungun Batak chiefs. These tribal houses are now a museum. Among the tribal houses is a long house of the Batak chief. The house stands on poles and was built of solid teak with roof gables ornately decorated with designs in red, black and white, the traditional Batak colours. The house consists of living quarters, with cooking area and sleeping quarters with apartments for each of the chief’s wives.

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Ceremonial drums
Ceremonial drums
List of Chiefs
List of Kings

After half an hour we drove on to the village of Tigaras to catch the car ferry over to Port Simanindo on Samosir Island where we e would spend 2 nights.

We were in good time for the boat and spent 15 minutes watching some local men fishing in the lake from a jetty with small fish pens alongside them. The fish pens belong to local people whose houses overlook the lake and are essentially mini personal fish farms – very handy when someone fancies a fish supper!

Tigaras

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Lake Toba is an immense volcanic lake covering an area of 1,707 km² with an island in its centre. Formed by a gigantic volcanic eruption some 70,000 years ago, it is probably the largest caldera on Earth. Some studies say it might have been associated with causing previous ice age/climate change and the largest human population bottleneck ever. Genetic estimates suggests that there were only a few thousand individuals that survived its catastrophic eruption.

The island in the middle of the lake – Pulau Samosir – is as big as Singapore and was joined to the caldera wall by a narrow isthmus, which was cut through to enable boats to pass; a road bridge crosses the cutting.

Seriously heavy rain as we crossed by ferry to Samosir Island
Seriously heavy rain as we crossed by ferry to Samosir Island

The ferry ride is less than half an hour but we couldn’t get any decent photos from the boat as the heavens opened with some serious rain just as we got onto the boat and throughout the journey. Luckily the rain stopped just as quickly as we disembarked on Samosir Island at Simanindo, north of Tuk Tuk which is one of the larger towns on the island. Within a few minutes we had arrived at our accommodation, MAS Cottages right on the edge of the lake.

MAS Cottages seen from the lake.Our room was a new one - the top one on the left hand side just visible through the trees.
MAS Cottages seen from the lake. Our room was a new one – the top one on the left hand side just visible through the trees.
The room was good - and not a bad view !
The room was good – and not a bad view !

Ann had booked this accommodation only a few days ago having read some poor reviews of the hotel specified in the original tour itinerary. MAS is a little bit away from Tuk Tuk but we were not too fussed at being away from the town and our room was perfect with a lovely view over the lake and with excellent reviews. At around only £13 a night with American breakfast an additional £1.70 each, it was great value.

Fikar and Andrés left us to our own devices for the evening as they were staying in Tuk Tuk at the hotel originally booked by them but they didn’t leave until they saw that we were happy with our room. Super service!

Dinner was a meal of grilled fresh fish from Toba Lake and very nice too. It had been a busy day and we retired early, well and truly knackered.

Next morning, Monday, we were picked up around 9.15 am. The weather was much better with barely any smog and what smog there was seemed to clear as we drove north towards Simanindo village where we would see some traditional Batak dancing.

Our first morning on Samosir Island in Lake Toba - an all together better day
Our first morning on Samosir Island in Lake Toba – an all together better day

Below are some photos of the scenery en route to our first stop of the day, Simanindo. The traditional Batak houses shown are real homes – not tourist attractions!

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The Batak culture is very strong in Toba and Samosir is considered to be the centre of it. The people are often referred to as Batak Toba or just Batak – this is the largest of the 6 Batak ethnic groups. Even when people leave Samosir to live elsewhere in Indonesia they retain their Batak Toba culture as do their offspring. The people are know as being good musicians and very strong in their beliefs and they are mostly Christian.

Simanindo village is around 15km from MAS Cottages on the northern tip of Samosir Island. Its a very nice traditional village with a small museum housed in a renovated batak house that was once home to the king of the area and his 13 wives. The traditional houses were built without nails and the distinctive saddle shaped roofs are thatched with palm sugar fibre – the thatch is replaced with tin in modern renovations.

Simanindo was the home of the King Sidaurak and his 13 wivws - these are the tombs of the royal family at the entrance to the village
Simanindo was the home of the King Sidaurak and his 13 wivws – these are the tombs of the royal family at the entrance to the village

Huta Bolon Simanindo Batak Museum

The Huta (Village) Bolon Simanindo, once the home of Batak King Raja Sidauruk and his 14 wives, was restored and opened to the public as a museum in 1969. The museum houses a royal boat and a small collection of tapestries, cooking utensils, masks and weaponry.

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There is a daily cultural performance with dance enacting some traditional stories and illustrating some of the old Animist traditions that are still alive and well. The audience is given a crib sheet to understand the meanings of the various parts of the dance and ceremonies and of course audience participation is encouraged at the end with donations welcome! An interesting and colourful half hour or so.

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The Guys next to us are puppets used in the traditional dance performance
The Guys next to us are puppets used in the traditional dance performance
Musicians in the gallery provide the music for the dance
Musicians in the gallery provide the music for the dance
In different circumstances the buffalo would be sacrificed as part of the ceremony.The meat would be shared .
In different circumstances the buffalo would be sacrificed as part of the ceremony. The meat would be shared.

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Never one to miss a photo opportunity......
Never one to miss a photo opportunity……

At the end of the performance we strolled down to the waterfront for a look around and then drove on to Ambarita Village.

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Ambarita Village

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This is the entrance to Ambarita Village - note the Guards on duty
The ancient entrance to Ambarita Village – note the Guards on duty

Ambarita village is a small ancient Batak tribal village just north of Tuk Tuk originally a kingdom in its own right. It is often called the Ambarita Stone Chair Village due to its historic relics from the pre-Christian era.

In ancient times a form of cannibalism was practised when enemies who had been captured or villagers who had erred would be tried by the King and neighbouring dignatories sat as a council in stone chairs which are found in the centre of the village. The ultimate punishment was execution and there is an execution area close to the stone chairs: Andres explained how the execution would take place – without too much gory detail the victim would be drained of blood which would be drunk by the King who would also eat the heart. The corpse would be beheaded, the remaining flesh distributed amongst the villagers and whatever remained of the body would be thrown in the lake. The Guides clearly enjoy recounting this story but the details seem to vary by Guide!

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A sombre story of executions....
An execution is a sombre business….
Ann and Andres re-enact an execution !
But you’ve got to have a laugh. Ann and Andres re-enact an execution !
A more recent Christian structure within yards of the stone chairs
A more recent Christian structure within yards of the stone chairs

Finally we visited Tomok village. This was the biggest village with tourist shops selling the usual stuff but there are also some Batak Traditional houses along with the tomb of the last king of the area and his wife and tombs of his descendants. This was another place where a crowd of Indonesian tourists asked to be photographed with us – how could we refuse….

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Ann with another branch of her fan club
Ann with another branch of her fan club

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Tomak isn't the prettiest of towns!
Tomak isn’t the prettiest of towns!

We dined local again on our second and last evening – a very good chicken curry – followed by several hours of blog catching up over a few Bintangs!

We were very happy with our stay at MAS Cottages and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to people who don’t want to be in the centre of Tuk Tuk. Accommodation, service and food were all good.

Next morning, Tuesday, we had an early banana and toast breakfast and checked out at 8am in time to catch a ferry which was calling to pick us up at the hotel waterfront at 8.25. Such service! The ferry would take us to Parapat which is the the main ferry port for ferries to Samosir Island. We could have taken a shorter ferry crossing but Fikar had been concerned about the reliability of the ferries and rather than take any chances of our being delayed and suffering discomfort he actually travelled over from the island the night before to ensure no issues arose that would have had a knock on effect on the rest of our itinerary. What a professional!

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On the waterfront at MAS Cottages
On the waterfront at MAS Cottages

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Our room !
Our room !

So we took the ferry with Andrés. This morning was the best weather we had since we arrived. No haze! We immediately spotted Mt Sinabung with a huge plume of ash issuing from the top and later saw on the news that lava flows were occurring and that the ash flume had reached around five kilometres. We are awaiting further news.

Ferry ride to Parapat

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Mt letting off steam!
Mt Sinabung letting off steam!

The ferry trip to Parapat was a highlight and gave us some good photos but also provided us with yet more evidence of what a small world we live in when we ended up chatting with a Turkish man from South East Turkey who know some friends of ours in Kalkan. Spooky!

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We landed at Parapat at 09.30. Parapat makes its money via tourism with the ferry services and accommodation etc and from fish farming and agriculture. It’s a busy place and didn’t strike us a a place to hang around and we didn’t. Fikar was waiting for us and swiftly whisked us away on our journey South to Bukkittingi.

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We were continuing our journey South by road which doesn’t seem to be a much travelled path. The roads are atrocious and most people seem to choose to travel back to Medan and then fly down to Padang if they wish to visit West Sumatra as we planned to do. Parapat to Bukkittingi is a drive of around 15 hours but this was all part of the experience for us and we were taking 2 days to complete the journey – nevertheless, I didn’t envy Fikar the driving.

The drive south isn’t exactly full of “must see” tourist attractions but you do get to travel through goodness knows how many towns and villages and get to see life as its lived in Sumatra. We stopped overnight in a town called Padang Sidempuan but it was almost dark when we got there and only just daylight when we left so we didn’t see anything of the town. We stayed in a surprisingly modern hotel, the Mega Permata and dined alone in the hotel’s restaurant.

Here are some photos taken of towns, villages and markets along the journey to Bukittinggi.

September 15th

South of Lake Toba

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Belige Town and market – a Batak town

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Wet fish
Wet fish
And more wet fish
And more wet fish
Dried fish
Dried fish

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Creche - there are babies in those hanging
Creche – there’s a baby in the blue hanging “wrap” and more out of picture

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Taxi rank
Taxi rank

September 16th

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Drying peanuts
Drying peanuts

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We thought these kids were just having a swim in the river. In fact they are diving and dredging for stones which they take from the river and sell to the construction industry
We thought these kids were just having a swim in the river. In fact they are diving and dredging for stones which they take from the river and sell to the construction industry

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This Guy is panning for gold. He is 73 but looks 53 and has been doing this for over 30 years. He lives on spots of gold dust and the odd small nugget that turns up from time to time.
This Guy is panning for gold. He is 73 but looks 53 and has been doing this for over 30 years. He lives on spots of gold dust and the odd small nugget that turns up from time to time.

 

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Further down river these small children were playing in the river.
Further down river these small children were playing in the river.

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Further still down river , these two were getting married !
Further still down river, these two were getting married !

 

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And then we came to this. The Equator at Bonjol !

 

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September 17th -19th – Bukittinggi and West Sumatra

We arrived at the Hills Hotel Bukittinggi just as dusk fell on September 16th. It had been a long day with a lot of driving. Fikar and Andres were now back in their home town and for the rest of our tour Fikar would be our Driver and Guide – Andres would have a couple of days off! We said our goodbyes to Andres and arranged to meet Fikar at 9am the following morning.

The Hills is a very nice hotel and we had a lovely room. Fikar had recommended the hotel and as always recommended we eat in the hotel as it would be “safer.” The large dining room was lovely but like our hotel in Berastagi a week or so ago, we were virtually the only people eating in the hotel even though the hotel was fully booked. The food was ok but the service dire but we demolished a bottle of wine and a couple of beers and were happy enough in our luxury room – especially as we would spend our next night in a homestay in the middle of nowhere. However, that evening with the haze situation worsening by the day, we made a decision to cut our tour short.

Our planned itinerary took us to the Harau Valley East of Bukittinggi for two nights at the ABDI Homestay followed by two nights at another homestay at Maninjau Lake, West of Bukittinggi. Unfortunately both of these locations are all about scenery. They are both rural retreats quite a distance from any major towns and the haze situation was deteriorating and especially in rural areas. Actually by now the haze had become a major issue across Asia and especially Borneo, Singapore and Malaysia and on the 17th the Indonesian Government decided to act and arrested over 50 executives from 7 major companies involved in the illegal burning that was causing the haze. The arrests were good news but didn’t change our situation and so we decided to cut our visit to Harau Valley down to one night and to cut out Maninjau Valley totally and to go instead, directly to Padang on the coast and stay there for three nights instead of the two nights we had pre-booked. Hopefully Padang would be haze-free and if not we were at least in a large city and could find some attractions to keep us amused. We didn’t expect any return of accommodation costs or guide fees for curtailing our trip and Fakir was very understanding of our position.

The following morning, September 17th Fikar picked us up from the Hills Hotel and off we went East towards Harau Valley. En route we would visit Pagaruyang Palace and possibly call at a few other beauty spots depending on the haze situation!

West Sumatra is the land of the Minangkabau people an ethnic group indigenous to the Minangkabau Highlands of West Sumatra. The people are known as Minangs and their culture is both matrilineal and patriarchal, with property and land passing down from mother to daughter, while religious and political affairs are the responsibility of men, although some women also play important roles in these areas. Today 4.5 million Minangs live in the homeland of West Sumatra, while about 4.5 million more are scattered throughout many Indonesian and Malay peninsular cities and towns.

Fikar is a Minangkabau and is very proud of the fact. He is a very wise, intelligent and charming man and passionate about the wellbeing and welfare of his compatriots. He does a lot of work in his community helping poor people in one way or another and he is quite a special person. He would make an excellent politician and I suspect one day he will be. He is great company to have on a trip such as this.

Pagaruyang Palace is about 50KM or one and a half hours drive from Bukittinggi and is the royal palace of the former Pagaruyung Kingdom, located near Batusangkar town, West Sumatra. It was built in the traditional architectural style but is actually a replica of a previous building that was destroyed by fire in 2007 and which itself was a replica of a replica! The palace has been destroyed by fire in 1804, 1966 and 2007. The latest fire resulted from a lightening strike and the 100% timber building was totally destroyed along with virtually all of the contents including museum artefacts – very few museum pieces were rescued.

Although today there is no king or royal family residing in this palace, since the Pagaruyung Kingdom was disbanded in 1833, the palace is still held in high esteem among Minangkabau people. It is a huge building with amazing ornate architectural features and we were lucky enough to be able to get a guided tour by an Official Guide.

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After Pagaruyang Palace we continued East toward Harau Valley calling to look at several historical traditional houses most of which had been extensively renovated and were occupied by wealthy business. We passed through glorious countryside and whilst there are a few photos below, we didn’t bother with photos for many places as the haze was just so bad. Here are a few pictures..

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This very old house is still in the original family ownership but now only used for weddings and the like. In the past it would have been occupied by an extended family. Amazing to think these houses were built with no nails !
This very old house is still in the original family ownership but now only used for weddings and the like. In the past it would have been occupied by an extended family. Amazing to think these houses were built with no nails !

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This and the houses below are either extensively renovated or are fairly modern buildings in the most part occupied by the wealthy.....
This and the houses below are either extensively renovated or are fairly modern buildings in the most part occupied by the wealthy…..

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Harau Valley

 

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Our little 2 roomed bungalow at ABDI Homestay
Our little 2 roomed bungalow at ABDI Homestay

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En suite if not all mod cons.....
En suite if not all mod cons…..
We shared the bungalow but these guys were no bother.....
We shared the bungalow but these guys were no bother…..
Penny for your thoughts.....
Penny for your thoughts…..
Our ABDI room with a view
Our ABDI room with a view
Planting the rice seedlings - towing a seed tray behind
Planting the rice seedlings – towing a seed tray behind

 

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A birthday beer on the veranda
A birthday beer on the veranda

Whilst our homestay accommodation was definitely basic, it was perfectly clean and we were quite comfortable. Inevitably there were mosquitos around but we had the necessary sprays and didn’t suffer any bites.

We stayed only one night but actually this turned out to be such a lovely place, even in the haze, that we wished we had stayed for two nights as originally planned. ABDI is run by a husband and wife Ikbal and Noni helped by their extended family. Our evening meal of beef rendang and chicken rice and vegetables served at the family bungalow was excellent and there was a plentiful supply of Bintang in the fridge. We chatted with Ikbal for an hour or two and he told us about his business, his ambitions and life in the Harau Valley. A very pleasant evening.

The homestay has half a dozen or so bungalows but we know that more are planned. With limestone cliffs at the rear, inhabited by gibbons, the homestay is otherwise surrounded by rice fields with the local village about 15 minutes walk away. Fikar dropped us at the homestay late afternoon on the 17th and picked us up mid afternoon on the 18th, my birthday.

On the morning of the 18th we were awake early to the sounds of the jungle and the ever present cockerels. After standard breakfast fare of pancakes with fruit, we went walking through the valley with Ikbal’s brother in law.

The scenery is astounding even in the haze and the walk took us through rice fields, around the edge of the town and up into the hills to a waterfall with swimming hole where we found a couple of dozen or more kids and their teachers having a whale of a time on an out of school trip. The kids were great and we had a good natter with one of the teachers who spoke very good english.

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The cow above was tethered at the side of a rice field but we saw a number of animals being moved/transported during our brief stay in preparation for the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha.

Eid al-Adha commemorates the willingness of Ibrahim to sacrifice his son Ishmael as an act of obedience to Allah – and Allah’s mercy in putting a lamb in Ishmael’s place at the last moment. Muslims believe that the very moment Ibrahim raised the knife, God told him to stop, that he had passed the test and to replace Ishmael with a sacrificial ram. The animals we saw were being prepared for sacrifice following which the meat would be distributed to the villagers – each family would receive a kilo of meat.

Spot the monkey...
Spot the monkey…
Village ladies doing the laundry
Village ladies doing the laundry
Bamboo
Bamboo “pipe” being used to collect fresh water dripping from the rock-face

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We were surprised to come across tiny garden centre well off the beaten track
We were surprised to come across tiny garden centre well off the beaten track

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Mid afternoon on September 18th, Fikar collected us from ABDI Homestay for our return journey to Bukittinggi where we would stay for one night before the final leg of our tour. The haze was getting worse.

We were back in Bukittingga around 6pm. The Hills was full and so we had booked into the Treeli Hotel for the night. The hotel was fine, albeit much smaller than the Hills, with a very good breakfast provided in the rooftop restaurant overlooking haze bound Bukittinggi!

That evening Fikar came into town and treated us to dinner for my birthday celebration, at Cafe Turret just across the road from the Treeli and very nice too.

We left Bukittinggi around 10.00am on 19 September heading for Padang where we would part company with Fikar and spend 3 nights at our own leisure before leaving for Yogyakarta. However, we had one more place to visit en route, the Pacu Jawi at Tanah Datar, West Sumatra.

En route to the Cow Race -its already quite murky
En route to the Pacu Jawi-its already quite murky

 

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This is an annual cultural event which takes place over 3 or 4 weekends annually in a muddy field in West Sumatra.

Pacu Jawi, simply translated as Cow Race, is an event that’s been around hundreds of years. It is a celebration of the rice farmers after the harvest season for entertainment.

Each jockey rides with a pair of cows held together by a wooden harness contraption on which the rider stands whilst holding the tail of each cow. The cows will start running along the 20-30 meter long muddy field once the jockey bites the tip of their tails, one after the other.

We saw quite a few races but didn’t see any pair of cows with rider actually reach the finish line. Most fell off the “carriage” within yards of the start, some made it half way or more and for quite a few the cows ran in opposite directions making the jockey fall face down in the mud. Many went off the field entirely. The better the cows “perform” the better the price that will be achieved when the beasts are sold at the end of the race day.

There were very few Westerners present and Ann and I became the centre of attention for many of the locals but the event as a whole is great fun with a carnival atmosphere with mini fairground rides for toddlers, candy floss, sweets and all manner of fast foods available. There was also some traditional dancing taking place in a large open covered tent which was interesting with an accomplished “Lead” dancer inviting others in the audience to dance with him, imitating his movements which were often of an arabic twist holding a plate in each hand as if he were plate spinning. I am not sure if this was purely entertainment or if there was an element of competition in this dance but one by one the dancers withdrew and at the end of the performance a couple of Guys wandered round with cardboard boxes asking for “donations” ! I have a video of this if I can work out how to get it onto this blog. In the meantime, here are a few pictures….

 

Time for a fag before the off ....
Time for a fag before the off…

 

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Where are the kids ? I hear you say ....
Where are the kids ? I hear you say…
Here they are checking out the ....hermit crabs !
Here they are checking out the… hermit crabs !
Just watch me.....
Just watch me and do what I do……..

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After a couple of hours we hit the road driving west through many small towns and stopping only for a quick coffee break.

A final coffee ( local coffee of course ) with Fikar
A final coffee ( local coffee of course ) with Fikar
A pea -souper in West Sumatra
A pea -souper in West Sumatra

The haze became worse as we travelled west and at times it was like driving through thick fog – a shame given the lovely countryside we were travelling through.

The last hour was desperately slow as we hit heavy traffic once we got into the suburbs of Padang.

It was almost 5pm when we arrived at Padang and Fikar still had to drive back to Bukittinggi. He dropped us off at our hotel and we said our goodbyes. It was a shame that we had needed to cut short our tour but there was little point in continuing as conditions continued to deteriorate. Notwithstanding, we had enjoyed a wonderful 9/10 days with Fikar and Andres and given the opportunity we will not hesitate to use their services again if we get chance to visit this wonderfully colourful area again.

Ann and I spent should have spent 1 night in Padang but in the end spent 4. Unfortunately we found the place very like Medan, un unattractive dirty city with very little going for it as far as tourism is concerned. We spent our entire time holed up in what fortunately was a very nice hotel and ventured out only for a breath of air and bottled beer from time to time. Im afraid we found nothing to like about the place and with Medan it currently stands equals our least favourite city.