Sumatra, Java and Bali – Indonesia

For such a large and diverse country, I did it no justice whatsoever. Since doing some planning in China, I knew I would have to rush through Indonesia to make Sydney in time (it was going to take me at least 5 days to get from Darwin to Sydney). I tried various things to squeeze a few more days in Indo, at the very least to see some volcanoes, forest and go surfing, and here is what resulted.

In between boarding the boat towards Sumatra on the morning of the 16th, and midnight on the 22nd of January (nearly 168 hours), I spent all but about 24 hours sitting on my bum on some form of transport.

First, a ferry, then bus, then 60+ hours on the bus to the ‘cultural capital’ of Yogyakarta, then 11 hours on the bus the next day to Bromo. Arriving in the evening, not sleeping, then leaving at 4am to watch the sun-not-rise over a volcano in the mist. At 8am I walked down off the volcano and back into a jeep, then bus, then an expensive 3km in a 4WD, then ferry (Java to Bali), then bus, then shared but relatively luxurious taxi for the final 19km into Kuta.

I was, at times during this journey, quite pissed off. It was hot, humid (it’s summer here) crowded, people were continuously trying to steal my stuff, or sell me rubbish, or rip me off (and sometimes succeeding). I’m not exaggerating about the proliferation of dishonourable people – and have missing sunglasses, a shirt, money and a few good stories as a result. My saving grace through all this was that I always asked to choose my seat in advance – for the 60 hour trip this was the difference between having my knees around my neck, or stretching out across the stairwell while sitting, then sprawling across the back seat to sleep.

Pekanburu to Yogyakarta gang with goats

Pekanburu to Yogyakarta gang with goats

The view for 60+ hours

The view for 60+ hours

And, at times, I was really happy. As in life always, whenever I wanted to be somewhere else, I was usually not happy. And, if I thought everyone was trying to steal stuff, then it is so easy to notice all kinds of things that reinforce this perception, and so the opposite. I was happy when I loaned out all my clothes to other cold people in the bus, then unhappy 24 hours when one of them had left and taken my shirt with him, and another was hiding my jacket hoping I would forget it. I was happy when guys with guitars or girls with karaoke machines would get on and sing for money, but not happy when the girl expected me to give her ‘money, money, money’. [I’m destined to be sad if my mood swings so much in relation to external circumstances, aren’t I!?]

I must mention some of the transport. It’s worth saying that you will pay more for an A/C vehicle, but I suspect not get one, or one in which the A/C is not working. I am fine with heat and humidity actually, but not when I am expecting the A/C to work. The ferry was great. Superficially, if you squinted, it looked like a quality ferry that would do the crossing to Rottnest from Perth. Open your eyes and you start to see the rust, and patchy repairs to the hull. Step onboard and you see the odd welds, and realise that what looks like metal (e.g. hull) is actually all fibreglass. Sit inside, and you learn that fibreglass is pretty bloody thin as the whole wall of the boat flexes inwards a foot when docking against the jetty. I never used to understand how these Indonesian ferries just ‘sank’, now I know.


The food along this whole journey was OK. But only when I tended to explore other options apart from the one the driver was directing us in to. The designated stops on the local buses were ok, but on one with only fellow tourists the driver directed us to a place that was literally ten times as expensive as the little local place 30m around the corner.

Anyway, rushing through Indo like this was not really going to give it a good chance to impress me. Nor was I going to many destinations (I.e. bus stations) that are set up to impress. Some things did, however, leave a positive impression:

  • great street food in Yogyakarta, including a breakfast that competes with my yoghurt/banana/many grain/muesli/porridge in Kolkata for the best meal so far


  • being entertained (and bemused) by the shadow puppet show and distracted gossiping puppeteers and musicians at the Sonobudoyo Museum, Yogyakarta


  • the run-down but still cool ‘kraton’ (palace), then Buddhist monuments (Borabudur) in Yogyakarta and hanging out with two great Indonesian guys, both with amazing stories (one is like the winner of Indonesian idol, the other has been lifted out of poverty and it at Univeristy thanks to the generosity of a Dutch woman)



  • stumbling upon an amazing (funeral?) ceremony at the southern end of Kuta beach amongst the heart of sunburnt tourists


  • wondrous Balinese architecture, even on new-ish hotels,

  • beautiful and handsome Balinese, with women sporting an attractive combination of bright saris and fitted tops

  • totally awesome tailor in Kuta who impeccably re-created two pairs of my favourite pants/trousers, but in a way that means I can wear them to more formal meetings

  • enjoying moments of genuine friendliness (heart-warming), adoration (weird) and laughter (the universal language) in between the hassles and nastiness

  • early, early morning worshipping and locals doing their thing  everywhere before it all gets busy, smoky and nasty

My last couple of paragraphs can be devoted to Kuta.

I arrived late, found somewhere expensive, slept, looked around, then found somewhere cheaper. I then went to the beach! I had heard it was beautiful, and with very consistent waves – perfect for relaxing, but also getting back into my surfing. But being Dec/Jan the winds are blowing the wrong way, which is not so bad for the waves, but awful for pollution. I surfed several times, but in a thick soup of plastic, rotting fish, and all kinds of things that made my eyes water and make my skin crawl, even now. It was really awful, but I still got some alright waves.

Having lost my drivers licence on a German train a while back, I didn’t want to rent a motorbike (which EVERYONE else does), get hurt, then be in trouble with travel insurance. Having no board, I needed to surf wherever they rented boards. Having some meetings and wanting to just relax a bit and catch up on sleep, I didn’t have a whole lot of days to wander to other parts of Bali or Nusa Lombongan. Not being confident about my surfing or paddling, I was reluctant to get a lift to somewhere that the surf guides suggested might be crowded and unrideable.

So Kuta was a bit of a loss for me. I wandered the streets quite a bit, doing chores and checking out temples, different parts of the long strip of development along the beach, and confirming that every single shop sold exactly the same crap as every other. I did get back into the groove or surfing (it’s like riding a bike!), and felt much more aware of my weight, and what the wave was doing than ever before. And, I did get to see Uluwatu the day I was due to leave. I paid the guy from the surf shop to take me out on his motorbike. It looked ok, considering it was the wrong season, and I could have totally handled surfing there! It was a beautiful loooonggg wave, and I enjoyed the ride back into town (read upcoming ‘size of reality’ post).


So, that was Indo. I think I will be back, and may be even more likely to learn Indonesian than Mandarin when in Oz. Afterall, it is Australia’s closest neighbour and therefore lowest-carbon overseas travel destination. It really does have the best waves on the planet, in warm water, with great food, beautiful people, amazing landscapes covered by much of the world’s remaining tropical forest, a wondrous range of languages, stunning and wearable art. And a warm friendliness and sense of spiritual reverence (whether Hindu, Muslim or indigenous) that still shines past even the worst rubbish, brazen hookers, sleaziest drunks, most aggressive salespeople and rudest bumper stickers you can find in Kuta.


One response to “Sumatra, Java and Bali – Indonesia

  1. all sounds amazing – bringing me back to my trip to indo long ago – I had a very similar hike-a-volcano-at-4am to see a non-sunrise in the mist experience. still a treasured moment.

    Love the pics.

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