Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Summer 2011 - 3rd Stop: Ubud & Bedugul

Ubud! The place where we spent the longest stint of our holiday, and probably the best spot we could have chosen to do it! It's just a really nice town, with a lovely laid back atmosphere. Everything in the place has a real traditional feel to it, and although there were lots of tourists around, it didn't feel at all touristy, if that makes any sense... It's one of Bali's largest towns, but it doesn't feel like it at all. It has the heart of a small village, just bigger!

We rolled into town on the night of the 5th at the second attempt, (our first taxi broke down on the dual carriage way), and settled in to our new accommodation, Nick's Pension, a really beautiful set of traditional Balinese cottages, nestled in the countryside, but still right in the heart of the action. It was impossible not to feel immediately at ease.

Our first day in Ubud was just a lazy one, as we recharged our batteries. We'd been going from place to place for the last few days, so it was kinda nice not having a schedule. We could just go at our own pace. And what better place to do it than by the pool, surrounded by rice terraces! We really felt at home there, and sure why wouldn't we?! A couple of Paddies amongst the paddies!

The next day we decided to be productive again, so we hired a driver and hit the sights of Ubud, including the temples of Goa Gaja, Gunung Kawi and Tirta Empul to name but a few, and donning a different coloured sarong at each one!

Afterwards, we went to a coffee plantation, where we were given free samples of locally produced drinks, such as Bali Coffee, Cocoa, Lemongrass Tea, Ginger Tea and Ginseng Coffee. Some of them were surprisingly good and it’s always nice to get stuff for free! It was one of those deals though that you’re given free samples and then expected to buy packets of the stuff to take home, but we just kinda drank and ran!

This place also produces Kopi Luwak, the most expensive coffee in the world I think. For those of you who’ve never heard of it before, these coffee beans get their unique flavour by being eaten by wild cats, and then, well, pooped out, collected and brewed. Mmmm…! And it’s €5 for a small cup of this stuff (presumably a lot more when bought overseas). Needless to say, we didn’t really fancy a cuppa. We’re not big coffee drinkers at the best of times, never mind paying 5 quid to drink it out of a cat’s arse!

While we were there too, sampling the local beverages, we had a chat with our driver, which was good fun. Actually, when we first told him we were from Ireland, he said:

“Ireland? Oh, like Robikan!”
“Like what…?
“Robikan! The footballer!”
“…Ooohh, Robbie Keane! Yes!”
“Yes! And his brother, Roykan!”

He invited us to a local dance he was performing in that night too, and we would have loved to have gone, but we were just too hungry and tired by the end of the day. And we had another tour planned for the next morning too, this time it was trekking through the jungles of Ubud.

There were meant to be 16 people on the tour, but in the end it was just us and a Swiss couple, which actually worked out better as we could take our time a bit more. It was a really nice, chilled out day. We got to see some really cool rice terraces, explored some jungle paths and Balinese cottages, and even stopped along the way for a nice coconut break, fresh from the tree!

In this tour, we stopped off once again at a coffee plantation. We were dreading that it would be the same one as yesterday, in case they thought we were just coming back again for free samples… Thankfully it wasn’t, so we could try out some more drinks, guilt free! And while we were there, we also tried out some new fruit. (It’s weird, when it comes to food, I always hate trying new things, but not when it comes to fruit for some reason!) We had a piece of salak, often called snakeskin fruit, which was delicious! It tastes kinda like a strawberry but dryer. And also, a tamarillo, which wasn’t nice at all, kinda like a mix between a tomato and a kiwi.

In other fruit related news, at the plantation we also saw where pineapples come from! I always imagined them hanging from palm trees, like coconuts or something, but it turns out they grow from the ground up! Who knew?!

We finished up the day by having a buffet dinner overlooking Lake Bayan and the surrounding area. It was an amazing view and the food was lovely too, so a nice way to end the day.

Actually, the day wasn’t quite over yet. When we got back to the hostel, we chilled out by the pool for a while, or rather, I chilled out by the pool, Aisling had other ideas…

And so, onto our last day in Ubud, a quite cultural one really. In fact, a very cultural one, starting with a lovely Balinese massage and topped off with a traditional Kecak dance in a nearby temple. The performance was very memorable and it was a pleasure to experience the music and rhythm of it all, especially in these surroundings.

The next day we had to wave goodbye to Ubud, (a serious contender for best destination) and head north to our next stop, Bedugul, a simple mountain town on the banks of Lake Bratan. And although it’s only a small place, and not exactly a tourist hotspot, it really stole our heart. They’re mad for their fruit and veg here too, from the countless stalls along the roadside selling fresh strawberries, to the women walking around with bucket of corn on their heads! Even take a look at the town’s main roundabout!

We had a great couple of days here though, and a lot of that is down to our accommodation, The Strawberry Hill Hotel (even if we did get stuck in the ‘Loser’ cottage…)

We also found out that you could get food delivered to your room, so guess where we had all of our meals!

Our first day in town was a lazy one, as we just walked around the lakeside and stocked up on salaks and strawberries at the local market. We more than made up for our lack of activity the next morning though, by visiting the place that brought us to Bedugul in the first place, the Treetop Adventure Park! It was so much fun! One of the highlights of the whole trip for me, climbing through the trees, across high wires and down ziplines. Here’s an artists impression of what it was like:

We arrived pretty much as soon as it opened, so we had the place to ourselves, no queues, no whiny kids and the full attention of the instructors. Some of the courses were really challenging too, testing your balance and upper body strength. It was like being on Gladiators, just with more trees, and less giant foam hands…

We were able to do everything though first time, so we felt pretty good about ourselves! And afterwards we watched some macho Australian douchebag try and fail at the course, which made us feel even better! It was a great place though, and I’d love to visit somewhere similar again in the future.

After the park, we took a stroll down to Lake Bratan to see the Ulun Danu Temple. We even hired a swan boat to paddle around the lake. In fact, you can see our third video diary here! On a boat!

It was a really nice temple too, and we had a good paddle around, if only it wasn’t so cloudy…

We stocked up on salaks before heading back up to the hotel, (Seriously, I can’t get enough of them! They’re fast becoming my favourite fruit! I had about 4 or 5 as soon as we got back to our room. I really hope we can buy them in HK…)

And that was pretty much that for our time in Bedugul, and in Bali as a whole. The next day we got on a bus to Denpasar, and flew out to our next stop and the next island along, Lombok, for some much needed beach time!

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Summer 2011 - 2nd Stop: Bromo & Ijen

In this entry, you're going to get two for the price of one! Mount Bromo and the Ijen Crater, two volcanoes and two equally amazing, although very different experiences. So including Mount Merapi, that's three volcanoes in four days! We've definitely exceeded our volcanic quota for this holiday anyway, and probably for the rest of our lives!

As I finished up last time, we had just signed up to a tour package for the next few days and were about to set off on an 11 hour minibus ride to Mount Bromo. And lucky us, we got to sit up front with the driver, who spent the entire journey spitting, burping and throwing rubbish out the window. Not to mention the zero leg-room and the incessant beeping at anything in front of us. So that was a fun trip! Having said that, the 11 hours actually went by pretty quickly, and we did stop a couple of times to get food and mini bottles of coke.

We arrived in Ngadisari (a small mountain village and our home for the night) at around 8pm and pretty much went to bed straight away as we were wrecked after our journey and also had to be up at half 3 the next morning to see the sunrise over Bromo (and this time we actually did get to see the sunrise!). 

Now, when we were packing for our holidays, we thought to ourselves, 'Indonesia, that's on the equator so it's probably gonna be roasting. We won't need to bring warm clothes...', but of course we overlooked the possibility of climbing volcanic peaks in the middle of the night! Rookie mistake. And so, unsurprisingly, when we stepped out of our mountain cabin at 3:30am, it was absolutely freezing! I luckily had a hoodie with me, and a French family that were travelling with us (who strangely had no English at all), gave Aisling a jumper to wear, so at least we had something. We were still frozen though...

Just a side note though before I go on, everyone here is French! Everyone! I'd say about 95% of the tourists we've met so far in Java have been from France! We can't understand it!

Anyway, we were driven by jeep about halfway up Mount Penanjakan, a nearby peak with a panoramic view of the surrounding landscape, and then made our way to the top by foot. It was a steep climb up, and a long wait in the cold and dark for the sun to rise, but it was worth it all ten times over for the view. It was out of this world, and I mean that quite literally! It looked like the surface of the moon or Mars or something!

It doesn't even look real! It was so far removed from anything we had seen before. What an incredible sight, we couldn't get enough of it! Serious Bromo-sexuals right here!

After the viewing area, we were driven down to the heart of the landscape seen above, and to the base of the Mount Bromo crater itself, and seeing as it had erupted as recently as this February, the whole area was completely covered in fine ash. 

I could make a joke about me also being covered in fine Ais, but that would just be cheap and tasteless, so I wont... 

The climb up felt just like walking through the desert as each step sank beneath your feet, but again it was worth it for, not only the surrounding view, but also a peek inside the smoking crater. Probably quite dangerous though, standing on the slippery, ash-covered rim of a volcano that erupted less than 6 months ago...

Some people chose to take the quick and easy route back down to the bottom:

But we descended in a more dignified manner. On a horse!!! Ok, it was barely even a horse, my feet were nearly touching the ground, but it was kinda cool trekking across this ashy desert. I felt like some sort of volcanic nomad!

And that was pretty much it for our brief visit to Mount Bromo! We went back to the hostel, got some breakfast (consisting of green bread and mini bananas), got our bags and hopped on another minibus headed east to the Ijen Crater. This time we made sure to grab good seats on the minibus (lots of leg room and right by the AC) and so we just snoozed our way through the 7 hour journey.

When we arrived in Sempol (a quaint little village in the middle of nowhere) it was still quite early, so we went for a small wander to the nearby waterfall (which we couldn't find) and the local hot springs (which we could!), and after a refreshing dip, we were all ready for dinner back at the hostel! They really put on a great spread too, with plates and plates of stuff brought to our table - chicken, rice, noodles, omlette rolls, fried potatoey things, watermelon and lots more too! And it was all surprisingly tasty! And then yet another early night, as we'd be up before the sun again the next morning.

We were dropped off at the base of the volcano with a steep 90 minute climb ahead of us to the top. It was seriously tough going too, especially as the air thinned with the increasing altitude, but the anticipation of the views from above spurred us on every step of the way, and we weren't disappointed.

We spend our whole lives looking up at the clouds, so it's a strange feeling looking down on them from above. It was such a different landscape too compared to the lunar plains of Bromo. And there was even a sharp contrast of sights on offer at the peak of Ijen itself. On one side you had green mountain tops poking through a heavenly sea of clouds, and as you turned around, there was a barren crater filled with a steaming, turquoise sulphuric lake.

Sulphur seemed to be a big business in the volcano. As we made the climb up, we'd see people carrying baskets of it over each shoulder, huge yellow blocks of it. And then in the crater itself, there seemed to be a mining camp on the surface of the lake. It must be a tough job though; carrying baskets of the stuff up and down the mountain all day long. And worst of all was the smell! A real deep eggy smell! And we were only on the crater's edge, I can only imagine what it was like by the lakeside. I wouldn't be able to hack it, but these guys just have to sulphur in silence! Well, I guess it's all for the crater good!

We stayed up there for well over an hour, exploring, taking in the views and also making another video diary! Look, here it is!

We eventually had to say goodbye to this stunning panorama and to Java as a whole, as we strolled back down to catch our bus/ferry to Bali. And that also meant the end of our little tour package. It was well worth it though, not just for the price but more so the convenience of it all. The tour had also saved us a day on our planned schedule, so we had a day to kill before heading to our next destination, Ubud. We decided to spend that day in Legian, a town in the south of Bali. We hadn't intended on spending any time in that part of the island as we heard it was quite touristy (it definitely was, and all Australians! We had gone from France to Australia in the space of a few hours!). The only reason we went there was to go to a waterpark the next day!

And what a fun day we had! There really is nothing better than a good waterpark, especially when you're in Bali, under the hot sun and tropical trees! So we stayed there for pretty much the whole day, going on the rides, hanging out in the pool, tanning ourselves (or rather, burning ourselves) under the sun, and even having a few games of table tennis, which Aisling was surprisingly good at! Not as good as me though obviously...

We really had a great day though. And then onto our next destination, and our home for the next 5 days, the cultural heart of Bali, Ubud!

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Summer 2011 - 1st Stop: Yogyakarta

So, here we are, on our second round of travels around South East Asia! Our first 6 weeks of travelling came as we left Ireland, before our big Hong Kong adventure, and obviously lots has happened since then, but that’s a story for another day… Right now, it’s August and we’ve both got the month off, so we’ve hit the road again! This time heading further south to Indonesia, Malaysian Borneo and Brunei. So, I guess I’ll take it from the start, South East Asia, Part 2!

We set off for Indonesia in a kind of round about way. Our first port of call was Yogyakarta, on the island of Java, but we had to go first via Singapore and then Jakarta. It was the easiest/cheapest way possible. So, we left HK on the morning of the 29th for our first flight to Singapore with Tiger Airways. We had a 4 hour stop over there (which was a good thing as the plane was delayed by an hour and 20 minutes) and then onto Jakarta (again the flight was delayed, this time by an hour and a half!). It was our first time flying with Tiger Airways, and hopefully our last, they’re rubbish.

One good thing about the flight though, there was a guy dressed up in swimming gear who made an announcement that it was his birthday and got everyone on board to sing happy birthday for him! It was good fun, although I’m sure most people were still focused on the 90 minute delay…

Having said that, the delay actually didn’t affect us at all, as our connecting flight to Yogyakarta wasn’t til 6am the next morning, and we were planning on just sleeping at the airport anyway. So, we grabbed our bags, picked a spot for the night and settled in.

It certainly wasn’t the nicest of airports to spend the night, it was noisy, hot and crowded, and with nowhere comfortable to bed down, everything you’d expect really. But we made it through the night, getting some bit of sleep at least, while managing not to get robbed too, which is always a bonus!

And so we awoke at 4am to check in for our flight, or at least what we thought was 4am… (we didn't realise we were actually in a different time zone). Luckily though, we had gained an hour instead of losing one, so it was actually 3am. That could’ve been disastrous… Still though, as we were up we thought we might as well find out where we should be checking in, and it’s a good thing we had that extra hour, we needed it! Jakarta is the most poorly organised airport I’ve ever been in, (even Bagan was 100 times better run, and they didn’t have TV screens or conveyor belts!).

We walked up and down the airport and couldn’t see our flight info anywhere, so we just enquired with the attendant at the first check-in area, D1. He told us our flight would be at area D2, so we thanked him and moved down to D2… where we were told that actually we should go to F4… so we went to F4, which was closed. It did have a full list of flights though… none of which was ours. So, we went back to D2, to make sure that it definitely was at F4, and that there definitely WASN’T another terminal at the airport. We were told no, definitely F4, so we returned to F4 and waited for it to open. When it did open, we were told we needed to go to terminal 3. Terminal 3?! Since when is there a terminal 3?! Sigh…

We jumped in a taxi and made our way 2km down the road to the ultra clean, quiet and modern terminal 3. Why oh why didn’t we sleep here…? (We also saw Jacob from Lost in the lobby!)

Well, not actually him, but it looked like it!

At last, we found our flight and jetted off to Yogyakarta (or Jogja, as it is known), where we could finally start enjoying our holiday! Or maybe not…

When we arrived in Jogja, we got our bags and made our way out to the lobby, where we were due to be collected by our hostel… but there was nobody there. We waited for a good half an hour, but nothing. And because we thought we were being collected, we didn’t bother to write down the address, or phone number, and there wasn’t any internet in the airport… We asked some taxi drivers could they take us there, but none of them had ever heard of the place! Hmm… shit. The only option we had was to get a taxi to take us to an internet cafĂ©, look up the address of the hostel, and then get dropped off there. So, we did all of that, got the address, got directions, even got GPS coordinates, and still we barely found it! We knew the exact geographic position on the surface of the Earth, and still the place almost eluded us! That’s how far out of the way our hostel was! It was apparently only 5 mins from the city centre, bullshit! More like 20 mins and in the middle of nowhere! Still, at that point we just needed a bed, so we took a well earned nap and then reassessed the situation.

We said we’d head into the city centre to see what it was like, so we asked the hostel to call a taxi for us. After about 20mins of waiting, we enquired again, only to be told that no taxi could find them… where the hell were we?! And how is this place even in business?! They said they could give us a lift in though, on the back of a motorbike, one by one… We had no other choice really so I went first - a 20 minute bike ride, 20 minutes of waiting for him to return for Aisling, and then another 20 while he dropped her in... we really couldn't do this every time we wanted to go into the city centre! So, as soon we were reunited again, we checked into a new hostel. We had no other choice really. We returned to the old place, got our bags and vowed never to speak of it again (with the help of our driver from that morning, probably the only man in Jogja who knew where the place was!). It was a really tough start to the holiday, and when that happens you always think 'will the whole thing be like this?', but we dusted ourselves down, drew a line under everything and took it back to the beginning. After a nap of course!

So, feeling refreshed and reinvigorated, we started our holiday in Jogja again! We went out to get some dinner but on the way we bumped into Herman, a travel agent who kept trying to sell me tour packages earlier as I waited for Ash. He wouldn't leave me alone then, so I took his number and said I'd call him later, just to get rid of him, but now he'd found me again, what are the odds?! At first, when he came running towards us, calling my name, I thought, 'oh no, not him...', but this time he had a leaflet with all of their deals and prices, and they were actually pretty good! There were a few places in Java that we were planning on going to after Jogja, (Mount Bromo, Ijen etc.) but we weren't quite sure how we were going to get there (bus and train info here is pretty hard to find, and even harder to understand), but this guy had tours to all of these places in one cheap and easy little package! Plus, a ferry onto Bali after we were done! Suddenly Herman had something to offer. We said we'd look into it and ring him tomorrow, and this time we actually meant it! (He found us again after dinner, seriously, this guy in unstoppable, he's like the terminator! Or rather, the Hermanator!) That night we went to bed quite early as we had a whole host of activities organised through our hostel for the next day, starting with sunrise over Borobudur!

...even though the place didn't open til 6, at which point the sun was already up... Still though, it was nice seeing it just after sunrise at least, and it was pretty quiet at that time too. Borobudur is like the Indonesian Angkor Wat, and like Angkor, it looks much more impressive in the aerial shot. Don't get me wrong, it was lovely, but with a monument that big, I think you can only really appreciate it fully when you can see the whole thing.

Amazingly, it was built in the 8th century, but was abandoned around the 1300s and lay undiscovered beneath volcanic ash and jungle growth for almost 500 years! The fact that it remained hidden for so long, makes it all the more mysterious and appealing. And it is very impressive really, although an awful lot of restoration work has been done.

On the way in, we were given sarongs to wear, which would be a recurring theme for any temple we visited in Indonesia. Here's Aisling creatively sporting hers:

After Borobudur, we headed to Mount Merapi, Indonesia's most active volcano which last erupted in October, killing over 350 people. There are no major towns in the area, so there were no real Pompeii-esque ruins, but you could see the aftermath alright in terms of felled trees and scorched earth. Plant-life had started growing again though, and the locals had started to rebuild structures, but being honest, it's kinda pissing into the wind rebuilding your home next to the country's most active volcano...

Our last stop of the day was Prambanan, the Hindu answer to the Buddhist Borobudur. Built in the 9th century, it was similarly abandoned for years and heavily damaged by a 16th century earthquake. But like Borobudur, it has gone through heavy restoration, and really looks stunning today. Even better than Borobudur I'd say!

It was pretty quiet there too, even though it was a Sunday. We even found a nice secluded place round the back to chill out, take our customary jumping shot and also record our first video diary! So, if you want a 4 minute summary of everything I said so far, look here:

I probably should have put that at the beginning... It would have saved you a lot of reading... Oops!

Also, on the way in to Prambanan, we saw a guy dressed up as Dora the Explorer, and I've never seen a cartoon character look so depressed. He was just sitting on a chair under a tree, and every so often he'd make an attempt to act cheerful, but you could tell he was really dying inside. And it's funny because we were only talking recently about whether these suited characters are actually smiling themselves when posing for photos... this guy definitely wasn't.

When we got back to Jogja, we sorted out our trip for the next few days. As I said, we had planned to book it with Herman, but when I rang him there was no answer, so we just booked the same tour with someone else. Unlucky Herman! Actually, we were terrified of bumping into him again for the rest of the evening seeing as he always managed to find us... but we survived the rest of the day, and the next morning made a swift getaway to our next destination, Mount Bromo!

We only really had two days in Yogyakarta, and one of them was spent getting out of our accommodation mess, but we did enjoy our time here. The town itself isn't great, but it's a good hub to see the surrounding areas, Borobudur, Prambanan etc., so in that respect, it's well worth a visit.