Archive for June 7th, 2012

June 7, 2012

Travel List: Year 1 in Indonesia

by Tabitha Kidwell

Places I’ve traveled in Indonesia… so far!

Pulau Weh

If the Island of Sumartra were a sundae, Pulau Weh would be the cherry on top. It’s the most Northwestern point in Indonesia, and it seems a little bit like the end of the world. The two major tourist attractions, Gapang and Ibodeh, aren’t anything more than a sandy cove with a couple of shack restaurants and a dive center. I went to Gapang and did my Advanced Open Water Scuba certification at Lumba Lumba dive center. The dive center was very laid-back and cool, and I really loved Lesley, my instructor. The diving was pretty beautiful, too – I saw turtles, an Eagle Ray, and a lot of other stuff that I should probably learn more about now that I am an Advanced Open Water certified scuba diver. There was great snorkeling right off shore, too, and it was fun just to swim around the quiet cove. On land, Gapang is pretty quiet – there are about 5 restaurants all with the same menu, and one store that served ice cream (thank goodness!) I went on a couple of hilly runs on quiet, peaceful roads – no traffic to be found! A wonderful place for a quiet beach vacation or for underwater delights! Lumba Lumba has nice but pricey rooms. I stayed in a basic accommodation just past the ice cream shop – a mattress on the floor and shared bathroom, but it was clean and only $8 a night!


Banda Aceh, at the northwestern tip of Sumatra, was devastated by the tsunami in 2004. Everyone lost someone – family members, friends, neighbors, colleagues. Some lost their entire families. The town is mostly rebuilt, but memories of the tsunami are always just under the surface. Tsunami-related attractions dominate the tourist scene. There are two boats that were carried kilometers inland: one GIANT freighter and one mid-sized wooden fishing boat that is somehow more shocking because it is still sitting on the house it landed on. You can stand on it and look into someone’s former bathroom. You can also visit the tsunami museum, half of which was funded by foreign NGOs and is (apparently) very touching (it was closed when I was there), the other half of which was funded by Indonesian organizations, and resembles a middle school science fair. An impressinve science fair, but it doesn’t really do justice to the victims and their memories.
Aceh’s other big thing is coffee. They drink it strong and they drink it often. In this conservative Muslim area, you’d be hard pressed to find a bar, but coffee joints abound. They’re full all hours of the day and (especially the) night. Also worth a visit is the incredible mosque, which was built by the Dutch to compensate for the one they burnt down in one of the many colonial battles with the fierce Acehnese. At the opening ceremony, the Acehnese killed the Dutch representative. Like I said, fierce !


Jakarta is called the big Durian, and with good reason – like the pungent fruit, Jakarta is stinky and hard to like at first, but once you get used to it, you love it. I didn’t really get Jakarta on my first visit when I first arrived. Why are there so many malls? Who shops there? Why is there so much traffic? After a few more visits, though, I like Jakarta. It’s a pain to get around town with the traffic, but once you get where you want to go, there are some really nice spots. It’s a very cosmopolitan city. I especially like Jakarta because whenever I am there, I get to stay with my friend Jackie and participate in sporting events with her triathlon training group, which is always fun! WE often head out to Pulau Harapan (the 1,000 islands), about an hour away, for open water swims. My favorite restaurants (AKA the only ones I know) are: The Social House, at the Grand Indonesia mall, which is swanky, has delicious food, and makes me feel like a big city socialite; Ya Udah, a hole in the wall who mixed up my order in a big way (served pork instead of steak – Big no-no in a Muslim country), but I love it because it reminds me of the crappy patio bar & grilles from college; and Bluegrass, just across the street from Jackie’s apartment – everything is delicious there!


I was in Bandung for orientation last August, and I’m looking forward to going back now that I know my way around Indonesia. It’s supposed to be a really fun city, but I spent most of my 3 weeks there in the Sheraton pool or in language class. W were there during Ramadan, which meant that most of the hot spots were closed, but there was one memorable night (my birthday!) at a bar on a hill that I only remember as “Ron Bar” because my friend Ron recommended it. I’ll get back to you on the name. Otherwise, I ate quite a few times at Dago Tea House, a peaceful Indonesian restaurant up the road from the hotel. More to come after next years training!


I’m hoping to get back to Semarang more next year. I visited at the beginning of October to get the lay of the land and didn’t love the place, but I think I was in the wrong area. I stayed in the old Dutch area and it was (as one might expect by the word “old” it it’s title) run down. I stayed there later for the TEFLIN conference and got a better feeling for the place, but then never got back again. I’ve driven through the city en route to the airport quite a few time now, and I get a very different feeling – it reminds me of Cincinnati with it’s hills (but maybe I’ve been out of the states too much). I want to go back and see some of the tourist attractions – the “house of 1000 doors,” a Chinese temple complex, and a jamo (traditional medicine) museum.

I stopped by Solo on my way to Australia. It’s known for it’s conservative Muslim groups (which, incidentally, also why there is an international airport there – it is a starting point for the Hajj). I only stayed in the center of the city, and really loved the feeling there. There is still a sultan in Solo, though he doesn’t enjoy the special status that the Yogya sultan does. (Yogya’s was instrumental in the independence fight and got special privileges after liberation.) Hey, the dude is still a sultan! You can visit his palace and try to use your 3rd level Javanese (the register used only for royalty). Solo is also known for it’s batik fabrics, so I’d like to go back to shop a little. I’d also like to go back to visit O Solo Mio, the amazingly delicious Italian restaurant there. Pizza, Pasta, wine… worth the hour’s bus ride.

Dieng Plateau

It’s pretty far off the beaten path, but Dieng is definitely worth the trip. It’s basically a giant collapsed volcanic caldera. There is still some volcanic activity – sulfurous lakes and steaming volcanic vents. There are surreally beautiful temples sprinkled across the plateau. The background of rice fields and mountains ringing the area make for a really beautiful scene. One thing – it’s freezing there. I’ve never been so cold in Indonesia. If you want to get out of the sweltering coastal cities, that might be an attraction in and of itself. Accommodations are pretty basic homestays.


Yogya is my home away from home. I love the place. It’s home to bunches of universities, so it’s full of young people. It’s also a center for Indonesian art, so it’s ful of cool, open-minded people. The main tourist drag is Malioboro, wihich is worth visiting the first time you are there, but I only go there now to shop at Mirota batik, where the prices are fair and haggle free and the batik is good quality. At the north end of Malioboro is the Tugu train station and the Sosrowijaya area, a touristy spot with hotels and western bars and restaurants. I was only there once, but I had the best fish curry of my life at Bedhot restaurant, so I’d like to go back again. At the south of Malioboro is the Sultans palace and museum – definitely worth a stop if only to imagine what it would be like to be Javanese royalty. I mostly spend my time down in the Prawirotaman area, partly because my friend Katie lived down near there. Prawirotaman is also touristy, but I feel like I’m a regular so it’s okay. The best restaurants are Via Via on Prawirotaman 1, with international foods, and Milas on Prawirotaman 4, which is an amazing vegetarian restaurant. When I get up to the north, Nona Mias is good for pizza and R&B Grille is good for steak. When my friend Katie was out of town (and before she was “my friend Katie”) I stayed at the Prambanan guest house on Prowirotaman 1.
The real attractions of Yogya lie outside of the city. To the north, there is Prambanan, the Hindu temple just outside the city, and Borobudur, the amazing Buddhist temple about an hour north. Both are breathtaking. Go early in the morning so you don’t get mobbed by sweet but annoying students practicing their English. To the south, there are Paringtritis and Depok beaches. The south sea is too strong for swimming, but it’s a beautiful setting. Depok is especially nice because you can buy your own fish in the market, take it to the restaurant, and have them cook for you. Yum!


I went to Surabaya, Indonesia’s second largest city, last November to meet my friends to watch the OSU-Michigan football game. We stayed at the hotel Ibis only because it was the cheapest hotel with wi-fi (which then went out during the game, so we had to go watch it at McDonalds, but that’s another story). If I go back, I might stay somewhere with more character. It did have the benefit of being near the Sampoerna museum and restaurant. Sampoerna makes the clove cigarettes that are poisoning most Indonesian men, but the restaurant is amazingly delicious so we’ll call it even. Otherwise, I saw some beautiful malls. The bridge over to Madura island is one of the longest in Asia and it was impressive to drive across. I definitely liked the city, but I was only there a couple of days. I’ll be there in November for the TEFLIN conference, so hopefully I’ll have more to say then.


Pontianak, in west Kalimantan (Borneo), was my first trip off of Java/Bali, and it was a wake up call. Definitely less developed and crowded. It reminded me a lot of Madagascar. Indonesians populated Madagascar, so they two cultures have a lot in common. The similarities were more apparent in a less developed situation. Pontianak is a big city, but, unlike cities on Java, it has room to breathe and spread out. It has big boulevards lined with colossal government buildings that lend the place a colonial feeling. I was there visiting my friend Anglea, and we also drove 3 hours north to Singkawong for their Chinese New Year celebration, which was something to behold (see my blog entry from February 2012 for more info – if you have a strong stomach).

East Java

The very tip of east Java, extending all the way to Bali, is a bit off the beaten path. Jackie and I had to hire a car for what we had hoped would be an adventurous vacation, but ended up being more of a driving tour. The main attraction is Bromo, a volcano raising above a sea of sand (which is actually a giant collapsed caldera) It’s something to see… but not much of a hike. We headed east, hoping to climb Mt. Ijen… but it was closed due to poisonous gases. We did get to see some beautiful waterfalls, though. We also went to Alas Purwo national park, where we saw monkeys, wild buffalo, and deer, as well as the oldest Hindu temple in Java. East Java is beautiful… but maybe not ideal for mountain climbing.


Bali is…. not Indonesia. Just kidding, it is an important part of Indonesian culture, but the huge amount of tourism there makes it more like Cancun in some places. Kuta, the biggest party town, is minutes from the airport, and it blends right into Legian, which blends right into Seminyak, each of which is progressively less party-centric. I stayed a night in Seminyak and thought it felt like Florida in the summer. Beach-goers, but not college spring break. Of course, that was a Thursday in November. I think Kuta gets pretty overrun with drunk Australians at some points of the year.
There is a lot more to Bali, though. One alternative is Sanur, on the other side of the island. The beach isn’t as beautiful, but it’s a quieter and calmer destination. My mom and I stayed at a resort there and had an amazing time.
A lot of people skip the beach and just head straight for Ubud. Ubud is more and more touristy now thanks to Elizabeth Gilbert, who lived there for 4 months, then wrote a little book called Eat, Pray, Love. It’s known as the cultural capital of Bali, which means it’s full of art and people who want to sell art to tourists. To be less cynical, there is a very good art museum there, and very good shopping. Also plenty of interesting dance and cultural performances. And, most importantly: lots of delicious food! Ubud is full of hippies, so there is delicious vegetarian/vegan food to be found! My favorite is Sari Organik, which is out in the rice fields. Beautiful view, and a beautiful walk – but hot if you head out there for lunch! Bali Buddha is also great, and for traditional palates (AKA meat), 3 Monkeys can’t be beat. My friend Megan would cry if I forgot to tell you to get the Lime Mint juice at 3 Monkeys – she makes special trips to Bali just for that! In Ubud, my recommended place to stay is Oka Wati. It’s affordable and had a really beautiful setting. Oka Wati herself walks around, glamorous as can be, in a traditional Kebaya. My favorite activity from Ubud is the Bike tour – they take you to the base of nearby Mt. Batur to start, meaning the rest is downhill. You stop by all kinds of interesting places, like a coffee plantation, rice field, family compound, and temples. It’s an easy ride, and delicious breakfast and lunch are included!

Gili Trawangan

I stayed on Trawangan to get my Open Water Scuba certification at Blue Marlin dive centre. It’s a great place to get certified because the diving is pretty easy, but still beautiful. Blue Marlin was buzzing with activity but not intimidating for a newbie. I loved being underwater for the first time – the coral reefs were stunning (otherwise, I had no idea what I was looking at!) Above ground, Gili T is really fun – lots of bars and delicious restaurants and – YUM – a gelato stand! I stayed at Pesona resort, which is attached to an amazing Indian resaurant. The owners were super friendly, and the rooms were nice and affordable. I had a blast on Gili T – it’s a great beach vacation, whether your idea of “beach vacation” is napping in the sand, scuba diving, or binge drinking in the sun!


Lombok is billed as the “next Bali” – and with its shiny new airport, it might just catch up soon. The airport is kinda in the middle of nowhere, which puts it closer to the deserted beach towns that are purported to be in development deals with shadowy foreign investors. For now, Kuta (same name as the party town in Bali, but couldn’t be more different) is a sleepy little strip of sand with a few restaurants and hotels. It reminded me of the beaches I went to for Christmases with friends in Madagascar. It’s not so developed that you forget you’re in Indonesia, but it’s beachy enough that you can forget about your work back on Java. I loved Kuta, Lombok for a little beach weekend away, especially given it’s proximity to that fancy new airport!


Makassar is the largest city on Suawesi, the funniest shaped island in the world. It is known for it’s radicalism, but I enjoyed it more for it’s fresh fish. I was only in town a day or two, but I got down to the beach to eat pisang ijo (fried banana in something like a caramel sauce) and eat freshly caught fish I also ate Coto Makassar, soup made from unidentifiable beef parts, which is exactly as appetizing as it sounds. Maybe that’s why the students are all up in arms – inferior soup.


It’s not easy to get to – you have to take an overnight bus from Makassar – but it is worth the trip. Toraja is amazing! It feels like a pocket of forgotten time. The people of this area are known for their elaborate funerals and unique burial practices. Families will save up for years for a funeral, and the funerals will go on for days. Death is very much a presence in their lives. Consequently, there are bunches of tombs, burial caves, and other variations on that theme. The names of all the places are a bit mixed up for me now, but that doesn’t make the sites any less memorable. There were baby graves, where the villagers put babies who die far too young into a hole in the side of a tree. There was a cliff-side burial site where coffins are unceremoniously piles in corners of caves. There was another rock face where effigies of the deceased are displayed in niches on the rock face, some of them over 100 years old. It is a beautiful region that again made me think of Madagascar – and maybe Madagascar’s famadianas (parties for the exhumed bodies of the deceased) have roots in this culture. The elaborate wooden rice barns are also beautiful. A must-visit. The towns of Rantepao and Makale are both well-equipped for tourists, with a range of hotel and eating options. And those overnight buses- not so bad. The one I rode on had wi-fi (on a bus!) and I could extend my seat to almost flat!