Volcanoes are the overlying theme of Indonesia. With 127 active volcanoes throughout the country, we absolutely had to see at least one. In Bali we had been at the base of an inactive volcano and had seen many more from a distance throughout the other parts of Indonesia, but it’s just not the same.
We arrived at the tiny mountain village of Cemoro Lewang near Mount Bromo around 9pm and went straight to bed. Waking up in this tiny town was one of those memories that I will forever cherish: relishing the warm sun in the chilly mountain air, eating my cereal while watching old men with horses in tow going about their daily business, and all the small town people greeting their neighbors with kindness. I adore small towns! Most people who visit Mount Bromo get there at night, do a sunrise jeep tour, and then leave town before lunch time. That kind of tourism puts a bad taste in our mouths as it leaves you with a very limited experience, among other reasons.
After breakfast we admired the view of Bromo. The town is built on the rim of the ancient Tengger volcano and overlooks the ancient caldera now known as the Tengger Sand Sea. Inside this really big volcanic pit, five newer volcanoes have formed with Bromo being the only one that is currently active. It was so weird to think that we were standing on the edge of what was once an extremely large volcano, and even more strange when we were standing inside it, admiring the black Sand Sea and looking back up at the rim. When we made it to the top of Bromo, the view was pretty incredible. We watched the steam rising from the caldera in front of us and tried to dodge the stinky sulfur smell.
(Looking down at Bromo in the ancient caldera)
That afternoon we explored the rest of town, took ice cold showers (electricity was out), took sunset pictures overlooking Bromo, and scheduled the infamous Jeep sunrise tour for the next morning. At 3:30am we were picked up by the Jeep and driven across the sand sea and up a mountain road to Mount Penanjakan. Walking the final distance to the viewpoint, we passed hundreds of Jeeps, which must have come from towns farther away because they couldn’t have all fit in the tiny mountain town. The viewpoint was jammed with so many people that we couldn’t even figure out exactly which direction to watch. There were built-in risers to see over the crowd but so many people were standing on the front railings that there was absolutely no way to get pictures with a tripod, so I went around tapping on shoulders and asking people to please step down so everyone could have a view. This worked out nicely because I ended up with a front row spot to set the tripod (and more people were able to see the view). Once the sun began peeking over the horizon, all the frustrations were lost and I was giddy with excitement. Mountains developed out of the darkness in front of our eyes, each skirted in fog. The array of colors in the sky was probably the best I had ever seen. Eventually I found Bromo and its buddy, Mount Batok, off to our right with a perfect blanket of white at their bases. As we made our way back to the Jeep, we kept finding new viewpoints with better shots. Driving back down, we stopped at the edge of the sand sea to get some fog pictures and then over at Bromo for our second hike to the top. We managed to beat most of the crowd, but the morning view wasn’t much better than the afternoon view we had the day before. Still, it was very nice!
(Sunrise at Cemoro Lawang)
After the tour and a long day of traveling, we made it to the city of Yogyakarta, considered the artistic center of Indonesia. By this time we were so jaded from the lengthy, scary Indonesia methods of travel that we wanted to stay put for a week. We spent a lot of time catching up on the news, reading, and being lazy. We also did a lot of walking around town to see all the handicrafts, explore the fun mazes of alleyways painted with murals, watch the street music performers at night, and to see the unimpressive Kraton (royal palace – unimpressive because we were only allowed just inside the front gate with very little to see because the Sultans daughter was getting married soon). The major craft of Yogyakarta is Batik, which is a form of dying patterns onto fabric using wax and paraffin to draw the designs and make the dye permanent. The traditional Batik is patterns worn on clothing, but also a “painting” form of Batik is done as wall art. We were extremely impressed by the artwork Batik we saw, it was cool!
(Group playing music out on the main street)
The most exciting activity we did in Yogyakarta was a tour to the Borobudur and Prambanan temples nearby. We made it to Borobudur just after sunrise and were able to enjoy the cooler morning temperatures while exploring the 9th century Buddhist temple. This was easily the third most impressive structure we have seen in all of Southeast Asia, with the Angkor Wat temples in Cambodia and the combined pagodas of Bagan, Myanmar coming before it. The huge temple was wisely built over a hill (the hill is inside/under it), with beautiful reliefs carved into the walls and many Buddha statues adorning the five levels. The surrounding scenery was the cherry on top. The vegetation was beautiful and in the far distance were the silhouettes of large volcanos. Prambanan was equally as impressive and will probably be more so in at least ten years. Also built in the 9th century, this temple compound is of Hindu origin and once consisted of 240 temples: an inner square of larger ones with four surrounding rows of 224 smaller temples. We could only imagine how phenomenal this place was when all the temples still stood, but the area was destroyed in the 16th century by an earthquake and many of the stones were taken after rediscovery for use in construction and as yard ornaments. Only 18 structures in total have been reconstructed, with a 2006 earthquake taking a major toll on the standing temples and the progress.
(Buddha statue on top of Borobudur Temple)
The night train was a much safer and more pleasant option than risking life with a crazy bus driver, so we arrived to Jakarta around 4:30am and took our time walking to the area our guidebook suggested for guesthouses. At 6am we started asking around and checked in at a dirty but cheap place. Immediately Bryan found a bedbug crawling up the wall and we asked for our money back and moved on. The next stop was recommended in the guidebook as “extremely clean”, but after seeing the sheets also covered in bedbug blood spots, we passed up on that one too. The next three were full and we finally came to a newer place with a brand new mattress and clean, white sheets. We still knew we weren’t getting away free because the evidence existed on the walls, but it was probably the best we would find.
We spent the day seeing the major sites, starting with the National Monument: something resembling the Washington Monument but with a flame on top. The most impressive thing about the monument was the enormous park surrounding it with a very symmetrical layout. It was a really long walk to the Old Colonial Square, the main square during the Colonial rule. Of course the buildings were beautiful in that colonial fashion, but the museum was the highlight. Some of the colonial furniture remained including the biggest china cabinet I have ever seen. There were many students visiting the museum while we were there and we had several groups of teenagers asking for photos with us. It’s always interesting to become the main attraction while visiting an attraction! Top new experience: A group of young women saw me and got really excited. They spoke in Indonesian but I got the gist as they motioned me over and pushed one of the ladies to me. They wanted me to rub her pregnant belly! I have no idea if they just thought it was funny or if there was a superstition to it, but we all walked away giggling. How funny! Following the museum we walked to the “Chicken Market Bridge”, an old draw bridge. While the bridge itself was pretty neat (you could see the old manual way of lifting it), it was overshadowed by the sludge that they call a river underneath it. While we have often been disturbed by the amounts of pollution and trash we see thrown in the streets and living spaces, nothing comes close to this river. It was lunch time and we were hungry, but we were so disgusted that we had to get as far away from it as possible and try to burn it from our memories before we could think about food. Sadly there were a couple food vendors set up directly in its heavy stench with tiny children playing around them. I am reminded of how thankful I am that our government enforces laws that prevent our water sources from turning into this.
(National Monument in Jakarta)
While walking around Jakarta and at the museum, there were a lot of really friendly people that regarded us with kindness, but there was also something odd about the looks we got from many of the men, and we couldn’t decide what the looks meant. Walking outside the tourist areas we were probably more uncomfortable here than anywhere else we have been on this trip. Needless to say, we loved nothing about Jakarta. We gladly spent the second night at the airport.
It would have taken us about three days to get to the more northern part of Sumatra from Java if we had gone by bus and ferry. Flying was not only quicker, but also cheaper. We arrived in Medan and took one of the most terrifying bus rides and a ferry to the island of Samosir in Lake Toba. Here we are back on the subject of volcanos: Lake Toba fills the caldera of a massive supervolcano that is estimated to have erupted roughly 70,000 years ago. The lake reaches more than 1,600 feet depth in some areas. Our position: We were on an island the size of Singapore, within a volcano, on a larger island. Another weird one to think about!
Less than a week before we arrived in Medan, a volcano equal distance from Lake Toba and Medan had erupted, but luckily it was pretty small and did not affect anything we were doing.
While walking toward Tuk Tuk, the town on the island where most of the hotels exist, a couple guys on a motorbike stopped to tell us about their homestay/guesthouse. For only $3/night we were on board! It was clean, comfortable, and had a restaurant attached. That night we tried their recommended Thai curry with the local lake fish (later determined to be Chinese Carp) and a side of fries with guacamole. OMG – the best Thai curry of our entire trip. The fish was delicious, with absolutely no fishy smell or taste, just soft meat, and it was the first time we have seen guacamole since home. We also got to try the local palm wine which was only about 3% alcohol and made fresh daily because it goes bad quickly. It was just ok but we kept drinking it because it was there! Every morning while there we had delicious fruit-filled pancakes, and on other evenings we tried the vegetable curry, chicken satay in peanut sauce, and chicken rendang. Everything the owners made was unbelievably delicious! We did do other things than eat while on the island, though! We read our books down by the beautiful, clean water; toured the area on foot and saw the traditional Batak houses with roofs curved up on both ends like a boat; unsuccessfully attempted two fishing trips with an unreliable local; stopped at a barber shop to clean Bryan up a bit (he had his first straight-razor shave); and spent a day on a motorbike exploring the rest of the island. The views from the South part of the island were breathtaking. We then backtracked back North and around to the opposite side from Tuk Tuk where we tried out the hot springs. The hot water was rerouted into tiled pools which did a good job of keeping the temperature hot. We couldn’t stay in long at all! After we were leaving the upper pool we realized it was supposed to be for men and the lower pool for women. Oops! The two guys that were there when we arrived either didn’t mind or didn’t know how to tell us! On the ride back we discovered a small city park on the North coast with many local Batak people. I picked up some very tiny shells from that beach that I’m calling ‘volcano shells’ instead of ‘sea shells’!
(Traditional Batak house)
Singapore was so much better than we expected! Many people had told us it was just a big city with nothing much to do and not much to see. Although it was so much more expensive than the rest of Southeast Asia (Western prices), it was justifiably so. The city was incredibly modern, clean, organized. The public transportation was so easy and could get us anywhere we wanted to go for a pretty good price. There were wide, clean sidewalks in good condition and we didn’t have to walk in the road. The drivers respected pedestrians and always waved us on at intersections that didn’t have stoplights. The crime rate is very low and we felt comfortable everywhere, day and night. Haggling prices isn’t necessary (although sometimes that is fun). There was more than enough to keep us busy. And the kicker: WE COULD DRINK THE TAP WATER! Basically, it was exactly the same as any Western city with enforced laws, safety regulations, city planning, and so forth. After the rest of Southeast Asia, it was like a drink of iced tea on a sweltering day.
(Light show from across the bay in Singapore)
On our first night in town we checked out the free concert by the bay. The bay area is a planned zone surrounding water with nice restaurants and a section of vendors, pedestrian walking areas, free open concerts, the famous “Merlion” statue, great city views, the art & science museum, gardens, and a repeating laser/light/water/fire show put on by the Marina Bay Sands resort nightly that reminded me of the Bellagio in Las Vegas. During one of the days in the city we explored the Gardens by the Bay, a new botanical gardens area with impressive sculptures and award winning conservatories. We had an emergency shopping day filled with way too many malls because Bryan’s seven-year-old Chaco sandals finally gave out and cracked through the sole. He found some nice Keens to replace them, but the Chacos were such a permanent part of him that I feel he is somehow less “Bryan” now. Best of our time in Singapore, our last day was my birthday (a big one, but we won’t talk about that). The one thing I have been dying for this entire trip is dark chocolate, which is beyond our normal budget, but Bryan got me some. I also had the idea to get a Starbucks gift card a few days before with the smallest amount possible so I could register online and get my free birthday treat, and the amount on the card could buy Bryan a drink too. We haven’t indulged in Starbucks at all, and it ended up even better than expected because in Singapore you get a free drink for registering, and then a free slice of cake for your birthday. I had to take all of my remaining probiotic pills to eat the cake (I’m lactose intolerant) and it was so incredibly worth it! I highly recommend the peanut butter chocolate caramel. We spent the day at the zoo as it was highly recommended to us by some people in the first week of our travels, and I never forgot about it. It was definitely the nicest zoo we have ever been to. That night we had dinner at a recommended burger place. I ordered a falafel and hummus wrap as our starter, Bryan got a big ‘ol beef burger, and I had an amazing veggie & sweet potato burger. Mmmm! For the third time in a row before flights, we spent the night in an airport. It just keeps happening that our flights are so early that it is easier and saves us a lot of money.
(Don’t feed the Kangaroo’s at the zoo!)
Our final stop on this side of the world was Hong Kong. We had no idea what to expect and were just winging it. While in Indonesia, we had met a couple that had given us the name of what was supposedly the only building in Hong Kong where you could find a cheap room, with the warning that we should expect the hotel hawkers to descend on us like vultures (not their words). After looking online and finding nothing we could afford, we got off the airport bus at this infamous Chungking Mansion. Finding our way into the building and figuring it out was certainly an experience! The Chungking Mansion is a 17+ story building separated into sections A-F, each serviced by its own elevators and each floor of each section having one or more hotel businesses. We happened to arrive during the Chinese National Day, so most of the rooms were full and that left us both relieved (because the hawkers had taken a break) and weary (because we had to haul our bags all around in confusion, up and down until we found a room). We got really lucky and found a nice, honest lady who gave us a decent price and even provided toilet paper and soap! Oh, the things we get excited about. As we were warned, the rooms were hilariously small, but it was actually quite comfortable.
(Our small room)
We were running on almost no sleep because the Singapore airport wasn’t so comfortable, and we weren’t able to check into our room yet because it needed to be cleaned, so we went searching for food. Every restaurant we saw had even higher prices than what we would expect to see in the U.S. In our desperation and zombie-like state, we actually walked into a McDonalds and considered deeply for a good 5 minutes whether we were that desperate. In the end, we couldn’t do it. We ended up at a mall food court and had what I hope was a less processed, Chinese version of fast food: dumplings and soup. We spent our first full day in Hong Kong by first checking out the Avenue of Stars (like Hollywood). We happened upon a sectioned off area by the waterfront with a film crew and a funny looking guy in a bright pink suit jacket and black and white shoes. It appeared to be something like an interview or commercial being made, and we joked about it being Psy (the South Korean singer of Gangnam Style). Then the guy in pink went into a tarp room, a yellow McLaren was unveiled, and several skinny white girls came out in funny outfits and tons of makeup. They did a few rehearsal dance shots around the car and then Psy (by then it was obvious it WAS him and they were filming a music video, or possibly commercial) came out and they took a few shots to music and he went into hiding again. The girls regrouped in a formation next to the car and did a few choreographed rehearsals with a person filling in Psy’s part. We still had the city to see, so we moved on before Psy came back out to film that portion. (Two days later we saw the crew setting up again in the same spot.) We checked out the rest of the Kowloon area we were staying in that day, mostly just big city and designer shops, but also a few small parks. Bryan found a place that made Vietnamese style sandwiches, something we had been craving recently, and we went in search. It was well worth the long walk!
(Psy making a video, but notice the McLaren 12c Spider)
The next day we took the recommended green Star ferries (because they are supposedly featured in every movie based in Hong Kong, so our friend says) across to Hong Kong Island, but forgot our map of all the places we wanted to go, so we spent the day roaming. The next day we came back with our map and took the Peak Tram up to Victoria Peak. On a clear day, I would imagine you could see a good majority of Hong Kong from here, but with the thick haze that was always in the air, the view was limited. Still, it was impressive. Even seeing the size of the city with our own eyes, it was still hard to believe. We spent almost seven hours on the peak because we wanted daylight and night photos. We brought peanut butter & jelly sandwiches and snacks for a picnic and expected to just enjoy the view, but there was so much more going on up there. Walking away from the main viewpoint, we watched some young boys longboarding down a twisty mountain road and practicing their tight turns, then back at the main viewpoint we checked out the mall (yup, there’s a small shopping mall at the peak) and then we people-watched for a long time. Before the sun was down we set up the tripod and went into defense mode as hoards of people were practically crawling over us to take night photos of the city with their flashy iPhones. So silly!
(Looking down on Hong Kong)
We spent our last night on this side of the world in yet another airport. Our time in Southeast Asia has been absolutely priceless on so many levels. The people have obviously been the highlight, with some cultures so very different from our own and others that seemed so similar. The people we have encountered have accepted us, made us feel welcome and special, shared their knowledge and life experiences, and shown us how living with little can feel like a lot. The cultures have also sometimes frustrated us terribly, and these are the moments we have tried to use to grow internally. We have seen some of the top sites in the world and countless UNESCO World Heritage sites and had incredible experiences. The food has been incredibly memorable, almost always in a good way. We are proud that we have tried many foods unusual to our culture, and impressed by how many different types of delicious things can be made from the same ten or so ingredients, tasting different from one area to another. We will absolutely be including these new tastes in our own kitchen when we return home.