Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Prambanan - Magnificent Ancient Lives Told in Temple Frescoes

Prambanan Candi Sewu. This photo only courtesy of wikipedia's burmese days.

Prambanan - This was gonna be my D.I.Y. day, and quite a hectic one as I'd planned it. I was up as early as 6 AM. I was gonna join Tom for his "goodbye-breakfast". He was taking the train back to Jakarta for a wild time at the Stadium, before flying to KL to meet up with some friends. What a life!

After the early breakfast, I walked him to the main road and begged off from staying longer than necessary. I will see you, mate - in Manila! For now, I had to take a local bus to Giwangan Station, Yogya's main bus terminal 30 minutes from the city.

I asked some guys from the sidewalk who readily told me to stay put while he hailed me a bus. Heck, I didn't even know which bus it was but these days, it pays to trust the kindness of strangers. Indonesia is very satisfying in this aspect. Upon arrival at Giwangan, I paid a ticket (2,000 Rp just to get inside the terminal where I was to find the platform for Prambanan). I was pointed to the Transjogja Lines, which was terrific as it was clean, new and with AC. I bought a ticket (3,000 Rp) that would have me change 2 buses along the way: Take 3A, then change to 1A. This route eventually took me right in front of Prambanan which is 17 kilometers from Yogya.

It was a walk under the harsh sun, but I was smug knowing I did it with commuter transport. I passed through a local park, crossed the street, then walked 500 meters further to the east entrance of the temple grounds. After paying 117,000 Rp, I made my way towards the Shiva Temple. There were several other temples flanking around Shiva (Vishnu's, Brahma's).

It was fun climbing up the stairs and checking out the hundreds of frescoes and bas-relief that adorned each of the temples. In fact, plenty of them told stories: some weird, some hilarious, others brutal, while some were sexual. This was obvioulsy more impressive than Borobodur, and I love the way they seemed to reach towards heavens.

There were several other temples dotting the complex further north - 4 or 5 temples in several states of neglect or destruction. In fact, a couple of them were mere mounds on the ground. Constructed 50 years after the rise of Borobodur in the 9th century, this Hindu complex is an intriguing entity. For why would one construct such grandiosity; and once done, they all abandoned it altogether! These emperors were impulsive spoiled brats, weren't they? LOL

The last temple at the northern-most portion was shut, but I was happy seeing its facade. There were elephant-like structures guarding the temple right up front. I took shelter at the nearby shed while a Czech guy approached me to ask for the time. I stood up and started playing Tina Arena's version of "So Far Away." This song plays out wistfully like a sad lullaby to travelers. "So far away, doesn't anybody stay in one place anymore? It would be so nice to see your face at my door. Doesn't help to know that you're so far away." Perfectly romanticizing the solitary nature of travels.

Before walking back to the Transjogja Terminal, I found a restaurant near the mosque. It was my chance to taste another local culinary called Nasi Liwet. Yummy! Tell me, what more could a guy ask for?

This is the Eye in the Sky!

Monday, November 29, 2010

Borobodur Fails to Impress

Borobodur, a 9th century Buddhist Temple that sits in Central Java, is the world's biggest Buddhist temple. This photo only courtesy of pbase.com's John Glines.

Borobodur was my main destination when I planned this Indonesian trip half a year ago. It would complete my southeast asian trilogy of temples which includes Angkor Wat of Cambodia and the Bagan Temples in Myanmar. Unfortunately, Merapi happened 2 weeks before I was to fly to Jakarta, and all hopes of seeing Borobodur vanished into ashy air.

But as I was lucky enough to see Mount Bromo a day after it exploded, Borobodur opened its doors 3 days before I was to arrive in Yogyakarta. It was meant to be seen.

Tom, my British mate (who's been travelling the world for the last 10 months of his life) and I booked a tour from Delta Hotel - for a mere 75,000 Rp per person. They called it "Borobodur at Sunset", which was kinda romantic - or the mere thought of it, at least. And it was also very intimate, just Tom, myself and the driver! "This is the way to travel," remarked Tom as he spread his legs up the backseat cushion. I took the front seat beside the driver - who just wanted to take us to a shirt factory and a silver ware shop

Early Afternoon Start.

Our car waited in front of our hotel and by 1:45PM, we were on our way. This would take 1 1/2 hours, traipsing through ash-ravaged towns. True enough, there was volcanic grime resting all over roofs. The terrain looked dark, having the veneer of a beach side community, with sandy refuse scattered all over. I can only imagine the havoc that Merapi's explosion has created in the lives of the local folks.

Upon reaching Borobodur's vast parking grounds, I noticed there was no one there. This whole place was deserted. We showed our receipts (payment done at our hotel) at the entrance booth. We proceeded inside and noticed fine black sands, pasty over this 9th century grounds.

There was a single structure to be seen here - the sprawling, massive Borobodur structure, dark colored and surprisingly unimpressive. One hitch - they have cordoned off the area, thus we were only allowed to wander "around" the structure. The scenic view are usually seen from above, once you've made the climb. This wasn't possible, but I was contented. Heck I almost missed seeing this temple altogether so viewing it up close would suffice. It didn't take 30 minutes to walk around the temple, with Tom and I taking turns photographing ourselves, making the best with what's possible. There was just a single structure to see. I could see the green countryside down below, but I imagined it would be a more spectacular vista up there.

We made it back to the parking area. It was 5PM and not quite sunset yet. Our driver, who was making horrible interplanetary noises from his pulmonary processes, was in a hurry. We passed by Mehet Temple, some 3 kilometers down the road. This was supposedly constructed to surpass Borobodur. Unfortunately, it was as unimpressive as Borobodur, so off we went, ignoring the driver's offers to take us to some silvercraft shop and another souvenir shop.

Tom was hounded by vendors who gave protracted, albeit melodramatic stories of their lives. Merapi was hard for the locals, but us tourists cannot save their crumbling worlds, can we? At some point, Tom was exasperated he laughed and said, "This is so unfair. Why won't they bother you?" I laughed and explained once that he looks like the dollar (British pounds, even), while I look like the paltry Asian currency.

It rained hard on our way back to Yogya. Tom asked to be dropped near Tugu (Yogya's main train station) while I opted to go back to my room.

That night, we found Viavia, an upmarket traveler's restaurant (that has branches all over the world, even in Tanzania). This would be our goodbye dinner over relatively more expensive food. Just before heading back to the hotel, we passed by a raunchy bar where we were entertained by Sandra and her cohorts over a bottle of Bintang. I hardly touched mine, Tom finished my bottle. It was interesting, especially when Sandra started showing us phone photos of herself in different modes of undress. She was trying to coax Tom for a "good night out". Quite interesting if I may say so. I had a great day. I saw Borobodur, had a great meal. That night, I slept like a log.

This is the Eye in the Sky.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Yogyakarta In the Midst of Exhaustion

Yogyakarta - I've been in 3-day long train travels and 2-day bus rides, but for some reason, this takes the cake as among the most exhausting, most uncomfortable rides despite a comfortable van with AC and soft cushioned seats. This point-to-point car rides didn't know how to break the journey at all - to make it a little less painful. Imagine, for the second time within 3 days, lunch would be at 5 PM in the middle of nowhere, with a Cap Cay meal ("chop suey", pronounced "chap-chay") worth PhP150. In this ride, people were either hungry or needed to pee. Mork eventually spoke up at around 9:30PM requesting for a "toilet break" that even took 30 minutes after his request. Talk about responsive customer service right?

After traveling from 12 noon to 10 PM, we finally reached Yogyakarta. "What was the name of the place?" asked Tom about the hotel i was eyeing on. I prayed it would be acceptable as I was really sore all over. Our driver would take us straight to our choice hotel. And one of the pleasures, I thought, was finally getting rid of Mork and Mindy - the most sociable Dutch twats I've ever had the pleasure of traveling with!


But guess what? Right after checking in, who decided to follow us (Tom and myself)? Mork and Mindy - Holland's answer to congeniality! Ugh! Where was an insecticide spray when you needed one?

The good news was that Delta Homestay, along Jalan Prawirotaman II was such a marvelous place. Our rooms had good space, and right across our own verandas was a swimming pool teeming with Mount Merapi's ashfall! I was later informed (without even asking) that their filtering system was compromised by the eruption's ashfall and they couldn't buy a replacement part from within Indonesia. That was fine with me. I didn't plan on taking a dip in their pool. But come to think of it, Merapi really wrecked havoc in Java.

Later that night, as I was lazily sprawled on my bed, it was ironic to feel exhaustion draping over me painfully consciously like a shroud. I was literally too tired to sleep. But it came to me in the midst of thinking whether I should go to Parangtritis or not. Must have been the mythical gods of Parangtritis casting their spell on me.

This is the Eye in the Sky!

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Probolinggo Tales - Exchanging Stories

Mount Bromo at dawn. This photo only courtesy of kdasteve & worldisnotflat.

I was both sad and happy leaving Mount Bromo. I must have left something of myself from there. The mood was pensive and I refused to talk to anyone but the hotel staff. I took my seat at the back of the driver and was seated beside an Austrian lady who was ill at ease, she didn't know how to place her feet. Every so often, she would raise her camera and take photos of people pulling carts or farmers with huge cargoes behind bikes. As I was seated beside her, I knew she wasn't successful with her endeavor. But it sure was a good try.

I didn't talk.

By the time we arrived in the big city of Probolinggo where we were to wait for our next van, my mood had perked up. I was chatty with everyone but the Dutch couple. God, when you're so lucky, you get stuck with a nightmare!

The Austrian girl was going the opposite route - to Bali, and she kept taking down notes about my tips. I am starting to realize that I do have something to offer to fellow travelers. Insight and experience. Much later, I was chatting with the old Briish lady (remember the one I met as I made my way up the mountain?) and her daughter. They were on their way to Bali, then head straight to Flores Island. "Are you in the medical field?" I asked. Of course I meant paramedical, but some people don't quite get the difference. "I am a nurse," she replied. We were discussing the influx of Filipina nurses in Britain. Then this turned into travel tales, as expected. "I heard Manila is a hell of a city," she noted. "It is hell, according to this Crystal Palace lady I met in Colombo," I replied. I am not the country's best drumbeater. I hate being thought as a biased observer. Come visit the Philippines so you'd know.

Our van was late by 1 hour and a half. It provided plenty of chances to meet up with several other tourists in transit. It was better than staring into this weird Indonesian guy who called me into his "office" (this was a tourist hub - where vehicles gather) to ask for a Philippine peso bill. "This is my collection," he explained. I gave him a P20, which was 2,000 Rp. Much later, he did the same thing to the British lady and the Austrian girl who balked at giving him Austrian money since "it was like giving too much away." He was deadset on having it so he bought the Austrian money in exchange for 40,000 Rp (around $4.50 or PhP200).

The British woman enjoyed her buko juice (coconut juice) that was worth 2,000 Rp, but she eventually discovered it was - to her - a diuretic! She needed to go to the bathroom every 15 minutes. That meant paying 1,000 Rp for the use of the bathroom everytime she peed, and I was hunched down laughing very hard as she chastised the "money guy" for having her pay for peeing when she bought his coconut (his side business).

My hairy experience at this same toilet was a jammed door knob I couldn't open after doing my thing inside. It was petrifying getting locked inside this stinking shithole. I knocked hard and was lucky to get the help of some Indonesian soldiers who happened to be outside my toilet. (Right across this vehicle hub was a military camp.) Otherwise, I'd be stuck there until my van leaves for Yogya. Scary thought.

By 12 noon, we were on our way to Yogyakarta - Tom (the Brit), Mork and Mindy, 4 French travelers (2 couples), and an Indonesian girl who gave me tips about budget travels in China (from Chengdu to Xian). Little did I know that it would be among my most exhausting trips in this Indonesian leg.

This is the Eye in the Sky!

Friday, November 26, 2010

Mount Bromo Tales - Visiting An Exploding Volcano

Cemoro Lawang - Picture a sleepy community high up the mountains, where vegetation is lush, people are mild mannered, and crop rotation provides an artistic choreography of nature's most nurtured plants; where nights are bathed with fog and drenched with mist, and shrouded with the darkest of nights. But when the moon turns up full and bright, the slumbering town glistens with magic. This is Cemoro Lawang, the starting point to the trek up the view deck for viewing Mount Bromo, this huge caldera of active volcanoes somewhere in Central Java.

Upon reaching Cemoro Lawang through its tortuous path, we were informed that Bromo erupted earlier in the day, and that we would have limited access to the viewing of Bromo, which seemed like a big let down - to come all the way from Bali for a limited view. But it wasn't, after all, we weren't volcanologists who needed closer view of the lava smoldering inside a cauldron, seething with ashes. It was dangerous, and there was risk. But we could still view it.

After a restless sleep, draped with cold air, we were woken up at 3:30AM. I was ready then, but most of the other guests have already gone - except our group: Tom was still in his room; the Dutch couple were probably dreaming about their intumescent lives in Holland. Our driver was ready to go, so I ventured into knocking on their doors. It was close to 4AM and there was a long hike up ahead - more than one hour worth of hiking. When ,y hike-mates finally turned up, our driver took us to the starting point, some 5 kilometers from Yoschi's. We were all snugly jacketed, ready for the frozen night.

The moon was very bright. And I soon learned that I couldn't compete with their speed, considering I had obviously smaller steps than these towering guys, so I opted to be left behind, as I took my sweet time, walking through dark farmlands and eerie silhouettes. They were fast and must have walked some 20 minutes ahead of me, but I didn't care. I am gonna make it there. Damn!

It was weird walking up the hill at 4 AM. There was a single path to be followed - without a single sign. By 5 AM, I was sure I wouldn't make it to the sunrise. I took my coat off. I was breathless, my legs starting to cramp away. I was thinking of quitting altogether but where would that take me - all alone in the middle of the dark nowhere!

At some point, this single path leading way up the hill forked into two: a dirt road to my left with tall grass growing into a hedge - and to my right was a miniscule stair of a concrete narrow and uneven, if you accidentally slide, it would be long way down a slope. Where do I go? Intuition told me it should be the stair, otherwise why would man make something they won't use, right?

For a while there, I thought this will never be worth it. An old British woman was on her way down as I neared the apex. "You're almost there, young man," she said. And I was. At the top, there was a mildly constructed view deck - and right before me was the most magnificent view of 3 volcanic structures clumped into a desert terrain. A poetic image sits placidly to the west of these structures - a Buddhist monastery, looking solitary and deserted.

The western volcano was blowing sulfur: this was Mount Bromo, raging away like he did some 3 decades ago. I was pleased with myself. The Britiish woman did say, "This is not enjoyable." But there's something about making it against the odds. If you are not exactly physically fit, do not even think about climbing the view deck. IThis activity is not for everyone. The view from Cemoro Indah Hotel is just as beautiful. Take my word and have mercy on yourself.

Now where were Tom and the Dutch's Mork and Mindy? They were nowhere in sight. There were Japanese people there, several more Caucasians smug with self appreciation. I changed vantage point to get diferent angles from the awe-inspiring scene before me. The wind caressed my face, and comforted my tired muscles. It wasn't as cold as everyone said it would be.

I made my way down the mountain and as I reached towards the fork of the road, the Dutch couple was also making their way from the opposite side. They took the wrong path! "Where were you? Does it have a viewdeck there?" I asked, despite my displeasure of seeing them. I was surprised they went the other way! "We made our own path," rationalized Mork, then he sauntered off with his Mindy, reeling with their victory of ultimately not making i to the top! I covered my mouth with laughter, trying hard to control myself. They went ahead and didn't make it at the viewdeck! Lesson here applies: haste makes waste!

And I thought I was the last man out! Turns out I did make it at the finish line while Mork and Mindy detoured to their alternative world of Planet Claire. LOL

Tom caught up with me as we hiked back to the starting point. The scenery was just magical, and this walk back was immensely enjoyable! It helps that making a descent is physiologically easy. I was pooped, but contented with myself.

I chose Nasi Pecel (pronounced "pe-chel" - rice with a buffet of vegetables, a peanut-based sauce, which is a typical Indonesian specialty) for my breakfast and ignored the freebie which was just toast with jam - ridiculous. Within an hour, we were all inside another van, on our way to Probolingo. From there, we were to change vehicle for our onward trip to Yogyakarta (pronounced "Jog-ja-karta").

This was going to be another long day - something that started at 3AM when the moon was up in her full glory!

This is the Eye in the Sky!

This is the Eye in the Sky!

Thursday, November 25, 2010

The Long Road from Bali to Mount Bromo

Ferry ride waiting area as we crossed Bali Strait towards Java.

In the morning, Ubud's Monkey Forest Road looked sedate. After a breakfast of "jaffles" with egg inside, I asked Ketut to drive me to Perama's shuttle bus station (for 20,000 Rp). By 8:30AM, I was on my bus heading back to Kuta, but the streaming scenery of art shops were largely ignored. The next 1 hour or so was the longest, most excruciating ride I've ever had as I needed to pee so bad, and it was embarrassing to stop the huge "van" filled with Caucasians mostly. I heard an Asian guy who was regaling an American with his travels all over the globe. It turns out he is a Filipino web designer who now resides in Vancouver. Funny thing is, he didn't sound like someone who grew up in Vancouver at a young age - more like a Chinese guy speaking English. I didn't butt into their conversation as I was in morbid agony, trying to control my bladder from bursting.

By the time our "bus" parked outside Legian Street's Perama office in Kuta, my knees were weak. I jumped off the bus, gathered my luggage, then braved the street without taking notice to the oncoming motorcycles coming my way. The next succeeding few minutes were the sweetest moments of relief, but the experience left me drained! As I realized later along the way, these darn drivers who do point-to-point trips for foreigners seldom make toilet stops just to get to their destination the fastest possible time. It's just not physiologic - so if you're ever in Indonesia doing these point-to-point shuttle trips, you'd be wiser than consuming and "hydrating" yourself as the books would frequently recommend. Not in Indonesia!

By 10AM, I hopped into a smaller van whose AC wasn't working so we opted to use real-time air, aka wind! There were just 4 of us in the van. I was seated beside a friendly British guy named Tom, from London, who's been traveling for the last 16 months of his life. Fancy a holiday, anyone? He's bound for the Philippines this February 2011 - for a month! The other passengers were a Dutch couple (yes, from Holland, folks) who were lost in their own dreamworld, they had the social quotient of a turnip! They were with me in my Ubud "bus" too, now they are with me on a 9-10 hour journey crossing the Bali Straits and onward to Mount Bromo (which is an active volcano).

Now if you were too lucky - like me - you'd get stuck with these easily "stuck-up" Dutch couple who at any moment would suddenly lurch into a Dutch duet, I somehow suspected they were under the influence of that medical condition called out of tune. LOL. Now, wait up. I am not done. If you think I'd get rid of them after Bromo, the Gods are actually making follies this time to amuse me. Perhaps to send a message? My Ubud tour was with a shy British and a friendly Dutch. This leg of trip is with a friendly Brit (Tom) - a huge Manny Pacquiao fan, he swore he'd buy Manny's CD and a shirt - and a charmless, albeit Barbie-and-Ken isolationist Dutch couple. But just read further cause I would have several laughs along the way.

From 10AM, we headed northwest to get to Gilimanuk where the ferries are to cross the Bali channel to Java's Banyuwangi Pier. The ferry ride was scenic and pleasant - and took 1 hour. I've met several Indonesians who engaged me in pleasant conversations. I was told I'd be crossing through several towns/cities: Banyuwangi, Situ Bondo, Probolinggo, then Cemora Lawang.

Upon reaching the Javan port at Banyuwangi, time moved 1 hour earlier (3PM became 2PM), and off we headed north. This time around, it wasn't our need for the use of a toilet that's troubling us but starvation. The driver informed us upon reaching Gilimanuk in Bali that we were to have our lunch in Java, so I didn't get lunch from the ferry which looked delicious - and, more importantly, very cheap! I was close to prostrating in my seat from hunger. Do you know what time we were taken to a roadside restaurant? Lunch at 5PM! In a restaurant in the middle of nowhere - so us stupid foreigners - hungry as a lion - could eat a horse, would pay for the exorbitant rates this "savior" of a restaurant is offering. It was an interesting experience.

After the "hearty meal", we left Situ Bondo. We were told we'd be in Probolinggo at around 7-7:30PM where we were gonna change vehicles that would take us further up the mountains, at the slope of Mount Bromo.

I wasn't even sure if we'd get a cheap hotel, since I didn't wanna pay an exorbitant amount for a place I'd stay in for only 8-10 hours. But after a harrowing snaky tortuous course with a mad driver running 70kph (he would shut his headlights along the way without even stopping or slowing the car down) and we all would stop breathing for a few precious seconds of our precious lives.

We finally reached Cemora Lawang, this small mountain community that's closest to Mount Bromo! I was earlier warned by some of my Indonesian friends at the boat - "It's so cold there it cuts like a knife!" But I was ready. This couldn't be colder than Kathmandu which I visited same time last year.

We were taken to this hotel - Yoschi Hotel, which I've actually read about, but isn't among Lonely Planet's anointed ones. Yoschi, quaint and homey (if a little too basic - you could hear someone farting next door, or the salient moans of a distressed traveler), is run by an Indonesian-German couple, and the place is a little Indonesian paradise up the slopes. Trouble is, if you don't have a vehicle, it's a 5 kilometer walk up to the turn where you start trekking towards the viewpoint of Bromo!

And wait, there's another minor news - Mount Bromo exploded yesterday! And it is actively spewing sulfur!

This is the Eye in the Sky!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Besakih Temple, Bali - Rudest People in Asia's Most Aggressive Touts Town

The Floating Pavilion at the Old Court Justice compound in Klungkung, Bali. This photo only courtesy of www.erlebnis-bali.de.

It has to be said that irony works in the most hilarious ways. Today, I took a tour around central Bali, Ubud's neighboring towns. As fate would have it, I was thrown into the company of 2 Caucasian guys - A British and a Dutch! With a driver in his 50's (he says he's mid-40's though), we started the tour with a Toyota van that started with Goa Gajah - the Elephant Cave Temple which is one of Indonesia's submitted entries for UNESCO World Heritage Site, which is perplexing since, to be honest about it, it just wasn't as impressive as Gunung Kawi (Poet Mountain) which I visited yesterday.

This was the itinerary:

1. Goa Gajah - Elephant Cave Temple
2. Tempak Sering - Holy Spring Temple (Tirtu Empul) which I visited yesterday
3. A coffee-making farm for the Luwak coffee, allegedly the world's most expensive (since it is fermented inside the stomach of a bird, then defecated and collected), which is a suspect
4. Penelokan - Viewing of Mount Batur and Lake Batur
5. Besakih - Bali's biggest and holiest temple, located at the slope of Mount Agung, Bali's highest peak
6. Bukit Jambul - for a view of the Rice Terraces
7. Klungkung - Old Court Justice and Floating Pavilion of the ancient Klungkung Kingdom

The British guy (from Manchester) was painfully shy and Mr. Holland loved to take his own time beyond our driver's alloted schedule per place. But as it turned out, both were very agreeable and - well, very nice. Before long, the three of us were "protecting" each other.

By the time we were on our way to Besakih, Dewa (our driver) forewarned us. "The Japanese tourists have all but stopped visiting Besakih. You have to be careful; stay together and don't stray away from each other," warned Dewa. "The people there are very aggressive!" he said.

Besakih Temple is Bali's biggest temple, as mentioned earlier. After getting our tickets at 15,000 Rp each, we were greeted by really persistent umbrella touts who kept saying "Big rain! Big rain!" After a hundred no's, we finally decided to rent one each at 9,000 Rp. Upon climbing the first major stairway leading to the top, we were greeted by a sea of men in white who offered their services as "guides" - the very same people that Dewa warned us against. You see, to be able to get inside the inner sanctum, a non-Hindu isn't allowed entry unless he is joined by Hindus. Kinda like the principal member in a social club house.

When we said "no", we were literally shooed away rudely! And we didn't take this lightly! How dare these idiots take advantage of their faith by imposing their unneeded services to tourists. How high and mighty to actually profess your faith as a Hindu if only to make money out of it! Shame on you, Besakih people! Didn't you realize that if there was hell in your religion, the first once to conflagrate are those who made money from their religion?

They were arrogant and rude! And I wonder why the Indonesian government isn't doing anything about these despicable practice! Now I understand why the Japanese have stopped coming altogether.

We went around the other portions of the complex and I heard one idiot say, "You want a fight?" In my country, I could already have him arrested for being pure ugly, but since he hides behind the cloak of his religion - and "desperately trying very hard" to make money out of his faith, he sits there provoking us with his idiocy. We checked out the other crevices and upon reaching an almost-secluded enclave, we saw a guy close the gate on us, "You are not welcome here. You are unfriendly people," he shouted! We were unfriendly because we did not want to avail of his mediocre services? I am sorry, Mister, but you have to try a little harder. Earlier on, he was trying to tell us - "You need a guide because there are 25 sections". He must have lifted that one from a dream since I am well aware that there were 35 sections, not 25! See? Idiots pretending to know stuff that they should actually be aware of coz they live here anyway.

Later that day, we were taken to a buffet restaurant up the hill to view the "Rice Terraces" which was unimpressive for me. This was a tourist trap because the driver wanted us to have a buffet in the restaurant for 60,000 Rp each - and there's nothing more annoying to me than shoving something down my throat without telling me beforehand. We all said no! We left the place in a huff and actually slid past through a "free" lookout point for these "majestic" rice terraces.

It was a good thing that Klungkung's Old Court Justice and the Floating Pavilion was last part of the itinerary - to sort of save the day. Mr. Holland said he couldn't take the event that transpired off his mind. It was really annoying, one that would make among my most unforgettable experiences. I have been all over Asia and there has never been touts as agressive and rude as these Besakih people! They should appear in Guinness Book of World Record. Klungkung sort of renewed our faith on the charm and friendliness of the Indonesians who greeted us with a huge grin.

Greed is the legendary stuff that renders experiences - and people - ugly. Besakih makes the criteria perfectly.

This is the Eye in the Sky!

Besakih Temple. This photo only courtesy of felixuan.blogspot.com.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Bali Tales - Julia Roberts, Liz Gilbert, and the Ketuts of Ubud

Ubud, Bali - A big smile greeted me as I finally reached Arjuna House after a harrowing 1-hour walk from Perama's bus station. Heavens help me, but I thought Arjuna was walking distance from Perama station. It wasn't!

I kept dodging touts who wanted to get their slimy hands on my cash-strapped wallet. On I walked along Monkey Forest Road (because it is a monkey sanctuary full of - whaddaya know - pesky monkeys) hoping Arjuna Road would just be up around the next block. But it stretched on for 1 hour and 15 minutes. It would have been a "walk in the park" if I wasn't carrying my 7 kg baggage. By the time I finally found the guesthouse in the hidden enclave of Bali, I was drenched with sweat, trying to catch my breath between smiles.

My host: a guy named Ketut! And like his movie namesake, he is 4th generation carrying the name, I kid you not!

If you've been to Mars within the last 12 months or so, you would know my references to Ketut, Ubud, Elizabeth Gilbert the brat - and of course, toothsome Miss Julia Roberts! Ubud indeed has become sanctuary to the middle-aged newly-divorced women, knocking on Ubud's doors seeking redemption. But as wikitravel would emphasize, not all potions for emotional or psychological ailments could be found here. Besides, as my new-found friend Ketut mentioned, Eat, Pray, Love's Ketut (Meier) seems to be making oodles of money from his magical medicines - to the tune of 300,000 Rp or $33 per bottle (my long distance Bali-to-Bromo bus ride cost me 250,000 Rp).

My bus ride from Kuta to Ubud was pleasant - like split-second infomercials of Bali's other wondersights like Sanur, etc. By the time I reached Perama's station in Ubud, I was psyched to parry the blows from touts who had erections to dog me around despite my friendly "no's".

Highlight of the day would be my bike ride through hilly terrains of rice paddies, wood-carving villages, artist towns. Gunung Kawi is romantically called "Poet Mountain" but romance isn't in the pages of a King named Anak Wungsu who designed a burial complex in the 11th century. In the heart of hilly Tampaksiring, some 40 kilometers northeast of Ubud's center lies the resting place of this adulterous king who had several wives. To get to the giant bas-relief, you have to descend 400 steps down. There's a rushing riverine scene and a couple of areas with gigantic otherworldly sculptures. By the time I made it back to my motorbike, I was breathless.

The second temple was even stranger. The name is Tirta Empul, one of Ubud's holiest temples, boasting of a hot spring meant for the faithful. Since I am mostly a sinful cad, I was content watching hundreds of half-naked bodies lining up in one pool, immersed in slightly brackish water, cleansing themselves. It's full moon tonight and ceremonies like these are being celebrated. Since 960 A.D., people have been purifying their souls here at Tirta Empul. I rudely pushed myself against the throng and practiced paparazzi-uncouthness. One of these days, I shall share these amazing photos here. As for now, I am too soaked from the sudden heavy downpour while watching people bathe. Karma? Is karma even a Hindu concept?

On our way back to Ubud, we were forced to take shelter by the roadside when the rains spitted away water arrows on the pavement. Getting wet wasn't so bad under these circumstances.

This is the Eye in the Sky!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Bali Tales - Serenades and Full Moons in Denpasar

Bajra Sandhi Monument in the city central. This photo only courtesy of amitac.

Denpasar, Bali
"Denpasar moon, shining on an empty street I returned to the place we used to meet. Denpasar moon, shine your light and let me see that my love is still waiting there for me."

Someone was serenading me at 7:30 in the morning. I was buying my Perama shuttle bus ticket for my next destination tomorrow - Ubud. As a conversation piece, I name-dropped Christian Bautista and singer Maribeth. Her eyes lit up, pleased I was up to date with mainstream pop culture, but of course I was just making conversation when she suddenly started singing. I was pleased, it was novelty to be serenaded this early, which was a great foreshadowing of the day ahead.

From Legian (pronounced "leg-gi-yan", not "lej-jian", someone corrected me), I walked towards the Bemo Corner until I reached the makeshift terminal where the "blue-colored" bemos are, ignoring several touts who offered "bike, mushrooms, girls" - in that order, every time. I sat beside the bemo driver, the vehicle is nothing but a van with seats to the side corners at the back. Everyone paid 5,000 Rp, but I was obviously English-speaking so I was made to pay 10,000 Rp like the special Earth inhabitant that I was. (wink wink)

The trip to Denpasar took 30 minutes and by the time I got there, my extra-thin breakfast of Banana Pancake from Hotel Sorga have all been digested into molecules of spent energy. I tried to ask for directions, if I needed to get a taxi to get to Puputan Square (Alun-alun Puputan), not that there's any taxi I could find anywhere.

After being told that it was indeed too far for a walk, another girl in immaculate head scarf, excused herself and told me how to go about with my predicament. "Walk straight through 3 intersections, then turn right". It's about 300 meters from Puputan which roughly translates to the Indonesian version of "hara kiri" - suicidal fights against the Dutch colonizers in the early 1900's.

About 2 blocks from Tegal terminal, I came across an ornately beautiful compound. I timidly went inside and was lead to the owner, sitting beside some shrubby corner. He must be some royalty if he owns a palace, I thought. The place is called "Marajan Palace" and the temple is "Marajan Puri". There were women dressed in Balinese traditional clothes, and they were in a flurry preparing for what should be a ceremony later in the day. "Please come inside and see my palace," he invited over. One of the halls actually had his photo and I was flattered to have met a royalty of sorts. I wonder if there's a literature about this palace somewhere; it's a little piece of Balinese "palace" that I have inadvertently discovered.

Thirty minutes later, I reached Puputan Square. I didn't need a taxi after all. Nearby were the other attractions: the Catur Mukha statue (pronounced "chatur") - a 4-faced, 8-armed representation of Lord Brahma, said to be protecting the city at all points. At the center of the park stood 3 white-painted figures. To its fringes are the adorable Bali Museum (Museum Negeri Propinsi Bali) which houses 5 pavilions. To its right is the Jagatnata Temple where I was made to wear a yellow cloth around my waist.

A tout chatted me up, easily referencing Corazon Aquino for his conversation piece. But Cory is dead and it's the son who's our new President! I knew he was posturing to be my "tourist guide", something that I never required from the get-go. But I didn't even know how to get rid of him coz he didn't exactly offer his services. He just kept dogging me around. I found my way out when I saw a lookout tower. I hastily climbed up to enjoy the wind above - and stayed there for a good 10 minutes. He didn't follow me. From up the lookout tower, I saw him leave. Good riddance.

What eventually took me ages to find was the Palace of Satria along Jalan Veteran, supposedly around 300 meters north of Alun-alun Puputan. No one seems to know of this except a school boy who pointed me further on. I found a compound demarcated into several areas, each one decked in particular colors: yellow, red and white. The contrast of colors are anything but ordinary, and it's such a photographic feast to say the least. Funny thing is: I wasn't even sure if this was indeed the "Palace of Satria."

I was debating with myself if I had the stamina to walk all the way back to the Tegal Station. All my effort was used up finding Satria. I reached Tegal and found an empty Bemo that charged me 7,000 Rp - 3,000 Rp cheaper than my morning ride. Greed after all is relative. Some practice it less than others.

Denpasar was a revelation, to say the least. This would be one of the highlights of my Bali trip. There are rewards for an adventurous soul.

The moment I was back in Kuta, I wanted to watch the sunset again! I rushed towards the beach with a take-out of "Potato Country," thick cuts of potato wedges tender on the mouth but badly needed tastebud inspiration. I chewed and munched as the sun gradually dipped in the horizon. These are moments of pure bliss as Bali welcomed another night of hedonism. Moreover, full moon lit the heavens for tonight. The poetic buffet was served in full splendor.

This is the Eye in the Sky!

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Bali Tales - Golden Sunset & Pacquiao Pieces in Kuta

Kuta Beach shimmers in sunset splendor. This photo only courtesy of dps.org.

Kuta Beach, Bali - I had the sand sift down my palms as I closed my eyes. No, the quality of sand is far from the incomparable fine-ness ("powder") or off-white-ness of Boracay's, but I guess this doesn't really matter. Whether Boracay is the world's best beach is still debatable, since I have to admit the criteria wouldn't rest on a single parameter of "sand quality."

Landing into Bali's Denpasar Ngurah Rai International Airport was revelatory. Funny thing is, it's not even in Denpasar, Bali's major city. The stark marriage of modern and traditionally Balinese architecture is undeniably eye-catching. But as soon as we slid past shops and restaurants, my jaw dropped with awe. Facades are adorned with intricately designed foyers and Balinese artifacts. This was the fastest 15 minutes in my life as we headed towards Kuta's Poppies 1 Street to get to Hotel Sorga!

More than half of the world's nationalities must be here, and as dusk comes, people party to the rhythmic drums of hedonism. Yes, I am in the party zone of Indonesia that seems too far removed from what I have seen of the country so far - but then I still have a long way to go, haven't I?

The baywalk is a potpourri of flashy cafes and restaurants, hotels that promise pampering. In a population too eclectic to appreciate, I feel sweet anonymity. I am too "alone" in a sea of strangers the inchoate charm of the experience is mildly romantic. The locals have been nothing but friendly. After being mistaken as an Indonesian, I'd correct them and they'd say, "Ahh, Pacquiao" in several incarnations: Pakoo, Pakee,Pakiw! Christian Bautista and singer Maribeth haven't been mentioned so far, but at this point of his career, who can outclass a pugilist like Manny Pacquiao?

I have so far gorged myself with Sate Babi (pork satay with peanut sauce and local spices). I have also been reserved a table for 4. Indonesians take special care of Filipinos because they treat us as "brothers" which isn't how Malaysians treat their Filipino tourists, considering I have seen sooo much of Malaysia in the last 3 years alone.

I did witness the setting sun. Bali was coated with several hues of late afternoon colors. The waves of Bali roll with ferocious fervor which is a far cry from the baby lapses of a Boracay wave. I guess this is the great difference between the two world-class beaches. You could wakeboard and surf in Bali, with a thousand of spectators right across the sand. I was one of them - gazing at silhouettes frolicking around the waves.

This is the Eye in the Sky

Friday, November 19, 2010

Bandung Indonesia - Not Quite Paris Nor Flowery

Bandung at night. This photo only courtesy of obscura.

Bandung - "Paris of Java" and "Flower City" both paint a lovely impression of Indonesia's 3rd biggest city, some 780m above sea level. Bandung is, in fact, Indonesia's "Baguio City" where temperatures are cooler and people have even milder demeanor. But all these were mere hints as I finally visited this former Dutch capital some 3 hours and 40 minutes south of Jakarta.

This visit also confirmed what I have always known - that "train travels" are not among my favorite pastimes. I tried the bisnis class (at 30,000 Rp) since this would allow me to (barely) photograph the passing scenery. Unfortunately, the huge fiberglass window only allowed a 7 inch opening that allowed air to enter the upper portion of the train cars. Enough to aerate the tips of my hair, but my face and body were humid and sweating. Did you ever think a train ride would swelter the way it did? And it wasn't even that sunny! Yup, it was a sweltering mess of a ride and I wasn't having fun on what would be equivalent to a protracted root canal. All the guide books said "3 hours", but even my eksekutif (AC seat) ride back to Jakarta stretched for almost 4 hours. It is official: I dislike train rides! I'd even prefer my non-AC craggy bus rides in Tamil Nadu - with dusty air combing wildly against my hair. Wind renders a liberating sensation to a traveler.

Bandung didn't deliver the "Paris" or "flowers". In fact, what left strong impressions were gridlocked motorcycles and small cars in narrow streets filled with vendors, and the absolute lack of a decent sidewalk for people. The city center in fact is dying for a green space, a breathing enclave that's nowhere within its narrow, congested, traffic-inflicted streets. The art deco buildings of the early 20th century (by legendary architect Schoemaker) were unimpressive. Gedung Merdeka (built 1895) looked like a white slab of uninspired institution made more significant by its history than by its architectural form. Savoy Hoffman Hotel, standing just across the street, looked nice, albeit dated. I couldn't find Grand Hotel Preanger along Jalan Asia-Afrika, so I headed towards the alun-alun (the city square) where the largely neglected "prison" stood beside a fly-over filled with 3 dozens of homeless families claiming residence in the concrete structure. The mosque had 2 imposing minarets and a white dome at the center. It was, in fact, more interesting to observe the locals around the park.

My experience with the ojek driver was something to write about but that's for another story. This made me decide to just walk towards Bandung Train Station and leave this "glorious city" 5 hours earlier than schedule. If I were to navigate around a congested city, it wouldn't be Bandung, for, to be honest about it, there was hardly anything here that sparked empathy, interest or curiosity. Heck, it wasn't even cool despite downcast skies all afternoon. It was humid!

I also realized that Coca Cola and the other popular sodas aren't exactly important commodities in Bandung. You will never find them being sold by the thousands of ambulant street vendors plying around Bandung. I found this rather out of the ordinary.

I finally found the train station through a discombobulating intestinal thoroughfare in the bowels of Bandung - all in its muddy glories. I had goosebumps walking the deserted alleyway, I somehow suspected I was being lead by the blind leading the blind. But after a petulant prayer, I found the South Entrance. I disregarded my 30,000 return ticket scheduled at 8:30PM and hopped into the next 55,000 rupiah Executive-class AC seat.

Thirty minutes before my departure, it rained so hard, the waters beat like drums against the roof. I planned on spending the next 4 hours with eyes wide shut! Not quite like the Eye in the Sky!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Jakarta - Nothing Much Has Changed in the Smoking Capital of Asia

Skyline. This photo only courtesy of rasters.

Jakarta -There's a smudge of irony that comes with my second visit in Jakarta. It had been 5 years since I first stepped on the soil of Indonesia, my very first foray into "indie" travels - these solitary travels that have become characteristic of "Eye in the Sky." But it has come into full circle when I found myself without a room in Jalan Jaksa. Thank heavens, it didn't rain this time, but at 2AM, I was on foot with bags and all looking for a decent place to lay my head on.

Having exhausted the visibly acceptable usual suspects, so to speak, I had to check out Hotel Cipta at the next road. I was there before too, but being a boutique hotel, it wasn't an attractive option that time. Times have changed and I felt I have stepped up a notch higher - by wee bit, at least, so I took the room at 415,000 rupiah. I was pleased. By half past 2, I took myself to their deserted restaurant for a midnight meal (Hainan Chicken at its finest) at the Blueberry Pancake House.

Jakarta hasn't really changed much. A metropolis of almost 9 million people, there isn't a lot of foreigners gallivanting around. The sidewalks still wafted of the heady stench of tobacco. But before someone forgets, the city ordinance has a steep fine for those caught smoking in public. Yet the city is one big caldera of cancer-emitting smoke puffed by 6 of every 10 Jakartans. Go figure!

At the airport, the Indonesian Immigration line far outnumbered the "Foreigners Line". This has advantages. The Indonesians are far from being jaded by the presence of visitors. In fact, they seem grateful. This has lead to a very pleasant stay in the capital so far.

Earlier today, after asking the policeman where Gambir Train Station is (I knew but I needed to triple check), he didn't just point me to the direction. He stopped the fast-moving vehicles and accompanied me to cross the darn street - like I was a 78 year old woman! I was just floored by such kindness of strangers; the very same sentiment I had during my first visit! See? Nothing much has changed, and this is even confirmed several times over by various encounters in the last several hours or so.

This has also underlined the obvious, that a lot of Indonesians aren't adept with the Queen's language. Several wide-grinned Jakartans gazed blankly at me when I was looking for the Bandung Train Station. I had to do several impressions of "trains" to no avail, it was starting to get annoyingly hilarious.

The fly-by-night transvestites and street walkers that used to line the nearby streets were gone - or I probably wasn't up that late. This visit will also underline the sad fact that the backpacker hangout called Jalan Jaksa ("Lawyer's Street" - long story) has been gradually neglected which is a curiousity since this area is where you find a great volume of foreigners, Caucasians to be exact. Even the new hotel building that was just being constructed 5 years ago now looked decrepit and run down! The street lamps are wanting, the streets getting narrower, there's practically nowhere to walk leisurely. Even the nice hotel I stayed in last time has closed. Everything is in disrepair; paints chipping off. It is sad how the metropolitan government has allowed the slow-but-sure degradation of what was once a vibrant area, now one of the city's "ugliest".

And you wonder why foreigners make the capital a transit point, no one wants to stay longer than a day or two, not to mention the fact that a mere 2 days will leave your pockets several ounces lighter - like the batting of an eyelash.

But there's one thing that has charmed my pants off - the sincere demeanor of its people. No one has ever helped me cross the street. No one! Not in Vietnam, or Thailand, or Burma or Cambodia. I am really grateful for these little acts of kindness, and I sleep tonight with a smile.

This is the Eye in the Sky!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Dhaka Like the Pictures in My Mind Part 2

Here are more images of a very vibrant city and some of the friendliest souls to walk the Earth. A Dhaka experience could get intense, but there's no denying the curious charm and sincerity of its people.

This is the Eye in the Sky!

Up next: Join us as we journey towards a massive archipelago of active volcanoes and dreamy beaches as we try to write our thoughts while on the road.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Baitul Mukaram - Bangladesh's National Mosque

Baitul Mukaram translates to "The Holy Place". It is Bangaladesh's National Mosque and is regarded as the world's 10th biggest mosque. Though Bangladeshis are quite liberal in terms of non-muslim visitors, I didn't impose myself to set foot inside. It was enough that I could see it from the flyover.

Baitul Mukaram is located at the heart of Dhaka. It is also hard to miss. I would find myself walking around it, navigating towards very congested streets filled with stalls, overflowing with people. It was built in 1967, as designed by architect T Abdul Hussain Thariani, with uncanny semblance to the Ka'abah at Mecca. It was originally designed to accommodate 30,000 people, but it always got filled to capacity thus they had to eventually renovate and extend it to accommodate 40,000, especially during the month of Ramadan.

According to some notes from archnet, the complex comprises a bazaar, offices, a library, an assembly hall, and the mosque of course. The ground level consists of 22 warehouses and 350 shops oriented along north-south arcades. The mosque is entered from an open courtyard flanked on two sides by long wings of ablution rooms. The mosque consists of large prayer halls on the first and second floors, with a mezzanine between them.

The surrounding bazaars make it easy to forget that you're actually navigating around the mosque complex. I would check out the stalls and people would gather around me. They were intently checking me out while I was checking the stalls. And I'm not even Caucasian. LOL

Its present imam is Maulana Salahuddin. I caught the facade at different times of the day, but it got unbelievably crowded much later in the day. No wonder my tour guide didn't recommend even a peep.

This is the Eye in the Sky!

Prayer Hall. This photo only courtesy of www.archnet.org.

Courtyard fountain. Fountains have always been part of a mosque complex. This photo only courtesy of www.archnet.org.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Getting Invited in Someone's Home - Dhaka Tales

One of the treats of foreign travel is the pleasure of "getting invited" into someone's home. When my tour guide Mafuz declared that we were finally dropping by his house, my ears were flapping with excitement. Doing so would usher me inside the lives of the locals, far removed from any touristy things. Of course, he wanted me to meet his mother who had medical problems so it wasn't like I was the one getting all the pleasures.

We had to walk up some flight of stairs, and I was asked not to remove my shoes although slippers gathered at the foot of the stairs. I saw the living room with low-rise (2-feet) sofas and huge pillows lying alongside a carpet. The walls were adorned with miniature frames.

I was taken to Mafuz's room where I noticed stacks of Bangladesh brochures. Mafuz reached for a couple and handed them to me, and started looking for one that carried a map (I had been trying to buy a map of Dhaka, but never found one). After a few minutes, his sisters came carrying sweets and a mug of Bengali tea, one of the tastiest I've had in a while. When I finally met his mother, I stood up and tentatively extended my right hand for a handshake - not even sure if it was customary. (Of course it was.)

An hour later, I was on my way back to my hotel, content with having new found friends. There was a big smile on my face.

This is the Eye in the Sky.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

When Congestion Spells "Dhaka" - Bangladesh Tales

I admit I’ve been a little negligent of my blogging duties. But hey, I’ve been really up to here with work like I have never been. These are the days I wish I had a body double. But I need to fix things at work because, for the most part, the work front deals with lives and a truly complicated mechanics that go beyond physical effort. And in a few days time, I shall have my well deserved sabbatical in a country whose volcanoes are fretting overtime; in an island off an island that’s part of the Banana Pancake Trail. In short, I am consuming my straw of patience. But before that, here is another feature on Dhaka, Bangladesh's historically ravaged capital .

So you think I am just exercising my usage of hyperbole when I declare “Dhaka’s streets are the world’s most congested?” Dhaka is the rickshaw capital of the world for a good reason - and I have heard of reliable stories that point to the rickshaw operators as among Dhaka's richest citizens! Here are images that confirm the very statement. If you’re Bangladesh-bound, don’t say I didn't warn you.

This is the Eye in the Sky!