Probolingo, Java Timur. Thursday 19th October 2017.
I’ll state the obvious by saying that Java is very different to Bali! The first thing I noticed was a ‘proper’ truck. And by that I mean an articulated one, the first I’d seen since Australia. The second thing was that very little English is understood here, out in the countryside at least. I suppose I’d been spoiled by Bali in that respect, the knock on benefit of tourism. When I stopped for a cuppa I had to work hard to get my request understood, even in Indonesian. The road from the port was not in very good condition and was busy with trucks, which tended to hang about in gangs. But I was able to zip past them quite easily and once I’d overtaken the slow one at the front of the group I had a nice, empty road until I caught up with the next mob. Overtake, ride, repeat. The countryside was more open, with woodland containing mostly deciduous trees, as far as I could tell. Did an absence of rain forest signify an absence of rain? Only time would tell on that. Regardless, it was a very nice ride. Welcome to Java.
The town of Probolingo – these names are starting to sound more and more like those from Gulliver’s Travels – was only going to be an overnight stop. As I rode through town I spotted a sign saying ‘Housetel’. That was a new variation on the theme. I pulled in and found it to be closer to a motel than anything else, with two rows of six rooms facing each other across a covered parking area. And the room was cheap too.
My first tourist visit was to be in Surabaya, the main city of East Java and a very busy port as well. It was, of course, another ‘hell on wheels’ kind of place, with endless traffic. On the way in I’d spotted a sign for a toll road but had ignored it. I pretty soon regretted that and the next time I saw one I headed to it. Massive fail! When I got to the toll booth it was made clear to me that motorcycles weren’t allowed on it and the official had to stop the traffic to get me across the lanes so I could get off again. It amused the truck drivers, if nothing else.
There is a cigarette factory in the city, which had come up high on the list of recommended places, and it sounded intriguing. The House Of Sampoerna began life as an orphanage in Dutch colonial times but was bought to house the factory at the beginning of the twentieth century. The building now only houses the museum and a small production facility for making special blends with no filter. Bigger factories are sited elsewhere. The business is now part of the Philip Morris empire but it began life as the brainchild of a Chinese immigrant. He had a small food stall but big ideas to go with it. Smoking had given him asthma and he found that medicating with cloves relieved the condition. So his big idea was to combine cloves with the tobacco, hoping that it would reduce the harmful effects. Kill and cure in the same packet. My museum guide, when I asked him, confirmed that it makes no difference health-wise, but people like the taste. Cloves are a local produce so there was always a plentiful supply. How did a poor immigrant manage to start a factory? The story goes that his wife had hidden some of the takings from the food stall in one of the bamboo supports so they had enough money to kick start the project and it grew. It remained a family business until Philip Morris bought it. There is a viewing area where I could watch the manufacturing process down below. Workers, mostly women, put the mix into a rolling machine, apply the paper and pull a handle to roll it. The mix can also contain sugar cane too. Their target is 325 per hour and they get a wage, then a bonus for beating it. The museum had all sorts of artefacts in it and it was all quite fascinating.
Now here I must mention a phenomenon that was both amusing and puzzling me. I was forever being asked to appear in selfies. Wherever I went, including at this factory, people wanted to take their photo with me. Young, old, male, female, it didn’t seem to matter. What was the reason? Was it being a westerner; my beard; my age; the bike; all of them? I couldn’t work it out. But as I travelled round I noticed a couple of large restaurants which advertised ‘selfie space’ and that was when the penny dropped. It wasn’t all that much to do with me really, it’s just the selfie craze that’s sweeping the world now. It’s bigger in Asia than anywhere else and I was just a more interesting subject that happened along. As I said, I didn’t mind it but I was glad that when I visited some of the tourist attractions there were other westerners there to help carry the load.
This large and busy city definitely had some features I hadn’t seen in Indonesia so far. A kebab shop, for one. Beggars for another. I was sitting at a street warung when a young lad came up to me holding a piece of wood with a piece of metal attached to the end. He clicked it a couple of times then held his hand out for money. I told him No! Another young guy came over holding a guitar. I waved him away before he’d even played a note. No aggression involved but different to previous experience. There was also a bit more edginess on these streets, with me getting some stares from people as I walked by.
Next morning, being in a double room, I was presented with two breakfasts. I was very good and ate only one before heading out of town nice and early. My eventual destination was the town of Batu and en route I called in to Malang to check out another Hindu temple, Candi Jago. Tucked away up a side street, it was quite unprepossessing if I’m honest. Built in the thirteenth century, none of the statues or carvings had survived. More enjoyable was the people I met. There was a crowd of school kids there, all sat up on the top level of the temple with their teacher trying to take a photo of them. I kept distracting them by waving at them but the teacher got his own back by bringing them over to where I was sitting and insisting on photos. I then got chatting to a couple of young students, both of them with good English, about their life there and their ambitions. They’ve both just graduated and hope to go abroad to study further. A pleasant little interlude, despite the disappointing temple, although the students did direct me to a much better one, in a nearby village.
Heading into Batu I found lots of road closures and as I was riding up a dual carriageway there was some kind of parade coming down the other way. I stopped for a look. Lots of dressing up and dancing, with some miming and pretending. Fun to watch but I had no idea what it was about. There was clearly something going on in town that weekend because there were coaches everywhere and nary a cheap bed to be found. I ended up in an expensive hotel, chosen for its proximity to the two places I wanted to visit.
The first of these was the Batu Secret Zoo. A strange name, with no obvious reason for it. There is, quite rightly, lots of discussion about zoos and their role in conservation juxtaposed with animal cruelty. I’m a fairly neutral non-expert on the subject but I enjoyed this one very much. There were lots of primates, many of which were completely new to me. The focus was more on Asia than anywhere else, which wasn’t surprising really, but there were some African mammals too. Giraffes are incredible animals to see, and always look so elegant. There were a couple of elephants, with people having fun feeding them carrots. Watching those trunks at work is an amazing sight. I had to feel sorry for the smaller of the two, who struggled to reach across the barrier. There were various tigers too, including a rare White Tiger. All of the animals looked content except for one of the bears, which paced up and down continuously. There was a museum section with plenty of stuffed animals set up in tableau form and, best of all, a section with butterflies in it. Many of them were very big and some were truly beautiful. I wasn’t too impressed with the aquarium but other than that, it was a great visit. Being a weekend though, and a special one too in some way, it was very busy indeed. What with the zoo’s method of forcing visitors to follow a specific route, I was feeling plenty of sympathy for the animals by the end of it.
Reaching over the barrier was hard. But worth the effort.
A rare White Tiger. A Phasma Reinwardtii.
That took up the morning and the afternoon was spent at Angkut Museum. This place is part transport museum and part film heritage museum. I really enjoyed the display of cars and bikes, mostly British and American. It really is amazing how many bike manufacturers there were in Britain between the wars. Quite incredible. Lots of big American cars too, all nicely restored. Up on the roof they’d created a mock airport terminal, dating from the seventies by the look of it. You could go on board the plane and be welcomed by a stewardess. A bit twee really but I’m sure kids liked it. The second section was themed on some Hollywood movie scenes and also various places around the world, such as Las Vegas, Buckingham Palace and so on. The vehicles and other objects all matched the age and place and they also had performers recreating movie scenes and getting the crowd involved too. I discovered a small theatre focussed on silent movies and watched Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, a film I’d never seen all the way through before. The last section housed the Indonesian Heritage display where a guide latched on to me and insisted on explaining every single thing on display there. He was very knowledgeable and I took in as much as I could, but I think I’d rather have walked around on my own if I’m honest. The floating food area enabled me to eat well before walking back to my hotel after a very busy day.
MV aren’t usually associated with two strokes. A very nice Mk VIII Jaguar.
These two places surprised me somewhat. My experience of Indonesia up to now had been of beautiful countryside, very busy towns and cities, some natural beauty spots and a variety of old temples. Plenty of tourists around too but my perception of Indonesians hadn’t led me to think they were likely to be heading off to the zoo very often. They always seemed too busy trying to earn a living. But this view is a bit patronising really, so I was quite pleased to have my eyes opened to the fact that there’s plenty of disposable income around, just like anywhere else, and that people enjoy spending it.
Another day, another Hindu temple to visit, this time at Tenatara. Supposedly another building of note, I really wasn’t all that impressed and have reached the conclusion that Jimmy’s comments hold true. They are just piles of stone unless something is actually happening there, such as a festival or celebration. Then, the statues and buildings are splendidly decorated with flowers and costumes, as are the people attending. The nearby museum was more interesting, with its display of artefacts and statuery, but no words in English to tell me what they were about.
But at least the ride out to there was very enjoyable, with hills to ride around and small towns nestling in the valleys. It was great to be out of the traffic and the feeling of openness uplifted my spirits. I didn’t travel far before I came to a town where a suitable hotel could be found. Some good English spoken there, which always helps. Sometimes these places are surprisingly cheap although this one was a bit dearer by Indonesian standards. A whole £10 per night. Shock, horror! And that got me a double room with hot water and air conditioning. I often pay only half of that but the room would then be rather basic. I don’t mind that. I’ve spent enough nights in a tent to be able to appreciate having facilities, whatever they may be like. But they’ll usually have a squat toilet and, if there’s a shower, it will be cold. More often there will just be a tank of water and a scoop, which you use to throw the water over yourself. And this, to my surprise, I found to be very refreshing, although I’m glad I don’t have long hair to wash.
Food can be found at amazingly cheap prices. If you’re happy with a nasi or mie goreng (fried rice or noodles) then you can eat for less than IRP10,000. To put that in perspective, if I then went to an Indomaret (convenience store) and bought a Magnum, it would cost more than the meal, at around IRP14,000, but which is still less than £1 (about IRP17,500 to £1).
After I’d been out I got a message that someone wanted to see me. Down in the lobby was a guy named Rio, who runs a local biker’s club. I use the word ‘bikers’ advisedly as they all ride Yamaha Max scooters. I’m guessing the reception staff rang him, knowing he’d be interested in meeting this foreign tourist passing through. I went with him up to his house for coffee, and met his family. He wanted me to come and meet the other club members that evening but I could sense a long night ahead of me so I cried off, agreeing to meet again in the morning.
Rain, and lots of it, was what greeted me when I came down. But Rio and his crew had turned up anyway, so we chatted and drank coffee until the rain stopped. These guys take their scooters seriously, with lots of bling. They all fit loads of LED lights, all wired up to control units which enable them to ride along with the lights flashing away, or with different coloured LEDs wired up to the brake lights. I’d seen a couple of groups like this already, riding along looking like mobile Christmas decorations. Very showy but also good fun. Many of the young lads do similar things to their bikes, with anodised aluminium wheel rims or brake levers, just to look a bit more individual.
We went for brunch at a warung across the street, then we rode down to a memorial centre dedicated to President Sukarno. Very much revered in Indonesia, he was the first elected President following the declaration of Independence, on the 17th August 1945, immediately after the Japanese had left. His trade was that of architect and he managed to build a new country by uniting all the disparate groups, religions and tribes into a new nation. The Dutch, reluctant to let their former colony go, fought a rearguard action but by 1949 Sukarno had sent them packing using both diplomatic and military means.
Sukarno developed his nationalist ideas as a young man and worked with the Japanese invaders during the war so as to be allowed to spread them across the country. When the Japanese left he was ready to put his ideas into practice and was able to win the election. He focussed on secularism, education and unification. Indonesia’s motto is ‘United in Diversity’. But by 1967 he’d been pushed aside, with help from the western powers, who didn’t like his tolerance of communism. At that point, General Suharto took over. Sukarno was kept under house arrest until he died in 1970. Looking at Indonesia now it’s clear that his efforts to unite the different peoples have paid off. Although nominally a Muslim country, all cultures and religions seem to live happily side by side, as far as I can see, although I know there have been some terrorist incidents in recent years. It seems the ‘do it my way or else’ mobsters get everywhere. The museum was full of photos, paintings and other memorabilia. One of the paintings had those eyes which seem to follow you around. ‘Sukarno is still watching over you’ seemed to be the message.
That is just a potted history and there is, as ever, lots more info here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sukarno
The rain had stopped and it was time to go. I had originally planned to visit Gunung Kelud, an occasionally active volcano which had a steaming lake inside its caldera. But Rio said the path up to it would be impassable after the rain, so I got him to lead me out to the edge of town headed off down the line.
And then one of those chance meetings happened, which on the face of it are just an opportunity to say ‘hello’ to a fellow traveller but which actually provided me with a solution to a problem which had been aggravating me for a couple of weeks. I was just overtaking a truck when I noticed that the bike following it wasn’t a local scooter but a big BMW. I pulled over and so did he. Deon Hubach is an Aussie from Fremantle and he’s travelling pretty much the same route as me before he ships across to South Africa. We stopped for a cuppa, where the locals thought they were in selfie heaven. Two bearded westerners, plus big bikes, in one place was just too much for them to resist. As Deon was leaving I noticed he had a small case on his handlebars with his phone inside it. He said it’s waterproof and enables him to use his phone as a GPS while riding. Now that was just what I needed! The GPS I’d used for the last eight years had finally succumbed to the rain and the spare I’d brought with me was also faulty. I’d tried, but failed, to make one good one out of the two. Navigating through busy and confusing towns, or out to small villages to visit a temple, is extremely difficult without some kind of electronic aid. All I could do was to stop from time to time, dig my phone out and check whether I was on route or off it. A right royal pain in the behind. So when I got to a town for the evening I found a phone shop – all towns have dozens of them – and bought one. It’s been a real boon ever since. So thanks Deon, and well met. Deon is supporting a charity with his ride, and also has a blog. Details here: https://www.rideforchange.net/
The next day went like this. I reached the small town of Wonsori within two hours, to be my base while I visited two nearby sites. So first it was a recce to locate Goa Jambang, a cave accessed by winch. It’s at the bottom of a very large hole in the ground. Even with my newly available phone mapping, it took a deal of finding. But it was worth the effort because I was able to check they could include me on a tour next morning and also know that I wouldn’t get lost and miss out by being late. The next visit was to the Prambanam Hindu Temple in Jojakarta, the biggest city in the region. This was also a very big temple. Despite being ‘just another pile of rocks’ its sheer size meant it was impressive and the quality of the bas relief carvings was excellent. But I still sneakily thought that a bit of paint wouldn’t go amiss, just to relieve the endless gray. It was built in the 9th century and has three main buildings dedicated to Brahmin, Shiva and Ganesh. They are very tall and had smaller temples around them, with lots more around the edge of the site still undergoing restoration. The government is paying for this following recent earthquakes. A broadly Muslim administration paying to restore Hindu temples. They clearly live up to their motto in Indonesia.
Meanwhile the whole site was full of schoolkids, so selfie mania was rife. But this was one of those places where there were lots of other westerners around to share the load. It’s clear these kids are tasked with talking to westerners to practice their English. I was cornered by one group of nine to ten year old lads who asked me questions off a prepared script. They did very well except that their spokesman kept calling me Madam. ‘Not with this beard I’m not sonny’ was my immediate thought.
The riding had been good once more. I passed by plenty of pastoral activity, with field surrounded by low, dry stone walls, and a huge variety of different crops. The fields all seemed to be worked by had still. I saw very little by way of agricultural machinery anywhere on my travels. Plenty of wheelbarrows, hand tools and people wearing those conical Chinese hats. The little motorbikes would often be pulling small trailers containing plant, of both kinds. Rural Indonesia clearly still does it ‘old school’.
There was a large group of people gathered for the caving adventure next morning. After tea/coffee we all got kitted out in a harness and hard hat and were lowered, two at a time, down the side of an enormous hole in the ground. It was about 100 metres across, with almost vertical sides, and full of trees and undergrowth. At the bottom we all walked down a very steep and slippery slope into a large cave (Goa Jambung). Across the other side was a fast flowing, and cold looking, river. Close by that, up in the very high roof of the cave was another vertical hole, about ten metres across and surrounded by trees and vegetation. We waited around a while and eventually the sun came round to the point where it was shining down through the hole, creating a magical effect as it illuminated the mist laden air and shone onto the rocks below. It was quite something, and worth all the effort. A honeymooning Japanese couple had gone to the trouble of bringing down some very smart clothes, and a professional photographer, and were having some rather special wedding photographs taken. With that golden cascade of light as a backdrop, they must have looked terrific.
As well as in the cave, the walls of the hole itself were covered in stalactites, lurking among the vegetation, and something to look at as we were hauled slowly back up. At the meeting place there was a lunch to be eaten and experiences to be shared. I’d been chatting to Kirsten, a very tall German woman, who was on a three week holiday, trying to cram in as much as she could. Most of the other visitors were western as well.
I now only had one more place to visit in this area and, with regard to temples, I’d saved the best until last. Borobudur is a another 9th century building, but is Buddhist rather than Hindu. At about 120 metres across, it is a huge building, consisting of six square levels, and then three circular ones. On the top is a circular dome surrounded by seventy two perforated stupas, each with a Buddha statue inside. There are a total of five hundred and four Buddha statues. The edifice is designed so that pilgrims follow a particular path up and around the various levels. On the way they will pass 2,672 bas relief panels, all linked to the various levels of enlightenment that a Buddhist will attempt to pass through before reaching Nirvana. The detail on these panels is amazing and I’m sure the stories are quite easy to follow for someone with the relevant knowledge.
Java was ruled by Britain from 1811 to 1816 and it was the Governor, Sir Thomas Raffles, who first began the re-discovery of the temple. There had been local stories about it and he decided to follow them up. It had been hidden by volcanic ash and jungle for centuries. Raffles did little other than reveal it to the world and it was the Dutch colonists who finally uncovered it in the mid 19th century. Since then it has undergone much restoration effort and is finally available in all its glory. UNESCO helped with advice and funds during this period and it is now on their list of World Heritage Sites. Once again, it was the Indonesian government that funded and organised most of the restoration and it is the single most visited site in the country, with 80% of visitors being Indonesian. I was very impressed by it. Guess what? Lots more information here:
My next port of call was a port. Semerang, to be precise, up on Central Java’s north coast. From here various ferries departed for various islands and I wanted to get to Borneo, or Kalimantan, as the Indonesians name their part of it. My newly developed GPS system got straight there so I parked up and entered the bear pit. Firstly though, I should explain that there are various ferry companies operating out of here. My research had shown that ASDP Ferries (Indonesia Ferries) was the cheapest by a long way, at around IRP500,000, for the 24 hour crossing. This company runs the ferries that I’d used to island hop across Indonesia up to now. So I went looking for their ticket office. Today was Friday, the ferry was due to leave from a town called Kendal at 12.00 Saturday. So why was I at Semerang, 30kms away? Because Google maps didn’t show a ferry terminal at Kendal, which isn’t quite on the coast, nor a ferry route leaving there, so I guessed it actually left from Semerang. Was I right? I didn’t get the chance to find out.
As soon as I walked into the building I was leapt on by this man, a ticket ‘agent’, who immediately started quoting me prices for me and my bike. And I foolishly let myself get drawn in. IRP1,250 million for both, on a ferry that left at 16.00 Saturday. So, right day, wrong time and definitely the wrong price. So why on earth did I meekly hand over the money? I said to him I wanted ASDP ferry but he kept saying no, and telling me about this other one run by a company called DLU. He departed with my cash and eventually returned with a ticket, which gave the price as one million. While I’d been waiting I’d been thinking about it all and realised that I’d been a bit stupid so when he returned I queried everything. He told me to follow him back to the ferry ticket office, a short distance away in the town, and once we got there I made a real song and dance about the price, seeing an opportunity to cancel this deal and get the one I’d hoped for. So after some very assertive talk from me (otherwise known as shouting) I got a refund from the ferry and my money back from the agent. It was now chucking it down with rain and I didn’t have the heart to go back to the terminal to find ASDP. So I set off for Kendal to see if there really was a terminal there.
Once I’d found a hotel I went back onto the ASDP website and noticed they had a Facebook page. I sent them a message asking where this ferry actually left from and was surprised to get a reply, fairly late on a Friday evening. But that reply puzzled me even more because it said that the ferry left from a town called Jepara, 70kms east of Semerang. I double checked the information with them and it made some sense in explaining the lack of knowledge about the ASDP ferry at the Semerang terminal. So, with plans laid for an early start on my two and a half hour ride to Jepara next morning, I got an early night.
So did it all work out? Oh no, not a bit of it. I had a good ride to Jepara, getting there in plenty of time for the 12.00 departure. But I was in the wrong place once more. The only ASDP ferry that left from there went to one of the other islands. With the help of a local who spoke good English I found that my ferry did leave from Semerang but it was now far too late to catch it.
A slower ride back to Semerang got me there soon after midday and I found a ticket agency by the bus terminal who said he would organise my ticket for the DLU ferry. That all went wrong because he quoted the wrong price for my size of bike and didn’t take enough money off me. By the time he’d come back and got more money from me he was too late to get the ticket as the office had closed. I was now faced with not even getting that ferry, and the next one was Monday. Angry and despondent, I headed to the port and, avoiding the lurking and surprised original agent, found a different one who said he could still get me on the boat even though it was, at gone 14.00, theoretically too late to load my bike. He quoted me 1.1 million, a slight saving on yesterday’s price. I followed him through the terminal, out to where the ferry was docked. He spoke to one of the officials, got the nod, and took me back inside, where he issued me a passenger ticket. What about the ticket for the bike? Back to see the same official, where money changed hands, including an extra 100k from me, and I was able to load my bike onto the boat. I was both relieved and extremely fed up. I’d reached the conclusion the ASDP ferry didn’t really exist, that it was just trick to annoy weary travellers. But the saga of the ferry hadn’t ended yet. But more on that in the next blog.