Indonesia

SULAWESI

The Jekyll and Hyde of my Indonesian visit. After making the atrocious decision to split the journey from Bali to Manado into two, I found myself at the half way point in quite easily the worst hotel I’ve come across. The entire hotel reeked of damp cigarettes, every wall was covered in stains, my room had no less than 15 mosquitoes buzzing around inside with a mosquito net nowhere to be seen (squashing them all at least passed the time) and to top it off I got an inexplicable wake up call at 3am and then a bang on the door 15 minutes later. Demanding some sort of refund from the Edward Hydes behind reception proved pointless.

Luckily the prospect of Pulau Bunaken lightened my mood in the morning. It’s supposed to be one of the top 10 dive sites in the world with 70% of the world’s marine species existing in the area, a fact suggested by guidebooks and later confirmed by the onsite dive instructor. Just snorkeling around it was easy to see why. Forget Koh Tao and Nha Trang, this is what you call good visibility, it’s as clear at the the water in your bath tub. Unfortunately no sea snakes, sting rays, turtles or sharks were spotted but to see coral that vibrant and such a range of fish was a highlight. So that was the Jekyll, now back to the Hyde.

Putting aside a reformed Christian called Godlife (he showed me his ID card) practice his English on me, the boat ride back to the mainland from Bunaken was pleasant enough. This was until I noticed a particularly unpleasant smell wafting into the boat from the harbour’s shores. The source of the stench? A pile of deceased dogs on the river bank destined for the dinner plate, rigor mortis stiffening they’re bodies in all manner of positions. They’re fur was being torched off by a man holding a medieval-looking contraption which produced the smell. Not the nicest thing to see, but this is remote Sulawesi after all.

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GILI TRAWANGAN

Picture-postcard vistas of neighbouring islands are all very nice, but they don’t disguise the rubbish-ridden beaches and the irritating offer of shrooms and ganja every 10 yards. Having them offered wasn’t what bothered me, it was the relentlessness of it. Apart from a cameo appearance from a few turtles, sadly the snorkeling was nothing to write home about either.

Give the beaches a good clean, bung all the dealers in regulated shops a la Amsterdam (easier said than done in Indonesia), protect the coral and Gili T may start justifying the fuss made about it. In the meantime, for impeccable waters, go to Bunaken, and for beautiful beaches, go to Langkawi. Alternatively stay on Gili Air or Gili Meno which after a brief visit seemed cleaner, however a stay of more than four days may send you a bit stir crazy.

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BALI

Kuta

This place doesn’t deserve a photo and it hardly deserves the 47 words I’ve written about it. I think the character of Kuta can best be summed up by a vest I saw hanging up in a market which simply said “Fu@k You You Fu@king Fu@k”. Classy.

*

Ubud

The last few paragraphs have been a bit of a whinge, so thankfully Ubud provided a cultural and culinary relief.

Indonesian cuisine had hitherto been hugely unimpressive and uninspiring, that was before I discovered Balinese tapas. Nomads Restaurant served up consistently delicious fare and made the best vanilla milkshake I’ve ever had. If you’re in the area, don’t ignore it and like me, try and work out how this place is ranked only 71st in Ubud’s restaurants.

When researching Ubud grub, I read what now seems like a perplexing Tripadvisor comment bemoaning the fact that Kuta had come to Ubud. Yes there’s plenty of glass-fronted boutique clothes stores, a market with pushy hawkers selling sarongs and sandals and more tourists than your average Indonesian town, but such accusations are unfair. Where Kuta lacks any sort of sophistication, Ubud at least maintains a sense of style and away from the main streets offers glimpses into traditional rural life.

That said, I can understand where these fears are coming from and it’s perhaps a reflection of a greater outlook on Bali. Unless you have a humongous budget and indispensable local knowledge capable of keeping you truly off the beaten track, cramped transport, patches of tackiness and a pervading disregard for customer service from bus and boat operators will continue to leave me wondering why Bali is number 1 on Lonely Planet’s top 20 South East Asia experiences.

Nomad’s Balinese Tapas

Rural Ubud, including a dog eating a duck

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EAST JAVA

Kawah Ijen

I’m inside crater of one Indonesia’s most famous and active volcanoes, crouching featal position employed.

It’s the only way I can guard against the sulphuric cloud that has shifted direction and now saturates the air.  For how long, who knows? The toxic smoke encases me, the acid is searing my eyes, grating my throat and burning my lungs. Surgical mask and scarf combination guarding my airways – futile. I daren’t attempt another breath. I’m utterly at the mercy of Kawah Ijen.

Fire and brimstone maybe reserved for horror stories, but it’s is far from fictitious at Kawah Ijen.  For brimstone, an archaism for sulphur, is precisely what brings the scores of miners here and in part these miners, in unison with their surroundings, are what have brought me here.

As night turns to day, the igniting blue flames of sulphur vanish and the jagged lunaresque landscape reveals itself.The path that we descended down in the darkness also unveils itself and I realise just what a treacherous and perilous place this is, and how unforgiving it can be. In 1997 a French tourist lost his footing, fell and didn’t survive.

It’s quite a spectacle watching the miners haul slabs of solidified sulphur up the crumbling 60 degree slopes of a volcano’s crater, 70kg worth (and the rest). Their progress is painfully slow. Nominations for jobs tougher than this on a postcard please. Then there’s the 3km trudge down to the weighing station where they reap the reward for their endeavors. This is also where our journey began at 2am. What followed was the most extreme activity to date. Not so much a struggle of physical endurance – by a slim margin that title still belongs to Phong Nha’s Dark Cave day – but in terms of being resoundingly humbled by nature’s pure, unadulterated hostility in an environment the very antithesis to human existence, Kawah Ijen will take some beating.

*

Madakaripura Waterfall

Hopefully the pictures do this place justice. A towering waterfall and one that justified my decision to stay away from waterfalls until I had the opportunity to be dwarfed by one like this.

It’s huge. 200 metres huge. That’s 92 metres taller than Victoria Falls, 149 metres taller than Niagara Falls, 198.25 metres taller than Mark E. Smith from The Fall, and if you were unlucky enough to fall from the top, a rudimentary online freefall calculator suggests it would take you approximately 6.39 seconds to reach the bottom.

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