Saturday, 26 April 2014

Traffic and Temples - Western Java

We didn't do much in Krui other than laze around in the garden of our hotel. We had eaten at a decidedly dodgy roadside restaurant the previous day, and whilst it hadn't actually made me ill, I was definitely not feeling 100%. Thankfully my nausea faded by the afternoon, and I felt up to a slow wander down to the beach. It would have been a shame to stay so close and not venture down to the sea.

As with most of the rest of the South Sumatra coastline, this was one stunning stretch of beach. The tide was just starting to come in as the sun began to set, glassy still water sitting in the rock pools. Huge waves rolled and crashed a little further out, and the low sun cast a dramatic and atmospheric glow over everything. The beauty of the scene was slightly compromised by me managing to stand in a nest of very territorial ants shortly after arriving, but once I stopped leaping about and shrieking in pain it was a lovely time indeed. We strolled home in the dark, and spent the evening chatting to a couple of surfer dudes also staying at our guest house.


We started the next day with a hearty breakfast. Thankfully I was feeling a lot better, and my food showed no signs of wanting to reappear. Our aim was to get as close to the ferry port as possible, and hopefully to make it past the large city of Bandar Lampung. The road was horrendous for the first section of the drive, but luckily it did level out eventually. The route skirted the coastline, and the beaches were incredible, causing us to lament the fact that we had to leave so soon.


All was going well. Progress was good, until we hit a particularly rough section and the bike just cut out. It did start again, but our first reaction (after the Laos problems) was to double check the battery terminals. They were completely fine, and head-scratching ensued as we tried to work out exactly what the problem might be. We were pretty sure it was an electrical issue, but were not keen to start taking the bike apart in the middle of nowhere, so decided to try and limp on.

We drove on for a few hours without any major problems, then pulled in for petrol. As we went to drive off, the bike once again sputtered and died. We quickly realised that it cut out whenever Oli moved the steering at a certain angle, so knew that something must be pulling on a pretty crucial connection. It turned out that the ignition wiring is a solder connection rather than a terminal, and the rough roads combined with the routing having shifted had pulled the wire out entirely. With the diagnosis no longer a concern, we knew exactly how to fix it, but alas we did not have the correct tools.

It was a frustrating situation, and Oli and I were just trying to work out how we would explain “solder iron” with mimes, when a man showed up and asked us if we were okay. Mercifully he spoke good English, and before we knew it he informed us that an electrician was on his way with the goods. We quickly drew a crowd, and the problem was easily fixed. The only pain was the teenage boys, who kept staring at me and being a bit creepy. They asked if they could have a photo with me, and I said sure, but only if my husband is in it too. They didn't want it then.

Oli was a bit distracted whilst all this was going on, but we were just so grateful to the man who had helped us, especially when he insisted on paying the mechanic on our behalf. Our saviour Mahri asked if we would come back to his house for some refreshments and a rest. Although we needed to make progress and crunch some more miles, it is always nice to meet and talk with people, so we happily agreed. We enjoyed a lovely break, drinking tea, chatting and meeting the family. We were invited to stay, and would have loved to take up the offer. However, once again the 60 day visas were looming in our minds, so we got back on the road.


Unfortunately from this point the quiet Sumatra roads were a thing of the past. It was like a taster of the fabled Java traffic, and we battled our way through dust, fumes, lorries and scooters. Progress was slow and very dangerous, and although the surface was mostly good quality we found ourselves longing for the quiet, broken rural roads. Getting through Bandar Lampung itself was absolute hell, and by the time we arrived in Kalianda we were mentally exhausted and blackened by soot.  We picked the least depressing looking hotel (still rather depressing), and got an early night.

The next morning we were up early and ready for a new island. It was just a short ride to the ferry, and we managed to navigate the ticket buying process and find the ferry relatively easily, despite the fact that it was not at all obvious where to go. It was an easy crossing, and happily the crowd that gathered around us got bored quickly, and we were left to drink coffee in peace as we watched the sea go by. We started to think that we would get to Java in very good time, but as we reached the shore the captain switched off the engines. There we sat and drifted about for over an hour, before eventually docking and being allowed to disembark. Interestingly they carried out loading simultaneously with unloading, which caused the ship to rock alarmingly. This made u-turning the heavy bike very difficult, especially with all the blokes trying to “help” by pushing and pulling it around.


After navigating a considerable urban sprawl we found ourselves on some beautiful back roads. We both started to hope that all the stories about Java traffic were exaggerated, as this didn't seem so bad at all. Sadly this hope flickered and died rather quickly, as the road started to pass through small town after small town. The traffic was utter carnage. Imagine the volume of traffic from say, the A1, but transplanted into small country lanes with no town bypasses whatsoever. Add to the mix mini-busses dropping passengers off at inappropriate places, grumbling lorries belching black smoke, and thousands of scooters, and you are some way to picturing what this was like. We had invested in dust-masks from Alfamart in preparation for this, and are pleased to confirm that this was most definitely a smart move.

Every now and then we would get glimpses of beautiful mountain scenery, but this was mostly obscured by buildings lining the roadside.  The going was slow, and we laboured into the outskirts of Bogor as the sun was starting to go down. It was actually an incredible sun set, a glow of vibrant oranges and pinks, complimented by a rainbow and occasionally lit by bright flashes of lightning. If we had been anywhere else it would have been spectacular, but it was hard to appreciate it whilst trying to fight our way through heavy city traffic. By the time we found a hotel and settled in it was too late to really see or do anything in the city. However, we passed a very comfortable night and enjoyed super-hot showers, so it was a worthwhile stop after all.


We had no real plans for the next day other than to push as far east as possible. Our hotel was a cut above what we were used to, and offered free breakfast out in a peaceful courtyard. We sat enjoying a tasty nasi goreng, and I watched the fish drifting about in the tank nearby. As I watched them merrily swimming about, one that looked like a small pike suddenly lunged and grabbed a goldfish. It was far too large for its mouth, and both of them looked a little helpless, not sure what to do next. After a while the pike started trying to swallow its prey, eventually dropping it when one of the bigger fish approached. We watched with car-crash like fascination, wondering if the hotel owners realised that keeping these species together was perhaps not the best of ideas.

The traffic from Bogor to Bandung was horrendous, seeming to confirm the worst of our Java fears. From this point I have most definitely been upgraded from passenger to co-pilot. Indicator lights in Indonesia tend to mean anything other than “I am about to move to the left/right”, and hence are ignored by almost everyone. Luckily a hand signal seems to do the trick far better, so it is now my job to back up any change of course with a gesture. People seem to pay attention to this far better than anything else, and I quite enjoy the feeling of being able to halt a truck by just extending an arm.

Once we passed Bandung the traffic hell continued. The mountain roads twisted and turned their way up steep slopes, and we were pretty much constantly overtaking. It was very tiring for me, let alone for Oli as the driver, so when the bike once again sputtered and died just as we reached the peak of the hill, we were not happy at all. To make things even better it began to rain, so we pushed the bike across the busy road and under a shelter. Sometimes life is just not fair.

We were soon surrounded by people keen to help us out. A solder iron was fetched, but unfortunately it was pretty ancient. The tip just would not heat up adequately, which made fixing the connection impossible. Our assistants were convinced that Oli was not doing it properly, taking the tools and only succeeding in wasting all the solder. Protests were futile, so Oli just let them get on with it, whilst I chatted to one of the ladies and a friendly police officer. Eventually accepting that the soldering iron was not going to work, somebody went off on a scooter to fetch an electrician with a proper soldering iron. Once he arrived it was easily fixed, and the sum of his labour came to around £1. The people who had run around trying to find him also asked for a bit of money for their transport, which we were happy to give. They said we were welcome to sleep in the police station, but we decided to go on our way.


We stopped a few hundred metres down the road to double check that the routing of the cable was definitely now okay. As we were engaged with this a scooter rider pulled up, and told us that he had seen us on television. This was the second time that day that we had been informed of this, and assured him that we didn't think it could be us. Not minding this, he invited us to stay at his house. We hesitated slightly, as with the breakdown we didn't feel we had done enough miles. Still, meeting people and being spontaneous is one of the great things about travelling, so we decided to take him up on his offer.

We ended up being so glad we had gone for it. Kemal and his family were such wonderful, welcoming people, and we immediately felt at home. As a bonus, the house was made lively by three excitable kittens, which Oli and I just loved seeing as we had been quoting this at each other for the past week. We went out for a tasty dinner, slept well, and were very sad to leave everyone behind in the morning.


The roads were busy, but far, far better than our first two Java days. Whilst we still had to overtake endless lorries we encountered nothing like the gridlock of Bandung. It appeared that we may have gotten through the worst of it. The roads straightened out and were good quality, which allowed us to make pretty good progress. Even the rain didn't stop us. We popped into Alfamart and I purchased a full rain suit for the grand price of £3. I gave Oli the jacket as my motorbike top is already very waterproof, and I wore the pants, which made us look like a bizarre husband/wife team. The roads remained busy but good, and we arrived in Yogyakarta in the late afternoon.


We had done no research, but drove around until we found the main hotel area. We asked around at a few places, being a bit fussy as we would be here for a few days. Eventually we decided on the first place, and negotiated the one-way system to get back there. On arriving, they told us that actually they had nowhere to park the big bike, and that we couldn't leave it on the street outside. Feeling a bit annoyed, we left and continued our search. On reflection, we are really glad we couldn't stay there. The place we have ended up in is newly renovated, has a swimming pool, a decent cafe and fast wi-fi. We don't even care that the bathroom is cold water, as it is brand new and beautiful.

As we were planning to spend three nights in Yogyakarta (or Jogja as the locals call it), we thought we would give buying a 19 litre water a go. Unfortunately the shop refused to sell it to us, as we didn't have an empty bottle to trade in. It was a bit of a catch-22 situation, but when I tried to question the paradox, all we received were blank looks and a statement that it was “the rules”. Unperturbed, we instead bought wasteful plastic bottles, and returned home for a tasty dinner.

Our main planned activity for Jogja was to visit the ancient Buddhist temple of Borobudur. We were too lazy to get there for sunrise, but nevertheless got on our way early, keen to avoid the crowds and the intense heat of the day. On arriving, we headed for the car park, only to be told by the security guards that motorbikes weren't allowed in that area. Instead, we had to go leave it at a paid private parking spot over the road. No amount of begging was going to convince them, so we grudgingly turned around.

Once we had parked up, we made our way over to the ticket office. Entry for Indonesian nationals is a bargainous 30,000 rupiah (about £1.50), but foreigners are evidently seen as lucrative cash cows. We were smilingly directed to the International Ticketing Office, which was a plush, air-conditioned building with the fanciest toilets we have seen in Indonesia (or indeed almost anywhere). We handed over an excruciating $20 each, and in return received tokens for welcome drinks. We picked coffee tokens, then realised that actually we had to have the drink straight away. I asked if we could take water instead, and was told that this was not possible as my token was for coffee. Thankfully this was resolved by going back to the ticket desk two meters away and swapping it, but it seemed a little pointless. This slavish following of the rules in Jogja was definitely freaking us out.

Borobudur is an imposing structure, and the largest Buddhist temple in the world. Originally constructed in the 9th Century, it was unknown to the international community until 1814. Hidden under layers of volcanic ash and consumed by jungle, it was duly cleared, then subsequently heavily raided for artifacts and souvenirs. Major renovations were undertaken in the mid 1970s. Today it is not only a UNESCO world heritage site, but the most visited tourist attraction in all of Indonesia.


With this in mind, we decided to beat the crowds and heat by heading to the top first, then work our way slowly down. Technically this is the wrong way to read and understand the place, but we knew we would appreciate things more if there were fewer people and if the temperature was relatively cool. This turned out to be a good tactic, as even though it was early in the day the top tier was by far the busiest. We were approached by several local tourists and school groups for the obligatory photo-shoots, but did manage to find quiet corners. The views over the surrounding countryside were fabulous, with several enormous volcanoes dominating the horizon. Within the domes were Buddha statues. Some were intact, others missing their heads. They were surprisingly difficult to see from the outside, sitting secretively within their protective walls.


Although it was not yet 10:00am, the heat was already intense and the crowds were building. The photo-shoot requests were getting rather frequent, which was a bit much given the relentless sun. We decided to bail out before we got unreasonably irritated, and began to make our way down. Surprisingly, the lower tiers were almost completely empty of visitors. We slowly worked our way through the shady, narrow corridors. Both sides were covered with carved reliefs, intricate and detailed. With the right knowledge I am sure it tells a fascinating story, but as it was, Oli and I were happy to enjoy them as works of art. Whilst the top of the temple is unarguably spectacular and iconic, we really liked the peace and quiet of the lower levels.


Feeling like we had almost got our $20 worth, we decided to call it a day and head for the exit. The entrance steps were actually much closer to where the bike was parked, so with the intense heat we thought we would just go that way. We were about half way down when an attendant told us that we couldn't go in that direction, and that we needed to walk around to the other side of the temple grounds. He told us this through a megaphone, despite the fact that we were less than six feet away. We argued politely, and he was then going to let us through, but we thought last minute that maybe we would miss something if we didn't exit the official way. It turned out that the purpose of this was only to funnel us through a very long corridor of hawkers. It was a long, hot and unnecessary walk, and we were not too amused.


Whilst the temple itself was amazing, we had mixed feelings about Borobudur. Considering the entrance fee was the same price as for Angkor, it was definitely a bit steep. We also didn't like the way that people weren't expected to respect the space. Fair enough it is no longer a working temple, but quiet is important in Buddhism, so the fact that there were huge groups of visitors and school kids running around, shrieking, shouting, and posing all over the place for cheesy photos definitely took something away from it. We are really glad we went, but are even more pleased that we made the effort to get there early, as we still got a chance to enjoy it with a little tranquility. The views from the top level were outstanding, and we do feel very lucky to have had the chance to see them.

Annoyances and grumbles aside, it had been a good visit. We rode back to town, took very much needed showers, ate a good lunch, then installed ourselves in the hotel cafe. As we were sat, we saw a familiar face approach the bike. It turned out to be Alex, one of the surfer dudes we had met in Krui. It was great to bump into him again, and we sat for a while chatting. We went our separate ways for dinner, then met again in the evening for a beer. It was the closest thing we have had to a social life for a while, and we had a very enjoyable evening. It was a late night for us, and we eventually crashed out, looking forward to beginning our lazy day off in the morning.

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