There’s a wonderful sense of pattern and repetition in today’s photo by Flickr user don.wright. Shot at a dance ceremony in Banda Aceh, the largest city on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, the photo’s subjects each carry a unique expression that adds personality and charm. Some break into a bashful smile, some are expressionless, some – like the woman in the center of the frame – look deep in thought. I wonder what they’re all thinking?
I ended up in Kuching, the capital of Sarawak, Borneo, after I had to change travel plans at the last minute. I’d just finished researching a guidebook on the Malay Peninsula and my visa to Myanmar, where I’d planned to go next, got denied, so suddenly I had five days of free time and a day to plan it. A flight to Kuching from Penang was around $60 round-trip on Air Asia and they still had seats, so off I went. I had no clue that I was about to have one of the most tranquil yet exhilarating travel experiences of my life.
The trip started poorly. As the lone patron of my Hostel World-recommended guesthouse, I wasn’t meeting a soul in Kuching. Although it was filled with temples and delicious seafood restaurants and cut by a winding river out of a Maugham novel, the town offered little in the way of activities and I was getting dispirited wandering around by myself. My guidebook said that Bako National Park was an hour and a half from Kuching and was packed with wildlife. The sleeping options were reportedly grim (“dank bathrooms” and “torn mozzie nets”), but I had to get out of Kuching or I’d start talking to myself. I wasn’t sure I’d meet anyone at Bako, either, but hanging out with monkeys sounded better than feeling like a human loser in Kuching.
After an hour ride to a boat dock in a clunky yellow bus and a wet half-hour in a rusty speedboat, I traipsed from the boat up to Bako’s beach through warm waves, pants rolled up to my knees, backpack on my head. The all-local transport made me feel like an intrepid solo adventurer rather than alone and lost, so already I was happy to be there. Bako’s park headquarters are in mangrove swamps on a gray stretch of sand littered with rubbish; although beautiful, it’s not pristine.
I walked up to the front desk and signed in, then asked the ranger if it was possible to get a hiking guide. She looked at me blankly, as if I was the first person who had ever asked this question.
“Don’t need guide,” she said flatly. “Sign here when leave. Sign when get back. You don’t come back, we go look for you. No one get lost.”
A couple who were signing out at headquarters and about to catch the boat back to Kuching chimed in and told me that they’d been hiking for a few days and the trails were very well-marked. “But what about wild animals and rapists?” I asked. Everyone smiled and said I’d just have to watch out for poisonous snakes, most of which are nocturnal anyway.
With my bags dropped off and no guide or friends to walk with, I decided to trail-test this hike-on-your-own-in-darkest-Borneo theory. After a series of boardwalks over mangroves, the trail went straight up a well-trodden rocky path leading over giant tree roots in the shade of gnarled, vine-covered trees. It was so hot that soon I had saturated my T-shirt with sweat for the first time in my life. I was red-faced, clammy and probably smelling pretty bad, but when you’re alone, who cares?
At the top of the hill was a map with distances to several destinations and each route was color-coded. I took a trail to a beach and soon the terrain changed to treeless and sun-scorched with white powdery soil and low shrubs. I stopped on a bench at a viewpoint and a butterfly landed on my hand. All I could hear were insects and the trickle of a river. Walking again, I started to notice a huge variety of carnivorous pitcher plants and vines in the brush. Without the noise of a chatty companion, I was soaking in every sound, sight and whiff of a breeze. With no one to wait for and no one to keep up with, what became important were the details and sensations of the natural surroundings. It was bliss.
There was a Spanish couple at the beach, so I felt safe enough to put on a swimsuit and go for a swim. The water wasn’t clear but it was warm and soft with little waves that massaged my tired back. Refreshed, I put my sweaty clothes back on and returned to headquarters.
That night in the dorms I met a few other people who had also gone hiking on their own. We ate dinner together and told our stories, but it had been so liberating hiking alone, the next day I decided to go solo even though I’d now met plenty of potential hiking partners. All the other lone travelers had the same thoughts as me and we all went our separate ways, meeting only for meals.
Over the next three days I traversed much of the park, but I saw wildlife exclusively near headquarters. Every morning I’d head down to the boardwalk and sit silently as a family of pendulous-nosed proboscis monkeys foraged for mangrove fruit. Occasionally another person would come and sit with me but we’d just enjoy the close encounter in wordless complicity. One of my dorm-mates showed me where to find pit vipers coiled around branches in the jungle, sleeping off the evening frog hunt. One afternoon I followed a troupe of silver leaf monkeys along the water where they foraged with their babies between the beach trash. One night I joined a guided group hike and saw creepy long-legged, hand-sized poisonous spiders crawling around in a cave. Thieving, mischievous macaques were omnipresent, pillaging the garbage cans and trying to steal food at the restaurant and out of people’s rooms. At night, after the usual torrential downpour, frogs came out to sing.
This was a jungle in Borneo, one of the wildest destinations on Earth, and it felt that way, but somehow, even with the snakes and spiders, it felt safer than a small town and as soothing as an ashram. Perhaps it was the human silence.
Yes, the dorm rooms were in a flimsy wooden barrack-style lodge, but they were clean, fan-cooled and mosquito-free; and yes, the cavernous shared bathrooms with coldwater stalls definitely merited their dank reputation, but they did the job.
All in all, this wasn’t a textbook paradise, but the tranquility and pervasive nature made it live up to that name for me. Thanks to a last-minute switch in plans, I’d found a place I never wanted to leave.
Where to stay
The only place to stay is at Bako National Park headquarters. Reserve by phone, online or in Kuching at the National Parks and Wildlife Centre (in the Sarawak Tourism Complex on Jalan Tuan Hadji Openg). A dorm bed costs RM16 (around US$5) per night and rooms cost from RM50-100 (around US$16-32) per night. The only rooms with attached bathrooms are the RM50 doubles.
Food and drink
There’s a decent buffet-style restaurant at headquarters serving a mix of Western and Malaysian food for around RM7 (US$2.50) per meal. They also sell bottled water, beer, juice and soft drinks.
There are lots of organized tours from Kuching, but it’s easy and much cheaper to get there on your own. Buses leave from Kuching’s open-air market to the boat dock at Kampung Bako hourly from 7am to 6pm; the trip takes around 45 minutes to an hour and costs RM3. From here, you need to charter a boat to park headquarters. Boats cost RM50 (US$16) for up to four people and you can usually find other travelers to share the boat. The boat trip takes 20-30 minutes. Arrange a time for a return pick-up with the boat driver and try to coordinate it with the bus schedule back to Kuching.
Pizza lovers, did you know Indonesians adore Pizza Hut? True, your typical Indonesian pie probably has more crispy fish pieces, shrimp and corn on it than you’re used to back home. And you probably won’t find avocado milkshakes as an option at the soda fountain back in Grand Rapids. But the Indonesians in Bali are lovers of pizza much like you and I, dear reader, and unashamedly so.
At this point, more experienced travelers are probably scratching their heads. Who travels to Indonesia and writes about American fast food?? But the truth be known, this odd love for all things pizza illustrates a surprising fact: Indonesians are cultural chameleons when it comes to eating. This immense island nation is a place criss-crossed by trade winds of diverse culinary origin, bringing together influences and ingredients from places as far-flung as China, The Netherlands, India and even Mexico.
Whether you’re just visiting Bali or making a larger exploration of the Indonesian archipelago, expect to be surprised by Indonesia’s spicy, exotic, and altogether unexpected blend of delicious eats. A taste of the tropics, and a taste of home at the same time. Ready to dig in? Keep reading below to begin your exploration of Indonesian (and Balinese) cuisine.The World’s Pantry
It was the world-famous islands of Maluku that first put Indonesian cuisine on the world map. Back in the 1500′s, this string of remote islands was the only place in the world European traders could find the elusive spice Nutmeg. It didn’t take long for the rumors of these fertile tropical islands to spread; soon the English and the Dutch were demanding their piece of the lucrative trade, adding coffee and tea plantations to the mix.
The Europeans were soon mingling with the Chinese, Indian and Middle Eastern traders who already knew Indonesia well, introducing a bewildering array of new foods. Peanuts and chili peppers came from the Americas, leading to Indonesia’s ubiquitous sauces: the mouth tingling Sambal and the spicy peanut sauce used to top grilled skewers called sate.
These new ingredients were mixed with more familiar Indonesian staples like rice, a grain you’ll see growing in paddy fields everywhere, and coconuts, another tropical staple that finds its way into the country’s flavorful curries. Add in the country’s ever-present and wonderfully fresh seafood, some wildly exotic fruits like Durian and rambutan, and you begin to get a sense of the diverse ingredients available to the typical Indonesian chef.
Upon this palette of flavorful and exotic ingredients, all sorts of fantastic Indonesian specialties are possible. What’s worth a try during your visit to Bali? Make sure to keep an eye out for uniquely Balinese specialty Babi Guling, a spit roast pig stuffed with spices and roasted in coconut water. Many travelers will swear Ibu Oka in Ubud is the place to try. We have to agree…the crispy pork skin, roasted for hours over hot coals, is sublime. Bebek, the local Indonesian duck, roasted in banana leaves stuffed with spices (Bebek Betutu) is another favorite.
Balinese cuisine also tends to be a microcosm of larger food trends in Indonesia. Nasi (rice) is practically the Indonesian national dish. You’ll find Nasi Campur (mixed rice, meat and vegetables) and Nasi Goreng (fried rice with meat & vegetables) on menus everywhere. And there are the desserts – weird as it may sound you’ll never go wrong with an Es Apokat avocado smoothie, doused with a liberal helping of chocolate sauce. And if you’re looking for a totally unique dessert experience, track down some Es Campur. It’s a sweet soup made of coconut, condensed milk, ice and a mix of chewy jellies. Bizarre, but quite wonderful.
Padang: A Taste of Everything
No matter what food you find to your liking in Indonesia, you’re sure to be overwhelmed by the delicious options at some point. That’s when Padang food comes in handy. Although Padang cuisine originated on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, it’s become a universal favorite – nearly every city in Indonesia has a Padang restaurant, including in Bali. Look for the dishes of food stacked in the window and spicy scent wafting from inside, and you’ll know you’ve arrived.
Don’t know what to order? Not to worry… just walk up to the dishes and start pointing at whatever looks delicious. The server will add a healthy spoonful to your plate. You’re likely to end up with specialties like Rendang, a buffalo coconut curry, or some leafy green kangkung (water spinach) and a few pieces of ayam goreng (fried chicken).
The flavors are mix of just about everything your tastebuds could want: spicy, milky, bitter and savory. The textures – crispy, creamy and chewy. It’s like an Indonesian Old Country Buffet – execept with just a tad more spice, much fresher ingredients and some of the best home-cooked food you’ve had in life. In fact Padang cuisine is a lot like Indonesian and Balinese food itself – a wildly diverse mixture of flavors, textures and cultures, coming together into something that tastes like much more than the sum of its parts.
Dreaming of your own visit to Bali? Read more about Gadling’s “visit to paradise” HERE.
Flights between Singapore and several Indonesian cities, including the capital Jakarta, have been grounded due to the latest eruption of Mt. Merapi. The volcano has been erupting for two weeks and has killed more than 130 people and displaced two hundred thousand.
Several airports have closed and while the ash cloud has affected international flights, domestic flights are continuing as normal. So far the suspensions of flights are up to the individual airlines, but major carriers such as Singapore Airlines, Japan Airlines, Malaysia Airlines, Lufthansa and Cathay have chosen to play it safe.
Merapi is one of the most active volcanoes in the Ring of Fire, a giant arch of tectonic activity around the Pacific. Back in 2006, an eruption displaced tens of thousands and prompted local villagers to try animist rituals to placate the volcano’s spirits.
[Image courtesy user Tequendamia via Wikimedia Commons]
After a 7.7-magnitude earthquake and 10-foot tsunami hit Indonesia Monday, killing at least 272 people, relief efforts have arrived to help the wounded, search for the hundreds still missing, and bury the dead. The first cargo plane loaded down with 16 tons of tents, medicine, food and clothes arrived today after weather relented long enough for search and rescue teams to arrive. Many villages near the coast were completely destroyed by the waves.
The Mentawai Islands are a popular destination for surfers, though their location in the Pacific Ring of Fire make them prone to seismic activity. Ten tourists arrived in Pedang today to tell their story after 24 hours lost in the Indian Ocean, including an American. According to the Associated Press, the anchored tourist boat was hit by a wall of water smashed them into a neighboring vessel, triggering a fire that quickly ripped through their cabin. “They hit us directly in the side of the boat, piercing a fuel tank,” said Daniel North, the American crew member. “Almost immediately, the captain gave the order to abandon ship and everyone got off the boat.” They clung to surfboards and then climbed the highest trees they could find to await rescue.
The tsunami hit the Mentawai Islands, about 149 miles south of Padang, the capital city of West Sumatra, along the same fault line as the 2004 earthquake and tsunami that killed 230,000. Less than a day after the tsunami, a volcano erupted 800 miles to the east, killing more than two dozen people and displacing thousands. No travel alert has been set yet by the US Department of State for Indonesia, though a June alert is in affect for Pacific typhoons until December 1.
[Photo source: Wikipedia Commons]