David Rich 1500 Words
9700 Indonesian Rupiahs=$1
B A L I U P T O J A V A
In response to the poignant Bali Ha'i from the 1950s Broadway Production of South Pacific, tourists began flocking to Bali in increasing hordes, making it the destination of choice for those preferring to only halfway leave home. Then came the new millennium and the Bali bombings, devastating Bali's economy and emptying its hundreds of swanky hotels and restaurants. Though now with far fewer tourists, Bali remains crammed with hawkers aggressively pushing everything from rental cars and massages to the Herald Tribune and crapulent crafts. You can escape to bitsy Bali's lightly-touristed northeast and north coasts for great snorkeling and diving on WWII wrecks, deserted beaches and drowsy fishing coves accented by bargain basement resorts and spas, but the freshest solution is to hop a half-hour ferry for completely untouristed Java, offering more than the usual Bali vacationers could begin to imagine.
Java is synonymous with the world's most famous brew. That's right, Guinness, seemingly concocted from black volcanic loam. Supposedly staid and ardently Muslim Java hosts both Heineken and Guinness breweries while over 90% of its women have never experienced a scarf, or other covering of consequence. In addition, Java offers not only fine Arabica coffee, but the world's 'riiiiichest kind,' necessarily rendered with a Swedish accent. Java's java is all mountain-grown on the nigh-sheer slopes of an elongated queue of photogenic volcanoes, often over-lumbered to the point of producing front-page landslides during the annual rainy season from November to April.
The best first stop in east Java is Kawa Ijeh caldera, allowing an easy but steep one hour's climb to the rim. On the way up I met a string of short skinny Indonesians carrying baskets brimming with pure elemental sulfur crystals in glowing phosphorescent yellow, the twin-basket apparatus weighing 80 kilos (176lbs), or approximately twice their sopping-wet body weight. For their services these scrawny Indonesian miners received a staggering $2.50 a day, a fourth of Indonesia's average per capita income. A turquoise lake streaked with yellow ripples covered the caldera floor, but the scene was overwhelmed by burbling brimstone in a lake of Hiroshimaic fires blazing blood-orange and scorched vermillion. Run when the wind abruptly shifts, driving dense sulfur fumes in your face, and the wind always shifts. The dozen miners at the edge of the bubbling brimstone counteract the unremitting toxicity by frequent cigarette breaks: life expectancy I'd guess, about 38 years.
The next volcano over was popularly known as Gunung Bromo, more accurately, Tengger crater, one of the most spectacular in not only Java, land of volcanoes, but in the world. Even the approach was spectacular, winding up narrow hairpin curves, dodging mini-vans hurtling downwards in a perpetual skid, up the verdant emerald valley divided and subdivided by 1000 meter (3200 feet) terraced ridges dotted with coffee plantations. Palms waved from emerald ridges, cut-outs against the brilliant blue sky, and beneath their canopy, colorfully dressed ladies carried hand scythes.
This northern approach to Gunung Bromo was landscaped vertically like Cinque Terra in northern Italy, or next door on Bali, tiny gardens and picture perfect plots in all shades of green. Half a dozen hotels teeter on the lip of the mighty Tengger caldera with views to pay for, rooms from $20, astronomical prices for Indonesia. This volcano is special with three interior cones, Bromo continuously billowing smoke and ash, dormant Kursi and green-striped Batok. The huge Tengger crater is 10 kilometers (6 miles) across with more volcanic peaks surrounding it, including Java's highest, continuously puffing Gunung Semeru at 3676 meters (12,000 feet). Catch the sunrise from the far north rim and see it all: the huge caldera a panorama of volcanic cones with a Hindu temple at their base, glowered over by Gunung Semeru emitting huge wads of pearly smoke every 20 seconds, like clockwork. Then traverse a sea of black sand to climb a stairway up Bromo.
Don't miss Yogjakarta, the artsy capital of Java, with its splendid batik paintings, silver works, wood carvings and particularly the Javanese dance personified in the Ramayana spectacle. The Ramayana mythic ballet comes in two versions: four straight days or two hours one night, and is danced in brilliant costumes with truly striking make-up. Yogja (pronounced "Joke-ja") surrounds the Kraton, the Sultan's Palace built from 1756 to 1790 in traditional Javanese architecture, a miniature model of the Hindu-Javanese cosmos. Each gateway, pavilion, courtyard, tree and field holds a symbolic meaning, and protects an enclave of 25,000 people whose ancestors have served the Sultan for eons. This walled city within the city displays markets, batik, silver, schools, mosques and a bird market, its luxurious pavilions and courtyards attended by elderly retainers in native dress, kris daggers belted on their waists. Daily shows include gamelan (native instrument) concerts, Javanese singing, leather puppet shows and classical dance. The center reception hall, the golden pavilion with its ornate roof, is supported by intricately carved teak columns, a literal museum displaying gifts from visiting monarchs, royal heirlooms and numerous old photos. The neighboring Water Castle was formerly a two story mansion sitting on an elevated mound arising out of an artificial lake with underground chambers and tunnels, one 28 kilometers (17 miles) long to the sea on the south coast. The Castle was replete with sunken bathing pools, secluded meditation chambers, 18 lavish gardens chock full o' flowers, vegetable gardens and fruit trees, now scheduled for restoration from 2006 to 2009 by UNESCO.
Gunung Merapi (fire mountain) is the Fufiesque volcano soaring over Yogja like the grand finale of the world, continuously flowing lava. The lava flow may be viewed by a 4 am climb from Kaliurang, 25 km (15 miles) north of Yogja, high on the volcano's slopes. Merapi's last major explosion killed 60 locals in 1994, though Indonesia's most famous antiquities continue standing close-by. Prambanan is a grand Hindu temple complex on Merapi's southeast corner. The Candi Shiva Mahadeva is 47 meters (160 feet) of ornate carved stone, an eclectic mix of Buddhist & Hindu. Its architects fled to Bali in the 8th—10th Century, escaping the new Muslim rulers of Java.
On the southwest edge of Merapi sits Indonesia's most famous antiquity, Borobudur, constructed from 2 million stone blocks into the world's most gigantic stupa. This gargantuan structure measures 118 meters (360 feet) by 118 meters, representing Tantric Buddhism's view of the cosmos, from its earthbound foundations to nirvana, the Buddhist heaven. More practically, its 1460 ornately carved panels illustrate Javanese life a millennium ago with processions of kings, musicians, elephants and obligatory dancing girls.
The Pangandaran nature reserve is a beach resort extraordinaire, the Bali of Java like before South Pacific. Few Westerners have set foot in Pangandaran, which is frequented primarily by Indonesian tourists attracted to its distinctive black beaches where shallow tides uncover perfect reflections. The reserve occupies the neck of a teardrop-shaped peninsula hooked to Java's south coast, a mere two blocks wide. On its east side fishermen fight through pounding surf while perfectly browned kids frolic on the sand. The west side, with its black sand and shallow water, is the safest swimming on Java's mid-south coast, and is littered with hundreds of colorfully painted bamboo catamarans. Sheer limestone cliffs border fringing beaches, occasionally broken by wind-hewn obsidian rocks pocked with winding caves leading to more secluded beaches. I stumbled across remains of an ancient Hindu Temple, found a swimming hole atop a waterfall plunging 50M (160 feet) over a cliff directly into the Indian Ocean and took a boat up the idyllic Green river, corked by a waterfall where navigation ends. There's wildlife everywhere, from scampering squirrels to macaques, crested leaf monkeys and art deco butterflies. Instead of Bali, go Java and its Pangandaran beach, where the vendors smile, say hi and never press you to buy; so un-Bali.
When You Go to Bali and Java: Anywhere in Southeast Asia is inexpensive to fly to because of Air Asia's, and other competing carrier's, cut-rate fares. See www.airasia.com or enter "Southeast Asia cut-rate airfares" on Google and book now. You can fly from Southeast Asia's air hubs, Bangkok, Hong Kong or Kuala Lumpur, to practically anywhere in the area for about $100 with advance purchase. Hotels outside of Nusa Dua and Kuta in Bali and everywhere in Java offer superb rooms from $15 single, with three and four star rooms going for $50.
In my opinion Bali is safe; but do avoid late-night clubs frequented by Australians.
When at Genung Bromo/Tengger Crater, stay at the Lava View Hotel right on the lip of the rim with rooms from $20 to $65 (sleeps eight), or three kilometers down the mountain at Yoschi's, my personal favorite with eclectic and colorful rooms from $15 and excellent restaurant. Sunrise shared-jeep trips run $7 to 10, or $20 to 25 per jeep. Admissions to Prambanan and Borobudur are $.70 for locals, foreigners $10. Pangandaran beach has a hundred hotels and super deals though few good restaurants, except the seafood is uniformly super. Ikan Bakar is grilled whole fish the size of a platter and will cost $2.50 to $3, an incredible bargain offered all over Java.