Never Mind the Bali, Here’s Indonesia

“That is one happy statue.”

It seems there’s never been a tourist in Indonesia who hasn’t gone to Bali. Bali Bali Bali. There are beaches and Australians but despite all that I’m sure it’s lovely.

The people we encountered in Indonesia, not to mention those we told about the trip before it, simply assumed we were going to Bali so, contrarian bastards that we are, obviously we didn’t. In fact the main reason for coming to Indonesia was another of those incidents where I’ve seen a picture of something on TV and developed a burning urge to see it in the wild, in this case the temple of Borobudur.

But before that we thought it rude not to sample a bit of Jakarta. Indonesia’s capital, though not for long – the city’s sinking, and they’re moving it – Jakarta is the second largest urban area in the world by population and yet felt surprisingly bustle-free. There was a wedding going on at the hotel at 9.30am, which in Britain would be cause to have the riot police on standby, but Indonesia is a Muslim country and not quite as desperate to get deep into the rations as us.

That said they practice a gentle form of liberal Islam, which largely means if you want a pint you can get one. Bintang is their main beer, and it’s fine, but suffers as all beer must from the monstrous humidity that makes all liquids bubble within minutes, including my blood. Lunch on that first day set the pattern – loads of rice, chilli heat if you want it, onions and peppers, and something fried. They’re obsessed with fried food – chicken, fish, tofu, even pork (see, liberal Islam). It reminded me of our diet in Cambodia some years before, which is handy as I bloody loved it and still do. That wouldn’t be the last time Indonesia would remind me of the mighty Cambo.

To the strains of a terrifying rendition of Radiohead’s High & Dry from a duo who’d make Brian Potter hesitate before booking them for the Phoenix, the hotel’s rooftop bar gave us a nice view of a massive city, pleasant at dusk.

The following day we’d get to see more of the place, via a tour with a guide who was no more called Patrick than I am. He was quite proud of Merdeka Square and its National Monument, and rightly so. Indonesia only achieved independence in the years after the Second World War and the monument’s height reflects the date of 17 August 1945, when the initial independence was declared. The Dutch then tried to get back in control, but finally naffed off after a four-year struggle and this country was on its way.

That’s all explained, at great length, in the National Museum. Oh God, museums. It started as they all do fairly interestingly, but there’s only so many half-destroyed statues and pieces of random yet somehow vital cloth I can tolerate. As the third hour edged into view we had to call time on it, not least because the various gangs of schoolkids in there were starting to wind us up by staring at us, even filming us, like we were the exhibits.

Next up was a Chinese market. I really hate Chinese markets in cities like this. Mopeds, an absolute plague on Jakarta, pay no mind to the walkway being just a metre wide as they plunge through pedestrians. The market sells tiny birds, turtles and crabs for doubtless dubious intent. Food on sale included what looked like bread soaked in water, and pork soaked in water, and surely there’s a literal shitstorm coming to anyone eating any of this. Naturally there was a rat running about.

A quick stop at the city’s old dock, which used to be globally famous but is now just a dock, with boats and that, and thus not in any conceivable way worth visiting without a TARDIS. Lunch in a tourist trap called Cafe Batavia was a shambles – 30 minutes to get a Sprite, 30 more minutes to get the bill and three near-identical peanut dishes underlining that if these people could eat peanuts with everything they damn well would.

Finally we visited the Istiqlal Mosque, the largest mosque in Southeast Asia. This glorious building resembles the very finest in multi-storey car park architecture and would certainly be at home in any of Britain’s grandest conurbations, such as Bracknell, or Hull. Here we were once again stared at like carnival attractions, the pointing and laughing by women in hijabs being a particular highlight. We didn’t go inside.

Jakarta’s fine, is what I’m saying, but don’t go out of your way. It was a necessary stop in order to get the train to Yogyakarta, pronounced ‘Yorkshire Carter’ if you can believe it, wherein lies Borobudur. The journey was pleasant, though we could have done without the driver honking his horn like a giddy little boy for the entire 6 hours. There are many paddy fields in the Indonesian countryside, which contributed to my lunch of Nasi Ayam Geprek, a spicy chicken and rice experience that was so hot it nearly ended me. Don’t drink the tap water they say, lest Montezuma takes his revenge, but they don’t mention Nasi Ayam Geprek in the bloody guide books. I loved it of course.

Borobudur is an enormous, 9th century Buddhist temple, the type of thing I have a real weakness for. And yeah, it’s just extraordinary. Our latest guide was a thoroughly engaging fellow by the name of Darwin. He explained the history of the place, various aspects of Buddhism and so on, and not for the first time it struck me as the one world religion that might overall do more good than harm, bollocks though it obviously is.

Due to Covid you can only view the temple from outside, which was actually a win as it spared us the sight of fluorescent tourists clambering all over it. It’s a peaceful place, reminiscent of Angkor Wat of course. It’s massive, a great achievement of both construction and restoration – it was hidden for countries under volcanic rock – and really has to be seen to be believed.

There’s another temple off to the east of Yogyakarta, Hindu this time, that I knew next to nothing about. Prambanan is just as remarkable as Borodudur, and though it’ll take 100 years if they reconstruct it to its former glory it’ll be simply incredible. The fear is that earthquakes are liable to knacker progress; there was a 5.5 earthquake just the day before that nobody seemed to care about, so common are they in the volcanic ‘Ring of Fire’ in this neck of the woods.

After a genuinely wonderful day at the temples we got to see a bit of Yogyakarta itself. It’s an unremarkable city, though its food market was so good it partly banished the memory of pork in water. We tried snake fruit, which was quite unusual, and heard tales of the black keluak nut. It’s so stuffed with cyanide that you have to boil it for a month or it’ll kill you, so naturally someone thought it would be ideal for giving a mild nutty flavour to soup. What a trial and error session that must have been. Darwin also told tales of something called ‘cat shit coffee’, which I’ll generously allow you to Google yourself.

We also had a look around the Sultan’s Palace, where Yogyakarta’s sort-of king lives (the region has some kind of special dispensation to have a monarch, though it’s still a full part of Indonesia). Here we encountered yet more bastard schoolkids pointing, staring and filming, which in the case of one special little boy was the closest I came to losing my rag in a country you really, really don’t want to get arrested. In the palace we also endured a traditional music show, the kind of cacophonous howling that would make Captain Beefheart weep at the injustice of it all. It was here I discovered to my pleasure that the wife’s afraid of puppets. Finally we visited a 200 year old swimming pool for some reason as Yogyakarta definitively ran out of tourism.

This is the point at which most tourists dutifully head east to Bali. Not us. Next stop: Borneo.

Three nights on a riverboat in the jungles of Borneo might not be everyone’s cup of tea but, as previously mentioned, bollocks to Bali. Now, in theory a boat through Tanjung Puting National Park is an excellent opportunity to see some of the mad wildlife the island’s famous for, including of course orangutans. And indeed one of the first things we saw was a massive orange ape, glaring at us from a comfy perch, plainly wondering what we were doing on his patch. These things are huge, I’m telling you, and there’s a weird otherworldliness to seeing one in the wild. Eventually he wandered off, content we weren’t going to pinch his durians, so to speak. Safe travels big fella.

What quickly became clear, though, is that spotting anything from this boat was going to be tricky. Bar a few swiftlets rotating above us, there was barely a dickie bird about – a couple of kingfishers, a few hornbills and a bored-looking eagle. All we could see were the trees immediately either side of the river as we dreamed of the creatures within. Listen, I will never not be grateful for the chance to experience this kind of thing, these trips that most people could never hope to go on. But I can’t lie: through absolutely nobody’s fault, this boat was a bit frustrating.

We did get off it occasionally, to go to the orangutan feeding stations. These are platforms with benches where rangers dump a load of bananas at the same time each day, and orangutans appear to eat said bananas. Given bananas are not native to Borneo it’s oddly contrived, but still excellent to see these giant hairy simians swinging towards their lunch. Or the first platform was, at least, with various apes about. At the second one, a single orangutan frightened off the rest and proceeded to eat the whole lot. Watching one orangutan eat 100 bananas in one hour…ahhh listen, I’m not moaning, but I am moaning.

When this one orangutan finally cleared off, some of the others who’d been watching from the trees nearby descended onto the few remaining scraps, just as the heavens opened. And by Jove did they open – rain like I’ve never experienced, absolute monsoon conditions. I’d walked through the odd puddle on the way in, trying to keep my shoes dry-ish, but swimming back out brought to mind the bloke in Blazing Saddles being dragged through the mud by a horse saying “Well, that’s the end of this suit.”

It’s very apparent that this jungle does not want us in it. That rain was so heavy even the orangutans were cowering and comically covering themselves with large leaves as makeshift umbrellas.

At one point our guide, Nisa, told us not to touch a specific type of tree because the bark gives humans a nasty and weeks-long combination of rash and boils. There was an incident with a Spaniard and a wasp he described as “BIG, VERY BIG”, and bees the size of zeppelins boomed by often. I finally got to see a wild snake, admittedly just a water snake but shut up it counts, it does, yes it does.

Another day, another feeding station, via a surprisingly loud cat named Covid. The plan was to visit another in the afternoon, which apparently would have involved walking through thick mud full of leeches (what are we doing this for again?), but mercifully it pissed it down again and I convinced everyone it was an overly rum do and got the afternoon off. This gave me time to concentrate on scratching my staggering patchwork of mosquito bites, more than I’ve ever experienced, where catching one in the act and flattening it splatters a pint of your own blood up your leg. It’s nearly a fortnight later and I still look like something out of the St Valentine’s Day Massacre. Bastards.

We slept on the boat. Billed as an opportunity to ‘sleep out on deck with the smells and sounds of the jungle all around you’, that turned out to be as accurate as the listing for the Palace Hotel in Elsbels. It turned out for the best though – we saw various boats go by with the outdoor sleeping arrangement we initially felt we’d been denied, but all I could think of was the terrifying scramble for a moonlight piss, trying to keep mosquitoes off my cock. An indoor cabin with en-suite bathroom? Oh if you insist.

If all this sounds a bit like hard work, it was rescued by the monkeys. I find monkeys endlessly fascinating. There are a few macaques about but mostly it’s proboscis monkeys, the lads with the big hooters. Apes swing but monkeys leap, often incredible distances from tree to tree, and there’s nothing quite like a group of monkeys hurling themselves around for a better spot up a favourite tree or whatever they’re after.

Borneo at an end we had one last day in Indonesia, spent in the city of Surabaya, largely due to the vagaries of flight timetables. We had a guide here too for a brief spell, a man named Han who sounded like Harvey Keitel. He told us with some pride about his manor’s status as ‘city of heroes’, important in the independence struggle. What little we saw of Surabaya seemed very nice, with lots of trees (due to a well-respected female mayor – liberal Islam again) and various Dutch colonial buildings repurposed for this and that.

But that was the end of our stay in the fourth most populous nation on Earth. One of those trips you can file under ‘good not great’, I guess. The wonderful temples and the great beasts of Borneo have to be weighed up against so-so cities, a vexatious boat ride and a billion mosquitoes chanting Chris Chris Chris day and night.

One important positive is that I don’t think I’ve felt at less risk in any country we’ve visited. This is very much not a country where you need to fear shifty bastards trying to part you from your trinkets. And there’s a fair level of English around, though conversation can descend into incomprehension if you stray too far from ‘two Bintangs please’. Any attempt to throw in an Indonesian phrase yourself is met with outright bewilderment. Or maybe they just still hadn’t got over that we weren’t in Bali, where I’ll probably never go on a stubborn point of principle.

Peanuts grow underground, by the way. What the hell is that all about?

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