The aphorism “saving the best for last” couldn’t be truer. Indonesia is the last SE Asian country of our journey and my favorite so far. Each place we’ve been to over the last 4 weeks has brought a special experience that makes me glad we have 8 weeks here. The people are genuinely friendly, the food is delicious, the scenery is stunning, and everything is so cheap!
We started west in Sumatra with a 2-day trek in the jungle near Bukit Luwang. We observed the endangered Sumatran orangutan in the wild, spotted gibbons, peacocks and owls, and our guide captured a giant red centipede because it has medicinal qualities for treating asthma. The orangutans were so friendly and full of curiosity that it was hard to leave, especially when we spotted a mother with her baby.
Then it was south to Samosir Island in the middle of Lake Toba. Afternoon showers encouraged interesting conversations amongst fellow travelers under the common area canopy; Spanish, Russian, Czech, German, Australian, Kiwi, Iranian, Canadian, American. If only our leaders could converse so civilized… When it wasn’t raining we visited hot springs, sat by the lake, and learned about Batik architecture and culture. At $6/night for a room and $1.25 for a meal, we easily stayed for 6 nights.
Then we flew southeast to West Java and did a homestay in the small town of Cianjur. We didn’t see another Westerner for 3 days! Our host set us up with two English teachers who took us to work with them one day. The couple travels to 3 schools every day, driving up to an hour between each one, just to make ends meet and keep their two children in school. (Public school ends at 9th grade here) We helped teach children ages 9-11, whose excitement was seldom contained, and felt like celebrities at each stop. Everyone wanted a picture and an autograph! The next day, we got dirty learning how to be a rice farmer in the knee-deep muck of a rice paddy. The owner of the farm is also a teacher at the local university and asked if we could come speak to his students to help them practice English. Again, the excitement of a Westerner ensued. Overall, the locals embraced our visit with warmth, enthusiasm, and generosity.
From there it was 10 hours east to Yogyakarta where we stayed for a week taking care of some business. We got our visa extended, bought some new clothes, and experienced one of the rarest (and best) coffees in the world: Kopi Luwak (yes, the civet-poop coffee). Even at $8 per cup, it was a steal compared to prices back home! We also took time to visit Borobudur, the world’s largest Buddhist monument, which was absolutely stunning in the early morning light. I thought about hiking Mount Merapi, the most active volcano on the most active volcanic island, but Gabriella convinced me otherwise. Besides, there were other volcanoes in our future.
Heading further east across Java, we stopped twice more to witness Mount Bromo at sunrise and the blue fire of Kawah Ijen before dawn. The viewpoint at Bromo was crowded and touristy at 4:30am, but for good reason. The sun rose perfectly at 5am, illuminating 3 volcanic peaks and a massive crater, while clouds blanketed the valley below. At 6am, our jeep took us closer to the crater where we hiked up to the edge and peered down inside the smoking bowl. By 8am we were having breakfast overlooking the Mars-like volcanic landscape and at 9am we hit the road.
Eight hours later we arrived at a guesthouse near a coffee plantation in preparation for visiting Ijen. The original plan was to leave at 4am, drive 60 minutes to the park entrance, and hike 90 minutes to the crater lake. We heard rave reviews from other travelers that the “blue fire” was a must-see, but could only be experienced at night. This meant leaving at 1am instead of 4am so we would arrive before the sun was up. After coaxing the driver with some extra cash for waking up early, we left at 1:15am and made it to the crater lake just before 4am. Luckily, we met another group on the trail with a guide and he showed us the way down to the blue fire.
Kawah Ijen is basically a sulfur mine at the bottom of a crater with a glowing lake adjacent to it. The blue fire is burning sulfur. We got as close as we safely could to get some pics, but then the wind shifted and we were engulfed in sulfuric smoke that burned our eyes and throats and made us even more disoriented in the dark hours before dawn. Still…it was totally worth it. When we made it back up to the top, the sun was brightening the sky and we could finally see the amazing landscape that surrounded us. The blue fire disappeared and all that remained was billowing sulfuric smoke from a pit of bright yellow sulfur where we had been standing moments earlier. Behind it was the stunning crater lake glowing turquoise.
As the morning progressed, we saw men coming to mine the sulfur and carry baskets back to town. Each would load 2 wicker baskets connected by a stick of bamboo and haul it on their shoulder for nearly 2 hours; up from the bottom of the crater and down to the village 3km away. The load weighs about 100kg and they do one trip per day, which pays about $10 USD. I could barely even lift one basket an inch off the ground and couldn’t imagine carrying it uphill! Truly one of the most remarkable places I’ve ever been.
From Ijen, it was back to the hotel by 7am, 2 hours in a van to the bus station, 2 hours on a bus, 1-hour ferry to Bali, 4-hour local bus to Denpasar, and 30-minute bemo (van) ride to Senur. We finally collapsed in the hotel with hot shower and comfy bed at 6pm. Just in time to celebrate Gabriella’s birthday in Bali the next day!