With Singapore behind us, our backpacking trip began in Indonesia. We decided to head to the embassy in Singapore beforehand and get a 60-day visa as we wanted time to explore this incredible country. With that in mind, this is the itinerary that we planned for the nine days we would be spending in Java:
Our journey commenced in Jakarta as flights are cheap from Singapore (around $65 USD per person, but we had to pay for our baggage, can’t sneak these backpacks on board the budget airlines) and we had never been. We spent one night there and that was more than enough. I’m not sure if it’s because we just came from a relatively clean and efficient city but Jakarta did nothing for me. It was ridiculously chaotic and getting around as a pedestrian (my favourite mode of transport) was damn near impossible. We did learn early on that GrabCar in Java is insanely cheap, a lesson we took well advantage of as we progressed.
From Jakarta we took the 6am train to Yogyakarta, a journey of 8 hours or so into Central Java. We decided to elect for a business class ticket as we (erroneously, it turned out) anticipated the economy train to be complete insanity. Passing vistas of sprawling bright green rice paddies and palm trees it was a feast for the eyes, and it was beginning to feel like we were in traveler mode.
Yogyakarta is a cool city for a backpacker. There’s a burgeoning artisan, kind of hipster vibe to Jogja as it’s affectionately called, filled with lots of cool cafes and places to eat. If you visit Yogyakarta I highly recommend the guesthouse ‘Benetta House.’ The host Silva is amazing, and will look after everything you might need while in Java. We were amazed by the prices in Java, for less than $3USD you can easily get a delicious meal and a (non alcoholic drink).
Side bar: while there are places to drink in the very touristy areas of Jogja, it is the exception to the rule in Java. It’s a predominantly Muslim island (as the 4am call to prayer each morning will make you quickly aware of) and alcohol is sparse. In addition, it’s advisable to dress more conservatively than you would in Bali, despite the heat. People are not openly hostile, but it’s simple respect of another country’s culture. With that said, I’ve honestly never met friendlier people in my life, and a good meal here rivals any of the best cuisine in Southeast Asia.
From Jogja we jumped up to Borobodur. A lot of people would just head up from Jogja for the sunrise views of the temple, but since it was my birthday we decided to splurge a little bit and stay at a nice place overlooking the rice paddies in the countryside for a few nights. It’s a beautiful area and recommended if you have the time. The people here were even more amazing than those in the city. It’s clear that many of the villagers don’t have a lot of interaction with foreigners (even more so since this is the rainy season, in conjunction with the volatile situation in Bali because of Mount Agung, tourism is way way down), and everyone treated us like we were their long lost Canadian cousins.
We were glad that we opted for two nights, as the first morning we were woken to the sound of torrential rain thundering down on our roof, rendering the idea of venturing to Borobodur for sunrise quickly pointless. The second morning we lucked in though, and woke up at 4am to head to the temple to catch the sunrise.
Borobodur is the world’s largest Buddhist temple, built in the 9th century, back when Buddhism was the predominant religion in Java. Along with Bagan in Myanmar and Angkor Wat in Cambodia, it forms the trinity of ‘must see’ Buddhist temples in Southeast Asia. It’s a spectacular complex, and being there at sunrise is a must. That said, at 450k Rupiah (about $40USD) per person for the sunrise ticket it’s pretty damn steep for Java, especially considering there isn’t much to see outside of the temple itself, whereas Bagan and Angkor Wat can take days to properly explore. In addition, it’s a bit odd being at a giant Buddhist temple in the midst of a Muslim country. We saw no practicing Buddhists, and the place felt more like a relic of the past than a functional temple, as the aforementioned ones do. That being said, it was a breathtaking place, being surrounded by active volcanoes and the mist rising from the forest below.
One thing that happened a lot at Borobodur (and everywhere in Java) was people wanting to take photos with us. I swear if we charged ten cents per photo we could have paid our entire Java trip with our earnings. That said, the people were genuinely really nice about it, although I can’t for the life of me figure out what they want the photos for.
From Borobodur it was back to Jogja for two nights then on the train again to East Java. Silva had told us that there was little difference in train quality between the Business and Economy classes, so we went with Economy for the second 8.5 hour trip. The price for a Business class ticket was about $20USD which we thought was crazy cheap until we bought our Economy ticket for about $6USD. As I mentioned, Java is inexpensive. This leg of the trip we planned a bit in advance, and I am glad we did.
We arrived in Probolinggo with the full intent of traveling to hike Mount Bromo the following morning. There is literally almost nothing to do in Probo and I would advise the same to anyone going there. We were able to meet some other backpackers from Germany and France and together booked a trip to visit Bromo for sunrise. Our wakeup call was at 2:30AM to get into the car and head the 45 minutes or so to the volcanoes.
It’s not very often that I am completely blown away by a location we travel to, but holy shit, Mount Bromo did it for me. We got really lucky (I didn’t realize this until afterwards) with the valley of swirling mist and fog surrounding the base of the volcano. Also, as I mentioned, we were traveling in rainy season and had seen our fair amount of rainfall leading into the day of, but this morning Brahma, the Hindu God who is still worshipped there (and where the name Bromo is derived) smiled upon us and the weather truly couldn’t have been better. If you visit Bromo I highly advise taking the time and effort to hike up to ‘King Kong Hill’ (no idea why it’s called that) as it absolutely offers the best view for sunrise. From there we took a Jeep into the park itself and scaled Bromo to take a look into the crater. It’s a pretty cool walk through a surreal Mars-like landscape up to the crater itself. It’s pretty wild peering down into an active volcano, and again the visibility was amazing.
After about 45 selfies with Indonesians (I’m not joking) we headed down and back to Probo. We had opted to take the 4.5 hour train that evening to Banyuwangi, with a plan to hike Mount Ijen the next morning. A lot of people thought we were crazy to do this, but as the towns of Probo and Banyuwangi offered no interest to us, we figured just do it and then head to Bali the next day. We booked our Ijen portion through a place called Herry’s Guesthouse. Herry is the man and I cannot recommend his services enough. He picked us up at the train station, took us for an amazing local meal, then to his guesthouse where we were able to squeeze in a whopping two hours of sleep prior to waking up at 12:30AM (yes, that is correct) to hike Ijen.
Ijen is very different from Bromo. First off, it’s a crater rather than a volcano. Second, while Bromo was spewing up a few plumes of smoke, Ijen was smoking like a wildlife. It can actually be pretty dangerous to climb into the crater if the wind is blowing the wrong way. Gas masks are used without question and the hike is far more intense than Bromo, which seems like a leisurely stroll comparatively.
Part of the appeal of Ijen is climbing into the crater itself for a chance at witnessing the fabled ‘Blue Fire’, a phenomenon that occurs as a result of the heat of the crater interacting with the heavy doses of sulfur to form blue flames that appear in the smoke like alien signals from a spaceship. This can only be seen here and a spot in Iceland so we felt it was well worth the attempt. The descent is treacherous, filled with slippery loose rocks and no discernible path at times. I was actually grateful that we were descending in the dark (you can only see the Blue Fire prior to sunrise) as I think we benefited from not seeing what the hell we were getting into. Luckily when we got to the bottom we were able to see the Blue Fire which was jaw-droppingly awesome, and we felt extremely fortunate. Crazily, there are men that work down there every morning mining the sulfur. They carry two huge loads of sulfur precariously balanced on a bamboo pole up and down the crater each morning wearing only sandals and no masks, dodging inexperienced tourists the entire time. Mad respect to those guys.
After that we ascended again and watched the sunrise for the second straight day. Again, the weather was magnificent and put on a show. The crater became extremely active around sunrise, billowing enormous sprays of densely sulfuric smoke in every direction, and reaffirming my gratefulness for the gas masks. Although it was incredible I must confess I was a little bummed not to get a clear view of the brilliant turquoise blue of the acidic crater lake. Can’t win ’em all.
The descent back into the valley after sunrise was a feast for the days, and stood as a complete juxtaposition to the barren, devoid of life image given off by Ijen itself. Rolling green hills and trees dotted with orange and red brought to mind an autumnal scene in Tuscany, and made the descent far more pleasant than the ascent had been. That said, when we got to the bottom we all breathed a sigh of relief that we wouldn’t be climbing any more volcanoes for the next few days.
With that, it was time to say goodbye to Java. We drove to the ferry terminal and bought our ticket to Gilimanuk in Bali for a cool 6.5k Rph (less than 50 cents). It was a brilliant trip that completely exceeded my expectations. If anyone was asking for advice, I would say 9-10 days is perfect, but I would try to fly directly into Jogja rather than going from Jakarta. There were a few waterfalls I would have loved to see in East Java, but the cost of renting a car was more than we wanted on our backpacking budget, and there are plenty of waterfalls in Bali and Lombok to satiate my long exposure requirements. I cannot recommend Java enough for people looking for adventure and a unique experience on a budget.
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