Thursday, July 29, 2010


“Senggigi has everything, except crowds. Although as more people come to Lombok, that is changing; this is a place to get away from your fellow travellers in just the place you’d expect to find them.”
Lonely Planet 2010

“Senggigi epitomises the loathsome nature of custom designed villages/resorts dressed up as gateways to the white sands of the beach. Senggigi is a trailer park in which every second building is a Tourist Information point where you’ll be unwillingly led and aggressively sold packages to places you don’t want to go to, and in any case are unlikely to be brought. Think Salthill without the sea and the prom. Yes, that bad.”
Mossy, late July 2010

Bless it - all Senggigi has is its white sand. In fairness though, it pretends to be nothing more than what it is - a pit-stop on the Lombok/Bali highway and the gateway to the Gili islands and Rinjani. Senggigi knows its being used so it does its utmost to use you in return. Absolutely everyone has something to sell here. The town is unashamedly and dispiritingly a latter day gold rush settlement, trading in supposed cut-price deals and shuttle services to places that - mercifully - aren’t Senggigi.
I trooped around town earlier to try to find more information on a reliable organisation with which to plan my Rinjani trek. Bafflingly, everyone claims to be the premier tour service for Rinjani. The problem is that you have to be careful who you go with - Rinjani is 3,700 metres high and situated in the heart of Lombok so if you go with a half-arsed organisation, you’re likely to be quite literally left high and dry. Based on some tentative online recommendations I’m leaving with the Rinjani Trekking Company taking in a 2 day/1 night trek to the summit. Apparently I’ll be travelling with 7 others - all of them - sacré bleu - French, and all part of the same group. Time to sign off - I’m losing concentration between the contrasting sounds of the call to prayer from the nearby mosque and a girl in the room next door who’s having a shower and positively butchering Bizarre Love Triangle. The call to prayer has never sounded so good.

Sunday, July 25, 2010


Think of Bali and you imagine sea, surf, vast hordes of Aussie backpackers doing what they can (and can't) get away with in Kuta, tropical rainforests, Balinese traditions and culture....all this but surely not rain? Ahhhhh, the luck of the Irish eh? Got into Bali late, very late, last night. So much so that there was quite literally no room at any inn (by the twelfth knock back I had to look to make sure there wasn't a pregnant Mary and donkey with me) and so I was forced to pop around the corner to the local 24 hour McD's and enjoy their wi-fe and drink gallons of their unpleasant tea. It's morning now and I'd quite like to move and search for some accommodation but there's been an obscene emptying of the skies for the past hour and it hasn't relented in the slightest. At this stage I feel as familiar with the staff here as, say, Jack from Coronation Street might be with Bet Gilroy. A mere lift of the finger brings the umpteenth tea of the morning. It's quite the spectacle outside and nowhere is there a sign of a break in the rain. Ah, Bali; come for the surf, stay for the rain.

The Bromo experience

Lauded as one of Java's must sees, the trip to Gunung Bromo is an easy sell. Picture perfect shots of the sun rising behind a still active volcano in a lunaresque landscape. Bromo was easily the most anticipated part of my visit to Java. Signing up for a pretty decent tour offer from Yogya we piled into a minibus and spent ten hours travelling the road close to Cemoro Lawang - the gateway to Bromo. Our hotel was up a notch or two from the standards I've become accustomed to - hot water for Christ's sake - but nobody got to enjoy their sleep there as a 2.30am wake up call loomed over all of us in anticipation of the big event.
Wisely informed to wrap up as the temperature would be around 4 C up there, we set off in our bus initially and then transferred to 4WD for the ascent of Bromo's neighbour Tengger Caldera. It was misty as we made our way up but I assumed that this would disappear in time for us to enjoy the spectacle. It could well have been the Champs Elysée when we got to the summit - I was the sole native English speaker in a crowd thronged with French men and women (and one who - pompously - explained to me that he was not French, he was from Bretangne - the equivalent of a Corkonian taking himself a wee bit too seriously).
Regardless, as the dawn approached it became clear (no pun intended of course) that the big event would not be happening. As an Irishman I felt almost responsible for the sickeningly shitty mist which clung stubbornly to the mountain all through the morning, only disappearing as we arrived back at our hotel, suitably chastened by Mother Nature without the expected money shots of Bromo doing her thing. Today's selection of snaps are appropriately grey. Sad then that my favourite snap of the day was of a gecko clinging to a bathroom ceiling. It's not all fun and games you know.


Solo - like spending a night in the company of a lady of the night. You wake up in the morning and have no idea why you're there, you can't remember anything about it, you truly wish you hadn't done it and you hope that no-one ever finds out about it. Welcome to Solo.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Yogyakarta & Prambanan

4 hours down the long and winding road that separates it from Wonosobo is Yogyakarta, my home for 2 days. Yogya (pronounced Jogja) is a typically bustling Indonesian city and home to the Kraton, where the tenth sultan (the local governor) hangs out. Yogya once was capital city of Indonesia but once the Dutch handed the country back, Jakarta was decided upon as the new capital. The kraton itself is pretty dull and livened up only by my guide who speculated about the conjugal prowess of the sultan. It appears the sultan doesn't have a male heir which led to the following conversation.
"How old is his wife?" I asked
"60," she replied.
"Ah, too late for the sultan then."
"Oh no, the sultan may take many wives. He is only 64 so I think he has more time."
The food in this country to date has been impeccable. There are warung (tiny family owned food stalls) all over the place, but it's mostly guesswork when you're ordering - an epicurean Russian roulette - but I haven't been disappointed yet. Warning though - do not come to Indonesia hoping to shed weight or lower your cholesterol level. Everything - everything - here is deep fried. They probably even give the salad a once over in the wok.
This afternoon I took a trip out to Pambanan to visit the Hindu temples there. Caught the local bus out and am glad I did so as otherwise I'd have missed out on the station announcer who made each approaching station announcement sound like he was auditioning for Hamlet. The temples were badly damaged by an earthquake in 2006 but remain a wonderful sight and not all that heavily touristed. Used my INTO card as a 'student' card and it worked ($7 instead of $15) - hell, I knew that bloody card had to be useful for something.
As for accommodation on the island so far, hostels have been few and far between at least in the cities and towns I've visited. Instead there are many losmen in which you get your own private room and a toilet if you're lucky but you'll need to bring your own bog roll. Some come with a/c but almost all have a fan at least, essential in this heat. My present home has wi-fi hence the blogging binge but I'll be on the road for the next few days to Solo and then on to Gunung Bromo before heading to Bali to finally rid myself of this farmer's tan.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Dieng Plateau

Dieng can be found high in the hills above Wonosbo. I took a bus there this morning (an hour) to check out the recommended Dieng Plateau. The book itself was vague about the terrain and so I strapped on my hiking boots and socks in the hope of some proper hiking. Now as if I’m not conspicuous enough - the sight of my 6’4” frame lumbering around in search of a climb that wasn’t there must have been an engaging sight to behold.
The bus ride started off in cloud and left me cursing my luck again with regard to visibility but, lo and behold, we drove through the cloud cover and into a different world. I half expected the heavenly figure of Michael Landon himself to be there to greet me, braces on, wagon waiting to bring me to the land of milk and honey but alas back in reality I was stuck on my minibus with no leg room and no chance of stopping to enjoy the stunning vista.
On all sides active and dormant volcanoes vie for attention with impeccably maintained and impossibly steep rice terraces, each terrace a hive of activity - think of those classic images you have of Chinese paddy fields, women working planting the rice wearing the wide-brimmed straw hats and the men working the ox (or, more often that not today, watching the women do the work).
There’s a 5km trek you can do which takes in the local sights - the hot springs at Sikida have to be smelled to be believed. There’s also a beautiful old temple complex where I chanced upon what appeared to be a style shoot, probably for some Japanese fashion magazine. A married couple stood by the ruins throwing pose after pose under the excited instructions of about 10 little men running around chattering excitedly and little else besides. Think an Austin Powers shoot or, better still, that scene in Lost in Translation when Bill Murray films the whiskey advertisement. In fact, that’s exactly what it was.
As I walked around the familiar refrain of ‘Hello Mister’ rang out a hundred times or more. When you approach Indonesian people, they initially eye you warily but if you maintain eye contact and make an attempt at a smile, their faces light up. Throw in a phrase like ‘Apa kabar?’ (How are you?) and they’re equally thrilled and amused. Beautiful people. Well, most of them. As I drained a tea whilst waiting for my bus to return, the guy who runs one of the hostels in Dieng introduced himself to me. The talk, inevitably, turned to music and he proceeded to play me every song on his phone. Loudly. He’s quite the metal fan - Metallica, Motorhead etc - but then from nowhere, ‘My Heart Will Go On’. He smiled as it played - “Music for faggots,” he said. Oh how he laughed.

Cianjur, rural villages and Britney

Few get or, indeed, want to see places like Cianjur, a city lying to the east of Jakarta. Fewer still then get to visit the remote villages which dot the hills surrounding the city. There is a well-trodden tourist trail in Java which generally takes the visitor from Jakarta-Bandung-Yogya-Solo-Bromo and then onward to Bali. I had little idea of what to expect then when I signed up for a couple of day's homestay with Yudi - a well-travelled and well-spoken Indonesian who developed the programme ostensibly to bring visitors (and revenue) to the area but also to assist with the teaching of English.
Cianjur itself has little to see in terms of breathtaking sights but if it's your first experience proper - as it is mine - of urban Asia outside of the capital cities then it's hard to beat. Everyone rides a moped along dusty roads, tiny 'stores' everywhere along the roadside selling papaya, banana and coconut (and that's just the food I recognised), and people, people, people everywhere. So for me, Cianjur right now suits just fine. On my second day here I was to climb the hills to make my way to one of the traditional villages surrounding Cianjur. My guide for the day would be Jamal - a 20 year old Javanese with ambitions to become a lecturer one day and whose unabashed happiness lit up the day. On the downside, Jamal is a fan of Britney Spears, which is in itself no crime (certainly not in Indonesia) but he appears to know just one line from 'Oops I did it again' which he proceeded to sing for the entire fucking day. It began to grate.
We took his motorbike to the base of the hills and walked the hour or so it took to get there through the incredibly manicured paddy fields. There is rice everywhere here. The walk itself was more of a gradual climb and as Cianjur doesn't share the same stifling humidity as Jakarta we made rapid progress to our destination. It's funny that when you're completely oblivious of potential danger how you venture calmly into the unknown. However as we trekked and Jamal casually sidestepped a dead scorpion, my mindset changed somewhat. "So Jamal, are there many scorpions here?" I naively enquired. "Oh yes," he casually responded "when the vallagers see a scorpion they kill it because they are dangerous." At that moment I felt the invisible stare of the scorpion population of Cianjur trained on my bare legs. I stepped up the pace and put it to the back of my mind as best I could.
The 'village' itself was a collection of 10 or 11 bamboo houses on the hill. We visited one and were treated to a meal of rice - all you can eat - tofu, corn and cheese fritters and a beautiful fruit shell and spice mixture. Jamal also brought me to see a neighbour making brown sugar. A vast wok containing the treacle-like mixture was stirred to thickness then ladled into the bamboo casts where it changed into its final cylindrical form after 5 minutes of cooling. The final product is then lovingly wrapped in the leaves of a coconut tree and is ready for sale. Two of the cylindrical casts weigh 1kg and a kilo of brown sugar will set you back 7,000 IR at the market (70c to us) where they are brought to be sold on Wednesdays and Sundays.
Jamal - bless him - also did his best to teach me Indonesian. Well, I harangued him into doing so if the truth be told as in the course of the next 30 days I feel obliged to at least make an effort with the native tongue. Right now I can stumble from one to ten, I can say that I’m tired/hot/cold(like that’s going to be useful) and, most importantly, I can say with great fluency ‘Please don’t rip me off.’ Homestay programmes are a terrific way of meeting local people and truly sampling local specialities - respect is due then to Dudung and Tati who provided my accommodation for two nights and enough food to feed three of me.


Ah, so this is Asia. My proper introduction then, came - as it should - on a bus. Arrived at Jakarta airport utterly spaced after forgoing a night's sleep at KL airport. Getting the airport bus to the bus station was the easy part, it was just after that things started to get a little frazzled. My bus to Cianjur (the ’c’ pronounced like ’ch’) was leaving from Kampung Rambutan station and getting off the bus felt a little like being fed to the lions and sure enough there was a pride waiting for me when I disembarked. A flurry of questions ensued - 'Where do you go mister?' 'You come my bus!' (granted that was more of a statement of intent) etc etc.
Quickly found the Cianjur bus by myself (it's difficult giving a tout the impression that you know where you're going when you're glancing haplessly at each bus and you're gripping your copy of the Lonely Planet in your hand) and found my way to the back seats where there was at the least the promise of some leg room. No sooner had I sat down than Phase II of the attack commenced. 6 hawkers clearly sensing fresh meat made their way towards me plying their wares. Not only was I not hungry, I didn't have much of an idea what it was they were selling. I shook my head firmly, they got the hint, had a conversation probably along the lines of "tightarse fucking bulé (foreigner)" right in front of me and sodded off. Once the engine of the bus was up and running I assumed that we were about to hit the open road, but no. It took us half an hour to leave the station itself - buses tend to wait until every seat is taken as so timetables are an arbitrary thing but it gave a phenomenal stream hawkers free rein to sell, sell, sell. Then came the buskers. Three groups - I could have sworn I saw Glen Hansard - each of them a guitar/vocal combo (there was a trio, the third member clapping sheepishly out of rhythm with the guitar- the fifth Beatle, I thought). Well, if crime doesn't pay, then neither does busking in Java as each successive group sidled off, near empty cap in hand ready to jump the next bus out of the station.
The bus itself was 'ekonomi' which basically meant no air-con and - a la Ryanair - designed to fit as many bodies into as small a space as possible. The back door which I had foolishly sat myself beside rarely closed as it picked up and deposited both passengers and the unrelenting stream of hawkers ready to pounce whenever the bus slowed, which was frequently. The drive itself was beautiful as we climbed out of Jakarta through the hills outside the city. In the three and a half hours it took to bring us to Cianjur, there was scarcely a patch at the side of the road that was unmanned by a food stall or mini-market selling the freshest fruit. Stalls selling teeming heaps of unrecognisable snacks, local specialities and - bizarrely - baseball caps proclaiming 'I LOVE PERSIA'. It’s up there on my most wanted list now along with a Nick Cave doll.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

In the city in the rain

1am at KL's budget airline terminal. More waiting. I fly to Jakarta at 7am and from there to a village outside the city/town of Cianjur. More about that anon. I'm done with KL but out of necessity will probably return here for one night in August on my way north. KL was cool but left me feeling ambivalent towards it. Very western, fantastic PT system, surprisingly clean....could have been Europe. Chinatown and Little India have much to recommend them, not least the chance to haggle for sub-standard rip off Levis and Crocs. Even then though, they haggle so politely here. I've haggled with difficulty before - Cairo springs to mind - but haggling KL style lacks the sense that you've truly insulted the seller by quoting an obscenely low price in response to his obscenely high opening one. No haggling, no fun.
Another spectacular thunderstorm on the way out to the airport tonight. This will now become the norm and Java's forecast is pretty much identical for the next 5 days - humidity and storms. The travelling hasn't truly begun yet. KL was a place to stretch the legs before strapping on the pack(s) and hitting some remoter places along the way.
I did try to do the tourist thing this morning by getting up at 7am - as recommended - to visit the Petronas towers. For anyone who's bothered by such matters, the towers were the tallest free standing structure on the planet until 2004 and then again in 2010 when the ridiculous Dubai Tower was completed. Anyway, the Petronas are some 452 metres in height and you can get free tickets to visit the sky bridge which connects the two towers. So I arrived just before 9am, descended to mezzanine where the tickets were being distributed only to see a mass of faces in a queue about as long as the towers are tall. Either the view is amazing from up there or there is bugger all else to do in KL. I'm edging towards the latter.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Kuala Lumpur

It would appear that I'm not in Kansas anymore. You know you're in Asia when, having left the all enveloping cool of the airport to walk into a wall of heat so intense you almost have to weave your way through it and you're reliably informed that this is a mild spell. It's pissing down outside as I type which is doing nothing to alleviate the humidity. It's 6.06pm and it's as if someone switched the lights out early.
Arrived this morning after 8am courtesy of Air Asia. I'd been led to believe that they were down there with Ryanair in terms of cutting costs - I requested a cup of hot water which resulted in the following exchange;
"We do sell tea and coffee sir."
"I don't want tea and coffee thanks. I'd just like a cup of hot water."
(visibly piqued) "We don't sell water sir."
I'd happily fly with them again though. The staff were polite albeit in that irritating 'I have been programmed to answer every question vaguely' way. Nice to see also that Malaysia could give the lads at Dublin airport a run for their money in the 'What the fuck are they doing with my bag?' stakes. Malaysia would win that one hands down but it got here and so did I so hurray for Air Asia.
Rain outside has upped a notch from heavy to torrential and I'm guessing that Biblical won't be too far behind. I would love to upload some photos of some of the wacky sights I saw as I roamed the streets of downtown KL in search of my hostel but the truth is that the camera didn't come out once today. Just had a quick glance at the 5 day forecast for here and it's more of the same tomorrow. Temperatures approaching 30 with the threat (I'm guessing promise) of thundery showers. Here for another couple of days and then onward to Java.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Stage II: The airport

Waiting, waiting,'s what airports depend on. It's Day 1 and I'm sat here in Knock airport awaiting departure of Flight FR 80 something or other to London Stansted, grateful for the fact that at least Knock has wireless internet access. Truly Monsignor Horan saw that one coming before everyone else. Knock also has its shitty departure tax, something in all my years of coming here I've never been able to figure out. It's the equivalent of the guy who sits at the ATM, cap in hand as you make a withdrawal, except here you are obliged to fork out.
Knock also seems to be the only place in Ireland - well, maybe Mullingar & Longford too - which is permanently shrouded in fog. On the drive here, my brother commented that "at least there's no fog". But as soon as we turned right off the N17, there it was, enveloping the hill. I've had flights cancelled from Knock before because of fog - missing a Tindersticks gig in Manchester because of it! - but it seems as if we're set to go this morning.
Knock's full of grumpy parents this morning, chasing after children shouting 'Go back to Mammy.' I'll soon know how to say that in about 5 different languages. Anyway, to the sound of Neil Hannon singing of 'burritos and conceptual art' I'm signing off for now.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Stage I: The prep

So then, 13 months on the road lie ahead. Probably the least enjoyable part of travelling is all of the bullshit preparation beforehand. Small tasks, all of them time-consuming but almost all done now. Every trip I've been on I've promised myself that I'll pack lightly and each successive trip has seen me bear a heavier load than the previous one. Ironically then on my longest trip of all I'll be bearing the lightest load. Thus far my itinerary looks like this;
July 10th: Knock-London Stansted. 3 nights in Watford!
July 13th: Stansted - Kuala Lumpur.
July 14th: Arrive in KL and stay for 2 nights here.
July 17th: Fly KL to Jakarta, Indonesia.
I'm spending a month exploring Java having spent almost a month online deciding whether to go there or Sumatra, but Java it is. I'm flying with Air Asia for the next 3 months I think, that is when I need to fly. Alas their reputation is akin to Ryanair's and I'm flying long haul with them to KL. You have to pay for extra leg room with them and as DVT wouldn't exactly be a pleasant start to the trip, it's been added on.
August 15th: Bali - KL
August 15th: KL - Kuching, Borneo
Then it's 10 days in Borneo. I presently know two things about Borneo;
(a) There is much jungle to be explored
(b) If I want to see orangutans in the wild on this trip, Borneo's the place to see them.
Much like deciding which part of Indonesia to visit, Borneo has Sabah and Sarawak, each with their own places of interest. I'll be mostly exploring the southern state of Sarawak, in the process giving up the chance to climb this. It isn't that I don't want to climb Mount Kinabalu, it's just the fact that when you get there you're bled dry for cash and there's too much pre-planning involved such as getting permits, guides, accommodation near the summit etc. Besides, as magnificent as the views would undoubtedly be from the summit, it appears to be the mountain climbing equivalent of visiting Petra, except you have to wait behind the queues of people inching their way unsteadily upward.
Itineraries are only there as a guide. For example, when I get to Indonesia, I really have no idea where I'll go during the 30 days my visa grants me there. I do know that there is much to see and many volcanoes to be climbed.
Music will be a central part of the trip and I've been busying myself making the obligatory playlists. Playlist I thus far contains The 6ths, Adrian Crowley, American Music Club and Animals That Swim. First book of the trip will be this. Books and music - these are the important things. On that note.....