The island crossing adventure starts at the bus station. If you’re lucky, it might be an actual station, with classes and prices clearly posted. But it’s just as likely to be a dusty field with a complete free-for-all – in which case, I hope you’re ready to bargain because there’s nothing the locals love more than fleecing backpackers for a ride in a packed, smoke-filled bus. Because yes – smoking is openly permitted on Indonesian buses.
In comparison, the bus in Cambodia feels fast. You look out the window and the scenery is flying past; a glance out the windscreen confirms that the driver is tearing along – often directly into oncoming traffic – and making manoeuvres at a speed that seems physically impossible (at least, without the bus tipping over). And then it’s nine hours later, you’re covered in dust and left wondering how it took so long to cover two hundred kilometers.
In Java, however, the bus isn’t just slow. It feels slow. Mind numbingly, tediously, ridiculously slow. It’s also relatively expensive and hideously uncomfortable, but it left on time, so the service will probably be good, right? Tell me if you still feel that way after creeping around the city for several hours looking for even more passengers to cram in. Every single stop floods the bus with buskers, beggars, and crowds of salespeople (one thing we do like though: instead of the ubiquitous dead bird and mystery meat on a stick they flog you in Indochina, the bus vendors’ choice of snack here is fried salty tofu with whole chilli chasers – delicious). Finally, you escape to the open road, only to start traveling – if possible – even slower.
You see, Java is actually one long traffic jam from west to east: the single lane highways are so clogged with trucks that the only way to make progress is in the lane with oncoming traffic. The choices seem to be: risk death, or never arrive. Given that the people coming the other way are facing the same problem, it quickly degenerates into a slow motion destruction derby.
We didn’t enjoy West Java, in case you are still wondering. The cities were crowded, polluted and lacking any redeeming features. But if a destination is disappointing in itself, imagine how much worse you feel about it after trekking fifteen hours on the bus to get there. Swish that a little round in your mind, now repeat three times. We found ourselves wishing we’d skipped straight to Yogyakarta – but if you want to give the west a try, do yourself a favour and follow our example from that point onward: take the bloody train.
1954039 hours of travel later, slightly delirious, a mild case of cystitis due to self-imposed dehydration from fear of not being able to hold it until the next pee stop, and heart burns induced by playing Russian roulette with green chilli leftovers from countless bags of fried tofu (they’re not all equally spicy, you see: some aren’t at all, some are like a fiery hell; it makes for a great game, really!), we arrived in Yogyakarta. It took a week to commute from Jakarta to here, but as far as I’m concerned, this is where our trip to Indonesia truly started. The rest was just…. a behavioural experiment.
East Java was such a whirlwind of out-of-this-world sights and experiences that I wondered at times if I wasn’t having post-traumatic hallucinations. The feeling could have also been caused by the fact that we slept a total of 8 hours in the course of a 72 hour period. But to successively witness three sublime sunrises, one day at Borobudur temple, the next day overlooking the smoking caldera of Mount Bromo, and the last day staring into the neon turquoise acid lake of Kawah Ijen after having descended right into its flaming sulphur crater with the now famous miners at 1am, I felt privileged and exhilarated like never before. Java has redeemed itself big time with its other-worldly, volatile and epic landscape.
EASTERN JAVA TO DO LIST
TRY KOPI JOSS
A strange Yogyakarta tradition, kopi joss is a cup of Javanese coffee with a lump of red coal dropped in. It sizzles and froths over and is quite a sight. The coal is said to remove some of the acidity of the coffee, resulting in a smoother cuppa. However, what struck a cord with us was just the overall experience. We stopped by a little road side shack on Jalan Prawirotaman and were served by two giggly ladies in night gowns who seemed to wonder why we knew about kopi joss despite the fact that it was printed in gigantic letters on the awning of their shop. Unique.
DINE AT MILAS
Sit on the floor in one of the little huts amidst the lush garden in this peaceful vegetarian restaurant, and let it be your first taste of Bali. The settings are extremely reminiscent of Ubud’s secret gardens, which is a nice respite from the madness of the city and the food is as we like it – nutritious and delicious. Do try the mushroom satays and the tahu tempeh bakso. Amazing juices and warm spicy beverages, also. Soothing.
GO WITH A BECAK
I have been dreaming of roaming the cities of Indochina in one of those for ever, but it always seemed impossible to communicate with the drivers to negotiate a fare or explain our whereabouts. In Yogya, however, everyone does it – and it’s cheap. And so much fun. So save your energy for all the volcano hikes ahead and let all your becak fantasies go wild.
DIY YOUR MOUNT BROMO HIKE
Upon reaching the chilly town of Cemoro Lawang, you will be assailed by 4WD and motorbike touts wanting to take you to the Gunung Penanjakan viewpoints (and sell you a winter hat!) the next day for a relatively steep price. Not only is this completely unnecessary, it’ll also ensure that you pay the park entrance fee. The walk up the parking lot is short and pleasant – just follow these wikitravel directions, bring a torch, wear all your warm clothes and enjoy the freebie. Do start early if you want to have the best spot for photos at the view point (right at the corner of the short wall, and stand up on it so nobody gets in front of you – that way you have it all: the sunrise on the left and the volcanoes to the right); 3:15am should do it.
SUCK IT UP AND DO BROMO AND IJEN BACK TO BACK
No reason for that except you’ll feel completely hallucinational and partly delirious the next day at 1am descending a flaming blue crater with no sleep at all – trust me, you’ll remember this for a long time. After coming back into Probolingo, we took the public bus to Bondowoso and booked a room at the friendly Anugerah Hotel. We were not staying the night, but it was 1pm, our departure for Ijen wasn’t for another 10 hours and we were gagging for a shower and an afternoon nap. At US $12, Anugerah was a great pitstop to freshen up before leaving for Ijen at 11pm that night. The super friendly owners sorted us and our two French travel buddies with a private driver that took us from there through Ijen and on to Bali the following morning. The driver was fantastic fun and we felt quite safe with him. The highlight of our Javanese trip. Do expect to arrive in Bali a little worse for wear, however.
…Anything I’ve missed? 🙂