Episode 29: Ko Samet/Hong Kong/Jakarta/Yogyakarta/Solo, Thailand/Hong Kong/Indonesia
Skin colour (Tom): David Dickinson
Skin colour (Jane): David Jason
Location: Solo, Indonesia (Java)
Date: 21st October 2010.
If your mundane existence has you waking up wondering whether there’s more to life than this, let me assure you, there is.
Travel to Indonesia and you’ll feel like royalty. Maybe minor royalty for some of you, but royalty all the same.
Never have we been so in demand as we have been here: we can’t go anywhere without someone wanting to take our photo (at first we were asking each other whether we had food on our face or something to provoke this interest); we are routinely shouted at in the street, in a nice way – “Hello meesterrrrr”; and we have sights pointed out to us and information foisted upon us. For free.
I think had Indonesia preceded Vietnam on our itinerary, we’d have fallen victim to many of the scams we avoided there. It’s a real struggle, even after being here for the best part of a week, to tell ourselves that people are just being nice and for once there’s no ulterior motive. It puts a smile on even my (perpetually scowling) face.
But before we get to the niceties of Indonesia, we need to wrap up Ko Samet and take you through the quite considerable journey from Bangkok (yes, again), via Hong Kong to Jakarta.
There’s not much to add to my last post on Ko Samet – we were happy to lounge around for a few days, getting a bit of colour and enjoying the beach.
I’m not sure I’ll ever forget the sight of some disturbing beach sex between a tiny, scruffy dog and an enormous, patchy, ugly bitch, whose knees he could only just reach. His hyperactive, panting and bouncy foreplay was strangely fascinating (and perhaps somewhat familiar?). I couldn’t have been happier for him when he finally, somehow (a ladder?), got the deed done (thankfully out of our sight). This is what travel is all about!
We also saw some prodigious thunderstorms on the island and were woken at all hours by revellers. We didn’t mind so much, for once.
One noteworthy thing was that the service in restaurants where we stayed was absolutely shocking. On several occasions we had to get up from our table (after maybe ten minutes of trying to get someone’s attention), walk into the eye line of the waiter/waitress, wave like a simpleton meeting a friend at an airport to bring them back from their reverie, and finally lead them, grudgingly, to take our order.
On one memorable occasion, the waiter stood directly behind us when taking our order, so I almost put my back out trying to face him. On a few occasions we were brought the wrong food (they don’t take it well when you tell them that it’s not what you ordered) and we never ate together, the food was always served several minutes apart.
We suspect they get enough tourists here that they just don’t have to make an effort – it’s about 4 hours from Bangkok and very busy at weekends with Thai tourists. It’s minor, I know. Thankfully Samet wasn’t worthy of too many other gripes.
On the bus from Ko Samet to Bangkok however, we were seated immediately in front of a large group of American college girls (not a looker amongst them sadly). On first hearing them, like seeing a crying woman entering a sports bar with a crossbow, I knew it wasn’t going to end well.
Not only were they eye-openingly loud (even after ostentatiously putting my earplugs in, I could still clearly hear them), they were totally self-centred (not once on the whole journey did I hear one of them ask another a question (apart from “Can I try some of your food?”) – they just told stories about themselves, all you heard was “me, me, I, we, me, me, us, ME”) and they had some of the dullest conversations in the history of speech:
- what I was like as a child;
- which buses I take when I’m at Venice Beach; and
- my favourite length car journey is between 2 and 4 hours (she’d obviously never been on a car journey with herself, otherwise it would have been between 2 and 4 seconds)
The only slightly interesting conversation was about people at school who had died, and even that was a very sad reflection on the girl telling the story. She went into details about each of the (probably fabricated) deaths and then screeched: “Yeah, in eighth grade a Mexican girl died…………. but nobody really knew her”.
We flew to Hong Kong that evening, for our connecting flight to Jakarta the next day. We stayed at the infamous Chungking Mansions (infamous because it’s old, huge, cheap and prone to tourist-singeing fires – don’t tell our parents), but arriving so late that my plan – to eat my entire body weight in crispy pork before entering Muslim Indonesia – fell by the wayside.
No matter: we had a bowl of excellent daal; a couple of chapatis; a decent kip; and saw Nathan Road as the postcards never show it, deserted at 6am.
After taking approximately a dozen flights on this trip so far, I could write an entire post on the annoyances of airports, airlines, aircraft and their staff, but I’ll limit myself to telling you here and now that:
a) Cathay Pacific’s economy seats don’t recline, they slump; and
b) Clearly all other air travellers are blind – that has to be the reason why they announce, in seven different languages, that the seat-belt sign is on again and yes, it’s because it’s a bit bumpy (again), and no, you can’t use the toilet. I honestly wouldn’t mind, but when you start a 109 minute-long film with about 140 minutes left of your flight, you expect to see the denouement. These announcements ruin any chance of that. It wasn’t like I was grabbing fellow passengers by the lapels and screaming “WHO THE FUNK IS KEYSER SOZE?!!”, but I’ll never know whether Aldous Snow played the comeback gig with a badly broken arm in “Get Him to the Greek”, because I’ll certainly never watch it again. I should have learned – it happened with Gran Torino on a previous flight, when Clint Eastwood’s character was lying dying on the lawn (I suspect he died, but I may never know).
We’d been told that Jakarta wasn’t very nice (by almost everyone and all the guide books in fact), so we weren’t planning on staying more than a couple of nights.
Our first night was spent lying awake listening to the live band in the bar downstairs (actually it was a hundred yards down the road), which was so loud they might as well have been playing at the foot of the bed, until 2.15am. This was followed by some soothing drum ‘n’ bass, finishing around three.
Fear not, though, we thought, we’re on holiday so we don’t have to get up until late morning at the very earliest. Those pesky Muslims wouldn’t have a bar of it though, would they? 4.20am = call to prayer: wake up you infidels and get on your knees.
We moved hotel when the sun came up, and immediately decided to sack-off Jakarta completely – well, we’d seen the number one sight from our bargain taxi on the way to the guest house, and if that was the number one sight, we’d rather laze around in a bland hotel room all day.
We’ve got a month in Indonesia, but it’s a big old place, so we decided to get a cheap flight from Jakarta to Yogyakarta (known locally as Jogja) to cover some distance.
Now, I’m sure you’ll agree that I usually display a very positive outlook, but Jogja is supposed to be the cultural capital of Java, and if it is, things are not looking good for Javanese culture.
It easily claims the award for worst individual tourist attraction of the trip so far, with the main sight, the Kraton (Royal Palace). Once you go through the gates, the only thing there is a large platform with a canopy – it’s not even a pagoda.
OK, if you look closely the roof is ornate(ish), but if you dragged Queen Liz here and told her this was her new place, she’d spit in your face and have you tarred and feathered. Thankfully the entrance fee was pence, because it took ten minutes to look round the whole thing and eight of those minutes were spent looking for the Palace and asking officials whether it was closed: “What do you mean, that’s it? Really, that thing that looks like a covered market but with no stalls? REALLY?”.
We’re nothing if not persistent, so we headed off for other attractions in Jogja (it’s the cultural capital, so there must be more). We sweated our way to the Dutch fort-cum-museum (closed), the main shopping street (lots and lots and lots of batik) and the bird market (you never know when the fancy for a pigeon will take you, but where the market was on both of our maps was a patch of wasteland when we lowered said maps).
Jogja sounded good on paper, but after covering several kilometres (admittedly it was a fairly nice place to walk – there were pavements at least) and sweating more than a Grand National winner, all we’d achieved was a glance at the worst attraction of the whole trip. You can probably guess what happened next. That’s right, it pissed down.
You might think that this was a wasted and disappointing day. Oh ye gun-jumpers – it was the day that we realised that people can be friendly just because they want to be, thus restoring our faith in humanity, no less!
When a man sidles up to you and starts following you, he might be making sure you find your way to the unmissable and breathtaking Kraton, rather than trying to force you into a becak (pedal-powered tuk-tuk). When a bloke slows down to walk alongside you and starts talking of picking his son up from school, he might simply be chatting on the way to picking up said child, rather than trying to entice you into his batik gallery or sell you a tour.
I don’t know whether it’s our fault, or the minority of people across SE Asia who appear friendly but are quite the opposite, but it has been lovely to find people here who want nothing from us but a smile and a greeting. It would be better still if our default position was one of trust rather than suspicion, but we’ve been on the road too long for that I’m afraid.
I say they want nothing from us, but yesterday we visited Borobudur (hands up if you’ve heard of that one) and we felt like the Beckhams (but significantly more intelligent). Every man and his dog wanted their photo taken with us. In hindsight, we should have charged them, to balance the books for those grabby little girls in Sapa.
Borobudur is a 9th century Buddhist temple, with 9 levels – each beautifully carved. It was rediscovered in 1814 by a Dutch engineer after having been abandoned for centuries and it has undergone much restoration.
It’s a beautiful place, and in a great setting, surrounded by green hills and with manicured gardens leading up to the towering temple itself. It’s not quite in Angkor Wat’s league, even though they charge you 75% of the Angkor Wat price. The price is perhaps a little steep, but it’s probably worth it to feel like a celebrity for a day and even if you’re not as photogenic as Jane and me, you’ll still get lots of smiles and “hellos”.
It’s infectious, this greeting and grinning. Once somebody starts and you respond, you start a chain reaction of hellos and smiles, especially with the huge school parties we saw today. Someone with a less cheerful outlook on life than me would say it all gets a bit tiring after a while. Not me though, not me.
I have to confess to having ignored a photo request today, but, in my defence, we were at another disappointing Kraton and I just couldn’t bring myself to smile.
Leaving Borobudur provided us with the opportunity to try some proper “local” food in a down-and-dirty place. I opted for the chicken and rice with spicy sambal, while my disgusting wife (who will literally eat anything) went for the skin, intestinal tubes and (worst of all) tofu. We both enjoyed our meals immensely.
I’m now going to exclude taxi drivers from my blanket assertion that all Javanese are friendly and smiley. Taxi drivers are lazy, money-grabbing rip-off merchants the world over, including here. If you get your hotel to ring one, they use the meter and you’re fine.
If, say, you’re coming back from Borobudur and want to get a cab back from the bus station to the hotel, they will refuse to use the meter and try to charge you three times what you paid on the way there.
It’s little use arguing that if he doesn’t use the meter, you’ll walk away and he’ll earn nothing, because he’s more than happy sitting on his fat ar$e playing chess. His wife probably works her fingers to the bone and thinks he does likewise, little knowing that he’s refusing fares left, right and centre.
Anyway, perhaps we cut off our noses to spite our faces on this occasion, because the price was still low, even though he was fleecing us, and the walk was 40 minutes alongside a dual carriageway for much of the way. I’m not sure that we could claim that we showed him, but at least we stuck to our principles!
We left Jogja after three nights and we arrived in Solo yesterday, on a bus which played host to many dreadful buskers. We peaked early by giving the first guy some cash, little realising that it would be like the X-Factor auditions and there’d be a stream of talentless wasters clambering aboard. We pretended not to see the extended hand of these later “performers”.
Solo, like Joyja, is a pleasant enough place to wander round (during the day at least, it was deserted last night), it’s just lacking in sights (and bars and restaurants). We saw them today and it took about an hour. The Kraton was way better that the one in Jogja, but it’s still just a glorified platform.
This one had a decent museum as well, the guide-book alleged. An optimist would say the museum was a little disjointed and a pessimist would say was a load of old tat thrown into some big rooms.
There was a tower at the Kraton as well (“what next?”, I hear you ask). Well, we couldn’t actually get to the tower. Every time we asked someone, they pointed us back to where we’d come from. We weren’t terribly bothered to be fair, we’d seen the top of it from a distance.
The lack of sights here does give me the opportunity to update you on where we are, of course, for which I’m sure you’re grateful. From here, the plan is to carry on across Java and take in a volcano en route to Bali and the beaches.
Fingers crossed the accommodation will get cheaper as we head East, as it’s been surprisingly expensive here so far, although the food costs next to nothing. Lunch and dinner can both be had for well under a fiver for both of us, especially with Jane eating the more exotic cuts.
We realised a couple of days ago that we now have less than two months of our RTW trip left, so we’d better get travelling!
Until the next time………….