A Travellerspoint blog

October 2008


all seasons in one day 31 °C
View Asia 2008 on Wardsan's travel map.

With Angkor Wat, Borobudur must be the best-known site in Southeast Asia. It is a Buddhist temple on a hill, built in the reign of King Samaratunga between 778 and 824 AD. The carvings, in both high and low relief, were added under his daughter.


According to Raffles, who wrote a heavy book on Java, the structure is 620 feet square and 100 feet high. There is a single stupa at the top, as you would expect, about 15 metre in diameter. In all there are 1,545 stupas and 400-odd Buddhas, mainly in niches.


It is built on 13 levels. Reliefs decorate the wall, inside and out, on most of these terraces. If I have it right, the lowest two represent the world (Java). Levels 3-7 represent stupas, 8-10 Kathmandu, and the top three, three levels of heaven. That makes no sense to me, I admit.


To walk around all of the levels and see all the friezes would require a five kilometre walk. Most of the friezes, if I remember correctly, relate the lives of Buddha, and depict examples of the virtuous life and its opposite. The sculptures are in excellent shape, given their age. This is presumably because they were covered in volcanic ash for most of their life.


Signs in strategic spots at the temple apparently instruct on personal hygiene: “keep clean” and “no scratching”. Neither easy for a backpacker.


The top three levels are open terraces covered in stupas. Unusually, these have holes in them: 60, then 80, then 100 at the top terrace. Apparently they represent kinds of guilt (or perhaps sin). Each stupa contains a Buddha image. It brings good luck to reach through a hole and touch a finger (if you are female) or a foot (if you are male). The main stupa, the highest heaven, is hole-free: no holes, no guilt.


The temple was built with dowels, giving each block some room to shake without falling. Nevertheless, it was eventually destroyed by the violent earthquakes common in Java. Theodore Van Arp cleaned and restored the superstructure between 1907 and 1911. Restoration of the lower part had to wait until 1973-83. The entire construction was dismantled, and reinforced concrete foundations and drainage were added. It seems to have worked well, although the concrete foundation covers the lowest level of the frieze.

At the site there is also a boat museum. On one of the lower terraces of the temple, on the northern side, are engraved two ships, one larger than the other. Both have outriggers, two triangular masts and two staysails.


A former naval officer named Philip Beale decided to build an accurate replica of the larger ship and to sail it along the cinnamon route from Indonesia to Madagascar and Africa. He teamed up with an Australian ship architect and with As’ad Abdullah, a local fisherman and shipbuilder. The ship was launched in 2003 and sailed to Madagascar, Cape Town, St Helena and Ghana. It is now the centrepiece of the Borobudur Ship Museum.


Boats all over the archipelago still possess these outriggers, in effect turning the boat into a thin, keelless trimaran. Even tiny rowing boats have an outrigger. I have wanted to see them for as long as I can remember. They are beautiful, but less stable than you would think. They let in a lot of water.

Madagascar was an symbolic destination for the reconstructed boat. Malagasy is an Austronesian language. Indonesian traders first visited three thousand years ago, and Madagascar was first settled by Indonesians during the Sriwijaya kingdom of Sumatra (which is where the Malay language comes from), in the seventh to ninth centuries AD.

Many words are similar in Malagasy and Indonesian. Yam is ovy in Malagasy, ubi in Indonesian. Rice is vary and padi; a river mouth is hoala and kuala; an octopus horita and gurita; and easy/cheap is mura and merah.

Posted by Wardsan 12:50 Archived in Indonesia Comments (0)

Grim up North

all seasons in one day 31 °C
View Asia 2008 on Wardsan's travel map.

I’m back in the northern hemisphere in order to get a new Indonesian visa. The rainy season seems to have begun in Kuala Lumpur. I am predictably suffering from culture shock after Nusa Tenggara. My room has a flush toilet, a shower with hot water, a basin and a television. I have eaten roti canai twice in my 16 hours here: bliss! (On the other hand, the coffee is sadly inferior.) What has struck me most, though, is that nearly everyone around here is speaking Indian, Chinese or Arab languages. There’s not much point trying to speak Malay to someone who speaks English just as proficiently.

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In the UK, consumption and aggregate demand display a strongly seasonal shape. There is a sharp peak in the fourth quarter, due to Christmas spending, and then a sharp dip in the first quarter, while the second and third quarters are in the middle. This is why the GDP growth figures you see have to be seasonally adjusted.

In Indonesia there is a similar pattern, if you filter by lunar years. Demand for goods and services rises sharply during Ramadhan, and prices rise accordingly. By law, workers receive an annual bonus at Idul Fitri.

Despite the fact that it is a month of fasting, Indonesians spend more on food than at any time of the year. This is because they are buying fancier food with which to break the fast (buka puasa), and because prices are higher, but also because people eat more. This may be due to the blowout at Idul Fitri, but restaurants are very busy throughout the month.

Even with price hikes, supply cannot always meet demand. Last year there was unfulfilled demand for sugar and cooking oil. Right now there is a problem with LPG supplies. The government has introduced a programme to convert kerosene to LPG throughout the country. Pertamina, the state petrol company, cannot keep up.

Price data, as at end August: inflation 11.85% year on year, 9.28% year to date. The Bank Indonesia base rate is 9%, which is a negative real interest rate.

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One good reason to come to KL is to buy books. In Indonesia I have started to encounter the book famines that I feared all along. In Malaysia and Indonesia at least half of the retail space of a bookshop is devoted to wealth and how to acquire it: business, economics, sukses books. A surprising portion of the residue is devoted to electronic Korans. In Kuala Terrengganu the few English books available were thrillers and romance only, and I made do with a couple by Martin Cruz Smith, which turned out to be very good. In Solo, on the other hand, there were six books, all Penguin Popular Classics.

Recent reads:

  • Red Square and Gypsy in Amber, Martin Cruz Smith

  • Night Train to Lisbon, Pascal Mercier

  • The Ramayana, Sunardjo Haditjaroko

  • Animal Farm, George Orwell

  • The Tempest, William Shakespeare

  • Vanity Fair, William Makepeace Thackeray. A nice mix of acid and sugar.

  • Golden Bats and Pink Pigeons, Gerald Durrell

  • Voice of the Violin (in English), Andrea Camilleri. One of the Commissario Montalbano series, comic, brilliant and best-selling detective procedurals, which have also been well adapted for Italian television. Well translated into American English.

  • Polar Star, Martin Cruz Smith

  • Free to Trade, Michael Ridpath

  • Pourquoi j’ai mangé mon père, Roy Lewis. Given to me by Cesar in Lewoleba. The original English edition is What we Did to Father (the French title rather gives it away). Very funny.

  • The 47 Ronin Story, John Allyn

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How to make a Vietnamese hat: take some green Latania (latan palm) leaves and spread them out in the sun. Leave for two or three days. When they are white, spread them on the ground to soften. Iron out the creases with a heated ploughshare. Construct 16 bamboo hoops of varying sizes. Take the biggest, and attach eight or ten bamboo sticks to the rim, so that it forms a cone. Drape the other bamboo hoops on the cone. Stitch the leaves on to the cone. Reheat the hat over burnt sulphur to whiten the hat and prevent mould.


Naturally, you should not do this unless you have grown up in a village that specialises in hatmaking.

Posted by Wardsan 12:13 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

East of Ende

View Asia 2008 on Wardsan's travel map.

I'm in Maumere, on the island of Flores, towards the eastern end of the Nusa Tenggara chain. This is the first internet connection I have had in ten days or more, and I think it is a mobile phone connection. There are no English-language newspapers either. I have no idea what has happened in the world in the last ten days.

I spent six nights in Labuanbajo, at the western end. It is an extended fishing village, with little of interest of itself. But there I fulfilled two lifetime ambitions: to see the Komodo Dragon and to see manta rays. The diving in the Komodo National Park is sensational.

Flores is fairly small, probably only 200 or 250 miles from west to east. But it is rugged (volcanoes again) and fairly remote. It takes about 24 hours to traverse by bus: longer than than it takes to get across Java or up Great Britain. (Note to Americans: Great Britain is an island, not a country.)

I have now taken five bus rides and nearly finished the journey. I am moving fast, trying to outrun my visa. The rides are masochistically entertaining. Not a single metre of the road is straight and level; you are always accelerated in one direction or another, and there has been some vomiting at every stage. Not by me, though: this post is dedicated to the discoverer of dramamine.

The first stage, from Labuanbajo to Ruteng, was on a bus with plenty of legroom. There was a moving plastic bag at the back: a chicken, initially docile. There was no music pollution. I did not realise how spoiled I was.

We passed countryside that was less arid than I had expected. Across the length of Flores, arid brown scrub or savannah, reminiscent of the Mediterranean in August, alternates with fantastically lush, green cultivated land. This may be because we climb and descend a lot. Among the few plants I can recognise are jackfruit, mango, coffee, bamboo, sugar palm (for making arak), bananas, coconuts, rice, maize and cashews. Drying by the side of the road, coffee, rice, cloves. You smell the cloves before you see them.

We ride across plains and cross the occasional gorge or canyon. There is little or no water in the rivers at this time of year: the rainy season starts next month or this.

We pass houses made of woven bamboo, of planks or of brick. The bamboo is often woven into pretty pixellated diamonds. Even the meanest hovel is likely to be roofed with zinc; thatch is very rare in the west, although less so in the centre. A small roofed hut or two is often found by the houses. They are made of planks or semicylinders of bamboo, a yard square. A half tyre hangs on one wall of each. At first I thought they were privies, but then I saw the snouts: they are pighouses. It is good to see pigs, for that means pork. The population of Flores is 85% Christian, entirely Catholic as far as I can tell. People have names like John, Philip, Michael, Francisco, Hans, Hendrik and Fannie. The schools and seminaries are named after saints, popes, and pope-saints.

Unlike Laos, where even the poorest hovel has a satellite dish, only a minority are dished here. Those that are boast dishes worthy of Jodrell Bank.

Sick-filled plastic bags are ejected from the windows, along with all other used items. Rubbish is discarded immediately all over southeast Asia. Canals of jetsam flank each road.

When we arrived at Ruteng, perhaps a mile up, it was pouring and cold. The only level road in town was under water. My room is overpriced at $15. The only hot water in Flores seems to be in the plentiful hot springs and in the coffee. A good room has a mosquito net and its own bathroom, which contains a mandi - a large basin of cold water - and a seatless western toilet. There is no flush: you scoop the water into the the toilet to flush it and over yourself to wash. No paper, soap or towel is provided. It is easy to get used to all this, though - much easier than adjusting to the absence of cheese and wine.

The Flores "hobbit", Homo floresiensis, was discovered in a cave near Ruteng. But there is no point going to visit; it is just a cave. And it was raining.

Ruteng dawned fine and I breakfasted amid swarms of attractive beetles, each with a black head, terracotta thorax and lustrous blue-green or copper carapace. On the bus to Bajawa, there is music, at an acceptable volume. The music is largely synthesised keyboard with a boing-boing drum machine accompaniment. The singer has an irritating squeaky voice and every song is in an identical fast four-four tempo. It is saved from utter banality by its Arabic-style scale and style, with frequent mordants and turns. Jean-Michel Jarre meets Betty Boo meets Khaled and detracts from all of them.

I spent the afternoon in Bajawa on the back of a motorbike visiting Ngada villages and some hot springs. More on that another time perhaps. Most of the men in Bajawa wear football shirts: English, Italian and local clubs are represented, most commonly Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal.

In Bajawa I had dinner with Calvin, my driver and guide. All the tourists on the road seem to end up in the same place. I recognised faces from Ruteng the night before: A Dutch couple from Amsterdam, a French couple, two German girls. There are perhaps ten of us heading along the road east each day. Most of the others have bought tour packages and are travelling by car; this is a very good way to see the island, since it is slightly quicker and you can stop and get out when you like. It is not too expensive if you are in a group. In the restaurant, I was complaining to Francisco, a Christian Florin(?) with woolly-haired Papuan features, about being woken up before five every day by the mosques in Labuanbajo. "It seems God is deaf", he wisely said. The azan is recorded and amplified at an unnecessarily stupefying volume.

From Bajawa to Moni is five or six hours, with a change in Ende. The buses got smaller and louder. I was underneath the loudspeaker on one, and it was deafening. The first bus had a DVD player and was playing a karaoke DVD of country music, sung in the Ngada language. Truly terrible. I unscrewed the loudspeaker, pulled out the cone and mimed breaking the wires; only then did the driver grudgingly reduce the volume. There were four people and a chicken next to me. The men all smoked. One the second bus, the balance was askew, the bass ear-haemorrhaging, the melody inaudible. But the scenery, especially after Ende, is lovely: a striking canyon, and then a valley, the hills wooded and the valley terraced. Big rocks lie here and there in the fields, volcanic ejecta I suppose. And then a seafront road. We pass a beach of black volcanic sand covered in striking pale blue rocks the colour of peppermints. Later we see the same stratum a hundred feet up.

Lots of people line the road doing nothing in particular. The older women all chew betel, and when they open their red-stained mouths to display their black teeth the effect is disquieting: they look like witches. The kids all shout 'hello, mister', of course.

In Moni I went for a walk through some villages, involuntarily attended a Catholic service in Indonesian, and then went to the top of Kelimutu this morning, more of which another time. Today I was in the middle of a line of five men and two chickens on the back of a minibus that was already supersaturated when I embarked. There were thirty or more people inside, and more on the roof. The men chain-smoked kretek and the chickens clucked along to Eminem.

Maumere is a shithole, up there with Kon Tum and Tingo Maria. I'm flying from here to Bali in a week and the plan in the meantime is to head to Lembata, an island to the east of Flores, even more isolated than this. I hope to catch up with a couple of people in Lewoleba and to visit the unusual village of Lamalera before the visa expires. There will be no more internet connections for at least a week.

Posted by Wardsan 16:23 Archived in Indonesia Comments (0)

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