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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)

East of Ende

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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)

Idulfitri bah humbug

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The newspapers are full of stories about overcrowded public transport. Most people in Indonesia try to travel home to their families to celebrate Idul Fitri (Eid), which is at the end of this month. It is difficult to travel at the moment, so my plan of exploring the far eastern islands of Nusa Tenggara is exploded. I have to do a visa run in the middle of next month, which leaves me a fortnight to see anything after Idul Fitri. It’s frustrating: I have seen all I want to of Bali, lovely as it is, and if I had known the people from Alor were never going to reply, I would have headed straight to Flores last weekend.

I have also been paralysed by a fear of getting stuck in the middle of nowhere, outstaying the visa and being chucked in jail. I met a chap in Ubud who had spent eight days in prison for visa violations, which did not help. Nevertheless I have come to the conclusion that the extent of my fear is irrational and have managed to find a plane ticket to Flores, flying tomorrow. Flores, predominantly Christian, is nominally less affected by Idulfitri, although transport everywhere in Indonesia is affected by holidaying Javanese. The idea is that I will dive in the west, around Komodo and Rinca, and then head east via yet another volcano. I don't expect to have the means to blog, but will upload a couple of posts now and then drip-feed them over a couple of weeks.

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I've fallen into the arms of the Danish mafia in Bali. In Ubud I spent a lot of time in a cafe owned by Karsten, from Aarhus. He referred me to my current hotel, run by Minnie, and she referred me to my travel agent, run by Nikolai. I trust the Danes, on the whole. If they don't like something they tell you to your face.

They aren't corrupt, anyway. The 2008 Corruption Perception Index has been published by Transparency International. Government attitudes towards corruption are ranked by survey respondents on a scale of 1 to 10. First equal were Denmark, Sweden and New Zealand, on 9.3. Singapore was the top Asian, fourth on 9.2. Malaysia scored 5.1, Thailand 3.5, Vietnam 2.7, Indonesia 126th on 2.6, the Philippines 2.3, Laos 2.0, Cambodia 1.8 and Myanmar came bottom with 1.3. ASEAN members are, as a group, markedly corrupt.

The headline in the Jakarta Post? “Progress”. Last year Indonesia came 143rd with 2.3.

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The military have played a large role in the modern history of many southeast Asian countries. This is particularly true in Indonesia, which has usually been led by a military man. Many of the streets are named after heroes of independence. There is a Yos Sudarso street in every city.

General appears to be Jendral in Indonesian. Other ranks seen on street signs are Brigjend, Mayjend and Letjend.

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In Our Time is back. Thank goodness for that.

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Every now and then the Bintang Kejara flag, or morning star, is hoisted in Papua. It is a flag of independence. Showing the flag is a sedition offence created under government regulation 77/2007. Eighteen people were arrested in Kuramki Dam village this week for hoisting it in the middle of the night. The maximum penalty for the offence is the death penalty. Judging by the label of government regulation, it appears that the government has the power under emergency legislation to create capital offences without reference to parliament, and to execute people for them.

Papua remained under Dutch control in 1945, and became part of Indonesia only after a fictitious ‘Act of Free Choice’ in 1969. Anti-Indonesian feeling is reportedly very strong. The worst running sore is the management of a gold mine, operated under concession by PT Freeport Indonesia, which I understand is a US-owned company. Consideration for the concession is paid to the government in Jakarta, and so Papua is believed throughout Indonesia to receive none of the revenues from its mine. Similarly, I have heard it said that the terms of the concession require indigenous labour to be hired, and Freeport hires Javanese. Whether or not these are true – and I believe that it is the policy of the Indonesian government to return a large majority of the revenues to Papua, so no doubt local politicians have nice cars – the mine is a symbol of Indonesian oppression. There are bombs in the concession area every so often.

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Meanwhile in Malaysia, the blogger arrested this week under the Internal Security Act has been detained for two years, to be reviewed after six months. The Internal Security Act delegates to the Home Minister the power to detain without trial for a period determined by the Minister. The courts can only check whether due process has been followed; they cannot question the length of the detention. At least 60 people have been thus detained under the Act; most are suspected Islamic extremists.

Who passed this draconian legislation? The British, during the Emergency. The Malaysian government, in power continuously for the last 51 years, has never found it convenient to repeal it.

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Time for some pictures, so here, for the edification and improvement of the readership, is a selection of Vietnam’s revolutionary posters.










They have a pleasantly 195os feel about them. I like the ones with atom symbols and scientists in lab coats and glasses.

What are they about? They began as war propaganda; now you don’t see any humiliated foreigners on the posters. They celebrate anniversaries: Ho’s birthday; April 30th; military victories. They advertise the five-year plan. They emphasise Uncle Ho’s continuing Obi-Wan presence among us. They inveigh against the perils of drugs. They encourage people in the countryside to have only one or two babies (people in the cities are already doing so). They warn again using prostitutes (most Vietnamese men ignore this advice). They warn against HIV; ten years ago it was jolly condoms, as it still is in Laos, now it’s Munchesque skeletal figures.


Posted by Wardsan 18:07 Archived in Indonesia Comments (0)


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OK, it's time for a new look.


Thick hair encrusted with sea salt defeated the clippers for half an hour, and it hurt a bit. But now I can catch any breeze on the top of my slightly ogival cranium.

  • ***

From Malang we travelled to Bromo-Tengger-Semeru National Park in East Java. The park contains a huge caldera and a number of active volcanoes. We stayed at Cemara Walang, on the rim of the caldera at 2,300m. It was cool after sunset, and hawkers sold hats, scarves and gloves.

From the crater rim it is a gorgeous view, at least in the morning, after the mist has burnt off and before the clouds roll in. The two mountains in front of the hotel, Bromo and Batok, are the same height at 2,392 m. Batok is a steep cone, Bromo a kicked-in sandcastle, constantly smoking.


Fourteen kilometres away is Mt Semeru, at 3,676m the highest in Java, from which a smoky eructation issues every quarter of an hour.


We are up at 3.30 am and jeep to a point on the rim of the caldera at 2,700m, where Bromo and Batok line up with the more distant Semeru. It is chilly, but nothing like as cold or windy as Kinabalu. The view is breathtaking as the sun comes up. Some of the pictures look completely fake: has the sky been pinked and the smoke added? No.



There are thirty or forty people watching the dawn at the viewing point on the rim: the peak season has passed, and it is Ramadhan, so numbers have fallen sharply. In August there would be hundreds of people.


Later we walk from Cemara Walang across the caldera floor, the so-called Sea of Sand. Utterly arid, it is very dusty and difficult to walk on.



We walk past a Hindu temple – this is the last bastion of the original Hinduism on the island, the locals being descended from Hindus who fled the onrush of Islam in the 13th and 14th centuries – and up a couple of hundred steps to the rim of Bromo.


Smoke issues continuously from a vent in the floor. We had planned to walk around the rim, but the wind is blowing the sulphurous emission everywhere and it is too difficult.

In the afternoon we all sleep; I read The Tempest in an open hut on the rim. The clouds roll in, the view disappears, and I am plagued by flies.


This is Dick, retired opthalmologist and avid cameraman.


This is Alexi, tenuously affiliated to our tour group.



Posted by Wardsan 19:05 Archived in Indonesia Comments (0)

Back in Ubud

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It’s been a long time. Fast internet connections in Lombok are rare - I have just now discovered that Lehman Brothers failed and HBOS has agreed to a bid, and I have missed the most exciting times in financial markets for nearly eighty years - and I have not in any case had the time to blog.

The Java-Bali-Lombok tour is now over. The group waxed and waned in number but never gelled very well.

Most of us started in Yogyakarta, where we took trips to see Borobudur and Prambanan. After Malang we went up several volcanoes, sometimes under our own steam: Bromo in Java, Batur in Bali, Rinjani in Lombok. We saw quite a few temples in Java and in Bali, before climbing to the crater of Gunung Rinjani and spending a few days on the beach in the Gilis, islands west off Lombok. I am now back in Ubud, Bali, wondering what to do next.

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In Yogya, near the Kraton, is the bird market, where birds are sold in small cages. Lovebirds, budgerigars and orioles are popular.


Bird feed in the form of ant larvae and cicadas is also sold. Fighting cocks are on sale. I was shown a cock that had won a few fights but had lost its last one: it had lost its mohican after its defeat. Bats, including flying foxes, are also available, as are geckos, iguanas and monkeys.



Most of the small cages do not bother me too much, although I am not in favour of them, but the monkeys are in a sad way and displaying the repetitive behaviours cased by imprisonment in a tiny place.


Posted by Wardsan 20:25 Archived in Indonesia Comments (0)

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