This is much of what makes up the reputation of the island in Australia. But it is not entirely accurate. I mean, it is accurate, but there’s so much more to island than that.
I had a couple of days in Bali, and while it was not near long enough to truly experience all that it has to offer, I was able to have a lot of fun without lazing on the beach and hitting the night clubs dripping with cheap Bintangs.
About a 75 minute ferry ride from Singapore lies Bintan Island, home to (it seems) as many Chinese and Singaporeans as Indonesians, simply due to geography. And to be honest, even though I was expecting rural, after only a few days in Jakarta I was still taken aback at the contrast from the big city.
Driving from the airport showed a completely different side of Indonesia I did not expect (but probably should have). The earth was a rich red, not unlike outback Australia. The township was very rustic, old, and full of square, concrete buildings with very minimal infrastructure.
Our bus dropped us at what seemed to be a random intersection in a dusty neighbourhood. We walked past dilapidated fences with graffiti art and out along a pier filled with parked scooters and bikes, flanked by boats and other stilted structures.
In Indonesia, the unwritten rule is: if you can walk there, you can ride a scooter there, and this pier no exception.
A few hundred meters later we boarded a ferry to take us across the Harbour to Senggarang Village: a Chinese village above the water, built on stilts. A maze of colourful, wooden houses built in the simplest form possible.
In what might be the most unfair example of the century, Senggarang Village reminded me to some degree of a poor mans Venice. Instead of canals they had wooden and concrete paths separating houses, shops and temples; Instead of gondolas they had scooters riding down the piers (though no one offered me a ride).
I actually was able to walk through one of the houses in the hunt for a “bathroom”.
If I thought I had had interesting toilet experiences before, this one certainly tops the list. Our guide asked a local if we could use their bathroom, which she graciously obliged. Firstly, the house was very simple, a living room with some Lino and out the back was a deck with a sink and a rack for dishes overlooking the Harbour. Quite a decent view actually, but simple living.
The toilet was a timber room built on the deck. At first when I walked in I was confused. It took me a couple of laps to work out where to “go”. There were 3 big drums and a bucket, all full of water. I thought, well it can’t really be any of these, that would be super weird.
Then I noticed a missing plank that opened out to the ocean. It looked as close to a toilet as I could see: sure enough that was it…let’s move on.
The village is very beautiful to photograph. So much texture and character escapes from every corner.
On we walked, stopping for photos, saying hi to the locals until we reached Banyan Temple. The temple is named such because the banyan tree has grown around and through the temple for over 200 years so that now one can’t survive without the other.
After a refreshing coconut – freshly cracked – we visited the the Vihara Avalokitesvara. Roughly translated, this means “a big Buddhist temple and a great place for Bintang”. We didn’t actually spend a lot of time here, but I included it because I wanted to share this hilarious photo.
Eating with the Locals
One of the things I look forward to most when visiting other countries is eating how the locals eat. I was treated to what I would call a fine dining experience at the Rimba Foodcourt, an honest to goodness highlight of my 11 day tour of Indonesia. This was authentic Indonesian street food at its finest.
Rimba foodcourt is a large outdoor, open aired foodcourt with dozens of vendors selling a wide variety of foods.
After doing a lap of the stalls I was feeling very overwhelmed. I still had no idea where to begin but thankfully one of the Indonesia bloggers, Valiant, said he ordered some fish, which was exactly what I wanted. It was a safe option and I knew it would be fresh.
The stall holder opened a styrofoam cooler filled with fish on ice and I pointed to the one I wished to eat. The lady weighed it and the man grilled it on a barbecue. It came with the standard vege plate plus rice and I bought an iced tea. The meal was enormous, and only cost me 89,000 rupiah, or about USD$9 and the tea was 5,000 (about $0.50).
Phoebe (of Little Grey Box fame) and I walked around and had a peek at the markets. They were pretty disappointing but I did lash out and try some ice cream, which tasted exactly like ice cream (6,000 rupiah). Phoebe bought some fried banana for 10,000 rp. With some chocolate and condensed milk drizzled it was mind blowing, I’m not sure how we survived.
At 15,000 rupiah, the beers were also flowing like a river, which was perfect preparation for a 90 minute bus ride to our accommodation: Bintan Lagoon Resort.
Mangrove Tour on the Sebung River
The next morning’s activity was a boat tour through the Bintan Mangroves. Boats holding about 12 sped us through the river and down narrow waterways lined with mangrove trees, a few of which also housed poisonous mangrove snakes who were perched on branches. Even though the water was filthy (thanks to all the boats trudging up and down it every day), the scenery was really pretty. The canopy filled the sky with green, and the water – at times – was very still.
I love boats so zooming through the river, taking Go Pro footage is my idea of fun, but when the boats slowed down for the mangrove creeks, the beauty of the area became the focus in stark contrast. We drifted past other boats, past exposed mangrove tree roots and under about 4 mangrove snakes. A few girls on our tour were none too happy about that.
ATV Tour through the bush and beach
Lunch was yet another buffet and was served at the hotel restaurant, after which we were back into it straight away with a beach and bush ATV ride. We all teamed up so we were able to have a longer run. It started and finished on the beach, and wound our way through a number of bush tracks, dodging roots and ridges as we went. It’s been years since I’ve been on a quad and this was a lot of fun.
Pool Beers in the Swim up Bar
There’s nothing more relaxing than beers from a swim up bar. The Bintan Lagoon Resort is named for it’s enormous lagoon pool. After our ATV ride we had a couple of hours to ourselves and I couldn’t think of any better way to spend it than kicking back in the sun, shooting a few hoops from the water, all with Bintang in hand.
Watch the Sun set over the Doulos Phos
The Doulos Phos was, until recently, the world’s oldest active cruise ship. It has since been taken out of action (and the water) and will soon be converted into a luxury hotel resort. The gargantuan structure sits on dry land and provides the perfect foreground for watching the sunset.
Dinner at Kelong Seafood Restaurant
I’ve talked about my favourite dining experience above, but this is a close second. We were bused back to where we boarded for the mangrove tour, then boats took us down the river to Kelong Seafood Restaurant.
They had lined up 5 woks at the front, and 5 groups of 2 were chosen as representatives to cook part of the meal. Our designated cooks were preparing gonggong (sea snails) with spring onion, regular onion, chilli paste and a few other spices.
Dinner was a veritable seafood feast, as course after course of seafood was brought out to our tables just as we were beginning to think it would end. We enjoyed crab, prawns, gonggong (obviously), mussels in this delightful chilli sauce, fresh fish, and the obligatory sautéed vegetables.
How to Get to Bintan Island
Being so close to Singapore, there are an absurd number of ferries that can get you there, including some that will drop you at Bintan Lagoon Resort if you choose to stay there.
If you are already in Indonesia, you can also fly to Bintan with local airlines such as Garuda offering very affordable flights.
Where to Stay
I stayed at the Bintan Lagoon Resort and was very happy there. My room was modern and spacious, the pool is so big I can’t imagine anyone getting in your way – even in busy times – and I’ve never seen so many people cooking food at the breakfast buffet. There are also plenty of activities to do at the resort including ATV rides, jet ski hire, kayaking, archery, and golf.
The price is also very reasonable with queen rooms starting around $135/night and villas starting around $320/night.
My stay in Bintan was hosted by Indonesia Travel, but all opinions remain my own.
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One month ago, before I visited Jakarta, I would have considered the Indonesian capital one big, busy, concretey mess. I mean, it is definitely those things, but after spending a couple of days there I realised that there is much more to this sprawling city than meets the eye. If you find yourself with a couple of days in Jakarta, here’s how I would spend it.
Kota Tua, The Old City
In Indonesian Bahasa, kota means “city” and tua means “old”, so Kota Tua literally means The Old City. It is a very historic part of the city with roots reaching back to the time of Dutch occupation of Java in the 1600’s.
The centrepiece of Kota Tua is the Jakarta History Museum, which was once the administrative headquarters of the Dutch East India Company and later housed the Dutch Colonial Government. It stands tall and bare and is a reminder of European rule in years past.
Walk around the city square, and if you’re a tall, fair-haired whitey like me, be prepared for this to take some time as the locals unapologetically ask for a selfie. I was in no hurry so I was more than happy to oblige…for a time though.
There was a certain point when Jackson (another strapping Australian) of Journey Era and I stood on a podium for what must have been 10 minutes while locals queued to get photos with us. Not one word of a lie, they queued. We finally had to get our agents to call time so we could move on.
It will be hot, so seek refuge in the historic Cafe Batavia, on the opposite side of Kota Tua to the Jakarta Museum. The building is over 200 years old and has a real prohibition era feel to it. It is ornately decorated with walls plastered in old framed photographs. Downstairs also hosts live music, and although they hadn’t started by the time I left, they had on stage a double bass, which is always a good sign.
If you prefer to interact with and support the locals, instead of drinking at the cafe, walk across the square to some markets, pull up a seat and order something from a cart. Expect little English but an authentic experience.
Now I know museums aren’t everybody’s cup of tea (they’re usually not mine either), but if you are into your history this is one museum not to be missed. The Museum Nasional contains over 140,000 artefacts from thousands of years ago. You might have heard of Java Man: the first homo sapien discovered was in Indonesia. They don’t have Java Man’s remains, but I still learnt about him.
The museum also houses collections on traditional Javanese living, historic musical instruments, and early Javanese tools.
Massage at Kokuo Reflexology
You’ll be hot, and you’ll have walked far already today, so it’s time to take a load off and relax. Once we’d arrived, they took us upstairs through this complex of hallways and rooms filled with recliner massage lounges. There must have been at least 60 beds in the place, most rooms having about 5 beds in each.
It was busy (our tour group of 40 has that effect sometimes) but it never felt crowded. I ended up in a room setup like a theatre with recliner massage lounges aimed at the screen. I’ll admit that watching Paul Blart Mall Cop and The Dark Knight (dubbed in Indonesian) wasn’t my ideal picture of relaxation, but I can see how it would appeal to some.
Being such a communal facility, this of course meant that all clothes remained on during the massage.
I had a 90 minute full body massage, which cost a grand total of 150,000 rupiah, or around USD$15.
Muslims in Indonesia make up around 87% of the population so it is without surprise that you would find the world’s fourth largest mosque in Jarkarta. I expected domes and turrets, but what I didn’t expect was it would be the world ugliest building.
As I approached the mosque I inquisitively said to my neighbour words to the effect of, “Well I can see the carpark, but where’s the mosque?” Interestingly, the architect was a Christian so I think he did it on purpose so people might be inclined to flock to the beautiful Cathedral across the road.
However, once you are inside it’s a completely different story. Large, sparse courtyards were a photographers dream, and the gargantuan prayer hall is enough to make any man feel small.
The complex itself can fit an astonishing 200,000 people, so I’m just glad I visited during an off-peak day.
Across the road is the neo-gothic masterpiece, the Jakarta Cathedral. Built in 1901, it is not dissimilar to many cathedrals I came across in my travels through Europe. Don’t just let it be another photo stop though. Even you aren’t a Christian, take a moment in the pews to reflect… on whatever you like. On what is likely a frantic, busy vacation, use it as an excuse for 5 minutes of quiet. We could all use that sometimes.
The National Monument, or Monas for short, is a grand obelisk and museum that both celebrates and commemorates Indonesian independence from the Dutch. The park in which it is situated can be deceitfully big, so for an express tour jump on the little train that laps the park. It is also ring fenced with only a couple of entrances on opposite corners, so be sure to find it otherwise you’ll be up for a long walk!
At the opposite exit to where you entered near the cathedral is a small market. Most stalls are packed full of pop culture t-shirts (Pokemon Go and Frozen were the most common for me), hats, and handicrafts, so if that’s your jam get your bartering skills ready.
However, if you just need a rest, we’ve got you covered there too as there are plenty of food and drink stalls as well.
Wander the streets of Jakarta
I happened to be staying at the Mercure Sabang, which was only about a kilometre away and a very pleasant walk through some night food stalls. If we didn’t already have dinner planned, this would have been it for me, no questions.
Jakarta is a huge city but most of the sights above are reasonably close to each other. Many are walking distance, but it will still be hot so this will destroy you by the end of the day. Taxis and tuk tuks can be an inexpensive way to get around, especially over short distances. Best bets are Blue Bird Taxi, Uber, or Grab Taxi (similar to Uber). Just be wary that traffic can be horrendous so you want to agree on a price first whenever possible.
I stayed at the Mercure Sabang, which is very central to almost everything in this guide – a perfect location. The room was spacious, bed comfortable, shower big, and staff very friendly. And since you’re likely coming with a good exchange rate, you will be surprised at how affordable it is. They also have a full buffet breakfast option, which has more options for Indonesians and internationals than you can poke a stick at. Personal favourite is always the cooked to order omelettes.
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As an Australian, Indonesia is one of our closest neighbours. The island of Bali is one of the most popular destinations for vacations, but few Australians will venture further afield through this epically diverse country than that. For something a little more off-beat, with just as much culture and beauty, consider visiting Yogyakarta in Central Java.
Known locally as “Jogja”, Yogyakarta is the perfect mix of city living, exploring nature and cultural awareness. With a population of 500,000 it is not quite the bustling metropolis of Jakarta, nor is it as sparse as Bintan, it’s simply a good mix.
If getting off the beaten path appeals to you, then here are 5 places in Yogyakarta that will convince you to visit it on your next trip to Indonesia.
The centrepiece of Yogyakarta is the Sri Sultan Hamengkubuwono’s Palace. Or if you struggle to pronounce that, it is also know is just “Sultan’s Palace” or “Kraton”. Take a guided tour of the palace, find some nearby food stalls or challenge a Becak driver to a game of chess to get some genuine interaction with the locals.
About an hour’s drive from the city is the Borobudur temple, the largest Buddhist archeological site in the world. Borobudur Temple offers a welcome escape from the busyness of city life while also giving an insight into how Buddhists worshipped in the 8th Century. The temple is an enormous complex surrounded by beautiful grasslands and gardens. With hundreds of stone statues and carvings it gives just a glimpse of the religious traditions of the local people.
40 minutes in the other direction, Prambanan Temple is a beautiful Hindu complex of temples, some of which reach heights of over 47 metres. The daunting figures rise from the ground at such magnitude it’s difficult not to stare in awe. It’s a large complex so there are free shuttles to cart visitors around and guides can also be hired for around 75,000 rupiah (about $US7.50).
Learn about local traditions
Yogyakarta is also a great place to about Javanese culture in a more formal setting through the Backstreet Academy. The Academy offers many classes which include fishing in the south sea, Javanese cooking, dance, and traditional Javanese archery. So whatever your preference there’ll be something for you.
And if you like getting active while traveling, take a day trip out to Mount Merapi, an active volcano in the nearby district of Sleman, which offers many hiking options to suit all skill and fitness levels. Make sure to spend some town in the village at the foot of the mountain. It has a real off the beaten track feel to it and is a great opportunity to peruse the local vendor stands without being surrounded by tourists.
Traditional Shadow Puppet Show at the Sonobudoyo Museum
Even though the show might be entirely in Indonesian Bahasa, a traditional Indonesian puppet show, or Wayang Kulit, is a supremely unique experience. The puppets are made from buffalo hide and are backlit from behind the stage to broadcast shadows across the screen. The puppets are exquisitely designed and will give a true insight into authentic Javanese culture. The show is accompanied by a Javanese musical score and depicts many aspects of Javanese life including their religion, war, humour and of course their traditional culture.
For more ideas on what to do in Yogyakarta, read more at Life in Big Tent.
Where to stay
If you are looking for a hotel booking, you might try the Whiz Hotel Yogyakarta. It is centrally located, is fitted with modern facilities and is very good value.
Having just spent almost 2 weeks in Indonesia I can attest to the fact that there is far more to see than Bali. Yogyakarta is one of many places to see fascinating history combine with traditional Indonesian culture.
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