Singapore and Indonesia Trip Report

Amcan Travel visits Singapore, Java, and Bali, December 2009.

Singapore -- 3 days

Arriving to Singapore airport at 2am didn't pose any problem in getting oriented and settled right away. First, we found an airport ATM right outside the arrival hall. The airport information desk staff were still working and very helpful. We were soon riding the shuttle bus to our hotel along with just one other passenger, a gentleman here on business from Iowa. We checked into the posh Fairmont Singapore. Our 14th floor room has a patio facing the harbor, in view of the Merlion (photo, fantasy sea-life statue) and the Esplanade (photo, Big Durians). We're in the heart of the Colonial District, Singapore's best-known facade to the world. We look out over six lane boulevards, skyscrapers, monuments and double deckers, all decorated with Christmas lights (photo, Colonial District at night). The patio became a photo-shoot platform, day and night.

We slept a bit, and got up later in the morning to explore the neighborhood on foot. The Asian Civilization Center's two museums are both wonderfully designed and feature displays with high tech and tasteful consideration. The most impressive objects we saw included a giant bronze drum, as tall as Barbara and twice as round and a very graceful Buddha's head from Burma. We also visited SAM (Singapore Art Museum) and had lunch at a local kopi tiam (coffee shop), a mini shopping center consisting of food vendors. The "smoking" duck rice/rice noodle were excellent and the dessert after was phenomenal. We ordered Bubuchacha, the Singapore national dessert and an adventurous soursop with shaved ice (photo, soursop on the kopi tiam menu -- yum!). Richard liked it so much that he said if he died before he ever had this, his life would not be complete.

The next day we used super-convenient mass transit to get to neighborhoods around Little India, the Arab Quarter (photo, dome and minaret) and Chinatown. Having been to India ourselves, not to mention Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, and Chinatowns all over the US and Canada, we had to admit Singapore's ethnic neighborhoods are the cleanest imaginable. There are trinket shops on the streets, but no touting which was a nice surprise. We visited the Sultan Mosque (photo, mosque interior), largest in Singapore. We found a couple of Hindu temples closed ( photo, apsara temple figure), but looked into a couple of Chinese Temples in Chinatown. We made a lunch stop at the famous Maxwell Center, which features Singapore's supposedly "Best" Chicken Rice at Tien Tien (Stall No. 10). We ended the day with a visit to the legendary Raffle's Hotel and its Long Bar, where the original Singapore Sling (photo, pink drink) was invented in 1915. The drinks cost us $20 USD per, accompanied with unlimited roasted peanuts.

Bandung -- 3 days

We flew from Singapore to Jakarta, then immediately headed out by train to Bandung. Our hotel is north of the center in a family-run guest house. The room has its own bathroom, just a toilet and a faucet with a shower extension. There's no tub, no basin. As we traveled more in Indonesia, we found this is pretty standard for budget lodgings. Many hotels have just a small basin with a cold-water faucet, beside the shower head on the wall. This particular guesthouse has a covered courtyard (photo, carp pond at Orange Home), where a fish pond dominate the space, surrounded by table and chairs on the elevated platform. Tea and instant coffee are provided with hot, or cold water in a cooler in the corner. Breakfast was simple, but great. We loved the fresh rice, tasty meat and prawn crackers. You can also choose western style toast, butter and jam.

We went to the Asia-Africa Conference museum (photo, museum entrance), which commemorates the 1955 international meeting where Zhou Enlai, then prime minister of Red China, became a superstar. We rode the bus out to a neighborhood theater to see the unique Anklung (photo, anklung player) performance. It was a lucky thing that Barbara happened to sit on the bus next to the dalang (puppet master) of the troupe on his way to work. He spoke a bit of English, and he was very happy when he heard us asking the driver how to get to the theater. So he volunteered to take us there, i.e. to follow him. It was amazing to see the whole orchestra, the golek puppets, and the rest of the spectacle. Everyone in the audiences was given a bamboo instrument, played by shaking and each capable of one note, and we were conducted by the host to play some simple songs together. It is an effective interaction between performer and audience and a fine promotion of the local music heritage. We ended up sharing a taxi back to our hotel with a young Malaysian couple here on vacation, both well educated and with excellent English. Apparently, Indonesia is a shopping paradise for Malays, with knock-off brands being very cheap. Our hotel also serves some local families; over half are minority Chinese, who still control much of the Indonesian economy even though they represent less than 3% of the total population.

Yogjakarta -- 6 days

Jogja, as the locals call it, seems to be the cultural soul of Java. Located in south central Java, Jogja's history of resisting Dutch colonialism earned it a special place in the contemporary structure of Indonesia's national government. The sultan, his wife and five beautiful daughters still live in the Kraton (photo, graceful pendopo) and receive great admiration and respect of the populace. We were lucky to enjoy a gamelan performance held at the palace (photo, gamelan gongs). Like Bandung, Jogja is a university town with a big student population, lower living expense and very congested traffic.

We spent time in the Kraton, the Alun Alun (outdoor market) and the mosque in the downtown area while staying north of the city center close to a couple of college campuses. The business hotel is quite convenient with meeting room, swimming pool and a restaurant featuring buffet breakfast with a huge selection.

Jogja is within easy drives to Prambanan and Borobudur, two UNESCO Heritage sites. On a rainy afternoon we visited Prambanan (photo, Prambanan in the rain), a Hindu temple compound from 9th century. Unfortunately the major temples (photo, temples at Prambanan) have been protected behind fences, a result of damage from the 2002 earthquake. We stayed in Prambanan into the evening to take in a presentation of the Ramayana Ballet performance (photo, ballet - Ravana and Sita),

Borobudur (photo, Borobudur structure) is an ancient holy place for Buddhists, the most-visited Indonesian tourist attraction (photo, Borobudur gallery). The site consists of stupas and galleries of reliefs wrapped around a structure that's practically a small hill. To respect local custom, we tried to walk all the way around every level, moving clockwise. Barbara's arm was too short to touch a Buddha statue's finger for good luck; instead, she only reached his arm, inside the grated cover (photo, stupa with Buddha).

Through a friend in Seattle, we were introduced to the internationally famous Indonesian performer, Didik Nini Thowak (see his web site), a traditionally trained Indonesian dancer, drama performer and sometime comic. It was a great honor to be treated to dinner by him on New Year's Eve (photo, Didik and Barbara).

We thought we could be spontaneous and deliberately left the last two days in Central Java open, hoping to get to Solo or Malang, but lodging was tight and we got stuck in Jogja for another two days, but our business hotel was sold out. We ended up moving to a very nice guest house (photo, comfy Jogja guesthouse) close to the hotel, where we met a couple from Virginia involved in some missionary work and study. They told us they had visited Indonesia five times in five years, and sponsored a local youth to become priest. Other guests in the house includes two Javanese girls from well-to-do families, each staying in Jogja independently to receive specific health services. Barbara enjoyed hanging out with the girls, offering advice (photo, Java women's conference) and shopping. She cooked up a big feast at the guest house kitchen, total cost under $10. We shared a big dinner, and went to a puppet show together (photo, wayang kulit shadow puppets).

Bali -- 9 days

We started in our stay in Bali at Ubud, the spiritual center of the island, which is more Hindu compared to the mostly Islamic island of Java. We had opted not to fly Yogyakarta to Bali, instead taking train, ferry and bus all the way from Central Java. It's a long trip, and we felt pretty wiped out upon arriving to the small family hotel, Casa Genasha (photo, nice small hotel room). It's nice, clean, and friendly, with free internet and wonderful breakfast. We got the best unit in the property because we had booked five nights here. A frog decided to become our neighbor and companion, making his unique song for us every few hours, sort of a contrast to the calls to prayer we had been hearing every night in Java. The hotel has a sweet elevated patio right outside our room, where Barbara set up with her computer and wi-fi access to "take care of business" (photo, hard working agent in Bali).

We walked everywhere around Ubud, from the Monkey Forest Sanctuary (photo, long-tailed macaque) to the Royal Palace and local market, where we bargained for the delicious mangosteen fruits. The tourist office was very helpful with a list of culture performances daily in multiple locations. We saw Kecak ceremony, Lagong dancing (photo, eye dancing), Barong performance (photo, happy mischevous Barong) and a week-long Mas Village praying ceremony (photo, celebrants) which, we were told, is held just once every 25 years. Big groups the villagers with universal village attires, even the young kids, walked with us towards their major temple under the holy Banyan tree. We came prepared with our own sarongs and scarves, and were very lucky to find a tower across the street from the temple so we can take in all the procedings. A parade of supplicants and honorees lined up to enter the temple to show their respect and make offerings. Another day, we visited the ARMA museum, located in a large compound still maintaining traditional rice fields. ARMA offers nice lodging, restaurants and museums, all created by a local artist, entrepeneur and collector, Mr. Agung Rai, whom we met at his ARMA Cafe. He pretended to be "a gardener" and fooled Richard to think, Wow, what an educated and informed gardener with excellent English. But we spotted his picture in the ARMA brochure and finally identified him. He told us about his visit to Seattle a few years ago visiting SAM (Seattle Art Museum, where Barbara is a docent) and working with director Mimi Gates on art preservation techniques. We also met another Seattle couple while enjoying the Topeng (photo, masked dance) performance at ARMA. What a small world!

The last two nights in Ubud, we upgraded our lodgings to Uma Resort (photo, fancy hotel room), a very upscale resort and spa in the northern part of town (photo, patio viewc). The staff were so dedicated, that from the time you checked in, everyone knows you by the first name and Barbara got the honor of being called Ibu (Auntie). We took advantage of a morning nature walk with the hotel-provided guide, a native of the local village. We passed rice fields and temples while he explained the local life in Bali. A lot of villagers are part time farmers, harvesting rice crops three times a year, and at the same time are employed in tourism, as drivers, as construction workers, and so on. Family ties and ceremonies are still strong and traditional but life is more modern and contemporary for the younger generation.

We rented ourselves a small jeep to drive around to see some local attractions such as the Elephant Cave (photo, Goa Gajah entrance). The last two days in Bali were spent in Sanur, a quiet beach town in South Bali, wedged between chaotic Kuta Beach and the ritzy Nosa Dua area with its gated deluxe resorts. We walked down the beach, enjoyed a beautiful sunset (photo, Sanur sunset) and romantic dinner. We hoped to get in day of snorkeling, but weather did not cooporate so we didn't get to test the Pacific. Instead, we took our little car around South Bali, including visiting one of Didik's friends who teaches in Denpasar with his wife, a classical Balinese dancer. We enjoyed watch his Gamalan ensemble rehearse an innovative blend of multiple Indonesian musical styles with other World Music influences. The ensemble players are local art college graduates and music students, very talented and dedicated.

We ate very well in Bali: Roasted pig, live fish and clams were featured in our dinners, as well as the local favorite fried rice, fried noodles and salad. We even got to try the infamous Civet Cat coffee - Kopi Lewak at a whopping $7 dollars a cup, about the price of a nice dinner for two. On our last night in Bali, we went to Jimbaran, sat on the beach, pointed out some fish and clam for the restaurant to cook and enjoyed a very romantic sunset dinner (photo, very fresh fish).

Jakarta -- 3days

We ditched our car at the domestic terminal in Denpasar airport and flew a local low cost airline to Jakarta. Our hotel was toward the northeast corner of the old town. We took a city shuttle bus from the airport to Gambir, the local train station, and caught a taxi to our hotel, this time an Ibis business hotel. We visited the usual attractions such as the national monument (photo, Sukarno's Tower) and took the elevator to the top to take in the bird's eye view of this giant, polluted metropolis. We visited Institut Kesenian,the National Art Institute, and met with Maria Darmaningsih, a friend of Didik and a dean for foreign relations at the school. Trained as a classical Java dancer, she is so beautiful, poised and graceful. We audited a workshop rehearsal directed by Milan Sladek, an artist in residence in the theater department this term. In the evening, we were introduced us to the Teater Koma (check out their web site). They are an amazing self-organized troupe that regularly packs theaters nationwide, all with devoted volunteers who do everything from administration of the show, rehearsal, sales and marketing, costumes, and stage sets. By day, they are human resources manager or school teachers or office workers or janitors. By night, they commute for hours by bus, car or motorbike to get to the director's home to do whatever is needed. We met a seven month pregnant woman who has been a member for about 8 years. She will not play part in the next show, but she still at rehearsal every day, cooking and cleaning for everyone, just to support the production. We were warmly welcomed by the director and his wife, enjoyed casual dinner with the group and watched them rehearse. It was truly a very touching experience. A great ending for our visit to Indonesia.