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Travels around Java: Indonesia without tears

When I told my friends I was going with my boyfriend to Indonesia for an early summer holiday, most people said, ‘oh, yes, Bali, that’ll be great. ’ When I explained that, no, actually, we’ll be staying in Jakarta, the reaction turned to one of bewildered shock, ‘ No one actually stays there, it’s a place to get through as quickly as possible on your way to the islands’ was the usual advice I was given.

Doesn't look too crowded...

I know, Indonesia is an unforgettable place, a country of orang –utans, coloured crater lakes, volcanoes tempting visitors to a sunrise climb to the summit, and powdery white sand beaches. So, as that is all true, why are we basing our holiday in the noisy, polluted one long traffic jam of a city, Jakarka? Well, a taste of all the amazing sights is possible by using Jakarta as your base, and as we are limited for time, and don’t feel like spending most of the day travelling, Jakarta is, in fact, the perfect place for a holiday. If you feel like a restful beach holiday combined with a city buzz, then this could be the holiday for you!

Here’s the plan, 10 days using Jakarta as our base.
Day 1, reacquainting ourselves with Jakarta city and a chance to organise our trips
Day 2 – 4, a three day stay on the furthest islands off the coast of Jakarta, Pulau Seribu
Day 5, a day trip to Krakatau and Carita beach
Day 6, a day in Jakarta Mini Indonesia and the shopping malls of Jakarta
Day 7 – 9, a three day stay at the beach in Pangandaran
Day 10 home!

Essential details:

You’ll need a visa on arrival at the airport, which gives you a 30 day stay. It costs $25 and can be paid in US dollars or the local currency, rupiah. You go to the VoA counter (visa on arrival) in the airport to pay this.

We went in June, the end of the rainy season, so the weather should be mostly dry, but it will still feel humid and very hot!

Hostels and small hotels are a cheap option, but the larger, plush hotels usually offer a 50% discount if you stay during the week and not on festival days.

Trains are one of the safest, cheapest and most comfortable ways of travelling. The Bemos, (mini buses) are very cheap but expect to get crammed in, the Indonesians can really squeeze themselves into every possible corner of the bus! The Bajajs (motorised rickshaws) and becaks (rickshaws), and ojeks (single passenger on a motorbike) can be pricey, you have to negotiate a price before you get on.

Flights cost around £600. We chose to fly with Emirates, for £771 each, return with a connecting stol in Dubai. There are cheaper deals, some as low as £400 return, but you have to be patient looking online for those deals and be very flexible with your dates.

Immigration was a little intimidating, stern faced officials with very shiny, black boots, and long queues. We finally made it out, and the heat and humidity hit us like the blast of heat you get when opening an oven door. It had been a long time since we had experienced heat like that. Almost 10 years ago, we both worked as TEFL teachers in Indonesia, with a small school, in an unknown town (Cirebon) about 5 hours away by train from Jakarta. The blast of heat really took me back to my 9 months there, the noise of the traffic, the people, the smells, the foreignness of it all, the feeling of being very far from home.

My idea for a holiday in Jakarta was prompted by a nostalgic afternoon, thumbing through some old photos of Indonesia and reading through my old journal. One section was about a trip to Jakarta (we had made several as it wasn’t difficult getting on the train and back in time for school after the weekend, the trains were reasonably on time). As we both fancied a holiday, away from Europe and involving a bit of adventure, I suggested Indonesia, and Rob enthusiastically agreed.

There were places in Indonesia that we often spoke of fondly, and many places we had hoped to visit or spend more time at, but couldn’t because of having very little free time as teachers. So, here was our chance!

We got a taxi to from the airport to our old haunt, Jalan Jaksa, and looked around for a cheap place to stay. We didn’t mind cold water, mandi style bathroom (a large basin, built into the bathroom wall, usually tiled, filled with water. There’s a ladle to scoop the water out and pour it over yourself. You never actually get in the large basin, just use it for dipping your ladle), with no a/c. But I drew the line at a non-western, squat toilet. After a few tries, we found a good place to call our base for our stay. We booked for the days we were stopping in Jakarta only, this was a bit of a hassle, but we didn’t want to have to go hotel hunting again, after each trip away. We also arranged travel for our trips away, where possible. It was good to arrange what we could, at the reception. This took some time and you have to pay for the service, but it was definitely worth it, as it meant that we could relax, knowing our holiday was sorted. After a flop and sleep on the bed, we went out for an explore. On Jalan Jaksa, we recognised some of the cafes, some had changed names but all was pretty much the same. We immersed ourselves in the traveller’s hub, an atmosphere charged with travellers’ tales, TEFL teachers swapping games for grammar, older smarter groups, city workers, flicking out their broadsheet newspapers over cappuccinos, and travellers using Jakarta as a stop gap, before heading off to Bali overland. We spent a few hours milling around, absorbing the chilled atmosphere of Jaksa, seeing the sights this underestimated city has to offer. Yes, the buildings are nothing to rave over, yes, it’s polluted and the Bajajs (two stroke motorized rickshaws) clog up the road and your lungs with awful smog, but it has an energy, a beat of its own that is worth investigating.

Our next 3 days will be spent in the paradise islands off the coast of Jakarta, really can’t wait. Pure white sand, clear seas, all the trappings of paradise without the tourists, except a few Chinese tourists enjoying a break away from the city. The islands, known as ‘Thousand Islands’ or Pulau Seribu in Indonesian, are really only 110, and only 37 of those have any development, the rest are small coral atolls. They really are a great holiday location, very close to Jakarta, but feel more like a remote chain of atolls off the exotic shores of Indonesia’s eastern islands. Multi coloured reefs, full of vibrant shoals of fish, a divers dream location. The sea is as warm, and the sand is as white as Kuta beach in Bali, but the bonus is, you get it almost to yourself! We got an early morning taxi to the harbour. There is a regular bus from Jalan Jaksa to the harbour but we needed to be there early and it can take about 75 mins in heavy traffic. The taxi took us to the Marina Ancol on Jakarta Bay, there’s a jetty at the Marina Ancol with plenty of Travel Agents all selling pretty much the same all inclusive deal to the lovely islands. It’s worth noting that the food is almost exclusively seafood (wonderful!). Although you’re not supposed to bring any food or drink with you, you may wish to pack a few luxuries, as the amenities may be rather basic. The boat leaves at 8:00am to the islands, and it’s best to arrive at least half an hour before departure. We got there early so we could decide on which island we wanted to visit. We chose the gorgeous Kotok island, which is a low key island, well within the protected national marine park, meaning it was far enough from Jakarta and it’s polluting influence on the sea. The closest islands are still beautiful, but you’re advised not to swim in the sea, therefore it’s definitely better to get up early and head out for the outer islands and enjoy the fabulous marine life as well as the paradise island vibe. Kotok island was perfect, simple huts, basic bamboo hideaways, dotted around the island. A great feature of Kotok is the wooden pier, you can dive right off and immerse yourself in the colourful shoals of fish. We loved our relaxing stay on the picture perfect island, coconut palms, powdery white sand, seclusion and all the seafood you can eat at the buffet restaurant. Diving equipment can be hired, massages arranged, but we just wanted to kick back and enjoy the pleasure of staying at a coral island paradise on Jakarta’s doorstep. Perfect!

Our 3 precious days of relaxation on the perfectly formed little island were over, so back to the hotel and a rest before tomorrow’s trip.

Day 5 was a day trip to Carita beach with a view of Krakatau. We had arranged a car with driver for the day. It’s really not that expensive, and it makes the journey far more relaxing than taking the bus. There is a regular bus from Jakarta, which takes about 3 hours. Then, you need to catch a small mini bus to Carita beach. It’s quite possible to travel by the buses, but we felt like avoiding the hassle and enjoying the treat of our own personal driver. Well, what are holidays for!

The beach at Carita was pretty busy. There were a few tourists lying on the golden sand taking in the amazing view, families playing ball games, fishermen and their boats, and locals plying their wares to the tourists. Snorkelling and diving and other water sports were easy to arrange. The beaches at this far western stretch of Java coast are especially protected so the sea is calm and the water’s clear. It can get busy with motor boats and jet skis at the weekend, mostly from domestic tourists, escaping Jakarta for a couple of days. It’s a good beach to see every day life in action, fishermen, groups of school children, hoping for a photo and a short conversation with a foreigner, children playing and even a few, chickens running around near the local’s houses that lined the beach.

The view from Carita beach was incredible. The crumbled Krakatau is easy to spot from the beach, incredible to see it, and also to see the amazing black volcano Anak Krakatau (anak means child in Indonesian) which is still growing and is active. What a sight! A trip can be made from Carita to Karkatau, it only takes about 4 hours on a motorboat. There are loads of touts who want to take you there, but the best company to use is the Black Rhino tour company. We didn’t feel like getting so close to the smoking cone and the lava flows, it was more than enough for us to see it so clearly from the lovely beach.

We decided to try some of the food from the many food carts dotted around the beach. We settled for some delicious sate, the fish kebabs were wonderful with the spicy peanut sauce. Watching the sun set on Krakatau, sipping coconut juice from a coconut which had probably just fallen from one of the many coconut palm trees that lined the beach, at one of the many beachside cafes, was a perfect way to end the day. So, back to Jakarta, great to have AC in the car, heavenly after the baking heat outside.

Tired, after a lovely day, we had dinner and a few drinks in one of the Dutch/German cafes in Jalan Jaksa, then back to the hotel

We had a bit of a lie in and then enjoyed a leisurely morning at Taman Mini Indonesia Indah on day 6 of our holiday. Mini Indonesia is a large theme park devoted to the different islands and their cultures within Indonesia itself. A highlight is definitely the amazing houses built in West Papua style, fantastic! The regions are all represented, and it’s fun to walk around the lake and see all the different styles close up. The amazing buffalo roofs of Sumatra were also pretty fantastic to see. There are museums as well, with loads of information about the people and land. Really interesting way to spend a few hours, and see so much of Indonesia without leaving Jakarta! We had a ride on a cable car all the way around the park, which was a good idea as it was so hot, really hot for walking around!

After we’d seen plenty of the park, we headed off to the air conditioned shopping malls. We spent some time in the glitzy Hyatt Hotel shopping mall, which was a great way to cool off, have a drink and something to eat in the food hall and window shop in the cool, shiny floored stylish mall where the majority of shoppers were pale and expensively dressed Chinese.

Time for more outside sight seeing. We had lovely walk along Thamrin street, which is a smart, wide avenue, lined with trees and perfect pavements, none of the usual enormous cracks and holes which feature in most other streets. The attractive colonial buildings are great to see. We had a stroll around the park in the centre of the city, Medan Merdeka. The famous Monas Tower (137 metre high of marble) with its golden top. It represents the glorious independence of Indonesia. The National Museum very close to Medan Merdeka was brilliant! It’s a great place to get a sense of the people and their history. Here you can see the skull of the ‘Java Man’, lots of treasures, golden artefacts and plenty of information about this fascinating land. We were lucky to catch a traditional dance show, colourful costumes, angular movements and strange facial expressions! The dance was accompanied by gamelan players. This is a group of percussion, drums, and gongs, which look rather beautiful as they are intricately carved, and the music is repetitive and hypnotic.

Many more museums dotted around the city are well worth a visit as is a closer look at the historic harbour area (Sunda Kelapa). A great spot for looking at the lovely old wooden schooners that still use the port, and a good place to see some of the old Dutch buildings. But, we’d run out of time, and so, we headed back to our hotel for a rest before enjoying an evening hanging out in Jalan Jaksa.

Day 7 was an early start as we headed down to the gorgeous Pangandaran, a lovely unspoilt beach town on the south coast of west Java, hardly any development although it is picture postcard perfect. We spent a few weekends there when we were teachers, and as we loved it there we thought it would be great to see it again and see if it’s changed much. It has long golden sandy beaches fringed with coconut palms, either side of a headland which is classed as a national park. The headland is a gloriously unspoilt rainforest full of amazing plants, trees, birdsong, monkeys and enormous fruit bats that silently leave the rainforest at sunset creating a rather eerie sight! At the end of the rainforest is a lovely, small white sand beach which is a great place for swimming and snorkelling as the sea is calm at this point and so super clear so you can really see the, colourful fish and coral. The large golden sand beaches either side of this headland have a far rougher sea, large crashing waves with a strong undercurrent. Getting to Pangandaran is fairly easy. There are buses from Jakarta, the trip takes about 7 hours and you have to start early (about 8am) to make sure that you get a direct bus. It’s cheap but we didn’t fancy taking that long, so we opted for a car with driver, dearer, yes, but far quicker, takes no more than four hours, and we could set off when we wanted to. We had pre booked, with our hotel in Jakarta, a three day stay in a homestay close to the main centre, with its restaurants and bars.

Pangandaran was a peaceful, relaxing place, although it can be busy with local school children on the search for foreigners so they can practise their English and take a photo or twelve! We were mostly undisturbed on our trip, although the touts for excursions pressed us during our strolls around the town and we were persuaded to take a trip to the Green Canyon, which is a big cave with a waterfall. We were really glad we went, it was a great trip, travelling along the river on a small motor boat with views of the lush rainforest around us. Part of the trip involved visiting a local puppet maker and seeing how he made the beautiful wooden puppets that are used for the extremely popular shadow puppet plays that show all over Indonesia, called Wayang Kulit.

Bicycle hire is plentiful so we hired a couple of bikes and had a leisurely explore around the area. A great idea, much better than walking in the heat! If you like unspoilt beaches, fresh seafood and unspoilt rainforest leading to a secluded white sand beach, then this is certainly a place to consider visiting. It doesn’t have the nightlife or atmosphere of Bali, but it is far cheaper and can offer a taste of real coastal life. We particularly enjoyed following overgrown trails through the rain forest, brilliant for spotting huge colourful butterflies, as you walk past strange, exotic plants and try to avoid the noisy rather aggressive monkeys. The white sand beach at the end of the trail is an amazing reward. One morning, we even saw deer on the beach, as well as a few monkeys keen to steal your water bottle if you’re not careful. On the whole, the resort was the same as we remembered all those years ago. A few more hotels, bars and the beach was definitely cleaner, but the relaxing pace and beautiful natural setting, fortunately, remained the same.

After a wonderfully relaxing three days, we headed back up to Jakarta, using the car and driver again. The poor state of the roads can make for a hair raising journey, but as it was the dry season, the pot holes were mostly filled in, and there wasn’t the same danger of landslide as there is in the wet season.

All in all, this was a fantastic holiday. We spent the last day packing and having a last look around Jakarta before heading off to the airport for our flight home. The holiday was a great mix of beaches and city buzz, with enough travelling around to stop us getting bored. The holiday renewed our love of Indonesia and we really hope to go back again and see more.

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