Java island Indonesia was the destination of my very first trip to Asia and adventure in Indonesia.
As I explain through my tips for organizing your first independent trip, Indonesia is the ideal destination to overcome your fear of traveling alone for the first time.
So this travelogue and guide is also a testimonial showing how I was afraid to travel alone for the first time, just like everyone else!
In September 2007, I visited the Indonesian islands of Java and Bali. In this Java travel guide, I take you more precisely to the discovery of enchanting landscapes, active volcanoes, temples classified as World Heritage by Unesco and the culture of this splendid island. I give you my first impressions and advice to prepare your next travel to Java.
For each city, I have given you at least two hotel recommendations: the one ranked #1 on Trip Advisor and the best value for money. To make your reservation, I advise you to use the links of the article. They will redirect you to Agoda’s website, which offers the best prices for hotels in Asia. If you visit Trip Advisor, you will notice that the Hotels dot com website may seem cheaper sometimes. These clever ones will show you a price to which you must add the tax. In the end, you pay more!
From the very first minutes, the tone is set: this trip will be under the sign of encounters; that of this cleaner from Roissy airport with whom I speak of travel; Phil, my new backpacker and customs officer friend whom I meet “for real”; Murillo, a beautiful Brazilian ephebe, with whom the 10-hour flight between Doha and Jakarta passes very quickly.
I’m even forgetting the unpleasant, all-inclusive search of my backpack:”What is it?” “Contact lenses.” “What is it?” “My toothbrush.” Much less sympathetic this customs of Qatar…
The first contact with Jakarta was quickly destabilizing. I soon found myself assaulted by a multitude of proposals for transport and accommodation. I’m not used to it, the long flight has made me tired and I’m not very reassured.
My taxi takes me to the backpackers’ quarter, Jalan Jaksa, in the middle of an intense traffic on the left, and small stalls that I take for a slum. It’s hard to get rid of Western references. Once in the more reassuring setting of my hotel, I call my best friend. As usual, he reassures me and de-dramatizes my little worries. So now, I’m ready to face the outside world!
I am meddling for a while in this strange and fragrant night activity. Around me, everything is agitated and I am overwhelmed by the first smells of the typical warungs, these little stalls placed on the pavement.
If you want to know more about sightseeing in the capital of Indonesia and the place for the best food in Jakarta, read the Lonely Planet guide to Jakarta.
Everyone is already trying to make my journey easier. I settle down in a comfortable, air-conditioned and not very welcoming 1st class car, heading south… The contrast with the modern Jakarta is striking. Very quickly, the landscape was made up of magnificent rice paddy terraces full of water, suspended bridges, rivers and small houses made of sheet metal. The fields are animated by the activity of the peasants who wear conical hats. Despite the exuberance of the vegetation, I still can’t even realize that I have finally made my Asian dream come true…
Bandung, “The Paris Van Java”… To cross the tracks, I’m being passed from train to train. The city seems human-sized to me after the sprawling Jakarta. Not a building, few sidewalks and cars, the city seems rather pleasant and the hotel is very welcoming. Tonight, “On va faire la java à Java.” One of the hotel employees speaks very good French and loves slang.
After getting lost in the streets of the city and being gently escorted by motorbike, I understand the Paris Van Java surname. The city has a lot of old charming European and Art Deco buildings and a quaint atmosphere.
When I’m back, I take my first real meal in a warung of padang food. Various dishes are shown in the display case and it is easy to show what you want. I can manage for the exorbitant sum of 18 000 rupees… or a little more than 1€! The evening is spent quietly, between discussions, Indonesian and Western ballads on guitar, and tasting of the Bandung drink, Javanese vodka (vodka, energy drink and tonic). I’m pampered, I’m the only guest at the hotel tonight. Tomorrow, however, it will be the departure for Yogyakarta.
If you want to explore Bandung for a longer time, I recommend this Bandung travel guide from Divergent Travelers.
The best luxury hotel in the heart of Jakarta, in the golden triangle. The heritage of the famous Indonesian artist Hendra Gunawan is reflected in a colourful and refined design. The hotel offers among others 173 rooms and suites, some of which overlook the garden, a spa, a hammam, several bars and restaurants, an incredible outdoor swimming pool.
The beautiful city of Jogjakarta is not only the starting point for the temples of Borobudur and Prambanan. It is also the centre of Javanese classical art and traditional culture.
Departure by train at 8am to Yogyakarta, commonly known as “Yogya”.
This time, I was able to get a first-class economy ticket and the trip with the Javanese largely offset the lack of air conditioning. I travel beside an old gentleman who explains me the diversity of these magnificent landscapes. I spend nearly 6 hours to enjoy the sight of these rice fields, volcanoes, mountains, small villages, hanging bridges, of this exuberant nature. I finally realize that I’m at the other part of the world…
I let myself be guided to my guesthouse, the Dewi homestay I, where my canopy bed room only costs me 40,000 rupees (less than 4€ at that time). The ancient decoration, marked by the stigmas of the last earthquake, is a pure delight just like the gentle welcome and the garden with its luxuriant vegetation. If you want to stay there, you will have to wait to be in Indonesia as the guesthouse is not bookable online.
The district in which it is located, Sosro, named after the main street Jalan Sosrowijayan, is made up of narrow alleys and alleyways, in which it is very pleasant to get lost. I walk on the main artery, Malioboro, and I taste, installed on a cushion in the street, the local speciality, nasi gudeg, rice dish accompanied by Jack fruit, for 10 000 rupees.
The next day, I decided to visit the Kraton, the Sultan palace, at the time of the rehearsal of gamelan, the traditional orchestra of Java.
As I walk around quietly, one of the gamelan’s musicians comes to chat with me. He was born in the palace, like his ancestors, and worked for the Sultan who housed him in return. He likes to participate in gamelan, even if the traditional outfit is hard to bear. He explains to me that the current Sultan and his wife are very unhappy because they have 5 children, only girls. One of the princesses’ birthday is just the next day. Her apartments are therefore in great cleaning and I have the chance to visit them, accompanied by my guide.
He then takes me to visit the royal village, which surrounds the palace and is surrounded by a wall. Around 5,000 people live in this maze of alleys and beautifully maintained gardens. Most of them work from generation to generation for the Sultan. We taste some fruits bought from a street vendor and then I discover the meticulous work of the puppet makers of wayang Kulit, the shadow theatre. The craftsman uses numerous punches of different sizes and shapes to make all the holes on buffalo skin previously cut and dipped in various products. Finally, various natural pigments are applied. Each colour has a specific meaning.
I then set off to discover the market, where I negotiate the purchase of a bronze statue of divinity. The smell of spices is a real feast for the senses and I spend a moment strolling, chatting, smelling, before going to the bird market. This one, very eccentric, is particularly impressive by its profusion of stalls with sometimes surprising species. The various birds rub shoulders with “decorative cats” (I wonder what the others are for…), adorable puppies, snakes, scorpions, bats… The smells and lack of hygiene cause my departure and I let myself be led to the water tower and the underground mosque, after admiring the sunset over the city. The water tower was the bathing place of the Sultan, his wife and concubines.
My evening ends with a free show of wayang orang, the Javanese dance theatre.
It is a representation of an episode of Râmâyana, my favourite book. The forces of good and evil confront each other… until an actor accidentally sets his costume on fire!
With a note of 8.5/10 and more than 1000 reviews on Agoda, this beautiful building situated at 3 km from the centre is the place to stay in Yogyakarta if you want a beautiful suite with a view of the swimming pool and all the services you need. It includes a fitness centre, a spa, a swimming pool for children and a garden.
I have an appointment in Borobudur with a Frenchwoman who lives in San Francisco, Valerie.
Before I join her, I decide to go to Prambanan. I have to take a bus from the city and then a bemo, these little local vans. Strange experience since I find myself on a bus with an insistent and direct tout. In spite of an outfit that hides my body, he is ecstatic about a certain part of my anatomy. The other women on the bus are completely hilarious. New hilarity of the driver of Bemo when I present him my 500 rupees note, like the locals. In Asia, tourists often pay a much higher price. I have a place of honour, next to the driver, for the greatest pleasure of passers-by and other cars. I’m beginning to realize that a woman with such a white skin is a curiosity in Asia…
Prambanan is an architectural marvel of Hindu art. Shiva, Vishnu, Brahma and Ganesh occupy a prominent place at the foot of the Merapi volcano. Unfortunately, at the time of my visit, barriers prevent access to the various temples that are being renovated following the last earthquake.
I take a bemo then an air-conditioned bus with television to Borobudur. On TV, young women with pink or blue hair and tight-fitting outfits sing and dance in a very lascivious way. It’s the new Indonesia, the post-electricity Indonesia…
Suddenly, I see another side of the country: a Papuan is walking around, with his buttocks uncovered, in the middle of the city. I don’t dare to turn around and see if he’s wearing a loincloth or a posing pouch…
In Borobudur, I have a hard time getting rid of a beçak driver (three-wheeled rickshaw) and I go directly to the inn where Valerie has settled. I’m told everything’s full. It was without counting on Valerie’s thoughtfulness that announced my arrival. After a little rest, I finally get to know her and we taste a delicious tonseng goreng (meal based on rice, fried mushrooms and sheep) in a warung by the roadside, for 10 000 rupees.
The friends of Jack-Pryiana, the owner of the inn, then drive us by scooter to a magnificent temple in the area. An immense and magnificent statue of Buddha is framed by two smaller but equally beautiful statues. Some offerings and incense make the place even more soothing. We discover another temple. In all, nine temples line up towards the Merapi volcano. The presence of the volcano explains the richness of the land and cultures in the area.
The next day, it is difficult to wake up early in the morning, but the boys have planned to take us to see the sunrise from a hill overlooking the temple of Borobudur. Little by little we discover Borobudur, surrounded by lush vegetation and birdsong. We even see the smoke of Merapi. It is the most active volcano in Java and one of the 10 most dangerous volcanoes in the world, object of veneration but also of fear since alerts are often triggered. As long as it emits smoke and lava flows, everything is fine…
We descend through small traditional villages surrounded by forests, mountains and rice fields.
After a delicious banana and apple pancake, Jack takes me on a tour of his antique collection. It has very ancient artworks: bronze and stone statues. He also shows me a tiny bronze statuette, big as my thumb and beautifully worked. His collection will go to a monastery, where the monks will take care of it. He had donated his first collection to a museum, which took no care of it. This lover of art and his country, eager to share his knowledge, can only be deeply disappointed. He has big plans for Borobudur. He would like to develop a fair and cultural tourism, while preserving it from mass tourism… He explains that each village is organized into neighbourhoods and sections, where everyone knows each other and plays a specific role, in addition to their usual work. There are dancers, musicians, a watchdog committee, and so on. When a family has to organize a celebration, the whole community is involved in the preparations and funding.
Hatta then takes me to discover the temple of Borobudur, the largest Buddhist monument in the world. He explains to me that the form of the site corresponds to the leaf of the sacred tree, Banian, under which Buddha meditated. 1,600,000 blocks of volcanic stone, andesite, were needed to build the monument. The bas-reliefs were carved on the spot and were used for teaching Buddha’s history and reading. They are discovered by walking clockwise around the monument. The ascent is made by steps of different heights, first very high to symbolize the difficulty of spiritual ascension, detachment from material things and desires, then smaller because spiritual awakening becomes easier until the ultimate elevation symbolized by the central stûpa at the top. The top of the monument is made up of several circular terraces, decorated with diamond-shaped stûpas (in the shape of a bell, symbol of Mount Meru, sacred mountain of Buddhists and Hindus located in the Himalayas). Each stupa contains a statue of Buddha in different positions according to its geographical orientation. Hatta then lets me walk around quietly. Well, not really quietly… Imagine that I hate to be photographed. In Yogyakarta, schoolgirls in uniform had already asked me for group photos. It was nothing compared to Borobudur. All Indonesians with cameras wanted a picture of me or with me. I was even given a kiss by some, happy to see me again several times “we are so lucky. You must be a pop star or a top model in your country!” Of course, I was laughing and delighted to brighten up their visit. I was also able to take part in the tasting of Thai offerings at the top of the building.
The day is far from over. As soon as I returned home, Hatta took me to watch the sunset on rice paddies in magnificent terraces full of water. The vision of the sun reflected on the water and the diversity of cultures is a magnificent sight.
We then return to the same warung as the eve, before leaving for a trance dance show. As soon as we get there, they treat us like special guests. Seats are made available for us in the front row grandstands and we witness a splendid colourful show. The trance consists of slow music at first, which accelerates to provoke the trance. We are the only two tourists present and everyone offers us drinks, food and we are even invited to share the meal with the singer, musicians and dancers. And guess who had to go down and dance in front of this entire assembly?
After such a long and emotional day, we decide to leave the next day. I feel like I’ve spent a week here because we’ve had so many memorable moments.
Before leaving, we visit Amanjiwo, the magnificent luxury hotel where Jack works, before heading back to Yogyakarta by car. If you want to stay in this splendid place, you will have to pay between 500 and 1000€ per night and book directly on Aman’s website.
To get from Yogyakarta to Bromo – Cemoro Lawang, the closest village to Bromo and Semeru volcanoes, you must first take the train to Surabaya.
When we arrive at the station, we are told that the train is full. As we quickly understood that it is sometimes enough to find the right person, we can go up… We give the requested amount to the employees of the train, who accompany us in a coach and abandon us, standing up, without the slightest ticket. Some travellers tell us that we have been cheated and an employee even tells us that we will have to pay again… After several hours of blaming the system’s corruption, we are faced with several controllers, who finally deliver our ticket and show us that the other passengers have paid exactly the same price. Sometimes it doesn’t hurt to be put back in our place, serves us right!
It’s already dark when we arrive. Instead of looking for a hotel and wasting more time, we negotiate a taxi rental to go from Surabaya to mount Bromo.
Once again, we are not very reassured to see that a 2nd man accompanies the driver, and to cross deserted places in the middle of the night. But of course, we arrive unhindered and our friendly escorts make sure that we find a hotel before leaving.
It’s 2:30. We drop off our stuff at the hotel in Bromo, Cafe Lava Bromo, which doesn’t even charge us for the first night. At 3:50 am, we take a jeep to see the magnificent mount Bromo sunrise from Gunung Penanjakan or Mount Penanjakan.
It’s very easy to organise and I recommend you not to buy a Bromo tour package as you will stay as long as you want with your private jeep.
The caldera of 11 kilometres in diameter, initially invisible, gradually reveals itself.
Bromo, in the foreground, emits sulphur vapour continuously. The Semeru, set like a clock, blows about every 30 minutes. Culminating at 3,676 meters, it is the highest point of Java. On full moon nights, you can see the lava flow down its slopes. We remain long hours to contemplate this magnificent landscape of volcanoes and mountains.
Our jeep then crosses the sea of sand to take us near Bromo volcano. We walk through a lunar landscape on foot, before embarking on a difficult ascent because of the sulphur vapours. The return to the jeep is done on horses of the most capricious…
The afternoon is devoted to a pleasant walk in the surroundings. The Javanese people guide us towards a nice viewpoint, while kindly warning us that the sun will soon set. The proximity between the houses and the volcano is impressive. Mount Bromo is sacred to the locals, who offer it continuous offerings.
The next day, we will continue with the island east of Java… Bali the island of Gods.
I recommend the cafe Lava Bromo. Although it is rather rough, it is ideally located to quickly reach Mount Penanjakan for Bromo sunrise. You will have to book by calling them directly. If you choose not to stay in Cemoro Lawang because of the obsolescence of the hotel offer, you will have to go 40 kilometers away to Malang, and pay nearly 100€ for the hotel ranked #1.
You now have the main information you need to plan your next trip to Java.
Feel free to share with us your good plans if you have any, as well as your impressions of this fascinating Indonesian island.
Have you ever visited Java Island or are you planning to visit it? Tell us everything in the comment section below!
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