We were lucky to fly out of Bali on Monday. If it had been Tuesday, we’d have been stranded along with hundreds of others (including many Aussie kids on school holidays) at Ngurah Rai International Airport south of the capital, Denpasar.
Mt Rinjani, situated on the nearby island of Lombok, had blown its top and left a huge cloud of volcanic ash hanging over the island.
Rinjani is one of the most powerful volcanoes in Indonesia. Early last month it was one of three (including the Sinabung volcano in North Sumatra and Mount Gamalama in the Moluccas) which erupted at the same time.
They’re among about 130 active volcanoes in Indonesia. The archipelago of 255 million people is prone to earthquakes and volcanoes because it sits along the Pacific Ring of Fire, a string of faults that lines the Pacific Ocean.
Mind you, being stranded at the brand spanking new international airport in Bali wouldn’t be such a hardship. Opened just two years ago, the airport is stunning both inside and out with a Balinese design and unique roof that resembles a white wave.
I’d been invited to Indonesia as a guest of FEALAC (Forum for East Asia-Latin American Cooperation), the goal of which is to increase bi-regional cooperation and dialogue among its 36 members which include such diverse countries as Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, Costa Rica, Uruguay, Japan, China, South Korea and Mongolia.
We started our tour in Jakarta with a visit to the Ministry of Tourism where we met Igde Pitana, the engaging deputy for International Marketing.
“Australians flock to Bali but miss so much,” he told us. “Bali is one of 17,000 islands. It’s a small dot comprising just 0.29% of Indonesia’s land mass. We have so many other fabulous, relatively unknown places for tourists to visit.”
Ten new destinations, starting in Sumatra and moving east across the archipelago, are on the list.
Included amongst these he mentioned the Raja Ampat chain of islands where pristine coral reefs and turquoise waters make for what many call the best diving in the world; the mountain resorts around Bandung in west Java; the eerie lunar landscape of Bromo National Park; and the magnificent turquoise sulphur lake of Kawah Ijen and electric blue flame at Ijen volcano, a rare sight only to be found in Indonesia and Iceland.
“Our new motto is New Bali Beyond Bali,” he said.
Culture, nature-based activities and sport are top promotional priorities with fashion and food a long way down the list, something which surprised me as culinary tourism is a big trend in travel, including a growing interest in street food, home-cooking and local food traditions.
We spent two nights in each place we visited, (Jakarta, Jogyakarta and Bali).
“Six days is not enough when you visit Indonesia,” he admitted.
After a look around Kota, the old town of Batavia, and lunch at Cafe Batavia, we were introduced to the Jakarta Smart City program, set up two years ago to provide a more efficient service for residents and to reduce some of Jakarta’s legendary traffic problems.
Jakarta is hosting the Asian Games in 2018, so hopefully some new rules and policies will be in place by then.
Most impressive was the brand new Soekarno-Hatta airport, a glistening state of the art international airport, designed by Australian architecture firm Woodhead. At present it is open to Garuda Airline flights only and will begin operating at full capacity next year.
Our flight to the cultural city of Yogyakarta in Central Java was bumpy and delayed for an hour by military aircraft on the ground. I was relieved to arrive safely as the airport is stretched to over-capacity and there are a number of safety issues. Plans are in place for a new airport, due to open in 2020.
Two outstanding UNESCO World Heritage temple sites – Borobudur and Prambanan – are located near Yogyakarta and should not be missed if you’re in Java. Though reasonably close to the city centre (Borobudur is 45Km north-west of the city while Prambanan is16Km east) it’s wise to allow a day to see each.
Borobudur (which literally means ‘monastery on a hill’) was built between 750-850AD and is one of the great Buddhist monuments of Southeast Asia. Conceived as a Buddhist vision of the cosmos, it was built from over 2 million basalt stone blocks in the shape of a massive cylindrical stupa. Six square terraces are topped by three circular ones so that from the air it looks like massive 3-dimensional tantric mandala.
The temples of Prambanan, by contrast, are excellent examples of Java’s extended period of Hindu culture and were built between the 8th and 10th centuries AD.
Many of the original 240 temples toppled over due to earthquakes in the 16th century and again in 2006 leaving hundreds of cracked stones around the site.
Thanks to years of restoration work, eight main temples and eight small shrines in the inner holy zone have been reconstructed and are well worth a half day visit.
We also managed to squeeze in a visit to the Sultan’s Palace (kraton) on our second morning in Yogjakarta. While we didn’t have time to walk around the outer compound which is home to 25,000 people, we did get to see the innermost group of buildings where the Sultan still resides, many of which are fine examples of Javanese palace architecture.
Our last two days were spent in Kuta, Bali. I would like to have visited the north coast of Bali to see a more authentic, unspoilt side of the island, or to one of the other destinations “beyond Bali” which were mentioned by Igde Pitana.
According to the locals, Kuta stands for Kota Untuk Turis Australia (City for Aussie Tourists) and it would have been good to get off the beaten tourist path and discover somewhere new. Maybe next time.