A Palembang Walkthrough

19-22 Feb 2015. Palembang, Indonesia

I trooped off to another flash travelling destination over the Lunar New Year holidays. This time round to Palembang, Indonesia. Not your typical destination, but then again, I’ve never been a typical destination kind of person. So what exactly is there to see in Palembang?

Palembang is the second largest city in Sumatra, Indonesia. The Musi River cuts through the city, bisecting it into two. Linking northern and southern Palembang is the majestic Ampera Bridge. This is one of the largest bridges in Indonesia, and is a distinctive landmark. The Ampera Bridge is also what you see on every postcard, fridge magnet or keychain from Palembang.

Northern Bank – Seberang Ilir

City life is at its most bustling and exciting at the area around the northern bank of the Ampera Bridge. The large area under the bridge houses an open air street market, selling mainly clothing. There is also a TransMusi stop underneath the bridge. The TransMusi is perhaps the easiest way for a tourist to get around by public transport. These buses ply routes around the city, and for just 5500 Rupiah, you can travel around without difficulty. The alternative is taking the angkutan kota, the city vans but these require a bit more savvy, since there are no clear route maps you can find online, unlike the TransMusi network.

I did take a few of these vans to get from place to place, and being able to communicate in Bahasa Indonesia helps of course. Look out for your bags though. “There are pickpockets”. This was advice from more than one local. I did not encounter any incidents though, other than a near accident when my bajaj (those three wheeler tuk-tuks) almost crashed into the rear of a stationary car that was double parked in the middle of the road.

To the west of the bridge, a slew of waterfront restaurants and eateries line up along the waterfront. These include a KFC and a J.Co Donuts outlet, with seats overlooking the river, allowing for some spectacular views of the Ampera Bridge. Further down, the pretty waterfront promenade is where everyone goes to in the late afternoon. It is a bit of a party atmosphere here, with balloon sellers, and food vendors setting up their own mobile stalls, complete with stoves and short stools for their customers. I had myself a “telor kerak” made out of crispy slightly burnt eggs scraped off the bottom of a wok, and would have eaten from one of the many Mie Tek Tek stalls had I not been so full.

Still along the northern bank, and on the east side of the bridge is an indoor market known as Pasar 16 Ilir. A maze of alleys to get lost in, with vendors calling out to you from left and right. Each stall sells colourful garments but the highlight would be the gold threaded fabric known as songket. The gold thread, sometimes also in silver, enhances the base cloth and creates very desirable clothing pieces. The good quality hand-woven pieces could cost hundreds of Singapore dollars. Machine sewn ones would be cheaper, but still more expensive than normal cloth. I shopped around and learnt a little about the fabric.

Just immediately north of the bridge are a cluster of tourist sites which, together with the bridge, make up the heart of Palembang. First is a massive fountain, in the middle of a roundabout. Just further down the road is the grand Masjid Agung, a place of worship constructed in 1738 and today the grandest mosque in the city.

Nearby is the Monpera, helpfully abbreviated from Monument Ampera. This giant grey building in the shape of a flower was erected to honour the dead who fought against their Dutch colonists. Inside the building is a rather dismal museum, with photos of war heroes and paraphernalia. The best part of Monpera was climbing up 8 flights of stairs to reach the open roof, where young couples sit and scribble declarations of love on the surface of the roof. Just behind the monument is the Sultan Mahmud Badaruddin II Museum, a more slightly more impressive collection of the history of Palembang.

Most people end up taking a boat cruise down the Musi river. The main attraction is Kemaro Island, around 5 kilometres downriver. The Chinese temple on the island in the middle of the river is where the local Chinese would go during festivals like Chap Goh Meh.

Food & Malls

One of the main hangouts for shopping is the Palembang Indah Mall. Like most large Indonesian cities, there is a surge of new shopping malls, where the affluent and trendy would hang out. For m, the most impressive thing about the mall is the state of the art Cineplex, which surpasses the mediocre cinemas back home. Over here, the cinema experience is a grand affair, with plushy seats and attendants who greet you with palms together. Even the area around the ticket counter looks like an airport VIP lounge. And might I add that the price is less than half of what we pay back in Singapore.

The newest mall is the Palembang Icon, fancy and with a layout mimicking the malls back home. However, I preferred the mall just next to it, Palembang Square which, although shabbier, has a better mix of tenants.

My affinity for Indonesian cuisine makes this next section very biased. Padang cuisine can be found in chains like Sederhana or Pagi Sore. Both restaurants will have waiters serving you as astounding number of dishes, leaving you flabbergasted if it’s your first time visiting. How it works is that you pick out only the dishes you want, and leave the rest. They will charge you accordingly. The specialty in Palembang is pempek, a chewy fish cake dough made out of fish and tapioca. It is kind of similar to the keropok lekor found in Malaysia. The Palembang version is eaten with cuko, a sweet vinegary black sauce that makes the pempek delicious. Pempek is sold everywhere and local tourists travelling to Palembang would pack large boxes to bring back home.

Southern Bank – Seberang Ulu

I spent a fair bit of time on the southern bank of the Musi River too. Crossing the Ampera bridge, and flagging an angkut, I reached the Palembang Cheng Ho Mosque. Cheng Ho, or Zheng He, is the Hui Chinese admiral born into a Muslim family, who in the 15th century made 7 expeditions from China to the rest of the world, visiting 37 countries in the process. He stopped by Palembang multiple times on his journeys and at one point helped the locals ward off seafaring bandits. The Cheng Ho mosque is named after him. The mosque itself is new, built in 2008, and has oriental architecture atypical of normal mosques there. Near the mosque is the Jakabaring stadium where the 2011 SEA games was held.

Getting on a bajaj, the helpful driver took me to the Kapitan’s House. This 500 year old house located at the southern bank of the Musi near the Ampera bridge, is still lived in by descendants of the Kapitan. The Kapitan was a local Chinese appointed by the authorities when Palembang was under Dutch rule, to be the representative of the Chinese community. He was the one the Dutch would have dealings with. And the Kapitan’s house is one of three still remaining in the area. Inside the house is a prayer shrine, as well as many portraits on the walls, each one showing an ancestor or a current member of the family. Immediately to the right of the house is another house, this one also 500 years old, but not lived in. Instead it is used as an ancestral shrine.

Outside Central Palembang

Additionally, I visited a couple of museums outside of the city centre. The Sriwijaya Museum lies outside the city. It is on the grounds of ancient Sriwijaya ruins which are long gone. In its place now is a pleasant park, with waterways and a lake that was dug up during the Sriwijaya period. The museum itself has a collection of artefacts from the Sriwijaya empire (7th to 13th CE). Sriwijaya was the center of Buddhism in the region, and the museum features Buddhist deities and inscriptions. Within the hinterlands of Sriwijaya, Hinduism flourished and the museum displays a selection of Hinduism-related artefacts from Bumiayu temple ruins. Getting to the remote Sriwijaya Museum on public transport is tough, so you might want to hire a taxi. Remember to get the driver to wait for you at the parking lot of the museum while you explore.

The other big museum is the Balaputradewa Museum. More accessible than the previous museum and thus considerably more touristed, the Balaputradewa has several galleries that chronologically trace the history of South Sumatra. The most interesting section for me though is the display on the megalithic culture of South Sumatra. 2000 year old carved rock specimens in the shape of humans and animals have been found in South Sumatra, near the Lahat and Pagar Alam districts. Some of the collected rock specimens are on display here at the Balaputradewa Museum. Getting there by public transport is possible. Just take the angkut that shuttles from Ampera to KM5. Ask to stop outside the museum.

Getting to Palembang.

Updated Oct’17: Silkair has transfered their Palembang service to Scoot. Jetstar also goes to Palembang. Previously, both services were unavailable, so we took a fast ferry from Singapore to Batam, and then flew from Batam’s Hang Nadim Airport to Palembang on Citilink Air, an Indonesian low cost carrier.

 

Medan, Balige and Toba

Medan, Balige and Toba (Part 1 of 4)

Date: Wed 22nd Jan’14

From Medan to Parapat

I am in Sumatra, Indonesia. The largest of Indonesia’s islands (that’s completely in Indonesia). More specifically, I am in the town of Parapat, North Sumatra. Back for another micro-adventure in one of my favourite countries after 3 years.

This time round my plan was to visit Lake Toba, the largest lake born out of a volcanic super-eruption. I had been to Lake Toba when I was much younger, though I have scant recollection of the place. Goal set for this trip? 1) Get to Tuktuk, small touristy outcrop of land on Samosir Island, the island in the middle of the lake. 2) Learn a little more about the Batak people, inhabitants in this region of North Sumatra. Loftier initial plans to visit West Sumatra’s Pagaruyung, the old Minangkabau capital and Pulau Nias was not possible, due to time constraints and the appalling amount of time required to travel overland from city to city within Sumatra.

I arrived in Medan’s brand new Kuala Namu International Airport. The airport is located an hour’s drive from the city (much further out than the old airport). How to get to the city? There is a train that goes to the Central Train Station in Medan (80,000 Rp) and a swarm of taxi drivers who will set upon you as soon as you exit the airport. Cheapest way? As you exit, turn right and take the Damri bus. It leaves when full and the ticket is 10,000 Rp. The bus drops you at Amplas Station, which is a little way east of the city centre, but perfect for me, as this was the place to board the public long-distance bus to Parapat.

From the Amplas bus station, the Sejahtera Bus (32,000 Rp) goes to Parapat, stopping at the towns of Tebing Tinggi and Pematangsiantar along the way. Total journey takes 5 hours, making pit-stops everywhere to drop off passengers. My bus left at 1.30pm, which meant that I arrived too late in Parapat to take the connecting last ferry across the lake to Samosir Island. No worries though; I decided to stay the night in Parapat.


The bus journey is typical of the travel here in Sumatra, along a one lane road, with the driver channeling Fast & The Furious, overtaking in the oncoming lane. Not for the faint-hearted, but if you do like your thrills, sit in the front row.

The second half of the bus ride passed through Batak territory. I started to see many churches by the side of the road, for the majority of the Bataks were Christians. A pretty pink-bricked ‘Gereja of St.Maria’ here, a Gereja of St. Stephanus, an Advent Hari Ketujuh (7th day adventist) there. Unlike the Acehnese to their north and the Minangkabau to their south who were Muslims, the Bataks are staunchly Christian (though some sub-groups like the Angkola and Mandailing were Muslims). It was fascinating to see Batak graves, adorned with their traditional roofed designs. Somewhere after passing Pematangsiantar, the terrain became hilly and after half an hour of winding upslope, the road opened into a gorgeous view of Lake Toba below.

Parapat

The last ferry for the day had left so I found lodging at the Wisata Sedayu (100,000 Rp), located a stone’s throw away from the bus station. It was a decent enough place to stay, but the one I was aiming for was a Hotel Sedayu, a recommendation by Lonely Planet’s 10th edition of  Indonesia). I surmised that the latest Lonely Planet isn’t very good. Not only did it not mention that there were two Sedayus and to pick the correct one (both 100 metres away from each other), it also failed to include the Parapat map, which the 9th edition had. Sadly, recent additions of LP seem to be cutting back on useful information, as well as simplifying maps to the extent that they’ve become pretty much useless.

Food. That always sets me in a good mood. So off I went for dinner after sorting out my lodging. There are plenty of warungs, or stalls along Jalan SM, the main highway in Parapat. Batak food, Minangkabau food, Javanese food and all sorts of other Indonesian regional fare. I settled for a Minang warung, going behind the ubiquitous glass displays in Indonesian eateries that stack up their dishes like a pyramid, and helping myself to plenty of different dishes. Yum. Rice, rendang,
sambal prawns, lots of sweet green and red chillis, all topped off with a glass of diabetes inducing tea. Heavenly I say, and one of the main reasons why Indonesia ranks so highly on my best countries I’ve visited list.

Tomorrow, I will be up early and trying to head to Bilage, where there is a Batak museum. Not much information on the web or in the guidebook, so I’m hoping it turns out well.

Medan, Balige and Toba (Part 2 of 4)

Date: Thu 23rd Jan’14

For the second day running, I failed to get to Tuktuk, my intended destination on Pulau Samosir, the island in the middle of the supervolcanic crater lake in North Sumatra called Lake Toba. Instead, I ended up spending the night in the remote village of Onanrunggu, sleeping in a local Batak family home. How did I get here?

They day began unassumingly enough. I went to the Parapat bus station at 8am, and it was deserted. The junction outside the bus station where it meets the main road is where all the minivans, locally known as opelets, pick up passengers. My destination? Balige.

Balige

Balige is a small town on the southern mainland shore of Lake Toba. On the 2nd of January 2011, the largest Batak museum in the world was opened to the public here. Balie is also firmly in Batak territory, so it should be an interesting place to visit, I thought.

I think it was contemporary Batak music they were playing throughout the journey. Because I understand Indonesian fairly well and I am unable to fathom what was probably Batak singing in the songs. The music is a lot of flutes and keyboards, over a repetitive chacha-like beat that occurs in every song. Actually, I quite like the music.

Central Balige is like many Indonesian towns, except for the fact that Batak roofs permeate through the buildings in town. There was also a row of impressive Batak houses lined up by the side of the main street. This was where the central market was located.


Batak houses are designed with huge impossible-to-miss roofs that from the side look like upturned boats, with the bow forming the front of the house. Today, the majority of Bataks in North Sumatra are Christians, of both the Protestant and Catholic denominations. However many of their traditional Batak beliefs remain, such as the designs on the Batak houses. For the houses, the roof represents the ‘world above’ or the heavens, and this roof extensively decorated with Batak motifs. The floor level where the family lives is raised above the ground level, the ‘middle world’. And under the floor level is where the animals are kept; this is the ‘world below’.

The Batak museum is located about 3 kilometers out of town, in a village called Desa Pagar Batu. I took a pleasant morning hike out there, passing by many churches and Batak graves set in paddy fields before arriving at a small complex. This was the mausoleum of Raja Sisimangaraja XII. He was a Batak leader who fought against Dutch colonial rule in the 19th century and is recognised as an Indonesian national hero.

Further down the road is the TB Sillalahi Centre, which comprises two museums in its grounds: the Batak Museum and the TB Silalahi Museum. TB Silalahi is a former Indonesian Minister of Batak descent, and the museum honours him with displays of his ceremonial attires, belongings and awards. I was more interested in the Batak Museum of course. Entry for foreigners is 50,000 Rp).

Oddly enough, there is no information about Balige or the museum in guidebooks, or even a Wikitravel / Wikivoyage entry. I thought that the site of the largest Batak museum in the world would at least deserve a mention. The museum exhibits’ text panels even had English captions, so you cannot say that it was targeted only at locals.

Expectedly, I was the only foreigner there (and even then, everyone thought I was local). The architecture of the museum building was modern and impressive, a two-storeyed building with a mezzanine floor where you enter from. The ground floor is an open-air museum showcasing sculptures of Batak guardians and ancestor figures. A 150-metre ramp leads up from the mezzanine floor to the second level, where an impressive array of exhibits displays the rich Batak heritage, culture and traditions. Among these were models of Batak houses, the aksara which was the unique alphabet developed by the Bataks, rare metal charms and jewellery, and various weapons.


My favourite was the Batak ritual staff. The Tunggal Panaluan is a carved wooden staff shaped like a totem pole, with faces carved onto it, one atop the other. There is a cautionary tale about the staff.

Interlude: The tale of the Tunggal Panaluan

Once there was a man named Guru Hatia Bulan, who lived with his wife. After seven years of trying to conceive, his wife finally gave birth to a pair of twins, a boy and a girl. However, the birth date of the twins was an inauspicious one, and during the name-day ceremony, the villagers beseeched Guru Hatia Bulan to separate the two, to prevent any misfortune befalling the village.


He was adamant that they grow up together however, and the twins were so close that as they grew up they no longer behaved like brother and sister. Instead they became lovers.

The villagers found out and condemned the twins, expelling them to live at the top of the mountains by themselves. Guru Hatia Bulan could not bear to forsake his children however, so each day he would go to the peak and bring food for them.

One day the girl, Si Tapi Omas, was foraging in the forest when she came across a tree. She climbed up the tree to pick its fruit, and to her shock, she was swallowed whole and became one with the tree. Her brother Si Aji Donda came running and tried to help her but he too became stuck to the tree and was meld to it. Their dog which had followed them also got stuck. All of them cried out for help.

Soon Guru Hatia Bulan arrived with his daily rations for his children and was horrified to find them stuck onto the tree, He called for the village dato, or shaman. The shaman, Dato Parmanuk Holing came by and inspected the tree. Suddenly he found himself dragged and stuck onto the tree! A succession of famous shamans was called to help: Maragin Bosi from Si Ajui Bahir, the shaman Pongpang Niobungan, and also the renowned Boru Sibasopaet who came with his snake. Each one was beseeched to pull the twins from the tree from which they were stuck. But every single shaman failed, and found themselves swallowed up by the tree as well.


Finally, a shaman named Parponsa Ginjang came by and said “This phenomenon is the results of the twins angering the gods, and the only way to fix this is to offer prayers to the gods and then chop the tree down, to prevent more people getting swallowed up by the tree.”


Guru Hatia Bulan chopped down the tree. He brought the wood back to the village where the village artist carved out a staff that featured the faces of each of those who have been swallowed up by the tree. On the staff were the two children of Guru Hatia Bulan, the shamans who tried to help, the dog and the snake. Everyone in the village looked on. And when the staff was finished, the shaman Parponsa Ginjang suddenly fell into a trance.

From his mouth came the words “Oh you, who has carved our features. We have eyes but we do not see, we have mouths but we cannot talk, we have ears but we do not hear. We curse you, oh carver!” The artist said in fear “Do not curse me, but instead curse my blade, for without it I would not be able to carve!”

To everyone’s surprise the carving knife retorted “It is not me you should curse, but the blacksmith. For if he had not made me, I would not be able to carve.” The blacksmith did not want to be the guilty one, and he said “Don’t wrong me, it is Guru Hatia Bulan who you should curse!”. At that point in time, everyone turned towards Guru Hatia Bulan, and the entranced shaman said “I curse you, oh Guru Hatia Bulan, you and your father and the mother who gave birth to you.”

To which Guru Hatia Bulan answered: “It is not me that you should curse, instead you should look at yourself. You are the cursed one, you who have fallen, been carved and and will never have descendants.”


The staff fell silent, before finally saying “Alright, let it be this way, oh father. Use me for calling rain, stopping rain, as a weapon, to cure illness and to ward off diseases.”  And with that, the shaman fell out of his trance. From that day onwards, the ritual staff and similar ones were carved, and these were used by powerful shamans throughout the Batak lands.

Onanrunggu


I must have spent too long at the museum, for it was 2.30pm when I finally left Balige. My destination was Tuktuk, which meant retracing my steps to Parapat, and taking the ferry across the lake to Tuktuk. But then I got too clever for my own good, and thought: “Hey, since Balige is also on the shoreline, it should have its own port!”. I asked around and ended up at the Balige port, but the ferry did not go to Tuktuk from there. It goes to the island, but only as far as Onanrunggu, a village 20 km to the south of Tuktuk. No matter, I thought, I could land there, and go by road the rest of the way to Tuktuk. The ferry was leaving in 5 minutes, and I made up my mind to just board it and go.

It was a brilliant plan, or so I thought. Arriving in Onanrunggu, I asked for the direction of the bus station. The villagers laughed. No buses. And no vehicles either, none that could take me there this late in the afternoon. According to the villagers, the road was so bad that 20km would take at least one and a half hours, and even if I paid the 200 000 Rp they were asking for, the the motorbikes riders would worry about riding back in the dark after they had dropped me off. I waited for an hour for a passing vehicle, before finally giving up.

In the end, the local mechanic I had been speaking to put me up at his mom-in-law’s place, for a quarter of the price of the ojek. It turned out to be a good decision. I got to walk around in an authentic Batak village, and got some great photos. Only downside is that I did not eat well. I had cup noodles ‘Pop Mie’, since my host was more concerned about me getting ‘halal’ food than I was, after I told her I was Muslim. And throughout the trip, in many circumstances did I see such considerate behaviour between Christians and Muslims.

Tomorrow morning, the plan is to arrive in Tuktuk. (Third attempt!). From Onanrunggu, I will be taking the 7am ferry to Parapat, and from Parapat, take the ferry back across the lake to Tuktuk. It is a testament to the slow transportation in Sumatra; to get from Point A (Onanruggu) to Point B (Tuktuk), both linked together by land, I had to cross over to Parapat.

Medan, Balige and Toba (Part 3 of 4)

Date: Fri 24th Jan’14

Finally, I end up in Tuktuk, on the third try. At 7am, I boarded the two-hour ferry to Parapat. After yesterday’s fiasco where I found myself stranded for the night in the little village of Onanrunngu, I was intent on getting to Tuktuk. I said goodbye to the nice family who put me up for the night, and boarded the same ferry I took yesterday, this time heading to Parapat.


The deckhand, an olive skinned Batak boy of about 13, gave me a shrug, as if to say “Heading to Parapat? Then why in the world did you take the boat from Balige to Onanrunggu last night in the first place?”. I shrugged back at him, and my shrug said “Yes, I know I’m an idiot. I should have just taken the bus from straight from Balige to Parapat”.

The journey took me through some exhilarating scenery. Lake Toba was formed 75 thousand years ago when a supervolcanic eruption created the crater, resulting in weather changes throughout the world and later being filled up with water to form what is today Lake Toba. And the scenery is the kind I have seen elsewhere where volcanic rocks abound. Cliffs rise out of the lakes on either side of the ferry, its surface covered with vegetation. Pulau Samosir to my left and the mainland on my right. And on the ferry were locals picked up along the way from various villages; the water low enough for the ferry to dock right at their doorstep! These locals were going to Parapat for business, or work, or to do their shopping in a big town.


I arrived in Ajibata harbour, about 1 km away from Parapat, disembarked and took a morning stroll to Parapat. Apparently it was faster to just walk, the ferry takes another 20 minutes to get to the next bay.

The Tiga Raja harbour in Parapat was also a market area with vendors selling pineapples, mangosteens, bananas and other tropical fruits. I bought a bunch of bananas and some mangoes and got on the ferry to cross back to Samosir Island, this time to Tuktuk. As ridiculous as it sounds, the fastest way to get from Point A (Onanrunggu) to Point B (Tuktuk), both located on the same island 20 kilometers apart, is to go back to the mainland and take a ferry back from there.


I saw my first tourists in three days on the Tuktuk boat. Tuktuk is where all the tourists stay, and at the end of the 1 hour ferry ride, I saw before me a string of resorts, all laid out along the shoreline. Each one boasted traditional Batak cottages, their courtyards opening out into the lake. I picked a place which had wifi, and for around 6.5 USD, got a room so big that I had enough space to do cartwheels in the bathroom!

Tuktuk is a tourist haven, the laid-back kind of place where you just relax and do nothing, the kind of place where an intended 2 day stay becomes a week long retreat. It had all the ‘characteristics’ of similar places → banana pancakes, wifi, magic mushrooms and TV channels showing movies and sitcoms.

After four hours of doing nothing (Internet!), I got restless and decided to go for a 3 kilometre hike to the next village Ambarita, the site of a group of 300 year old stone seats, used by the Batak for meetings and discussions.The stone seats themselves were underwhelming and the western tourist group firmly entrenched in the seats as their guide talked to them dissipated whatever mystical quality the stone seats had for me.


Instead, my afternoon took a serendipitous turn. Earlier as I was in the hills walking towards Ambarita, I heard music playing from somewhere down in the village. Thinking it came from the stone seats, I mumbled about how touristy this attraction must be. However, arriving at the stone seats, there was no music. The music was further ahead, and I followed the direction from where it came from.

It was a Batak wedding, right in the middle of the road. Everyone was dressed in their finest, and a full-blown ceremony was ongoing. Music was blaring, everyone was dancing and even the band playing was live. I peeked from the rear of the festivities and tried to see what was happening. The bride and groom were seated in the middle, on chairs. Family members danced around them and took turns to drape the Ulos cloths over the bride and groom. This is the Ulos Hela ceremony. It was all quite exciting, seeing little old Batak ladies spinning around to the lively music was the highlight of the day.

Back at the resort, I spent the evening stuffing myself and on the Internet. Three days to get to Tuktuk. And tomorrow I will be leaving for Medan.

Medan, Balige and Toba (Part 4 of 4)

Date: Sat 25th Jan’14

From Parapat, I took a shared taxi (75000 Rp) which on hindsight is a decent deal, since it brought you directly to your destination. Taking the public Sejahtera bus is 32000 Rp and it is much slower, stopping passengers everywhere. And you will need to flag a cab to get to your final destination once you reach the Medan bus station. There were even two locals taking my ‘tourist’ 7 seater shared taxi.

Compared to the idyllic waters of Lake Toba, Medan is a noisy, polluted Indonesia city. Potholes and open drains needed to be avoided, traffic lights seemingly turn red and green without a pattern, and the stream of traffic: cars, becaks, taxis, motorcycles all add to the chaos. Medan feels alive.

I splurged on a nice hotel, used by travelling Indonesian businessmen, evident by the tone-deaf hotel guests that night who were warbling on the karaoke machine in the lobby. Come to think of it, my hotel room that night costs more than the past three days combined!

The sights in Medan. There are no must-see sights in this city. I popped into the Masjid Raya, a mosque built during the Kingdom of Deli. Also saw the Istana Maimoon, a royal palace whose usage is very much ceremonial these days. Along the way, I got into an altercation with a becak driver. He insisted on taking me in his trishaw to Maimoon Palace for 2000 Rp. Sure, it was just 100 meters away, so let’s do the guy a favour, I thought. He then tried to charge me an extortionate sum of 75000 Rp for the short trip, which was ridiculous! I paid that same amount in the 5 hour shared taxi ride from Toba to Medan! Of course I was furious and refused. “But I brought you sightseeing”, he reasoned, which was not even valid as my view was blocked throughout by the flap covering the front of his trishaw. I gave him an earful, a generous 10000 Rp and stomped off.

Medan’s Lapangan Merdeka is a large open space, and at its perimeter are a row of open air eateries: fast food, local fare, some fancy restaurants and a section with a stage where live bands can play. Fashionable Medan youths hang out here. Beside the lapangan Merdeka is the Central Railway Stations, which I took to get to the airport (80000 Rp).


The price was very steep, considering I paid 10000 Rp getting from the airport to town in the public Damri bus a few days back. But this was a modern airconditioned cabin; clean and brand new. I was impressed with the brightly lit and spacious seating areas, and the announcements in English and Indonesian. You could even do a city check-in at the station. I was just thinking “This is pretty good” when the train departed 15 minutes late. “Still Indonesia then, even the fancy trains run late,” I smiled to myself.

I spent the rest of the time in Medan roaming at the many shopping complexes. Medan Mall holds many brands and shops, and the adjacent linked mall is a warren of small merchants selling all sorts of knick knacks. The grandest new mall is however Centrepoint, located just beside the train station. This 6 storey mall has all the brands I know back home. There is Malaysian brand Parkson, Singapore brands like Bakerzinn, and Charles & Keith, and big tenant Korean brand Lotte, amongst others. The Chinese New Year festivities were in full flow, and there were performances on the ground floor atrium of the mall.

The top floor of the mall is a food court (so very similar to the layout of Singaporean malls), where each stall sold different regional and international fare. Opened only last month, the food court boasted Hainanese Chicken Rice from Singapore, Ipoh Laksa, Hong Kong Tsim Sha Shui, amongst other dishes. You even paid with pre-paid cards, and topped them up at counters, just like Singaporean malls.


And that was that. I left Medan the next morning, for the 1 hour flight back home. I bought boxes of the local specialty, Bika Ambon, which is a sort of tasty cake and headed home. Five days covering Parapat, Balige, Samosir Island and Medan.

Diving up in Weh.

Aug 6-9th 2010, Pulau Weh, Aceh, Indonesia


Booya! This is the 2nd time in two years I am up in Pulau Weh. And this post shall attempt to provide the reader, you with a detailed description of how to get to Weh. =)

First. Its a double flight from SG to Banda Aceh. Book the early flight from SG to KL (745am) to be safe, just in time for the 1155am AirAsia flight to B.Aceh. Return flights from SG to KL and then KL to B.Aceh should set you back no more than 250 SGD. with the KL to B.Aceh price fixed. The B.Aceh airport (bandara sultan iskandar muda) has been completed, compared to this time last year, and as far as Indonesian airports go, is one of the better ones, with a covered linkbridge from plane to the arrival area.

From B.Aceh airport to the Ulee Lheu harbour, its around 90,000 Rupiah per car (share 4 ways with whichever traveler you meet at the airport, no one else goes anywhere other than Weh) and the trip takes about 45 min. At the harbour, the fast ferry (single trip non-a/c at 55000 Rp, and a/c at 65000 Rp, about 1 hr travel time). There’s now a return tix option for 110 000 a/c usable for up to one month. Slow ferry is available too, but i think it takes an extra hour. Soz, i can’t be fcuked to find out prices.

Next from Balohan harbour on Weh, take the minivan or any other transport up to Gapang or Iboih beach. Lowest I’ve got was 40000 Rp per person on a minivan for a 45 min ride. Similarly, the return trip is done by taking the 7am van out of Gapang beach, reached Balohan harbout in time for the 8am fast ferry (slow sets off same time too). From the mainland Ulee Lheu harbour, its a taxi / minivan / kijang / becak ride to the airport. We arranged for a visit by becak to the Pasar Aceh market to look around for an hour before heading off to the airport for the 1245pm flight from Aceh to KL. Then you’re on way to home base, no problem with the KL to SG flight. Just factor in some buffer time when booking, since the KLCC budget terminal gets crowded sometimes.

Other variations to the itinerary is to fly from SG to Penang on AirAsia, then Penang to B.Aceh on Malaysia’s Fireflyz. Then on Weh itself, it makes sense to rent a motorbike so you can visit Sabang and landmarks like Kilometer 0, the easternmost point of Indonesia’s extensive trans-island road network.

Weh. Still a little haven unbeknownst to the multitude of 1st time divers from our fair island. Or more likely it is just the inconvenience of traveling there that keeps it pristine and undisturbed. Whatever the reason, this little secret gem of a place is the retreat of ang moh backpackers and dive enthusiasts.

I stayed at Gapang beach, where the day’s activities revolve around Lumba Lumba Diving Centre. Experienced crowd, with DMs and the peak period crowd going out for dives twice daily, Ton and Marjan’s place is well run, professional, from the BWRAF refresher, and the nice well maintained gear. And no, they didn’t pay me to promote the place. LOLOLOL. Other lovely quirks in the place are the great next door eatery (order BBQ fish/chicken dinner in the afternoon, for a sumptious dinner meal), the local fare up the hill at the local warung just at the junction of Gapang beach entrance, guaranteed to make your mouth water. And the mainstay that is Mama Donut, a local lady selling various sweet treats like jam doughnuts, coconut doughnuts, banana fritters amongst other goodies.

On Sunday, Gapang becomes a weekend family beach, with kids and youths filling up the place. Watch out for the ice cream man on his motorbike, announcing his arrival with “ice cream music”. LOL

Dives. The dives themselves bring up some fascinating animals. It is moray central, and ribbon eels, lionfishes, scorpionfishes are a common sight. Plenty of other critters like nudibranches, shrimps, octopii. I made a mental note to know my fish identification better. =) Here’s a sampling. More can be found at http://www.flickr.com/photos/morphred/sets/72157624563893307/

Moray

Cockatoo waspfish

Crab and Clownfish in anemone

Leaf Scorpionfish

Blue spotted ray and remora suckerfish?

Twin Morays

Twin shrimps

Varicosa? nudibranch

Scorpionfish

(battlescar galactica?) nudibranch?

Cowfish

Octopus

Hidden ray
Spot the scorpionfish

Razorfish School

Spot the Scorpionfish

Nudibranch

Lionfish slumber party

Something?

Ribbon eel

Bandung 080809

Now this is a test post, just to see how this links with Facebook. If it is too intrusive, I’m going to remove from FB.

The trip itself is Bandung, back on National Day. Never did bother to post the report. Did the usual tourist sights to Tangkuban Perahu, Ciater etc. More info after the jump.

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An intrepid day in Bandung.

Here I am in a 3x2m room in Hotel Patradissa, opposite the train station in Bandung. Did not expect too much from this 4 day break, after all, Bandung is another sprawling urban city. I initially intended to lounge around all 4 days, surfing the net etc. But then I forgot that this isn’t Bali, and I don’t have Wifi everywhere I turn. So I decided instead to write this short entry.

The AirAsia flight was delayed by a half hour; one of the few times this year that I experienced a delay. The Bandung airport itself was a short flight from Singapore. Took a cab (35,000 Rp) to the train station, where all the budget places are. Roamed all over the train station vicinity for about an hour before retracing back to this Patradissa, a nice enough place (95,000 Rp). Walked down to Jalan Braga, which was a disappointment, considering Lonely Planet’s mention as a nightlife / bar stretch. Had dinner at the end of the street at one of the ubiquitous Nasi Padang stalls (9,000 Rp). Asked for directions to the Alun-alun (what the heck that is I don’t know, no thanks to my lousy Malay). It looked like an open air concrete park, with people hanging around and playing neon toys that launched into the air before spinning down. I cut through the park and reached one of the shopping malls. Bought an Eiger t-shirt (79,000 Rp). Decided against buying shoes, cheap but I was trying to spend less. My extravagant buy was a second dinner of an A&W meal (39,000 Rp). Didn’t like it, nasi padang was better. I navigated my way back to the hotel. Thats 257,000 Rp + 9,000 (for 2 Mizones and 2 Oreo packs) for day 1. Slightly less than 40 SGD. Good.

Tomorrow morning I’m going to grab the 8am Colt to Subang, and ask to be let off at Tangkuban Perahu. From there it’s to Ciater hot springs.

Day 2

Morning was a 24,000 Rp Soto Ayam. Plus a 12,000 Rp Angkot to Tangkuban Perahu. Overpaid for a solo angkot to the top. 100, 000 Rp so that’s (26,000 Rp for entrance fees, and a 74, 000 Rp) profit to him. Mizones x2 cost 6,000 Rp here. Fritters at 5,000 Rp. Toiletries and bread at 30, 000 Rp). Peron ticket at 1500 Rp. You need this to cut across the train station to the other side.

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Gunung Tangkuban Perahu is one touristy place. There must be a few hundred tourists, locals and foreign around the large crater. It deserves the crowd though. The spectacular crater is easily accessible by car. There is a very carnival feel to the place. Horse rides for children, street vendors hawking their wares and a permanent stretch of shops lined selling all sorts of souvenirs. After wandering around the circumference of the crater, made my way down. I had all day, so decided to talk a walk down to the main road. Took a tourist tram that ends halfway down at 2000 Rp. Along the way, stopped at Kawah Domas, an area with bubbling hot sulphurous pools. Stayed there for a bit, boiled eggs in the pool, got totally wet after being soaked in sulphurous water vapour.

From the foot of Tangkuban Perahu, I made my way by Angkot (30,000 Rp) to Ciater Hotsprings. Dropped just outside the resort, and stayed overnight at the (considerably cheaper) rooms there at 200,000 Rp.

Day 3

The Ciater Hotsprings is a well developed resort, not exactly what I was expecting. However since I was there at 8am (its 24hrs), there were very few other people. Walked from one end to the other. Cascading man made falls, picnic areas, other outdoor activities (water cycling cars, flying fox, horse rides). I just soaked myself underneath the hot water for 45 minutes. Lovely.

From there, made my way back all the way to Bandung. Dumped my stuff back at Hotel Patradissa (well it is cheap) before making my way to the infamous Jean Street in the afternoon. Also known as Jalan Cihampelas, I walked down the 2km or so stretch, marveling at the giant Rambo? Batman? Wtf? Larger than life figures perched over the jeans shop. Did not get anything, how could I, the tacky décor was too distracting.

Cihampelas Walk, the entrance of which was under construction at the time of writing, was accessed through a little nondescript nook that wound along a wooden ramp before opening into a gigantic promenade. Very much like a shopping centre on Orchard road → or better I daresay! Did a lap around the place. Had too much time so caught couple of shows at the classy cinema. Then took an after midnight stroll back to the hotel.

Early morning on Day4, made my way back home.

Day 4 – The long road to Prambanan

Prambanan is a collection of Hindu temples ruins. In 2005, there was an earthquake which pretty much messed up the place. Restoration works are in progress and many of the temples are off-limits and cordoned off to the publick.

Sun Sep14’09 – The long road to Prambanan.
The plan was to take the city bus to Prambanan early in the morning. Come back by lunch and spend the rest of the day shopping in Djogja. But even the best laid plans get derailed. As we walked to the bus station, some fellow who claimed to be owner of the souvenir shop offered to show us a batik painting exhibition. “This is the same exhibition shown when I was in Singapore in Hotel Raffler (sic) last week.” “Only up for next two days.” “There will be a cultural show later at 2pm in Prambanan to signify religious tolerance during the Muslim fasting month, so why not see the batik exhibition since there is time.”

We being the naïve idiots followed him into a back alley house where works “from 25 artists chosen out of 100 applicants” are on display. Granted, the pieces are really quite well done, but what irks me was when the exhibition owner did the hard sell on us and started to ask us to “see which ones we like”. And also put the paintings on strategic locations to catch the light (in the process also blocking our way out the door…). We excused ourselves, their attitude turned nonchalant, and left.

Since the cultural show was at 2pm, we went down Malioboro and checked out the Beringharjo market. Bought a batik shirt, (bargain!) and made our way down to the Kraton. The entrance fee (5000 Rp) covered a tour with guide around the Kraton area and a visit to a fine art gallery that is open until 2pm on weekends… We refused the guide (cos we need to do this quick) and did a loop around the Kraton. Unofficial “guides” without badges will also offer to show you around, be prepared to tip for their services.

Leaving the Kraton, the same guide said we should take the chance to visit the fine art gallery since it was part of the ticket price. And the gallery is near the bus station to Prambanan whereas from where we were, the bus station is “far, far away”. So, we again took a detour by becak to the gallery. This gallery is also in a dodgy back alley, so we left without even entering and made our way to the main road, where supposedly the bus to Prambanan lies. Asking for directions, we walked 10 minutes and lo behold, we appeared out on the same bus stop along Malioboro where we started at the beginning of the day!

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Finally. We took the TransDjogja city service to Prambanan. The afternoon weather was way too hot to do much traipsing through the ruins. After the main area with Civa, Vishnu, Brahma structures and their three mounts, we caught the Audio Visual (pretty ok, not as informative as the Borobudur one) before heading back. By the way, we checked at the information counter: there was no cultural show at 2pm that day…

Evening dinner was at Bedhot along Jalan Soroswijaya’s small side roads; your normal tourist-targeted Jack Johnson playing eateries. The food was good though.

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Getting There
Take the TransDjogja city bus service 1A from Malioboro road (bus stations outside Hotel Mutiara or the market) to Prambanan bus terminal at 3000 Rp. The bus station is easy to recognize by the blue sign and the raised platform. 1A also passes by the airport (Bandara Adisujipto station). At the Prambanan station, take the horse-carts or walk out to the main road, turn right and walk for 800m (aim for the mosque minaret). The main entrance to Prambanan (11 USD) is just there.

Interlude – Banda Aceh (Or how to do a dive trip to Weh in 4 days)

Backdated to 8May’09 long weekend.

In the long weekend last May (yes i do a lot of long weekend mini getaways), i reached Pulau Weh, in Aceh province. Contrary to what most people think, Banda Aceh is not the run down, dilapidated place due to the tsunami and unsafe due to the ex-separatists movement. In fact, it is be the total opposite.

More after the jump…

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Getting there
From KL to Banda Aceh: AirAsia flies 3 times weekly. By careful planning, I was able to reach from SG to My timings were 0910 to 1005 (SG to KL),  1155 to 1220 (KL to Banda Aceh). There was just enough time for transit, so SG to KL time should be earlier. From the airport, take transport to Ulee Lheu harbour (around 30 minutes). The fast boat leaves the harbour at 1600hrs and arrives at 1700hrs at Balohan harbour on Pulau Weh. From there, its a 45 min ride to Gapang beach (ibioh is a bit further i think).

Getting back
Set off very early. Lumba-lumba arranges transport at 7am, and reaches Balohan in time for the 0830 boat. Reach at 0930hrs. You will have some time (i struck a deal with the motorised 3 wheeler driver to explore Banda Aceh and get some souvenirs). The flight is at 1245 to 1510hrs. (BA to KL) and just plan the KL to SG flight accordingly (again with time for transit).

Here’s an update on AirAsia’s flights. It seems the KL to BA flights now go from 1335 to 1400hrs. There should still be enough time to catch the 1600hr boat (factoring the 30min ride to the harbour). Personally I don’t like the change, since it’s a bit tight especially if there are flight delays.

On the way back its 1425 to 1650, later timings again. This would allow for more time to be spent in Banda Aceh itself =) Probably thats the only reason for them to move the timings that i can think of.

The Dives
I stayed at Lumba Lumba Dive. They do 2 dives a day, plus you can arrange for shore dives in the evenings. The beach is a rustic undeveloped stretch. Nothing to do there but eat and sleep. There is a lovely warung just out on the main road, serving local fare. Diving sites Batee Tokong is great (sea fans) are nice. Currents are strong, more pelagic stuff can be found.

So in 4 days of leave, I spent 1 day going there, 2 days diving, 1 day returning to Sg. All in all a great short break.

Day 3: Dieng Plateau – Of sheep and strawberries in high places

Saturday 12Sep’09. To Dieng Plateau.
From Borobudur, take a bus at the terminal to Magelang (10,000 Rp) which stops at Muntilan for a pick-up. At Magelang, take a bus (14,000 Rp) to Wonosobo. This drops you off at the Wonosobo terminal, just outside of town. Join the crowd taking the bemo to town (2,000 Rp) and you’ll get dropped where the minibuses to Dieng are. The Dieng buses pack up the passengers before moving off (8,000 Rp).

The bus drops you off at the T-junction in Dieng, just off Hotel Bu Juno (where we stayed). Food is pretty good, the menu is decent enough at the hotel restaurant. Bring some warm clothing, or buy them at the shop across the road. At 2095m, Dieng is no joke. Here is Sep, the early morning temperature is 14degrees. In July or Aug, it can go as low as a few degrees. If you take the motorbike tour around, wear a windbreaker and cover up. Otherwise be prepared to shiver throughout as you ride into the cold air.

The sights themselves are fantastic. Of note is the summit, at 2300m, dawn to catch the sunrise. Arjuna complex is made up of 5 Hindu temple ruins. Where there used to be over 200, now only 5 remains in the complex. It was surreal, because ducks, geese and sheep came out to graze with their handlers and cut through the temple ruins while we were there. The grounds itself is very well kept. Kawah Sikidang (Deer crater) is a boiling sulphuric pool, so named because the location of the boiling pool changes over three possible spots in the area, like a deer hopping from place to place. Then there is the Telaga Warna (coloured lake), in which we could see clear turquoise water with tiers of farming landscape in the background. The other candi visited was Candi Bima, a standalone temple in which walking around clockwise 7 times supposedly brings good luck.

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From the Bu Jono hotel, Pak Didik arranges motorbike tours around the area. A dawn sunrise summit is 50,000Rp, including the nearby sites would be 100,000Rp, and going out further to see everything would be 150,000 Rp. Come back to the hotel by lunch and take the public bus back out. Or take the tour bus at 12.30pm (70,000 Rp) direct to Yogyakarta.

Day 2: Borobudur

Fri Sep11’09. Current prices are 575,000 Rp for a room with double bed (625,000 Rp for twin beds). Since Manohara’s back gate leads straight into Borobudur, you get unlimited entries into the temple grounds. Otherwise it is 11 USD per entry. Special sunrise entries 230,000 Rp can be booked from the Manohara hotel reception.

Candi Mendut is famous for a Buddha seated not cross-legged but with legs unfolded and feet touching the ground. The murals around the Candi depicts animal stories where the animals show selfishness, greed etc.

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Pilgrims to Borobudur back then circle each of the 7 tiers clockwise twice (total around 5km). Borobudur has 4 tiers depicting normal life. The 1st tier tells the story of Buddha, the second I think tells of stories of animal reincarnations of Buddha. After the 4th tier, the 5th opens up into Nirvana, no longer squares and angular, but circular, with three tiers and a total of 72 Buddhas each covered by a dome. The final biggest stupa at the top is empty. Emptiness is perfection, maybe, no one knows the reason. Get a guide to explain the murals, or go and watch the audio visual at the Manohara for 5,000 Rp.

Day 1: Yogyakarta

Yogyakarta

Thurs 10/09/09. Ok. This is as live a post as can be. I am in the Princess Manohara hotel just outside the Borobudur temple grounds.

Started off from Sg and flew into the local airport. 4th time in Indonesia this year. After Bali, Sumba, Flores, Banda Aceh, Bandung, and now Yogyakarta. 2009 is Visit Indonesia Year for me. It’s pretty relaxed so far. From the airport we cabbed (50,000Rp) to the Jimbor bus terminal. Took a 1.5hr bus (15,000 Rp) from there with a stopover at Muntilan before reaching Borobudur.

Next: More on borobudur. I’ve to go and see more now. 😉

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