Saturday, 11 August 2012

Borobudur - Indonesia's Angkor Wat

The monument from the approach road
I have to confess that I’d never heard of this World Heritage Site before going to Indonesia.  In fact, I read about it in the in-flight magazine on the way over!  At just over an hour’s drive from Yogyakarta, we were able to fit it in to our tour around Java and I’m so glad we were!!

The guidebook (Lonely Planet Indonesia) compared Borobudur to Angkor Wat in Cambodia in terms of its beauty and its historical importance.  As those of you who read this blog regularly will know, I was distinctly underwhelmed when we visited Angkor earlier this year so, whilst I felt the need to see Borobudur for myself, my expectations were not that high.  I balked a little at the $20 per person entrance fee, but tantalising glimpses of the site from the approach road had made me think it might be worth it, so we paid up with good grace and went in.

The view from one corner
We were accompanied on our visit by Murman, our English-speaking guide who was travelling with us from Yogyakarta to Pangandaran.  He urged us to take advantage of the free tea, coffee and bottled water on offer.  I pointed out that at $20 to get in, the beverages were hardly ‘free’!

Still, I have to say that, once through the entrance barrier, our first view of the monument was breathtaking.  Having put on the obligatory sarong as a sign of respect, we proceeded up the approach road, flanked on both sides by pristine flower beds, to Borobudur itself.  I think it was the abundance of greenery – perfectly manicured lawns, neat shrubs and magnificent trees – around the monument that really showed it off to its best.  In stark contrast to Angkor Wat which, I felt, blended in to its surroundings, Borobudur stood out from them as a wonderful example of stunning engineering.

One of the exquisite panels
Borobudur was built some time between 750 and 850 AD as a Buddhist monastery.  Two million stone blocks (60,000 cubic metres) were used in its construction.  Finished, it is a massive symmetrical stupa built around a small hill but standing solidly on a 118m by 118m base.  There are six square terraces topped by three circular ones.  The whole building represents a Buddhist vision of the cosmos in stone, starting in the everyday world and spiralling up to nirvana, the Buddhist heaven.

Some of the stupas
The sheer size of Borobudur is impressive, but so is the detail in the sculptural work.  The walk around the monument is about 5km (going clockwise around every level and up the stairs in between) and takes you past 2672 richly decorated panels telling the story of Java and explaining Buddhist doctrines.  There are 432 Buddha images on the way up and, on the top three terraces, there are 72 more hidden in latticed bell-shaped stupas.  One of these has had its top half removed to reveal the sculpture of the Buddha.

A craftsman cleaning a panel
We had been warned that Borobudur gets overrun by tourists, especially at weekends, and that this can detract from the meaning of your visit.  We were lucky, however.  Perhaps because it was Ramadan, there were very few visitors on the day that we were there so we were able to get a real sense of the place.  We were also able to appreciate where the entrance money is being spent as we watched craftsmen painstakingly restoring some of the panels.

All in all, Borobudur was well worth a visit!  See more of my photos here.

Yogyakarta - the cultural capital of Java

Yogyakarta is billed as the cultural and craft capital of Java and we were keen to include it in our tour of the island, though we could only afford the time to spend one night there.  Although we were only there for a short period, I think we got a feel of the place and had plenty of time to experience the conmen my guidebook had warned me about.  The scam these guys use is to tell you that there is ‘a special student exhibition of batik that’s just about to close’ or that it’s ‘the last day of an official government sponsored fine art show’.  They then direct you to a showroom where you are subjected to the hard sell.  We managed to refuse all of them, but it did make our stroll around the shops rather annoying!

Yogyakarta is famous for its batik and we did pick up one or two gifts for family back in the UK.  We also visited a branch of Bata and bought flip-flops.  I just hope that they last as long as the pair I’m still wearing – I bought them in Bata in Sri Lanka in 1998 and they cost me the equivalent of 70 pence!!

We enjoyed our walk around the city, had a very good ‘break the fast’ buffet meal at our hotel and left early the next morning to visit Borobudur.

See our photos of Yogyakarta here.

#ELTchat - We'll Be Back!!

This is an article written by Marisa Constantinides (@Marisa_C) and published first on her blog.  It explains the loss of our #eltchat domain name and her plans for the future of the website.  I am proud to re-publish it here and am looking forward to #eltchat's 'new term' in September!!

#ELTchat: the loss of – Plan B

For the last - well, almost two years now, since September 15 2010, #ELTchat has kept us on our toes and forged hundreds of professional and personal relationships amongst its followers who turn up on Twitter every Wednesday to talk about topics they have suggested and voted on - a community of peers which was created by a small group of colleagues - which grew and grew some more and became something that counts as an important part of our continuous professional development.

Like many great ideas, it didn’t hit just one person but several.

And that is how #ELTchat was created.
The website to keep up the communication of its members, a base and repository of our ideas was one of the first things we all thought of creating – the wiki came later.
Andy Chaplin was keen to join the moderation team and help with podcasts and technical stuff; he was quick to buy and announced the good news to us after the fact.
A few months later, right after TESOL France 2011, he suddenly disappeared – some say for reasons of health.

We never found out for sure.
We never received a single word of response to our emails. was and still is registered in his name.

And yesterday we lost it

On August 8 the domain expired and we have no way of taking over unless it goes up for sale again; it was very sad that Andy Chaplin did not find it appropriate to renew.
The news is really upsetting.
The work we have put in on this website cannot be told in a few simple words – but it has been a labour of love and we have got so much out of it that we have never regretted one single moment
We are pretty upset at the behaviour of this individual – disappointment is one big understatement.
But we trust that our community of #ELTchatters, our PLN for short, will again gather round the new domain which we have purchased –

It will take us a few days to put the website back on its feet
And all will be as it was before – all the posts in place all your thoughts and comments, all the polls and great summaries which got us on the shortlist of the ELTon Awards nominations
We will be back with a vengeance
We are not just a website – we did not get on the ELTon awards shortlist as just another website!!!

We are a great community of teachers and we have a Plan B!

See you all in September!!!
Marisa Constantinides – Shaun Wilden
Andrea Wade

P.S. We would greatly appreciate it if any of you belonging to this great community of teachers, teacher educators, bloggers, #ELTchat followers, reposted this on your blog
If you decide to do this, please add your name to the post under ours.

Sunday, 5 August 2012

Bromo-Tengger-Semeru National Park, Java - a stunning natural landscape

Bromo-Tengger-Semeru National Park
We based ourselves in Malang for our visit to one of Indonesia’s most breathtaking sights, which meant that we had to get up extremely early to witness the sunrise over Gunung Bromo.  We booked a private tour for just the two of us with a jeep and driver at a cost of about $80.  We were picked up from our hotel at 1.30am for the three hour drive to Gunung Penanjakan, the best vantage point from which to watch the sunrise.

Mount Semeru
It was the first night of Ramadan and we were fascinated, as we drove through the night, to see (and hear!) groups of boys (some of them extremely young) walking through the villages banging drums, both real and makeshift (oil drums, plastic petrol canisters, etc.), to celebrate the start of the holy season.

As we neared our destination and climbed ever higher, the road conditions worsened and we were grateful to be in a 4WD vehicle!  It was still pitch black, but, fortunately, our driver appeared to know every pothole and bump in the road (he did tell us that he made the journey every single night in the dry season!).  Descending the mountain a few hours later, we were horrified at the sheer drops at the roadside and were thankful that we hadn’t been able to see very much on the way up!

Sunrise watchers wrapped up for the Arctic!!
We were one of the first jeeps to arrive at the viewpoint, so our driver was able to get us as close as possible and turn our vehicle around so that we were ready to ‘escape’ later.  We had dressed as we always do in shorts and short-sleeved shirts and, whilst it was a little chilly on top of the mountain, we were relishing the slightly lower temperature – it made such a change from what we have become used to in Vietnam!  Other Indonesian tourists, however, were aghast at our attire and implored us to hire one of the long, thick jackets being offered for 10,000 rupiah (about $1).  We declined and, when we stopped for a welcome cup of coffee before making the final 100-metre ascent to the summit, we realised that we had become the main tourist attraction!  Locals, wrapped up as if they were heading for the south pole, wanted their pictures taken with these crazy Brits who were dressed for the beach!

Magic moment!
Once at the summit, we jostled for position with several hundred others and settled in for the long wait for sunrise.  We had about an hour to wait, but no-one was going to give up their vantage point, so we all just stuck it out!  There was very little conversation or noise of any sort.  It was quite mesmerising watching the dawn breaking.  The colours constantly changed until the magic moment when the sun appeared over the horizon and everyone cheered.  From then, the sun rose rapidly and began to spread its warmth through us (I have to admit that we were feeling a little bit cold by now!).  In the daylight, we were able to see our fellow ‘sunrise watchers’ for the first time and wonder at what had brought such a diverse group of people together at this time in this place.  It was quite a moving experience.

Sunrise watchers
Once the sun was well and truly up and we had taken as many photos as we wanted to of the breathtaking landscape, we joined the throngs and headed back to our jeep.  When we were in it and driving back down the mountain, we were able to see just how many 4WDs were parked on both sides of the approach road.  It had seemed like we were the only car on the road a few hours earlier!  All of these vehicles now formed a procession on the way to Gunung Bromo itself.

Tengger riders

Horses & riders in the sand!

The scenery was truly stunning as we descended.  It was so green and lush, but then it levelled out and became more lunar-like as we drove across a lake of sand that seemed to move like water as the wind picked up the top layer.  Then, out of the swirling sand, came riders on horseback.  Not having read the guidebook properly first, I was surprised by this surreal sight!  As we discovered, these were local Tengger people offering to take tourists on horseback across the plain and two-thirds of the way up Bromo to the base of the final 250-step ascent to the crater.  Neither of us being confident with horses, we refused the offer and, instead, made the ascent on foot.  It was a hot, hard walk and climb, made worse by the ever-increasing amount of sand being blown up by the wind and the horses hooves as they passed us.  We stopped halfway so that I could have a fortifying glass of hot, sweet coffee made by one of the enterprising ladies who had set up a table offering refreshments.

Lunar landscape
The last part, the stairway, was the worst, as many of the steps had eroded away or were too full of sand to offer proper footholds.  In several places, too, the handrail was missing.  Eventually, however, we made it to the top and looked down into Bromo’s crater.  We could just about see the lake in the bottom of it, but, I have to say, our view was somewhat obscured by the amount of sand being blown around.  On a clear day, I’m sure it’s amazing!  Nevertheless, we felt it was worth the effort!

Bromo's crater
Once back in the jeep, we drove on through the national park, marvelling at the breathtaking beauty of the landscape.  As we left the park, we passed through farming communities where the land had been terraced and planted with every vegetable known to man, a beautiful sight in its own right.  We stopped along the road a way and ate our delicious breakfast which had been provided by the tour operator.  We were careful to eat and drink out of sight of our driver who was fasting.  We thoroughly enjoyed our meal, taken within sight of Mount Semeru, the highest peak on Java.

Vegetable terraces
Despite the early start, and the often bumpy ride, our trip to the Bromo-Tengger-Semuru National Park was well worthwhile and I’m very glad we did it.

See more photos here.

Malang - the perfect base for exploring East Java

A 'Welcome to Malang' poster at the airport
An old Dutch colonial camera shop
We decided to base ourselves in Malang for our visit to East Java because of the transport links and because my guidebook (Lonely Planet Indonesia) described it as having ‘leafy, colonial-era boulevards and a leisurely pace’.  I have to say that little remains of the Dutch colonial architecture that was once a feature of the city, though an elderly resident did take pride in pointing out an old camera shop, complete with Agfa and Kodak advertising signs, and insisted I take a picture of it.  Nowadays, the town centre is dominated by huge branches of KFC and McDonalds.

24-hour KFC
Nevertheless, we found Malang to be a very pleasant place to walk around.  The people were smiling and helpful.  It was very easy to arrange our trip to Bromo and our onward travel to Yogyakarta.  We enjoyed shopping for bargains in the ‘alun-alun’ and amongst the impromptu market stalls set up in the park in front of the mosque.  Our hotel, the Regent's Park, was comfortable and had a pool which was perfect for a refreshing swim after our excursion to the national park.  All in all, Malang proved to be the perfect base for our exploration of East Java.
Malang's main mosque

See more of my photos of Malang here.

Saturday, 4 August 2012

Travel To, From and Within Java, Indonesia

Rural Java, near Malang
We flew Air Asia direct from Ho Chi Minh City to Jakarta, arriving at a few minutes before midnight.  From touchdown, we couldn’t help making comparisons between Indonesia and Vietnam, which has been our home for the past year.  Most visitors arriving into Saigon’s international airport are able to obtain a visa on arrival, but they need to have applied online, filled in a form and paid a fee at least a couple of weeks before their trip.  They have then had to check their e-mail, print off the confirmation, fill in another form, get a couple of passport photos and make sure they have another fee in dollars in cash.  Having done all this, they arrive in Vietnam, often after a lengthy flight, and usually have to wait for at least an hour while their documents are processed and they are reluctantly admitted into the country by surly looking officials.  The contrast on arrival in Jakarta was stark!  We had been given a simple form to fill in on the plane so, on landing, the process was simple, quick and efficient.  The immigration officials took our money and stamped our passports with beaming smiles and welcomed us to Indonesia. 

A customised cyclo!
So, within minutes, we were through with the formalities.  Our priorities were to obtain some local currency and arrange transport to our hotel, both of which were achieved with ease.  There was a vast number of ATMs just after we had passed through customs.  We were only staying in Jakarta for one night, so we had booked into a hotel close by which offered free transfers to and from the airport.  We asked at the information desk where a very friendly young lady rang the hotel for us and they sent a bus to pick us up.  We had to wait for less than five minutes!!  We were struck by the contrast with Frankfurt airport, where, a few months ago, we were in transit and had to kill three hours between 8pm and 11pm.  In that airport, there was literally nothing open and not a soul around to ask for assistance.

Schoolchildren near Yogyakarta
The next day, we transferred back to the airport for an internal flight to Malang in the east of Java.  This time, the airline was Garuda.  Unfortunately, due to the late arrival of an incoming flight, we were delayed by almost two hours, which made what should have been a short hop take up most of the day.  The airline, however, provided food and drink and tried to make the wait as pleasant as possible.

Malang airport is mainly used for military purposes and has only recently started accepting commercial flights.  As a result, it is small with few facilities, but building work is going on and, again, the staff were very helpful in organising a taxi to take us to our hotel in town.

A little boy getting a lift home!
When planning our trip to Java, the idea was to fly to the furthest point east that we wanted to visit and then use public transport (trains and buses) to make our way back to Jakarta via Yogyakarta and Pangandaran.  Whilst this is perfectly possible, we hadn’t really considered the distances involved and, given our tight schedule, we ended up hiring private cars and drivers to take us between the cities.  Obviously, this was a much more expensive option, but, on this occasion, we felt that the expense was worth it in terms of convenience, comfort and time taken.  So it was that we drove across Java, from east to west and in doing so, we saw so much of the country and felt that we got a real glimpse into the lives of the Javanese.  Clearly, had we travelled with them on buses and trains, we would have got a greater insight, but time didn’t allow it this time!

At the end of our trip, we flew back to Vietnam with Air Asia and, again, were very impressed with the service.  It is clear to see why the airline has been voted the world's best budget airline for the last three years.  I'd vote for any airline which has jeans as part of the uniform for the air crew!!

See more photos of our road trip across Java here.