Islands of Nature, Islands of Culture: Indonesia Part 1

In May 2019, I traveled to Indonesia to experience the vast cultural and natural diversity of this archipelago – and if being completely honest, because I’ve always had a particular affinity for islands. As my trip generally went from west to east across the country and involved multiple different islands/cities, this first post will cover my time in Indonesia’s major islands of Sumatra and Java. Sumatra and Java, as the main population/economic centers of Indonesia, are the source of much of the elements of Indonesia identity, yet nonetheless host many different cultures and religions even within the islands. However, my time in Sumatra left cultural exploration in favor of the most natural part of my voyage as I traveled to Bukit Lawang, the main base of exploration for Gunung Leuser National Park, located in the far north of the island near the sprawling but charmless city of Medan.

Bukit Lawang became a tourist center due to it being the location of an orangutan feeding and rehabilitation center. These great apes, perhaps Indonesia’s most famous wild resident, are more commonly associated with the island of Borneo, but Sumatra hosts a smaller but still notable population. While official feeding operations have been curtailed, Bukit Lawang maintains likely the highest density of orangutans in perhaps the most easily accessible location in Indonesia. Governmental and non-profit organizations have both promoted developing Bukit Lawang’s ecotourism as a way to save an environment heavily threatened by habitat destruction, primarily for palm oil plantations, which have led to the destruction of Sumatra’s forests at a faster rate than the loss of the Amazon, and which are found along most of the route from Medan – though hunting, mining, infrastructure construction, and general human population growth also have led to catastrophic declines in Sumatran wilderness (even technically protected areas) and wildlife population counts across the island. Bukit Lawang has been successful in stopping human encroachment in this sector of the park – but it can be argued given the constant human presence and interaction with wildlife whether this is still truly a wilderness environment. Nonetheless, my particular trip did give me the outdoors experience I desired, hiking into the jungle to a riverside campsite, and whitewater tubing back to the village the second day (technically, the trip was supposed to include two days of hiking but given high water levels and the laggardly sleep schedule of my tour companions the actual hiking was curtailed). While the humidity and slippery trails made hiking challenging, traveling in the dry season meant the torrential rainforest downpours luckily held off until evening, allowing clear weather for wildlife watching. There is an immense diversity of species in Sumatra, but only the monkeys, apes, and insects seemed willing to be seen during our first day – but we did see many of those, including several baby orangutans and three other species of monkey.  A few reptiles on the second day added a bit of variety, though birds and large predators stayed well out of sight (tigers, sun bears, and clouded leopards are present in the park, but even the guides have never seen them). While the accommodations were basic, the tour fed us well, including an enormous amount of tropical fruit (a particular pleasure of mine).

Given the number of guesthouses and restaurants in the village, Bukit Lawang is clearly built for a large number of tourists. However, either due to the early time of the year or the fact that I was traveling during Ramadan (when Muslims may travel less frequently as they often make trips around the festivals at its beginning and end) the village was deserted and encounters with other groups on the trail were rare – giving an unusual experience of a mostly empty village after dark.  

Given Bukit Lawang’s isolation, it was a long trip to my next destination of Yogyakarta, on Java’s south central coast (luckily, given the amount of time I spent in airports on this trip, Indonesia’s airports are quite comfortable and well maintained).  Today, while Yogyakarta lacks the enormous population of Jakarta, Indonesia’s current capital (which I skipped on this trip), it has perhaps the greatest concentration of historic and spiritual sites in the nation, from a variety of historic, cultural, and religious sources. Most prominently are the massive Buddhist temple Borobudur, the Hindu temple complex of Prambanan, and the sprawling kraton (castle) and associated constructions of Yogyakarta’s Muslim sultans. The latter I missed save from the outside due to inconveniently brief opening hours, but the former two were the main focus of my time in Yogyakarta (Jogja to locals). A 3:30AM pickup for a sunrise view of Borobudur did little to help my sleep schedule, but provided spectacular views over Borobudur’s surroundings and towering Mount Merapi, an active volcano – but not the actual temple of Borobudur, which was obscured by fog and vegetation. Nonetheless, we soon moved to the actual temple site to trace its mandala layout and marvel at the intricate carving. Prambanan, though very architecturally distinct from Borobudur, displays the same mastery of stonework, as well as the complexity of this region’s religious history (it is now primarily Muslim, like most of Java). A number of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions have damaged the original temples at both sites, but strong design and dedicated renovation efforts make them seem as spectacular as they must have been at their peak.

My other major activity in Yogyakarta (besides a stop at the very cute but also very depressing animal market, which included otters, owls, and monkeys sold as pets) was a course in traditional Javanese archery within the older city. It felt like being trained at a Shaolin monastery in terms of the philosophy behind the sport and the interaction with the older instructor, though I was joined by a number of younger locals who also practiced the sport, where we broke the Ramadan fast together with local snacks. Traveling during Ramadan originally concerned me, as Indonesia is a predominantly Muslim country and I was unsure if I would be able to eat during the day. However, most restaurants apparently have no trouble serving meals, even if the owners are not eating themselves, plus there are a number of restaurants owned by minorities that stay open regardless, so Ramadan made almost no inconvenience (and to be fair, given how timezones are set up Eastern Java gets to speed up sunset to eat dinner at a normal time even in summer).

After Malang I took an overnight train further east on Java to Malang, an experience I do not care to repeat, as the train had only hard benches, no seats, and lacked air conditioning – still, having the train as an option was convenient given that flights/ferries are the only options to get around Indonesia outside of Java. Malang is a nice city though not one with many particular attractions compared to Yogyakarta, though it does have one remarkable area in the colorful Jodipan district. Formerly (and still, technically) a slum, the entirety of the village was painted in bright colors and with murals in order to turn it into an Instagram-worthy tourist destination, which has certainly succeeded. Most tourists visit Malang, however, as a stopover point to the Bromo-Tengger-Semeru National Park. This park surrounds some of the most photogenic of the 127 active volcanoes in Indonesia (and many more dormant ones), the most of any country. The main tour circuit is popular enough to draw in hordes of tourists even at 5AM, but the amazing views of the volcanoes rising above the fog make the early morning and bumpy ride worthwhile.

You may have noted that despite spending a week on islands, I never went near the sea. That, however would be rectified in the islands I visited east of Java in the second half of the trip, to be covered in my next post.

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