Friday, June 24, 2011

Batujaya's Ancient Buddhist Temple Ruins, A Short Day Trip East of Jakarta

In Batujaya, a half day's drive to the east of Jakarta, lies a complex of ancient buddhist temples slowly emerging from Karawang's rice padi mud. Walking among the mounds concealing these ruins you get a sense that there is something huge and undiscovered buried beneath your feet. The occasional story of rice farmers enriched by finds of gold trinkets only adds to the mystique.

Karawang is known as the “rice bowl” of Jakarta due to the endless rice paddies that year after year produce the carbohydrates necessary to sustain metropolitan Jakarta’s millions of hungry stomachs. Karawang owes its rice bowl status to the Citarum river and the annual floods which refresh Karawang’s layers of alluvial sedimentation keeping the rice growing year after year.

Jakarta isn’t the only civilisation the Karawang plains have historically supported, along the banks of the Citarum river there is evidence of much older human encampments. At Batujaya the remains of fifth and sixth century Buddhist communities is gradually emerging from rice padi silt that has built up over centuries of Citarum river floods.

I first became aware of Batujaya on reading about rice farmers’ ploughs getting accidentally stuck on human bones in burial sites and the farmers unearthing gold trinkets that had been buried together with the dead human. As you would expect, your average rice farmer isn’t too aware of the value of two thousand year old gold jewellery and typically sold it for melt down in local markets.

But the fact that the farmers came across two or three burial sites means there are likely to be more. Some basic research revealed that there are a number of prehistoric sites in Karawang. Most are in Batujaya and contain crumbling Buddhist temples but there are others in Cibuaya and in total there are around 30 specific locations where ancient remains poke out of the rice padis.

Little of these ancient sites have been excavated and it is exciting to walk over the mounds sticking out of the rice padis and wonder what could be hidden beneath them. The temples appear to be built from clay bricks, and in many places you can find them scattered around as if they were recently placed there.

The complex at Batujaya is the most expansive covering an area of around five hectares and consists of one large restored temple, one large temple in the process of restoration, several temples that are undergoing excavation, an ancient well, and scattered mounds of earth that have barely been touched by humans and who knows what is contained beneath them.

The restored temple is Candi Jiwa, or the temple of the spirit, and Candi Blandongan is the temple that is undergoing restoration although when we visited there wasn't much restoration activity. Still, both of these temples are impressive structures, and from them you can site other mounds sticking out of the rice paddies where clearly other ancient remains reside.

Batujaya and Cibuaya are well within day trip distance from Jakarta and worth visiting.  Getting there isn't hard and just requires the usual perseverance to drive out of Jakarta. Karawang is east of Jakarta and hence you need to take the Cikampek Tol. I can't remember exactly where you take the exit from the toll but Rengasdengklok is the name of the town that you need to bear in mind as you pass through it on the way to Batujaya. Batujaya is in the village of Segaran so watch out for this name as you drive.

Getting back to Jakarta we took a short cut on a pontoon that took us an dour car across the Citarum river. We could never have found this on the way to Batujaya Segaran but it was pretty easy to find these mom and pop ferry operations on the way back.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Banda Spice Islands Nutmeg Sojourn

Panoramic View of Fort Belgica, Banda Neira, the Banda Islands, Southern Maluku, Indonesia.
In 2006 I spent seven days in the Banda archipelago otherwise known as The Spice Islands. Ever since then, when asked about my favorite destination in Indonesia, my enthusiastic response has been the Banda Islands. No other destination offers the same unique mixture of laid back tropical island pace of life, unpolluted environment, ruined and restored old world dutch villas, ancient Spanish, Dutch and British stone forts, an active volcano, groves of nutmeg and mace and pristine crystal clear oceans alive with colorful multitudes of fish, coral and all manner of other vibrant sea life and all within a very short trip of one another. I am writing this five years after my visit and the memories are still strong.

The Dutch East India Company Symbol, this one on the stone floor of the
Chinese Temple. Banda Neira, the Banda Islands, South Maluku, Indonesia
For many solid reasons the Banda Islands could be one of Indonesia's most visited traveler destinations. Perhaps due to its remoteness and the challenges posed in getting there, quite fortunately, it is spared the maddening crowds of mass tourism that put such pressure on the environment and culture elsewhere. Many do not realize it, but that this small and remote archipelago played a historically pivotal role in European history and especially in the huge gains in wealth experienced by the Dutch from the sixteenth to twentieth centuries. The Banda Islands was the only source of highly prized nutmeg and mace, used for a variety of purposes from cooking, flavorings, preserving meats, and believed to have medicinal properties. Spices that could be acquired for a pittance in the spice islands of the Dutch East Indies were regularly sold for hundreds of times their purchase price and just a small amount acquired in Banda and sold in Amsterdam could make a man rich beyond his dreams.

The red outer membrane is mace and it encases the nutmeg nut.
The Banda Islands are located in the Banda Sea in Eastern Indonesia directly south of the sparsely populated island of Ceram and to the southwest of the more populated island of Ambon in the province of South Maluku. They are made up of six main islands and a number of smaller rocky outcrops. The main group consist of Banda Naira (Neira) where the main town, also called Banda Naira and bristling with historical buildings and forts is located, Banda Besar (Pulau Lonthoir), a long banana curved island forming the edge of an ancient caldera and where much of the nutmeg is farmed, and Banda Api (or Gunung Api), a 666 meter high active volcano which has been steaming away happily since it last properly erupted in 1988. Islands situated further out include Rozengain Island (Pulau Rozengain) to the south east of the main group, and Ai Island (Pulau Ai) and Run Island (Pulau Run) directly to the west.

Banda Neira in the foreground, Banda Besar in the background, and Rozengain
barely visible in the  distance. View from the summit of the Gunung Api volcano.
Remnants providing an indication of Banda Island's historical importance to the western world can be seen scattered all around the islands. The township of Banda Naira has the most amazing colonial character and charm to it given that the majority of the buildings are old dutch villas, mansions, forts, and churches some of which have been restored or maintained, and some of which have fallen into disrepair, yet all of which combine to give it a wonderful old world mystique that is hard to find anywhere else in Indonesia. It is a reassuring feeling to see there are few modern buildings in Banda Neira and those that have been built more recently, for example the Maulana Hotel, have taken into consideration the extremely valuable architectural heritage of the island and were built in a style respectful of this and aiming to preserve it.

A view of the governor's residence from his lawn. Banda Neira, Banda Islands, South Maluku, Indonesia.
I spent two days roaming around Banda Neira's township soaking up the atmosphere. Around every corner there is another historical treasure. Kids in red primary school uniforms playing on scattered old rusting Dutch cannons bearing the Dutch East India Company symbol. One of the glass windows of the large dilapidated waterside governor's residence etched with writing in French, the sorrowful musing of a European resident of the islands far from home who is said to have committed suicide out of loneliness. The hands of a church clock frozen in time, supposedly the moment the islands were bombed by arriving Japanese soldiers during World War II. The restored ramparts of the pentagonal Fort Belgica on the hill above Banda Neira from where exceptional 360 degree views of the main islands and especially of the Banda Api volcano can be enjoyed. The house where two Indonesian revolutionaries and founding fathers, Muhamad Hatta and Sutan Sjahrir, spent years in exile . The ancient Chinese temple, where Banda's small community of Chinese traders and pearl farmers pay respects to their ancestors. Nutmeg tree seedlings growing in the shadows of nutmeg nurseries out of the way of the beating tropical sun and ready to be transplanted to one of the other islands. The list of gems goes on and on.

The church silhouetted in the Gunung Api volcano.
Banda Neira, Banda Islands, South Maluku, Indonesia
During my visit I stayed in the Maulana Hotel situated on the Banda Neira waterfront next to the port and boasting inspiring views of the Banda Api volcano just across the narrow strait between the two islands. The Maulana hotel is the best hotel on the Bandas and was built by the renowned and iconic character Bapak Des Alwi, otherwise known as the King of the Bandas, serving as one of his retirement activities. Des Alwi made my trip to the Bandas special. Every evening at the Maulana dinner was served with all guests sitting around the dinning table devouring seafood and sashimi fished from the Banda seas that same day with wasabi squeezed from a large Buddha shaped bottle. The evening after I climbed the Banda volcano Des clapped his hands and announced there would be a ceremony. He made a small speech and summoned me to the front of the table where he presented me with my certificate of citizenship to the Banda Islands. Des had made it a custom to present all who ascended to the summit of the volcano with such a citizenship paper granting free access to the islands and upon which it states the time it took the recipient to reach the summit.

Hotel Maulana. I wondered what the large bollard was for until a
massive Pelni passenger liner moored outside of my bedroom
Des Alwi's family featured large in the Banda's archipeligo's history, and Des himself was a historically significant figure in Indonesia's formative years and beyond. When he was a kid, the Dutch government exiled two leading intellectuals in the Indonesian nationalist movement from Java to the Bandas. These revolutionaries were Sutan Sjahrir, who went on to become Indonesia's first prime minister, and Mohammad Hatta who became the first vice president under the charismatic Sukarno. Sutan Sjahrir who was an educator, must have sensed the talent, latent passion and hunger for learning in Des Alwi, for he took him under his wing and when he finally returned to Java, was accompanied by the young Des. Des went on to play a role in Indonesia's revolution and exploiting his talent for communication was active in the mass media and in particular with the state radio station, Radio Republik Indonesia, and recorded on film the many dimensions of Indonesia's freedom struggle. Later he represented Indonesia internationally first as a cultural attache in the embassy in Bern, Austria and the Philippines. Sadly Des passed away in November of 2010.

Des Alwi presenting me with my citizenship papers.
One night while staying at the Maulana I awoke to the hum of large diesel engines and upon taking a glance out the window discovered a monstrous Indonesian Pelni passenger liner had docked just outside the Maulana to offload and onload produce and passengers. The arrival of this ship had woken the sleepy town of Banda Neira from its slumber and for once the streets teemed with life. Villagers from all over the islands had arrived in small boats and set up stalls in and around the port selling seafood, sate, bottles of nutmeg jam, mother of pearl ornaments, and real pearls to passengers who alighted to stretch their legs on a voyage that stretched almost the entire the length of the Indonesian archipelago, from Jakarta in the west to Papua in the east. It was strange to see so much activity in Banda Neira in the middle of the night but I can imagine that in such a small and isolated community the ship's weekly arrival would be a welcome injection of cash and stimulus of commercial activity.

The Pelni Passenger Liner that Moored Outside My Bedroom At Hotel Maulana
The Pelni Passenger Liner that Moored Outside My Bedroom At Hotel Maulana
The Pelni Passenger Liner that Moored Outside My Bedroom At Hotel Maulana
The Gunung Api Volcano.
Semi Restored Dutch Villa

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Jungle River Cruise In Central Kalimantan

Palangkaraya, the capital city of Central Kalimantan province, is where Gaye Thavisin and Lorna Dowson-Collins have located Kalimantan Tour Destinations, a travel agency that is pioneering ecotourism in a part of Indonesia where the potential is high yet to date little has been achieved.

The city is situated two thirds of the way up Central Kalimantan's largest river, the Sungai Kahayan, which has its genesis up near the border of West Kalimantan in the Northern Mountains and winds its way 600 kilometers south emptying into the Java Sea near to the border with East Kalimantan and Banjarmasin.

The presence of one of Kalimantan's mighty rivers and its proximity to some of the last remaining pristine Borneo lowland rainforests and their orangutan and other exotic flora and fauna made Palangkaraya the perfect location for Kalimantan Tour Destinations to launch their keynote ecotourism experience, Jungle River Cruises aboard the Rahai'i Pangun.

Jungle River Cruises provides travelers to Central Kalimantan with minimal impact viewing of its rainforest, wildlife and riverside Dayak villages from the vantage point of a traditional river mode of transportation. It also benefits local communities by generating alternative livelihoods and teaching new skills that contribute to the development of a sustainable local eco-tourism economy. From my perspective, it is an easily accessible and effective weekend wind-down from the stresses and strains of living in fast paced Asian metropolises such as Jakarta, Singapore, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok.

The Rahai'i Pangun is a traditional river freighter converted by Kalimantan Tour Destinations into a comfortable river cruiser, perfectly designed for viewing the impenetrable walls of jungle passing by on either side, whilst protecting its passengers from the fearsome stinging hot Borneo sun and lashing rainstorms often hitting the river hard at dusk.

The deck is covered by a protective canvas that unobtrusively allows three hundred and sixty degree views yet can be extended further when the rains hit to keep you dry. It has very comfortable rattan furniture covered in soft cushions perfect for snoozing away the cruising hours, exactly what I was escaping Jakarta to do.

A highlight of a Rahai'i Pangun river cruise are the delectable local cuisines, my favorite being the giant freshwater prawns farmed down the river close to the sea, and the river fish cooked in a variety of forms. Local coffee is on call but if your pleasure is downing a cold beer while soaking up the atmosphere as time slowly passes you by then it's bring your own and the crew will keep it ice cold. Sleeping two, cabins are comfortable. Screens over the windows keep mozzies at bay, important as malaria is present. You have to be careful to shut the windows before the inevitable afternoon storm hits as soggy mattresses tend to detract from the deep sleep you'd expect when surrounded by jungle serenity.

Just north of Palangkaraya the smaller black water Sungai Rungan joins the brown water Kahayan. Interesting features of the Rungan are the plentiful lakes and islands, and the flooded forests. Natural obstacles and the flatness of the land cause the rivers of Central Kalimantan to follow a course that weaves back and forth like a wriggling earthworm. Over time the river tends to revert to the shortest route leaving loops of water cut off from its main flow and creating what are known as oxbow lakes or leaving islands around which it continues to flow.

The Nyaru Menteng Orangutan Rehabilitation Project uses these river islands as halfway houses for over 600 orphaned orangutans. The orphans are first taught skills they need to survive in the wild and then placed on these islands where they can be observed. Passengers can view them as they congregate on wooden platforms near to where the Rahai'i Pangun anchors for a night. We also saw hornbills flying slowly in the jungle foliage, eagles and kingfisher. Proboscis monkeys and the common macaque also made appearances. We didn't see any gibbons although their throaty call could be heard at dusk and we passed a gibbon sanctuary where access is strictly limited due to gibbon susceptibility to disease.

Getting to Palangkaraya to join the Rahai'i Pangun for a cruise isn't hard. Garuda and Lion Air have daily flights out of Jakarta. The Garuda flight took an hour and a half and cost Rp 1.3 million return. A more adventurous and time-consuming route is to come overland from Banjarmasin or even to come up the Kahayan River on a boat. However one gets there, a river cruise with Kalimantan River Cruises is worth doing and rates as an iconic Indonesian experience.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Krakatau Eruption - December 2007

Anak Krakatau burst into life again in October of 2007. I've made four trips out to the island group over the years but have never been lucky enough to see an eruption. This time I didn't want to let an opportunity slip away. It's important to get up close and personal with an errupting volcano at least once in your life (as long as it doesn't cut it short). Particularly with Krakatau (or Krakatoa as it is known in the English speaking world) being one of those natural wonders that is etched into our collective memories. There are few who have not heard of the great eruption of 1883, the cataclysmic explosion and the ensuing tsunami that was recorded as far away as the English Channel.
A visit to Krakatau is easily a weekend trip if you're based in Jakarta or flying into Jakarta on a Friday early in the evening. My favorite point for getting a boat out is not via the better known Anyer and Carita in Banten Province on the West Coast of Java but the less direct route departing from Kalianda in southern Lampung. Anyer and Carita these days are much more visited by Jakartans with all of the usual crowds, rubbish and traffic. Although it takes a little more time, chartering a fishing boat from the sleepy fishing village of Kalianda in South Sumatera is a much more interesting option than braving the hoards in Banten.
Some facts about Krakatau. The 1883 eruption was one of the most violent volcanic events of modern times around 13,000 times the yield of the bomb which destroyed Hiroshima. 36,417 lives were lost from the Tsunami and pyroclastic flows over open water according to the records of the Dutch authorities. Spectacular sunsets were viewed for many months afterwards around the world and average global temperatures in the year following the eruption dropped by 1.2 degrees due to the huge amounts of sulfur dioxide gas ejected. Krakatoa is directly above the subduction Zone of the Eurasian Plate and Indo-Australia Plate at a point when it makes a sharp bend from the horizontal coast of Java towards the more verticle coast of Sumatra.
My strategy for a weekend trip to Krakatau from Jakarta is to leave work on Friday a little early and catch a bus from a Slipi bus stop on Jl S Parman to the port of Merak in Banten where ferries cross over to the port of Bakauheni in Lampung. From Bakauheni there are numerous little Angkut or "bus vans" which will drop you off within Kalianda. Alternatively, larger buses crossing the strait on the ferries are happy to squeeze you in and will drop you off at the turnoff to Kalianda where you can get a motorcycle taxi to a hotel. I left Jakarta at 6 pm and made it to Kalianda about 11 pm on Friday night. In other years I have taken Silver Bird taxis to Merak, rented cars and taken private vehicles across. The cheapest way is definately the bus from the Slipi bus stop.
Fishing boats out to Krakatau can be arranged by any of the hotels in Kalianda but it is best if you call in advance otherwise they may have all gone fishing. Hotel telephone numbers can be found below. I didn't call in advance and had to go down to the small fishing port where the fishing boats were unloading their morning catches and didn't get away until 11 am on Saturday. It is best to get one of the larger fishing boats with shelter from the sun, one of my Krakatau trips was in a smaller outrigger style boat and I ended up burnt to a crisp. Avoid using the local harbourmaster to assist in securing a boat because the price will inevitably go up, possibly considerably.
The boat trip takes four to five hours and passes other islands such as Pulau Sebesi whose entire population was wiped out in the 1883 eruption. The captain of my fishing boat Bapak Kumis put down a couple of lines and caught two Ikan Tongkol which he barbequed on a kerosine stove. A very tasty supplement to my instant noodles!! Something to remember, every time I take a trip on one of these fishing boats I kick myself for forgetting earplugs. They operate extremely noisy diesal engines, and it is difficult to find a place on the boat where you can escape the noise (overboard perhaps). Stop off at a chemist to pick some up before you leave Jakarta.
The approach is long and slow. At first it is indiscernable in the horizon haziness then it very gradually looms into view. My first site was of a cone without any of the expected ash clouds, and I thought perhaps it had become dormant again. My thoughts were proven wrong as in about five minutes it threw up a column of ash. It was erupting approximately every five or six minutes emitting huge pillars of smoke that gradually drifted away to the southwest dropping ash and sometimes pumice into the sea. The Krakatau island group is actually four islands Pulau Rakarta, Pulau Sertung, Pulau Krakatau Kecil and Pulau Anak Krakatau. The active volcano, Anak Krakatau or child of Krakatau, started emerging from the sea in 1923 in between the other three in the area of ocean where three other craters stood before the 1883 eruption.

The 2007 eruptions have opened up a new crater on the western side of the cone and it is easiest to view from a the relative safety of a boat circumnavigating the island. It's an awesome site seeing the powerful blasts of an erupting volcano, the huge bolders that sail through the air and the red hot lava that streams down the mountain. Krakatau in 2007 does not dissapoint. I had been told by the people in one of the Kalianda hotels that it was fine to stay the night on Anak Krakatau but after hearing and seeing some of the huge explosions I instructed Pak Kumis to make a beeline for one of the other islands. We ended up dropping anchor at Pulau Krakatau Kecil where we had a safe view of Krakatau blowing its top.

Some prices and other information:

Bus from Jakarta to Merak = Rp 20,000
Ferry to cross Sunda Strait = Rp 9,000
Bus from Bakauheni to Kalianda = Rp 20,000
Motorcycle Taxi to Hotel = Rp 5,000
Night in a decent hotel room at Hotel Kalianda = Rp 100,000
Fishing Boat Charter = Rp 800,000