A Travellerspoint blog

February 2014

Skanking, stupas and the Indonesian paparazzi

Dancing in Yogyakarta: 29 Jan - 1 Feb '14

sunny 32 °C
View The Great South East Asia Adventure on GoonishPython's travel map.

After the peace, quiet and excitement of Bukit Lawang, our next stop was the cultural centre of Yogyakarta (pronounced sort of like Djogdjakarta), or Yogya for short. Situated in central Java, Yogya is not a huge city, but can claim to be Indonesia's cultural heart. At the Sultan's palace (they still have a Sultan), you can almost daily see a performance of either traditional dance, drama or music.

Luckily for me the first morning in Yogya there was a gamelan performance. For those of you non-musos, a gamelan is an orchestra made of gongs and xylophone- and metallophone-type instruments. Traditionally each village has one and it is a real skill to learn how to play each instrument - for example on the metallophone-style instruments you have to play one note while damping (essentially stopping) the previous one. Its pretty hard. Gamelan uses a pentatonic (5-note) tuning system (Western music uses 12) so it sounds pretty different. They are unique to Indonesia, and Javanese and Balinese gamelans differ - Bali is the only remaining Hindu part of Indonesia and so I imagine retains some of the previously more widespread cultural idioms that were lost when the final Hindu kingdoms fled from Java to Bali. To most Westerners gamelan sounds pretty weird, but I have a great fondness for it - probably because I first came across it as a kid (the University of Cambridge has one of the only full Javanese gamelans outside Indonesia so we saw it on some school trip), and studied it at GCSE as a world music choice (as my teacher then loved it) and we learnt by playing gamelan music. I was the gong ageng player. Its the biggest gong. Its ace. Although slightly highlighted my inability to count. So in Yogya I was determined to see Javanese gamelan performed. It was beautiful.

I got to see/hear Javanese gamelan again that evening, as we saw a performance of the Ramayana ballet. This is a very traditional telling of the story of Rama and Sita (their Indian names) popular throughout SE Asia - its on the walls at Angkor Wat in Cambodia and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok, and here it is told through Javanese dance. It was beautiful and interesting and at times funny, but far far far too long. Now I am used to Western ballet being long - but the great performances have two important distinctions that make them amazing: -

1) Choreography that is startlingly different in different scenes, i.e. the choreography changes to show different parts of the story. Yes, the dancing changed in this Javanese dance - but often too subtly - and frankly one fight scene was mostly the same as the next (and the Ramayana has lots of battles).

2) Music that is integral to the drama. The greatest ballets in Europe have amazing scores that absolutely fire your emotions. I have never seen Romeo and Juliet as a ballet, but if you just hear Prokofiev's score to the fight between the Montague's and Capulet's you know it is a great dramatic moment, you know something terrible and tragic is about to happen without even knowing the story of the title of that scene. The Rite of Spring, with music by Stravinsky, caused a riot at its first performance in Paris in 1913, and its so striking it still sounds like it could have been composed yesterday. Music is so important to drama. A fantastic example is the start to Jaws, where you are swimming through the water from the shark's perspective. With that tiny repeated two-note phrase there is a sense of danger and menace that builds with every repetition. Try watching that scene with a nice twinkling bit of a Mozart piano sonata, with something from Disney's The Little Mermaid , or better yet, with a David Attenborough commentary. Somehow, it isn't scary anymore, its just swimming through the water from the fish's perspective. So my point here is that the music, while lovely, didn't really seem to add to the dancing other than giving them a beat and a couple of moments of Mickey-Mousing (when the music exactly matches the action - like a bang when a character gets hit on the head in a cartoon). In fact, the music seemed a separate entity rather than an integral part of the ballet. While I understand there is probably particular bits of music for particular bits of dancing, none of them seemed different enough - the music for the love scenes didn't come across as very different to the music for a fight scene.

All in all, I expected more from the Ramayana ballet - after all its supposed to be a big deal!

The setting for the ballet, however, was pretty cool - Prambanan temple - a big old Hindu temple complex. Unfortunately it was rainy season so the ballet took place in a theatre rather than in the temple complex itself - the atmosphere in the temple might have made it more dramatic. The temples were beautiful - very familiar to me - looking like a cross between Bagan, My Son and some of those at Angkor - with the most beautiful carvings - some of which looked distinctly Javanese. We even got a free guided tour from a student.

We got the same treatment the next day at Borobodur - the biggest Buddhist temple in Asia (apparently). Our poor long-suffering guide had to put up with Elin and I being asked for photos at every single point - before she'd turned up we'd only walked about 10-15 metres in half an hour because so many people kept stopping us! We didn't mind the schoolkids asking questions for their projects, but random people taking photos of us without asking, and worse, getting their friends/family to pose behind us without us knowing - was just weird and intrusive. After a few hours wandering round we were getting pretty fed up of it. The temple itself, however, was stunning. Basically a stepped pyramid topped in lots of stupas, most levels have a surround of carvings telling various stories - the life of Buddha for example. We had even gone to a nearby hill to watch the sunrise over it. Although cloudy, it was still pretty cool.

So from one type of culture to another - reggae bars are a big deal in Indonesia. Yogya's was just down the street from us, and it had a simply fantastic live band. They got everyone skanking their little socks off. Most recommended. We would have gone every night if we weren't up for sunrise one morning!

On one other note, food in Yogya sucked. If you don't eat chicken or fish, you can't eat Indonesian food there, which seems pretty bizarre as tempe, made from soybeans, is available everywhere else, and meat is so expensive, so you'd have thought there would have been vegetable dishes as well. Apparently note. Food in restaurants was expensive and not great, so we resorted to (shock horror) the local mall to eat - I had a bad okonomiyaki and some excellent bakery goods.

Posted by GoonishPython 15:24 Archived in Indonesia Comments (0)

Into the jungle

Meeting our red-haired cousins on Sumatra: 27-29 Jan '14

sunny 28 °C
View The Great South East Asia Adventure on GoonishPython's travel map.

Next stop from Singapore was a worlf away, we were heading to Sumatra - the northern-most main island in Indonesia, and specifically to Bukit Lawang, a little town by the Taman Nasional Gunung Leuser, famous for one very special thing: Sumatran orang-utans. First we flew to Medan, Indonesia's third largest city, and reputedly one of the places topping backpacker's worst place they've ever stayed list. Apparently its a massive culture shock if you've never been to Indonesia (except Bali) before, and even more so coming from Malaysia and/or Singapore, because it's poor and it's dirty and it's full of crazy traffic, but driving through it, it just seemed like SE Asia to me - but then again I have said starting in Myanmar was actually a wise choice, because I'm pretty chilled out about seeing undeveloped dirty crazy towns (not to mention being unfazed by Asian-style squat toilets, even when dirty).

But we weren't staying in Medan. We were heading into the jungle. We arrived into the town of Bukit Lawang at night - it doesn't have a proper road - our driver dropped us at the end of a path where two guys from our guesthouse were waiting to motorbike our bags and walk us through the village on the up and down rock-strewn pavement-width concrete (mostly) track along the river. It was so chilled - I immediately loved it. Our guesthouse cafe/restaurant was opensided overlooking the river and the jungle on the other side; our room was a bamboo bungalow on the.hillside with a balcony, a huge carved wooden bed, and a rain shower. Bliss. Sampling my first Indonesian beer - Bintang - after a long day, it just felt.fantastic.

Next day we went trekking into the jungle. After a very steep climb, we were a little worn out, and slightly dreading the whole day would be like that - but we'd only been 30/40 mins in when our very experienced guide - he was one of the original guides from when Bukit Lawang's rehabilitation centre started out in the 70s - took us to see our very first orang-utans, a mother and baby. Orang-utans are now found in only two places on earth - both islands - Borneo and Sumatra. Sumatran orang-utans are slightly different to their Bornean cousins, probably because the populations have been isolated from each other, but they're just as endangered. Of all the great apes they are actually one of the least related to us - but we still share 90+% of the same DNA - which is why I was so desperate to get rid of my cold in KL, as otherwise I wouldn't have been able to go just in case I passed it on - human colds could be fatal to an orang-utan, and I didn't want the potential death of a critically endangered animal on my conscience.

So the while reason for the expense and hassle of getting to Bukit Lawang and the effort in trekking was worth it - in five and a half hours trekking we saw 11 (yes, 11) orang-utans in the wild. A few were half-wild or rehabilitated - the guide and his helpers knew which ones - but some were completely wild. They were amazing. We saw three mothers with babies/young ones, one big adult male and four other lone orang-utans. We even saw a mother and child building a nest, and another pair redigesting their food - apparently orang-utans eat, then later regurgitate it, often from a store in their necks, before re-eating it - sometimes 15 or so times - using their mouth like a blender, making a banana shake as the guide put it.

They were awesome. So majestic yet funny - one even seemingly posed for us. Absolutely totally and utterly worth every minute and every penny. We even tubed back along the river after some hair-raising ascents and descents to the riverbank, and after a rest, finished the evening singing along with our lovely local trek helpers in a riverside(ish) bar. Bukit Lawang was amazing.

Oh and we learnt a new song...it'll be going round my head for days.
(to the tune of Jingle Bells)
"Jungle trek, jungle trek, in Bukit Lawang.
See the monkeys, see the birds, see orang-utans."

Posted by GoonishPython 09:26 Archived in Indonesia Comments (0)

Singapore Slings, safaris and Slow Loris'

Three days eating in Singapore: 25-27 Jan '14

sunny 32 °C
View The Great South East Asia Adventure on GoonishPython's travel map.

Singapore is a country like no other. An intoxicating mix of old and super-new, a melting pot of cultures and communities, with towering skyscrapers and urban rainforest, and all in what is essentially one not super-enormous city. And it's so clean! (Except in Little India where we stayed.) Most of our time was spent walking around the streets, marvelling at the Merlion, staring up at the skyscrapers, pushing through Chinatown all covered in decorations ready for New Year, looking at the old colonial buildings and wandering round thwarting rejuvenated quaysides at night. But there were three things that drew me to Singapore, and I achieved them all.

1) Night Safari

Singapore is the only place with a night zoo. Its not cheap, but its very cool - you basically get to see all those animals that are normally asleep in the day, or at least are more active at night. It was also a chance to see lots of Asian animals that you wouldn't normally see much of in a European zoo. I loved seeing the big cats (always my favourite), especially the rare Malaysian tiger, and the fishing cats, but was particularly taken with the Slow Loris' - small, furry and funny (and not so slow) - but also one of the only venomous mammals (one of the others is the duck-billed platypus). My favourite was, however, pretty much the Asian other - they were lovely and so so playful. I wanted to steal one.

2) Eating

Singapore, like Melaka and Penang, id known for its food. Again its a mixture of influences - Malay, Chinese, Indian - and a lot of the food is very similar to what you'd find in those food lovers havens. But Singapore really thrives on its hawker centres - basically a covered area full if tables surrounded by stalls selling an intoxicating array of food. Before we even got to our hostel we'd dived into one of these - Tekka Market in Little India. I was soon full of tarka dhal, naan and mango lassi, and this was the set up of what was to come. We dined at that hawker centre twice more - it was the closest to our hostel and Indian food feels like home to me - I consumed an enormous plate of mutton biriyani, and a 'veg plate' - essentially a selection of vegetable sides including a potato curry and a dhal, with rice and a naan. Our other food choices were largely based on my Singaporean friends suggestions (thank you Gerald) - heading to the Maxwell Street centre in Chinatown, I dined on tofu fritters and banana fritters and sampled sugarcane juice - very sweet even though I had it with lemon. My friend sampled the Tien tien chicken - highly recommended - but because we knew the best stall, it was a long wait, with a big queue of locals eager to get some too. The food in hawker stalls is so good we genuinely couldn't see why you would bother going to a restaurant - and it definitely makes it easier if you all want different food!

3) Raffles Hotel

Its iconic. Its beautiful. They invented the Singapore Sling. You can throw peanut shells on the floor in the Long Bar. Ernest Hemingway and Somerset Maugham sat there. We had to go. So in our nicest clothes, a Singapore Sling in the Long Bar it was. Very nice too.

Singapore was what I expected KL to be. I loved it. Definitely a city to get stuck in (provided you have money and can cope with getting fat).

Posted by GoonishPython 19:23 Archived in Singapore Comments (0)

(Entries 1 - 3 of 3) Page [1]