Borobudur temple (Borobudur)

Set of Drifter Brady had set his heart on visiting Borobudur, the largest Buddhist temple in the world, way back in 1993 when he was a lowly Freshman at Arizona State University.  In fact, a few semesters later, while studying Film Production at San Francisco State University, Brady chose the evocative stone complex as the setting for one of his short screenplays.  Did he get the details right?  The truth would not be revealed until over a decade later when an opportunity arose to visit family friends on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi.  A side trip to Central Java was tacked on almost immediately.

Borobudur was constructed in the 8th century as a haven for the Buddhist followers of the Sailendra dynasty.  They must have had quite a few friends, for each of the almost 2 million pieces of stone used to construct the temple had to be hewn first and then assembled in a giant stupa pattern that might even make modern architects’ heads spin.  The overall layout is said to be a life-size tantric mandala that the Tantric Buddhists used in the 8th century to practice their religion.  The pilgrimage is no walk in the park with the entire trip up through the temple topping out at 5 km. in length!

“How is that possible?,” you ask. 

Well, Borobudur (which means quite literally “Buddhist Monastery on the Hill”) is nine stories tall, each correlating to different levels of the Buddhist cosmos.  The bottom six levels are square in shape.  These are the regions of the world as we know it, and they contain all of its joys and its sorrows.  A frieze of highly detailed bas-relief sculptures follows all around the perimeter of each terrace.  The work here easily rivals that of what you might see at The Bayon or Angkor Wat in Cambodia.  Make sure to watch out for the often ribald pleasurings of heathen earthlings on the south side of the first terrace!  Those who have been good will be rewarded after death by being reincarnated to a higher level, while those who have not, well...  (For a nice smattering of photos of the bas-reliefs at Borobudur, make sure to check out our expanded album on our Facebook profile page.)

As you travel further up the temple, the layout abruptly changes to circular.  The top three levels are regions within the cosmos that will eventually lead the worthy to Nirvana.  On these levels, a series of no less than 72 mysterious Buddha figures shroud themselves in stone lattice stupas.  The Buddha watch stoically in all four directions, looking out toward some of the most beautiful country you will ever see.

Yes, it is no wonder that the original Sailendras chose this Central Java location for their monastery.  The jagged mountain peaks that follow along the southwestern side of Borobudur work in tandem with Mother Nature to create some of the best agricultural land in the area, and at dusk, paint incredible sunsets that are almost too intense to fathom!  But that same location was also one of the reasons that Borobudur eventually faded into obscurity.  Almost seeming to work in tandem with a new ruling party who promoted Islam as the official religion in Indonesia, nearby Mt. Merapi soon covered the impressive temple with its many sputterings of volcanic ash.  After only a few centuries, Borobudur was buried, quite literally, by history. 

It would not be until the 1800’s, when the Dutch started flowing in, that Borobudur saw any hope of survival.  Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles ordered the site cleared in 1815.  Progress was slow, and it would take many decades until the temple was properly excavated and made safe for those seeking passage amidst its tremendous artistry.

A number of restoration projects have come and gone.  In the ‘70s and ‘80s, UNESCO plunked down big bucks to retrofit the structure that had been sinking right into the hill that it had originally been built around.  Borobudur had to be taken apart stone by stone and then put back together once PVC pipe, rain gutters and a new foundation had been laid.  Small sections of the temple are still undergoing restoration and are not accessible to the public.  We thought it was quite amusing how the team marks each of the individual stones with multicolored chalk symbols that designate their final puzzle-pattern layout.

In the years since, Borobudur has succeeded in becoming the most popular tourist destination in all of Indonesia.  (UNESCO eventually promoted it as a World Heritage Site in 1991).  Sadly, it is this same popularity that is now the temple’s biggest adversary.  As in Angkor, looters have certainly cut their swath.  In fact, out of the 72 bell-shaped stupas that are said to house depictions of the seated Buddha on the top three levels of the temple, only a handful contain the complete statue with head.

Set of Drifters tip:  When visiting a Buddhist temple, always make sure to travel in a clockwise fashion out of respect.  At Borobudur, you do not have much of a choice as guards and signs point you in that direction throughout.  Make sure you spend some time here looking at the friezes and other statuary.  While the 72 stupas and the view are perhaps Borobudur’s most obvious asset, these bas-reliefs are entirely entertaining, and so beautifully carved.

After our somewhat hurried trek up the nine levels and out the back, we eventually made it to the inevitable tourist market.  While vendors are not allowed inside the Borobudur park proper, they have been given more than enough space to set up shop outside.  This was really our first real experience with haggling in Indonesia and we came back with results both good and bad.  Remember to always shop around.  DO NOT buy from the first person you see.  Having another few sets of prices and quality to compare from will help you in getting the best deal on that groovy set of coconut-wood serving utensils!

We arranged our half-day tour somewhat last minute through Sosro Tour & Travel, a small outfit conveniently located in the heart of Sosrowijayan’s “backpacker” district (see below).  The price was insanely cheap at about 200,000 IDR per person (roughly $22.50 USD).  This price included transport to and from Yogya, as well as the entrance fee to the temple (already $15 USD at the door).  Sosro also offers sunrise tours that are considerably more expensive as well as package tours with Prambanan that seem a bit more reasonable and include breakfast!

Ultimately, we recommend spending the whole day, if not a day or two, in the Borobudur area to really get a sense of its majesty.  Since the 45 km. drive from Yogyakarta takes about one and half hours on its own - even on the “express trip” - we missed so much.  It would have been nice to wander the streets of nearby towns and to check out the other temple structures that lay nearby the “big Magilla."  Set of Drifters video:  Check out our YouTube channel for video from this event!

Borobudur - located 40 km northwest of Yogyakarta, 7 km south of the town  of Magelang, Central Java, 011 (62) 274 496 402,

Sosro Tour & Travel - Sosrowijayan Wetan GT 1/62 (Gang PTPM), Yogyakarta 55271, 011 (62) 274-512054,

sunrise horseback ride to smoking rim of Mt. Bromo (Tengger Mountains)

We like to think of ourselves as morning people.  Up before 8:00 AM is the norm for us in Southern California, particularly when you own an always-hungry cat like we do!  But when traveling in Java, 8:00 AM simply won’t cut it.  If you are trying to catch the sunrise over a unique setting, or have a two-hour hike ahead of you to get to the edge of a crater lake, you’d better set your alarm for much earlier, say perhaps 3:30 AM!

“OMG!,” as we would later teach our 60 year-old guide Herman!

Normally, we would never dream of waking up at such an ungodly hour to go hiking up a mountain, but we assure you that the unbelievable setting of Mt. Bromo’s caldera at sunrise makes the experience well worth any excessive yawning you may later experience.  In fact, it just may invigorate you for the rest of the day!

Mt. Bromo is an impressive site that is situated in what is known as Tengger Massif, a giant hole in the middle of a series of mountain ranges that form the Bromo-Tengger-Semeru National Park.  What makes the view from Mt. Bromo so unique is that it encompasses a number of smaller peaks and volcanoes within the giant Tengger caldera.  Some of the volcanoes in the area are still active.  According to our guide Herman, nearby Mt. Semeru, one of Java’s most volatile cones, belches smoke each and every morning just after the sun rises beyond the horizon.  And we would be there to see it do just that, that is if we could manage to get out of bed in time!

We officially began our day at around 4:00 AM with a couple of quick jolts of “java” from the lobby of the Bromo Cottages (see “digs”).  Shortly thereafter, we jumped into a groovy 1970’s Toyota Landcruiser FJ-40 for an hour-long journey up some of the worst roads we have ever traveled.  (Set of Drifters tip:  Since our 4WD vehicle barely made the trip, we advise hiring someone with the proper means to get you up the rocky incline even if you’ve already made it this far.)  That early morning journey was an eye-opener for many reasons, yet the sight of local villagers walking alongside the twisting curves in complete darkness was perhaps the most startling.  Folks who live further out from the center of town must get up rather early to make certain they reach market in time to compete for the day’s sales.  And they’ll carry huge piles of veggies atop their head to do it!

We finally arrived to Mt. Bromo around 5:15 AM, exhausted and freezing!  (Yes, it is cold on the top of a 9,000 ft. mountain no matter what time of year it is.)   After bundling up a bit, we headed out to the central viewing point where at least 75 others waited in anticipation for the sun’s first wink, and what a wink it is.  That first burst of sunlight creates a picturesque view easily reminiscent of the far-off planet from your favorite sci-fi franchise!  With cameras clicking away, we sat for about 30 minutes watching the vibrant colors dip in and out of the clouds, and paint their impressive swaths over the multiple volcano cones within the massif.  And yes, shortly after the sun’s appearance, Herman’s foreshadowing of a puff of white smoke from the top of Semeru came to a billowing fruition!

On the way back down, we warmed ourselves up with a few cups of “java” and some rather nice conversation with Herman while warming our hands over a small pit of hot coals.  Herman had been wearing a pair of nifty red gloves which he then used to warm our ears and the back of our necks.  The unexpected heat treatment was just what the doctor ordered before heading out for part two of our Bromo journey.

Back in our Landcruiser, we headed down the interior slope of the Tengger crater to cross its so-called “Sea of Sand,” a 5,250 acre wide mass of ash that has transformed through the eons into a number of rolling hills which glisten in the sunlight.  After another five bumpedty-bump minutes, we finally reached an encampment where the multiple 4WD jeeps lined up in rows suggested many others were on the same journey.  (Set of Drifters tip:  If you would like to use the restroom this is the place to do it, though it will cost you 2,000 IDR, or about .25 cents USD.)  We had decided already that we would try a horseback ride to the top of Mt. Bromo’s smoking cone, though we were a bit surprised to see that the horses on offer were actually small Mustangs that didn’t seemed very well-trained.

To say the next part our journey to Mt. Bromo was comfortable would be a fallacy.  In fact, if you have never ridden a horse before, we would not advise this to be your first experience.  That being said, if you cannot pass up the chance, make sure you ask a guide to walk with you all the way up the slippery ashen slope.  Set of Drifter Doug’s horse really had a mind of his own and, without notice, would take off into territories uncharted by other equines!  Thanks to his antics, Doug was more concerned with holding on for dear life rather than actually taking in the otherworldly natural beauty that spread out all around.

Once at the base of the crater before it went entirely vertical, we dismounted from our horses and completed the ascent via some very steep steps.  The hike was made entirely more difficult than it appeared thanks to the fact that the stone stairs were completely covered with the same black ash that continuously spews down from the crater.  After about 15 minutes of struggle, we finally made it to the apex.  It was time to rest.  Luckily, the incredible view into the smoking hole within the earth is so fascinating that visitors will undoubtedly be able to spend half an hour here, perched to the ledge while contemplating their place in the grander scheme of things.  (Set of Drifters tip:  Sure, we contemplated throwing each other into the crater as an offering to the gods.  Nevertheless, simple raffia flowers purveyed by vendors are a less-permanent solution.)
We returned to the encampment via the same horseys we had ridden up on.  Then, it was back to the 4WD for our drive to Bromo Cottages.  (We spent the next hour or so chatting with Herman about ‘60s pop music in Indonesia.)  Ultimately, the trip to Mt. Bromo was a mind-bending experience, yet one that could really only be appreciated for its eccentricity when we had already returned to our daily routines back home.

To enter the region’s best views, the Bromo-Tengger-Semeru National Park charges 25,000 IDR per person (about $3 USD). You can pay the entrance fee at one of two “PHKA posts” situated in the nearby towns of Wonokitri or Cemoro Lawang (depending on your approach).  Hours are usually 8:00 AM until 3:00 PM Tuesday through Sunday, though there is usually someone at the gate very early in the morning to grab those looking to capture the inimitable sunrise!

Bromo-Tengger-Semeru National Park - about 50 km. from Probolinggo via      Ngadisari or 34 km. from Pasuruan via Tosari; Jalan Raden Intan No 6, Malang    (office), East Java, 011 (62) 341-491828

The Kraton/ Palace of the Sultan (Yogyakarta)

Ironically, your Set of Drifters ended up in Yogyakarta only a day or so after the “Wedding of the Year,” a celebration that was marked with hordes of flower-covered signs and a parade that traveled down the center of town.  According to newspaper articles we read, the ceremony’s pomp and circumstance apparently rivaled even that of William and Kate’s Royal Wedding earlier in the year!  (We did not get an invite to that one either, thank you very much!)

The wedding ceremony was held for the daughter of Yogyakarta’s current Sultan, Hamengku Buwono X, the most recent in a long line of “rulers” that have watched over Indonesia’s only “separate” political entity.  Surprisingly, and unlike some countries’ royal groups, Yogya’s Sultan dynasty is very well respected throughout Indonesia and is seen as a unifying force for the many different ethnic groups found throughout the nation.

Of course, Yogya’s Sultan lives in his own palace.  Constructed in 1757 by Prince Mangkubumi, the Kraton’s location was fixed at the convergence of two rivers as it was believed to be the best spot in Yogya to avoid future flooding.  That initial decision seems to have been a good one, since hundreds of years later, the vast compound is still standing and looks no worse for the wear.

We decided to visit the palace on our first full day in town.  Luckily, it was still dressed in wedding finery from the princess’s nuptials earlier that week.  We paid our admission and were soon greeted by a female guide who took us around the compound and explained the history behind each of the buildings.  Set of Drifters tip:  Because Yogya is ruled by a Sultan, but also still part of Indonesia’s political schematic, both groups offer a different entrance to the Kraton.  (Hey, everyone’s gotta make a rupiah somehow.)  Make sure you bypass the entrance on the north side of the Kraton, most easily accessible off of Jalan Malioboro, and instead head around to the west side of the palace.  A small road with a clock tower is your signpost for the “real” entrance, and the one that will grant you most access to the sights inside the palace.

Since we had properly timed our visit around 10:45 AM, we were able to catch one of the gamelan and dance performances that occur on certain days of the week.  With a fair amount of seating at the edge of a well-polished performance pavilion, it’s a casual cultural display that tourists may indulge in, or not, depending on their time constraints.  The day we visited a sole male performer dazzled the crowd with austerity while a gamelan orchestra, comprised almost entirely of elderly women, played behind him.  While they were probably filling a very special role at a very special place, we hope someone is carrying this tradition down to younger generations!

Our guide then took us around to several buildings within the palace, most of which contained artifacts and photos of Yogya’s Sultan throughout the years.  Interestingly, the Kraton is considered to be a Javanese “cultural living museum” in that it is still a residence in which the Royal family resides.  We were quietly impressed that they are able to continue this tradition and not worry too much about security.

Sadly, we soon found ourselves running out of time.  I suppose we had been stopped too many times by local tourists who requested to take photos with us “bule.”  While our guide tried her hardest to relinquish as much of the Sultan’s history as she could, we still had a lot on our agenda for the day and had to move on.  Ultimately, we would recommend at least two hours or more to get the full experience of the Kraton, and look forward to returning once again someday to see more of their cultural offerings.

The main doors to the Kraton are open daily from 9:00 AM until only 1:30 PM.  (Give the Royal family some slack. They live here after all!)  Admission costs are 12,500 IDR (about $1.40) per person, plus an additional 1,000 IDR (about 15 cents USD) to take photos.  (Keep in mind that the most dramatic interior exhibit, the Royal batik prints, is off limits to shutterbugs.)  You do not necessarily need a guide since much of the pavilions do have signage in English, though you will probably be provided one in the cost of admission anyway.  (They will expect a tip afterward, but when you consider how cheap this attraction is, it is well worth it.)  Set of Drifters tip:  To make the most out of your visit to the Kraton, make sure you time your trip around 10:00 AM until 12:00 NOON.  This is when daily performances are held in the Kraton’s main pavilion.  Expect either gamelan music, traditional dance or wayang shadow puppetry.  Get out those cameras!  Set of Drifters video:  Check out our YouTube channel for video from this event! 

The Kraton - Jalan Rotowijayan 1, Yogyakarta  55133, 011 (62) 274-373721

Kaweh Ijen sulphur lake (East Java)

There are few times in our lives when we have been so stupefied by a place that we have to stop and wonder...  “Are we here?”  We certainly felt that while trekking up and over the inverted troglodyte domiciles of Matmata, Tunisia.  And then there was that time in Foz do Iguaçu when we headed out in a small boat destined for the Garganta del Diablo U-shaped waterfall that marks the border between Argentina and Brazil.  Our journey to the top of East Java’s Kaweh Ijen ended up being another of these truly “out of this world” experiences.

Of course, we had read about it advance.  Kaweh Ijen is a notorious crater lake that sits in the giant 1 km. wide cauldron of a centuries-old volcano.  For some geological reasons we know nothing about, the bright turquoise water in the lake mixes with natural acids to produce an almost unlimited supply of sulphur deposits.  The smelly yellow solid just happens to be a hugely viable element used in the biochemical production of a vast array of products including, yes, “stink bombs.”  Surprisingly though, bits of the noxious stuff can also be found in everyday items like insecticides, cosmetics and bleaching agents.

As you might expect, before chemists can pulverize the stuff small enough to be fashioned into your mother’s blush, sulphur must be mined, and it is from places like Kaweh Ijen where this is made entirely possible, if not with a little difficulty.

Awaking early in the morning from the Ijen Resort, our drive to the base camp at Jampit was almost half the battle... almost.  The curving, topsy-turvy road from Licin is filled with so many potholes that a mile long stretch may have taken us 20 minutes alone!  If you have bladder problems, or are prone to motion sickness, this trek is going to be a tough one.  (See “essentials” for more on driving through East Java.)

Once in Jampit, a small base-cap community that offers simple cabin lodging and little else, we rested for a few minutes with our guide Herman, chomping down on some breakfast snacks and attempting to mainline as much coffee as possible.  It was only about 6:30 AM, and though we would not be wrestling with time in order to see any sunrise, we did have an appointment later that afternoon with Banyuwangi’s Ketapang Harbor to cross over to Bali.  Since the trek up to the top of Ijen takes about an hour and 45 minutes (one way), that meant we needed to get hustling pretty quick.

It was not long before we started spotting local villagers pass by the cafe at the termination of their 3 km. trek down the mountain.  In pursuit of some considerably hard-earned cash, Ijen miners, all male, hoist a duo of simple baskets over their shoulders, each filled with jagged heaps of impossibly yellow sulphur that we were told later can weigh up to 80 kg. (175 lbs.) when added together!  Yikes.  To say this is back-breaking work would be an understatement.  And yet, it’s a job that over 300 locals perform on a daily basis - sometimes twice or three times a day - to support their families.

We began the trek rather boldly, our 60 year-old guide many paces behind.  It was not long however (perhaps only several hundred meters) that we realized this was no picnic in the park.  The ascension of Ijen is steep and made slippery via a hard layer of dirt that is packed continuously by miners who walk up and down its slopes.  We had to stop more than a few times to catch our own breath.  Luckily, the path is dotted with tree stumps and other natural benches at rather frequent intervals so that the miners can rest their shoulders and backs before moving on.

One young local gentleman started to follow us with a soundtrack of Hindu music from his small radio.  In his other hand he held a plastic bag full of small trinkets fashioned out of sulphur that he hoped to sell to the 100 or so other tourists making the trip up to Ijen that morning - for sport.  When we stopped at one point, he joined us, making an offer to guide us the rest of the way.  We decided to call him “Joven.”

Though he may have been a sulphur miner on some occasion, this morning, he was simply a bother.  We already had a guide in Herman.  Unfortunately, Mr. Jaya was so far behind that our new friend suggested he pick up the slack.  Sensing perhaps that we were gay, he even took off his shirt to further entice us with his taut muscles!  No such luck.

Herman eventually showed up and he and “Joven” discussed the transaction.  Herman told him that perhaps he would have relinquished the journey if the guy had started from the bottom of the mountain.  Now that we were more than ⅓ of the way up, Herman would finish the trek with us.  We are sure glad that he did.  As we continued to ascend further and further up into the pines, Herman seemed to get loopier and loopier, dancing around with his walking stick and posing in ninja-like parry stances more suited for a 20 year-old!

Eventually we reached the apex of Ijen.  It is an incredible spot indeed.  From one side of the crater lip exists a view off into a valley that is so velvety green, it literally had us singing “the hills are alive with the sulphur of Ijen!”

But of course, the real reason for visiting this insane spot is the view off to the other side, an impossibly rugged terrain that ripples, cracks and crunches before it drops off into a vast sink of electrifying turquoise acid water.

Now it must be said, in order to truly experience the power of this otherworldly visual landscape, visitors will need to exhibit some patience.  In fact, we had to wait for well over an hour before the sulphuric smoke would clear wide enough for us to really see the lake!  If you are bold enough to do the same, bring something to cover your mouth and nose.  You’ll see the miners doing the same with simple scarves as they descend from the rim of the crater with empty baskets that need filling from the interior edges of the crater lake itself!  The smoke that spews from Ijen is entirely toxic, and prolonged exposure to the fumes can do permanent damage to your lungs.  It’s a mystery that so many of the miners asked for cigarettes as a token for having their picture taken.  You would think they had done enough damage to their bodies already.  And yet, so many of them looked like they were in fantastic physical shape!

Later, Herman told us that locals often choose this vocation for life.  We met up with one of the oldest miners on the mountain at the weigh station.  Now in his sixties, the man spends 14 days in a row on the mountain and then takes two weeks off before returning for another cycle!  Even looking back on it now, I am still amazed at the levels of commitment and sacrifice these men make in order to “bring home the bacon” for their families.  (Please forgive our porcine analogy; Java is a mostly-Muslim island.)

Ijen really is a magic place to ponder life’s great mysteries.  As you watch these brave men chance death daily, we guarantee that you’ll realize life back home ain’t all that bad!  In fact, as we made our descent back down to the base camp (not any easier than the way up I’m afraid), we both had to fight back unexpected, and uncomfortable, feelings of guilt.  After you have endured the same harrowing conditions that the miners must push through in order to get a paycheck, you may just want to try and assist them in their efforts... not that you or I would be much help!

While our trek to Ijen was included in our tour price through Exotissimo, you may pay your own admission at the PHKA post in Jampit.  The fee is 15,000 IDR (about $1.75 USD).  We're not sure where this money goes since we could not determine if the tourist aspect of Ijen was was part of a national park or not.

Set of Drifters tip:  The base in Jampit offers hot food, refreshments, coffee and restrooms (albeit, rudimentary ones).  Before heading up the mountain, we recommend selecting a walking stick from the base camp. (If you forget, have no fear, there are plenty of twigs and branches along the way.)  Keep in mind that a second, smaller camp sits about an hour and a half up the mountain.  From this location you may also order coffee, or take in some sustenance of the “cup o’ noodles” variety.  This is actually a fun place to rest since it is where the miners must stop to weigh their hauls before descending back down to Jampit to collect their money.

Kaweh Ijen crater - steep 3 km. hike from the village of Jampit, about 25 km. from        the towns of either Bondowoso or Banyuwangi, East Java

Sosrowijayan “kempung” and its lascivious “gangs” (Yogyakarta)

Chances are you have heard about Gangs of New York, the graphic Martin Scorsese flick starring Leo De Caprio as Amsterdam Vallon and Daniel Day-Lewis as Bill 'The Butcher' Cutting.  No?  Well, how about those notorious “Bloods” and “Crips” of South Central LA?  Still doesn’t ring a bell?  Well, surely you are familiar with the fact that the term “gang” usually denotes a negative connotation.  But in the “Set of Drifters World,” we are actually quite thrilled by them, or at least their homonymous cousins in Indonesia.  You see, a “gang” in Bahasa Indonesian, is simply an “alley,” and it is here where you will usually find the true “pulse” of any Indonesian town or village, including, perhaps, even some gangs!

We first checked out “gangs” in the “kempung” (neighborhood) of Sosrowijayan in Yogyakarta.  This is backpacker’s territory, and much of what goes on here caters to tourists who are staying in Java on the cheap, perhaps on longer journeys to Borobudur and beyond.  The narrow walk streets of Sosrowijayan sandwich various businesses in between homes and other intriguing quarters.  Come-and-go trekkers spend their nights in homestay “losmens” which offer incredibly cheap accommodations, albeit at the expense of comfort and, at times, even running water.  To say that “Sosro” is a bit down’n’dirty would be an understatement, particularly when considering that Yogyakarta, as a whole, is a bit rougher than one might expect.

“Gang III” was the seediest of the alleyways we happened upon.  It wasn’t long before we figured out that this was Yogya’s “red light district.”  (How is it that we always find these places so quickly?  We must have the “Seventh Sense” for sniffing out vice.)  Complete with loud blaring music, incense smoke and multiple open doors with ladies hanging out from them, this place was truly wild.  And yet, we could not show that we were the slightest bit bluenose.  We had to soldier through the gang to prove that we are cool!  Eventually, the serpentine path ended at a locked fence that separated it from the other gangs (!), which meant that we had to travel back from whence we came after all!  Ahhhh, the sordid memories.

Two streets down, Gang I is much more peaceful, and the place you want to visit in Sosrowijayan if you’d rather not be propositioned by women (who may not be women at all).  Gang I offers a few cool restaurants and bars, Internet cafes and some of the nicer, more “hip” bed-and-breakfast losmens in the area.  We actually met some Dutch people on our tour to Borobudur who were staying on Gang I for $8 USD a night!  While apparently bugs were a huge problem where they were staying, it sounded as though they would be staying there for some time.  Rest assured, if you have the vacation time and you want to hang out in Yogyakarta long term, it can be done affordably amongst the “Gangs of Sosrowijayan.”  (See “digs” and “Bladok Losmen” in our “eats” section for more information.)

Set of Drifters video:  Check out our YouTube channel for video from this event!

Sosrowijayan “kempung” - Jalan Sosrowijayan, off to the west on Jalan Malioboro about 1.5 km. north of the Kraton, Yogyakarta

visiting the villages of East Java

One of the wonderful things we found while traveling throughout Indonesia was the fact that everybody we encountered was so nice and friendly.  And aside from a few annoying buskers in Sanur (on Bali), it seemed that no one was extending that friendliness just to get some extra rupiah out of us.

This truly genuine attitude was found virtually everywhere we went, from the smallest of villages to the largest of cities, though as “bule” (white skinned foreigners), the vibe was no better expressed than by Java’s precocious children.  (See our report on Sulawesi for more information on “the bule game.”)  No matter what village we would visit, these little snake charmers would pop out from their homes, so excited to see us and share with us their smiles.

Luckily we had learned from previous travels, and had brought with us some presents for the kids.  While “Disneyland” trinkets served us well on a previous trip to Thailand, this time we brought along some old postage stamps from the United States and other foreign countries.  They served as both fun “stickers” for the younger kids as well as educational vehicles for the older ones.  In the small village just outside of Ijen Resort (Randuagung may have been the name?), a literal swarming of children materialized almost immediately after Set of Drifter Brady started handing out the dog and cat-themed stamps.

Luckily, a local mother was familiar with just such a commotion and asked Brady to hand out only two stamps to each child to make certain that no child had more than another, or that any unwanted ruckus may ensue.  The kids all understood the program immediately and were quite grateful to have something so neat from overseas to trade with their friends.

During our time in Java, we also had an opportunity to go inside one family’s home while visiting a village near Kalibaru (see below).  The matriarch offered us snacks and something to drink and it seemed the entire family was generally happy to have us enjoy their hut.  While many might have found their dirt flooring a bit primitive, ultimately the home featured a full kitchen, multiple bedrooms and even a large television set!  Outside, thatched pens held a number of chickens, cows and other livestock.

A beaming smile from the family’s elderly grandfather seemed entirely too extreme as he showed off us his pet bird.  Now that we look back on it in context of where we were, his expression made perfect sense.  At one point, our guide Herman told us that all East Javanese farmers are judged by others on the basis of whether or not he possesses five attributes:  a “wanito” (wife), a “wismo” (house, or better yet, a mansion), a “turonggo” (horse), a “curigo” (“kris,” or sacred dagger) and a “kukilo” (a perkutut bird similar to a dove).  No doubt that the older gentleman in Kalibaru was simply proud of the precious bird that proved he was a “real Javanese farmer.”  It was one of those rare moments of a trip that can only be captured by leaving the destination’s “tourist hell” far behind.

If visiting Java, particularly its eastern regions, make sure you seek out at least a half day visit through some of its villages.  We promise it will deliver you more education about the region than any guide book ever could.

Randuagung - about 25 minutes west of Banyuwangi

villages - about 25 km. east of Jember, East Java (contact us for more detailed directions)

Taman Sari “water palace” (Yogyakarta)

Only a couple of blocks from the Kraton, the picturesque “water castle” of Taman Sari is a natural side step for anyone visiting the palace.  The complex was constructed in the late 18th century as a recreational getaway for the Sultan and his family.  (We suppose they shouldn’t have opened their personal residence to tourists after all!)  Taman Sari consists of a small bathing pool that attached to a larger swimming pool by a series of canals.  All are fashioned in a grand style, replete with sculptural adornment and symbolism that more closely resembles Greek mythology than anything Javanese we had previously seen.

Lara Croft would have had a field day here at the Taman Sari.  While a series of underground tunnels would have taken the Royal family and guests to and from the palace, the special Kenanga “resting place” was only accessible when the canals were open and water was allowed to flow freely up to the secret chamber.  Sacred prayer rooms also abound at the water castle, but we were unable to find them while rushing through Yogya in order to see as much as possible in our rather limited time frame.

Oddly, Taman Sari reminded us of a smaller, more modern version of a temple you might find in the ancient Cambodian of Angkor.  Luckily for us, this spot was only a short becak ride away from the center of a city.  If you are looking for a picturesque temple, but can’t be bothered to venture as far as Borobudur (see above), then this just may be the ticket for you.  The relaxing vibe was certainly inviting, so much so that we desperately wanted to jump into the pool!  (It was no doubt the hottest day of the trip!)  Set of Drifters video:  Check out our YouTube channel for video from this event!

Taman Sari is open daily from 9:00 AM until only 3:00 PM.  Admission is 7,000 IDR (about $ USD) plus another nominal fee to take photos.

Set of Drifters tip:  Make sure you walk out back to the “artist’s center” where you are sure to find local craftspeople transforming ordinary scraps of leather into some rather impressive wayang shadow puppets.  And yes, they are for sale if you so desire!  (See “goodies” for more information.)

Taman Sari - Jalan Taman, Kraton, Yogyakarta  55133

the Tenggerese of East Java (Tosari)

Perhaps the best surprise of our trip through East Java was the opportunity to interact with the local peoples of the Tengger Mountains.  After the treacherous route from Pasuruan delivered us high up into complete cloud cover (see “essentials” for more on driving in Java), the serpentine road eventually leveled us out into the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it community of Tosari.  While we only rested here for an overnighter on the way to Mt. Bromo, the small community’s indelible impression would prove long-lasting, thanks in part to a unique motor-cross practice event that unfolded in front of us as we reached the village border.

Tosari and the other 30 or so villages hidden within the valleys of the Tengger peaks are home to one of the last remaining Hindu communities in all of Java.  The difference in atmosphere from all other locales we had previously visited was immediate.  In these highlands, shrines replaced the many Christian churches of North Sulawesi and the ever-present Muslim mosques of Central Java.  Wrapped in golden fabric and replete with food or flower offerings for the gods, the Hindu shrines marked entrance to hundreds of hillside homes painted in the same bright contrasting colors you would expect to find in sari shop window displays.  After a quick survey of the crowd that gathered to watch the motor-cross cyclists, we soon noted that the villagers of Tosari looked quite different as well.  Their darker, angular features bundled up in colorful patterned ponchos, hats and scarves seemed more “Andes Mountains” than Tenggerese.

It is said that the Hindus of this region are descendents of original Majapahit princes, and thus, share many of the same practices found on the neighboring island of Bali.  These communities believe wholeheartedly in Animism, a religious concept that did not necessarily blend well with devoutly Muslim farmers who arrived in the 19th century as laborers for Dutch coffee plantations.  While some of the Hindu communities undoubtedly assimilated into the religion of their new neighbors, others headed into the somewhat inhospitable highlands where they remain today, relatively isolated from modern conveniences and world events.  As our wise guide Herman put it, “these folks do not care about Osama or Obama.  They just worry about how their next potato crop will get to market.”

According to population reports, there are some 600,000 Tenggerese living amongst these mountains.  It seemed to us that a good number of them were at the motor-cross event we witnessed as we rolled into town.  The assembled crowd even included a few waria pria, a local term used to describe those of the “third sex,” or rather men who live their lives as women.  We must admit that we were surprised to witness such blatant cross-dressing at such high altitudes - and in a community that seemed so far removed from the politics of the nearest large city.

Surprisingly, it was not until later, on a casual walk through town, that we would really experience Tosari’s true “pulse.”  Leaving our guide back at the hotel, we ventured out on foot, making the multiple-kilometer trek back to the nexus of town via some rather steep inclines.  Set of Drifters tip:  Watch where you walk. Many of the roads in this region are so narrow that they drop off into deep valleys - on BOTH sides of the muddy path!

While blanketed in a sunset that was intensely mauve, we shared smiles with local children and wandered through the various small markets that lined each side of the road.  At the end of the main part of town where it headed back down the mountain we spotted our first Hindu temple of the trip.  Sure, these brick constructions would abound on almost every corner in Bali, but situated high atop some rather alluring stone steps, that first sighting was rather magical, especially when accompanied by the rather evocative soundtrack that soon emerged.  In between calls to prayer from the local mosque we could hear the faint sounds of Hindu chanting and music emanating from the mountain ridge community just across the valley.  You can be assured that many photos and videos were snapped here, both from below the temple and from the impressive vantage point above Tosari.

Afterward, mighty hungry, we stumbled into the darkness in search of sustenance.  It was then that we experienced arguably the trip’s most personal encounter with Indonesian locals, and one that we recommend travelers seek out if at all possible.

Doug had been anxious to try “bakso” for days since spotting mobile vendors carting the soup snack throughout Yogyakarta.  (See “eats” for more details about bakso.)  Our guide Herman had corroborated that bakso was an Indonesian staple we would be foolish to miss out on, and though he ultimately wanted to be the overprotective parent who provided us with that first bowl, we decided to check it off our list as that evening’s dinner.

Having noted a few “bakso” warungs in town while passing through earlier in the day, we quickly revisited each of them, glancing at their intimate settings to determine which looked the most comfortable.  A haphazard stall covered in tarps proved to be the unexpected winner.  (We later verified that the makeshift warung was set up and taken down entirely by its purveyor on a daily basis!)  There were only a couple of people eating inside, and yet once we had located our own bench seats and ordered, the small street side restaurant suddenly became the hottest spot in town!

Of course, we knew that we had been garnering stares from locals as we strolled down the town’s main road, we just didn’t realize that their gaze had apparently followed us wherever we went.  Nevertheless, once our bowls of hot soup had been placed down on our table, the small cliff-side stall was jammed with people.  It was as if anyone and everyone who may have held any interest in seeing “bule” attempt bakso had arrived to take ringside seats - whether or not they were hungry enough for a bowl of their own.  (Bakso is meant to be an “in between meal snack,” and therefore is priced accordingly.  As Herman put it, local farmers only go out in search of bakso if they are unsatisfied with their wife’s cooking at home.  We did not get the joke until later that evening.)
While a local family warmed their hands over a pile of hot coals placed in the middle of the tent, another simply stared at us from the corner and smiled.  A trio of teens were the most bold.  The two girls and one boy sat down next to us on the bench and, after giggling and laughing for some time, began engaging us in surprisingly flirtatious conversation.  One of the girls, who clearly “had eyes” for Set of Drifter Brady, actually revealed through broken English that it was the teenage boy who though he was “handsome.”  The teen in question poured a heaping dose of hot sauce into his bowl.  Was it simply an attempt to appear more valiant in front of the “strange Westerners” who were already sweating with only a few drops of the condiment?  Either way, his broth had turned from clear to red in a matter of seconds!

A cat appeared out of nowhere and was more than ready to accept our loving attention from under the bench.  The locals did not seem to understand the concept of affording such beasts affection so proved our stance by showing pictures from home of our cat Grovey.  (Of course, these days, the easiest ice breaker in the entire world is to compare cell phones!)  Later, after we had finished our soups, the teenage boy asked us if we wanted hot tea.  We assumed that meant he was offering us the two cups he had just ordered.  When it became obvious that was not the case, we all had a nice laugh and he subsequently ordered us another round.  We headed back to the Bromo Cottages shortly thereafter.  The distant sound of chanting hung thick in the air. 

Though we cannot remember any of their names at this point, the Tenggerese folks we interacted with that day and night in Tosari afforded us some of the most cherished memories of our trip to Indonesia.  This is a magic place indeed, and one that we suspect could reveal itself to even the most jaded of world travelers.  Set of Drifters video:  Check out our YouTube channel for video from this event!

Tosari - on the main northern highway from Pasuruan through the Tengger Mountains on the way to Mt. Bromo, East Java

rubber, cacao, coffee and rice plantations (Kalibaru)

Let’s face it, our East Java guide Herman was a bit like Yoda.  Not that we was hundreds of years old, short and green, or that he could wield a lightsaber with surprising agility (though he oddly did sound like Frank Oz when he raised his voice into a shout).  Quiet simply, Herman was wise.  If we had not had him on the trip with us, there certainly would have been many “pulses” throughout East Java that would have gone unnoticed.

Herman was mostly a “glass half-full” guy, the kind that would balance out the many thousands of deaths from cigarette smoking each year with the fact that tobacco farming employs so many Javanese in the region.  Similarly, when we asked Herman how the people of Indonesia really feel about the country’s history in reference to Dutch Colonialism, he stated that without them, Indonesia would not have been able to emerge as a prominent international player in many of the commodities it now exports.  For example, without the Colonists’ intervention, there would have been no locomotive train to connect Jakarta with East Java - and beyond to Bali.  Glass half-full indeed!

Nowhere was this cultural, and industrial, exchange more obvious than when we went on a multi-plantation tour of Kalibaru’s countryside.  It was the portion of our Exotissimo tour that we presumed would be the least exciting.  It turned out to be one of the most interesting.

For this particular sunny morning, Herman gave the “tour guide” reigns over to a young local named Heru.  (While Heru also worked at the Kalibaru Cottages at night, he takes groups on tours of his village and its surrounding farmland to supplement his income.)

Our first stop was at a rubber factory.  Here, Heru walked us through a rubber tree forest that was only a handful of years old.  Stopping off at a particularly slender trunk, Heru made a small incision to reveal the white sap that is eventually used to create laytex.  We watched the mind-bending steps unfurl at a small processing plant adjacent to the crop.  Sadly, we do not remember how exactly the sap transforms into rubber airplane wheels you might see on your next trip to a tarmac.  Our concentration was immediately diverted to an intensely attractive local man who plunged his sinewy frame into a shallow bath of milky white water.  Apparently, he was busy extracting heavy heaps of processed blubber from the bath so that they could eventually be dried and stretched into sheets of laytex .  (We think the guy caught on to our stares, for he soon took a break, sitting down with his shirt off to have a smoke!   Wait for the video on this one kids!)  Nevertheless, we left the rubber plant wondering...  “How the heck did the local villagers come up with this concept - from tree to tire?”  Herman advised us that it was the Dutch who taught the Javanese how to cultivate the product for export!  A-HA!

Next up, Heru took us to a cacao field.  Who knew that cacao, the plant used to make chocolate, is comprised of a series of green and red pods that, when opened, reveal chestnut-like seeds encased in a sweet, off-white creamy goop?  We chomped on a few of the seeds and chewed through the tasty pulp, wondering why this stuff isn’t more readily available in its natural form.  Heru then surprised us by using his machete to hit a large mass attached to one of the cacao bushes.  Once he had struck the bough, wrapped in newspaper and rubberbands, thousands of ants scattered from within after only a few seconds.  The newspaper trick is used somewhat like an electric bug zapper - to lure pesky ants away from the rest of the crop to one location where they can be massacred all at once!  How pleasant.

While we didn’t necessarily tour any coffee plantations per se, the cash crop’s beans were the star attraction of the next stop on our Kalibaru tour.  To experience them first hand, Heru took us through his own village to his personal home.  Along the way we handed out candies to the precocious kids who were full of smiles and a few “bule” barbs.  Spending time in Heru’s village and meeting his family (including his adorable two-year old girl) was the highlight of the morning.  We were soon schooled on the various types of coffee beans produced in the region, including the infamous “kopi luak” (see “sips” for more information), and were then were offered a chance to try each of them partnered with a steaming plate of fresh pisang goreng (fried bananas).  Delicious.

After rubber, cacao and coffee, the only thing we had not really (re)discovered was rice.  For that, Heru and Herman took us to another village that was situated just next to the Kalibaru Cottages where we were staying (see “digs”).  This was another magical moment of the tour, passing through verdant fields undergoing “slash-and-burn” techniques (to ensure maximization of land usage) directly into a small community where cars and motorcycles would certainly be out of place.  We were eventually invited into the modest home of one family.  The experience was somewhat uncomfortable as we had nothing to give them in return of their tea and snack offering.  (We had left our “international postage stamp” gifts back in our luggage at the hotel.)  The intimate minutes we spent sitting on the dirt floor of the family’s home were intense for both sides of the interaction, yet one that won’t soon be forgotten.

We suspect most hotels in town will be able to arrange tours through village plantations for you, though we highly recommend seeking out Heru at the Kalibaru Cottages.  If you do so, please tell him that Set of Drifters Doug and Brady say selamat pagi!

Set of Drifters video:  Check out our YouTube channel for video from this event!

Kalibaru villages - about 25 km. east of Jember, East Java (contact us for more detailed directions)