getting around Yogya

If you have come to Yogyakarta for reasons other than just to visit Borobudur or Prambanan, chances are you are staying somewhere near the center of town and its main artery of Jalan Malioboro.  And even though many of the city’s cultural attractions are within walking distance, there will be times when you are tempted to lessen the intensity of the sun’s prowess by hitching a ride.  Sure, air-conditioned taxi cabs are available - you probably grabbed one on your way in from the airport - yet in Yogya, it seems that becak drivers have cornered the transportation market.

A becak is basically a bicycle, or in some cases a motorbike, that is controlled by a driver who pedals in back of the carriage that supports its passengers somewhat like a modern-day rickshaw, yet in reverse.  Your “Set of Drifters” attempted a becak ride only once during our time in Yogya, and believe us, once was enough.  The resulting ride was so bumpy and uncomfortable that we had trouble retaining balance afterward.  And let’s not even talk about the ridiculous sun-burn that our knees endured after only 20 minutes exposure to the sun!

Looking back on it now, I cannot believe we haggled with our elderly driver to bring the price down from 20,000 IDR to only 12,000.  The sum of money that that poor old guy received for cycling us beasts well over two miles in the blazing heat, and up a ever-increasing incline, was only $1.32!  No wonder so many of the becak drivers seem to spend their time lazing away the hours under the shade of their carriage.  They are probably so tired from exhausting their muscles after only one trip across town.

May we suggest simply walking instead, perhaps with a parasol?  How else are you going to really enjoy all of the incredible street graffiti that seems so out of place in Yogya at first glance?  After touring the town for only two days, it soon became apparent that there are a number of repeat offenders.  We figure you too will be snapping away at some of the more prolific taggers’ work.  Their graffiti is bold, colorful and certainly attached to political strife of some kind.  Set of Drifters tip:  Be on the lookout for scribblings of “Bonex Sux” or “Boneks were here.”  According to our guide Herman, “Boneks” are a passionate group of youth soccer fans from Surabaya who terrorize crowds at games throughout Indonesia with their antics, no matter if their favored team wins or loses!  If you aware of "Bonkes," then you're definitely "in the know."

If you have rented a car in Yogya, please heed this warning:  driving in Indonesia is difficult no matter where you are, but in town is made much worse by the dense proliferation of motorcycles, many of which transport entire families in one sitting!  You may think you have reached a stoplight at a giant roundabout with knowledge of exactly where you are going - only to be swayed in another direction by the horde of cyclists who have suddenly encircled your vehicle.  To put it bluntly, good luck!

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

using a (good) guide = elimination of stress

A little known secret about our adventures is that each cross-continent journey usually begins at least six months prior with a rigorous dose of research, investigation and, yes, price comparisons.  A loose itinerary may contain double the amount of attractions or cities that we will ever be able to visit in our allotted time-frame, and yet by the time we head out the door, we usually have a decent idea of what we will be doing each day of the trip.

In preparation for our expedition to Indonesia we had a similar list of “attractions” that we definitely wanted to check out on each island.  Unfortunately, not all of these were close to one another, and that meant that transportation to and from each locale had to be carefully planned.  According to various reports we had been reading on line, “winging it” did not seem like such a good option, particularly in areas of Indonesia where a typical rainstorm might bog down a country road for hours - or even days!

To combat the large, and reportedly difficult, journeys between Yogyakarta, Mt. Bromo and Kaweh Ijen (see "sights"), we decided to hire a tour operator to plan it all out for us and (as it turned out), more importantly, to deliver us from point A to B.

Choosing Exotissimo was both a blessing and a curse.  While they clearly have cornered the market at pairing up the best resorts and hotels to match any attraction’s exotic locale, their pricing was quite steep and we found communication from the home office to the field was not so succinct.  That being said, we ended up having a fantastic time with our tour guide, Mr. Herman Jaya.

We started out from our hotel in Yogyakarta on an early Friday morning.  While waiting for our train to Jombang, Herman asked us if it would be possible for us to converse in Spanish instead of English.  He told us that he thought we were going to be Europeans from Spain!  Though we cannot be sure if he was joking or not, together we used a funky assemblage of Spanglish to communicate throughout the duration of the trip, a device he advised would be both practical - and educational - at the same time.

After a four hour train ride through the countryside we ended up in a moderately large town called Jombang by mid-day.  It is here where we met our driver Kiman and packed into our very clean and comfortable mini-van.  A tour of smaller East Javanese towns followed.  Along the way, Herman regaled us with countless stories of daily life in Java, though thankfully, he was quite adept at walking that fine line between being pleasantly informative and talking too much.  He made a point of saying early on that he “didn’t get paid” unless he talked.  Of course he was joking, but we made a point of setting our boundaries early on in the trip since we would be traveling with him day and night for the next four days!

Overall, we very much appreciated his wicked, yet understated, sense of humor that seemed to peel further away in layers the longer we knew him.

After stopping only briefly to eat lunch that first day, we couldn’t help but notice that the entirety of the roads we had come across were perfectly paved and completely accessible.  In a way, I couldn’t help but feel a bit suckered.  Why did we spend all this money for a personal guide and driver if we could have handled it ourselves?  We certainly had been through more treacherous conditions in the mountains of Tunisia

Little did we know, things were about to change.  As we began ascending Pasuruan’s picturesque foothills decorated with teak forests, the drop-offs from the sides of the road grew steeper and steeper.  And after what seemed like only a matter of minutes, we found ourselves on lonely stretches of mountain road that featured such tight switchbacks, we felt as though our car might snap in two!  And then there were the other vehicles, mostly motorcycles, that swerved and passed by at speeds well above what was appropriate.  Add in some of the patchiest asphalt we’ve ever seen and you’ve got the makings of a veritable disaster!  In fact, once we ended up at an altitude so high we were above the clouds, we wondered if we hadn’t actually fell off the side of the mountain, died, and ended up in Heaven!  (Even looking back on it now, I am still amazed that our little mini-van made it all the way to Tosari!)

For the trips to Mt. Bromo and Ijen on the subsequent days, we luckily traded the mini-van for 4WD jeeps that escorted us up and over roads that were, if you can believe it, infinitely worse!  We can’t even imagine what they must be like in bad weather!  To make a long story short, hiring the guide and driver was ultimately essential to our enjoyment of this leg of the Indonesian trip, though we suspect if Herman hadn’t been such a cool guy, it may have been painful.

If you plan on venturing out to East Java’s impressive volcano sites, you may be able to tackle some of the drives on your own - but you won’t enjoy it.  Other legs of the journey will require that charter a driver anyway.  While we wholeheartedly recommend Exotissimo for their completeness, high quality of accommodations and knowledge of what the typical “Western” tourist may require, there are certainly other more affordable companies out there that can provide similar itineraries.  One of them, Sosro Tour & Travel (out of Yogyakarta), has the journey from Yogya to Bali packed into three days at a cost of only Rp 575,000.  While this does not cover national park entrance fees, the ferry ticket, tips nor the fabulous plantation tour in Kalibaru, it does pay for two nights’ accommodation and the requisite treks to Bromo and Ijen.  At only about $65 USD, the Sosro option is hundreds of dollars cheaper than prices we paid Exotissimo to ensure better comfort.  (Did we really need to be escorted on the ferry itself to meet our driver in Bali?)

Back to the roads for a moment.  We’re shocked, but after checking many search results for “the Top 10 Worst Roads in the World,” none of them included locations in Eastern Java!  Don’t let that fool you.  This is one of those times where you should “not try this at home,” errrr, on vacation.  Set of Drifters video:  Check out our YouTube channel for video from this event! 

Update:  Sadly, we learned in April of 2014 that our East Java guide Herman passed away.  We will forever remember him and our time together in Indonesia fondly.

Exotissimo Travel (Indonesian office; ask for Kathrin) - Jalan Bypass Ngurah Rai, No. 157, Sanur, Denpasar, Bali, 011 (62) 361-288821,

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

ferry ride from Banyuwangi to Gilimanuk

Banyuwangi, Banyuwangi, Banyuwangi.  We love that name.  It simply just rolls of the tongue.  More importantly, Banyuwangi is the town located at the eastern edge of Java where most people head out from the “mainland” to journey to the island of Bali.  (People apparently do this for work every day in much the same way those from Staten Island come to Manhattan.)  If you are driving by car, you can simply wheel it on up to the vessel at Ketapang Harbor, or if you are on foot or bicycle, you may also ride as a passenger like we did.  (Our ticket was included in the price of our tour with Exotissimo.)

For some odd reason, ferry rides always seem to promote a festive atmosphere - even on the most mundane of days.  This adventure was no exception. Even before we left dock we were treated to an unexpected surprise.  As the massive three-story beast was still loading passengers, a gaggle of young boys paid their fare, climbed all the way to the top of the boat and then proceeded to jump off into the cobalt blue waters below!  Assisted by a mask and flippers, the quasi-snorkelers egged people from the boat to throw them money into the water!  And you better believe the tourists followed suit!  The teens entertained young and old alike as they dived deep in the crystalline waters for fallen coins.  Sadly, as the ferry disembarked for Bali, we had to leave them behind.

The passage ahead of us was a rather breezy 45 minutes from Banyuwangi to Gilimanuk.  Even though the mass of water does not seem that far to cross, because of the strong currents, the ferry has to make a bit of a “U” path to reach the other side.  This trajectory certainly prolongs the expedition.  Ultimately we would have enjoyed the trip better if it was not for the annoying barker who remained on his mic for over 20 minutes in attempts to sell passengers the cheapest of toys and rankest of clothing!  Proving that sometimes subtlety is the better approach, we were more impressed by the funky music and performance DVD’s and CD’s touted toward the back.  One DVD featured a group of skaters in monkey masks doing their thing to classic gamelan music.  Very cool.

After downing a couple of delicious pastries, we were already at the Gilimanuk dock.  We passed over to threshold, said our dear goodbyes to the fabulous Herman Jaya and headed out of the parking lot to our next adventure in Bali.  (To be continued...)

Ferries run back and forth between Gilimanuk in Bali to Ketapang every 30 minutes or so, and are operated 24 hours a day!  The journey takes about 45 minutes, although loading and unloading can take much longer.  The cost of passage is 7,000 IDR for foot passengers (about 75 cents USD) and 95,000 IDR for cars (about $10.75 USD).

ASDP Ferry Terminal - Jalan Gatot Subroto, Ketapang Harbor, East Java, 011 (62) 333-413730