World traveler Clown Tom Bolton

Adventure stories & photos


Tom’s adventure travels to Indonesia

Jakarta, Pangadaran

I traveled to Indonesia in the beginning of 1989 arriving in Jakarta on a flight from Singapore. Jakarta had no atmosphere what so ever for me so I caught the first possible bus out of town and headed to the beach at Pangadaran in south central Java with a day’s stop to see the city of Bandung along the way. Pangadaran was not particularly beautiful but was interesting to see how many locals came in the late afternoon to fly kites or play soccer or just hangout.

Catching bats

There were many large fruit bats here and the locals would catch them in a manner I’ve never seen elsewhere. They would fly a kite with large fishhooks attached with fruits used as bait. The bats would try to eat the fruit, which just happened to be flying by. A jerk on the string would help to fasten the hook and they would be reeled in, just like catching fish but in the air. I was told that bat hearts are good against asthma. Looked disgusting to me. I don’t eat meat so I’m biased but I can understand peoples enjoyment of other meat but eating bat hearts sounded down right ghoulish.

Pangadaran Beach monkeys

On the far end of this beach were some trees for shade that were full of large monkeys. I had been warned that they tend to grab peoples things, even the sunglasses off one’s face. Despite my caution, one monkey managed to run up and grab my daypack, which had all of my valuables. Luckily, I managed to fight him off with a big stick and get my pack before he got up into the trees and without getting bitten by this aggressive beast. So don’t under estimate monkeys, which are often temperamental and pound for pound a lot stronger than humans.

Around Yogyakarta, central Java

After some days at the beach I caught a bus to Yogyakarta, which is not as big and hectic as Jakarta but its main use was as a base and transit hub to visit other attractions around. Not far to the northwest lays Borobudur that is one of the largest Buddhist complexes in the world. When I see pictures now, I regret not going there as well and don’t remember the actual reason. I wasn’t in a hurry but that is the dilemma of traveling to choose what to see. One needs to be flexible and having missed a connection that would mean a day’s wait one decides to go another route.

Instead, I opted to go to the closer and cheaper Hindu site of Prambanan to the east, which dates back to mid-9th century. Java, like much of Indonesia was once mostly Hindu like in Bali, before the spread of Islam. Hence the Hindu temple ruins that still remain throughout central and eastern Java. I had just seen plenty of Buddhist ruins in Thailand so maybe I was giving the nod to the Hindus who obviously struggled back then to compete in the temple building business. The complex was nice so it wasn’t a mistake to visit. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, biggest Hindu Temple complex in Indonesia and one of the largest in Southeastern Asia.

Central Java Temples Dieng Plateau

This is another historical site in the Central Java region of Dieng Plateau called Gatutkaca Temple. It’s close to the extensive Arjuna Hindu temple compIex. I remember that it was some work to get there and was not so spectacular as most of the temple were rather small. Seems the whole area is full of spread out temple complexes, most of which were abandoned at one time or another due to eruptions from Mount Merapi. The landscape in central Java was lush. Volcanic rich soil and plenty of rain makes it very green.

Gunung Merapi, Central Java volcano

This area has a lot of geothermal activity. I went on to climb (Mount) Gunung  Merapi (not to be confused with the volcano Marapi on Sumatra), which was smoking cinders at the top. And when one talks about Central Java; if you stick a pin right in the middle of the island, there it is. I had no food along and got a late start having had to take multiple buses to get to the starting point in the village of Selo shown below with Merapi in the background.  The climb was not difficult but long and the rain ran down my legs and kept filling up my boots. Stop, remove boots, pour out water, wring out socks, redress, walk a bit and repeat…

On the way down, I keep losing the trail because many parts had been wiped out by recent landslides. But I found my way to the village below directed by the sound of the prayers being called out from the mosque. By the time I got down to where the first farms were, I fell to my knees and ate about a kilo of carrots pulled fresh from the earth. A decade later Merapi exploded again as did the smoldering volcano I later visited outside of Rabaul in PNG. Beaches I visited in Indonesia, Thailand and Sri Lanka were destroyed by the Tsunami. So I guess avoiding such natural disaster is just a matter of timing determined by destiny. But Merapi has a history of destruction having buried the ruin of Borobudur under ash for a couple of centuries.

Genung Merapi summit & view of Genung Merbabu

The cone of Merapi was all volcanic cinders as was inside the core where steam was venting out but no visible lava when I was there. From the smoking summit one saw a view of Mount Merbabu to the north, the next in a chain of volcanoes that runs through the region.

Island of Bali, Indonesia

No surprise, Bali is a beautiful, fertile island. And while not everyone is rich, people sure aren’t starving. As I arrived in the main town of Denpasar on a boat from Java, a woman approached a group of us disembarking tourists, holding up her baby as proof that we should give her something, as if 2 billion other people on Earth don’t also have kids. Someone gave her a loaf of freshly baked brown bread, which she threw in the dirt, screaming that she wanted money.

Kuta Beach

Seemed everyone on Bali wanted to beg or cheat you or at least sell you something you had no interest in. To actually take a vacation, which westerners may take for granted, is a luxury many people on earth will never know. Yet in light of the extreme poverty I saw in places like India and Bangladesh, most people in Bali are living in paradise but seemed awfully jaded from tourism. First stop in Bali was the nearby beach of Kuta. Here I was hanging out on the porch of my bungalow there with a German girl from Munich I had recently met in Thailand.

Kuta Beach, drunken Australians, pesky vendors

The Indonesians didn’t seem overly conservative back in 1989 so I think it was especially shocking later when the Bali bombing happened. But Denpasar and especially Kuta beach were more than just hangouts for westerners. It was an over the top, wild place where particularly Australians came to drink excessively and party. There were hordes of pestering vendors on Kuta beach. I pretended to be asleep when they came but they would aggressively shake me to wake me up anyway. And the local belief is that one should never be roughly awakened or it could scare their soul away. I guess as westerners we just represented money without human value.

They would say, “sunglasses, sunglasses!” and I would say, hey, I’m wearing sunglasses, then it would be sarong, sarong! Well, I’m lying on a sarong. They would go through their list of what they wanted to sell and start all over again at the beginning. And even if I were thirsty for example, I wouldn’t buy a drink. If you actually bought something then all of the other sellers would come running and you would have a crowd yelling at you to buy their wares. It was like flies on shit and I hated it.

Balinese men play while the women work

Also, the women seemed to do all the work at Kuta Beach. The young guys would just hang out and try to offer you drugs and prostitutes or they would be in the discos hitting on the western women. And instead of sending them off, many western girls went with these creeps. I saw a local approach girls on the beach with the suave pickup line “hey, how about we go fuck”, he got turned down a few times but within 10 minutes he was walking with a blond haired girl with her arm wrapped around his waist.

Seemed the most liberated western women really fell for the most obnoxious Balinese machos. At the risk of sounding politically incorrect I have to voice my disappointment. Sexual harassment is a serious problem. Yet female tourist here actually encouraged behavior at its worst. They also didn’t seem to concern themselves with any solidarity for the local females. Not that I flirted with them but I tried to show extra appreciation to the females serving in the restaurants or running my accommodation.

Ubud, Bali central highlands, Goa Gajah

A couple of days at Kuta Beach and I was ready to head to Ubud, the major city in the highlands, well known for some of the better of many still used Hindu temples on the island. Near Ubud is the distinctive Goa Gajah or Elephant Cave complex. It was intricately carved and has a number of ceremonial pools in front of it. The facade has demons and strange creatures and the figure at the entrance is supposedly an elephant hence the name. Didn’t look like an elephant to me. This was a Hindu site from the 9th century and while not extensive it was rather unique.

Bali public ceremonies

This was another temple near Ubud. The site itself was not so amazing and I’m not sure of its name.  What was particularly interesting, one sees in the following shots, there was some kind of ceremony going on and people were bringing offerings. In the streets, boys were marching around playing music with drums and symbols. There were 2 boys dressed up as some kind of monster or deity which would feign an attack towards the bystanders. This was a chance to see local ceremonies along with their costumes, music and traditions as actually practiced and not part of some production for tourists. The music of Bali is very distinctive and always gives me a surreal feel of wonder.

Besakih temple, Central Bali Indonesia

This was a view from Pura Besakih temple and some of the landscapes on the way there. It’s also in the eastern highlands although I actually went there later on a day trip from Candidasa beach. It is situated 1000 meters up the Mount Agung and is the biggest, holiest, most visited site on the island. Its foundations are supposed to date back to 2000 BC but it’s only documented as a Hindu place of worship from the 12 century. One would expect to find ample transportation to go see it – wrong. Rather than actual buses, local and regional transportation in Indonesia was a series of converted jeeps, pickup trucks or minivans running set routes as shared taxis. I heard them all referred to as Bemos but I’ve read that Bemos are actually just the small 3-wheeled covered motorcycle type vehicles.

I spent most of the day taking one vehicle after the next trying to connect through. Part of the problem is that drivers would simply lie to you about where they were going, take your money and drop you wherever. By the time I got there it was close to closing and not worth the hefty entrance fee so I didn’t actually see more than the outside of it. I’ve heard since that locals regularly extort large sums from tourists in addition to the entrance fees, and the site management is complacent. Another Bali rip-off. I would like to be able to say that there were at least great views from all of the effort to get up there but not really. Unless connections have improved, I can only say that one should arrange direct transport to have enough time there to make worth the trouble.

I had difficulty to return to my beach bungalow and was in a terrible mood. Then some girls tried to make me sound like an uptight jerk for being so upset. Take it easy; it’s no problem if you just keep cool. Next day they tried the same journey with the same result as me and came back pissed as hell. My most lasting impression of the Balinese were that they always smiled, said “hello mister” and then proceeded to lie through their teeth with the most elaborate tales which always ended with them trying to sell you something you didn’t want.

Souvenirs & cock-fighting

Other than temples, Ubud is known for its handicrafts like woodcarvings and batik but most of what I saw was terrible. Rather than done with any artistic inspiration, the same simple motifs are churned out over and over again like a production line concentrating on pure quantity over quality. The carvings, specialized on masks were finished with an ugly brown varnish to make them look antique. Cheap batiks were everywhere and really belittle an impressive tradition that reflects the beauty of Bali’s landscapes and the colorful tropical fish one sees in its seas. A more interesting but gruesome tradition in Bali are cockfights, which I saw at a weekly market. The men were all sitting around smoking their distinctive Indonesian clove cigarettes and chatting. I suspect that the opportunity to socialize is actually more important than the fights themselves.

Gambling & games in Indonesia

On the other hand, gambling seems to be pervasive here. Not only were the cockfights bet on but such board games as well. Surprisingly, chess was more popular throughout Indonesia than any country I have seen. I don’t know if any gambling is involved but one often saw people playing on the streets. Occasionally, I stopped to have a game with somebody, which would quickly turn into a battle against him and all of his friends – not only giving advice but jeering as well. Not that I am any good at the game but I think the table got overturned in anger more than once before a local would admit defeat to a foreigner.

Candidasa Beach, Bali

After much contemplation I decided to go to the eastern beach of Candidasa. It is very narrow, much of its sand having been lost due to the depletion of the coral reef. At high tide the beach was often under water. There were supposed to be better beaches in the north but the connections here were better and it was a fairly peaceful yet affordable place to hang out, plenty of backpackers but not too wild. While the beach was not nearly as big as at Kuta, the atmosphere was a great improvement.  I was especially fond of the service, having my breakfast, typically tropical fruits, coffee and black rice pudding brought each morning to the porch of my bungalow.

Lombok Island, Indonesia

From Bali I continued on by ferry east to Lombok Island. This was a group of food stands there. As in Malaysia, I continued to practically live on fish ball noodle soup when traveling across Indonesia. It was good and cheap and found all over at such street stalls and one of the few foods where one was pretty sure it was meatless.

Pura Lingsar Temple, Lombok Island

Lombok had much more Muslims than in Bali but Hindu temples still abounded from the era when Bali governed it. Pura Lingsar is the most important temple on Lombok and I’ve read that it was reconstructed with help of the local Muslim community as a sign of solidarity. I’m not so sure how the local Muslims felt about the tourists though. I was once accosted by a young guy at the beach for wearing quite normal shorts, which he seemed to think were improper. One needs to wrap a sarong over shorts, he said. I responded that in the west such a thing would be deemed a woman’s clothing and strange for a man to wear. The Pura Lingsar Temple was crowded when I went with people offering flowers and food.

This temple pool contained eels, which were considered holy, and devotees threw in hard-boiled eggs for them to eat. While I was at this temple I ran into a German woman I had met earlier on my travel. She worked as a tourist guide and had been rushing through Java and Bali to check out the places she was supposed to take her tour group since she had never been there before. They were going on a 3-day climbing expedition to the top of the tallest mountain on the island, complete with porters to carry much of their equipment. The guide spontaneously invited me to come along and share her tent since she found these kinds of tourists boring. I had just met a nice group of other backpacker and declined. I looked her up the following summer in Hamburg and she said that it had rained constantly the whole climb and I was smart to have passed on the offer.

Taman Narmada Park, Lombok

About 5 kilometers from the Pura Lingsar Temple is a park called Taman Narmada with many old aquaducts and water lily filled pools. There is a system of pipes that bring the water and lots of local boys were swimming here.

Gili Trawangen Island

From Lombok I took this boat for a quick hop over to the small island of Gili Trawangen. The only attraction was especially good snorkeling and diving. One could rent a mask and snorkel at any guesthouse and see multitudes of large colorful fish right off of the beach. The beach was not much to spek of but there was an interesting ship wreck as picured below. I remember the guy in the light blue t-shirt was an American who was planning to jump islands all the way across the archipelago. Like many I heard of, his big wish was to pull the tail of a Komodo dragon.

Since then, I learned about how large these fast moving lizards are and although lacking the teeth of a crocodile, their saliva is a fermentation of deadly bacteria and any bite usually leads to a fatal infection. I guess trying stupid stunts didn’t start with the show Jackass. For me, this was the end of my trip in Indonesia as I was headed back to Bangkok to get a continuing flight to Nepal. All in all I felt mixed about Indonesia. There were many good moment and things but a lot of disappointments but then I only got to 4 out of an estimated 7000 or so islands.

So, those were just a few tales from my many travels over the last thirty and something years. I hope you've enjoyed another side of a traveling clown! If you want, write me an email or better yet, book my show or set a link to this website or just state me as the beneficiary of your will!

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