Priests among the colourful offerings after a ceremony at Tirta Empul, a water temple near Ubud, Bali.
After our journey throughout the island of Java, Indonesia, we then hopped on the ferry and travelled over to the island of Bali – probably the most well known of the Indonesian islands. As we drove throughout the island, you could feel Bali’s unique character come through. Almost every home has a small shrine set up for their daily offerings, the baskets and flowers from that morning’s ritual scattered across the sidewalks.
We spent our first day in Ubud going out and exploring all the treasures that lay in the region surrounding the city; Bali has so many incredible temples and sites to discover! The easiest way to explore is to get a driver for a day, three of us went together and arranged it through our hotel, which meant we had a knowledgable guide and a comfortable way to travel around while seeing an astounding number of sites. Despite all that we saw, it never felt rushed, and we were free to take as much time as we wanted at each stop. Plus, we got to determine what we did or didn’t go and visit.
Goa Gajah – the Elephant Cave
You won’t actually find any live elephants when you visit Goa Gajah, or the Elephant Cave. The site, which was built on a hillside nestle between two rivers, is a Hindu meditation complex. The name likely comes from the meditation cave, carved into the stone where you will find inside a statue of Ganesh, whose head is that of an elephant’s.
It’s a lush site, surrounded by the forest, ponds, and streams, with bathing pools served by Hindu angels whose water pots pour cleansing water into the pool. Even though we were there first thing in the morning, there were already quite some tourists around – possibly it felt busier due to the site being on the small side, so good luck getting a clear shot of the Elephant Cave without someone else around!
Gunung Kawi – Rock Temple
Gunung Kawi is an impressive sight with the shrines carved into the rock cliffs. It’s quite a walk down from the temple entrance past loads of kiosks selling Balinese souvenirs, but at least it means you have an excuse to stop for a pause on the way back up! It also gives you some pretty views over nearby rice terraces and was very quiet compared to Goa Gajah.
The temple is considered one of the oldest and largest monuments in Bali, and legend says that each of the shrines represent a member of Balinese royalty at the time.
Tirta Empul – Water Temple
Tirta Empul, or Holy Spring, is a Balinese water temple known for its sacred waters where one goes for purification rituals. It’s dedicated to the Hindu god of water, Vishnu.
The pools contain 30 spouts of water, each section dedicated to a different form of purification, first for cleansing evil and bad spirits, then for prosperity, and finally to cleanse the body and soul. You begin at the lefthand side (when facing the pools) and cleanse yourself below each spout in turn.
I’ve seen some reports of long queues to partake in the cleansing ritual, but when we were there late in the afternoon (after a heavy rainfall), while plenty of people were milling about, the was no queue. Many tourists only posed for photos under the first few spouts and hardly any continued down the line to complete the full ritual.
Visiting Mount Bromo at sunrise is definitely one of the tourist to-do’s of Indonesia. But despite the early call times and the crowds of fellow visitors at the viewpoint, the journey is well worth it.
Don’t expect much for accommodations in the area, most are budget hotels that are there purely for the sunrise tourists who get only a few hours of sleep before the 3am wake up call. The walls of our hotel were so thin, we could hear our neighbours plugging in their phones to charge! The wake up happened even earlier in fact as our transportation started to very loudly arrive around 2.30am.
The reason you have to start so early is that the journey to the viewpoint is not the easiest. You can only get there via 4-wheelers, so you are obliged to hire local transportation. It’s pitch black, cold, and bumpy on the way up. You arrive at the viewpoint, stumbling in the dark from the jeeps, into a maze of kiosks and tourist shops as you make your way up the hill.
Sunrise was around 5am, so we first stopped in at a small restaurant for coffees and fried bananas, huddled together against the chill. We had put on all the layers we brought to Indonesia, but after +30C days we just weren’t ready for it!
When we did head to the view point shortly before 5am, the crowd was already forming; the prime locations at the guardrail were taken, but even from further back the views were amazing. We just stood and watched Mother Nature’s show taking place in front of us.
After the sun had risen fairly high and the sky had turned a stable soft pink and blue, the crowd began to split up and you could more easily move around and reach the better photography points. It was definitely one of the locations where you can just keep taking photographs, convinced each angle is even better than the last!
Before the heat of the day started setting in, we headed down from the viewpoint to the base of Mount Bromo. From where the jeeps could park, to the top of the volcano was about a 2 kilometre hike. You can pay to ride a horse about halfway up, but the slippery and sandy conditions lead our guide to not recommend it. The walk isn’t too strenuous and you have lots of opportunities to look around and take a rest.
The most nerve-wracking part for me was the final ascent up some steep stairs, so covered with sand they became more like a ramp. The top is also not for the faint of heart, only a knee-high stone barrier separates you from the drop into the heart of the volcano. More adventurous people walked along the edge, but I was content to sit myself down and enjoy my single viewpoint from a relatively safe position.
If Mount Bromo is on your Indonesia bucket list, I would definitely recommend this combination. The sunrise is really not to be missed, and then following it up with a hike up the volcano is perfect. The heat was only beginning to set in as we came down, and by 8am we were back at our hotel to clean up and enjoy breakfast before it was off to the next stop!
One of the best experiences or our Indonesia trip was undoubtedly our two days spent at the Seloliman Nature Reserve. An educational facility, the reserve is most often frequented by school groups and isn’t open for individuals, but it is a regular stop on the Intrepid tour.
All the food they serve at their restaurant is grown locally, most of it on the reserve itself. Nestled into the jungle amongst the mountains and volcanos, we really felt fully immersed in the Indonesian nature.
Our host took us out for an afternoon jungle walk, where we learned all about their local plants, met some pretty huge spiders, and found lots of trees and pods of this cottony material – what would be filling our mattresses that night.
Our jungle walk ended at a small water temple, with pure water coming from the mountains. People congregate there to cool off, purify themselves in the fountains, and fill their water jugs with the refreshing water.
After an early evening in our private cabins, sleeping under the much-needed mosquito netting, we were off the next day for a tour of the nature reserve’s gardens and an introduction to all the amazing things they grow on site. I saw peanut plants for the first time, and my personal favourite spice – cardamom, amongst so much more.
We then headed into the nearby village to visit the lovely and friendly Sufina, who at over 90 years old is still supporting herself by grinding coffee and selling it locally. She is up every morning to serve coffee to the farmers before they head off to work and says the only thing that causes her stress is when she can’t remember where she left her pummel.
Javanese coffee is made by mixing hot water in the mug directly with finely ground coffee. Give it a good stir and then let it settle; then most locals will drink it with a good helping of sugar.
After our final meal at the nature reserve, our host made us some traditional Java Royal tea, from black pepper, cinnamon, ginger, lemon grass, cardamom, cloves, and temulawak (Javanese ginger). It’s suppose to have a whole host of healing benefits, so we all drank up before heading off for our next Indonesian adventure.
Garlicky water spinach with fried tempeh for lunch, one of my favourite meals of the trip.
After visiting a soy production facility on our bike ride outside Yogyakarta, we continued cycling into the rice fields. There were fields at all stages of growth, but we found a few friendly local women out planting in a field who were kind enough to demonstrate and let us jump in and give it a try.
For planting, the fields are completely flooded, and the rice sprouts are gently pushed into the loosened mud underwater. They use a long wooden notched stick to space out the plants and the two of them moved quickly back and forth across the field. A few of us entered the water, the ground squishy and squelchy between our toes to give it a try. We planted a few rows, and hopefully they weren’t so poorly done that the ladies would have to go back and re-do it! It did take a few tries to get the right depth for the plant, so that it stays in place but isn’t too far submerged.
After the rice has been harvested, they plough the field for another planting. This guy was all smiles and looked like he was enjoying sailing back and forth across the field.
More mature rice plants where you can see the grains forming.
One of our final stops of the bike ride was to see this man thrashing the rice. The machine is pretty simple, that wheel is covered with long spike which separate the grains from the plant as it rapidly spins. He can then easily collect the grains on the blue tarp.
P.S.: check out more posts on our time in Indonesia.
After spending a day visiting the big sites in Yogyakarta of Borobudur and Prambanan, our second day in the city was more low-key as we set out for a cycling touring in the surrounding countryside. We spent about half a day cycling through the rice fields, visiting some local businesses along the way. Our first stop was at a small soy processing facility to see how the staple foods of tofu and tempeh are created.
To be honest I am not a huge fan of tofu, just based on personal tastes. But while in Indonesia I fell in love with its fermented counterpart, tempeh. Tempeh has more texture to it, and its something I want to try cooking more with now that I am back home.
The soybeans to make tempeh are first soaked, de-hulled and then partially roasted and then set out to cool, before they are mixed with a fermentation started and packed up to be allowed to ferment for around 24 hours.
Tofu production is a bit more involved. The soybeans need to be processed into soy milk, so first soaked and ground. The soy milk then needs to be boiled with an added coagulant (often a type of salt) which causes the proteins and oils in the soy milk to bind into a solid curd. This curd is then strained in a cheesecloth to get out the excess liquid before being pressed and then cut into squares. At this facility they were also pre-frying some of their tofu. It looked like a hot and tiring job in this small facility!
What was interesting to learn, is that the domestic soybean production is not sufficient to meet the demand for soy-based products. Plus, the soybeans apparently are not the optimal size and shape (I found this remark very curious considering the further processing that needs to happen). As a result, a lot of facilities like this are using imported soybeans from the States, in fact we spotted a bag stamped USA soybeans on our way out the door.