Borneo Queen

“Orangutans look straight into your soul.”

-Willie Smits

[A brief note before I get into this long overdue post: because of the quality (or lack thereof) of the internet in PNG, where I am now, these photos don’t link to the full-size versions, and I’m leaving most of the photos out of the blog.  However, all of my Indonesia photos are posted on my photo website.  Click here for the Java photos; click here for the Kalimantan (Borneo) photos; and click here for the Bali photos.]

After about 6 weeks in Bali, I flew to Yogyakarta (or “Jogja” as it’s called locally) Indonesia to meet my parents for a week in Java and Kalimantan, following which we would return to Bali for one more week.  We stayed in an AirBNB in a nearby village, nestled away in the woods next to a river with an animal shelter next door.  It was a relaxed and inviting setting—we felt almost like we were camping, yet with the comfort of beds and air conditioning.

I arrived in the morning, and before my parents arrived, my driver took me into the village to show me around a bit.  Many artisans live in this area of Java, and they supply a good deal of clay sculptures that are prevalent in Javanese architecture.  We visited a studio where some of the sculptors were working on fountains in the shape of female figures.  Some of them are very large, but they must work quickly, finishing the entire statue within a few hours before the clay dries.

After that, my driver returned me to the airport to collect my parents.  We enjoyed the afternoon relaxing by the river, listening to the afternoon call to prayer rolling softly through the countryside in the distance—that is until the mosque across the river began its call.  They certainly want to make sure it can be heard from far away indeed!  I don’t know how people who live there can sleep through it, but being so near to it made us feel like we were truly somewhere new and different.

The next morning, we woke before dawn to visit the Borobudar temple for the sunrise.  It was about a ninety-minute drive, so our guide Heri collected us early and took us to climb the temple in the dark and wait until the sun came up.  From the temple, we had a magnificent view of the sunrise overlooking the volcanoes and valley below.  We then had the chance to tour the vast Buddhist temple itself.  While many of the statues were stolen long ago, we still had a chance to see the remaining figures of Buddha that adorn the beautiful structure.

After leaving Borobudar we headed to Merapi volcano for a jeep lava tour.  The volcano erupted in 2010, and our first stop along the bumpy road was a museum showing the ruins of various items that were left behind.  Sadly, seismologists had predicted the eruption, but the leader of the land was convinced they would survive, and many people stayed based on his advice.  Hundreds perished as a result.  Now, many of the people who lived there have moved to other areas, while others have become tour guides to show tourists around on jeeps.  We watched in the valley as construction crews still worked to clear the rubble and rock.

On the way back, we stopped to see the many picturesque roadside views surrounding the volcano.  Lush trees cover the mountainsides, and the valleys look like something out of Jurassic Park.  (And in fact, there are several Jurassic Park themed tourist attractions in the area, although what, exactly, they were wasn’t clear to me.)

The next day our guide took us to a nearby village for a bike ride through the countryside.  We climbed aboard antique Dutch bikes, which were actually much more comfortable than the bikes I rode in Bali.  We passed through rice patties, and stopped to watch one farmer spraying his corn.  He even strapped his hose on my dad’s back, who gave farming a go.  He may have a new profession.

We then rode along to a market, where we saw various meats, fruits, vegetables, and assorted other goods.  We tried the local drink—brown sugar mixed with coconut milk and tapioca, and we spoke with the local people in the markets.  It was fascinating seeing the various items available and how they were prepared and sold.

We continued along the back roads surrounding the villages, and eventually stopped to take a break at a small house where a woman was weaving on a loom and her husband was working on the house.  My mom took a shot at weaving, and then tried on some of the traditional Javanese clothing.

We loved the bike tour and seeing the countryside, but after that, it was time to head into the city to learn a bit about Yogyakarta.  Our first stop was the Kratan—the sultan’s palace and still his home—where a puppet show was being performed.  We watched for a bit, but then went on with our local guide to explore the palace.  Although Indonesia has a democratic government, the Sultan is still very important to Yogyakarta, and is beloved.  The Kratan consists primarily of a museum showing the belongings of recent Sultans.  The current Sultan also still lives on its grounds, and he is the first to have only one wife.  And while the next Sultan should be his son, he has none—only six daughters.  The official position is that the oldest daughter will be the next Sultan, but there is some question over whether the community will accept that.

We then walked to the water palace where the Sultan relaxed with his wives and his harem.  We also visited the underground mosque—a place where the Sultan and his family could escape in the event of an invasion.  There is still a tunnel leading somewhere underground, and it is blocked so that no one can discover exactly where it leads.  We enjoyed walking through town, enjoying a banana crepe as a snack, and watching some artisans make batik outside the underground mosque.

Finally, we wrapped up our day with a visit to a batik factory, a silver factory, and a chocolate factory.  While the chocolate factory was closed, we had the opportunity to taste some chocolate, including durian (which did not smell as bad as expected, but as my mom aptly described, tasted like garbage).  We were impressed by the intricacy of the silversmiths’ work, and we picked up some beautiful goods at the batik factory.

The next day we visited Prambanan temple in the morning.  To me, it was actually more stunning than Borobudar.  We walked around the grounds a bit and went into one of the temples to see the statue.  On the grounds, we saw a large bird I would later learn was a Cassowary.  (And I learned it only as a coincidence looking up flora and fauna on Papua New Guinea… More on the Cassowary in my PNG post.)


For sunset, we headed to another temple further uphill.  It is right above the spot that Obama visited when he came to Indonesia, although Heri was a bit perplexed as to why they took him to the spot downhill rather than the temple itself.  The sunset was a bit obscured by the clouds, but we enjoyed the view anyway.

Then, it was back to Prambanan for the Ramayana ballet.  Unlike the kecak dance in Bali, which displayed the whole story, this was only an episode from the larger tale.  The temple was the backdrop with a full moon (or at least almost full) above.  It made for a stunning setting to watch the vibrant costumes, and it was a great close to our time in Yogyakarta.  We said goodbye to Heri and prepared to check out of our air BNB and head to Semarang on the way to Kalimantan.

After checking out the following day, our driver Kadek picked us up and we began the drive to Semarang.  We stopped at Candi Gedong Songo, a series of 8 temples ascending the mountain.  However, we were all so tired from all the events, we opted not to hike up past the first temple, nor did we ride a horse.  Instead, we checked out the first temple and then headed onward to Semarang.  Kadek dropped us first at the Lawang Sewu—house of 1000 doors—a government building that was built by the Dutch and once used by the Japanese to imprison Indonesians in the basement.  After Independence, it became a train station, and it is somewhat of a train museum now.

Finally, we relaxed at our airport hotel, before getting up the next morning to head to Kalimantan, the Indonesian province on Borneo.  After the early morning flight, we were collected at the airport by our guide, Rafael, and taken to the river boat where we would spend the next two nights.  The boat was simple but extraordinarily comfortable.  Our home would be the upper deck, which had a table with four chairs for dining, two loungers, and four twin mattresses.  They were stacked to serve as couches, but in the evening the crew would change the linens for them and lie them out under mosquito nets.  It made me feel as though I was traveling on the African Queen.  (Not that I really remember anything about that movie.)

Near where the boats were docked, we passed tall cement buildings with holes in them, which we learned were large swallow houses.  The swallows enter them and build nests, which are then collected and sold to the Chinese for an exorbitant sum.  I asked what they do with them, and our guide said, “I don’t know, probably feed them to their babies or something.”  Another guide on an adjacent boat opined that he did not like this practice, because he had been a guide in this park for many years, and he doesn’t like to hurt the animals for money.  It was nice to see, throughout the journey, how much all of the guides loved and respected the wildlife in the beautiful park.

We set off down the river, and enjoyed a beautiful lunch prepared by our talented chef.  We all agreed that the food made in the simple boat in this kitchen was the best we had in Indonesia.  We turned down a tributary into the national park.  The river is known as the Sekonyer river, named after the Dutch word “schooner,” which the Indonesians could not pronounce, referring to it instead as “sekonyer.”

We were immediately extremely fortunate.  Although we were headed to the orangutan feeding stations, the orangutans there are habituated to humans, having been reintroduced to the wild after captivity (or descending from orangutans who had been).  I had read that the best chance of seeing wild orangutans was to get up at dawn and watch for the rustling in the bush.  Well, we didn’t need to wait that long.  Almost immediately we saw a wild orangutan along the side of the river before we could even sit down for lunch.

Our luck continued the entire journey to the first feeding station.  We saw some proboscis monkeys—the first of many.  And of course, macaques were seemingly everywhere.  But our true luck was seeing a silver leaf monkey, which Rafael explained were very rare to see.  The next two days would continue in that same way.  We saw monkey after monkey as we passed down the river, plus several more wild orangutans.  Rafael told us we were very lucky, and we definitely believed him.

When we stopped for the first feeding, Rafael explained that we would wait for a bit to begin walking to the feeding station, but he would go buy the tickets.  When he returned, he told us to move quickly to disembark the boat, as he had already seen an orangutan at the ticket office.  Sure enough, there it was, posing for all the tourists with cameras.  It headed over toward a shed where they keep the food, and Rafael told us that sometimes the orangutans charge with their heads to try to get into the storage area.

After taking some photos and visiting the information center, we headed off to the feeding station, where the guides brought large bushels of corn and bananas.  The dominant male was on the platform already, munching away.  It was incredible to see how the rest of the orangutans reacted to his presence.  Unlike the other apes, orangutans are largely solitary animals, coming together only to mate.  (With the exception of young ones, who spend several years with their mothers before venturing off on their own.)  Due to the presence of the dominant male, we learned the other orangutans were afraid to approach the platform, and we watched as the others cautiously and slowly approached the platform, snatched some food, and scurried away.

That night, we enjoyed a lovely dinner on the boat, looking out into the jungle.  At times, we could see glowing eyes peering back at us, which we speculated was a tarsir—a nocturnal primate with amazing vision—although we couldn’t know for sure.  But whatever it was, even with no light coming from the river, the reflection from the eyes looked as if a flashlight was being shined at us from inside the forest.

The next day we would proceed to two more orangutan feedings.  For the morning feeding, we had to wait a bit for the orangutans to show up, so we passed the time by taking photos of a curious squirrel who came to steal the food meant for the orangutans. But eventually they did show up from all corners of the forest. We watched as they stuffed their faces with corn and bananas, many taking as many as they could carry into the trees.  At times, they would hang in a seemingly impossible position from the trees, often staying there for 5-10 minutes, just hanging.  It is incredible that such large animals can be truly arboreal, but they glide through the trees in a way that is truly surprising considering their size.  This was distinct from the behavior of the gorillas, who are not truly arboreal and come down from the trees with a crash that sometimes seems more accidental than intentional.

For the afternoon feeding, we enjoyed a visit to Camp Leakey—named after Louis Leakey, who sponsored the original great ape research of Jane Goodall (studying the chimps), Dian Fossey (studying the gorillas), and, most relevant to this trip, Birute Galdikas (studying the orangutans).  We read up on the research at a great information center before  heading off for the 30 minute walk to the feeding station.

The afternoon was a different story from the morning’s wait—the orangutans were there waiting for us already.  One large orangutan disregarded the rope separating the viewers from the feeding platform and came out among the unsuspecting tourists.  One less than cautious tourist very nearly lost his cell phone when she reached out with a mighty swipe, but he leaped back just in time.  Everyone who crowded around that orangutan was very fortunate she didn’t make them pay for their carelessness—although they may look cute, it’s important to remember that they are still strong wild animals.   When the food finally came out, so did numerous other orangutans, along with a few hungry boars who would eat up the orangutans’ leftovers.  But unlike in Africa, the boars are not dangerous.  Our guides explained that since Muslims don’t eat pigs, the boars have no reason to be afraid of people.

At both of the second day’s feedings, the dominant male was absent, and it was fascinating to see the different dynamic.  Although the adult orangutans seemed more wary of each other, they could be on the platform at the same time, and didn’t see troubled by the presence of the others.  One exception was a mother with a baby orangutan, who took a big swipe at a younger orangutan.  A bit of a squabble ensued, and the mother resumed her place on the platform.  But mostly, they tolerated each other, but were not close, although I suspect some of the younger ones were also the kids of the mother with a baby, since at times she handed them some food.  It was very different from seeing the gorillas, who live in groups, groom each other, and show human affection.

Overall, visiting the orangutans was a real highlight.  It is always fascinating to see the other great apes, and how human they seem.  The word “orangutan” comes from the Indonesian words “orang” for person, and “hutan” for forest—in other words a person of the forest.  And you can easily see where that name came from in watching them and looking into their smart eyes.

We were sad to say goodbye to our crew, who made the journey an incredibly pleasant one.  But the next day we disembarked for good and headed back to Bali via Surabaya.  The first three nights we spent in a villa near Ubud.  While we planned to go into Ubud to do some sightseeing, it was too hard to resist lounging around our two bedroom villa with its private pool, and instead we just lazed about.  The second morning we did take up the owner, Agung’s offer to walk with him through the rice fields.  The scenery was beautiful as we passed through the rice fields and into the forest and valley near the river, where we saw people washing themselves and their clothes.  After about 2 hours, hungry for breakfast, we asked for a ride back, and spent the rest of the day without much activity, which was exactly what we needed after a busy week.

We then headed for two days to Nusa Lembongan, so that my parents could see where I had spent about a month.  I enjoyed two more days of diving, while my parents went on an island tour of Nusa Penida and Lembongan.  We also enjoyed some beers at blue corner dive, and just hung out.  It was good to return after having spent a month there, and great seeing the people again.

Finally, it was time to return to Bali, where we would spend two nights in Padang Padang, near Uluwatu. The first night, Eka (the same driver I’d been using throughout my time in Bali) and his family met us for dinner at the Pink Coco, the delightful hotel where we stayed.  We enjoyed spending this evening with our Balinese family and exchanging stories about our lives.

The next day I had to head out to look for a cell phone (mine having had an unfortunate close encounter with the tile floor at our Ubud villa) while my parents relaxed.  That evening, we headed to Uluwatu temple to watch the kecak dance, which I had seen and knew my parents would enjoy.  We first walked out to the vista from which to view the temple.  Heeding the guide’s warnings, we all removed our glasses.  I put mine in my bag, while my dad decided to keep his in his hand.  Unfortunately that was not enough, as a monkey snatched them and scampered off behind the fence. Fortunately he didn’t get far, nor did he intend to.  Instead, he waited for the inevitable bribe from the guard, who gave him some fruit wrapped in plastic, and scaled the fence to retrieve the dropped glasses.  My dad was left with a minor scratch on his hand, and a few little gnaw marks on the earpiece.  The monkey got exactly what he was after—food.  You’re not permitted to feed the monkeys at Uluwatu, and I think it actually makes the situation worse, because they know they’ll get fed by stealing glasses.  At least in the monkey forest where you can feed them, they only bother those with food.

But we put that behind us and went to watch the kecak dance for our last night in Bali.  It was just as stunning as the first time I saw it, and my parents agreed it was great (and easily surpassed the Ramayana ballet).  The next day we said goodbye to each other and to Eka and his family at the airport.  My parents would head to the US via Singapore, and I was off for the next phase of my adventure—exploring Papua New Guinea by both land and sea.  It was sad to say goodbye to Indonesia, but extremely excited for the next step in my journey.

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