Saturday, 18 July 2015

Singapore - July 2015

I have been making regular trips to Singapore for the last 25 years – in the early years for pure travel but since I came to live in Indonesia, mostly for the purpose of applying for new work permits. 

Singapore trip - regular blessing

Self portrait
Basically, for any foreigner living or working in Indonesia, every time they start a new job they have to go out of the country to complete the visa process. People frequently ask me why, after all this time, I still need a work permit, despite being married to an Indonesian. As long as I wish to retain my British citizenship, which I do up to now, I require permission from the government to live and work here. Unlike most countries where you can have dual citizenship, Indonesia denies its own citizens that simple right.

Anyway, one of the few benefits of this frankly annoying system is that I do get a trip to Singapore paid for by my employer once in a while - Singapore being our nearest neighbour.

This year, I had the pleasure of another work permit trip right in the middle of my long holiday. The process is now slightly less onerous than before because of the relatively recent opening up of the flight route between Singapore and Bandung, a short one hour and 45 minutes flight. Previously, us Bandungers had to get to Jakarta first, a relatively short distance but usually fraught with unpredictable traffic jams and hair-raising mini bus rides to the airport in Jakarta.

This time my school had booked me into a hotel in Little India, which is probably my favourite area of Singapore for many reasons. Here are just a few of them:

I love India (went there for long travels years ago).
I love Indian food and it’s almost impossible to get here in Bandung unless you can be bothered to cook it for yourself (I can’t).
It’s a part of Singapore that very much retains its cultural roots and flavor.
It’s not ridiculously clean like every other part of Singapore (yes, I know, clean is nice but I do live in Indonesia!)

I say I was staying in Little India but actually the hotel my school kindly put me up in was on the far reaches of Jalan Besar, a rather more Chinese area, though technically it maybe just about makes it into Little India. Anyway, regardless, I spent most of my short time wandering and browsing in Little India (not actually buying for goodness sake! - Singapore is way too expensive for those of us who earn an Indonesian salary!)

On my first evening I wandered down Serangoon Road and the many small backstreets nearby where I have stayed on previous visits. I passed some of those beautiful colourful South Indian temples (sadly now rather lost in urban development; I remember them without the backdrop of all the new buildings.) I wandered down to the Tekka Centre - the large market, but decided to give it a miss this time because of the heat and humidity (so hot compared to Bandung!) I wandered around the little India Arcade instead - the tourist  face of Little India - and watched people having henna tattoos on their hands (so intricate) and also bought some Indian home-made sweets which I adore (pistachio and chocolate burfi – heaven!) and ate them as I walked. 

Little India Arcade

Evening wandering
Incense and jasmine - heavenly smells
Colourful shophouses
Rickshaw whizzing by
A sign of multi cultural living
Sadly, I’d already had dinner near my hotel - Hainanese chicken rice – as I had skipped lunch and had to eat immediately on arrival or risk passing out! So, I had to save the pleasures of the banana leaf thali until the following day.

Back to the hotel, literally and metaphorically - the Kam Leng at the far end of Jalan Besar, almost near the junction with Lavender. It’s a beautiful old Chinese building, built in 1936 (the sign is still on the front.) It’s a real vintage piece - you would either love it or hate it, fortunately for me, I really liked it. The rooms are very comfortable though ever so slightly run down. However, everything is clean and in working order with an excellent bathroom and a very comfortable bed. The public areas are deliberately left in the old style -  stairwells still have the old writing on the walls, the old original floor tiles are gorgeous and the walls have a bit of paint slapped on here and there to retain the antique feeling. On each floor landing there are vintage style chairs and lamps – very stylish I think, though I imagine some people might find it slightly creepy late at night, having the feel of an Alfred Hitchcock movie about it.

Vintage style
Shabby urban chic
MRT alternative
Fire escape
Original signs

Kam Leng

The following day, after a quick bowl of rice porridge in the hawker’s centre across the street and a couple more hours relaxing in the room watching the local TV channel news, I took the MRT down to Little India – only a one stop hop from Farrer Park MRT but it was so hot, even carrying one very light back pack like I was.

Rice porridge for breakfast

The sad remains of my banana leaf lunch
Finally, I got to satisfy my craving for Indian food. I randomly picked one of the many little eateries on Serangoon Road and ordered myself the lunch set vegetarian banana leaf meal, consisting of rice, different breads, about six vegetable dishes, pickles, yoghurt and dessert all served on a banana leaf. This to me is the epitome of food heaven, not being a great meat eater and loving Indian food as I do. It always reminds me so much of my travels in India in the eighties. The bonus is also the very reasonable price. I paid around 7 Singapore dollars for this treat.

Being well fed and happy, I spent my last couple of hours browsing around a local mall before making my weary way to the Indonesian embassy to pick up my passport. The immigration staff member in the entrance area was just as familiarly grumpy here as immigration staff often are on Indonesian soil, making me ready to take a taxi back to the airport and on to Indonesia.

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Gili Meno - June 2015

This was the second part of my solo trip to Lombok. I think the pictures speak for themselves - I spent my days walking around the island, stopping for a swim or a drink or some food and spending time in my bungalow at My Gili Cottages - looking onto a beautiful, peaceful and slightly overgrown garden.

My Gili Cottages

I love this kind of simple accommodation - a clean, spacious room with a comfortable bed and mosquito net, a large bathroom (slightly salty water, but who cares when you're in the sea half the time anyway?), a pleasant terrace with bamboo chairs and table overlooking a pretty garden and a huge breakfast to look forward to in the morning.
The garden

My Gili is situated in the village but very close to the harbour and is owned by a local family who are very kind and helpful - from here you can easily walk to any part of the island. Apart from following the beach path, I really enjoyed walking along the tiny paths that intersect this small island, often getting completely lost and meeting no one, sometimes chatting to villagers on the way.

Morning walk
Idyllic place to swim and snorkel
Just doing nothing
Lazy days...
... and the mellowest of evenings...

The lapping of the waves, the soothing buzzing of insects in the grass and bushes, a gecko's call, the sound of a bicycle passing by, a horse and cart with jangling bells, the distant call to prayer, salt on the skin, the smell of heat and ozone. It was by far the most peaceful and relaxing five days I've had in a very long time. Dreaming of going back.

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Lombok – Sekotong June 2015

With all my family fasting during the school holidays and me in dire need of a complete break, I took the unprecedented step of leaving everyone behind and going away alone. In my twenties and early thirties, I almost always used to travel alone but over the last 20 years, holidays have been family occasions (apart from one 2 week trip to the UK to visit my mum.)

I set off on a direct flight from Bandung to Lombok and headed straight for Sekotong, a part of Lombok I had never visited before. It felt strange to say the least - early in the morning I was surrounded by family, I was loading the washing machine, writing notes to remind everyone what needed to be done and generally tidying up; by 3pm in the afternoon I was sitting in Lombok looking at the ocean with nothing to do and no one to take care of for just over a week - a very enticing prospect for most working mothers! A real luxury, thanks to my wonderfully supportive family who urged me to go off and enjoy myself.

Sekotong is on the west coast of Lombok, an area as yet scarcely exploited for tourism. After getting off the plane and walking over the tarmac to the arrivals hall, I felt instantly elated by the sun, heat and blustery wind that greeted me.
Krisna Bungalows, Sekotong Barat
I had chosen a small and simple guest house Krisna Bungalows – located in Sekotong Barat. There is absolutely nothing there except a very small village and the guest house. I had a simple but spacious and clean room with a mosquito net and most importantly a view right onto the ocean and the islands of Gili Nanggu and Gili Sudak, with mountains in the background. There were just a couple of loungers and a few bamboo pagodas for lazing in between me and the sparkling blue sea.
Home for 3 days

The place is owned by a Balinese man, Wayan, and his workers are mainly Balinese. It’s a very well run place mainly thanks to the amazing Made who does almost everything including cooking up some great food.

My days were spent having early morning walks along the beach with Rocky and Madu the two guest house dogs. They were great companions on my walks and lay on my terrace in the afternoons to escape the heat. The area is part Muslim and part Hindu so as well as passing small Hindu shrines and temples I also chatted to villagers who had just started their month long fast. I spent a lot of time reading and also did some yoga as well as simply doing nothing at all – just lying on a lounger staring at the sea.
A great place for doing nothing
Rocky the dog!
No mosquitoes!
Room with a view

This really was a very special place and a wonderful place to start my week of peace and quiet.
Sunrise in Sekotong

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Yogyakarta - a field trip

Yogyakarta, 2015

March gave me the opportunity for a short trip – 4 days in Yogyakarta with my colleagues – Stuart, Cao Qin and Rully - and the P5 and P6 classes from Stamford School, Bandung. Of course, travelling on a school trip is a very different experience from travelling with your own family and friends; it is, however, fun in a whole different way and I’m sure some of my friends would be surprised to learn that travelling with 40 kids in tow can actually be quite enjoyable.

Fully occupied on the road
We set off on March 10th – meeting bright and early at Bandung station – to catch the “Argo Wilis” train to Yogyakarta. I hadn’t been on a train in Indonesia (or anywhere else except for the MRT in Singapore) for many years so it was fun to board and since we were travelling executive class it was a pleasant experience, (apart from the awful toilets).

Eight hours on a train with 40 plus 10 – 12 year olds is a fairly daunting prospect but in fact the time passed quickly - thank god for phones, ipads and other assorted devices as well as numerous snack and meal breaks organized by our parent in charge of logistics, the amazingly well organized Ms Fita Naulleau.

Another enjoyable aspect of a school trip like this is to stay in a “real” hotel, since when travelling with the family we usually stay in a smaller, locally owned guest house. Last time we went to Yogya as a family for example, we stayed on Jalan Prawirotaman at Prambanan Guest House, a lovely place with around 10 air conditioned rooms and a small but pretty pool but with a real Indonesian feel.
Just me and my girls
This time it was Ibis Styles – a nice place too in its own way.

Buddha at Borobudur
I actually prefer those smaller places that have a lot more character but it’s also nice to get the comfort level and bigger breakfast choice (!) at a large chain hotel. I could go on forever about hotel breakfasts but won’t (here). Anyway, we were in a great location just off Jalan Malioboro, the main street of interest to tourists in Yogyakarta. Our itinerary on this trip
Rooftop pool at Ibis Styles
included Borobudur, the impressive ancient Buddhist temple. I hadn’t been there for years and had forgotten how stunning it is in its surroundings, although Prambanan temple (Hindu) closer to Yogyakarta is, for me, more interesting.

We also visited the Keraton, the Sultan’s palace, which is rather faded and a bit run down but still pleasant to wander around (apart from the awful heat and humidity – Yogya is so hot!) We then then walked over to a small batik studio where the students did some batik for a couple of hours.

Lunchtime entertainment
We ate at some wonderful places during this trip, having really interesting buffets with lots of delicious Indonesian food (gained a few kilos on the trip!) and enjoying the beautiful settings – a mixture of local and colonial Dutch styles.

Although this was mainly a field trip in pursuit of culture, we also managed a few hours at a surprisingly fun place – the De Mata 3D trick eye
On the rock face!
museum – the kind of business idea you really wish you’d come up with yourself. The capital was surely pretty small for this venture but the profit no doubt huge. It’s basically a building full of fun 3D backdrops where you can photograph yourself doing lots of silly things – hanging on the edge of a skyscraper looking down at the traffic below, climbing a steep rock face and many more much weirder scenarios.
We also visited a few small cottage industries such as a local chocolate factory where we enjoyed all the free samples and didn’t buy anything (me!)

All in all Yogyakarta is still a very pleasant place to be (despite the heat) and manages to have a special atmosphere of its own distinct from any other Indonesian city I’ve visited. It’s a pleasant mixture of culture, foody pleasure and student city. Not a bad combination I think.

Photo credits: Fita Naulleau, Cao Qin, Carolyn Sulaeman

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Lombok Part Two: Gili Air

Peter and I - nostalgic walk

Some people would say it’s a mistake to go back to a place which you have really happy memories of but my last visit to Gili Air was in early 1993 – which feels like a different life time, over 20 years ago.

I was still living and working in Finland back then, spending a lot of my time and money on travelling whenever I had the opportunity. Gili Air was almost my last destination on a 5 month trip to South East Asia. I had been in Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand before entering Indonesia for the first time. I had spent two very happy months in North Sumatra followed by another short visit to Singapore before flying to Bali then finally Lombok. Throughout my journey, I had been swapping travel stories with other travelers, gathering ideas for places to visit, places to stay. Many people had mentioned the Gilis off the west coast of Lombok and I was determined to go there.
Reflections of Jim at low tide
After a couple of weeks in Bali, I took the ferry from Padang Bai and when I arrived in Lombok, I made my way straight to Gili Air. I can hardly remember the journey at all but I do remember twisting my ankle badly as I stepped off the boat from Bangsal; there was no jetty – you had to jump straight into the water and aim for the beach. Actually, it’s still like that for the ferry though there seems to be a jetty for bigger boats now.

Fabulous food!
Gili Air was a very different place to what it is now; I think there were only a handful of places to stay and no restaurants or bars. I stayed at Nusa Tiga and all meals were included in the price since there was nowhere else to eat. It was a very simple place, with electricity from a generator for a couple of hours in the evening and water carried by the bucket - and it was a wonderful experience for all that! 
As before

Coconut plantation

So, it was strange to go back.

To be honest, my first reaction was indeed mild disappointment. It seemed so different – so many guest houses lined up along the beach. However, it is still a very beautiful place and after a little readjustment I still found Gili Air a very pleasant place to be.
Life's a beach

On our first afternoon, Christmas Eve, Peter and I went for a stroll around the island and after lots of asking people for directions, we finally found Nusa Tiga – perhaps the only really depressing part of our whole trip for me. Twenty two years ago, I had stayed in a simple but idyllic wooden bungalow surrounded by a coconut plantation and nothing else but coconut palms and cows between me and the sea. Now, it was surrounded by a fence, in the middle of a very seedy kampong – sadly, home to many of the workers who service all those delightful guest houses and hotels I expect.
All aboard!
It was barely recognizable and I couldn’t get my bearings any more about where “my” bungalow had been (though I think the bungalows were the original ones). It looked very run down and sad, though still operating as a homestay I believe. We didn’t stay for more than a minute…. enough! But the nostalgic feeling stayed with me for a couple of hours before I shook it off and enjoyed the rest of our stay.
Lunch at Gili Meno

This time, we stayed in a pretty guest house on the south east side of the island – Elephant House and Bungalows - and it was great for us – there are just three bungalows in the compound around a small salt water swimming pool and garden. On the roof of Rebecca and Sarah’s bungalow was a wonderful open sided terrace with billowing curtains, a four poster bed (perfect for an al fresco snooze) as well as loungers with cushions.
Elephant House

Happy Katie

Beach boys

We enjoyed the wonderful food, lazing on the beach and swimming; the highlight, like any trip to the Gilis was the snorkeling. We hired a boat for the day and stopped off at several locations around the three islands to swim with turtles and snorkel. We stopped off for lunch at Gili Meno at a very beautiful location and we decided this would be one of our places  to stay if we are lucky enough to get back to Lombok one day.

Hopefully I won’t have to wait another twenty years to do that!

Sun sets over Bali, from Gili Air