If you have been following my blog for a while, you must have noticed that on July 1 this year I embarked on an extended trip – longer than any I had ever done – across South and Southeast Asia to follow the ancient Spice Route. We are now in Mandalay on our last day in Myanmar before heading to India, to explore the spice trading ports on both the Malabar and Coromandel Coasts along with some other places in the country. We were in Indonesia for the first three months of this trip and for me it was such an eye-opening journey as I got to know my country better and encountered so many different cultures that make up this large and unbelievably diverse nation.
On July 1 James flew from Hong Kong to Jakarta and we were joined by two fellow bloggers, Bart and Badai, to start our two-week overland trip across Java. I was born on the island and had traveled quite extensively across its length before. But even on the world’s most populous island – more than half of Indonesia’s 250 million people live in Java – there are still many relatively hidden gems waiting to be discovered and explored. The following are some of the highlights of our three-month trip across the archipelago.
We started in Jakarta and went eastward to Cirebon, an important port in West Java. In the city we explored the sultan’s palace and the old town district. Then we continued to Dieng Plateau in Central Java, a volcano-fringed highland at the center of the island – home to some of its oldest Hindu temples dating back to the 8th century AD. After Dieng we went to Jogja (Yogyakarta), considered the cultural heart of Java where impressive ancient Buddhist and Hindu temples abound. From Jogja we moved to Solo without Bart and Badai as they had to fly back to Jakarta. Solo is another hotspot for exploring Javanese culture as it boasts two Javanese royal palaces and a lively art scene that can only be rivaled by that of Jogja.
James and I then went to the north coast to visit Semarang, my city of birth and where my parents currently live. Food was the highlight of this part of the trip as nothing beats homemade Indonesian dishes. From Semarang we took a day-trip to Pati with short stops in Demak and Kudus to see some of Indonesia’s oldest mosques with hints of prevalent Hindu culture. After 10 days, we left Semarang for Surabaya in East Java to spend one night in the city before going further east. The following day we continued to Banyuwangi, Java’s easternmost city, also our base to visit Ijen Crater. At the end of our trip across Java we stayed in very basic accommodation at Baluran National Park and visited a beach called… Bama!
We started our two-week exploration of Sumatra from its northernmost province, Aceh. We stayed in the capital, Banda Aceh, before crossing the strait to get to Sabang, the country’s westernmost city. From Aceh we continued to North Sumatra to visit some of the province’s most famous historical, cultural and natural sites in Medan, Berastagi, Parapat, and Samosir Island at Lake Toba. We learned further details about the fascinating culture and history of the Batak people on Samosir, a predominantly Christian society in largely Muslim Sumatra.
After North Sumatra we went to West Sumatra, a province known for its cuisine and distinct Minangkabau culture. Not only the home of rendang, the province also has some of the most unique palaces and houses in Sumatra with curving roofs reaching for the sky. Bukittinggi, Payakumbuh, and Batusangkar form Minangkabau’s cultural triangle with Pagaruyung Palace as one of the highlights.
I fell in love with this island.
We didn’t spend as much time on Sulawesi as we did on other islands since we planned this island only to be a stopover before going east to the Spice Islands – the raison d’être of this trip. We started in the capital, Makassar, and went north to Tana Toraja in the Torajan highlands, home to a Christian society where life revolves around death. No one does burial ceremonies as lavishly and elaborately as the Torajans do. We also went to Rammang-Rammang, home to one of the oldest cave paintings in the world dating back to some 40,000 years ago.
MALUKU (THE MOLUCCAS)
Maluku consists of a group of small islands spread over the vast seas east of Sulawesi, northeast of Nusa Tenggara, and west of the island of New Guinea. It is where nutmeg and clove are originally from. It was the reason for Chinese, Indian, and Arab traders to sail all the way to this part of the world to buy spices and sell them to the international market. It was also the catalyst for Europeans to embark on the Age of Exploration and Discovery which led to European colonization of much of the world in the following centuries.
Nutmeg could only be found on the Banda Islands, a group of islets in a remote part of Indonesia surrounded by the deepest sea in the country, while clove came from the islands of Ternate, Tidore, and other small islands in North Maluku. As the price of both spices skyrocketed in European markets, it promised unprecedented wealth especially to the Dutch and British merchants, fueling fierce competition between the two in Asia. Retracing parts of the old Spice Route was the main reason why James and I planned this trip three years ago.
What about the other islands?
With more than 17,000 islands (13,500 according to another calculation) it is always hard for me to answer the question “How much time should I spend traveling in Indonesia?” since the distance between Sabang in the far west to Merauke in the far east is further than the distance between Lisbon and Moscow, or Seattle and Orlando. Even for me as a born and bred Indonesian, I have not explored even half of this vast archipelago.
However for this trip we decided to omit Bali (both of us have been so many times) and Nusa Tenggara, including Lombok in West Nusa Tenggara (we climbed Rinjani and went to the island’s southern beaches in 2013) and Flores in East Nusa Tenggara (we took an overland trip from Maumere to Labuhan Bajo in 2014). We have to skip Kalimantan (Borneo) and Papua this time for neither of them played a major role in the spice trade. We also have to put other smaller islands on our wishlist for now, waiting for other opportunities to visit them in the future. Also bear in mind that we didn’t even visit half of Sumatra on this trip and only a fraction of Sulawesi.
Starting in January 2016 I will publish the stories from each place I visited on this extended trip, beginning with places in Indonesia all the way to the ones in Malaysia, Myanmar, and South Asia. Thank you for reading and leaving comments on the posts from my previous trips, and for patiently waiting for the ones from this Spice Odyssey.