One thing you quickly learn when traveling around third world countries is that they play by an entirely different set of rules than what you’re used to. Routine motions like going from A to B or making simple transactions can be frustrating enough to make you want to punch a durian. It took me awhile to learn and adjust to the new rulesets the first time I traveled around Asia (*ahem*, India), but once I learned to go with the flow and adapt to the cultural nuances, I had a pretty swell time.
That said, it had been 2.5 years since I was last in Asia when I popped over to Indonesia last month. I’d gotten way too comfortable with the western way of doing things and subsequently forgotten to prepare myself for the new rules. Bali is westernized enough that I was mostly fine winging it, but Java ripped me a new one by handing me a very rough week of travel.
I made some stupid travel mistakes in Java because I was stubborn, lazy, and out of practice traveling in third world countries. Here are some of my finest moments:
I Didn’t Research Transport Options to Borobudur
To save travel time, I planned on heading to Borobudur straight from Yogyakarta airport, staying there overnight, and rising early to see the temple at sunrise. I’d read about a shuttle bus that runs direct, and even saw signs advertising it near baggage claim. Done and done!
I hadn’t considered that the shuttle bus might not be running, though. I wasn’t about to fork over a small fortune to take a cab for over an hour, so instead I wobbled up to the little public bus terminal outside the airport and told them I wanted to go to Borobudur. One of the attendants wrote down all of the transfers I’d need to make, and I took the little slip of paper and not-so-gracefully charged through the turnstile with my massive bags.
To my credit, I handled the change of plans pretty darn well and arrived in Borobudur mostly unscathed. With each public bus I boarded, I’d show the attendant the slip of paper and he’d signal me when it was time for me to get off the bus to wait for the next one. I wish I could say my other setbacks turned out this well, but you’ll soon see that this was definitely not the case.
I Didn’t Know How To Get The Best Sunrise Photos At Borobudur
How difficult could it be to capture Borobodur at sunrise? The temple doesn’t have a bad angle, surely it’ll look good no matter where you shoot from, right?
Well, yes, but sunrise is different because the sky will be the focal point of your photos. Plus, there’s the added element (read: frustration) of other like-minded sunrise chasers who will get in the way of your sunrise shot.
Had I done my research beforehand, I would have known to stand with the Asian selfie-stick toters on the bottom-most level, near the open stupa with the Buddha statue. Turns out, *the* Borobudur sunrise shot has this Buddha in the foreground with the colorful sky in the background. D’oh!
I also think I’d have ended up with more poignant sunrise shots had I been on the upper level with the masses, which would have yielded more stupas in the foreground. I chose not to stand up there because I didn’t want to have a bunch of people in my shots, but I’m sure I could have underexposed to black them out (or Photoshopped them out later).
I Got Caught In Monsoonal Rains And Missed My Bus
While returning to Yogyakarta from Borobudur, I alighted the first bus to transfer and crowded under the terminal roof with all the locals taking shelter from the monsoonal rain. Of course I was waiting in the complete wrong area for my next bus and had to sprint to the other side once I realized my bus had come and gone a handful of times without my knowing it. I got absolutely soaked, but thankfully I had waterproof covers for both of my backpacks so my gear stayed dry.
I’m not sure if there’s much I could have done to avoid getting caught in monsoonal rains, but I could have saved myself some time by asking someone where to catch my next bus instead of stupidly standing in the wrong spot.
I Stayed At A Crappy Homestay In Yogyakarta
Yogyakarta is one of Java’s largest cities, so I figured I’d have no problem showing up and bargaining for a cheap homestay. What I didn’t know was that there isn’t really a “city center” there, so you kind of have to have an idea of where you want to stay when you show up.
I came to this realization while on the public bus into Yogyakarta from Borobudur. This bus both started and ended in the city outskirts, so I’d have to get off somewhere along the way. I recognized the name Malioboro from my very limited research and when I heard the bus attendant announce the stop, I impulsively alighted. Malioboro is the shopping district of Yogyakarta and is reasonably touristic, so I had plenty of accommodation options at my disposal. Too bad I was beyond exhausted from waking up at 3:45am for sunrise and schlepping on a few public buses to get back to the city, and soggy from being caught in the rain while in transit, and therefore had zero energy to play the accommodation game.
I meandered down one of the side roads halfheartedly looking for a place to stay, and when a local came out and offered me a homestay I surrendered. I followed him down a maze of alleyways to a house that no visitor would ever stumble upon without having someone guide him off the main road like this guy did with me. The room they gave me was pretty dingy (think rusted sink, no toilet paper, and a bucket shower), and probably worth less than what I had bargained them down to – especially since we’d passed another homestay advertising rooms for that same price but *with* aircon.
From this and other subsequent episodes, I learned that on days requiring very early starts or extensive time in transit, it’s best to prebook accommodation and map out directions in advance. I don’t mind winging it when I’m awake and alert enough to find my way, but I’m one of those people who just doesn’t function well when they’re tired. Better to make these decisions when I’m functioning normally and then just cruise on autopilot when I get there all exhausted.
Train from Yogyakarta to Surabaya
I Didn’t Request A Non-Smoking Hotel Room
I wasted no time putting into practice the last lesson I learned, so after I booked my train from Yogyakarta to Surabaya, I also booked a hotel room in Surabaya so that I wouldn’t have to worry about it once I arrived there after 10pm and a lengthy journey. I was rather pleased with snagging a $17 room at what looked to be a super nice and modern hotel just a 5 minute cab ride from the train station (especially important, since I’d be catching another train the next morning).
I stepped off the elevator on my floor to the overwhelming smell of smoke, and when I unlocked my room I was met with much the same – so I turned on my heels and went back down to the front desk to ask to change rooms. It had never occurred to me to request a non-smoking room because that’s all that exists these days back home! That’s not the case in Asia though, especially not in Java where nearly every male smokes.
They told me that there were no non-smoking rooms left, and the best they could do was send someone up to spray my room, which only slightly helped clear the stench of stale smoke. Once again I was too exhausted to fight it, so I took a shower and crashed in bed. But on the bright side, my terrible habit of sleeping with my mouth wide open paid off because I hardly had to smell anything that night!
Horse and buggy in Yogyakarta
I Didn’t Give My Cab Driver An Exact Address
Upon my late night arrival in Surabaya, I hopped in a cab and asked the driver to take me to my hotel. I had it pulled up on Google Maps on my iPhone and showed him that the hotel should be just 5 minutes up the road from the train station. Apparently he didn’t copy this and instead decided to take me in the complete wrong direction to another hotel with a similar name. I kept telling him we were going the wrong way as I watched the little dot on the GPS creep away from the mapped route. Was he intentionally taking me on a joyride to get me to pay a higher taxi fare? Was he too stubborn to listen to me chiding him for going the wrong way? Or was he just a little dumb? I’m not sure, but all I know is I paid about 4x as much as I did the next morning on my very direct ride from the hotel back to the station. I should have given the cabbie an exact address, not just the hotel name.
I Showed Up In A Small Town With No Accommodation Booked
I was all proud of myself for opting to take the train to the Banyuwangi side of Mount Ijen, rather than take the typical touristic route involving a few bus and/or motorbike transfers via Wonosobo. My shoddy research had revealed that I should get off the train just before Banyuwangi in the town of Karangsem, which was a bit closer to Ijen and thus would cut down on travel time the next day as I made my way up there for a sunrise hike to the crater.
Turns out, Karangsem is a small town that doesn’t see a whole lot of tourists because they tend to stay in Banyuwangi instead. Walking into town expecting to find accommodation was foolish of me. But I stubbornly walked onward, sweating profusely, deadset on finding a place to stay here. Three miles and some chafed skin later, I threw in the towel, hopped in a bemo, and asked to be taken to a hotel. Funnily enough, I ended up in Banyuwangi after all – not so funnily, it cost me at least an hour of wasted time, some unnecessary sweat, and an overpriced bemo fare.
Foggy sunrise view over Ijen Crater, featuring my new Merell shoes!
I Didn’t Hike To Ijen Crater Solo
I had every intention of making my way up to Mount Ijen on my own, but then I saw a sign at my hotel in Banyuwangi advertising transfers there and soon found myself booked onto one for the next morning. They’d made it sound like I was being personally escorted up there, but in reality it was someone outside of the hotel picking up me and one other person, driving us up the mountain in a car, and then waiting for us while we trekked so he could drive us back down.
I didn’t want to keep anyone waiting, so I made good time and hustled back down the mountain after sunrise even though I’d wanted to wait until the fog cleared so I could see the lake by Ijen Crater. I also wasn’t sure if the fog would clear (it hadn’t in the 30 minutes I sat waiting there). When I got to the parking lot, I headed to where I remembered the car being parked and saw a couple of guys looking at the car’s engine who asked if I was looking for someone. I didn’t remember what our driver looked like (I mean c’mon, like I was really awake at 2am!), but surely if neither of these guys recognized me, I was at the wrong car.
I walked around the parking lot in circles like a lost puppy. Where was my ride? Where was the other guy who had hiked in with me? After a while of standing around, my driver finally called out to me and asked if I was with the Paro Hotel. And yes, he was one of the guys working on the engine of the car I’d approached not 30 minutes earlier.
I got back in the car and dozed off for a bit while waiting for the other hiker. The driver was visibly annoyed at having to wait longer for him. This guy eventually returned all chipper and clearly didn’t give a damn that he had made us wait so long for him to get back. I should have been selfish and waited on the mountain for the fog to clear like I’m sure he did.
Part of me wishes I had gone solo and hired someone to take me up on a motorbike, but the ride up there would have been bumpy and cold and I’d have had to have been more awake for it. And I noticed that there were no motorbike drivers by the parking lot looking to take hikers back down to town, so I’m not sure how I would have gotten back had I done Ijen Crater solo. But I would have had more freedom and time to explore the crater if I’d been on my own without having to wait for or meet up with anyone, and that’s way more my style.
Where’s my ride back to town?
I Skipped Mount Bromo
I’d originally planned on doing the sunrise hike at Mount Bromo in-between Yogyakarta and Ijen, but while in Yogyakarta I found out that Bromo was closed off to tourists due to a volcano alert. I was secretly relieved because the thought of schlepping all the way there and back sounded like the last thing I wanted to do (it would have been about a day and a half worth of travel), but also bummed because it’s such an epic sight in Indonesia.
The hiker I’d driven up to Ijen with told me he’d gone to Bromo the day before, ignored the volcano warnings, and did the hike anyway. WHAT?!! I didn’t even know you could access the track when there was a volcano warning, and I certainly didn’t want to make all the effort of getting up there only to be turned away. Maybe I need to start breaking the rules more often or take more risks.
The crossing from Java to Bali
I Got Scammed Twice On The Bus To Bali
And the crown jewel on this glorious week in Java? Getting scammed not once, but twice while heading back to Bali.
It should have been easy: catch the ferry near Banyuwangi, hop on the airconditioned bus from the ferry terminal to Denpasar, reward myself with a long hot shower and room service at my hotel in Seminyak. I got dropped off at the ferry terminal and immediately greeted by someone who looked like they worked there. When I said I was headed to Denpasar, he whisked me away to a bus that had DENPASAR written over the windshield. The bus would drive onto the ferry and then carry on into Bali without my needing to transfer. Sounded good to me!
He was loading my bag onto the bus and motioning me to my seat when I realized I’d been led to the local bus: the slower, non-airconditioned, full of smokers bus that I’d wanted to avoid. I kept protesting that I was on the wrong bus, that I wanted the airconditioned bus, but he didn’t understand me (or more likely pretended not to know what I meant). Worst of all, he charged me more than what I thought the airconditioned bus was meant to cost. I wasn’t 100% sure of the prices because I was lazy with my research, but I did remember reading somewhere that the local bus should have been 30,000 rupiah and the airconditioned bus 60,000. What did I pay for the local bus? 100,000. Meanwhile, nearly everyone on the bus had turned around to stare at me as I was protesting. Ugh.
Bus on the ferry from Java to Bali
I endured about 1.5 hours of waiting on that damn bus, both before boarding and while on the excruciatingly slow ferry, before we even started driving through Bali. I sat in my own sweat, held my breath whenever someone near me smoked, and tried to tune out to the sweet sound of the Glee soundtrack through my earbuds.
Then, maybe about a half hour from our destination, the bus pulled over and a few guys came on board asking if anyone was going to Denpasar. I said I was, and they told me the bus was terminating early and that they’d take me there in a van for 60,000. Naturally, I was all hell-to-the-no, told them I’d already paid 100,000 to get to Denpasar and wasn’t paying any more, and basically told them to shove it. I thought for sure I was getting scammed again.
I promptly ate my words when the bus pulled into a terminal in Mengwi with nary another bus in sight. We were all told to get off here, in what was definitely not Denpasar. I was instantly hounded by drivers offering to take me to Denpasar, and when I balked at their quoted price of 200,000, they pointed to a sign citing fares from here to various other towns in Bali. At this point, it was clear that this had to be another scam. Why else would they have outrageously priced fares on a well-kept sign in a not oft-frequented bus terminal, with several drivers on hand waiting to pounce on travelers with their vans nearby?
I’m sure I’d be able to confirm that I was, in fact, scammed twice on my way from Java to Bali, but honestly I’ve still got PTSD from the experience and can’t bring myself to Googling it.