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Feeling supremely confident after Mt. Lawu, I decided to tackle the most active volcano in Indonesia – Mount Merapi, an hour west of Solo. I’m not in reckless things, but you have to agree that the title certainly adds a lot of excitement and thrill to the hike. A popular option among foreign tourists is to start with a guide at 1 am to reach the summit for sunrise. Sounded fantastic to me. I rolled into Selo, the base village north of Merapi, with an Indonesian woman and her 2 children piled on the back of my scooter. Her husband’s motorbike couldn’t handle all the steep inclines of Ketep pass and the family was by the roadside trying to fix it when I stopped to ask for directions. And naturally as we were all going to the same place, the woman and her kids hopped on behind me for the remaining 5 kms. Arriving in Selo, they asked me where I was headed to and I replied New Selo, which is the true base camp where the trail starts, and the husband took me to the turn where the road forks. Indonesians build some impossible roads; I felt like I was struggling up a vertical rise. After 15 minute, I arrived at a row of warungs with a big NEW SELO sign on top. They were all closed; not a soul around. Not a single one. The air was crisp, cold, and smoky under the orange light of a couple of lamp posts. Where was basecamp and other hikers? Dejectedly, I turned around, but on the way down, I stopped by a local’s house to ask and he pointed me slightly off across from the road and said basecamp. I said, yes, basecamp, I’m looking for basecamp. I looked at the direction he pointed and couldn’t see a thing so I decided that he wasn’t understanding what I was asking. And I clearly didn’t understand him, because the next day, I would find out that it was indeed basecamp where he had pointed. But it was so dark that it looked like any of the other houses in the village. Back at Selo, after 2 dinners, I found my way to a couple of lodging and guide houses. As I parked my bike in front of them, I heard a French dad and his son talking from across the street. I turned to say hello and asked for information. They told me how they got a guide and how much they paid and where they were staying. We talked for a little while and they offered to take me into their group and split the cost. Perfect, just as I had wished. But first we would need to find the guide and negotiate with him. To keep the story short, I met “Superman” – the owner of one of the 2 tour guide lodges. He quoted me 300,000 rupiahs for a guide, and 150,000 for a room in his house. It was steep, as much as the French team were paying in total for 2. After much discussing, Superman offered me a great deal of 200,000 rupiahs ($18) for both room and a group guide. Honestly it was a great deal, but I said no. Superman didn’t make a great first impression on me, and as the conversation went, I didn’t like the vibe of how he ran things. I felt like he was trying to push me to join his son’s group of hikers, and he was also trying to scare me away from hiking without a guide early in the morning, which was exactly what I decided to do in the end. I found a cheap homestay and went to bed early, setting my alarm for 4:30 a.m. Luckily, the home stay is right next door to a mosque which started blasting prayers at 2:30 in the morning. An hour later, after admitting that I could not ignore all the loudspeakers pointing at my window, I grumpily got up and got ready. By 4, I was at New Selo. I had the sleeping bag around me again as a jacket, but it was surprisingly warm so I took it off right away. A group of 3 young Indonesians were getting ready and we made acquaintances. Unfortunately, one of the guys in the group got sick so I left by myself, thinking I would see them either at the top or on my way down so we could chat more. I never saw any of them on the trail and assumed that they had to turn back to take care of their sick friend. The beginning 45 minutes was mostly dirt trail and fairly well trodden so I didn’t have any problem following the path with my headlamp, and later, in the soft lights of dawn. I was walking on a ridge with open views over the flanks on both sides. To my back, Mount Merbabu was so elegant and gentle. There was no way I could make it to the summit for sunrise, but luckily, the open terrain and low sitting clouds meant that I could still catch the sun rising out from the fluffy white blanket.

Mount Merbabu, Gunung Merbabu, Indonesia

stately Merbabu

sunrise, Mount Merapi, Gunung Merapi, Indonesia DSCN4622 By the time the sun had peeked out from the clouds, the trail got rocky but was fairly easy to navigate in the daylight, and I thought with caution, I could even hike that part in the dark. So far it had been surprisingly not too challenging. 2 hours and a half after I started, I made it to the base of the crater where I ran into the French group on their way down. We were happy to meet again and exchange our news. They were worried that I was outside the night before when the rain was pouring, but I happily reported back that I found a warm clean place and was soundly asleep then. They warned me that the ascent up the crater would be the most difficult part. The rocks were blown up during explosions into fine powdery black grains. Like stepping on a sand dunes, you slide down considerably for each step up. And since I was wearing open toed sandals, it would be quite uncomfortable with all the particles slipping inside. But I was elated, I was so close, and I was proud of myself for making it solo. This was not gonna stop me. Of course not. We said goodbye and I eagerly hopped forward, at the same time as a group of 4 young Indonesians.

Mount Merapi, Gunung Merapi, Indonesia

Mount Merapi crater walk

And damn my butt was kicked! Hardcore! At one point, I had to take off my sandals and socks so my toes could dig in deeper and grip firmer. But I couldn’t walk barefoot for long because the sun hadn’t been out long enough to warm the ground. Luckily, shortly after, I remembered my riding gloves and promptly put them on, climbing up on four whenever possible. I was panting way harder after 15 minutes than the whole trail before. Not what I expected it. On the other hand, the challenge was fun. How often do you get to hike up the crater of an active volcano? You look around when you take a mini break and the landscape is menacing – all black as a result of complete destruction. It took me a good 25 minutes to get past the sandy part before we hit the boulders. By this time, despite the complete lack of mutual language understanding, I had become a member of the Indonesian group and they were kind enough to show me the path to maneuver past the rocks. DSCN4667 DSCN4671 DSCN4694 DSCN4695 Another 10 minutes and I reached the crater rim. And wow! I definitely didn’t know what to expect and was so taken aback at the sight. You have been walking up the mountain for 3 hours, and all of a sudden it’s a sheer drop right in front of your eyes into a ragged hole. Sulphur was spewing out from cracks.  I was awed and humbled. I could easily slip down. It was extraordinary, even surreal. There was no magma but I was reminded of the lava boat tour on the Big Island. Feeling small and fragile at the power of nature. Such a sight to behold. DSCN4713 DSCN4717

I have to admit right away that I didn’t intend it to be that way. My plan was to leave Solo, my base city, at noon and start climbing at 1:30 pm so I could reach the summit at dusk and walk down a warung to have hot food and to lay down my sleeping bag, and then wake up to a beautiful sunrise the next day. Things didn’t go as planned right from the start. Before leaving Solo, I had to rent a sleeping bag. Given most people’s limited English here, and my non existant Indonesian, it was a struggle to communicate what I needed, to coordinate, and to find my way to the shop (which turned out to be a students’ outdoors club). I didn’t get to Cemoro Kandang, one of the 2 trailheads at Gunung Lawu till a little before 3pm. After reassuring the folks at the registration office that I’d be just fine by myself, I eagerly started, and got lost almost right away. The next hour was spent huffing puffing as I ran up and down trying to find the right track. Turned out that a sign should have pointed up instead of to the left. It was 4 by the time I set out again, and I panicked a little, not so much because it was a late start, but because I had doubts about my skills now. It’d been a long time since I last hiked.

Fortunately I made it to Post 1 in good time, and again by Post 2, and by then I’d had a significant confidence boost. Lights were starting to fade. I calculated that if I kept up the pace, I could make it to the top by 9pm. That didn’t sound too bad. And more importantly, by now my body was getting used to it. My heart wasn’t pounding anymore; my legs kept pushing forward steadily. I was also motivated by what I glimpsed of what must have been a beautiful sunset. As the sun descended behind the clouds that circled around the middle of the twins Mount Merapi and Mount Merbabu to the west, it cast a golden glow over the vast valley with towns snaking around the mountains. Though the night view had its own charm and peace, I really wished then that I hadn’t wasted so much time in the beginning.

hiking Mt Lawu, gunung Lawu, sunset

 

hiking Mount Lawu, gunung Lawu

sunset over Mt Merapi and Mt Merbabu

I was on schedule when I reached Post 4 and tackled the last leg. About 100m after Post 4, the trail leveled for a while and then sloped down. I panicked thinking I must have missed the sign again. I traced back, didn’t see any sign, walked that section again and still there was no indication. I couldn’t see the terrain and the mountains well to guess which way the trail was headed toward, and my experience in the beginning made me doubt myself. In the end, I decided to turn back to sleep at Post 4 and wait till the morning. Dinner was a bag of egg coated peanuts that I’d been snacking along the way. And I was out of water. I’d brought 2 small water bottles; one I dropped right from the beginning as I was running looking for the trail, and the other I just finished thinking I was close to the warung. I found a bottle lying inside Post 4, cap already twisted open, but the water inside still almost full to the top, and after much looking and smelling, I gave it a try. No taste. Lucky me!

Given my condition, I was surprised that I had a relatively good night sleep, waking up only once near the morning because I had to pee and then realized that I was hungry, thirsty, and cold. I semi fell back to sleep, turning left and right and left again with strange dreams. I dreamt that it was a popular sunrise hike and people lined up like pilgrims to walk up at midnight, including 2 friends from college. But of course not a soul was around. Like I said, there are 2 trails going up Mount Lawu. The other one is a lot more popular with Hindu pilgrims visiting a holy well and there are a few warungs servicing along the way, while the one I was on was completely deserted.

At 6, I finally rose and after 10 minutes examining the surrounding, determined that there is indeed only 1 trail. The morning was cold so I fashioned my sleeping bag as a coat and went the direction that I’d gone twice the day before. In the daylight, I could now see that although the trail descends, it doesn’t go down the slope to the left but wraps around the cliff to my right. Indeed only 150m after where I abandoned it the night before, the trail turns and the climbs up. I was kicking myself wishing I’d pressed on a little more. I was so close!

The rest of the trip was a lot less eventful and a lot more social. At the summit I met two young Indonesians and after half an hour admiring the beauty around us and taking photos with each other, they brought me down to the warung that I had hoped for last night. I was ravenous; the steamy hot rice tasted damn good just by itself. I met another group of Indonesians here, and one girl speaks very good English. She said this warung is extremely popular among Indonesian hikers as it has been there for 23 years, and you can indeed see all kinds of logos from hiking clubs all over the country.

I hiked down using the pilgrims’ route and started out with the newly acquainted Indonesians, but we parted away shortly after as I had to hurry down.

It was a half success half failure case. It didn’t work out the way I’d envisioned, but in the end, I summited and descended safely, saw some beautiful mountains, and regained a lot of self-confidence, which was very important, as Mount Merapi, the most active volcano in Indonesia, was my next goal.

hiking mount Lawu, gunung Lawu, Indonesia

hiking mount Lawu, gunung Lawu, Indonesia

 

hiking mount Lawu, gunung Lawu, Indonesia

 

hiking mount Lawu, gunung Lawu, Indonesia

Want to spend a few days in this idyllic island group north of Central Java? If you’ve done any research, you might think it’s fairly straightforward: starting from Semarang, take a bus to Jepara, hop on a ferry or fast boat (or charter plane if you have the money to drop) and bam, you’re in paradise.

The ferry time from Jepara to Karimunjawa is available on a few websites and they’re fairly consistent, but I couldn’t find certain information on the bus from Semarang to Jepara, and I thought no problem, I could figure it all out once I was in Semarang. It’s always much easier on the ground.

And it is. But my big mistake was that I asked around at my hostel and tried to call various numbers from brochures. People don’t always pick up, and when they do, they might not speak enough English to communicate with me.

In the end, I did get all the information I needed, but it was too late and I had to ditch my island getaway weekend. Now I’m passing what I’ve gathered onto you so you don’t have to waste time and can plan better than I did.

There are 3 important things to remember:

1. The first thing to do in Semarang is to stop by the Tourist Information Center TIC for the most up-to-date timetables.
2. You have to be in Jepara the day before you depart for Karimunjawa.
3. There are no ferries or boats departing Jepara on Thursday or Sunday (as of July 2014). There are no ferries or boats departing Karimunjawa on Friday (as of July 2014).

Now, step by step:

1.  Arriving in Semarang, immediately go to Tourist Information Center TIC for the most up-to-date shuttle and ferry schedules. The TIC is located at #147 Jalan Pemuda. It’s a big building and can be easily spotted thanks to the red Pandu taxis that park in front of it.

In the back of the TIC are the offices of Yoglosemar (Yogyakarta – Semarang and Solo – Semarang shuttle busses) and Central Java (Semarang – Jepara shuttle). If you arrive by a Yoglosemar bus, for your convenience, make sure you get off at the TIC (last stop).

2. Take the shuttle bus from Semarang to Jepara. This trip takes 3.5-4 hours. If you want to take the fast boat, you have to leave Semarang in the morning in order to arrive in Jepara before 4pm so you can go buy ticket before the office closes.

Here’s the shuttle schedule as of July 2014. The shuttle leaves from the Central Java office in the back of the TIC building.

(departing Semarang and Jepara at the same time)
Monday: 06:00, 10:00, 14:00, 17:00
Tuesday – Friday: 07:00, 10:00, 14:00, 17:00
Saturday – Sunday: 07:00, 10:00, 13:00, 16:00

3. Take the ferry or fast boat from Jepara to Karimunjawa. You need to buy ticket for the fast boat the day before. No need for the ferry. The fast boat takes 2 hours, the ferry takes 5 hours.

Jepara – Karimunjawa

Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat Sun
Fast boat 11:00 11:00 x x 14:00 11:00 x
Ferry 09:00 x 09:00 x x 09:00 x

 

Karimunjawa – Jepara

Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat Sun
Fast boat 14:00 x 11:00 x x 08:00 14:00
Ferry x 09:00 x 09:00 x 09:00

 

P/S 1: Semarang – Karimunjawa boat: This service starts July 26, 2014. The boat leaves Semarang at 9:00 on Saturday and returns from Karimunjawa at 13:00 on Sunday, taking 4 hours one-way. Sounds pretty convenient if you want a short weekend trip.

P/S 2: Tour packages are available, leaving from either Semarang or Jepara. 2d1n: Rs. 850,000/pax. 3d2n: 1,150,000/pax. 4d3n: Rs. 1,250,00/pax. Prices include accommodation, meals, transfers, boat tour, entrance fee. Contact at the Tourist Information Center in Semarang.

Central Myanmar, Dec 2013

Our second day in Myanmar, Nancy and I placed a bet: How many days would it take us to get templed out? Myanmar is definitely the country to find out your temple tolerance level. Everywhere we went, every direction we looked, temples! Even our Burmese monk friend wondered why his country attracts people. In his own words, “there is nothing but temples here.” (For the record, Nancy said 5, I said 6; we were both wrong.)

U Bein Bridge, Mandalay, teak foot bridge, Myanmar, BurmaU Bein bridge, one of the handful of attractions that is not a temple. It’s the world’s longest teak bridge.

Sunset at U Bein bridge, Burma, Myanmar, MandalayThe sunset a U Bein bridge is said to be the most photographed in Myanmar. One of these people got mad at me for walking close to the bridge poles and bombing his photo. Weird.

traditional burmese food buffet, enormous, deliciousAnother non-temple attraction. Burmese buffet makes my belly happy.

Central Myanmar is the religious hub of the country and we hit all the three cities with the most numbers of temples, pagodas, stupas, monasteries: Sagaing, Mandalay, and Bagain. Mandalay, the last royal capital, has been the country’s center of Buddhist higher learning and teaching since the 19th century. 20kms south across the Irrawaddy river is quiet Sagaing, where 6000 nuns and monks settle live their religious journey. Continue onto the southwest for 4 hours by car and you’re in Bagan. The capital of the first unified Burmese kingdom dating 1000 years back saw over 10,000 Buddhist structures erected on her land over 2 centuries, more than 2000 of which still survive till this day. (Yes, all of those numbers are correct.) Although we constantly joked about it, we were pleasantly surprised at our eagerness to visit temples after temples. Not only was the architecture unique and the sculptures impressive, the history was fascinating. We learned about the evolution of stupa styles, the rise of the Burmese kingdom, the influence of the conquered but highly sophisticated Mon people… One thing that blew my mind was their foresight in preserving history. Every temple had a dedicatory stone inscription that details the date and story of construction. Some of them were written in several languages (Burmese, the now extinct Pyu, Mon, Chinese, Pali). Of course not all inscriptions survive time and looting, but the remaining still provide a wealth of information on language, culture, and history. The other thing that blew my mind? The omnipresence of temples. In Bagan, no matter where you are, you cannot find any visual space uninhabited by temples. There is simply no escape. And there, we finally clocked out, at 7 days!

Shwenanda monastery, teak temple, Mandalay, burma, myanmarBeautiful teak carving at the Shwenandaw monastery, built in traditional Burmese style Read the rest of this entry »

standing Buddha, Ananda temple, Bagan, Burma, MyanmarStanding Buddha, Ananda temple, Bagan: The temple has four massive standing Buddhas, each 9.5m, facing the 4 cardinal directions.

Buddha behind bars, Ananda temple, Bagan, Burma, MyanmarBuddha behind bars, Ananda temple, Bagan

Ananda temple, Bagan, Burma, Myanmar

 

sitting Buddha, Manuha temple, Bagan, Myanmar, BurmaSitting Buddha, Manuha temple, Bagan: built by Manuha, the captive Mon king, the colossal statues are housed in a tight vault, depicting king’s feeling of confinement living under his captors.

declining Buddha, Manuha temple, Bagan, Burma, MyanmarDeclining Buddha, Manuha temple, Bagan: Manuha praying to never return to the life of a captive.

 

Buddha statue, Sagaing Hill, Burma, MyanmarBuddha techno-style, Sagaing Hill

Bagan, Burma, Myanmar

Bagan, Burma, Myanmar

Mandalay, Burma, Myanmar

giant bell, Sagaing, Mandalay, Burma, MyanmarThe giant bell of Mingun. At 90 tons (or 55555 viss, Burmese old unit of measurement), it was the heaviest functioning bell in the world up till 2000.

We arrived at Manila airport and waited for our domestic connection to Cagayan de Oro; several flights south to Mindanao were cancelled one after another but luckily ours was only shortly delayed. Little did we know the next few days the rain would be our loyal companion. From the uninspiring sewage flooded city of Cagayan de Oro, we fled by bus to Surigao to take the ferry to Siargao to check out Philippine’s most famous surf spot: Cloud 9. The waves were shitty. Local surfers said they’d never seen it so junk before. Trying to make the most out of Surigao del Norte, I conspired a side trip to Sohoton Coves. Based on the spotty information available, I made the bet that we could make it in 24 hours: first take a public boat from Siargao to the island of Socorro at 4 pm, spend the night in Socorro, hire a boat the next morning to Sohoton and back, then board another public boat to Hayanggabon port in Mindanao mainland at 1 pm, hop on a shuttle or bus to Surigao to catch the 7pm ferry to Cebu. The logistics was tight but most of it it turned out surprisingly well. The only part that did not was the key part: visiting Sohoton. The rain turned stormy in Socorro; only 1 beat-up boat showed up in the morning at the ferry terminal and the guy wasn’t honest with me so I declined his offer to take me to the coves. We retreated back to our cockroach cave, where I had to wear a cap to go to the bathroom to avoid getting any roach eggs falling into my hair. In the afternoon, on our way to Hayanggabon, as we battled the rough sea and everyone tried their best to keep windows and doors and canvases in place, we felt relieved that we’d made the right decision to not take the rickety outrigger in the morning. In the best case scenario, we would have been soaked.

It was ill-timed to spend that week in Mindanao, yet, we were lucky enough to escape the worst. Heavy downpour started the day before our arrival, and the day after we arrived in northern part of the island, state of calamity was declared in the south. On Friday as we left Mindanao from the port of Surigao City, the low pressure developed into a tropical depression. All flights to and from Cagayan and Surigao were cancelled. After almost 2 weeks of non-stop rain, 40000 families were displaced.

the boardwalk, cloud 9, siargao, The board walk at Cloud 9, Siargao

banana boat, siargaoTaking the banana boat in Siargao Read the rest of this entry »

We took them all!

Tricycles, or trikes, pedaled or motorized:trikes

inside trike

Another model:

trike

Nice bus:

nice busLess nice bus

less nice bus

Shuttle van:van

The famed decked-out jeepney: cheap and convenient, only 8 pesos a ride, but at risk of diesel exhaust poisoning.

jeepney

Another color scheme:

jeepney (2)

Public bangka (outrigger boat): if you take them on rough days like we did, you’ll get a free workout for your arms, from holding down windows and canvas flies to keep the water out.

bangka

Ferry: this one was 16 hours from Surigao to Cebu. I didn’t pee not even once. Flanked on 2 sides 3ms away from our berths were the men and women bathroom so we periodically got a lovely whiff. But at least we stayed dry in the middle and didn’t got splashed on by the rain and the water.

ferry (2)

ferry

Not pictured: habal-habal, customized motorcycle taxis. They usually have canopy on top and a few other adds-on to increase carrying capacity, e.g. panels on two sides. In Siargao, we rode from Cloud 9 to the ferry terminal on 1: the driver, me, Col, our 2 backpacks and 1 carry-on suitcase. My ass was ready to fall off the seat at all time.

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