Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Pulau Weh - scuba-diving off Sumatra's north-west tip

The second part of our trip to Indonesia involved a week's scuba-diving at Pulau Weh, a small island off the north west tip of Sumatra.

To get there from our previous destination, Yogyakarta, we had to fly to Banda Aceh via Jakarta. Flight and ferry timetables meant we had to spend a night in Banda Aceh before taking the next day's ferry for a two-hour trip to Pulau Weh. Most people know the name of Banda Aceh as it is the city closest to the epicentre of the 2004 tsunami, although you'd be hard put to know it now as much has been reconstructed. 31000 people died on that day.

Banda Aceh, February 2005

A lot of NGOs came to the city in the aftermath, and from a tourist point of view this had the negative effect of driving accommodation prices up artificially - room prices in BA do not reflect quality at all unfortunately!

Ferry from Banda Aceh to Sabang, capital of Banda Aceh

Map of Pulau Weh, showing dive sites

The ferry arrives at Balohan. Our dive club was situated at Gapang.

our dive club

It's a very quiet and idyllic location. We stayed in accommodation belonging to the dive centre, but there is other accommodation too. We had a choice of rustic eating places for our various meals:



another lunch option

tuna sandwich - made with fresh tuna!

our favourite dinner restaurant

freshly caught dinner!

Gapang Bay

looking to the island from out in a dive boat

One of our dives was on a tugboat wreck in Sabang harbour:

tugboat wreck

On the way back we stopped at some hot springs bubbling up from the sea floor in Pria Lot Bay:

another reminder of local volcanic activity
Here's some of the aquatic life that we saw on other dives (note that all photos with a date encrusted on them were taken by Rob Taylor (thanks Rob!)).

moray eel with attendant cleaner shrimp
not sure whether this is a green or hawksbill turtle

sea anemone

group of garden eels

clown fish in sea-anemone

This sea star looks striking but is actually quite harmful to the coral reefs - it's a crown of thorns, the second largest sea star in the world:

this type of sea star destroys the coral reef

On our last day we couldn't dive as it was a Friday and to respect local Muslim custom no boats go out diving or fishing. So we hired a scooter and visited some of the rest of the island.

vegetation, island interior

monitor lizard

Not far from Gapang is Indonesia's northernmost point, which is marked by a commemorative monument.

Indonesia's Point Zero

It's guarded by a group of aggressive monkeys, who are not above stealing anything they can get their hands on.

a few of the thieving monkeys

Thankfully we also met some nice locals!

visitors from Banda Aceh

Suggested reading:

A Diver's Guide to Reef Life by Andrea and Antonella Ferrari. A photographic field guide describing 1200 species of fish and other aquatic life that live on and around the world's coral reefs.

Suggested listening:

Here's an excerpt about Aceh on the BBC's From Our Own Correspondent October 25th 2011 programme.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Yogyakarta - Java's cultural capital

An hour's flight from Jakarta is Yogyakarta, Indonesia's cultural capital, often referred to as Yogya, where we had planned to stay 4 nights.

In Yogyakarta itself we started by visiting the Kraton, which is the local Sultan's palace complex, situated in the centre of Yogyakarta. Every morning there is a different performance of typical Javanese culture, and on the day we visited it was music:

Most of the performers were quite elderly.

After watching for a while we wandered around the palace complex.

in the Kraton

The current sultan still lives in the complex.

in the Kraton
ceiling, Kraton

It was in the toilets of the Kraton that I saw this amusing sign.

Afterwards we visited the nearby Taman Sari, which the Dutch called Waterkasteel. A 18th century former royal garden, today only the central bathing complex remains. 

Taman Sari

Taman Sari

Taman Sari

The next day we headed to Borobudur which is about 40km north-west from Yogya. As we didn't fancy taking public transport we used Rumah Guides, which is a community project organisation.

En route to Borobudur we stopped off in the village of Ngilpoh, which is locally famous for its ceramics. 

As they don't have a kiln to fire their ceramics, they use a method whereby the items to be fired are covered in dry grass which is then set alight. A man creates a draft using a hand-held device so that as many objects as possible are covered by the ashes:

Ngilpoh 'kiln'

It seemed to resemble pit-firing, but without a pit!

After lunch we headed to the day's main attraction: Borobudur.

approaching Borobudur

This 8th or 9th century Buddhist structure is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

stone carvings
stone carvings
Borobudur is surrounded by lush countryside

Unfortunately nobody knows who built it or why it was built.

gargoyle for water drainage

Built as a single large stupa, it has nine platforms. the lower six are square, and the upper three are circular. The upper platform contains 72 small pierced stupas surrounding a central large stupa.

Some of the 72 stupas on the upper platform

central stupa in the middle

panoramic view

Inside each pierced stupa is a statue of Buddha.

this stupa has been left uncovered to allow visitors to see the Buddha inside

It is the single largest Buddhist structure in the world.

Three kilometres east of Borobudur is the square-shaped Mendut Temple:

Inside are three statues, a three metre high Buddha flanked by bodhisattvas.

central Buddha statue 

Our last day started by a visit to Kaliurang, 25 km north of Yogya and situated at over 900m altitude. It is on the southern slopes of the volcano Gunung (Mount) Merapi, which last erupted in November 2010, ie about 7 months before our visit there, leaving a trail of devastation in its wake. Unfortunately cloudy weather prevented us from seeing "Fire Mountain".

sign reads "Mount Merapi National Park"

Some houses were destroyed in the last eruption, and some of these have been charmingly "graffitied".

On the way to our next stop we saw a warung (restaurant) advertising rabbit satay!

Our final stop was at the Prambanan temple complex. 

Also a UNESCO heritage site it is splendid in its own right but is often overshadowed by its more famous neighbour, Borobudur. Probably built about 50 years later these temples are dedicated to Hinduism however, not Buddhism.

statue of Nandi, mount of the god Shiva

statue of Brahma

bas relief

main shrine, dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva

Candi Sewu, literally the "thousand temples"

As we visited it late afternoon to beat the heat it was quite atmospheric with the light going when we left.

When we left Yogyakarta we had this view from the plane:

Mount Merapi?

Suggested reading: