The temple complexes of Borobudur and Prambanan were built in 9th century by rivalling Javanese royal dynasties. First Borobudur was built by the Buddhist Sailendra dynasty. Then about 50 years later the Hindu dynasty Sanjaya built Prambanan not far away. From Jokja you can visit both complexes in one (rather long) day on an organised tour. I found myself in Borobudur very early in the morning at 6am – right at the moment it opens – before sunrise.
Internet is full of information and photos of Borobudur as it is the number one tourist attraction in Indonesia. So I won’t copy paste Wikipedia. My own impression of Borobudur was initially a slight disappointment. It is essentially a large hill circled by concentric corridors. Corridors are filled with bas-reliefs and the walls are full of sitting Buddha statues. But if you have travelled South East Asia and particularly if you have visited Angkor Wat, perhaps you expect something more unusual. This is the first approach of Borobudur:
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I was drawn by Indonesia as if it were a forbidden fruit. Many of my traveller friends shared quite a negative opinion of the place. I read about the squalid conditions, road chaos and abject poverty reigning particularly in Jakarta. Also Singapore acquaintances professed that Indonesia is “too much”. Thus it was with some trepidation that I bought my plane tickets in the direction of South East. I decided to start in a softer spot – in Yogyakarta. Colloquially referred to as Jogja, it is the cultural heart of Java, and by extension of the whole country, Java dominating the archipelago demographically and politically. Nonetheless I made myself a promise to go to Jakarta, despite all the negativity.
By Indonesian standards Jogja is a calm and pleasant place. Still during my first days there I was driven to helpless rage by a neverending rain of shouts from any and all: “Hey, taxi! Taxi? Transport? Massage? Massage! Motorbike! Transport!” Pretty much any ostensible white tourist is subjected to this treatment. To answer to these characters makes things worse – you get trapped in a whole spiel starting with superficial interest in who you are ending in insistent offers to take you for an excursion for a whole day tomorrow, whole week, whole month… At some point I resolved not to react at all and started wearing headphones to block out the noise, although some just increased the volume or started using the car horns right next to me! With time of course I got used to it and adopted a stoic approach: just ignore.
It is the rain season now in Indonesia. Every day like a clock around 2.30pm the water starts falling from the sky in buckets. The rest of the time too the sky of Java is covered with clouds and the rain can suddenly start. A random Jogja street:
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Singapore resulted in quite a few posts on my blog – and this post is the last one in the series. Gardens by the Bay is a pretty unique complex which is still being finalised and is being opened to the public in stages. It is so new that is is not even mentioned in the most recent Lonely Planet. We noticed it from the 55th floor of Marina Bay Sands. Later a number of fellow travellers gushed to me about its wonders, so on my last full day in Singapore I set off to explore what all the fuzz was about.
You can reach the Gardens from the Marina on foot. At first as you enter the park, you are a bit at a loss as to what there is to visit. The fist two large objects you notice are the two glasshouses – resembling glass mountains – the Flower Dome and the Cloud Forest. On the day of my visit the first of these was closed, so I went the Cloud Forest. And was immediately impressed by this waterfall right by the entrance!
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Sentosa, yet another man-conceived and made Singapore attraction. This small island to the South of Singapore mainland was created as a huge amusement park that includes all entertainment options imaginable, from beaches to parks to hotels to various amusements. We spent several hours there, although we did not go to the local analogue of Disneyland, the Universal Studios. Instead I pencilled two activities that I had never done before. The first one was Segway riding – I really wanted to know what all the fuzz was about (well to be fair the fuzz is old news by now). In fact it turned out fun and really easy to ride a Segway, so I am even somewhat surprised that the euphoric predictions did not come true in that Segway has not conquered Western urban space as Jeff Bezos expected.
You reach Sentosa by metro, it’s the last stop on one of the lines. Afterwards you take a Skytrain which crosses the waterway and stops in several places on the island. On to Sentosa:
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Singapore’s zoo is perhaps the best in the world. It is particularly well known for the living conditions created for the animals that are as close as possible to those in the wild. I must say though that the more zoos I visit, the more I feel like I am observing a prison and the animals are the inmates. What incessant torture it must be – to be looked at constantly, shouted at, laughed at, thrown some weird objects… Singapore zoo is one of the most humane though. And many species survive only thanks to the zoos. So the institution itself is to be commended, perhaps.
The zoo is rather far from the centre, you first take the metro – many stops – and then a bus. The trip is worth it.
Magnificent white tigers, apparently they have blue eyes:
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Chinatown and Little India would no doubt be considered the historical heritage of Singapore.
But in recent times Singapore’s superman city planners have so revamped the city centre that it is the artificial haven of Marina Bay that has become its clear focus. Marina Bay was created at the mouth of the Singapore river by creating an artificial peninsula which is crowned by Marina Bay Sands. This building – a luxurious hotel – has become the landmark, the recognisable symbol of Singapore thanks to its unusual ship-like shape. It can be see from all over the city and of course it glows in the dark, adding to the magic. It is also famous for its rooftop pool on floor 55, where the water drops suddenly at the edge creating an illusion of the abyss. Apparently Marina Bay Sands invoked a significant controversy as it was being projected, people seeing it as a waste of money and an example of megalomania. But today the controversy has died down as the project is an obvious success. Sometimes strong arm decisions play out well.
Marina Bay Sands:
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The choice of food in Singapore is fantastic. We went for the local specialities and the most famous local speciality is definitely the chilli crab. The recipe was invented in the 50s by a local crab saleswoman who mixed chilli with tomato sauce and created this rather extravagant dish. Over time the recipe got so popular that today even Malaysia declared that in fact it was invented there! It seems a local sport in South East Asia to argue about who invented this or that tradition. In Indonesia I witnessed some rather negative Indonesian emotions towards Malaysia which apparently also pretends it invented the batik weaving – Indonesia’s pride. It would be funny if it weren’t so serious.
We checked out the chilli crab in the restaurant owned by the son of the recipe’s inventor, called simply Roland’s Restaurant. Apparently the prime minister eats crab there on the occasion of the Chinese New Year. We decided if it’s good enough for the prime minister, it will be good enough for us. I must say it is quite impossible to eat crab in an orderly fashion. Its claws and bones need to be broken with a special instrument, rather like scissors. Everything is practically designed so that under the pressure of these scissors the bones would fly out of your sauce-slippery hands into random directions! After the dinner I looked like I had just left a battlefield – my blue t-shirt was all covered in red traces. To top it off, they don’t provide any proper tissues, and the water in the bathroom is dosed – so you have no chance to clean yourself. Fun!
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Chinatown is the quarter of Singapore with the most character. For a month in the run up for the Chinese New Year, the streets of Chinatown are conquered by a street market. In the evening it is quite impossible to pass through these streets, so busy it gets. I was staying for a couple of days in the centre of Chinatown, and at times the crowd simply stood still, creating a road block on the way to my hotel. This was on the border between annoying and exciting. My hotel was also on that border – a very particular experience – an old Chinese opera turned into a guesthouse. Between the two world wars the richest people of Singapore gathered in that opera house and let themselves go. Nowadays the hotel is all red inside – and with scarce daylight.
The talisman of the coming year, the Horse, competes with the passing traffic on the main street right next to the Chinatown:
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At the moment I am in the town of Ubud on Bali, Indonesia. Contrary to expectations, Bali revealed itself a very pleasant and relaxed place, very different from Java. Thanks to the movie “Eat. Pray. Love”, in which Julia Roberts implemented the last part of the trilogy right here, Ubud became a magnet for various enlightenment seekers. Despite this superficial fame, it easily wins you over with its amiable and relaxed vibe. Thanks to the particular brand of tourists it also possesses the relevant infrastructure.
After seven months of travel, I am not always super excited about visiting another temple or museum to add to the long line of similar establishments just recently visited. I do get excited when I get a chance to try something new. In Ubud I therefore attended yoga classes for the first time in my life. I found them quite entertaining. In some way yoga reminded me of my contemporary dance classes. Thanks to the dance stretching, it was relatively easy for me to assume various asana positions. Just now I was in another class, this time Tibetan bowl meditation. In general meditation is hard. This time though I managed to catch several times this fleeting moment of concentration when your mind is truly empty, with no thoughts and no judgements, and you are simply aware of yourself and your surroundings.
Today I was in the right mood to process the photos from Singapore Botanic Gardens. We came to Singapore by plane from Kuching. Despite the humid heat, we loved Singapore. Do not believe when they say there is nothing to do there! True, there are no ancient temples and the stereotypes are correct: the streets are sterile and when you try to buy a chewing gum, they look at you as if you’re mad (in our innocence we actually did get that very reaction in a random shop). And yet we were amazed at the perfect organisation and thought put into this place, at the choice of recently created world class tourist attractions and at the magnificent food. The first such attraction – the Singapore Botanic Gardens!
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