May 2024

Culture Jolt of Java


We landed in Probolinggo at 2:00 a.m.  Scott is not impressed.

We landed in Probolinggo at 2:00 a.m. Scott is not impressed.

The lovely ride to Probolinggo

Last we left off, we had boarded our bus to Java. The bus was actually quite lovely and luxurious – for the mere $20 per person we had paid, we got nice big seats that reclined nearly completely horizontal, a nice pillow and blanket, and a little box which contained a sweet bun and iced jasmine tea. We were pretty much the only Westerners on the bus, so it was clear that tourists don’t travel often to Java.

We slept most of the ride, awakening only once at approximately 1 a.m, when the bus stopped and we weren’t sure what was going on. After looking around confusedly, the bus driver motioned at us that it was food time. They served a giant buffet out in the middle of nowhere in Java! Neither Scott nor I were hungry (and having spent most of our time in Indonesia suffering from “Delhi Belly”), we opted for some watermelon. We also met the only other Westerner on our bus, Savannah, and it turned out we were going to the same place with the same plan.

The majestic Bromo

Now, the Lonely Planet book describes Probolinggo as a pretty small and desolate town, and the only reason you go there is to see Gunung Bromo – a giant active volcano, best viewed by sunrise. What surprised us the most upon arriving was that a travel agent was actually open, and was telling us we could go to Bromo that morning (in approximately 30 minutes) to see the sun rise. We tried to haggle with the guy on a price, but he was full of crap and told us that he works for the government and he can’t give us a cheaper price. We finally obliged to pay the exorbitant $45/each deal which would get us up to Bromo, and a large comfortable bus to Yogyakarta, about 10 hours away. Our friend, Savannah, would not agree to such an expensive deal and paid much less just to go up the volcano. She’d figure out the transport out after we got back (and turns out she was way smarter for doing so).

Kenna at the sunrise at Bromo

Kenna at the sunrise at Bromo

After loading into a really shitty mini bus, we started driving. The weirdest part about driving at 2 a.m through the town was that so many people were awake – many were eating, watching tv and riding bicycles around, some even with true fire torches. We took a really windy and crazy road up to the top of the lookout point for Bromo, and upon arriving, were thankful we had survived the scary ride up. We were promised a nice 4×4 jeep to take us up to the mountain, but ended up going up in the decrepit mini bus, sans suspension…the first of many lies.

On top of the mountain, it was COLD, which was a weird feeling considering we’ve spent the better part of two months sweating incessantly. We had to wear pants and shirts and a jacket…and people were trying to sell us even heavier jackets to wear. The locals were bundled up like it was -30 in Edmonton. 🙂

We watched an amazing sunrise over Bromo at about 5 a.m. It was stunning. It was then time to go down and do a hike up to the volcano, and after another sketchy and harrowing ride (where one section of the road barrier was broken off the side of the mountain and you almost had to go off the side to avoid a massive hole in the ground), we made it. They had taken us right down to the crater of Bromo, and it was amazing. There was volcano smoke on ground when we arrived, which gave everything a mystical feel. Coupled with many locals trying to sell horse rides up the steep incline, the atmosphere made us feel like we were somewhere completely different – like Peru or Mongolia.

Ganung Bromo

Ganung Bromo

Seeing Bromo up close was amazing. It smelled strongly of sulphur and the landscape was like being on the moon – it was clear it hadn’t been long since it last erupted, which was a bit disconcerting. If that thing blew, we had about a 30 minute hike back to our van, and then a 20 minute drive back to higher ground.

Probolinggo: Not a Friendly Place

We made it back to Probolinggo around 9 a.m., having essentially pulled an all-nighter on nothing but a pizza at 4:30 the day before and a few pieces of bread we had scrounged up that morning. We got back to our rip-off travel agent place (which was somewhat bizarre, because the people were the same, but the location was completely different). Aside from our lying travel agent sleazes, the people in Probolinggo were not very welcoming: a school child spat on Scott as we walked by and a group of them started yelling at us and making obscene gestures.

I had to remind the travel guy several times that I had paid for a big bus. He kept trying to sell us on a shitty little shuttle bus, but I wasn’t having any of it – they cram those overly full and it wouldn’t be comfortable for our 10 hour ride. I wanted a big one, with lounging chairs, pillows and blankets. He finally conceded – “Ok miss, you have big bus. It come at 10:15.”

Well, 10:40 rolled around, and all that showed up was a small shuttle, which our friend Savannah had paid a much cheaper price for. I knew no big bus was coming. They stole my more expensive fee! We confronted them on it, to the reply of: “well, I can call a big bus now, but I don’t know when it comes, and this small bus is right here.” We asked for some of our money back. Nope. Their reply “we aren’t forcing you on this bus, you can still take the big bus.” They basically manipulated us onto the small one. So after throwing a stink, and them assuring us that us and Savannah were the only passengers (which was total garbage, a guy named Matt whom we later became great friends with was also on the bus, and some local unfriendly who wouldn’t talk to us and would shoe us away like flies if we tried to make conversation). So far, we were not impressed with Java.

Friendly Yogyakarta

Watching a student make "Batik"

Watching a student make "Batik"

We spent our first day in Yogya with Matt, setting out to see the “Kraton,” where the sultan lives. After walking through a market-lined street which sold everything from fake wallets, to clothes, to fruit, we saw a local TV show being filmed. One of the crew came to talk to us, and completely changed our itinerary. He told us to go to the Kraton another day before 10 a.m., to go to Prambanan (Hindu Temple) and Borobudur (Buddhist monument) on the public bus and NOT via a tour, which we had planned on, and that we should immediately head off to the Arts Center. We didn’t really know what the Arts Center was, but hey – if this local guy recommended it, then lets do it! Many other friendly locals helped us find the Center as we walked through the town. This place was like a 180 degree shift from Probolinggo.

It turned out that the Arts Center is a place where masters and students make “batik” – a very complicated and lovely form of art whereby fabrics are repeatedly dyed to make scenes, which are achieved by placing wax in the areas where colour is not desired. We spent quite some time here (and money), checking out this very interesting and unique form of art. Upon leaving, a fellow asked us what our plans were – we shrugged and said we didn’t really know. He then invited us to go to a leather puppet maker’s house – we thought that sounded pretty cool, so off we went. He sent us on a “rikshaw” – a contraption where a man cycles you in a sort of carriage in front. I was slightly concerned – the drivers looked to be about 80 years old and not in good health. The rikshaw drivers live in pretty derelict poverty – most would sleep in their carriages at night. Anyway, this dude took us through some pretty insane traffic, at a pace we could have walked faster than, and it took about 15 minutes. All for the equivalent of 50 cents.

A half-finished leather puppet

A half-finished leather puppet

The puppet maker lived in a pretty nice house, and showed us the process of making puppets…which were very intricate and beautiful, and take about 2 weeks to make. After showing us some of his prized puppets, he tried to sell us some. The best thing about the puppet maker was how enthused and loving he was for each puppet he created: the smile on his face, and the way he handled the puppets made it clear how passionate he is about his work. However, what we would do with a leather puppet at home, I have no idea…so we passed. That was about it for our first day in Yogya – it was too rainy to go to the night market, and we needed a good sleep because we were planning to head to Borobudur at 5 a.m the next morning.


At the ungodly hour of 4:40 a.m, we met our travel buddy Matt to start the journey to Borobudur. We had asked a few people how to get there by public bus – first we had to get a local bus to the main bus station and transfer to another one. Well, it never came, and after 45 minutes of waiting, we decided that we had probably missed the bus, and took a cab to the station. As soon as we got out of the cab, somebody yelled “Borobudur!” and we followed him onto a bus. But the sneaky bastard didn’t ask for payment until we were well on our way, and then demanded 25,000 Rp. ($2.50) each. We’re like, what the hell? It costs $2.50 for the bus at home! We were told 10,000 Rp! But we grudgingly paid it anyway. We watched as the locals paid, and determined that no one was paying more than about 10,000 Rp. Damn con artists got us again, and we were mad.

Borobudur was an amazing 9th-century Buddhist monument, with six levels in sort of a pyramid shape. Each level has spiritual significance in the journey to Buddhist enlightenment – the first two represent the world of desires, the second two represent the world of forms, and top two represent the formless world, where the ultimate Buddhist is able to exist in poverty, with nothing, because he is truly enlightened. Consequently, the main structure at the top is empty, representing this ultimate goal. The monument was abandoned sometime in the 15th century as most of the country turned to Islam, and only rediscovered in 1814 and cleared out in 1873. It was really fascinating.

The Buddhist monument of Borobudur

The Buddhist monument of Borobudur

We had hired a guide to take us through, as they’re fairly cheap and you get so much more out of the experience. He was able to take us through the monument and read all the images, which described stories about Buddha. The stories described how Buddha was born of immaculate conception, of a mother Maya (remind you of Mother Mary?), and how he went on to do great things with knowledge and community, which is what Mahayana Buddhism is all about, not to be confused with Ishayana, which is all about self-enlightenment.

And then, while we were lounging up at the top, something cool happened – a bunch of local university students asked our guide if they could have permission to speak with us. It turned out they were from a remote area of Indonesia that didn’t get a lot of tourists, and they were trying to practice their English for a final exam for their Cross-Cultural Understanding class (lots of jokes about CCU ensued). We figured that part of their final exam was to go find some white people and strike up a conversation with them.

Exhausted, we headed back to the bus stop to take the bus back. This time, we wouldn’t get screwed on the bus fare, and made it back to the hotel with few incidents.


The Hindu temple of Prambanan

The Hindu temple of Prambanan

After a long nap, we again met up with Matt to head out to another monument, Prambanan. This temple was built around the same time as Borobudur (850 A.D.), but instead of being Buddhist, this one was Hindu. (Our guide said something about the architects of both temples being brothers-in-law or something, and competing with each other. Also, it seems that Hinduism and Buddhism are very complimentary). This one was abandoned in 930, likely because of a volcano eruption, and was only rediscovered in 1811. It was rebuilt several times, but the massive earthquake that hit Central Java in 2006 pretty much destroyed it again. We were lucky – the only temples we were able to enter finished being restored only a month ago.

Prambanan is the largest temple in Indonesia, and is composed of 224 structures. Again, we had hired guide and he was able to tell us all about the images written on the walls. There were some pretty interesting stories, mostly sexual – some about women raping men, some about lions penetrating women’s ovaries, some about monkeys biting off penises, some less controversial like the story of Krishna. Weird stuff.

Gross meal number two

After the temple, we were going to go to see the Ramayana Ballet nearby, but first we needed food. The only places in sight were local places, so we decided to eat at one of them. We found a nice clean-looking place and went inside. It had some dishes sitting in the window, but they were just for show right? The menu was really simple, basically a choice of chicken curry, chicken breast, or beef. All three of us ordered the chicken curry – how could that make us sick? It’s hot right? “Sorry, only one left.” Oh oh… was he going to go get it out of the window? Also there was only one chicken breast left too. So one of us got beef. Sure enough, he walked over to the window, where this food had undoubtedly been left out all day, and served up our food. Everything was cold. And sure enough, Kenna found another worm (at least it was dead this time). After the worm, we all pretty much lost our appetites and prayed that the coming sickness didn’t come during the ballet and waited until we got back to the hotel.

Ramayana Ballet

Ramayana Ballet

Ramayana Ballet

The Ramayana Ballet was similar to the Balinese dancing that we saw previously in Bali, but this was much better. The plot actually made sense, the dancing was stunning, the costumes beautiful and the music was wonderful. Very satisfying to all the senses. Highly recommended if you ever visit Central Java.

After taking a taxi back to the hotel, we were all really hungry after not finishing our meals. So we went and got banana pancakes, and Kenna got cheese toast. And miraculously, no one ever got sick.


The following morning, we woke up and went to the Kraton, the sultan’s palace. It had really cool horse-drawn carriages, but not much else. Kenna was mostly entertained by talking to the chickens that were in cages everywhere – tomorrow night’s royal dinner perhaps?

Then we got on a flight to Jakarta, stayed in a pretty gross hotel near the airport because a ride into central Jakarta was apparently a 2-hr ride, and we didn’t have time for that. Everyone told us
to skip Jakarta anyways.

Now we’re on our way to Singapore. Until next time!

4 comments to Culture Jolt of Java

  • Gina

    Awesome photos, awesome stories!
    Miss you guys!

    xo Gina

  • Kenna

    Thanks G! Miss you tons! How’s he wedding dress search? Send me a message 🙂

  • Cheryl

    So Kenna, did you buy any batik? It’s beautiful! And these ruins and temples are just killing me – they’re just breathtaking.

    I can’t believe how small those ponies are! They are definitely too small for adults to be riding them.

  • Scott

    Yes, we bought some batik! Hopefully it looks good at home. And the temples here are amazing…and we haven’t even been to the wats in Cambodia yet!

    As for the tipping…we were irritated, because of the way the guy behaved. I think it’s very rude to balk at a DONATION…that was what bugged me. Not the amount.

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