BANDUNG/BALI, Indonesia: Whether you find yourself standing in a volcanic crater, walking under the sea or playing a traditional instrument, a trip to Indonesia will leave you wanting more.
For many people, Indonesia is best known for the island getaway of Bali, but with over 300 ethnic groups and a storied past, the country has much more to offer. For Lebanese people seeking an affordable and exciting escape from winter weather, with the added perk of not needing a visa to visit, Indonesia takes a top spot on a list of potential destinations.
If you are in the capital, Jakarta, a comfortable three-hour city-link train will take you to the historic city of Bandung, the heart of the Sundanese people and the capital of West Java province. Indirect flights from Beirut to Bandung are also available.
Although Bandung is the third-largest city in Indonesia, it has an intimate feel: Nestled among volcanoes and tea plantations, its narrow streets are lined with lush trees, and its climate is cool and pleasant.
Upon our arrival, our tour guide brought our group - invited by the Indonesian Embassy in Lebanon - to the Boemi Mitoha restaurant.
Sundanese food is delightful in its simplicity. Try the oseng daun pepaya, a vegetable dish made of papaya flowers; the bakwan jagung, corn fritters served with a variety of chili sauces and the gourami fish.
A colorful tour bus - better known as a “bandros” - waited for us outside Boemi Mitoha. A bandros ride around the city was an introduction to the contrasts of Bandung’s architecture, which varies between native elements and remnants of Dutch colonial times. Some of the buildings are a mix of both, such as the seat of the governor of West Java province, built in 1920 by the Dutch and now called Gedung Sate - like the satay skewer traditional dish - because of the metal spike on the roof of the imposing white building.
Sundanese people are keen to preserve their traditions. One institution working to do so is the Saung Angklung Udjo art center. SAU was originally created as a space to keep Sundanese music and dance culture alive by offering training to young children. The center puts on traditional puppet shows and dance performances and offers hourlong workshops for tourists on how to play the anglung, an instrument made of a number of bamboo tubes attached to a frame. UNESCO has recognized the instrument as one of the “masterpieces of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity.”
During our music workshop, the center’s founder, Udjo Ngalagena, conducted dozens of us seated on a semi-amphitheater stand. Musicians and non-musicians alike joined in creating a surprisingly harmonious cascade of sounds, including both traditional and Western numbers.
Bandung comes to life on weekend evenings. Rows of loud pubs, cafes and restaurants fill with young locals and tourists. An impromptu night walk was full of the unexpected. Turning a corner, I found myself strolling along what I can only assume was a street art gallery. At least a dozen paintings were hanging or leaning on the wall of an old building, completely unattended.
Another corner gave way to a long narrow street with stalls selling everything from street food to swimsuits and wooden accessories. By the end of that road, I stumbled on a free street concert by a local Queen cover band. A mustachioed Freddie Mercury lookalike was belting out a somewhat off-key Somebody to Love, though the lead guitarist gave a technically solid performance.
The atmosphere was festive and Bandung’s Mercury was doing his best to impersonate the late singer’s mannerisms, even inviting the audience to take part in singing solo verses of Love of My Life, much like Queen’s frontman did at Wembley Stadium in 1986. The whole performance was weird but brilliant.
A two-hour drive south of Bandung toward Ciwidey district, followed by a short, bumpy bus ride up a mountain in the rain, took us to Kawah Putih (White Crater in English) - a murky milky-green sulfuric lake in a wide volcanic crater ensconced within a heavily forested area. Kawah Putih, one of two craters that make up the stratovolcano of Mount Patuha, has been stable since its last significant activity in 1600. Visitors can walk around the lake or along a jetty away from selfie-taking tourists.
The scenery changed a short drive later when we reached a tea plantation area for lunch at Pinisi, a docked ship restaurant with a view from the deck overlooking the mirror-like Patenggang Lake and the surrounding stretches of green. White luxury tents for glamping - glamor camping - were scattered along the shore.
Bandung has a significant place in the political history of developing countries. The historic Asian-African Conference, commonly known as the Bandung Conference, took place in 1955 in the Merdeka Building, which has since been turned into a museum. Amid a wave of decolonization, the leaders of 29 developing countries at the time - including Lebanon’s Prime Minister Sami Solh, Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel-Nasser, Palestinian leader Amin al-Husseini - came together to oppose colonialism and stand against being forced to takes sides in the Cold War race. It was during this conference that Nasser’s leadership extended beyond the Arab world as he emerged as a global figure.
The Bandung Conference led to the formation of the Non-Aligned Movement, counting more than 100 member states, devoted to upholding the interests of half of the world’s population.
A 90-minute flight to Bali was enough for the Indonesian experience to completely change.
The Balinese culture and philosophy are omnipresent throughout the island, whether in the architecture, the monuments, the traditional outfits or the way the Balinese we met kept referring to their philosophy of love, coexistence and the rejection of materialism, whatever the topic of conversation.
As our tour guide Ronaldo put it: “People here have a life principle: Bless to be blessed. Giving people charity and hope makes you rich. Humanity must have the idea that we don’t need to get rich because we already are.
“Why are you so scared and worried? Balinese have a strong bond that creates happiness and respect.”
Bali’s people are animated as well as friendly, and the island is filled with countless activities geared toward tourists.
Nusa Dua’s Tanjung Benoa boasts a wide array of water sports, such as the Flying Fish, parasailing, Flyboarding and ocean walking. The latter involves a walk under the sea escorted by professional divers. We wore diving helmets connected to the surface via an air hose and once underwater, we walked on a path with rails and used bread to attract the colorful fish swimming at a distance.
Go from the ocean to the sky with a visit to Bali Bird Park, which houses over 1,000 exotic birds and 250 species from around the world. The park puts on an interactive show of trained birds performing tricks for treats. The bird feeding section of the program will have brightly colored birds flying around you and standing or strutting on your shoulders as they reach for proffered fruits.
Besides the various beach destinations, both public and private, visitors can experience a more intimate side of the Balinese culture by visiting the Uluwatu Hindu sea temple built on a 70-meter-high cliff, famous for its sunset views and because it is inhabited by monkeys.
Everywhere you walk in the sprawling compound, monkeys casually stroll alongside the visitors, hanging on trees or sitting on monuments. Uluwatu’s monkeys are notorious for stealing, so best to hide any valuables and remove gold accessories and even glasses.
As the light begins to fade, a crowd packs into a semicircle rock stands on the cliffside for the Kecak Fire Dance. The Kecak is a Balinese Hindu ritual dance performed to chants by a choir of more than 40 men. The performance peeks around sunset when the sky breaks into pink and violet.
Back in the city, a stroll along the marina by Legian Beach and the surrounding inner streets is full of pubs, restaurants with live music and shops that open late. The traffic is heavy on weekends, so it can be quicker and more fun to walk, but taxis are easy to find and the fare can be bargained.
After a long day of sightseeing and activity that ended with a few hours of late-evening haggling in shops selling Balinese artisanal merchandise, the Pullman Hotel, with its spacious rooms and excellent service, was the ideal place to recuperate and reflect on a day undoubtedly filled with color, characters and eye-opening experiences - all of which ensure that even a brief visit to Indonesia will stay with you for life.