Boracay and Puerto Princesa

Manila was my first stop in the Philippines, but I only spent a night there based on advice from other travelers. I boarded a flight to Boracay the following afternoon.

Beaches and nightlife are the big draw in Boracay. I didn’t have high expectations, but I figured it didn’t hurt to check out the scene for a few nights. I stayed in Boracay in late August, which was the rainy season. Even though it was the low season, plenty of tour bus groups were camped out on the beach.

White Beach is the main attraction in Boracay, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that the sand and water were clean. With so many tourists, I was expecting trash everywhere, but the water was gorgeous. I had no idea how the sand stayed so soft and pristine.

boracay

White Beach has three stations, each with its own reputation. Station 1 has the luxury resorts, Station 2 caters to the party crowd, and Station 3 is more relaxed. Regardless of where you go, you’ll find sand sculptures everywhere.

boracay

I went on a couple of dives in Boracay with Free Willy Diving. The staff was wonderful and served fruit and ginger tea, which had an awesome kick. To be honest though, Boracay was my least favorite dive site. It certainly wasn’t bad, but I was more impressed by dive sites in Malaysia and Indonesia.

On the positive side, my dive buddy rented a camera and took photos underwater. He generously sent me some, so I can finally post a few diving photos.

boracay turtle

I’ll never get tired of seeing turtles. Photo credit: Praneet Varma

boracay eel

Eel. Photo credit: Praneet Varma

boracay clownfish

Nemo…of course. Photo credit: Praneet Varma

For nightlife, travelers raved about Mad Monkey, which was just a couple of doors from my hostel. I don’t know if my expectations were too high or if the low season killed the mood, but it was dead on the night I visited. It was fine for a couple of drinks, but it was clear that it wouldn’t be a late night. The liveliest conversation I had was with a expat working in Singapore, who asked what my passions were and where I saw myself in five years. After I finished my drink, I darted out of Mad Monkey to escape the interview questions. To be fair, I think I went on an off night: other travelers had plenty of fun stories from Mad Monkey.

Travelers also told me to go on the Boracay Pub Crawl. I’m probably too old to be in the target pub crawl audience, but I passed by the bar that was supposed to serve as the meeting point. Only a couple of people were there. Again, the low season might have affected the size of the crowd, as other travelers who had gone on the pub crawl had glowing reviews.

The nightlife in Boracay ended up being a bust for me, but I’m sure other travelers can take advantage of everything Boracay has to offer, even in the low season. Unless you really need to relax and/or party, I think a couple of nights in Boracay is enough. I spent four nights there, which was too long, especially since I could have spent more time in other places in the Philippines. I’m glad I visited, but I don’t need to return any time soon.


After Boracay, I flew to the archipelago of Palawan and spent a couple of nights in Puerto Princesa. I went on an island-hopping tour of nearby Honda Bay with Corazon Travel and Tours. Our first stop was Starfish Island, and unsurprisingly, we spotted starfish on the beach. The water was shallow and calm.

honda bay

honda bay

Our next stop was Luli Island. At high tide, the water completely covers the beach. We visited at low tide so we could anchor and explore.

honda bay

The tour was set at a good pace to allow us to snorkel and relax. Honda Bay was quiet and didn’t feel nearly as touristy as Boracay. Our guide Joey was great and tailored the itinerary based on our group’s interests.

I missed the Underground River, which is another major attraction for travelers visiting Puerto Princesa. The Underground River is a couple of hours from the city center, so most tours end up spending only about 30 minutes at the river. Travelers told me it was worth it, but I opted for Honda Bay instead. I’ll have to go to the river the next time I’m in Puerto Princesa.

I stayed at Treffpunkt 5300 in Puerto Princesa, which was charming. The hostel was very quiet (I was the only guest on my second night), but this worked for me. We were given homemade bread for breakfast, which was delicious. It was the first time I was served non-white bread for breakfast on my trip – a welcome change. The hostel focuses on sustainability and uses fans (no A/C) to conserve energy. Recycling and composting are priorities. The hostel provides a welcoming environment for all travelers; I loved how signs for the bathrooms said that they were open to everybody, regardless of gender identity. There was also a resident dog, which is always a plus for me.

treffpunkt puerto princesa

Hey Jude, the Treffpunkt dog, blocking my way back into the hostel

Puerto Princesa was a great start to my stay in Palawan. It was relaxed and pretty – the perfect primer for El Nido and Coron, my next destinations.

Indonesia recap

Indonesia is vast and has so many things to do and see. I always had FOMO (is this phrase still a thing?) since it was impossible to fit everything in. Paring down to a 30-day itinerary was a lucky problem to have. I arrived in Indonesia on July 26 and left on August 25. Below is a summary of the locations, accommodations, transport, and tours from my time in Indonesia.

Jakarta (July 26 to 28)

  • Accommodation: Capsule Hotel Jakarta
    • I didn’t like Jakarta at all, but the staff at Capsule was the city’s saving grace. They knew everything and took guests out for tours and drinks. The hostel wasn’t particularly close to sights, but it was near a train that could take us wherever we needed to go. The dorm and bathrooms were decently clean. Each bed was in its own “cube,” which offered a good amount of privacy.
  • Transport to Jakarta:
    • Two-hour flight from Kuala Lumpur to Jakarta
  • Transport within Jakarta:
    • I took Grabs from the airport to the train station and from the train station to my hostel. I took short walks around my hostel in Jakarta but felt uneasy. This has been the only time I’ve felt uncomfortable walking around during my trip.
  • Tour:
    • Half-day city tour with Capsule Hotel staff
  • Blog post:

Yogyakarta (July 28 to 31)

  • Accommodation: Losmanos Hostel
    • The hostel was cute and had a pool. The dorm consisted of ten single beds; no bunk beds. It was nice to have our own beds, but I would have appreciated mosquito nets. I got a lot of bug bites here.
  • Transport to Yogyakarta:
    • 7.5-hour train ride from Jakarta
  • Transport within Yogyakarta:
    • I tried to walk whenever possible, but Yogya is a large city. I took a few Go-Jek rides, and it was great to be on the back of a motorbike again. I was on a group tour for Borobudur, so the tour company provided transport via van. I took a public bus to get to Prambanan, which was about an hour one-way.
  • Tour:
    • I booked a sunrise tour of Borobudur through my hostel and didn’t get the name of the tour company. While Borobudur was beautiful, the tour could have been better. Two couples (one French and the other Australian) were on my tour, and both had issues with the company. The French couple disputed the price of the tour, saying they were quoted a cheaper price over the phone than the one our tour guide gave. The Australian couple got annoyed with the way our tour guide dealt with the French couple and refused to go on the tour as a result.
  • Blog post:

Surabaya (July 31 to August 1)

  • Accommodation: The Hostel
    • I used Surabaya as a rest point between Yogya and Probolinggo. Lee, the owner of The Hostel, was very helpful. He provided tips on where to stay in Probolinggo and helped book train tickets. He also made us breakfast in the morning. The dorm was basic, but each bunk had a privacy curtain, which was nice.
  • Transport to Surabaya:
    • 5.5-hour train ride from Yogyakarta
  • Transport within Surabaya:
    • I only left my hostel to get dinner at a nearby mall. I took taxis to go between the train station and my hostel.

Probolinggo/Ijen (August 1 to 3)

  • Accommodations:
    • Clover Homestay. I shared a room with a Dutch traveler that I met in Surabaya. The staff arranged transport to and from Mount Bromo. They also booked us a tour to Ijen Crater. While I can’t recommend the Ijen tour they booked (see “Tours” below), the staff was otherwise helpful.
    • Arabica Homestay. The TripAdvisor reviews (in the link) say it all. If you have a choice on where to stay around Ijen, don’t go here.
  • Transport to Probolinggo:
    • 2.5-hour train ride from Surabaya
  • Transport within Probolinggo:
    • I walked from the train station to my homestay but otherwise didn’t see much of the town.
  • Tours:
    • Half-day tour of Mount Bromo
    • Two-day, one-night tour of Ijen Crater. I didn’t get the name of the tour company (this never works out well for me), but if you go to Clover Homestay, don’t book the Ijen tour they offer. In general, Probolinggo-based tours to Ijen don’t have a good reputation. Tours based in Banyuwangi, such as Ijen Blueflame Tours, have much better reviews.
  • Blog post:

Bali (August 3 to 10, August 22 to 24)

  • Accommodations:
    • Capsule Hotel New Seminyak (Seminyak). This is the sister hostel to Capsule in Jakarta. I got a small discount for staying here because I had been a guest at the hostel in Jakarta. It has a pool and bar and is very social. I had no problems meeting people. It’s close to nightlife and the center of Seminyak, but it’s in a pretty quiet area – as long as the guests at the bar don’t keep you up.
    • WaterBorn (Canggu). This was one of the nicest hostels I’ve stayed in. I thought I was in a hotel. Everything was enormous: the dorm room, the closets, and the bathroom. The pool was immaculately clean, and the wifi was among the best I had in Indonesia.
    • Liang House (Ubud). I loved the family who ran this guesthouse. They helped me booked a roundtrip fast boat ticket to the Gilis and couldn’t have been nicer. That said, I didn’t love the dorm room. It was clean, but a couple of things bothered me. I had an upper bunk and couldn’t sit up straight because there wasn’t enough head space. Only a curtain separated the bathroom and bedroom. I might be high-maintenance, but I was uncomfortable with this. Wifi was good.
    • Wisna House (Sanur). I stayed in a private room, which was clean and had great air conditioning. Breakfast was delivered to my room every morning. Wifi was great. The family running the guesthouse was lovely.
  • Transport to Bali:
    • Hourlong ferry ride from Ketapang in Java to Gilimanuk in Bali, then a 4.5-hour bus ride to Denpasar. A mini-adventure. We waited about an hour for the bus to fill up, and we ended up having more people than seats. People had to stand or sit in the aisle. A girl sitting next to me on the bus threw up (in a bag, thankfully), and a staff member casually threw the bag of vomit out the window.
  • Transport within Bali:
    • I mostly walked within each area of Bali. Ride-hailing apps like Go-Jek and Grab are banned in Bali, so I relied on taxis or tour companies to get me between towns.
  • Tours:
  • Blog posts:

Gili Trawangan and Gili Air (August 10 to 14, August 19 to 21)

  • Accommodations:
    • La Favela (Gili T). Fun hostel with a pool and bar. It was easy to meet fellow travelers here. The staff was wonderful and helped with bike rentals. The dorms had only single beds and no bunks.
    • Captain Coconuts (Gili Air). The dorms have beds with mosquito nets that hang from the ceiling. That’s the real selling point here. There’s a pool, and the staff prepares a good, free breakfast. The showers have little slots that are open to the outdoors, which could be a benefit or a negative, depending on how much you like nature.
  • Transport to the Gilis:
    • For my first trip to Gili T, I took a two-hour fast boat ride from Padang Bai in Bali.
    • To get from Gili T to Gili Air, I took a 20-minute boat ride, which stopped at Gili Meno before arriving in Gili Air.
    • For my second trip to Gili T, I took a 30-minute public boat ride from Bangsal in Lombok.
  • Transport within the Gilis:
    • Walking and biking. That’s all you need.
  • Tour:
  • Blog post:

Senggigi (August 14 to 16, August 21 to 22)

  • Accommodations:
    • Villa Mataano. I treated myself to a private room here, in anticipation of my hike up Mount Rinjani. There was a pool, and the room and bathroom were clean. My room even had a TV with cable. Breakfast and a mid-afternoon snack were delivered to my room every day.
    • Aurora Cottages. I stayed in a private room here after Rinjani. It wasn’t as posh as Villa Mataano, but it was still perfectly nice. The room and bathroom were basic but clean. This was another homestay with in-room breakfast deliveries.
  • Transport to Senggigi:
    • For my first trip to Senggigi, I took a 30-minute fast boat ride from Gili Air to Bangsal in Lombok and then a 40-minute van ride from Lombok to Senggigi.
  • Transport within Senggigi:
    • I walked between my accommodations and the center of Senggigi, which took about five to ten minutes.
  • Tour:
    • Half-day surfing lesson with Nayaka Surf School. The staff was friendly, but I greatly preferred the surfing in Canggu, Bali. I didn’t write a blog post about surfing or Senggigi because I was ambivalent about it. The beach in Senggigi had a lot of coral and rocks, which was a little scary when hopping (or falling) off a board.

Mount Rinjani (August 16 to 19)

  • Accommodations:
    • Pondok Guru Bakti (Senaru). Not the fanciest place, but fine for a night before my hike up Rinjani. It was certainly cleaner than Arabica Homestay. The guesthouse had a restaurant that served free breakfast and dinner for an extra fee.
  • Transport to Rinjani:
    • Two-hour drive from Senggigi to Senaru, which was covered by Syam Trekker, my tour company for the Rinjani trek
  • Tour:
    • Three-day, two-night hike up Mount Rinjani with Syam Trekker
  • Blog post:

Expenses

During my 30 days in Indonesia, I spent about $2,264.18, or $73.04 a day. This total includes an overnight layover in Kuala Lumpur after I left Indonesia.

My expenses were categorized as follows:

  • Entertainment: $1,062.43
    • This category includes tours, activities, entrance fees, and spa treatments. The most expensive activity was my three-day trek up Mount Rinjani, which cost 2,715,000 IDR + a $50 deposit (about $254 total). This included accommodation the night before the trek, meals, camping equipment, and transport from/to accommodations before and after the trek. The next most expensive activities were a day tour of Nusa Penida (1,600,000 IDR or about $120) and two fun dives on Gili T (982,000 IDR or about $74). One of the cheapest entertainment expenses was a 24-hour bike rental on Gili T, which cost 50,000 IDR/$4.
  • Accommodation: $441.61
    • I stayed in private rooms in Probolinggo (480,000 IDR per night split between two people, or about $18 each), Sanur (325,000 IDR/$24.50 per night), and Senggigi (675,000 IDR/$50.50 per night at Villa Mataano, and 400,000 IDR/$30 per night at Aurora Cottages).
    • I stayed in dorm rooms ranging from 65,000 IDR/$5 per night (six-bed dorm in Ubud) to 250,000 IDR/$19 per night (three-bed dorm on Gili T).
  • Food: $425.39
    • I could have spent a lot less on food if I didn’t eat so much western food in Bali and the Gilis. I was getting to the point where I really missed salads and sandwiches, so I indulged these cravings. My most expensive meal was sushi in Senggigi, which cost 150,200 IDR/$11. Most of my meals ranged from 40,000 IDR/$3 to 100,000 IDR/$7.50.
    • Like most of southeast Asia, bottled water is cheap in Indonesia. I could get a liter of water for about 40 cents. Alcohol ranged from 40,000 IDR/$3 for a beer (prices could go lower, depending on the store or happy hours) to 150,000 IDR/$11 for a shot (this was at a club in Jakarta; I never had to pay anything close to this for a drink elsewhere in Indonesia).
  • Transport: $274.25
    • This includes my flight from Kuala Lumpur to Jakarta (about $38), trains, buses, taxis, motorbike rides, and boats. I didn’t have to fly within Indonesia, which helped keep expenses down. Trains were reasonable (e.g., 450,000 IDR/$34 for a 7.5-hour ride in business class from Jakarta to Yogyakarta). Transport within Bali was expensive (500,000 IDR/$38 for a one-hour transfer from Canggu to Ubud) since we couldn’t use ride-hailing apps.
  • Miscellaneous: $60.47
    • This category includes a Telkomsel SIM card (300,000 IDR/$22.50). I don’t remember how much data was included with the SIM card, but it was plenty for my stay in Indonesia. As expected, service was non-existent on Mount Rinjani and around Ijen, but it was fine everywhere else I went.
    • I bought a sweater and headlamp for my Rinjani trek, which cost 225,000 IDR/$17 total. After the tour, I kept the headlamp but left the sweater with Syam Trekker.

Indonesia has an abundance of riches, and I missed many of them. Listed below are some of the more noteworthy ones.

  • Tana Toraja
    • The Toraja people on the island of Sulawesi have fascinating death rituals. As described in this National Geographic feature, deceased family members often remain in the home for weeks or months before burial. The living family members interact with the corpse. Funerals are huge events that the whole town attends. I met a couple of travelers who were planning to go to Sulawesi in the hopes of attending a funeral.
  • Kelimutu/Flores
    • Before coming to Indonesia, Kelimutu in Flores was high on my list due to the volcano’s three colored lakes, which can be black, red, and turquoise. I had trouble figuring out a way to fit this into my itinerary since transport to and within Flores isn’t 100% reliable. Once you get to Kelimutu, you need some luck to get a clear view of the lakes. I reluctantly gave up on going to Kelimutu this trip. Hopefully I’ll be able to go when I have more time to devote there.
    • Flores in general is supposed to be beautiful. Taking a four-day boat trip from Lombok to Flores is popular among the backpacker crowd. The conditions on the boat can be rough – the accommodations can be crowded, and there are no showers – but the views of the coastline are supposed to be worth it.
  • Komodo
    • To be honest, I was indifferent to seeing a Komodo dragon in person. I’m sure it’s a cool experience, but I had other priorities in Indonesia. Sorry, dragons; I’m sure you’re very offended.

Finally, some general notes about Indonesia:

  • I met a Swiss-Indonesian traveler in Malaysia, who recommended that I download the Go-Jek app in Indonesia. This was great advice. Go-Jek is an Indonesian ride-hailing app similar to Grab and Uber. Go-Jek seemed to be more widely available than Grab or Uber, which made it valuable when searching for transport. You can also use the app to for food deliveries and massages. Sadly, I stuck to transport and didn’t use the app to its full potential.
  • Don’t get me wrong: Indonesia is amazing, and I will jump on any chance to return. However, every traveler will get frustrated in Indonesia at some point. Transport was the usual cause of frustration for me.
    • When I used ride-hailing apps, drivers usually asked me for my location, which could be difficult to communicate due to language barriers. (I’m not blaming the drivers for not speaking English. It’s my issue since I don’t know Indonesian.) This can lead to numerous drivers canceling rides when you can’t provide your location.
    • Drivers look for chances to earn extra cash. For instance, I booked a transfer from Gili Air to Senggigi, which included a fast boat from Gili Air to a port in Lombok and a van ride from the port to Senggigi. Once the van driver reached the center of Senggigi, he said he had to drop me off on the road since my accommodation was far away. I asked him for the best way to my accommodation, but he just kept saying it was far. When I said I would find a taxi, he changed his tune and said he could drive me for an extra fee. I agreed to pay the driver 20,000 IDR/$1.50 to get to my accommodation. The ride ended up being just a couple of minutes; I easily could have walked. I don’t blame the driver for being smart; I should have checked the distance on my phone.
  • Travelers like to joke about “Indonesian time,” where you can expect a request of, “Please wait just five minutes,” to mean, “Sorry, sucker, you’re stuck here for at least 30 minutes.” Interestingly, the pickups for all my tours were five to 15 minutes early.
  • I thought the touts in Phuket and Malaysia were flirty, but the touts and tour guides in Indonesia were on another level. To be clear, I’m not trying to say anything about my looks – and I definitely wasn’t attracting anyone with my constant sweatiness. I think they were just excited to see a (any) solo female traveler. A typical exchange went like this:

Eager Indonesian Tout (EIT): Where’s your boyfriend?

Solo Female Traveler (SFT): I don’t have one.

EIT: I can be your boyfriend. What kind of boyfriend do you want?

SFT: Uh…someone funny?

EIT: I can be funny!

Mount Rinjani

Oh, Mount Rinjani. I have so much to say. When I was traveling through Indonesia, a bunch of travelers recommended that I hike up Rinjani, although they warned me that the hike was hard. Hard doesn’t begin to describe it. Thanks for the warning, friends.

Many tour companies offer two-day, three-day, or four-day hiking packages. The three-day, two-night package is the most popular option. Travelers can start in Sembalun and end in Senaru or they can go the other direction. The Sembalun-to-Senaru route is more crowded. Travelers doing a three-day hike will reach the summit of Rinjani early on the second morning, when they still have relatively fresh legs. The Senaru-to-Sembalun route is less crowded, but travelers won’t summit Rinjani until the last day, when they’re exhausted. I decided on a three-day, two-night group tour starting from Sembalun with Syam Trekker.

Syam Trekker booked me a room in Senaru the night before our hike began. My throat felt scratchy when I arrived in Senaru, and I woke up with a runny nose on the first morning of our hike. Since my cold was minor, I figured I could continue with the trek.

I met my wonderful tour mates on the first day of the hike, which also happened to be Indonesian Independence Day (August 17). My tour mates were a fellow lawyer from Indonesia and a young couple from Basque. The Basque woman was also dealing with a cold. We were introduced to our tour guide Rob and four porters, who would carry all the camping equipment and food. We carried our own daypacks with our clothes, toiletries, and other personal items.

After an hourlong drive from Senaru to Sembalun, we started our hike at around 8:30 AM. I tend to be in the back of the group whenever I do a hike, and this was no different. The first day consisted of steady uphill climb, and my back was drenched with sweat after about 15 minutes. When we took a break, Rob gave our group Beng-Bengs, a chocolate bar similar to a Kit-Kat. I was an immediate fan and devoured it.

Our porters were outstanding. They carried 80- to 100-pound loads on their shoulders and leapt ahead of us on flip-flops. Out of curiosity, I tried lifting one of the porters’ bundles and could barely get it off the ground. My hiking mates and I never had to worry about food or drinks since our porters and Rob would have meals, coffee, tea, and cold drinks ready whenever we arrived at a rest point. The meals ranged from mie goreng (fried noodles), nasi goreng (fried rice), and pancakes. I was amazed that they made such delicious food with just a small gas flame. Rob also made sure we had plenty of water every day.

rinjani porters

A group of porters nimbly navigating the trail on flip-flops

While at a rest point on the first day, a guide played Ed Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud” on his speakers. A couple of British guys and I burst out laughing when we heard the lyrics, “When your legs don’t work like they used to before.” Too real, man.

We reached our first campsite after about seven hours of hiking. We had a phenomenal view of the crater and lake as the clouds rolled in.

rinjani

The hike was dusty, and tons of sand got into my sneakers. I took full advantage of the wet wipes that I had bought before the trek. It was entertaining – and gross – to see how much dirt I could collect from my face, arms, and feet. I took a photo of my dirty wet wipes, but I’ll spare you from those images. There are some things you can’t unsee.

The Basque guy in our group was having his birthday on the second day of our tour, so Rob and the porters surprised him with chocolate-covered banana fritters and candles on our first night. There were plenty to share, so I didn’t feel guilty helping myself to two.

Soon after the sun went down, we were able to get a clear view of the stars. I never see stars in New York, so this was a treat. We debated whether a couple of white moving objects were shooting stars or planes. We concluded they were shooting stars once we saw a couple of planes with blinking red lights zoom by.


I tried to sleep at around 8:00 PM but kept waking up due to coughing. At 2:00 AM the next morning, Rob brought toast and coffee to provide fuel for the hike to the summit. The Basque woman and I were still sick, but we didn’t want to miss the summit.

After wishing the Basque guy a happy birthday, we set out at 2:30 AM with the goal to reach the summit by sunrise. Rob supplied us with water and a Beng-Beng. The first third of the hike was sandy, so we had to pay attention to where we placed our feet to avoid slipping. The second third was (relatively) easy with stable footing and flatter parts. The first two thirds of the hike took about 1.5 hours.

The last third…what a beast. The wind was unrelenting, and the temperature was in the 40s. Remember how I said my nose was runny? Well, imagine what happened with the wind. All the guides told us the mantra for the last third was “two steps forward, one step back” due to the sand and steep incline. My mantra was more like “one tiny step forward every four seconds.”

The Basque couple must have been mountain goats in disguise because they bounded ahead. I lagged behind and followed a couple of other tour groups. Some hikers huddled on the sides of the path, resting and trying to shield themselves from the wind.

I alternated between reminding myself that I paid for this experience, cursing myself for paying for this in the first place, and debating whether to turn back. I tried to stay motivated by not allowing myself to eat my Beng-Beng until I reached the summit.

Thank goodness for two unnamed hikers; I have no idea what their names were or where they were from. After taking numerous breaks over an hour and a half, I resolved to make it to the summit without stopping. As I resumed the climb, two hikers wordlessly followed me. We didn’t need to say anything to each other: we knew we were making it to the summit together.

After about 20 minutes of climbing, we got our first glimpse of the sun. This provided the extra incentive we needed to push through the last ten minutes of the hike. Our small group finally made it to the summit at around 6:10 AM. The two hikers high-fived me, and we talked for the first time. I told them there was no way I would have been able to make it to the summit without them.

All the hikers who made it to the summit talked about how difficult the climb was. I gobbled down my long-awaited Beng-Beng and passed out. I wasn’t the only one who wanted to lie down.

rinjani summit

“I wanna lie down!” Thank you, Ali Wong.

As for the view at the summit?

rinjani sunrise

Eh, so maybe the climb to the summit wasn’t worth it if we just focus on the view. But, the camaraderie on the hike up was unforgettable. Everyone silently helped each other during the climb, and strangers congratulated each other at the top.

Even though there wasn’t much of a view, that didn’t stop me from taking a photo to document the fact that I survived.

rinjani summit

In contrast to the ascent, the descent was pure fun. We could easily glide down the sand.

rinjani descent

The clouds cleared as I went further down. The scenery made all the struggles to the summit worthwhile.

rinjani

We made it back to the campsite and had a real breakfast. Our day had just begun: we still had another seven hours of hiking to go.

The rest of our hike on the second day was a mix of downhill and uphill portions. It was less physically demanding than the summit, but it was still challenging. The trail was rocky, so I had to think about where I was stepping. It was mentally draining, especially after the summit.

I had mad respect for my Indonesian tour mate, who was suffering from bloody toenails from rocks in her shoes. I would have sobbed and refused to move. She, on the other hand, soldiered on and swapped her sneakers for flip-flops. She totally could have been a porter.

We finally made it to our campsite at around 5:30 PM, after about 12 hours of hiking. Immediately after finishing dinner, I burrowed into my sleeping bag with all my clothes – including my rain jacket – still on.


I had a glorious night of sleep and passed out for about 11 hours. When I woke up at 6:00 AM (no alarm!), I was able to catch the sunrise.

rinjani

We began our final day at around 7:00 AM. As we were going downhill, we were able to spot the Gilis and Mount Agung in Bali.

agung

Mount Agung is the peak on the horizon in the middle of the photo. The Gilis are the three lines in front of Mount Agung.

The first hour of the downhill hike was slippery, and I fell a couple of times. If I’m allowed to give any advice to hikers, it would be to avoid telling someone to “be careful” after he or she has fallen. Oh, so I wasn’t being careful when I was inching along the trail? I appreciate when people point out potential dangers beforehand, but telling someone to be careful after they’ve fallen is unhelpful. Maybe I’m just bitter.

After the first hour, the remaining three hours of the hike were blissfully mindless. My thighs burned like crazy, so I hobbled and limped the whole way. We enjoyed one last lunch made by our porters, and then I made my way to the ferry to Gili T.


I was worried about not showering for three days, but the wet wipes I bought were a godsend. The sand and dust from the hike also had their advantages: my hair normally gets oily if I don’t wash it, but there was so much dust in it that greasiness wasn’t an issue. (TMI?) The dust and dirt are no joke. I took an hourlong shower when I returned to Gili T but was still dirty afterward.

I have never run a marathon (and never intend to), but friends who have talk about how they can’t sit down for a week afterward due to their aching thighs. I can totally relate to that now. My thighs were on fire for about five days after the Rinjani trek. I dreaded sitting at a table or going to the bathroom because I didn’t want to have to bend my legs.

One last note about Rinjani: the trash at campsites and rest points is unbelievable. Rob and our porters did a great job of collecting our trash, but it looked like other tour companies weren’t as diligent. I hope this can be fixed so that Rinjani can remain beautiful.

I’m no hiker, but I’m so glad that I trekked up Rinjani. I absolutely love mountain scenery, and Rinjani was among the most beautiful I’ve seen. It was one of the most unforgettable experiences of my trip.

Gili Trawangan and Gili Air

The Gilis are three small islands to the east of Bali. Each island has its own reputation: Gili Trawangan (or “Gili T”) is known for partying, Gili Air is supposed to be the relaxed island, and Gili Meno is for honeymooners. Since I was traveling solo, I skipped Gili Meno and spent time on Gili T and Gili Air.

Many companies operate fast boats between Bali and the Gilis, although the ride is rough. A handful of people got sick on the two-hour boat ride. If you’re in Bali during the high season (July and August), you should book your fast boat ticket at least two days in advance. I met some travelers who tried to book a fast boat the day before they planned to head to the Gilis but couldn’t get a spot because the boats were full.

Since the Gilis are so small, there are very few motorbikes on the island. Instead, people get around by foot or bicycle. Biking requires deftly navigating through unpaved roads and hordes of tourists, but it’s the best way to see the islands. Touts also hawk horse-drawn carriage rides, but I stayed away from these.

It’s easy to travel between islands, as multiple boats per day shuttle back and forth. Public boats are a few dollars cheaper than boats operated by private companies, but private boats depart more frequently per day.


Gili T

I didn’t expect much from Gili T due to its party reputation, but I ended up loving it. In fact, I loved it so much that I stayed there twice. It was undoubtedly touristy and crowded in some areas, but I could still find peaceful spots. I was also surprised to see a lot of families and couples on the island.

Another traveler said that I didn’t need to dive around the Gilis since I would be able to see a lot of reefs and wildlife by snorkeling. I ignored this advice and went on a couple of fun dives with Diversia. I normally regret ignoring other travelers’ recommendations, but I was so glad I decided to dive around Gili T, as it became my favorite dive spot. I’m a novice diver, so it’s possible that I’m just easily impressed. Nonetheless, it was hard to complain when I got to see a couple of sharks and a bunch of turtles. The reefs were also massive and vibrant. I didn’t take photos, so you’ll have to take my word for it: the diving was worth it.

If you’re interested in diving around the Gilis, I’d highly recommend Diversia. The dive masters were fun, friendly, and professional. I had grand plans to book more dives with Diversia during my second visit to Gili T, but unfortunately, I got sick.

If you don’t dive, it’s easy for snorkelers to swim next to turtles around Gili T. Travelers who swam at the appropriately named Turtle Point showed me cool videos of their close encounters.


Restaurants and bars stake out the best beach areas on Gili T. I don’t enjoy frying in a lounger all day, so I found my own spot on the beach to avoid spending extra money on drinks and food. The beaches on Gili T aren’t the most dazzling you’ll find in southeast Asia, but it was soothing to listen to the waves.

gili t

A bar called The Exile is one of the most popular places for sunset. The Exile has a couple of swings in the water, which people swarm for Instagram photos. There were long lines for the swings on the evening I visited, so I was content with just taking a photo of the sunset.

gili t

I can live without the swing.


Since I was on the party island, I had to sample the nightlife. A Joss shot is the drink of choice for travelers who want to stay up all night. For the shot, an energy drink powder called Extra Joss is poured into vodka. The shot fizzes as soon as the powder is added. I had seen Joss shots in Bali but didn’t muster up the courage to try one until I went to Gili T. It was every bit as vile as it looked.

joss shot

Demon shot with an empty packet of Extra Joss on the right

For an island famed for its nightlife, the bars close relatively early at 1:00 AM. On every night except Thursday, there’s a designated after-party bar that stays open until 4:00 AM. Fear not if you don’t know the after-party schedule; just ask other travelers, and they’ll happily point you in the right direction.

On one night, I went to a restaurant called Pizzeria Regina for dinner (you can judge me for having pizza in Indonesia). The restaurant was full, so I was seated at a shared table. I was sick and could only croak in a scary, hoarse voice, but that didn’t seem to put off my table mates. (To be fair, they might have been too nice to say anything.) The rest of the table consisted of a middle-aged couple from Australia; two young Korean women; and a group of four travelers from Australia, Germany, and Brazil who had met each other a couple of nights earlier. Despite the differences in age and nationalities, we laughed throughout dinner.

The Australian from the group of four was celebrating his birthday, so I tagged along with his group for the rest of the night. The night ended at the after party at Evolution, where we swayed to Robbie Williams’s “Angels.” Props to the DJ because it was the perfect song to close the night. It reminded me of middle school dances, which always ended with Green Day’s “Good Riddance.”


Gili Air

Gili Air lived up to its “chill” reputation. The island had many eateries and bars, but it felt a lot less crowded than Gili T. I was in more of a social mood when I was on Gili Air, so it was a little too quiet for me. That said, most travelers I met preferred Gili Air over Gili T.

It wasn’t too difficult to find a shaded spot on the beach on Gili Air. I didn’t swim since the bottom was rocky, but I watched a couple of people on paddle boards in the distance. The beaches on Gili Air were arguably prettier than the ones on Gili T.

gili air


A resort called Ombak screens a movie every night, and visitors can buy tickets for 100,000 IDR (about $7.50), which includes a drink and popcorn. This was similar to the Ombak I visited on the Perhentian Islands in Malaysia.

On one of my nights on Gili Air, Ombak screened Eat, Pray, Love. I saw the movie when it was first released and didn’t care for it at the time. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I didn’t hate it on my second viewing. It was especially fun to compare the movie’s portrayal of Bali to my own experience. Blame it on my travels and/or the fact that I’m now close to Elizabeth Gilbert’s age at the time she embarked on her journey; it’s a mystery. I’m still trying to figure out what’s wrong with me. Until I do, I’ll continue to hang my head in shame.


One of the biggest selling points of Gili Air was my bed at my hostel Captain Coconuts. The dorms contain hanging beds outfitted with mosquito nets. Hammocks will always be my favorite sleep option, but the beds at Captain Coconuts were still pretty awesome. I loved the gentle swaying as I dozed off. It would have been a romantic setting if it weren’t for the nine other people snoozing in the same room. If I can’t install a hammock in my room when I return to the US, a hanging bed will be the next best thing.

captain coconuts

Backpacking in southeast Asia definitely doesn’t suck.

Bali: Sanur and Canggu

Continuing from my last post, I’ll talk about Sanur and Canggu, two other areas in Bali that I visited.


SANUR

I stayed Sanur for a couple of nights. It was perfectly fine but didn’t make much of an impression on me. The town was full of couples and families, and I saw only a handful of solo travelers and groups.

On the east side of Sanur is a long beach with a pathway. Walking down this path was pleasant since the beach was breezy, and many areas were shaded. Gazebos dotted the beach, which were great spots to watch kite surfers. I watched a determined group swim to a couple of gazebos on the water.

sanur

Before coming to Bali, I had heard so much about Australians swarming the island and was surprised when I saw just a few in Seminyak and Ubud. When I visited Sanur, I realized all the Aussies were camped out there.

In most of the eateries I visited in Bali, the prices listed in menus didn’t include a 10% government tax and an additional service tax. As an American, I should have been used to this, but it took some time for me to adjust after getting used to paying the advertised prices in restaurants in most other parts of southeast Asia. I’m not sure why, but this wasn’t an issue in Sanur, and all the checks matched the menu prices. I didn’t question this too much; it worked for me.


CANGGU

When I asked other travelers for recommendations for Bali, the resounding suggestion was, “Go to Canggu. You’ll love it.” They all described Canggu as a relaxed surfing town. Normally that wouldn’t have been a major selling point for me, but I figured I’d stay in Canggu for a few nights to see what it was all about.

The travelers were right: I adored Canggu. I wouldn’t have enjoyed Bali nearly as much if I hadn’t gone there. Canggu’s beaches aren’t the cleanest or prettiest, but the vibe was still perfect. I can’t figure out what specifically made Canggu so amazing, but I’ll be annoying by continuing to use the word “perfect” to describe my experience there. (I dare you to count the number of times I use the word “perfect” in this post.)

I couldn’t leave Canggu without surfing, so I signed up for a lesson with Baruna Surf Culture. I had taken a surfing lesson in New Zealand a few years earlier, but the lesson was so long ago that I started from scratch.

My instructor Rudi was a 20-year-old who managed Baruna with his older brother Adi. Rudi was everything a 20-year-old should be: playful, a little flirty, and eager to crack jokes that an 11-year-old boy would love. He was also very careful with my Taiwanese classmate’s and my safety. He taught us the basics of paddling and standing on our boards and showed us the areas of the water that we should avoid.

For such a skinny dude, Rudi had superhuman strength. He paddled on his own board while towing me and my classmate around. He told us when a good wave was approaching and gave us a push to provide extra momentum. It would be a stretch to call my activity “surfing” since Rudi did so much of the work. “Wobbling on a surfboard” would be more accurate. After a number of failed attempts, I shakily stood up on my board for a few seconds. My classmate was able to do the same.

My classmate and I loved our lesson so much that we signed up for another one the following day. On the drive back to our accommodations, Rudi had us sing along to Ed Sheeran and “Despacito” (the original and not the Bieber version, if you were curious; regardless, the only lyric we knew was “des…pa…ci-to”). He also played a song called “Miles Away,” which he described as the perfect song to listen to while watching a sunset on the beach with a beer in your hand. I’m clueless about music, so I hadn’t heard the song before, but I agreed with Rudi once I heard it. I promptly added it to my Spotify playlist.

After the lesson, I walked to Canggu Beach and watched legitimate surfers owning (pwning?) the waves. Since there was a steady breeze, a few people were flying kites. I kept getting distracted by the clouds overhead.

canggu

The clouds provided an awesome foreground for sunset. It was an absolutely perfect day.

canggu

Canggu, you’re perfect.

The next day’s lesson was just as perfect as the first, even though I was dealing with sore arms and ribs. My classmate and I were such fangirls of Rudi that we had to take photos with him once we were done.

baruna surf culture

He insisted on keeping the towel on his head. 20-year-olds!

Rudi also happened to have a board that referred to Alice in Wonderland. I took advantage of another photo opp.

canggu surfing


As expected for a surfing town, Canggu had a lot of hipster eateries. I was missing Malaysian food, so I loved a restaurant called Roti Canai. The roti tasted just as good as ones from Malaysia. I also had avocado toast numerous times and remembered to snap a photo.

shady shack canggu

I’m hugely indebted to whoever invented avocado toast.

My Dutch roommate from Bromo and Ijen recommended that I visit a bar called Old Man’s, which was right beside Canggu Beach. The bar had stools outside, which provided a laid-back atmosphere to chat and have a beer. The inside of the bar was spacious and provided plenty of seating. They played house on the night I visited, so some people were killing it on the dance floor. The bar closes at midnight, so many people relocate to nearby Sandbar, which stays open later. I had no energy for Sandbar, but I did notice that a bunch of the dancers at Old Man’s made a beeline for the afterparty.


I stayed at an excellent hostel in Canggu called WaterBorn. I was in a five-bed dorm, which felt more like a hotel room. I had my own comfortable bed – no bunks! – and both the room and bathroom were palatial. We each had a huge locker/closet that had hangers(!) and a couple of shelves. The hostel also had a pool, which was the perfect place to relax.

waterborn canggu

This is a hostel?!

Netflix is banned in Indonesia, but I was somehow able to finish the second season of Master of None while hanging out by the pool. I have no idea what kind of wifi WaterBorn had, but I was grateful. I had slowly been watching the season over a couple of months and absolutely loved it. If you don’t think the “New York, I Love You” and “Thanksgiving” episodes are perfect pieces of television, we can’t be friends. My next task: make my way through the fourth season of Bojack Horseman.


Finally, some general notes about Bali:

  • I stuck to the more touristy areas of Bali, so I don’t have much advice for travelers looking for a more authentic experience. Other travelers told me that Amed and Lovina in the north were beautiful and less crowded than the south. Amed has a good view of the volcano Mount Agung, while Lovina is known for dolphin-watching.
  • I expected to come across hordes of gap-year travelers in Bali, but I ended up meeting a lot of people around my age. Bali probably had the highest number of travelers in my age group that I’ve encountered so far on my trip. Don’t get me wrong: most of the younger travelers I’ve met have been wonderful. That said, it was nice to finally not be the old lady of the group.
  • Transport within Bali is expensive. For instance, I paid 350,000 IDR (about $26) for an hourlong transfer from Canggu to Ubud. This would be a steal in New York, but it was a big change from previous countries I visited, where 30- to 45-minute rides cost less than $10. Many places in Bali ban transport apps like Go-Jek, Grab, and Uber, so it’s tough to find less expensive transport. Blue Bird taxis are metered and reliable, but they’re not always readily available. Downloading the Blue Bird app might be your best option for transport.
  • Since Bali is so large, travelers often rent motorbikes to get around the island. Many people recommended that I do so, but I stuck to my policy of only being a passenger. It’s common for police to stop tourists on motorbikes to demand bribes, so motorbiking travelers should avoid carrying a lot of cash.

Bali: Seminyak and Ubud

I visited four areas in Bali during a week and a half. I’ll focus on Seminyak and Ubud in this post and will talk about Sanur and Canggu in my next one.


SEMINYAK AND NUSA PENIDA

Before visiting Bali, I was most familiar with Kuta, one of the more famous/notorious areas. It’s known for its nightlife and has a reputation for being a playground for Australians. Other travelers recommended skipping Kuta, as bag snatching is a serious problem there. Seminyak is supposed to be an alternative to Kuta since it’s a little safer but still offers nightlife.

Seminyak has a beach, but I didn’t go there as I heard it wasn’t particularly scenic. Instead, I took a day trip to Nusa Penida, an island southeast of Bali. After a 45-minute boat ride from Bali, my guide Wayan picked me up on his motorbike in Nusa Penida. Many of the roads in Nusa Penida are unpaved, so I maintained an iron grip on Wayan’s bike as he wound through the island. I normally love being on the back of a motorbike, but going downhill on pothole-riddled, gravel roads was uncomfortable and slightly terrifying.

We survived the ride to Angel Billabong, our first destination. The cliffs and water were beautiful and reminded me of Big Sur in California.

nusa penida

Wayan bought a bag of fresh banana fritters from a vendor, and we snacked on them during the brief walk to Broken Beach. (These fritters deserve an extra shoutout. I’m still drooling over them more than a month later.) Wayan spotted a turtle in the water, but it quickly swam away before I could take a photo. Even though I missed the turtle, I couldn’t complain about the views.

nusa penida

nusa penida

nusa penida

Our next stop was a viewpoint overlooking Kelingking Beach.

nusa penida

That water!

We ended the day at Crystal Bay, where I massaged my knees. While I was content, my knees were displeased with the bumpy motorbike rides.

nusa penida

It’s definitely worth taking a trip to Nusa Penida if you’re in Bali. Accommodations are available on the island, but they’re limited and basic. Nusa Penida doesn’t have the modern amenities that southern Bali offers…yet. That said, trading some comforts for spectacular views seems like a pretty good deal. The island is large, so a motorbike is necessary to get around.

Diving and snorkeling are popular activities around Nusa Penida and neighboring Nusa Lembongan. Unfortunately, I didn’t do either, but I met a couple of travelers who loved the diving in the area. The reefs are supposed to be beautiful, and it’s common to see manta rays.


Seminyak isn’t the most charming place, but it suited my needs. I didn’t do much besides eat a mix of local and western food (my first sandwich and salad in what felt like forever!) and walk around town. Touts staked out the main streets and hawked motorbike rentals and taxis.

At night, travelers and locals flock to a large club called La Favela. The music was excellent, with a mix of R&B and throwback pop. While you can easily get away with backpacker attire, many people dressed to impress. I’m always sweating in southeast Asia, so I was amazed by the women who flawlessly applied full makeup without having it melt in the heat – they have magical powers. I went to La Favela during a weekend, so there was a good crowd, but it didn’t feel overly packed.


UBUD

I was also familiar with Ubud before visiting Bali. I can blame Eat, Pray, Love (the movie; for better or worse, I’ve never read the book) for any preconceived notions I might have had about Ubud.

Ubud is promoted as Bali’s cultural center, so I expected a tranquil retreat from southern Bali. That illusion was shattered when I walked down the main roads and was constantly hounded by taxi touts. Central Ubud contains plenty of restaurants and shops. I admit that I was happy to have more salads and western food, which I was sorely missing at this point. For some reason, Ubud also contains a ton of “Polo” stores, which seem to be knock-offs of Polo Ralph Lauren. It was impossible to walk down the main road without seeing at least five of these stores.


I did a countryside bike tour with Jegeg Cycling, which was hands-down my favorite activity in Ubud. Jegeg is a family-run operation, with ten out of 26 family members working for the business. Putu, a cousin of the owner of Jegeg, was my good-humored and incredibly informative guide. He was able to entertain our group while also teaching us about Bali’s history and traditions.

Putu described Bali naming conventions, noting that Wayan and Gedeg are common names for a first-born son. Putu told us that his name is commonly given to a first-born daughter. Putu explained that his mom – who sounded like a character – really wanted a daughter and insisted on keeping the name when her first child ended up being a son.

We first drove to the Tegalalang rice terraces. It was raining, but we could still appreciate the scenery.

ubud

We then visited Satria Coffee Plantation, which produces luwak coffee. The coffee is made with the help of civets, weasel-like animals that ingest coffee beans and then pass them. The beans are washed and ground to produce an expensive cup of coffee. I had no interest in trying luwak coffee since I thought it was nothing more than a gimmick. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the tea and non-luwak coffee samples that we were given.

satria coffee

Putu provided insight into the small basket offerings that lined the sidewalks and roads in Bali. The offerings reflect Bali’s predominantly Hindu population, and the colors represent different gods and values.

bali offering

We drove to a spot with a view of Mount Batur, an active volcano. Many travelers hike up Mount Batur, but I decided to save my energy for another Indonesian volcano. (Much more on that in a future post.)

mount batur

Finally, we reached the cycling portion of the tour. We were each equipped with a bike and helmet. Putu led our group, while another staff member (sadly, I didn’t catch his name) trailed behind us to take care of any potential issues. I couldn’t stop staring at the staff member because he looked like an Indonesian mix of James Franco and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. I’m sure he thought I was a creep (I was).

The cycling was easy, and we biked by a number of rice fields for a couple of hours. Putu described the harvesting process and noted that many of the rice workers were elderly women. It was amazing to watch them perform this tough work.

ubud

Once we finished cycling, we went to Putu’s cousin’s family compound and were treated to a Balinese feast. This was among the best food I had in Indonesia. Everyone in our group had seconds.

jegeg cycling

Tempeh, corn fritters, fried chicken, satay, bean sprouts, water spinach, noodles, sambal (spicy sauce), and – of course – rice.


The Campuhan Ridge Walk was another worthwhile activity in Ubud. The trail is connected to one of the main roads and is an easy two-kilometer walk. It wasn’t the most stunning scenery I’d seen in my travels, but it was nice to escape from the buzz of central Ubud.

campuhan ridge walk

On the walk, I had a conversation with a Swedish traveler who had worked as a chef before quitting in February. I was entertained by his travel stories, which included a stint at an Indian ashram and motorbiking through Bali. When we reached the end of the walk, he asked if I had any interest in exploring more of Ubud on his motorbike. If you have spidey senses, your radar might justifiably be pinging, but I didn’t get any weird vibes. Regardless, I wanted to spend some time alone, so I declined his offer. He was totally cool with it and remained as friendly as ever. I was happy about this brief encounter since it embodied everything I love about solo travelers: they don’t judge or get offended if you want to do your own thing.


I purposely skipped a couple of popular activities in Ubud. I’m not a fan of yoga, but many other travelers took classes. The Yoga Barn consistently got good reviews from my yoga-inclined travel mates.

The monkey forest, home to macaques, is another popular attraction. After traveling through Thailand and Malaysia, I adopted a policy of staying away from macaques since they’re often aggressive. If you’re less of a wimp than I am, the forest allows you to see macaques at close range.

Bromo and Ijen

I visited two volcanoes on eastern side of Java. The first was Mount Bromo, which was about a 1.5-hour drive from Probolinggo, the town where I stayed. My homestay in Probolinggo arranged transport to Mount Bromo, which required a 2:00 AM wakeup call to watch sunrise.

My Dutch roommate and I must have been excited because we woke up at 2:00 AM without much issue. After our driver brought our group to a parking area, we took an easy 25-minute walk to the viewpoint. We reached the viewpoint at around 4:15 AM and played the waiting game. Temperatures were in the 40s, so I wore my rain jacket, a sweater, and leggings. My hands and toes became numb, so I blew on my fingers and jumped around to try to warm up. This didn’t help much (duh).

A few minutes before 5:00 AM, the sky started to lighten. and we got our first glimpses of Bromo. I willed my numb fingers to bend to take photos and thanked the weather gods that we got a clear view.

bromo

As the sun rose higher, the sky turned into a mix of yellow, pink, and blue.

bromo

The sunrise itself was breathtaking, as we could see over the clouds.

bromo

I couldn’t get enough of the views of Bromo in the changing light.

bromo

bromo

After we watched the sunrise, we boarded a jeep that took us to the crater. To reach the crater rim, we did an easy 15-minute climb up a set of stairs. The crater roared louder as we neared the rim. I couldn’t believe the noise; it sounded like a group of planes taking off.

The area around the top of the stairs was packed with people, but the crowds thinned as we walked farther along the rim. Ash, sand, and dust were flying everywhere, but I didn’t care. The views at the top were sensational.

bromo

bromo sand sea

The “sand sea” below Bromo

I kept shouting, “This is so cool!” to the poor Dutch group mate (yes, yet another Dutch traveler) who stuck with me during the walk around the rim. I’m grateful he tolerated me and didn’t push me into the crater.

bromo

The insanely loud crater

bromo

I don’t think I’m capable of making any other facial expression in photos.

I could have spent the rest of the day at the crater, but our group had to return to our homestay. Once we returned to our room, my roommate and I packed for our next tour to Ijen. Ijen is famous for blue flames, which are best seen in the dark. The volcano contains sulfur mines, where miners toil in harsh, toxic conditions for only $11 a day. The average lifespan of a miner is fifty years.

My roommate and I boarded a van, and our driver picked up a German and two Austrians who had been traveling together for a few days. We slept through most of the five-hour ride to Arabica Homestay, our accommodation near Ijen.

Our homestay…oh, man. I understand the mindset of the owners: when the overwhelming majority of your guests are on tours and staying for just one night, there’s not much incentive to provide luxurious accommodations. That said, this was the first place where I was afraid to sleep in my bed. My roommate and I verified there were no bed bugs, but the sheets and pillow were stained and had stray hairs on them. Layers of grime coated the floor. It was clear no one had swept the floor in weeks – maybe months. When we turned on the water heater in the bathroom, flames burst from the boiler. We decided to skip showering to be on the safe side.

I was lucky that everyone in our group was level-headed. At this point, we had no choice but to laugh at the state of our rooms. One of the Austrians pulled up TripAdvisor reviews of Arabica, and we cracked up at the descriptions. Here are some excellent quotes:

  • “The water heater in a room a few doors down literally blew up when that person was taking a shower; thankfully she was not hurt. Not one Arabica staff member came to investigate the very loud, gunshot-like bang, which was followed by the very loud scream of the person in the shower.”
  • “Our[] [room] reeked of urine and the floor was perpetually wet due to a leaking toilet in the bathroom which made its way into the room. I wouldn’t be surprised if the floor was covered in urine. . . . I’m so glad we only had to stay at this place for for about 7-8 hours in total, because even that was too much.”
  • “Door handle broke and we were stuck in the room shouting for help (as we couldn’t get out). Screamed for a long time before anyone came.”
  • “Worse than this is only to sleep on the ground.”

The homestay gave free coffee, which was a nice gesture. However, they provided plastic cups that weren’t properly washed; we could still see the grounds from the previous drinker(s). We were hesitant to eat food cooked at the homestay, but one of the Austrians was brave enough to buy dinner. Surprisingly, the food was edible, so each of us had a portion.

We had to leave for Ijen at 1:00 AM the following morning, so my roommate and I returned to our room at around 9:00 PM. My smart roommate had a sleeping bag liner, which she was able to place on top of her bed. I decided to sleep in my clothes, including my rain jacket. They were already dusty from Bromo, so it wasn’t much of a sacrifice.

Needless to say, I didn’t sleep well. Upon hearing our 12:30 AM alarm, my roommate and I jolted from our beds to flee our room. The staff gave us breakfast in takeout containers, which consisted of a hard-boiled egg, two pieces of white bread, a dab of margarine, and chocolate sprinkles. The Austrians, German, and I were confused by the sprinkles until my roommate explained that bread with sprinkles was a common Dutch snack.

After driving for about an hour, we reached the entrance to the park. It was drizzling, so I kept my rain jacket on and doubled up with a plastic poncho. Our driver gave us gas masks, and we joined about 25 other people for the hike to Ijen. Since the group varied in fitness levels, we soon lost our guide. My roommate, the German, and I decided to follow other groups and continue the hike.

The hike had a one-hour uphill climb and then a 45-minute downhill portion. The downhill portion was rocky and slippery from the rain. I lost my footing and fell forward on my hands and knees, which prompted a bunch of fellow hikers to ask if I was OK. I was totally fine; the fall looked much scarier than it actually was.

After navigating the downhill section, we saw our first blue flame. The flames were about a meter or two high, a lot bigger than I’d imagined. I tried to take photos, but with the rain, smoke, clouds, and darkness, the flames just looked like glowing blue blobs.

ijen

These are blue flames, I swear!

We saw a few miners working, and I felt guilty observing them. Many of them only had handkerchiefs to cover their mouths and noses. They could carry 150-pound loads of sulfur uphill at a faster pace than all the visiting hikers.

Since it was cloudy and rainy, we couldn’t see the lake at the bottom of the crater, which was supposed to be turquoise from the sulfur. Due to the poor visibility, we also missed sunrise. Even with the bad weather, I was glad I made the trip to Ijen.

While Ijen was fascinating, I wouldn’t recommend the tour that my homestay in Probolinggo booked. I never got the name of the tour company (my mistake), but apparently Ijen tours based in Probolinggo have a lackluster reputation. I can now laugh at my group’s experience at Arabica since we escaped unscathed, but it was a little frightening at the time. Our group for the hike to Ijen was also too large, and most people lost track of the guide.

Tours based in a town called Banyuwangi are supposed to be better. For instance, Ijen Blueflame Tours and Pepe Tours are highly rated. Banyuwangi also has accommodations that are miles better than Arabica, although that isn’t a high bar. I met a traveler who said her resort in Banyuwangi had a hot tub.

I have to give a shoutout to my Ijen crew for being easygoing and good-humored throughout the whole experience. I would have crumpled into a mess of tears if I had to stay at Arabica on my own. Instead, it turned into a good – and even fun – bonding experience.