Fear and Loving in Bali

I have found that you get the same questions from every cab driver in the world: Where are you from? Is it your first time here? How long are you staying? When did you arrive?

In the few taxi trips I’ve taken in Bali, after saying I’m an American, every cab driver has said the same thing “We don’t get many Americans here anymore.”

For those who are news impared, back in 2002 there was a terrorist bombing at Bali nightclub. 202 people were killed, mostly foreign tourists, the largest group of which were Australians. Since then, tourism in Indonesia has never fully recovered.

The subject of safety is probably the biggest issue which comes up when people talk about traveling overseas. Both for myself and other people who have taken longer trips, everyone is first and foremost concerned about safety. So far, I can’t say I’ve really had any experiences which I’d consider dangerous (other than almsot being trampled to death in Taipei). Everyone I’ve met in Indonesia has been exceptionally nice as they were in the Philippines, both of which the US State Department has issued travel advisories about.

This is due to a very asymmetrical information we get from other countries. We only hear about bad things so our perceptions of other places are built on only negative information. What have you heard about Indonesia in the last few years? There was a tsunami, a landslide, an earthquake, the Bali Bombings, a battle for independence over East Timor, and fighting in Sulawesi. When all the news is bad, it is natural to be apprehensive.

This is not to say I don’t take precautions while I’m on the road. I always lock my computer when it is in my room. (the potential of theft from other travelers is probably greater than what I’d experience on the street). I avoid nightclubs. I have no plans on visiting any war zones.

My biggest fear while traveling is being in a car crash. This is by far the biggest killer of tourists. I just read in a local paper that 800 people are killed in Jakarta a month on motorcycles. This is one thing that I really have no control over other than picking taxis that look relatively new. I also try to pay very close attention when doing simple things like crossing the street and walking. In Indonesia for example, most places do not have sidewalks or controlled intersections.

Likewise, I’ve met some Europeans who are terrified at the idea of coming to the United States. They think they will get off the plane and a gun battle will break out because every American carries a six shooter. What is even funnier, is that I’ve talked to Canadians who were afraid to come to he US. (I suppose the culture shock of crossing the Sault Ste. Marie bridge into the Sodom and Gomorrah of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan would be to much for anyone.)

I do not worry about terrorism. The are thousands of things to worry about before terrorism. Terrorism gets the headlines but the honest odds of being effected by it are very low, even if you live in a place such as Israel. The reaction to terrorism can often be worse than terrorism itself. In the aftermath of 9/11, many people avoiding flying and drove to destinations instead. The increase in traffic fatalities above the mean during three months after 9/11 was about 1,000 people. If you extend that out farther, you probably would equal the entire number of people killed in the terrorists attacks. Car crashes don’t dominate the headlines however, and there was probably never any one single accident you could point to and say “this happened because the person was afraid to fly”.

I actually don’t fault the media for only reporting bad things. A flood of stories every day from around the world about how disasters are not occurring isn’t really that interesting. It would quickly get like Homer Simpsons “Everything is OK Alarm”. That being said, when you think of travel, just remember that there are billions of people every day who are NOT being killed in natural disasters and terrorist attacks.

I have yet to meet a person who was hostile to me because I was an American. Usually, the reaction is quite the opposite as Americans are not nearly as well represented traveling as other countries. (The only time someone has yelled at me for being an American was in Iceland back in 2000, and that was because we spent money to release the Free Willy whale while Icelandic whalers were losing jobs.)

Bali. Hi!

One of the realities of running a travel blog is that you can’t update every day. The last 48 hours I’ve been incommunicado and it has been a pretty interesting 48 hours. I didn’t get a lot of sleep, managed to drive down the funeral route of a former president, saw a volcano and almost died in a shower explosion.

My adventure started in Yogyakarta at about 8am on Monday. I wanted to get to Bali and the popular (sort of) way to get there from Jogya (as it is known) is to take a bus and stop at Mount Bromo on the way. The bus was an eight passenger van with myself, two Austrian guys, and three people I think where Indonesian. I’m not sure. One of the guys had a book written in Japanese, but he never said a word.

If you have been watching the news, you know the big thing in Indonesia right now is the death of former president Suharto. As it turns out, his funeral was being held in Surakarta (aka Solo) which was where we had to drive through to get to Bromo. When we drove through Solo, the streets were lined with people waiting for the funeral procession to pass. There were quite a few people who came out. Moreover, the entire time we were driving through Java, there were Indonesian flags in front of almost every house flying at half staff.

When we stopped for lunch, every waitress at the restaurant was glued to the TV watching the funeral. I still for the life of me cannot figure out what most people in Indonesia think of this guy. I asked a few Indonesians what they thought and they all sort of avoided the question. They didn’t say anything bad or anything good. The only thing I can say for certain is that the opinion of him in Bali and Java are very different. I haven’t seen nearly as many flags at half staff in Bali as I did in Java. Very few here in fact.

Travel by car through Java is slow. Very slow. It reminded me very much of taking the bus through Luzon in the Philippines. There are only two lane roads, the roads go through the center of every town, and there are houses and villages hugging the roads everywhere. Every few minutes the bus is passing trucks and motorcycles in ways which would seem suicidal on an American highway. A few times, we had to hit the brakes because we were coming head on with another truck which couldn’t get back into its lane.

Java has a lot of people. 120 million people live on the island which is half the population of Indonesia and more than the entire population of Japan. Despite the size, there doesn’t seem to be a transportation system designed to handle that level of population. The physical roads are in fine condition. It isn’t as if the roads are falling apart, they just don’t seem to be designed to be major transportation arteries. I read about a plan to link Java and Sumatra by bridge sometime in the next 50 years. It would be the longest bridge in the world. Would it would be very cool, I think a trans-Java highway connecting each end of the island would be a better use of money. A single four lane, divided, controlled access highway from the ports connecting Bali and Sumatra and all big cities in between would probably be one of the single biggest infrastructure projects that would help the economy of Java.

The van eventually arrived in Probolinggo where we changed vehicles for the trip to Cemara Lawang, a village sitting right at the rim of the caldera. We were told how cold it was going to be, given a pitch to buy a ticket for a jeep ride rather than walk, and warned about how early we’d have to get up.

Cemara Lawang seems to have made itself a niche in the Yogyakarta to Bali stop over market. Most people seem to stay there just one night on the way to or from Bali.

I woke up at 3:30am to get ready to see Bromo at sunrise. I was prepare for cold weather as we were pretty high in elevation. I also had all my camera gear ready including my tripod. We were going to a lookout point to see the entire caldera then would drive down into the caldera to walk to the brim of the Bromo’s crater.

It turns out that there was a helluva lot more walking than was sold to us. Not that big of a deal as I was prepared for walking, but they made it sound like we were just going to drive up to the top.

When we got to the top, there was a heavy fog which prevented us from seeing Mount Semeru, the highest point in Java. Semeru is also active and has steam coming out from the peak. (I should also note that during my entire time in Yogyakarta, I never got to see Mount Merapi clearly because of clouds. When we left the city, I was finally able to see the peak and the plume coming out for about 15 minutes. Then the clouds covered it up again.)

I don’t think the photos I got from the view point of Bromo will be as good as some I’ve seen due to the clouds. I haven’t even looked at them yet and they are still on my camera. I assure you some will show up as a daily photo soon. We also hiked up to the view point with some German early 20 something hipsters who smoked and complained the entire time. It is nice to see that not all the bad tourists are Americans.

The drive down into Bromo was interesting as well. We transferred to jeeps and drove across the black sand/ash inside the caldera. At the base there were tons of men with horses trying to sell you horse rides to the steps of Bromo for 20,000 rupiah (about $2). I passed because I couldn’t take photos that well on horseback. The scene with all these men on horseback inside a volcano was sort of surreal.

My near death experience with the shower came here. They place I was staying had only one shower with hot water. It was a small gas water heater that heated the water as it came out. No water tank. As the water starts to flow, the flame is lit. However, when I turned on the water, the flame didn’t start but the gas started flow. I turned off the water and started it again after I smelled gas and there was a big ball of fire in the show. Sort of like what you’d see when you light a gas grill a few seconds after the gas starts. It was very odd to be standing naked in an enclosed space with a big ball of fire. Nothing important was burned.

The inside of Bromo was like being inside Kilauea in Hawaii. Lots of sulfur covered rocks, lot of evidence of mud flows and a never ending steam plume coming out from the top.

My the time I was done with the volcano, it was only 8am.

We drove back to Probolinggo and waited for the bus to take us to Denpasar, Bali. It was supposed to show up at noon but didn’t arrive until 1:30pm. I spent the time sweating and talking to local kids who came over to practice their English.

The trip to the ferry was one of the most boring experiences I’ve ever had. I didn’t put nearly enough music on my iPod, had nothing to read, and my battery was low on my laptop. There were five girls from Slovenia on the bus and I can’t say I’ve met any Slovenians on my trip yet.

We arrived in Denpasar at 12:30am. I had no room booked so I told the taxi driver to just take me some place good and reasonably cheap. This isn’t the busy season, tourism in general is down since the 2002 bombings, and it was a Tuesday, so I figured finding a room wouldn’t be hard. I was right. Got a great place near the beach for a pretty reasonable rate.

I haven’t a clue what I’ll be doing in Bali yet, other than use it as a jumping off point to go to Komodo. I’m going to do laundry today and other things and maybe get up a few photos.

I might shoot some video near the beach as well.

The Road to Bali

My journey to the Sangiran Early Man Site was a bit of a let down to say the least. It was by far the least impressive World Heritage Site I’ve seen so far. It consisted of a museum with two rooms of fossils and fossil replicas in glass cases. That’s it. They are working on a new museum, and they need it.

Tomorrow I’m on a long bus to Mount Bromo. Transportation and lodging to Bromo then on to Bali are a whopping $28. I’ve been hearing so much about Bali for so long I fear I’m going to be disappointed. Even the Indonesians I talk to all love Bali.

If you haven’t watched the news, former Indonesian strongman President Suharto died today. When I went through the museum at the national memorial, there were a bunch of dioramas showing the history of Indonesia. The last two where about Suharto and were blatant propaganda. I thought it was sort of odd it was still there considering he wasn’t president anymore. Today I read an article in the English language about that very diorama and removing it.

Indonesia has declared seven days of mourning. I really don’t know what people think of the guy. No one has said anything good or bad, at least not to me. He has a kid in jail from corruption charges and I think there is still a ton of money his family has that might go back to the government.

While Suharto isn’t spoken of much, Sukarno (the first president of Indonesia) seems to be truly looked up to. He is the Indonesian George Washington.

The Big Mac(Donald’s) Update

Since I last did a McDonald’s update, I’ve gained a lot of readers. For those who are new, I try to eat at a McDonald’s restaurant in every country I visit. McDonald’s in every country are just a little bit different as they adjust the menu to fit local tastes. Eating at McDonald’s is an attempt to try and see how each country is different through the lens of something which is very familiar. I do not usually go out of my way to eat fast food, but I do eat at least this one meal at each place.

My last update was in Taiwan, so I have Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong/Macau to fill everyone in on . Brunei didn’t have a McDonald’s that I could see (but they did have Pizza Hut and Jollibee’s) and I’ll wait till I pass through KL to talk about Malaysia.


You think Japan you think seafood. It should come as no surprise that Japan’s contribution to the global McDonald’s menu should come from the sea. They have given us the Fliet-o-Ebi, or the shrimp sandwich. What was interesting was that the Japanese McDonald’s all had cheaper seafood sandwiches than beef sandwiches. This is opposite (outside of Lent) as it is almost anywhere else. The filet-o-fish was the cheapest thing on the menu and the Quarter Pounder was the most expensive.

I had a helluva time finding Diet Coke in Japan and South Korea. I guess they aren’t that fat so don’t feel the need to drink diet coke that often. I’d usually get a Grape Fanta when I ate in Japan.

In the Asian McDonald’s I’ve visited (except for Hong Kong) they had a very clever system for getting rid of your garbage. Each garbage bin had a drain attached for dumping your ice and extra beverages. You were then expected to stack your cups. Also, hard plastic like forks, drink tops and straws were usually put in a separate bin. It was very efficient. Very Japanese. The drain on the garbage is one of those simple ideas that really should be adapted everywhere. It reduces the weight and potential mess of the garbage by removing the liquids from the bag. It also reduces the volume by stacking the cups. It would be very simple to implement and I think everyone would use it immediately.

South Korea

South Korea has one of the more boring menus I’ve seen so far. The only really unique thing I saw was the pumpkin pie, which sounds like something that is probably on the menu in North America in the fall, but I don’t recall ever actually seeing it.

The one thing which sets South Korean McDonald’s apart from Japan was something you could see all over the country: space. Most of the Japanese McDonald’s I saw were very crowded. Many had spaces for eating while standing up against the wall. There were very few booths or large tables. This is sort of a reflection of everything in Japan. Everything is tiny and crowded.

In South Korea, even though the country has a higher population density than Japan, you don’t see the same amount of crowding. I noticed this the moment I arrived in Busan. The apartments were bigger, almost American sized. Likewise, the McDonald’s were more roomy and less seafood oriented. Even though South Korea is heavily into pork, I didn’t see a lot of pork on the menu.

They also had corn soup on the menu, which is something I also saw in other Asian countries. I don’t get why corn is so popular. It certainly isn’t a traditional Asian food.

Hong Kong/Macau

I noticed that Hong Kong and Taipei had way more fast food restaurants than I saw anywhere in Japan and South Korea. You’d see them around in Seoul and Tokyo, but not in the same degree as in Taipei or Hong Kong. I have no clue if it is a Chinese thing.

That being said, the two places I’ve eaten the most fast food were in Taipei and Hong Kong. I think that is more a function of me staying there far longer than I had originally planned, having a screwed up sleep schedule, and McDonald’s being open 24/7. If you recall from my report on Taipei, they had great fried chicken. The Hong Kong chicken wings were also really good. Probably not very good for me, but they taste good. The only unique thing I saw was the Prosperity burger, which was available in beef and pork. I think it might have been a seasonal thing like the Shamrock Shake, but for Chinese New Year. I also saw the Prosperity Burger in Malaysian Borneo, which has a sizable Chinese population.

I plan on doing a special McDonald’s update from Bali. From what I’ve heard, the menu is very different there.

Java Man

I did two of the things on my “to do” list in Java already. Tomorrow I’m going to see the excavation site and museum where they found Java man. Unlike my other tours which were really cheap, this is going to cost a bit more because I have to hire a driver for the day to get there. Even though it is only about 100km away (60 miles) getting there and back is an all day affair on Java.

After that, I think I’m going to travel to Bali by way of Mount Bromo. I’m too much of a geology geek to pass it up, and besides, I didn’t get to go to Tanna when I was on Vanuatu and Kilauea wasn’t that impressive when I was in Hawaii.

I constantly have to remind myself how cheap everything is here. The Indonesia Rupiah is about 10,000 to the dollar. For some reason, I keep thinking 1,000 to the dollar. Everything seems expensive for a fraction of a second till I remind myself that it is in fact really cheap. My trip to Borobudur and Parambanan was about 8 hours, all the driving, gas, and admission was about $20. Going to Bali by way of Bromo, including lodging and some meals, will run $59. I hung out today at a coffee place with internet. I had dinner, many diet cokes, and two pieces of pie over the course of about 8 hours. Total cost was under $8.

For those following on Twitter, a few days ago I mentioned about a commotion in my hotel where the police came in and a maid was crying. It turns out that there was a 95 year old Dutch man who had been living at the hotel for the last 15 years who passed away during the night. He had become a part of the family.

Indonesian Fun Fact of the Day: The flag of Indonesia is a red stripe above a white stripe. I made a joke about how the Indonesian flag is just an upside down Polish flag. Well, as it turns out, there is a good reason why the Indonesian flag is the way it is. When they were fighting the Dutch for independence, people would climb flagpoles and rip off the blue stripe from the Dutch flag. What was left was a red and white stripe. That symbol of resistance to the Dutch became the flag of Indonesia.

In Indonesia, I Am A Rockstar

Today I visited Borobudur and Parambanan.

But I’m not going to talk about that right now. That will be for another time when I can go through the photos and do them justice.

I’m going to talk about all the kids I met today.

I met a LOT of kids today. Normally when you are at a tourist attraction, it is not uncommon to be asked to take someone’s photo. Especially when people think you are a professional photographer (and I get that a lot with my camera). However, I have never been asked to have my photo taken with someone else. Without any exaggeration, that happened about 20 times today. I literally was the center of attraction at both sites.

At Borodubur it turns out the school group that was there was there for an English class trip. They went specifically to meet tourists. I think they were from a school in Surabaya, which is in East Java. (I gave them my URL, so some of the kids might post comments here to clarify).

I managed to talk to their teacher for a while. It is hard for them to find people to have English conversations with. Like many people I’ve met on my trip, they sort of have to learn English in a vacuum. (BTW, this would be a great program to get off the ground. Set up Skype calls between native English speakers and students learning English. One side can improve their English and the other can learn about life someplace else.)

At Prambanan, it literally was an assembly line as every student (and even the parents) lined up to get their picture taken with me. We were in front of one of the most significant Hindu temples outside of India, and they all wanted photos with me. It was sort of …..weird.

There were very few foreign tourists at either site. I was told that before the Bali bombings in 2002, you would see more foreigners than locals. Now, you can hardly find tourist. There were literally 3-4x the vendors at each site than there were people visiting.

Tomorrow I may move to Solo for the night and visit the site where Java man was found, and then move to Surabaya. I might go to Mount Bromo, which is a volcano before heading to Bali.

That Is Some Good Java

I’m alive in Yogyakarta in central Java.

I did the most dangerous thing on my trip today. I flew an Indonesian discount airline. The flight from Jakarta to Yogyakarta was $29 with taxes. The plane was packed, and they fly pretty much on the hour.

Pramabanan and Borobudur are the two big ruins nearby. Either of those would be the defining sites in any other country. Why they aren’t better known is beyond me. If they were in Bali, I have a feeling they would have been on the Seven Wonders of the World ballot.

Tomorrow I’ll be exploring Yogyakarta, then on Friday I’ll be going to Borobudur for sunrise.

The infrastructure for tourism here seems larger than the actual number of tourists. I think the Bali bombing years ago has effected this area and it still hasn’t bounced back totally.

I’m writing this at a tiny road side internet cafe with three computers. Food here is cheap. You can easily get a good meal for $2.

I’ll have to get to bed early the next two nights if I’m going to actually see sunrise.

It’s Good To Be The Sultan

The house where the Sultan was born.
The house where the Sultan was born.
You cannot discuss Brunei without talking about the Sultan of Brunei. Not talking about the Sultan is like not talking about an elephant in the middle of the room.

Brunei is the Sultan and the Sultan is Brunei. It is a form of government unlike anything in the world today.

The Sultan is one of the most facinating leaders in the world today, and if you don’t know why, by the time you finish this you should see why I have a Paris Hilton like facination with him. You dare not look, yet you cannot turn away.


The Sultan of Brunei is Hassanal Bolkiah, 29th Sultan of the Bolkiah House which can trace its history back, uninterrupted to 1485. His full title is:

His Majesty Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mu’izzaddin Waddaulah, Sultan of Brunei Darussalaam, and Yang Di-Pertuan of Brunei Darussalaam.

The Sultan is the absolute ruler of the country. Unlike most monarchies in the world today, the Sultan holds real authority. He is not a figure head. In addition to the titles above, he also holds the title of Prime Minister, Defense Minister, Finance Minister and he is the head of religion in Brunei. There is no elected parliament. The only advisers are appointed by the Sultan.

Where the Sultan lives now. Over 1,700 rooms and looks a lot like a Vegas casino.
Where the Sultan lives now. Over 1,700 rooms and looks a lot like a Vegas casino.
Martial law was declared in 1962 and technically has never been lifted.

But that isn’t all. He recently changed the constitution such that it is impossible for him to do wrong. It says “His Majesty the Sultan. . . can do no wrong in either his personal or any official capacity.” He has an official degree of infallibility which goes well beyond that of the pope.

Moreover, (and the reason why I wrote this after I left Borneo) according to the Brunei constitution, “No person shall publish or reproduce in Brunei or elsewhere any part of proceedings … that may have the effect of lowering or adversely affecting directly or indirectly the position, dignity, standing, honour, eminence or sovereignty of His Majesty the Sultan.”

He also has two wives, one of which is a former Malaysian TV personality who is 33 years younger than him.

Way to go Sultan!

The Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque in Bandar Seri Begawan is the unofficial symbol of Brunie. It was built by the previous Sultan.
The Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque in Bandar Seri Begawan is the unofficial symbol of Brunie. It was built by the previous Sultan.


The Sultan has Bill Gates amounts of wealth. He is left off the Forbes list of richest people because he is a monarch and really didn’t earn it. Regardless how he got it, he has it. I’ve seen estimates of his personal worth at $22-53 billion dollars. I’m sure the recent spike in oil prices hasn’t hurt things.

Because of his position, he personally owns the resources and much of the land in Brunei. It just so happens that there is a lot of oil in Brunei. If you travel along the coast in Brunei, you can see the influence which Shell Oil has in the country. In the royal museum which has the regalia of coronation, there are gifts given from monarchs and countries from around the would. What really stood out, amongst the gifts from all the heads of state, was a gold and jewel encrusted model of an oil platform from ….. Shell Oil.

I’d like to say that he served as a wise steward of the wealth of the people of Brunei. However, that would be a lie. He is probably the most profligate and ostentatious spender in the world today. Consider the following:

  • It is estimated he owns between 3,000-5,000 cars, all of which are rare luxury cars. He owns more Rolls Royces than any other person in the world and has spent upward of $3 billion dollars on cars.
  • He own his own 747 with gold plated toilets.
  • He built a $3b theme park in Brunei that used to open to the public at no cost.
  • He built the worlds largest residential palace. It has 1,788 rooms and is over 2 million sq. feet (200,000 m2.
  • He recently transferred $3b in cash into his own private accounts, which is more than the entire GDP of Brunei.
  • When his brother Jefri was finance minister, it is estimated he embezzled or spent over $23b. He is now in exile in London.
  • The Sultan owns 200 polo ponies.

..and there is a lot more than that.

It is as if he was given a copy of a Richie Rich comic when he was younger and thought it was an instruction manual.

…or perhaps he got his ideas from watching Scarface. He got the money, he got the power, and he got the women.

Life Under the Sultan

This is one of those subjects where my biases as an American really shine through. I really, really cannot understand, at the core of my being, why people would sit around and allow someone to piss away the resources of a nation like this. There is a good reason why monarchies in most countries have gone by the wayside over the centuries. (I can’t even understand why Canadians keep the Queen on their currency).

All the regalia from the royal coronation as well as gifts to the Sultan from other heads of state are housed in their own public museum.
All the regalia from the royal coronation as well as gifts to the Sultan from other heads of state are housed in their own public museum.
Yet, to be intellectually honest, I have to confess that the picture I painted above about the Sultan is something you’d never ever guess from just being on the ground in Brunei.

There are no secret police. There is freedom of religion. The press is heavily biased towards the government, but there were multiple sources of information including foreign news sources.

Brunei has no taxes of any sort. Education and health care is free to all citizens. Per capita GDP is the highest in Asia (however, I think this really reflects the problem with economic statistics. I noticed no real difference in development between Brunei and Malaysia, yet on paper, Brunei has twice the per capita GDP as Malaysia. If anything, Malaysia seemed more developed. Most of the Brunei economy is concentrated in one person.) A great deal of manual labor is done by foreign workers (I saw Filipinos in Brunei too)

In other words, life is not bad in Brunei. I didn’t get any impression that there was discontent. (but at the same time, if there way, they might just keep it private) I doubt if anyone feels oppressed enough to really want to rock the boat.

However, at some point in the future the oil will run out or prices will drop. At some point in the future, perhaps several generations from now, someone will be on the throne who is truly nuts. If fate had worked out differently, his brother could have been Sultan. It always happens in monarchies. After all, the royal family in Brunei is the result of centuries of inbreeding. (the crown prince recently married a 17 year old distant cousin. His mother and father are also cousins.)

If all the money spent on cars, palaces, yachts and jewelry were instead spent on infrastructure in Brunei, the country would have a bright future. Think of Dubai or Qatar as a better example. Instead, at some point, perhaps not in my lifetime, this whole works will come crashing down and it will not be pretty.