Indonesia is the biggest country in South East Asia – with over 17,000 islands, stretching from 100 km south of Nicobar Islands in the Bay of Bengal, to near Darwin Australia. It has over three time zones, thirtythree provinces and hundreds of languages and dialects. It is also the fourth most populous country in the world.
‘Indonesia Indah’ – roughly translates to ‘Beautiful Indonesia’. I recently got a chance to visit this interesting country – a country rich in history, culture and nature. In this blog post, I will discuss some of the highlights from my trip. (Please do read this nice blog post by my friend: http://arsh-else.blogspot.com/2010/10/guest-blog-about-indonesia-by.html for an interesting perspective.)
I would highly recommend visiting Indonesia. (Unfortunately, at present there are no direct flights from India to Jakarta – Hope that they do commence direct flights soon! For now, connections through Singapore, Kuala Lumpur or Bangkok are quite convenient). Tourists from many countries may be eligible for visa on arrival. Combining Jakarta, Bandung and Bali in your itinerary would require a week (at minimum). Given our time constraints, we decided to leave Bali out for our next trip.
Jakarta is the capital (as well as the commercial capital) of Indonesia. It is a large, vibrant, cosmopolitan metropolis with over 14 million people. Like many large developing world cities, it exhibits quite a few contrasts – from first world like road infrastructure, downtown area, malls – to shanty towns and slums. Situated by the sea, 6 degrees south of the equator, it has tropical weather all year around. However, the humidity is definitely a shade lower than what we typically experience in Mumbai.
Friendly and courteous people
The Indonesian people are friendly, courteous and patient. One example of this is evident in the crazy traffic jams – hardly heard any honking! English is not that well understood by the common man; so communication can be a bit of a challenge. Given the breadth and diversity of the country, many different cultures and languages exist. Jakarta itself is quite cosmopolitan. On the topic of language – the Bahasa Indonesian spoken by the majority of the population has many words with Sanskrit origin. It is an interesting blend of East-West, given that the script is Roman.
Remnants of Dutch Era
Indonesia was a Dutch colony for over 3 centuries. But in comparison with cities like Mumbai, Kolkata, and Delhi – you don’t see as many colonial structures/infuence in Jakarta. Maybe the Dutch didn’t invest as much in infrastructure as the British. There are a few old buildings around the old port area and railway station – but nothing grand like the Fort Area or the Victoria Terminus in Mumbai. One prominent Dutch era remnant is the canal network in Jakarta. Though not very well maintained, they remind you of the typical Amsterdam canals. If there is any prominent western influence today, it is that of the American Culture – malls, fast-food, popular entertainment, etc.
Ramayan & Mahabharat
It was interesting to observe how Ramayan and Mahabharat occupy an important place in Indonesian culture. Jakarta’s central business district, features a prominent 50 feet long statue of Krishna and Arjun in a 13 horse chariot. Wooden puppets depicting scenes from these epics are quite popular.
Nasi Goreng (literally means ‘Fried Rice’) is one of the most popular dishes in Indonesia. It is a spicy fried rice preparation with various additions such as Chicken, Seafood, Shrimp, Beef, Eggs, Vegetables, etc. It is available everywhere – from street-food corners to good restaurants.
Traffic in Jakarta is crazy; but definitely better disciplined than in India. The city has over 2.5 Million Cars and over 7 Million Two-Wheelers. You will often get stuck in kilometers long traffic jams. Petrol is quite cheap (until recently, Indonesia was a net-exporter of petroleum) and public transportation is not very good. This adds to the traffic load.
The highway infrastructure though is quite world class. Jakarta has quite a few expressways inside the city. The ride on the Jakarta – Bandung Expressway was also quite good.
One interesting thing I saw was the concept of ‘tipping’ while yielding in traffic. In these crazy traffic jams, it is often impossible to make a turn in busy traffic. However an ingenious solution (doubt if it will work in India!) is often used to address this problem. A group of volunteers act as traffic cops, stop the oncoming traffic and let you pass. You simply tip this volunteer group! It is a commonly accepted practice…the oncoming vehicles doesn’t seem to protest!
Toyotas (and Daihatsus) are by far the most popular. The Toyota Innova (known as ‘Kijang’) and Toyota Avanza are the top models. These 3 passenger row vehicles are ideally suited for the large Indonesian families.
The iconic Bajaj Auto-Rickshaw made an entry in the Indonesian market in the 1970s. Though their popularity has gone down a bit since the 1990s, they are still omnipresent in Jakarta. Like in many Indian cities, they are popular commuting options. Interestingly, they are not called Rickshaws or Autos, but ‘Bajajs’! (Bajaj pronounced ‘Baa-j—aah’). One strange quirk though – the backseat appears to be at a substantial slant angle, compared to what we see here in India.
[On a related note - I reminded my friends that two popular things in Indonesia have a Pune connection! One being the 'Bajaj' and other even popular one being the extremely popular game of Badminton. Badminton (originally known as 'Poona') originated out of the British Army Cantonment in Pune in the 19th century]
Bajaj (image credit: Wikipedia)
We visited a few malls in Jakarta. Some of them were quite large and impressive – comparable with some of the good malls in U.S. Indonesia is definitely an attractive shopping destination; especially for apparel. Do make sure you visit the many traditional ‘Batik’ showrooms.
Bandung is the 3rd largest city in Indonesia and also the educational and textile capital. It is located around 160 km from Jakarta, at a height of over 800 meters. The weather is quite pleasant. Bandung is also a must-visit shopping destination for apparel. Many factory outlet stores have great merchandize selections and huge discounts.
Located close to Bandung, ‘Tangkuban Perahu’ is a dormant volcano. It is a popular tourist destination. Tourists can do a short hike to one of the craters (Kawah Domas). This crater has a few active hot springs.
Taman Mini Indonesia
Taman Mini Indonesia Indah (translated as “Beautiful Indonesia Miniature Park”) is an excellent tourist destination in Jakarta. This theme park provides a showcase of all the major provinces of Indonesia. It is a bit similar in concept to Epcot Center (Orlando, Florida). One interesting attraction is a lake with a series of well manicured islands – that are miniature replicas of the major Indonesian islands – Java, Sumatra, Sulawesi, Kalimantan, etc.)
Even though we didn’t visit Bali on this trip, we got a brief glimpse of the temples, architecture and culture at the park.
Indonesia is the 2nd most bio-diverse country in the world (1st is Brazil). Given its vast expanse and tropical climate, a wide variety of plant and animal species thrive here. Dense forests, rice fields, cash crops plantations (palm, rubber, coffee, tea, etc.) fill up the landscape. Many different kinds of fruits grow here. Do recommend trying the pineapples here (they were great!), as well as fresh coconut water (available everwhere!).
We recently visited the beautiful country of Switzerland. Enough adjectives have already been used to describe this heaven on earth. Instead of adding to that list, I will just provide a simple comparison – Here’s a place that combines the Best of the Best – German Engineering, French Finecrafts, English/American Banking & Finance and on top of all this, spectacular nature! During our one week trip, we visited Interlaken, Lucerne, Zurich and Davos. Many people had recommended that trains are the best way to see Switzerland. I concur. However, driving around is also great fun. We settled for a hybrid approach. Decided to the travel by train on the Zurich-Interlaken-Lucerne sectors, and rented a car for the remainder.
In this two part article, I will describe my observations from the trip.
Interlaken is situated at the foothills of the majestic Jungfrau Mountain (more on this later). We took a train from Zurich airport to Interlaken (with a changeover at Berne, the Swiss Capital). Interlaken is a small town with one main street (Höheweg) and 2 stations Interlaken West and Interlaken Ost (East). Most tourist hotels are located on this main street and are within walking distance from the stations. The Höheweg at times resembles an airport terminal with many tourists dragging their large suitcases. The street has many good souvenir shops, restaurants and cafes. We stayed at a nice, small family run hotel: Hotel Splendid. It was originally built in 1908 and served as military hospital during World War II (during WW II, Interlaken was an important center for the Swiss Army). A building across the street from our hotel was one of the oldest buildings in Interlaken(over 500 years old).
Interlaken reminded me of two distinct places in US – Yosemite Park and Madison, Wisconsin. Interlaken is surrounded by many tall cliffs and is situated in between two spectacular lakes: Lake Brienz and Lake Thun (hence the name ‘Inter’ Laken…). When we reached Interlaken, we saw literally dozens of para-gliders gliding down from these cliffs and landing in a park in the town center (something to try for sure … maybe on the next trip! ). The Jungfrau peak and surrounding Alpine mountain ranges are visible from the town on a clear day.
I had been warned that Interlaken might be a bit ‘too touristy’ but was pleasantly surprised. Maybe this was a good season to be there, and it was not very crowded. Noticed a lot fewer Indian tourists (I guess peak season is May/June) than many earlier visitors had reported…but couldn’t help notice a few prominent Indian restaurants. Amongst the non-EU tourists, I think that Indians represent the second largest group, after the Americans. I am sure the Swiss Tourism Industry is thankful to Bollywood :)
Majority of people in Switzerland speak German (the locals will point out that its ‘Swiss-German’…). Though given the tourist influx, English is reasonably well understood, compared to other European countries. The people we met were quite helpful and friendly.
One big realization (and probably the only negative one…) that hits you on your first day in Switzerland is that this place is ‘really’ expensive! I have a simple, unscientific cost of living indicator that I use across countries. It simply entails comparing the prices across popular restaurant chains (McDonalds, Starbucks, Burger Kings, etc.). Prices in Germany, Netherlands tend to be about 1.5 times of US, while those in Switzerland are two times as expensive (A basic Starbucks Coffee costs more than $4).
On our second day in Interlaken, we headed for the Jungfrau excursion.
Jungfrau is the tallest peak in Switzerland and amongst the tallest in the Alps. An amazing piece of engineering over 100 years ago – the Jungfraubahn (Railway), opened up this great mountain range to Alpine tourism. The Jungfrau Railway uses a cogwheel track for better traction on these steep gradients (max gradient is 25%).
To reach Jungfrau Hoch station (at around 11,000 feet), you need to change trains at 2 intermediate stops. There are two alternate routes, both with breathtaking scenery (strongly recommend trying both routes – one for going up, and the other one for coming down). You start at Interlaken Ost at around 1900 feet and ascend up over 9000 feet in 2.5 hours. The changes in the landscape are quite interesting as you gain altitude. From trees and green meadows, you start seeing snow at higher altitudes, and eventually are surrounded by glaciers. The last stretch from Kleine Sheidegg to Jungfrau Hoch passes through many tunnels, but with nice viewing galleries (windows) cutout through the tunnels at certain spots. The view of the glaciers is great…unfortunately we were there on a foggy day, with limited visibility. Jungfrau Hoch has been developed as a big tourist destination with multiple attractions and restaurants. A lift takes you few hundred feet up from the station, to a great open-air viewing gallery.
On our way up, we took the Interlaken Ost – Grindelwald – Kleine Sheidegg route. On the return, we took the Kleine Sheidegg – Lauterbrunnen – Interlaken Ost route. Train changes are required at Grindelwald, Kleine Sheidegg and Lauterbrunnen. The onward connections are synchronized (within 5-10 minutes), but I would recommend skipping a connection and spending 30 min – 1 hour at each of these picturesque stations on the way. Lauterbrunnen is also the starting point for a cable car ride up to Mt. Shilthorn (also referred to as the James Bond Mountain).
On our 3rd day in Interlaken, we boarded the train to Lucerne – The Golden Pass Panoramic Express. In the second blog post on Switzerland, I will write more about this wonderful train journey, and our stay in Lucerne, Davos and Zurich.
[Note: Thanks to my wife for taking all these wonderful photographs...many more coming up in the 2nd blog post]
(Image Credit: Wikipedia)
Recently, I got a couple of opportunities to travel to Kokan (I have no idea how the term ‘Konkan’ in English originated. I guess it was the British who started spelling it this way. Going by its Marathi pronunciation, it should be ‘Kokan’ and not ‘Konkan’). These were my first trips to Kokan after over 20 years! Needless to say, I noticed quite a few changes. This blog is an attempt to highlight some. Note I am focusing this on the Kokan region of Maharashtra, and not the entire Kokan region on the western coast of India.
1. Kokan Railway
For a long time, the Kokan region was lagging behind rest of Maharashtra in growth and development. I think Kokan Railway was a seminal event in the transformation of Kokan, which is now well and truly underway. After many years of planning and discussions, this impressive civil engineering project was finally completed in 1998, with the first train being flagged off on the Republic Day. I have not yet travelled on this rail route, but hope to do so soon. Some of the bridges and tunnels on the Kokan Railway look quite spectacular. The Kokan Railway website has some very useful information www.konkanrailway.com .
(Image Credits: Wikipedia)
2. Roads/ Bridges
Quite a few new roads (state highways and national highways) and bridges have been built over the past 2 decades. (Though like every other infrastructure issue in India, a lot more still lot more needs to be done!). The Rajapur – Ratnagiri – Ganpatipule coastal state highway is a great example. Many big and small creek bridges have been constructed. Distances that took hours to cover now take minutes. If you look at the Kokan geography, there are many small creeks that separate villages and towns. In the past, a trip to a neighbouring town took a long time since there was a need to circumnavigate this water body. Not anymore. Ganpatipule to Ratnagiri time is down to less than 45 min from the previous nearly 2 hours.This coastal highway provides many stunning views of the Arabian Sea and really reminded me of the Pacific Coast Highway in California (just that the road quality has some room for improvement…).
3. Television and Communications
During my last trip to Kokan in 1989, the satellite TV and Cable revolution had not yet happened. Hence TV coverage was very limited. Very few folks had those large dish antennas, required to receive INSAT transmission of Doordarshan. Now, thanks to Cable TV and Satellite Dishes – TV coverage is available in the remotest of the villages. Same is true with mobile telephones coverage. One interesting, yet a little different example I can cite here is that of my car GPS navigation system. Was quite skeptical of using it in Ratnagiri and Kokan, but was amazed to see that it had a comprehensive database and turn by turn directions for Ratnagiri Roads and Points of Interest!
Though Kokan is no where near Goa in terms of tourist volume, the railway and better roads have helped substantially in improving the tourism. Many new hotels and resorts have come up. But still the quality and standard of most needs to improve. Ganpatipule has been transformed from a small coastal village and temple town, to a big tourist hub. Talking about modern tourism - the famous Ganpati Temple at Ganpatipule has a prominent sign – www.ganpatipule.co.in This is a nice website with lot of good information.
5. Development and maintenance of heritage structures and temples
Most probably driven by cultural tourism, I noticed a big improvement in the upgradation of facilities and maintenance work done around heritage structures and temples. I visited a few that were over 1000 years old and were very well maintained.
Once good infrastructure is in place, the economy is bound to improve. This is clearly evident. Compared to the 1980s, the area looks much better off. Still, the economic activity and prosperity gap, is evident when you climb up from Kokan via Amba Ghat into the Sugarcane rich rural Western Maharashtra. Maybe Kokan would bridge that gap in the coming decade. I noticed a big increase in number of bank branches. Even the smallest towns had a prominent bank location – a clear sign of economic progress.
I remember in 1979, how Ratnagiri looked like a village. That changed a bit when I next visited in 1989. However in my most recent trip – the changes have been drastic. Ratnagiri now increasingly looks like a small city, with 4 laned divided roads, large buildings, markets, factories, restaurants, hotels, etc. Chiplun has also become an industrial town.
Cash crops are booming in Kokan, clearly led by Mangoes. I noticed a big increase in organized mango farming over 100s of acres of land.
Like elsewhere in rural Maharashtra, the spread of education in villages seemed quite prominent. In every small village we drove through, we saw a bunch of primary and secondary school kids en route to/from their schools. Similarly in urban and semi-urban areas, many colleges have also sprung up.
Many new industries have come up in Kokan. Chiplun is becoming a chemical / pharma hub of Kokan. While driving to Rajapur, we saw a massive new Tubes Plant that is coming up just 10 km south of Ratnagiri. The much debated Dabhol power plant is also now functional (though I am not sure if it is at 100% capacity). The small Mirai port near Ratnagiri is also undergoing big upgrades.
Recently, I had a wonderful opportunity to visit the Netherlands. It’s interesting how you have an image in your mind about a place, a country - and then you see it for yourself for the first time. In my case, I can now say that I was fairly close.
Netherlands has its series of attractions and icons: some extremely famous, and others not so much. In this brief blog, I will make an attempt to highlight some that caught my attention during this brief stay. I really enjoyed my time and look forward to making another trip.
Food – Global Cuisine and Dutch Classics
Netherlands is not exactly known for food, but I had a great culinary experience. I guess Ham & Cheese Sandwich is to Holland, what Fish & Chips is to Britain. I loved the great variety of breads,sliced meats and cheeses. Dutch pancakes were also quite terrific - different and a lot better than what you get in America.
Apart from the traditional Dutch food, what struck me was the wide variety of eclectic global cuisine that was available in Amsterdam and other smaller towns. I expected to see a lot of Indonesian restaurants in central Amsterdam, but was really surprised to see a huge number of Indian restaurants there as well! There were Chinese, Middle-Eastern, Turkish, Argentinean and many other cuisines represented.
In Europe, they serve great coffee. Even in a small town cafe, the Cappuccino was perfect. I guess this might be a problem for Starbucks to expand here.
Our hotel ‘The Golden Tulip – Lisse’ located in a small suburb Lisse, about 30 km from Amsterdam, also had a famous 100-year-old restaurant ‘De Nachtegaal’ that served a variety of different dishes, ranging from Dutch Pancakes, to Italian Pastas and Thai Sateys.
Bikes are one thing a first time visitor to Holland would expect; but the sheer numbers are astounding! Just look at the massive multi-storeyed bicycle-only parking lot next to the Amsterdam Central Train Station. Even in a small town like Lisse, you would see a swarm of bikes during the morning and evening rush hour. The riders include school kids from primary to high school, office goers, retirees, and from every other section of the society.
Dedicated bike lanes definitely help and are clearly essential. Hotels (especially in suburbs) have bicycles available on rent. I was able to enjoy a nice 1 hour bike ride through Tulip country (No Tulips this time of the year!).
Given the amount of bike riding the Dutch do, I wouldn’t be surprised if their overall health ranks much better than most other countries in the world.
Windmills are probably the first thing that would come to mind when one thinks of Holland. They are not as omnipresent as one would think, but still you would see quite a few, especially in small towns. Many are not in a working state anymore, and a few have been converted into restaurants, galleries, etc. We had a nice dinner at one such restaurant ‘ d’Oude Molen ‘ (translates as: ‘The Old Mill) in a small town of Nieuw-Vennep.
On expressway A4 leading south from Amsterdam towards Rotterdam, you do see some interesting contrasts of old windmills standing shoulder to shoulder with their modern airplane propellor like counterparts.
Few cities carry such weight and seriousness in their name, as ‘The Hague’ (translated from ‘Den Haag’). But then this is a fairly unique place. The capital of the Netherlands, and the seat of many important international organizations – such as the International Criminal Court.
I didn’t spend too much time there, but did drive around a bit. The palace (I only saw it from outside) is very impressive. The beach boulevard near the palace is a very popular place for tourists and locals. A large number of casual beach restaurants are a big attraction. I had a good lunch at Waterreus.
This beach had an interesting historical photograph, prominently framed there. It showed the same view (with a lighthouse in the background – it is still there…) from 1944, with all the German fortifications – in preparation for defence against an Allied Landing.
Given its capital and international diplomatic hub status, The Hague has a lot of dignitaries visiting and living there. While driving by some apartments, I noticed an interesting parking sign – ‘This Parking Spot Is Reserved For The Ambassador Of Guatamala’! I am not sure if they have similar reserved parking for every country’s ambassador (guess they should!) – it’s just that I saw only one such sign!
Another extremely popular Dutch export is Heineken. I noticed that in Netherlands – many restaurants just serve one kind of beer: Draft Heineken. They have a nice museum in Central Amsterdam called ‘Heineken Experience’. I have been to the Miller Brewery Museum in Milwaukee (many years back) and found this to be a better experience.
If there’s one type of structure all Dutch people need to be eternally thankful towards, it’s a ‘Dike’ (also referred to as ‘Dyke’ or ‘Levee’). These earthen structures protect the low-lying areas from raging sea waters. A large percentage of Holland is actually below sea-level (One data-point suggests that it is 27%). Schipol International Airport in Amsterdam is the lowest (11 feet below MSL (mean sea level) ) international airport in the world. For the past many centuries, the Dutch have been reclaiming land from the North Sea.
Given the geography of Netherlands, canals are a very popular means of transportation. Like any modern European country, a vast network of expressways crisscross the land, but Canals continue to maintain their unique identity. These canals lead to many ‘opening bridges’ on roads and local highways. Inside Amsterdam, the canals create a complex network of transportation routes. A common legend about these canals in Central Amsterdam goes like this – most canals were originally 3 meter deep, but presently, their usable depth is only 2 meters. Reason? The huge number of old bicycles that have been thrown in there over, the past century ;)
Tulips are another classic attraction in Holland. I think this is especially the case amongst Indians – thanks to Bollwood. If one song caught the imagination of the Bollywood audience in the 1980s and created an everlasting impression of Tulips country – its ‘Dekha Ek Khaab …’ from Silsila (imdb link), staring Amitabh Bacchan and Rekha.
Our hotel in Lisse was right in the middle of Tulip country. It was surrounded by vast Tulip fields and bike trails that run through them. Only problem was that we were at absolute right place, but not at the right time ;). Tulip season is in April-May. All we saw were mostly ploughed fields and small sections of some other flowers that grow during this time of the year.
Central Amsterdam is beautiful. Canals, small streets, bicycle paths and footpaths blend in and coexist together. Old buildings (some over 400 year old) line these canals and streets. The Grand Central Railway Station building is quite imposing. Many refer to Amsterdam as a ‘walking city’. It’s not difficult to see why. The sheer number of people we saw in Central Amsterdam was huge. Yes, it was a weekend and the weather was nice – but still we heard from locals that this kind of crowd is not abnormal. If you think Manhattan is crowded, you should see this place! Clearly comparable with some of the crowded cities in India!
The central part of Amsterdam has many tourist attractions – Shopping, Museums, The Famous Red-Light District Area, Canal Rides,..to name a few. I got an opportunity to see the Van Gogh Museum. I am not much of an art lover so its best that I don’t attempt to describe any of his famous works! Rembrandt Museum is also close by in the Museum District.
I can recommend 3 good ways to checkout Central Amsterdam – I tried all of them. A canal cruise is a must as it takes you around the complex network of waterways around the city and gives you a nice close-up view of some of the great historical buildings. It was interesting to learn how all those old buildings are built on a 40 (or 60) wooden pillars foundation. Due to some structural problems that have arisen over the years (I must say the construction is good – since many have been around for 3 or more centuries!), a few buildings are tilted. (See the above photo of the famous ‘Tilting House’).
If you have extra time on hand, and the weather is good – walking is probably the best way to see the city. The third way is less exciting, but the most efficient. Just buy a 7 Euros daypass (I bought it at the Central Station Tourist Office – but I am sure it must be available elsewhere) and you can roam around Amsterdam on any of the Trams and Busses.
And finally some quirks
We found the Dutch people to be warm and friendly.
However, didn’t have a great experience when asking for directions ;) On atleast 2 occasions, we were confidently sent on a wrong detour (that resulted in us driving around for over 1 hour..) to reach our hotel, that was just a few km away. And English was not the problem!
I know its typical European to have shops close in the evening, and remain closed on Sundays. But this still takes getting used to, if you are coming from U.S. or India. I always wonder what the locals do if there’s any emergency shopping need.
Amsterdam Grand Central Station has a Tourist Information Office. I got there at 10:30am, only to find a huge line outside. Turns out that this place only opens at 11am. There were many irritated tourists from all over the world here.
And a few closing comments
Netherlands is a great place to visit. Being a small country neighbouring U.K. and Germany – it has influences from both. English is more prevalent here compared to many other continental European Countries. It is also home to some leading multi-national companies such as Phillips, Royal-Dutch Shell, Unilever, ABN Amro,ING, etc.
I spent most of time in and around Amsterdam. I am sure the other cities like Rotterdam, Eindhoven will have their own sets of nice attractions. Netherlands is a great confluence of history and nature. Nice, green modern cities. Beautiful, quaint small towns. The landscape changes significantly as one drives East from Amsterdam towards the German Border. I didn’t get a chance to visit the Northern Netherlands – home of the famous Dutch Cheese. Well, something for my next trip!