The Sad Transition to Touristville

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May 29th 2013
Published: May 29th 2013
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Sanur, Bali to Yogyakarta, Indonesia

We are coming to the end of our month long visit to Indonesia and quickly approaching our 2nd anniversary of being on the road. We travelled throughout Mexico and Central America by car for the first year and a half, living in central cities for a month or two and visiting outlying areas often. We felt we were able to learn about culture, customs, cuisine and the history of the cities and countries we visited. It was challenging with language barriers and driving conditions but we found that by applying ourselves we were able to understand not only what things were, but why they were.

We often struggled to define what our goal was in our travels. We found that foreigners came in 3 basic categories: expat, travelers and tourists. It was hard to define ourselves as any of these as we didn’t readily fit directly into one category.

The expats appeared to be foreigners who bought houses, built walls around them and isolated themselves in social groups and seemed to be more interested in recreating their former lifestyle in a new country. They lived in areas for long periods of time and knew a lot about local customs but for the most part still lived like they did in the past.

We often met travelers, primarily backpackers. They lived on the local economy, taking advantage of reduced price lodging, food and public transportation. Many stayed for long periods in their adopted area and even learned the language and adapted some local customs. Most were on time limited schedules but spent long enough in one place to understand something about local life.

The other groups were tourists. They nearly always knew very little about the country they were visiting and were primarily interested in filling up their short stays with as many big ticket items as possible. They were easiest to pick out of all of the groups because they stuck together and tended to congregate around well-known and “safe” areas near the major tourist sites. They didn’t have time to adapt to any local culture or dress.

We found ourselves mostly fitting into the traveler category. We weren’t like backpackers as we had our own transportation and because we rented houses by the month, we could afford nicer, more private arrangements. We usually stayed in nicer local neighborhoods, shopped in local markets, cooked a good portion of our own food and because it was easier to get to places on our own schedule we weren’t limited to “normal” tourist sites. We felt happy that we had found the best of all 3 worlds.

We decided to make a major change 3 ½ months ago and moved to Southeast Asia. We were forced to give up our car and didn’t realize what a huge lifestyle change we were in for.

We attempted to keep our same lifestyle in Bangkok, renting an apartment for a month and primarily cooking in the house. We used Bangkok’s extensive travel infrastructure to visit many interesting places. In Malaysia we lived in Penang. We only stayed 2 weeks because we realized with our more limited mobility we would not have enough to keep us occupied for a whole month. In Melaka, we had very little access to public transportation. Our horizons became very small and being independent was very difficult. We primarily walked everywhere and stayed in very touristy areas. We virtually met or associated with very few locals and understood the local culture primarily through what we read in guidebooks. We moved on to Kuching and stayed In a hostel, associating with other foreigners and staying pretty close to the well-established tourist path. We were becoming tourists, and were exhausting ourselves because we were living as tourists for way too long. In Bali we tried staying for 3 weeks. We wanted to experience what we had earlier in our travels. We cooked most of our own food and lived in a nice, local neighborhood. We had limited access to transportation. We couldn’t really see much without blowing out our budget. We knew our quality of life and the sense of being a true independent traveler was going down but didn’t know how to fix it. We were becoming increasingly frustrated and were less happy than we had been anywhere in our travels. For the first time I seriously contemplated calling it quits.

We had one week left on our visa and decided to finish our visit to Indonesia with a stop in Yogyakarta on the island of Java. The ancient temples of Borobudur and Prambanan have been on our to-do list for many years. I admit, I like nothing more than an ancient temple or city. Whether it was Angkor, the Mayan Ruins of Mexico and Guatemala, Machu Picchu, the Acropolis or the Durbar Square of Kathmandu, I have loved them all and am infinitely fascinated and think I could endlessly visit them forever.

We had planned to take a bus/ferry/bus trip from Bali to Yogyakarta. After not having enough fun in Bali, we decided to speed things up and book a quick flight instead. We booked an early morning (5:50 AM) flight. I knew it would be tough to catch the flight, but we arranged a driver to pick us up at 4 AM for the quick 15 minute ride to the airport. The driver didn’t show and we were finally able to catch a taxi at about 5 AM. Traffic was congested in Bali even at this early hour and we didn’t get to the gate until 5:30. The airline counter person said we were too late to board even though we could see the gate from the ticket counter. Despite our pleas, we were not going to get on this flight. The tickets were not refundable so our driver ended up costing us 120 dollars by not showing up. Air Asia didn’t have any more flights to Yogyakarta, so we went to Lion Air which had flights at 10:30. We were able to get 2 tickets. Frustrating, but this was the first time we have had transportation problems on the whole trip, so I guess we were due.

The 1 ¼ hour flight from Bali to Yogyakarta went quickly. We easily got a taxi from the airport to our hotel for our week long stay. It’s a small independent hotel but quite nice for an affordable price. We got a nice garden room with included breakfast in the morning. They have air conditioning and hot water and CNN on the plasma. There are several delicious restaurants on our street within a one minute walk. They have Indonesian food but also a wide variety of Western and fusion choices also. We had now gone full tourist.

We went around town our first day visiting the Sultan’s Palace and surrounding area. We visited a Batik workshop and toured the main local market on Malioboro Street (the main street in town). We took a ride in the local version of a pedicab, called a becak here. A fun day and despite being very hot, we enjoyed ourselves. We returned to the hotel and had a second relaxing sleep (except for the 5 AM call to prayer) in our comfortable, quiet, bug free hotel.

We booked an interesting tour the next morning. Buddhists worldwide commemorate Buddha’s birth, death and accession during the full moon in the month of May by having the Waicak ceremony. Borobudur is the biggest Buddhist temple in the world and many people travel long distances to be in Yogyakarta to celebrate. They have a huge procession from the Mendut Temple to Borobudur (about a 3 mile walk). About 15 to 30,000 participants, many dressed in costume or carrying umbrellas or flags, walk the route which is lined with thousands and thousands of observers. We walked the route surrounded by throngs of people. We arrived at Borobudur and were supposed to pay to enter, but so many people were entering the grounds that no one was taking tickets so we entered for free.

Borobudur is absolutely huge and everything I had hoped it would be. We followed the thousands as they climbed the narrow steps to the top of the temple which provided views far into the surrounding countryside. Despite the heat and massive crowds we had an amazing day, maybe the highlight of our Southeast Asia travels so far. Indonesia is primarily a Muslim country and despite Waicak being a Buddhist holiday, we were glad to see that many, if not most, of the participants were Muslim.

We took the next day off and then booked another tour to the Hindu temple of Prambanan. Located just east of town, Prambanan is not quite as majestic as Borobudur, but very impressive in its own right. Built during the 8th century it has many huge spires that reach into the sky. Prambanan was unfortunately severely damaged by earthquakes several times in its history and some parts are in the process of being rebuilt. Still it was very majestic and well worth visiting. Another Buddhist temple is located near the site called Sewu and was interesting to visit also.

We leave tomorrow morning for an 8 hour first class train ride to Jakarta where we will stay in another nice hotel before catching our flight on to further adventures. Despite my worst fears of being labeled a package tourist I have to admit we had a pretty good week in Yogyakarta. Our budget doesn’t support our new found luxuries and is certainly not sustainable for the long term. However, I have to admit it has been fun and has given us a new vision of things to come. Hopefully it has just been just another short vacation from the vacation that was needed, but as I lie here on my comfortable mattress drinking my cup of tea and eating my delicious slice of layer cake that our hostess brings us every afternoon at 4, I’m not sure I am ready to leave my little piece of tourist world just yet.

Additional photos below
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29th May 2013

Layers of travels
You've done an excellent job in describing the layers of travel and exploration. As you have said, one does not always fit nicely into one category but floats from one to another at various times. Those comfortable beds, clean sheets, tea and bits of cake are hard to walk away from. Glad you had a vacation from the vacation. We understand completely. Sorry you missed your flight but makes for a good story. Enjoy your quest for temples.
29th May 2013

Really enjoyed your writing (and photos) in this blog -- especially how you separated the three distinct groups of travelers, yet also told your tale of migrating through these groups -- as much as many travelers claim or desire to have a fully immersed experience, this seems to be a rarity and sometimes I wonder if it is even possible to become "fully immersed" in another culture.
29th May 2013

You have succinctly categorized foreigners in a foreign land...
and I thought you had found the perfect spot in between the expat and traveler category...enough time in one place to really get to know the people and culture, and see the sights, and then move on. A month in Bangkok was about right. But I can understand that without cheap available local transportation, you might feel grounded, and thus adopt the tourist approach, which as you found has certain advantages also. I hope you return to your original spot in the spectrum as this provides the best value for money...immersed in the local culture and the sights. I would recommend at least a month in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand...we lived there for 18 months and didn't want to leave. A would also recommend a month in Dalat, Vietnam a former French colonial hilltop resort with pleasant climate known as the garden spot of Vietnam. From there you can take the occasional tourist visits to the beaches of Nhatrang. A month is Luang Prabang, Laos would also be worthwhile to experience life as it was decades ago. I'm looking forward to seeing where you go next...but don't give up on Asia just yet!
30th May 2013

Nanci, I can't get over the beautiful experiences you've had; you've taken such wonderful pictures and even though you've been running all over Central America and parts of Asia you've taken the time to keep us informed. What a cultural trip this is.Do you remember Dr. Clarridge ? He was my first boss and his daughter, Cynthia,was a year behind you in school. His son, Duane, was a very early American diplomat to Katmandu ( not sure of the spelling ! Apparently one of the first to be stationed in Nepal. I'm just reminiscing over all his pictures and the gorgeous temples. Are you planning a trip to that area of the world ? Thanks so much for sharing. P
31st May 2013

The boxes we put ourselves in...
I really enjoyed your reflections of how people live and travel in other countries. I think there is sometimes an underlying superiority in how some people state that the way they travel is the best or most enriching way of seeing a place, and as a result they never seem to allow themselves the freedom to experience other ways of seeing the world. Flexibility is a wonderful 'travelling' quality, and it seems you’ve made the most of your Asian travels regardless of the situations you’ve found yourselves in. Gorgeous photos as always, and that 4pm tea and layer cake sounds divine :)

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