Ijen to Bromo, Prambanan to Borobudur: a DIY question

Here’s how we arrived at our Java itinerary

Indonesia 101


A friend recently told me that she’s planning for that dream trip to Mount Ijen and Mount Bromo. She had looked up my post about our family excursion to Java’s volcanoes, and while she couldn’t contain her excitement to visit this awe-inspiring part of the world, there were plenty of questions in her mind. I was more than glad to help a fellow traveler.

The post about that part of our trip, though, was in need of details, so I’m sharing here our actual itinerary with more specifics, tips on planning and safety, links for maps, and select transport, booking and contact info.

Take note, the island of Java is huge — almost half the area of the entire Philippine archipelago — with many attractions to choose from, so let’s start with the places in East and Central Java one ought to visit first for a one-week trip.

East and Central Java’s major sights

■ Mount Ijen via Banyuwangi
■ Mount Bromo via Cemoro Lawang
■ Prambanan and Sewu Temples in Yogyakarta
■ Borobudur via Yogyakarta

Candi Prambanan

How many days do you need?

Kicking off the tour with transit from Ubud, Bali, five days sufficed for us to see and experience four of Java’s major attractions. We had to skip visits to the town and city centers for lack of time, though. So if you wish to engage in other activities in East and Central Java, set aside seven days or more.

Merry mix of tour package and DIY bookings

We booked the Ijen BlueFlame Tour package online for the Mount Ijen and Mount Bromo legs of our trip, starting from Gilimanuk, Bali and culminating in Surabaya, East Java. BlueFlame also arranged the trip by van from Ubud to Gilimanuk in Bali and the ferry crossing from Gilimanuk to Ketapang, Banyuwangi in Java. The tour company, of course, is named after the otherworldly blue flames of the sulfuric crater lake of Mount Ijen.

We specified that we were traveling with three children, the youngest being nine years old, and BlueFlame assured us they’ll do fine (they had a blast). Although the tour company offered the lowest rates, surprisingly, the quality of the tour, the guide, driver, and accommodations in all was beyond expectation.

As for the train ride from Surabaya to Yogyakarta, we booked it online ourselves weeks in advance, alongside the accommodation in Yogyakarta.

Is it advisable to go full DIY with your Java trip? I considered doing so, but opted for the tour package for Ijen and Bromo. I’ll explain later. Moving on…

Road in Banyuwangi in East Java
IG: @thetravelingvs

Here’s what the entire tour looks like:

Day 1
(Start of BlueFlame Tour package)

12 noon
Depart for Gilimanuk Harbor

5 p.m.
Ferry to Ketapang Port, Banyuwangi

7 p.m.
Check-in Banyuwangi

Mount Ijen Crater Lake

Day 2
Mount Ijen Volcano Complex
Banyuwangi

12:30 a.m.
Pick up for tour

2 a.m.
Start trek to Mt. Ijen

5 a.m.
Watch sunrise

7 a.m.
Stop at waterfalls
(We skipped the coffee and rubber plantation)

9 a.m.
Breakfast at hotel

11:30
Check out

12 noon
Depart for Cemoro Lawang
Stop at Pasir Putih Beach for lunch

6 p.m.
Check-in Cemoro Lawang

Cyan takes a dip at Air Terjun Jagir in Banyuwangi

Day 3
Mount Bromo
Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park

3 a.m.
Pick up for tour on board 4×4 jeeps

4 a.m.
Watch sunrise at view point

6 a.m.
Start trek to Mt. Bromo

9 a.m.
Breakfast at hotel

10 a.m.
Depart for Surabaya

3:30 p.m.
Drop off at Surabaya Gubeng Railway Station
(End of BlueFlame Tour)

5 p.m.
Board train to Yogyakarta
(We booked our train seats online weeks ahead)

10:30 p.m.
Arrive at Stasiun Tugu Yogyakarta then check-in at hotel

Day 4
Explore Yogyakarta
(We booked a 5-seater car via Klook for one day)

8 a.m.
Candi Prambanan and Candi Sewu

1 p.m.
Borobudur
Magelang, Central Java

6 p.m.
Rest in hotel

Sunset over Borobudur

Day 5
Yogyakarta to Singapore

5 a.m.
Depart for Adi Sucipto International Airport

7:25 a.m.
Depart Yogyakarta via AirAsia

10:45 a.m.
Arrive in Singapore

Candi Sewu near Candi Prambanan

Where we stayed

For Mount Ijen tour:
Ketapang Indah Hotel
Banyuwangi, Java
(Tour inclusion, with breakfast)

For Mount Bromo tour:
Istana Petani Hotel
Cemoro Lawang, Probolinggo, Java
(Tour inclusion, with breakfast)

For Yogyakarta tour:
BeOne Jogja
Jalan Solo, Yogyakarta
(Booked via Agoda and chose this one as it is just 15 minutes away from Yogyakarta airport, and cheap)

Tour Info

We recommend Ijen Blueflame Tour for your Mount Ijen and Mount Bromo excursions based on our experience.

Operator: Ijen BlueFlame Tour
Website: blueflametour.com
Proprietor: Johanes Tony
Email: [email protected]
[email protected]
Johanes was with us all throughout the booking process. (Thank you, Johanes!) Request for Arif as guide, if he’s available. You won’t regret it.

Package inclusions for Bromo and Ijen tours:

✓ Private car
✓ Driver
✓ Fuel (petrol)
✓ Tickets for ferry crossing (Gilimanuk to Ketapang)
✓ Hotel accomodation for Ijen with breakfast
✓ Hotel accommodation for Bromo tour with breakfast
✓ Breakfast
✓ Guide for Ijen and Bromo
✓ Entrance fees for Ijen and Bromo
✓ Dual filter gas mask
✓ Torch light
✓ Private 4×4 jeep for Bromo tour
✓ Toll fees
✓ Parking fees
✓ Mineral water during entire tour
✓ Bonus: Waterfall side trip in Banyuwangi

Exclusions:
✘ Horse in Bromo
✘ Lunch and dinner

Road info

Ubud to Gilimanuk Ferry Port
Distance: 130 kilometers
Travel time: 4 hours (with stops)

Ketapang Ferry Port to Banyuwangi (hotel)
Distance: 3 kilometers
Travel time: 7 minutes

Banyuwangi to Mt. Ijen (parking area)
Distance: 40 kilometers
Travel time: 1 hour 15 minutes

Banyuwangi to Cemoro Lawang (hotel)
Distance: 219 kilometers
Travel time: 6 hours (with stops)

Cemoro Lawang to Mount Bromo (drop-off)
Distance: 9 kilometers
Travel time: 30 minutes

Cemoro Lawang to Surabaya Gubeng (train station)
Distance: 114 kilometers
Travel Time: 3 hours (with stops)

Gilimanuk Port

Ferry info

Gilimanuk Port to Ketapang Port
Distance: 5 kilometers
Travel time: 1 hour to 1 hour 30 minutes
Frequency: 30-minute intervals
Fare: 6,000 rupiah (₱23, included in tour package)

Railway info

Surabaya Gubeng to Stasiun Tugu Yogyakarta
Distance: 330 kilometers
Travel time: 5 hours 30 minutes
Train class: Eksekutif (soft seats)
Train name: Sancaka
Online booking: tiket.com (you need to sign up)
Tickets: 240,000 to 305,000 rupiah (₱890 to ₱1,130)
Operator: Kereta Api (major operator of public railways in Indonesia)

Passengers waiting for their train at Surabaya Gubeng Railway Station

Flight info

Yogyakarta and Denpasar, Bali have non-stop flights to and from Singapore or Kuala Lumpur via Air Asia.

Yogyakarta to Kuala Lumpur
2 hours 40 minutes

Yogyakarta to Singapore
2 hours 15 minutes

Denpasar to Kuala Lumpur
3 hours

Denpasar to Singapore
2 hours 50 minutes

Options:
You can do the Bali-Java route in reverse, depending on your entry points and flight availability. If you wish to skip Yogyakarta and just see Mount Ijen and Mount Bromo, you can use Surabaya as entry or exit points via direct flights from Bali or Kuala Lumpur.

One of the signs reads: “Be careful of the volcano area.”

Safety and other matters

■ Always follow what your guide says, especially when it comes to advisories on volcanic activity.
■ Wear the right clothing for cold weather. The temperatures on Mount Ijen could drop as low as 8 degrees Celsius with the wind chill, and even lower at the Mount Bromo viewpoint.
■ Wear comfortable hiking shoes. The hike from the drop off area to the crater rim is four kilometers. Bromo will need you to hike a little less.

The lake is one kilometer below the crater rim

■ For Mount Ijen, you need a gas mask even if you don’t have to wear it during most of the climb.
■ Masks and flashlights are usually inclusive of tour packages, but for DIY trips, you can rent a mask and flashlight at the parking area of Mount Ijen.
■ If your guide says you need to wear the mask, wear it.
■ The path to the sulfuric lake a kilometer from the crater rim is steep and unsteady so if you wish to see the phenomenal blue flames up close, make sure you’re fit to go down and back up.
■ Stay alert in the vicinity of the crater lake, especially while watching the blue flames and observing the sulfur miners, since the vents suddenly expel huge volumes of toxic sulfuric steam.

Ijen “taxis”

■ Make way for the sulfur miners. Some of them, by the way, moonlight as “taxi drivers” and offer their trolleys to hikers whose legs have given up on them.
■ Mount Bromo is a sacred volcano among the Tenggerese people, so observe proper decorum. They have a temple at the foot of the mountain called Pura Luhur Poten.
■ Since the volcano is active, those who wish to climb the crater are warned of its dangers, if not prohibited from doing so.
■ Bring a scarf or face mask as the Tengger massif is surrounded by vast sandy plains and it could get dusty when the winds blow.
■ Always bring your trash back.

Bring a quality phone camera for night time shooting so your photos of the phenomenal Ijen blue flame wont’ turn out like this. So from who’s camera is this? Mine.

Final note on DIY and tour bookings

I explored the idea of doing a DIY trip for both volcano trips, but acquiring the services of a tour organizer turned out cheaper, more convenient, and more secure for us with an experienced guide — our animated guide Arif was an ex-miner in Ijen — especially that we had three children in tow.

Consider the accommodations, which the tour package includes. When I checked the rates of similar hotels — we would have needed to book two hotels for Bromo and Ijen — the rates made little difference when I ran the numbers at that time. And to our pleasant surprise BlueFlame booked us in a three-star hotel for the Ijen leg, and then at a cozy bread-and-breakfast hotel for the Bromo leg.

The good thing with BlueFlame is that they can easily customize your trip. So, I still suggest that you ask separate quotations for tour with accommodations and tour without accommodations, then check booking sites like Agoda as they regularly offer huge discounts for you to compare.

Our guide Arif explains that pilgrims leave food offerings on the crater rim of Mount Bromo to appease the gods .

Also, consider the six separate land trips and one ferry crossing that you need to book separately. The other option is to get a package tour there. Since time wasn’t on our side and to minimize delays that could arise from having multiple “service providers,” we opted for one tour operator.

And except for some minor hitches like the ferry incident in the Strait of Bali, the trip from Ubud to Yogyakarta — to our huge relief — went on wonderfully as planned.

So, are you ready for the mesmerizing island of Java?

From Saigon to Hanoi, and surprises in between

8 reasons that make a trip to Vietnam a perfect gift for the family

Vietnam Unwrapped


Hanoi doggo
IG: @thetravelingvs

“What do you want for your 18th birthday? Party or travel?” I asked my eldest daughter several months before she’d finally become of “legal age.”

In the Philippines, turning 18 is a big deal, and many teenage girls on the brink of adulthood traditionally celebrate this rite of passage”with a “debut” party.

Many parents would splurge on these debuts like crazy. Next to weddings, it seems debuts are the most expensive events Filipino families are willing to spend on.

So, I was hoping that my daughter Amber would say “travel.” And thank heavens she did, without batting an eyelash. Good girl.

“Where do yo want to go?”

“Japan.”

That Christmas spirit
Where to, Amber?

Since her birthday fell on a November, she didn’t mind doing the trip during the Christmas break. I didn’t mind either, since three other members of the family would be getting the gift of travel for their birthdays: Arwen and me both in December, and Bretha in early January. And wouldn’t a trip make the best Christmas gift for everyone, especially for the youngest in the pack, our restless Cyan?

There was just a catch: the expense. I checked the numbers, and the fare alone without seat sales to Japan was staggering. Since it was high season, everything costs way more, not to mention that Japan is quite the expensive place it already is.

I’ve always wanted to see Japan, but with five of us traveling, it would be beyond our means at this point in time. We had just wrapped up an unforgettable two-week trip to Indonesia — a vacation we’d saved up for for over a year — so a trip to Tokyo could break the bank.

Travel is all about perspectives

There was this alternative destination Bretha and I always wanted to take the children to, and the cost of traveling there is a third of what we’d spend in first-world Japan. I explained to Amber the situation.

The covered Hoi An Japanese Bridge was built in the 1590s

“How about Vietnam?”

“Yes, Vietnam!” she said, as her eyes lit up. “I want pho!”

Old-school pho somewhere in Hanoi
Still 7 kilos in each bag

Now that wasn’t so hard. Amber had one request, though: she wants “to chill” during the trip. During the Indonesia trip, a change of plans meant I had to squeeze in a number must-see sights, so we were on the road non-stop.

Indonesia still turned out well, way beyond expectations actually, but this time, I needed to come up with a more laid-back itinerary for Vietnam (which I will write in detail in separate posts). Fair enough.

500 steps on a stone stairway is all you need to be rewarded with this magnificent view on top of Mua Cave Mountain in Ninh Binh.

Bretha and I have been to Vietnam once — we landed in Ho Chi Minh then flew to Hanoi. We loved it there: the food, the parks and greenery, the museums, the food, the sights, the charming old buildings, the food. The children will surely love everything as well, especially, yes, the food.

And Vietnam it was.

The beautiful and well-preserved Central Post Office of Ho Chi Minh City
Inside the Central Post Office

So, what’s Vietnam like traveling with children? Rewarding at the very least. And despite the short planning stage, the 15-day DIY trip in December 2018 and early January went without a hitch. Amber couldn’t have wished for a better debut present.

Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral

Our two other kids — Cyan, aged nine then, and Arwen, who celebrated her 14th birthday in Hanoi — had a blast, enjoying a mix of educational, cultural, gastronomic and recreational experiences in a country where the old meets the new, and the East meets West.

And yet while Vietnam seems to be always in a state of flux, this rapidly developing country still manages to retain an identity that’s both unique and familiar in the region at the same time.

Cruising in Ha Long Bay

Here are eight reasons you should give your family the gift of travel to Vietnam:

You and your kids become jedis in Vietnamese streets

Our friend Chad the Pilot welcomed Bretha and I during our first trip to Vietnam in 2014 and guided us through Saigon’s streets, which is notorious — or famous — for the endless river of vehicles, mainly motorcycles, plying its streets.

“When you want to cross the street, just raise your palm and point it toward the incoming traffic, then proceed,” Chad advised, and it’s something every visitor in Vietnam should pay heed to.

Vietnam’s rows upon rows of tube houses can make any traveler a curious spectator on the streets, which is why one needs to pay more attention to the roads and sidewalks.

“Never stop because the motorcycles know how to avoid you, but if you do, you might even cause an accident. Just walk straight toward the other side of the road.” So that’s what we told the kids: “Just raise your hand and point your palm outward, like a jedi.”

A local shows us how to cross properly (observe the jedi moves coming to fore…)

Vietnam is blessed with easy-to-find Unesco Heritage Sites

A visit to Unesco World Heritage Sites is one of the best ways to learn about a country’s history and culture, if not to truly appreciate its natural or man-made wonders, and it’s this sort of learning that we wish to highlight with our kids during our travels.

Kayaking in Ha Long Bay

Unesco sites are protected, so kids also learn about the value of conservation. Whether it’s in the capital Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh or Danang, there’s always a Unesco Heritage Site nearby.

Hoi An Ancient Town bursts with color at night

Among the more popular Unesco sites we visited was Hoi An Ancient Town, Ha Long Bay, and the Temple of Literature in Hanoi. We also spent a day in the breathtaking Trang An Scenic Landscape Complex, the lesser known Unesco site in Ninh Binh.

Part of Trang An was one of the locations for the Hollywood film Kong: Skull Island. See the gorilla mountain face? Nearby Bai Dinh Pagoda (lower right) is also part of the Trang An Scenic Landscape Complex

Enjoy Vietnamese street food right from the source

The Vietnamese love to eat good food. Its streets are lined with shops, stalls and hawkers selling all sorts of food the casual traveler can’t pronounce, much less identify.

This barbecue at the Old Quarter in Hanoi is so good.
Banh mi on the streets of Saigon

Vietnam is more than just banh mi, pho and drip coffee. Since every region has a different cuisine, good luck deciding on your favorites.

Food stalls at the spotless Hoi An Central Market
Arwen draws while waiting for our food
Hoi An’s white rose dumplings

If you have time, make sure to squeeze in a cooking class or two. Bretha and Amber took a cooking classes in Hoi An from the friendliest restaurant owner in Vietnam, Phuong Ngo of Phuong’s Beach Restaurant.

Phuong Ngo of Phuong’s Beach Restaurant shows Bretha and Amber the secrets to Hoi An cooking

The best part? We got to devour Hoi An specialties they cooked: chai go (fried spring rolls), cao lao (rice noodles), banh xeo (crispy pancake), and more.

In sum, not only does Vietnamese cuisine taste indescribably good, it’s healthy both for your body and your budget.

Journeying across Vietnam aboard a sleeper train is idyllic

For 15 days, we traveled from the south of Vietnam to the north by train, and I’d say it was one of the best decisions we’ve made for the trip.

Leaving for Ninh Binh at Da Nang Station

With Ho Chi Minh City as jump off point, we had three main stops: Da Nang, Ninh Binh and Hanoi. That’s 1,600 kilometers of railway in all, and during that trip we saw unspoilt sceneries such as the 21-kilometer stretch of historic Hai Van Pass.

A cove in Hai Van Pass as seen from the train

While many of the coaches are old, some of them have been refurbished and are clean, like the ones we took. We spent two overnight trips with two stopovers: from Saigon to Da Nang, and then Da Nang to Ninh Binh (Ninh Binh to Hanoi was just a two-hour ride).

The experience of sleeping on an unfamiliar train in four-passenger bunk bed cabins — twice — is just priceless, because it also feels like you’re traveling not just to another place but to another time. And we actually did sleep well.

Vietnam’s museums are moving, if not mind-blowing

A visit to another place is never complete without a trip to the museum. And Vietnam’s history and art museums are of another world.

No, their museums aren’t hi-tech (and they don’t need to be), but the displays and the way they were curated will move anyone regardless of age and nationality.

At the War Remnants Museum

Among the must-visit museums are those that remind us of the horrors and ravages of war, such as the War Remnants Museum in Saigon and Hoa Lu Prison Memorial (“Hanoi Hilton”).

At the Hoa Lu Prison Memorial, the site of what the West called the “Hanoi Hilton”

Yes, your children (my youngest was nine) can take it, and every parent’s hope is that everyone leaves the museum premises as better human beings.

Exhibit at Hoa Lu Prison Memorial

There’s nothing like Vietnamese coffee

Vietnamese drip coffee enjoys a legendary status among coffee lovers the world over.

Hanoi coffee, you want?

In Vietnam, you can find it in every corner, in every establishment in any district from the north to the south. You can enjoy it along the sidewalk on low tables and chairs in traditional coffee shops, or bottomless at the hotel breakfast buffet.

Why the country’s obsession with coffee? For one, Vietnam is the world’s second largest coffee producer, and when you have this much coffee, well, your people drink lots of it, and some do the next logical thing: experiment.

The original egg coffee in Hanoi

One of these more successful experiments gave rise to the iconic egg coffee, which was hatched in a quiet alley in Hanoi more than 70 years ago. Like the traditional Viet drip, the recipe is all over the place, but no one does coffee like the Vietnamese.

Cold mornings and Vietnamese drip coffee in Ninh Binh

Score great bargains from commercial districts old and new

Vietnam is an emerging manufacturing behemoth with 300-hectare industrial estates rising all over the country. That means it produces tons and tons of goods branded or not, such as shoes, bags and clothing.

One of the many tailoring shops in Hoi An

During the cold season, Hanoi is a prime spot for hunting bubble jackets and coats of all shapes and sizes. Not only that, however. Vietnam produces quality artisan and customized products, as well as quaint handmade items. If shopping for bargains is your thing, Vietnam is paradise on a budget.

There’s always something to do anytime, anywhere in Vietnam

Walking along the tree-lined streets of Vietnamese cities will always get you somewhere interesting, and the best are the ones you find by accident.

Cold evenings at Hoan Kiem Lake

In one of our long walks in Hanoi, we were headed to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex when I spotted a rail track up ahead. I’ve read about these train spotting spots in Hanoi, but I didn’t get to squeeze it in our itinerary.

But at that moment, I sensed something was up ahead, so we followed the rail track, and it led us to rows of old concrete houses some of which have been converted into coffee shops where the traveler can wait for the train to pass. One of this ageing yet still sturdy locomotive did arrive minutes later, then proudly blew its horn, and the crowd cheered with childlike delight.

Here it comes…

Having more than a good day in Hanoi

Love in the Time of Covid-19

Chicken soup for your wanderlusting soul

Pardon me for the hackneyed title, but this is of utmost urgency: the coronavirus pandemic is disrupting the way of life of many countries — including ours — and, to a great extent, your travel plans.

With all the travel bans and restrictions, one can imagine the kind of damage the pandemic has wreaked on the global travel industry. From hotels to street food strips that cater to tourists, their losses must be staggering.

IG: @thetravelingvs

But you’d say travel, like love, is in the air. And you need to breathe it in to feel alive. True. But you know what else is in the air? The dreaded virus, although that depends on which medical view you subscribe to, you know aerosols and microns and stuff. But would you dare breathe all that deathly invisible stuff in? So suck it up, stay put, and wait for the air to clear.

So now what?

Well, while you wait — which can be from weeks to years — you ponder. Yes, ponder. And wonder at the true meaning of your love for travel. Let’s help get you started:

Love for travel is patient. You’ve been there. That split moment after you confirm your booking, this most noble of virtues becomes you, and you wait — days, weeks, months, a year even — for that beautiful day of departure when you consummate your love and you become one with your wanderlust. So, yes, waiting for the pandemic to pass so you can move on with your travel plans demands the same virtue of patience every serious traveler must possess.

Love for travel is kind. Perhaps the Covid-19 pandemic is a blessing so that insufferable travelers like you are reminded of the virtue of kindness. By kindness we mean being kind to you bank account, which, for all we know, you must have ignored — or worse — maltreated because all this time you’ve had eyes somewhere else (i.e. your next destination, ka-ching!). This lull will allow you to truly review your finances and whether you are still living within your means. Travel is self-love after all, but so is self-preservation.

Love for travel is blind. Don’t look now, but you need to avert your eyes from that which seduces you. That means stop looking at travel sale posts on social media. Why? Uncertainty, that’s because. No one really knows where this pandemic will go next, whether it will get worse or when it will end. Is it really worth the (financial) risk? But you need not turn a blind eye on the beauty of travel itself. Read those travel posts, admire those travel photos, and stay inspired.

Love for travel does not envy. Sure your social media contact just arrived from his four-week, ten-city DIY Asian tour. But trust us, you won’t envy those who end up in quarantine, or god forbid, catch the virus. So be glad you’re safe because you haven’t gone anywhere yet. Home might feel like prison but it still is home.

Love for travel perseveres. If you’re one of those left dejected that your travel plans got cancelled or postponed indefinitely, or you’re left without a plan (because coronavirus), don’t feel too bad. Know that you love travel, and travel still loves you, and the distance that this virulence has created between you and travel, your beloved other, is all but temporary. At the end of these tribulations, travel will be waiting for you with the warmest welcoming embrace. And on that moment, you would scream at the top of your clear, healthy lungs, to all the corners of the earth: “I love travel!”


Crossing the Strait of Bali

Not a ferry smooth ride: near-mishap at sea

Like restless waters

“Allahu akbar!” the woman in the other row of seats beside me cried out loud, setting off a chorus of wails among our fellow passengers.

The men rushed to the port side to get a closer look as our ferry was inching toward a similar vessel whose engine might have conked out in the middle of Bali Strait.

I asked Bretha, Amber and Cyan to stay put and stay calm. There was little chance we’d hit the other boat, I thought, as there seemed more than enough time for the ship captain to veer away. Besides we were close to land, the Port of Ketapang looked within reach.

Our boat, the roll-on roll-off kind, had departed half an hour earlier from Gilimanuk, a port town on the western edge of Bali facing the main Indonesian island of Java. A woman from the tour operator we had booked accompanied us for the crossing. The entire process of checking in and boarding was, I should say, smooth sailing.

  • Statue of Shiva near the port of Gilimanuk (below)
  • IG: @thetravelingvs

The weather was clear that day — we had just taken a pleasant five-hour ride from Bali to Gilimanuk — but the currents in the strait were restless.

And the ferry we were on was a slow one, no different from the other diesel-engine steel ships navigating languidly through the swirling currents between Gilimanuk and Ketapang in Java.

The not-so-calm waters of Bali Strait

I could see the nearby port of Ketapang and make out the outline of a modern dock similar to the one in Gilimanuk, but bigger. Ketapang was our gateway to Java’s ancient wonders, both manmade and natural: Borobudur, Prambanan, Mount Bromo and Mount Ijen.

A wave of excitement rushed through my head, if not for the stalled vessel now just a few feet away from ours, completely blocking my view of Ketapang.

The wails had gotten louder. And louder still when our boat bumped the other with a dull clang. The impact wasn’t violent, but who knows what the condition of these ships are? I looked at our guide. She seemed relaxed, so I didn’t bother to ask if this was normal. (Obviously not.)

“No sitting on the railing”

As the other boat lolled mindlessly in the water, our ship captain managed to steer his boat inch by slow inch away from danger, at least for now.

“Allahu akbar!” the women chorused to their relief.

But the waters of Bali Strait remained restless and unpredictable. The swirling currents again drew both ships toward each other. Another impact was imminent. But how? Isn’t the sea big enough for both of these ships to navigate in peace?

The trepidation among our fellow passengers was understandable. On one of the empty seats lay the day’s newspaper. Splashed on the front page was the banner story of a continuing search for close to 200 passengers that have gone missing after a tourist ferry sank a week earlier in a crater lake up northwest in Sumatra. The infographic showed how the overloaded wooden boat sank 490 meters to the bottom of Lake Toba with only 18 people rescued out of the 213 on board. Perhaps some of our fellow passengers lost loved ones in the accident and were heading there thousands of kilometers away, and now this. But we wouldn’t know.

A copy of the day’s newspaper at the hotel in Banyuwanggi, Java

Cyan was crying. Bretha, Amber and Arwen were on the edge of their seats but calm. We had traveled on smaller boats through rougher waters back home and managed to get back on land mostly dry. As a family traveling in a place that’s both familiar and strange at the same time and now finding ourselves in such circumstances, we could not afford to lose our grip. But definitely, this wasn’t part of the itinerary. Our guide was her usual quiet self, though, and that was quite reassuring.

I went back to the port side to watch another unfolding collision. In everyday use, collisions conjure images of violent crashes, but in the scientific sense, a collision is a collision regardless of force of impact. And there we were in the middle of it all.

As if drawn towards each other like toy magnets, the hulls of both ships collided anew, and the sound of metal scraping against metal drowned the agitated wails of passengers. The other boat was empty save for the flustered crew. It was also facing Ketapang but heading nowhere.

Thirty minutes away from Ketapang Port and this happened

For several long seconds, the two ships were grinding slowly but heavily against each other, like water behemoths hemming and hawing in an age-old ritual, one dragged by the undertow, the other pushed by the surface currents, as the sea gurgled and swirled under the hulls and bows. Then a final separation announced by a collective sigh of relief. God is the greatest, everyone chanted quietly in their seat.

The accidental pair finally split for good, and for the next half hour our good old boat continued on its short journey without incident.

As our boat approached land, we saw a number of piers jutting out of the modern Ketapang Port. Several vehicles, mostly motorcycles, were queued on one of the piers, the drivers and passengers oblivious to the minor maritime incident the boat they were about to board had gone through.

Finally, ready to dock at Ketapang Port

After our boat docked, we disembarked — smoothly — and passed through a covered walkway, our guide leading us to a waiting vehicle that would head straight to the nearby city of Banyuwangi where we would check-in at a nice hotel.

The short drive got me thinking whether I had planned enough to mitigate risks. I don’t overdo it, but when it involves planning a non-conventional trip for a family of five, one must think hard about what we’re getting ourselves into.

The legendary aviator Charles Lindbergh did say, “I don’t believe in taking unnecessary risks, but a life without risk isn’t worth living.” I agree to a fault. And yet there are risks that you can’t see coming, risks that are beyond calculating. In hindsight, that incident in Bali Strait could have gone south. But it didn’t. The worst that happened was a slight delay of our arrival, 30 minutes tops.

So, if you ask me whether we’d still ride a boat from Gilimanuk to Ketapang if we get the chance, I’d say no way. We’d probably take the one from Ketapang to Gilimanuk instead.

Somewhere in the outskirts of Bali, which remains as inviting…
But we’ll be back. When? We don’t know…