Meet, stay, love
Indonesia is bigger than Kuta, says President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo. He wants tourists to stay longer, wander farther and drop their dollars into tills beyond the Three Bs– Bali, Borobudur and Bromo. Duncan Graham took his advice.
Pity hoteliers trying to stay afloat in a tidal and turbulent market.
In the bad old like-it-or-leave days a hard bed and a squat toilet in a barrack-cell losmen was the best local travellers could expect.
Overseas visitors might get up-market accommodation in the big cities. There was no point in complaining that the lights had gone out and the water ran rusty because the phone wouldn’t work.
Now the world is on the move; guests are getting choosy and can rank services on the Internet. Odors in the lavatory and stains on the sheets? Tell all – and they’ll steer clear.
Air conditioning, hot showers, a fridge and a cable TV service are now industry standards. Staff with real smiles are essential, not the grimaces of yesteryear. Room safes and free Wi-Fi are becoming common, even in small towns.
Now add bicycles.
Borobudur isn’t just one of the world’s wonders, a majestic 9th century three-tier Buddhist temple described by its discoverer Sir Stamford Raffles as this ‘noble building’ and ‘majestic edifice’. It’s also a Central Java town.
Backpackers use it to board unsprung busses for next stop Yogyakarta, while the moneyed majority head straight from the archaeological park gates to the airport. That’s a mistake.
In the villages beyond and in a straight line are the related temples Pawon and Mendut. Few foreigners bother to drive the five extra kilometers even though the entrance fee is only Rp 30,000 ((US$2.20) for the two compared with nine times that sum for the bigger monument.
Wanurejo is a nearby hamlet off the tourist track, though only by a few twists and turns. Here the locals have accepted President Jokowi’s challenge to expand tourism by combining to offer must-try experiences. Their secret lure: Arthouse Homestays.
These are converted or purpose-built cottages in ordinary lanes and among local residents. Regulations prohibit more than five rooms so even with a full house double digit occupancy is rare. That means fellow travellers are easy to meet. To avoid, push pedals.
Homestay is not always the correct term as the owners may be elsewhere – guesthouse is more accurate. Staff tend to be neighbors so the men watch the premises while the lady who cooks breakfasts and mops the floor lives a few doors down.
When not boiling eggs straight from the nest or airing bedding she may well be applying wax on cotton and happy to let quivering hands try the tjanting. Batik demands patience so cityfolk should pack plenty before leaving Stress Central.
Others paint and hang their impressive work on guesthouse walls, or make organic soap and other supplies for hotels. As Arthouse Homestays are only now getting known the villagers have yet to develop the Kuta syndrome where every bule (Caucasian) is regarded as a walking ATM, ripe for a withdrawal.
No flash uniforms, no unctuous receptionists, just wholesome kampong friendliness and the chance to see the way most Indonesians live. That’s not in high-rise anonymous apartments but among the rice and sugar cane fields of rural landscapes like the fertile and flat Kedu Plain. Which means it’s ideal for cyclists of any age.
But where to wheel? After over-dosing on ancient ruins and saturating irises with shimmering landscapes it’s take-it-easy time. There are no poolside bars but there are cafes and studios.
Antique dealer Umar Chusaeni and his Japanese wife, artist Yasumi Ishi have set up a collective studio and performance space where artists can perform or show their works. It’s not a guesthouse.
“We try to stage an event once every two months,” said Chusaeni who once ran a major show in the fields behind his house with elephants.
“There’s much artistic talent in this area – perhaps inherited from the craftsmen who carved the panels on the walls of Borobudur Temple, though many would have fled when Merapi erupted. (There was a major explosion in 1006.)
“We keep asking the government to allow more homestays, but few officials understand the business and how it’s building a creative economy.
“Every village has a tourist committee – and they know what visitors want.”
That includes seeing artists at work at the Limanjawi Arthouse where locals have space to work. Like Wawan Geni, 34, who thankfully confronts his canvases outside. For instead of brushes and pencils he uses glowing mosquito-coils and lighted cigarettes to produce strange shadings.
When J-Plus visited Limanjawi the Institut Seni Indonesia (ISI -Indonesian Arts Institute) student was smoking over a big canvas of Borobudur temple as seen from above. He claimed he only used a pack of smokes a day but an overflowing ashbucket and yellow fingers suggested otherwise.
“Smoking helps me relax and gives me inspiration,” he said. “I’m not worried about getting sick.” Commented Chusaeni: “He gets paid well for his work with tobacco companies among his admirers.”
Although most villagers follow Islam there’s no sense of fundamentalism. Buddha statues are widespread in public and private areas.
“The ones in China are fat and in Thailand always resting,” said Chusaeni, a Muslim. “But our Buddhas in Java are lean and happy.
“This is a safe area where outsiders are welcome. People come here for the culture and to feel the spirit of Borobudur. They come for peace.
“There is no sense visitors are interfering or damaging our traditions and culture. After a few days here you get to understand a little of our lovely land.”
Arthouse Homestays are ideal for couples on a budget, serious about understanding Java and getting closer to the people. Visitors who want to relax in comfort but are not into hedonism should find this accommodation ideal.
Most homestays are listed on Internet hotel booking agencies with prices starting from around Rp 300,000 (US $ 23) per room/night including breakfast, tax and service charges. Some offer pick-ups from the airport or bus terminal.
Bicycle hire is either free or around Rp 30,000 (US $2.30) a day. Buy fresh fruits from roadside traders. Those with special dietary needs should bring their own supplies.
Kids? Yes, if mature and appreciative of difference. No if their world is defined by Pokemon. There’s rafting nearby for the adventurous. English is rare but tolerance common so encounters can be fun.
Bali resorts have manicured gardens, aerobic classes, fashion shows and menus to cater for most tastes. Arthouse Homestays are the affordable alternative with all add-ons the real thing. They are also well beyond the ugly tout-zone encircling the big temple.
First pub lished in J Plus - The Jakarta Post on 11 December 2016