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Over the last couple of years, more and more visitors to Bali have expressed an interest in venturing to Indonesian islands beyond Bali. Lombok and Kalimantan, in particular, have gained in popularity.

But, many people still express reluctance or concern about traveling outside of Hindu Bali. Indonesia has the largest Muslim population of any country in the world, and I often field questions about the safety of traveling to those islands - especially to Java, which is the most densely populated island in Indonesia.

I first visited Bali in 1988, and visited central Java a year or so later. I recently decided that it was time to see more of the island and to get a feel for the Javanese people, outside of the island's main tourist area of Yogyakarta. So, I spent several days traveling overland from central Java, through east Java, ending up with a ferry crossing to Bali.

My trip started in Yogyakarta (pronouced "Jogjakarta") which has grown into a busy, cosmopolitan city. The main attraction in the area is Borobudur, the world's largest Buddhist temple complex. Located about an hour outside Yogya (as it's known by the locals), Borobudur is an area of charming villages and lush scenery. Years ago, when I first visited the area, there weren't any hotels near Borobudur. But, now there are several hotels near the site, making it convenient for visitors who don't want to commute from Yogya in order to see the sunrise over Borobudur.

Other sights in the area include Prambanan (a Hindu temple complex) which, like Borobudur, is a World Heritage Site. There's also the Sultan's Palace located in Yogya proper, bustling open markets, batik and pottery craft villages and the Dieng Plateau. On clear days you can also see Mt. Merapi. Following major eruptions in late 2010, the dome of Mt. Merapi collapsed and Borobudur was covered in ash.

Heading out on my overland trip, I spent a night in Solo City, following stops at Sukuh and Cetho temples. These are small temples that don't begin to compare with Borobudur or Prambanan. But, for those of us who love temples, the mountaintop Sukuh (at the top of a steep and harrowing road that runs through an area of tea plantations) is worthwhile. And, Cetho is interesting for its resemblance to Mayan temples.

I also visited the newly expanded and recently opened Sangiran Museum in the countryside not far from Solo. Sangiran is the archaeological site where Java Man (considered to be the "missing link") was discovered. Ongoing excavations have unearthed a treasure trove of fossils and articfacts. Farmers often find relics in their fields and they're rewarded for turning them over to the museum. The museum has wonderful displays from the Sangiran area, as well as a complete history of the evolution of man, including information about other famous archaeological digs around the world. It's best to hire a museum guide to fully appreciate what you're seeing, as most of the accompanying text is in Indonesian.

After an overnight stay in Solo, I switched to a local train for a three hour ride to a small town called Jombang. The "executive" seating on the train was acceptable, but, to put it politely, a misnomer. Still, it was nice to be able to see the scenery of central Java without being stuck in stop-and- go traffic. My driver headed to Jombang earlier in the morning, in order to meet me at the train station. His trip took five hours by car, as opposed to my three hours on the train.

Jombang is a pretty town and the residents take great pride in its being the birthplace of former Indonesian president Abdurrahman Wahid. After a brief drive through the town, I headed to Trowulan, located in the regency of Mojokerto. This is the site of the former capital of the Majapahit Kingdom. Hundreds of thousands of relics from the kingdom have been unearthed at the Trowulan archaeological site and a large collection can be viewed both indoors and on the grounds of the local museum.

After a long day of traveling, I arrived at Semeru National Park, home to Mt. Bromo. This is a lovely area of charming Tengger villages. The Tengger people are Hindus who settled in eastern Java during the period, centuries ago, when many Javanese Hindus migrated to Bali. The volcanic soil and cool weather in this area create the ideal conditions for growing a variety of fruits, vegetables and spices.

After visiting a lookout point for a view of Mt. Bromo, Mt. Batok and Java's highest mountain, Mt. Semeru, I checked at at my hotel, located just down the road from the viewpoint. I intended to rise at 4:00am, in order to arrive at the top of Mt. Bromo for sunrise, but the forecast said that the mountain would be clouded over at sunrise, so I slept a couple more hours and headed out once it was daylight. Though more adventurous travelers can climb Mt. Semeru, most visitors to the area opt to climb Mt. Bromo, which last erupted during the period from November, 2010 through January, 2011. Smoke still continuously rises from the crater.

Bromo, Batok and several other mountains are located inside the Tengger Caldera which, at approximately 10 kilometers (six miles) across, makes it Java's largest volcanic crater. To get to the base of Mt. Bromo, I traveled by jeep across the caldera, which is like a sea of black sand. Located in the midst of the caldera is a Hindu temple, making the scene even more other-worldly.

The jeep ride continued to a spot where visitors have the option of trekking or riding a horse. I opted to walk, but I hired a horse in case the climb became too arduous. Though it wasn't terribly steep at that point, the altitude can make it difficult for some people. I ended up walking part of the way and riding for awhile. But, the horse can only go so far; the toughest part of the ascent is via a long, very steep stairway, ending on the rim of Bromo's crater. From there you look straight down into the volcano, for a close-up view of the smoke rising from its depths.

This area around Mt. Bromo is so breathtaking that I was sorry to leave. But, following the descent from Bromo my road trip continued to the small town of Kalibaru, where I visited a local plantation that grows a variety of fruit, coffee, tea and spices. I bypassed the touristy part of the plantation visit (which includes a show) and just walked through the grounds and the outlying rice fields with one of the plantation workers. After an overnight stay at a small hotel in Kaliabaru, I crossed by ferry to northwest Bali, so ending my overland adventure from central to east Java.

While Bali remains my favorite Indonesian destination, traveling overland through Java reinforced my belief that Indonesia has an abundance of wonderful travel experiences for those who are willing to venture beyond Bali. The Javanese people were warm and friendly and I enjoyed being able to interact with them. The only negative is that the Javanese smoke a lot, which can be a bit challenging for non-smokers. But, my guide and driver didn't smoke, the train had a non-smoking policy and when I hired the horse at Mt. Bromo I told the guide that I would only hire him if he didn't smoke during our trek.

Though (sadly) one's safety cannot be guaranteed anywhere in the world, I can say, unequivocally, that in all my travels through Indonesia, over the past 24 years, I've never felt nervous, uncomfortable, or anything other than very welcome.

Diane Embree
December 30, 2012

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