After spending a few weeks on the Indonesian island of Bali, we were excited to explore nearby Java and the bustling city of Yogyakarta. Anyone who likes coffee knows the term “java,” the nickname of which is derived from early coffee plantations on the tropical island that provided large amounts of coffee for export.

Java is also the political and cultural center of the archipelago nation of Indonesia. Some of the most popular sights for visitors are the temples of Borobudur and Prambanan. Yogyakarta (or “Yogya” to locals) is situated right between them, making the city a convenient base for exploring these early examples of Hindu and Buddhist culture. A good choice for lodging in the city is the Novotel Yogakarta which you can find on Traveloka.

Prambanan temple near Yogyakarta

Start your journey at the Prambanan temples (shown above). It’s located only 10 miles northeast of the center of Yogyakarta. The UNESCO World Heritage Site, that originally consisted of over 200 structures, is easily reached by the 1A bus from downtown. Many compare the experience to visiting the famous temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, but with less crowds.

Prambanan is simply wonderful, with structures dating from the 9th century AD. For centuries they were lost to the jungle until being rediscovered over 200 years ago. Since the temple complex is so huge, you might want to spread your visit over several days, interspersing days at the temple with sightseeing in Yogyakarta. In fact, for a sight this large and complex, it’s worth your time to focus on just a few temples each day and really explore them in detail. The decorative stonework friezes alone can take hours to seek out every nook and cranny.

borobudur temple complex,

The next temple complex that visitors to Yogyakarta must see is Borobudur, a Buddhist temple from the 8th and 9th centuries. It is surrounded by 72 stone stupas that each contain their own statue of Buddha, truly an incredible artistic feat and sign of devotion by the artisans who create them. The photo at the top of this post also shows Borobudur, with an exposed statue of Buddha out front.

The temples of central Java are truly awe-inspiring. During the 8th and 9th centuries, Europe was in the Dark Ages while the Americas had yet to be “discovered” by those same Europeans. Yet here, on a remote island, some of the greatest achievements of mankind were being created. The fact that centuries later they are still standing is a testament not only to their survival skills and durability, but to the advanced civilization that created them.

The temple complexes of Borobudur and Prambanan have earned their UNESCO World Heritage status for a reason and are a worthwhile destination for a cultural journey.

Back in Yogyakarta there are also several sights worth exploring between visits to the temples. Since I tend to drag Larissa to military history sights, one popular attraction is the Yogyakarta Fortress Museum; it was built by the former Dutch colonizers of Indonesia in the 18th century. Nowadays, in a bit of turnabout, it houses the Independence Struggle Museum, highlighting Indonesia’s fight for freedom. It tells a history of this nation that is often overlooked by visitors.

From guest writer Ray Uzanas ~ I was barely ten years old when I drew a picture of a Komodo dragon lizard; the image copied from a library book about reptiles. I was fascinated with the forked-tongued creatures that look like relics from prehistoric times and dreamed of some day seeing one in person.

Though decades have passed, my interest in the Komodo dragons of Indonesia stayed strong. They are only found in Komodo National Park, comprised of a few islands in the Indonesian archipelago. Since my personal “Bucket List” includes a visit to the land of these nasty looking carnivores, whose appetite for large mammals, including humans is legendary, I took off for Indonesia.

Komodo national park sign

I joined a sea kayaking expedition that departed from the white sandy shores of Indonesia’s Flores Island. Guided by a Flores native, our group of four people paddled for 10 days among the islands hosting the Komodo. I was about to realize a lifelong dream; but that dream would come with challenges.

Daytime temperatures remained in the upper 90s throughout our voyage, while nighttime offered little relief from the stifling heat. With no cooling breeze, sleeping in our tents was difficult—hot and stuffy, especially after dousing ourselves with copious amounts of DEET to protect against mosquito bites in a region rife with malaria. We also had limited amounts of fresh water to wash away the sunscreen that covered our exposed skin.

Indonesia boy in water sunset

These were the conditions we happily endured to experience up-close sightings of Komodo dragon lizards while trekking in their island habitat. The latest surveys show about 2,000 of the remaining wild population of Komodo dragon lizards live on the islands of Komodo and Rinca.

Since the dragons are easier to find on Rinca, we began our adventure there. A park ranger led our hike into the interior of this rough-and-tumble island; it was miserably hot and dry with dense forests often giving way to grassy savannas and scattered watering holes.

We were each on high alert since humans are also potential prey for Komodo lizards. The villagers living on Rinca are in constant danger of attack. They live in houses constructed of wood, corrugated metal, and thatching that are raised several feet above ground to protect them from the occasional Komodo dragon visitor. The dragon lizards can’t climb into the houses.

komodo island vilalger

The night before our visit, a hungry Komodo made off with a villager’s goat and sadly, a year earlier, a young girl wandering into the nearby forest met the same fate. Despite the danger they pose to people, the Komodo now enjoys protection under an endangered species act and is considered a mystical and revered ancestor by the local people.

Given all these risks, what was our protection against the dragons? A seven foot long wooden stick, forked on the business end, was all that stood between us and the hungry behemoths. As I resolutely gripped the stick in my hands, I wondered how an aggressive, carnivorous creature over 9 feet long and weighing 300 lbs. could possibly be discouraged by such a simple weapon.

The three of us walked in single-file close behind the park ranger, carefully peering through the dense underbrush for dragon lizards. I held up the rear, still clutching the stick for dear life, hoping that any dragon lizards would be spotted ahead of us and not from behind.

komodo dragon on rock

After thirty minutes, our patience was rewarded. Perched atop a car-sized boulder, an adult male relaxed in the shade, at least until he spotted us. Slowly, while poking his intimidating forked tongue towards us, he slid off the rock in our direction.

I got down on one knee to snap several photos of the dragon of my dreams that was gliding toward us from less than 10 feet away. I was immediately scolded by the guide as he quickly darted between me and the lizard, fending him off with his stick to keep the lizard at bay.

komodo dragon tongue sticking out

We followed the intimidating reptile as he slowly meandered into the grassland, eventually retreating toward a watering hole where the moist, cool area provided a comfortable spot to await the next visitor and potential meal; wild animals and, sometimes, other Komodo dragons. Using their bacteria-laden saliva and venomous glands, the dragons usually only need one bite to kill their prey. They patiently watch while the poisons take their toll on the unfortunate victim.

After witnessing them in their native habitat, I remain in awe of the power and fierce reputation of the Komodo dragon lizards. Decades after my first crude rendering of these beasts, the dreams of a ten-year-old boy finally came true.

Ray Uzanas with stickOur good friend Ray Uzanas is a global explorer and travel photographer. He’s posing with the stick that protected him (barely) from the komodo dragons.

From guest writer Nico ~ It is the end of the wet season and the land is a rich hue of greens. The deep terraced valleys and floodplains are covered in a quilted patchwork of rice paddy fields. The rice has been planted in rotation; some is ready to harvest, the stalks heavy with grain bend and shimmer in the breeze, while the short green shoots bursting through the soil in other places tell of a field freshly planted.

On the highest hills the paddy fields vanish and are replaced by endless rows of short coffee plants, sprinkled with the glistening red fruit of the ripe berries.

tana toraja view

I am visiting Tana Toraja in the central highlands of the island of Sulawesi and it is simply stunning. For holiday makers visiting Indonesia seeking something a bit different from the classic tourism hotspots of Bali and Lombok, Tana Toraja is the perfect escape. Here are some of my favorite activities when visiting this exotic region.

Hiking in Tana Toraja 

I was constantly amazed by the landscape in Tana Toraja, the fertility of the soil, the friendliness of the people and just how picturesque the villages are. They all make hiking in the region such a joy.  While most tourists hire a guide, which officially costs Rp300,000 per day ($35), it is perfectly safe to simply walk off into the countryside by yourself.

tana toraja rice paddies

Take a local bus out of Rantepao and have it stop in one of the small villages outside of the town. From there you can do a nice day walk through the rice paddy fields and down rutted country tracks. To find nice hiking trails talk to the receptionist at the hostel or hotel where you are staying.

A Cultural Tour of Tana Toraja 

The traditional houses of Tana Toraja are a popular tourism highlight. The old-fashioned houses are large square structures built of wood and painted in geometric designs of gaudy red, black and yellow. The thatched roofs extends beyond the walls at the front and back of the building and curve upwards like buffalo horns.

tana toraja village

Outside of these houses, normally in the front garden of the home, you will find family mausoleums. These buildings share many of the same architectural characteristics as the houses. They are a reflection of wealth, the largest homes will have up to six mausoleums lined up two rows deep in the front of the property.

The Sunday Water Buffalo Market

Water buffalo play a major role in the lives of the people of Tana Toraja. Every Sunday thousands of locals head to the Rantepao Water Buffalo Market. I watched over 300 buffalo waiting to be auctioned off. Most of the buffalo sat lazily in the middle of the muddy field, while the prime specimens stood proudly at the entrance to the market, the owners cooling them down with endless bottles of water.

rantepao water buffalo market tana toraja

A buffalo at the Rantepao Buffalo Market can cost as little as a few hundred dollars, while the prime specimens go for upwards of $40,000. Many of the buffaloes will be fattened up and then slaughtered at funeral celebrations.

Coffee Tasting

 coffee plant indonesia

The Arabica coffee grown in the hills of Tana Toraja is famous all over Indonesia for its rich flavor and earthy taste. One of the best places to sample this coffee is Mama Siska’s homestay in Batatumonga. Here you can see how coffee is traditionally prepared and sample the delicious beans.

Nico small crop (228x250)Guest writer Nico spends his days balancing the need for a regular income with his desire to experience new things. For the last four years he has called Indonesia his home and uses the country as a base to explore the region and occasionally the wider world. He shares his thoughts and adventures on his personal travel blog A Travellers Journey.


Update: August, 2019. This continues to be one of our most visited posts, and also one of our most controversial. Updates from readers (along with our continued research) indicate that Bali’s beach/trash situation has unfortunately not improved. While we typically seek out the good in any destination, we felt compelled to share this disturbing story in 2013 and still do. 

On our first day in Bali we headed for the famed Kuta Beach. The current Lonely Planet guide offers a list of “Top 25 Experiences” in Bali, with Kuta Beach right up there.  According to their experts, “Tourism on Bali began here and is there any question why? . . .Kuta Beach was and always will be Bali’s best beach.” At least that’s the Lonely Planet version.

An unhappy discovery

If our experience today is anything to go by, we can pitch our Lonely Planet guide in the trash. Or perhaps just pitch it on Kuta Beach. Because when we got there all we saw was trash, lots and lots of trash: on the sand, in the water and even clinging to the stray ankle. Plastic bags, bottles, cans, papers and heaven knows what else. It was downright filthy. This is the dirtiest beach we have ever seen, anywhere.

Our research told us that Kuta was one of the more built-up areas of Bali. Therefore, we were expecting crowds, but what we saw was not the detritus of a few too many holiday merry-makers. This was a public sanitation disaster.

It’s not surprising that the beach was practically devoid of people, though there were a few intrepid souls sizzling away on the sand. They were lobster-red and had the look of folks who had come to Bali to enjoy the beach, and were damn well going to, regardless of the rubbish.  One sad-looking girl sat at the water’s edge amidst sodden debris, a lonely mermaid washed ashore from the sea of litter.

kuta beach bali trash

Trash walking on Kuta Beach.

Trash on Kuta Beach: the explanation(?)

Surely this couldn’t be the normal state of affairs–there must be some explanation. Perhaps a garbage scow had recently overturned? Maybe the beach patrol was on strike. Bali has a reputation for being one of the most beautiful places on earth, so how could this be happening?

Unfortunately the explanation is not a good one. After further research we learned that this is an annual event at Kuta Beach. According to the Jakarta Post, “Beached garbage is an annual problem for Kuta. From early December to late March, strong wind and powerful currents send waves of garbage from the ocean onto the beach.” Locals even refer to it as the “trash season” and say the debris comes from the nearby island of Java.

But we’re not so sure we accept the “Let’s blame Java” approach. You see, the sides of the roads in this part of Bali are convenient open-air trash receptacles piled high with the same stuff we saw on the beach. In the rainy season (which we were well into) storms wash the trash into gutters, out to sea and then back onto the beach . . . where it waits to be washed out to sea again. It’s not quite the recycling system that Bali needs.

An alternative (and deceptive) viewpoint

We left the beach via the grounds of the nearby Patra Resort.  Almost immediately we were amidst manicured lawns, trickling fountains and a sparkling pool.  We glanced back at the beach where we saw lounge chairs nestled on gently raked sand, with nary a speck out of place.

are bali beaches dirty

This is a view of the exact same beach taken from the shore side. (These chairs are visible in the photo of the woman on the beach at the top of this post.) From here the trash is hidden from view.

Because of the slope of the shore, the garbage wasn’t visible from here.  But we wondered how many of the hotel’s guests actually venture down to the waterline.  We saw one family do so. Then, in a few seconds they came scurrying back like sand crabs escaping the tide. We bet they won’t go back for a second look.

Overall we loved the Balinese people; they were warm and welcoming, and much of the island was beautiful. But visitors should be aware of the trash situation on Kuta, along with other beaches on the southern part of the island. You really need to do your homework before visiting a place. With Bali, we thought we had.

If you’re interested in cleaner beaches, check out “Activist Abby,” a remarkable teenager from Illinois who is trying to rid the world of plastic bags: Activist Abby on Facebook

What places in your travels have not lived up to your expectations?

Pin it!Believe it or not, the tropical paradise of Bali has a "trash season." Do your research to avoid spending your holiday on a trashy beach in Bali.

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Pizza is our go-to food on the road, our favorite is New York-style. And when we return from a trip it’s usually the first meal we eat. On our year-long journey we tried pizza on six continents, including at its birthplace in Naples, to seek the best pizza in the world. But what surprised us most was where we found the best and the worst pizza.

 Pizza in Asia

best pizza in Hong Kong Paisanos

Paisanos in Hong Kong served up pizza that was very close to New York style.

pizza in North Korea

We hadn’t expected to see pizza in North Korea. But our guides kept referring to their own version of Pizza Hut. While it was a bit undercooked, it wasn’t bad for pizza in, well, North Korea. (Photo courtesy Russell Ng)

Pizza Chiang Mai Thailand

The owner of Pulcinella da Stefano in Chiang Mai, Thailand hails from Italy so his pizza was almost Neopolitan in style. 

best pizza dessert pineapple bali

A pineapple and banana dessert pizza in Bali. What a great idea!

Pizza in Vietnam

We were surprised to find an upscale Italian restaurant in Hanoi, complete with marble columns and tuxedo-clad waiters. This being Vietnam though, it was still really cheap.

Pizza Siem Reap Cambodia

Pizza in Cambodia? Why not, we even ate an authentic Philly cheesesteak there.

Pizza in the Middle East

In the Middle East we ate authentic pizza along with an Arabic version that while not pizza, sure had a lot in common with it.

Pizza in Dubai

No one affiliated with this restaurant in Dubai was Italian, but they put out a pretty good product. 

Israel food Arab zatar flatbread

In the Arab market in Jerusalem we tried zatar flatbread. It was ‘pizza-ish” enough to be included here. Also, we really liked it.

Pizza Tel Aviv

We almost walked right past this pizzeria in Tel Aviv because we thought it was a Dominos. But look closely at the logo, it’s Pizza Domino and no relation to the American chain. It may be the closest we came to authentic New York style pizza.

Pizza in Africa

best pizza in the world Namibia

We don’t surprise easily but were gobsmacked to come across a pizzeria in Swakopmund, Namibia. It was pretty good too. 

Pizza in Italy

Many people have a love/hate relationship with authentic Neopolitan pizza. The type served in Naples is different than what many expect. (Particularly if they were weaned on New York-style since childhood.) It turns out that authentic Neopolitan pizza is kind of soupier than expected. Some say it’s due to using fresh buffalo mozzarella. Either way, it takes some getting used to.

Pizza Naples Italy tomato

A plain  pizza in Naples, a bit soupy for our taste. 

Pizza Naples Italy rocket

Larissa’s favorite topping, fresh arugula or rocket.

Pizza Italy french fries

This is what happens when a self-proclaimed world traveler can’t admit that he doesn’t speak his grandparents language and orders a pizza that he thinks comes with potato slices on it.

Pizza in Australia and New Zealand

best pizza in the world Auckland New Zealand Sals

Sal’s in Auckland, New Zealand boasted of authentic New York style pizza. It came pretty close, even with Wisconsin mozzarella.

Best pizza in the world Australia Clare Valley Stone Bridge winery

Craig from  Stone Bridge Wines in Clare Valley, Australia manages to serve up delicious  wood fired pizza and award-winning wines. This was the runner-up for best pizza.

best pizza in the world Perth Australia

The pizza from Embers Wood Fired in Gooseberry Hill outside Perth, Australia. Although no one working at the place seemed to be over the age of 12, the pizza was the best of our entire trip. This is the Pizza Siciliana  with fresh ricotta, cacciatore sausage & marinated eggplant. That’s right, our top two pizzas were both from Australia. What an upside down world we live in.

The worst pizza we had

worst pizza in the world Pizza Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires is known for being half-Italian (just like Michael) so we were disappointed in this gooey mess. Three fist-sized hunks of mozzarella were placed in the center of the pie before going into the oven. Since they’re too big to melt properly, the chef just smears them around the pie after it’s baked where it turns into a gelatinous clump.

If you liked this post, please share! Pin the image below:

Tasting pizza on six continents--which is the best?

On the flip-side, Argentina did provide us the greatest taste sensation of our trip: Read “Is dulce de leche the best flavor in the world?”

Is a coal mining town in Pennsylvania the “Pizza Capital of the World?”

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised at finding the best pizza in the world in Australia. We may have found the best gelato in the world in New Zealand, where it’s made by a mad scientist from Italy.

What type of pizza do you like? Do you eat pizza with your hands or a knife and fork? To us, a knife and fork for pizza is just plain wrong.

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One of the more sobering aspects of our journey has been the environmental abuse we’ve seen, sometimes in the least likely places. Although we’ve traveled all over the world and written about some incredible sights, the story that resonated the most with readers is the one we wrote about the plastic trash on the beaches of Bali.

The tropical paradise of Bali was anything but. We visited during what some locals call the “trash season.” This coincides with the rainy season as garbage-filled storm drains flow rivers of plastic into the ocean, which then flings the trash back in waves onto the beach. It’s not exactly the recycling program that they need. Despite all the pretty pictures we have posted, the one below has garnered the most worldwide attention to our site.

Bali Kuta Beach trash

A lonely mermaid washed up from a sea of trash in Bali.

A week before our visit to Bali we saw the result of an aggressive trash awareness program. Perth, Australia boasts miles of spotless beaches that were cleaner than any we’ve seen. The local Waste Authority, with the catchy slogan “Too Good to Waste,” promotes an active recycling program. But recycling alone won’t solve the problem. The main issue is the abundance of plastic being produced.

In the US alone over 40 billion plastic water bottles are used each year. And that’s in a country with a potable water supply. Reusable containers are gaining in popularity but as yet are not as ubiquitious as disposable plastic bottles.

Plastic shopping bags are being eliminated in many communities but are given out with abandon in much of the world; as if the cashier made a commission on every bag used. Sometimes this has led to comical situations where each piece of fruit is nestled in its own plastic bag. Even when we showed the vendor our recyclable cloth bag at markets in the Middle East, they would wave it away and shove our purchase in a plastic bag. Meanwhile, just halfway across the Mediterranean, the island of Malta charges for plastic bags so shoppers are diligent about bringing their own reusable bags with them.

Israel plastic recycling cages

This container on a street in Tel Aviv promotes plastic recycling. Unfortunately, due to security concerns it has to be an open cage.

After we published our story about Bali we became aware of an Australian group called “The Two-Hands Project.” Founded by Paul Sharp and Silke Stuckenbrock in 2010, the volunteer organization focuses on cleaning up the world’s beaches and making people aware of the dangers of plastic. They’ve used social networking to encourage clean-up efforts in over 35 countries. Their Facebook page highlights photos of successful clean-ups from around the world.

We asked Paul what primary message he’d like to get out to readers about their mission:

 “Plastic pollution is a symptom of failed design. Cleaning up is important and helps protect wildlife, though it will not fix the problem. Manufacturers need to move away from disposable design and implement reusable packaging and refund systems to ensure near 100% recovery of packaging and end-of-life products.”

He’s got a point, all the recycling in the world won’t make a dent in the huge amounts of plastic trash being produced daily. Until the plastic trash generation is cut off at the source, groups like theirs will be fighting a losing battle with their clean-up actions.

Thailand temple plastic recycling

This Buddhist temple in Thailand promotes biodegradable alternatives to plastic.

Part of the mission of the temple in Chiang Mai that is pictured above is to increase awareness of alternatives to plastic. Food containers made of compressed banana leaves instead of styrofoam are becoming more popular. We’ve also seen biodegradable “plastic” utensils made out of corn and other plant sources. While not a perfect solution, at least they won’t be floating onto the world’s beaches for decades after their use. Perhaps by then Bali’s “trash season” will become an unwelcome vestige of the past.

Click the link for more information about the Two Hands Project and see how you can lend a hand.