The ring of fire

September 29, 2019

Indonesia is a great country. Great in many subjective aspects, but great also in its sheer dimensions: With over 260 million inhabitants, it is the fourth largest nation and the largest Muslim country in the world. These 260 million people live scattered over 6.000 islands, out of a total of more than 17.000 islands that form the country. The physical distance from the northern tip of Sumatra to the south-eastern end of Papua is more than 5.100 km which roughly equals the distance from Berlin to Addis Ababa in Ethiopia. In the light of these enormous dimensions, my knowledge about the country was disproportionately small, comprising little more than the name of its capital and that Bali is a mass-tourism destination. Luckily, that has since changed.

Java – Cultural heartland

We started our trip in the capital Jakarta, one of the megacities of this planet. With over 30 million people, the metropolitan area of Jakarta is the second largest urban region in the world behind Tokyo. This is symbolic of the wider geographical context: Java houses more than half of the country’s population, squeezing over 130 million people on an area that is less than half of Germany’s, making it the most populous island in the world. As one would expect, this puts severe pressure on resources and ecosystems. When we stepped out on the street in the morning of our first day in Jakarta, it took us a moment to realize that it was not a cloudy day. It was a smog day. Jakarta is frequently listed as one of the cities with the worst air quality worldwide, in line with Beijing, New Delhi and Dubai. Unlike in German cities, where air pollution is also widely discussed, this gets to such an extreme level that you can see and even feel the smog when you breathe in. At times, you could not even see the sun behind the smog.

Interestingly, we encountered the same phenomenon when we stopped over in Singapore for two days on our way back to Switzerland. In the case of Singapore, the situation is even more unfortunate since their smog is not “home-made”. It results from manmade forest fires in Sumatra and is then transported by wind to Malaysia and Singapore. In extreme years, it covers the city in smog for up to three months in a row. In recent years, Singapore had used its economic power to put pressure on the Indonesian government to stop the fires. This worked well for the past two years. This year it didn’t.

Smog in Singapore. Note how you can barely see the sun.
Smog in Singapore. Note how you can barely see the sun.

Right while we were in Jakarta, the Indonesian president announced a historical decision: The capital of Indonesia will be moved away from Jakarta to a newly built city in the heart of the jungle of Borneo. While this city is yet to be built, first government offices should move already in 2021. Main reason for this decision: Environmental threats of Jakarta. Besides air pollution, excessive water consumption from official and illegal private wells have caused the groundwater table underneath the city to decrease continuously. This again limits the stability of the soil and makes parts of the city sink at a rate of 25 cm/year – earning Jakarta the title “fastest-sinking city of the world”. Given that Jakarta lies right by the sea and sea levels are expected to rise due to climate change, the future outlook of the city is not too positive.

This decision also marks yet another turn in Jakarta’s and Indonesia’s turbulent history. Being located on many important trade routes, exchange with other cultures has always been strong. Before the 13th century, the archipelago was home to a number of Hindu-Buddhist empires. After the arrival of Muslim traders, Islam was gradually adopted and became the dominant religion on Java and Sumatra by the 16th century. In the first half of the 17th century, the Dutch became the dominant European power in the archipelago, attracted mainly by the spices grown in Indonesia. They established their stronghold in Batavia, the former name of Jakarta, and ruled the country until WWII. After Japanese occupation, which was short but important as it fostered Indonesian nationalism, the country gained independence in 1949. In the decades to come, Indonesia moved from democracy to authoritarianism under presidents Sukarno and Suharto. This changed with the Asian financial crisis in 1997, since when democracy has been strengthened again – an ongoing process.

After the Moloch of Jakarta, our second stop was a much more pleasant one: Yogyakarta is much smaller than Jakarta, much more relaxed and home to a vibrant community of young people and artists. Historically, Yogyakarta has been a royal capital for centuries – and it is the only royal city in Indonesia still ruled by a monarchy today. During our visit to the royal palace, we found out that most of the kings had had several wives and even more children. Most impressive to me was one king who died at the age of 19, but had at this moment already fathered 20 children. In the “normal” society, polygamy is theoretically still possible, but practically it occurs only rarely nowadays. The historical importance of Yogyakarta is underlined by its proximity to two of the most important temples of the country: The Hindu Prambanan and Borobodur, the largest Buddhist temple of the world. See the picture show below for some impressions of the latter.

The view from the top of Borobudur, the largest Buddhist temple in the world.

On our way eastward towards Bali, we had an experience that was extraordinary in several regards: We visited two active volcanoes. Indonesia lies on the “Ring of Fire” which extends along the western edge of the Americas across Japan, the Philippines and Indonesia down to New Zealand. In total, Indonesia has some 400 volcanoes, out of which 130 are still active. Our first station was Mount Bromo, which is among the most accessible volcanoes in the country – and accordingly one of the most touristic ones. Since we didn’t really know much about the local circumstances and how easy it would be to organize the trip ourselves, we decided to book a tour with a local travel agency. Which made the whole experience extremely comfortable, but also at times a bit strange. The one thing almost everybody does at Bromo is a sunrise tour. We stayed overnight in a small hostel close to the volcano, although “overnight” is not really true. We had to get up at 3 am to be picked up by a 4 WD that would then drive us to a viewpoint on a mountain range next to Bromo, so that we could watch the sunrise over Bromo from there. The thing was – we were obviously not the only 4 WD. Rather, there were a few hundred of them, causing a traffic jam on the narrow mountain road. But still, the sunrise over the volcanic plain filled with fog was super impressive!

The next night was even shorter. This time, we had to get up at 1 am to be in time for a special phenomenon: The Blue Fire at Mount Ijen. Ijen is another active volcano which emits huge quantities of sulfuric smoke. This makes the lake which fills its crater extremely acidic at a pH around 0 – not the best place for a quick swim. But the smoke is also used to mine sulfur: At the place where the smoke comes out of the ground, the miners put pipes onto the ground on which the sulfur precipitates. Subsequently, the miners knock it off the pipes, put it in baskets and carry it out of the crater. Which is incredibly hard work, since they carry 75-100 kg of sulfur around one hour uphill and then another three kilometers downhill to the next road. They usually go down twice per day, and this arduous work earns them no more than a few euros a day. Not speaking of the health risk of being constantly exposed to the toxic sulfuric fumes – most of them didn’t wear protective masks when we visited. The sulfur is then bought by a Chinese company which owns the mine and uses the sulfur in cosmetics, among other things. Maybe worth checking your make-up if it contains sulfur 😉

After we arrived at the base of the mountain around 2.00 am, we had to climb up to the edge of the crater for around 1.5 h in complete darkness with perfect visibility of the Milky Way. From there, it was another 45 min climbing steeply downhill into the crater – this time with our gasmasks on since we were approaching the place where the smoke was coming out of the earth. When we reached the place at the edge of the lake, it was a truly surreal picture: It was still dark night, only lit sporadically by headlamps and torches and there was smoke everywhere. Lots of smoke. Everything smelled like rotten eggs, and when the wind turned unexpectedly and blew the smoke towards us, it was impossible to see further than a few centimeters. Between the pipes we could see the magical Blue Fire which is formed by hot sulfuric smoke catching fire at 600 °C.

However, none of the workers who mine the sulphur wears a mask.
A sulfur miner at work. It's dark not because it's underground, but because it's night.

And in the middle of this apocalyptic environment, men were at work. There were several miners hammering the sulfur plates off the pipes, loading their baskets and carrying their load uphill. Again – incredibly hard work. For us, the good thing about Ijen as compared to Bromo was that you have to hike yourself to see it, which naturally limits the number of visitors. Although this is not completely true. For the first part from the base of the mountain to the crater edge, the miners were offering to drag people uphill on small carts which they usually use to bring the sulfur down from the crater. And although it seemed like modern slavery to us, there were indeed a few people who made use of the service – sitting in a cart and being dragged up the mountain by two to three miners who were harnessed in front of the cart like horses. But despite this, our visit to Ijen was an almost otherworldly experience!

Bali – Hindu magic

Setting foot on Bali was like entering a different world. As mentioned above, Hindu-Buddhist empires dominated on Indonesia before the rising influence of Islam. When most of Java converted to Islam in the 16th century, the Hindu elite immigrated to Bali, forming Hindu kingdoms. Hinduism strongly influenced the Balinese identity as well as culture, architecture and daily life. Today, Bali has one of the strongest Hindu communities outside of India. And indeed, the first thing we saw when we got off the ferry from Java was the same as the last thing we saw before taking off from the airport: a Hindu temple. There are temples everywhere. Every village has traditionally at least three public temples, used for different rituals. On top of that, many families have their own family temple. The family we stayed with in Ubud, for example, lives inside a temple with the living rooms grouped around a central courtyard with lots of plants and shrines.

Besides in architecture, spirituality is also deeply rooted in the daily practice of most people. Every morning, they put out flowers and other small items next to the shrines of the good house spirits, to keep them happy. They also put out flowers for the “bad” spirits, but these ones are placed on the street in front of the main entrance of their house. The idea is that the bad spirits will then gather around these offerings and stay there instead of entering the house. The result are streets where every second or third house is a temple decorated with flowers plus more flowers on the street, creating a very special atmosphere.

A typical temple-like house entry on Bali with offerings for bad spirits placed in front of the entrance.

This atmosphere has attracted many creative and spiritual people over time, both from Indonesia and internationally. They formed an incredibly rich culture expressed in painting, sculpture, woodcarving and various dance styles and performances. In Ubud we attended a performance of the Indian Ramayana epos inside a Hindu temple – awesome! Pair this creativity and spirituality with Bali’s landscape composed of rice fields, palm trees and volcanoes and out comes a really unique setting.

It would however give an incomplete picture of Bali to not mention the impacts of (mass) tourism on the island. In 2012 Bali saw 2.8 million foreign and 5 million domestic tourists. Most of these hordes of tourists concentrate on the southern part of the island where beach resorts, bars and restaurants line the coast. For many years Australians were the largest group of foreign tourists, coming over to Bali due to its proximity to Australia and the significantly cheaper alcohol. Only in recent years have Chinese tourists taken over the lead. While the tourism boom focuses on coastal areas, we also felt it in inland Ubud where we stayed. My girlfriend had been there four years ago, and she could barely believe her eyes when we arrived in the city and found parts of it transformed into one big tourist shopping area. But as it is often the case – as soon as we walked a few minutes away from the main tourist draws, the number of both tourists and tourist shops dropped dramatically and we could still feel Bali’s magic 🙂

Symptomatic of this mass tourism was our visit to the Tirta Empul temple, an important Hindu temple where Hinduists go to seek spiritual cleansing in the holy waters emerging from the ground inside the temple. For the ritual you have to step into a water filled basin of around one meter depth and then hold your head into a jet of water coming out of around 20 fountains in the wall. Each fountain has a special purpose and there is a certain order in which to walk from one fountain to the next. As the water was quite cold and we had to queue at each fountain, we were freezing by the time we had reached the last fountain. The function of this last fountain was to make one or several wishes. As we were standing in line, I suddenly realized that there was a woman two spots in front of us whose hair was still dry. It took us a while, but then we really had to laugh: she had skipped all the other fountains and the cold water, and had entered the queue only for the one fountain where you could make a wish 🙂

Inside the Tirta Empul water temple.

The crazy thing about this temple was the great number of tourists and especially how little most of them seemed to care about what the place was about and what rules there were. For example, there was a huge sign in front of the basin with the water fountains that it was not allowed to take pictures of the area where people were bathing. Almost none of the tourists read that board, and almost all of them took pictures inside. And even the local guides were taking pictures of their clients while they were bathing. All for the sake of Instagram.  

Gili – Island peace at risk

Our last station in Indonesia was Gili Air, a tiny island off the coast of Lombok. Tiny really means tiny here – walking once around the island takes no more than one to two hours. At first glance, Gili is a small paradise with sandy beaches, coconut trees and beach bars, and not much to do besides relaxing, snorkelling and diving. But at second glance, we noticed piles of rubble and broken houses everywhere. Almost exactly one year ago, Lombok and the Gili islands have been hit by a series of earthquakes, the strongest of which was 7.0 on the Richter scale. They killed almost 600 people, injured thousands more and destroyed thousands of buildings. While North Lombok was hit most catastrophically, also Gili Air suffered substantial damage and many buildings collapsed. One year after, especially the tourist accommodations have been rebuilt already. But in between we still saw many damaged buildings waiting to be torn down or repaired. This is the reality of living on the Ring of Fire: permanent risk of volcanic eruptions and strong earthquakes. Around 90% of the world’s earthquakes and 81% of the largest earthquakes occur along the Ring of Fire.


Indonesia is a great country. Great in its physical dimensions, but great also in many subjective aspects. We met super friendly and open-minded people. We tasted a great variety of food. We climbed volcanoes and dived with sharks and turtles (or at least my girlfriend did ;)). We experienced two vastly different cultures on Muslim Java and Hindu Bali, but still had the feeling that different religions and worldviews live together in harmony.

And still, we got only a tiny glimpse of this truly magnificent country. We visited three out of 17.000 islands and in total we didn’t spend a lot of time there. There is so much more to discover – from Sumatra over Borneo and the Komodo islands to far-off Papua, and everything in between. We definitely have to come back 🙂