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Glimpses of a colourful culture.

When most people think of Indonesia, Bali comes to mind, but with more than 17,000 islands the world's largest archipelago would take a lifetime to fully explore. Senior reporter SANDEEP SINGH GREWAL joined the country's more than 230 million inhabitants on the first part of what proved to be an unforgettable journey.

It could be the shortest rags to riches story in history.

Waiting at the currency exchange counter at Bahrain International Airport ahead of a trip to Indonesia packed with excitement and adventure, I never realised that the cashier would make me a millionaire.

"Here you go sir, that's five million," he said, handing me a stash of colour rupiahs filled with zeroes that reminded me the sound of the cash register in the opening of Pink Floyd's track Money.

With a bulging wallet, I knew it was going to be an unforgettable familiarisation trip, organised by the Indonesian Embassy in Manama in co-operation with Jakarta's Tourism and Creative Economy Ministry.

The short Etihad Airways flight from Bahrain to Abu Dhabi was enough to break the ice among my fellow hacks and representatives from local tour agents, as we boarded the connecting flight to Jakarta, which took more than seven hours.

During our week-long trip, we visited Jakarta, West Java and Western Sumatra.

The first thing one certainly cannot miss upon arrival at the Jakarta International Airport is the colourful hijabs worn with pride by local women which clearly stands out in what is the world's most populous Muslim nation.

Our first stop was the capital, which squeezes in more than 12 million people, and visibly had more high-rise buildings and designer residential apartments compared to Bahrain.

As a gateway to Indonesia, Jakarta gives you a glimpse of Dutch colonial heritage that can be still found along with ancient temples and landmarks dating back centuries.

Here you can witness the Trans Jakarta (rapid transit bus) that carries millions of passengers daily coupled with blue bird taxis popular among locals and tourists.

However, on the second and fourth Sunday of every month, thousands of pedestrians come out in force to claim the streets as part of special "car free" days that run from 7am to noon.

While it was relatively tough to meet someone speaking English, it was fun learning new words in the local language Bahasa Indonesia.

Our tour guides Sahid, Pradnya Duhita Mayadewi and Abu Suber were our saviours as they accompanied us throughout the journey and explained the country's history and heritage.

Our first stop was the National Monument within Jakarta's Medan Merdeka Park, which details the country's struggle for independence from the Dutch.

It took 14 years to build and was completed in 1975.

Another stop was at the city's Taman Mini Indonesia Indah, which gave an overview of Indonesia's rich history, culture and architecture.

The 250-acre park is a one-stop shop for Indonesian culture with museums, theatres, cable cars and other attractions that make it a popular tourist spot throughout the year.

Spectacular

But what stood out more were more than 30 life-size model houses from different provinces, giving a glimpse of traditional architecture in West Java and West Sumatra.

From Jakarta it was off to Bandung in the West Java province, a two-hour journey by bus, which passed through the Puncak pass famous for its spectacular views and tea plantations.

Dubbed the Paris of Java, it has been a popular weekend escape for Jakartans since colonial times because of its cool climate and ease of access from the capital.

What made it even more special was the outlets selling designer clothes at unbeatable prices that helps lure weekend tourists from Malaysia and Singapore who shop until they drop.

Carrying local currency (rupiahs) can help get you a better deal rather than using credit cards or other currencies.

Shoppers should be warned that notes in foreign currencies must be kept in pristine condition or are likely to attract a lower conversion rate.

But despite this, Bandung is a shoppers' paradise and exports clothing worldwide.

A senior member of the Indonesian Tourism Board, who recently performed Umrah, told me how he bought a shirt from a popular mall in Saudi Arabia only to find it had been made in Indonesia when he returned home.

Bandung is surrounded by volcanic mountains nestled within scenic drives and we were driven to the highest point Mount Tangkuban Perahu at more than 2,000 metres on a steep road that ends a stone's throw from a breathtaking dormant volcano.

It was the perfect way to round off the first part of our trip as we prepared to visit West Sumatra province where we saw first hand the fortitude of its people, who are still trying to recover from the 2004 tsunami and frequent recent earthquakes.

sandy@gdn.com.bh

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Publication:Gulf Daily News (Manama, Bahrain)
Geographic Code:9INDO
Date:Jan 12, 2013
Words:815
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