Happy Idul Fitri

idul fitri
Seeking forgiveness and a pure heart.

It’s a special time to be here on this last day of Ramadan – the eve of 1431 H Idul Fitri.

Children are singing Muslim songs and prayers from the mosques, there are parades in the street, and fireworks are exploding everywhere.

There is truly a spirit of reverence and celebration in the air here in Jogjakarta.

One of the gifts of traveling around the world is witnessing first hand how other people celebrate their religious faith. I don’t have to rely on the image that news outlets present – I can see it for myself, and draw my own conclusions.

Over the years I have seen many Idul Fitri celebrations, and have had the pleasure of sharing it with the many Muslim friends I have made.

Idul fitri family celebration
The Susanti family was kind enough to share their 1431 H Idul Fitri celebration with me.

It always delights me to hear the conversation because it is not so different than at similar gatherings in my own family. The spirit of thanksgiving and gratitude is also familiar, from my own family gatherings. In fact, everything is pretty much the same, except the occasion.

That’s why it really annoys me to hear about people like Terry Jones, the pastor of that small Florida church who is planning to burn the Quran on September 11th. It’s such small mindedness and disrespect for other people, their culture, and their religion that keep the world in the state it is.

How can we possibly have peace, without respect?

To imply that the September 11th attacks were a Muslim crime is absurd. Holding that line of thought, maybe we should burn Shinto and Buddhist holy books to punish the Japanese for attacking Pearl Harbor. Most of Hitlers forces were Christian – what are we going to burn for that one?

As an American, I am truly ashamed to share the same nationality with Terry Jones and the members of his church – the Dove World Outreach Center. And, as a Christian, I’m as offended by this act of violence in the name of Christianity, as all the Muslims I know are when violence is perpetrated in the name of Islam.

Idul Fitri is a celebration of faith, gratitude, and of joy. It’s been my experience that people everywhere celebrate those three things in different ways.

To coin a phrase from my Thai friends – we’re all “same same but different.”

When we, as a people, accept that we’re never going to be the same – never going to live by the same set of principles – no matter how much we bully and intimidate each other, we can move forward in finding sustainable ways to live happily together.

I don’t profess to know all the steps from where we are now, to a world of harmony and peace, but I do know the first step must be respect.

Travel if you can – meet more of the people you’re sharing the Earth with. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.


What is 1431 H?

It’s the Islamic year.

Many people don’t realize there are many calendars in use around the world – the Gregorian calendar that is most commonly used in international commerce is not the only one. The Eastern Orthodox, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, and Baha’i are among those who follow their own calendars.

cresent moon,islamic symbolThe Islamic calendar is based on the year when the Prophet Muhammad traveled from Mecca to Medina.

The abbreviation “H” means Hegira, or flight to escape danger.

It’s a lunar calendar – each lunar month begins when the crescent of the new moon first appears, which is why the crescent moon is the symbol of Islam.


Most travelers relish the sunrise view of Borobudur hanging in the early morning mist. It seems to give one a certain sense, a timeless perception of what was, and yet, still is. To behold the huge, main Borobudur stupa patiently waiting through the centuries, in all its magnificence, is truly awe inspiring.

To fully appreciate your visit to Borobudur, a little knowledge of Buddhism and the life of Siddhartha is needed because there are beautifully carved bas-reliefs throughout the temple that narrate the story of Siddhartha’s life, his enlightenment, as well as Buddhist principles such as cause and effect, and Nirvana.

Photo by J.L. van der Linde

Exploring the different levels of Borobudur is a spiritual journey, or can be, if one is open to it. Borobudur is a multi-dimensional, walk-through textbook that takes its visitors on a five kilometer journey up through nine levels that illustrate how one progresses from being imprisoned by primal desire, then freeing one’s self from physical desire, to finally reaching Nirvana, or enlightenment.

The base of the monument is mostly hidden. It tells the story of karma, or cause and effect. It has a series of erotic scenes that depict the pleasures, trials, and tribulations of being human.

As you climb the steep stairs, you’ll walk around six levels of square terraces that illustrate Buddha’s teachings through the bas-reliefs. The story begins with Buddha descending from heaven and being born as Prince Siddhartha, who was sheltered from the misery of the world. Then he accidentally witnessed pain, suffering, and death. He then decided to leave the shelter of the palace to seek answers, and the solution to suffering. After years of wondering and meditation seeking these answers, he was enlightened, and achieved Nirvana. He then continued to wonder, teaching those whom he encountered the wisdom he had gleaned.

The top three terraces are circular – 72 stupas encircle the mammoth main stupa at the top of Borobudur. The circular design is meant to represent life with no beginning and no end – eternity.


Many people experience a profound sense of peace upon arriving at the top level. The stupas’s layout, the cool breeze, the tranquil surroundings, and the mountains in the background all converge together to create a feeling that is reverent to some, and inspiring to others. Some say the experience is akin to having completed a pilgrimage.

No one really knows for certain who built Borobudur, or when it was built. The general consensus among experts is that it was built around 750 AD. Whoever built it later abandoned it – the reason why is yet another mystery of Borobudur.

After its builders abandoned it, Borobudur would be lost and forgotten until 1814 when British explorer Sir Thomas Raffles, the same who founded Singapore, got intrigued by the legend of a mammoth temple buried in volcanic ash somewhere in the central part of Java.

Over the years, much work has been done to restore Borobudur; in 1991 it gained World Heritage Site status. It also has the distinction of being the largest Buddhist temple in the world, and Indonesia’s most visited attraction.

Photo Credits

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Ramadan and Idul Fitri

Indonesian Muslim girls
Reconnecting with friends...

Visitors to Indonesia this time of year hear a lot about Ramadan and Idul Fitri.

Travelers know Muslims don’t eat from sunup to sundown during Ramadan – translating into difficulty in finding food throughout the day in some locations.

Some communities ask non-Muslims to refrain from eating and drinking in public places.

From the outside looking in, it can seem like quite an inconvenience to some travelers, and they are happy to see the end of it, only to be unexpectedly inconvenienced again by Idul Fitri, or Lebaran as the holiday is also known.

But what does Ramadan, and the holiday that follows it – Idul Fitri – really mean to Muslims, and how can non-Muslim travelers gain a greater appreciation for what’s going on around them while they’re scurrying around looking for a restaurant that’s open?

Ramadan is a yearly period of reflection and self-evaluation. Muslims take a long, hard look at their lives, and try to make corrections in areas they feel they need to improve themselves.

iftar indonesia
A group of friends gather for Iftar - the breaking of the fast.

They look at relationships that have gone wrong, offer forgiveness when they have held a grudge, and seek forgiveness for wrongs they have committed against others.

One’s habits are scrutinized, and the unproductive ones disposed of.

Ramadan is also a time to reconnect with friends and family by gathering with them for the daily Iftar, or breaking of the fast, at sunset.

Ramadan is not simply refraining from food and drink during the day – it’s also a cleansing of the thoughts – negative thoughts, actions, and words are avoided. It’s a time Muslims forge their faith, and temper their obedience to Allah (God).

When Muslims go about their day during Ramadan, they try not to fall into the usual human habit of talking about other people. They try not to look at the opposite sex in a lustful way. They try to add an extra measure of honesty in their business dealings. They try to keep away from what they consider sinful behavior, and they try to treat others with more love and respect. In short, they make a serious effort to be perfect people.

Fasting is also a time to experience what it’s like not to have food, and helps them develop a sense of empathy for the less fortunate, as well as gain a greater sense of gratitude for what they have. Ramadan is a time when charitable giving is at its highest, in a way that’s similar to Christmas for Christians.

These are some lofty goals – just thinking about developing ones character into perfection is a bit daunting, let alone setting out to accomplish it. Personally, I applaud the courage it takes to look at one’s self with a critical eye, and the audaciousness it takes to head down the path of change.

How successful are they? Who am I to say? For me, it’s the intention that counts. I don’t mind waiting until evening for my favorite restaurant to open when I know what people are striving for.

Here in Jogjakarta, the ceremony of Grebeg Syawal concludes Ramadan with a parade of traditionally uniformed Kraton guards (Kingdom guards).

After Ramadan, Idul Fitri is a time when families and friends gather from far and wide to celebrate having completed this difficult time. Indonesia is on the move – public transport is packed, traffic is snarled, and hotel rates triple. For the tourist it’s a good time to lay low, somewhere quiet, until it’s over.

This year Ramadan began on August 10th and will conclude on September 9th. Idul Fitri will be September 10th and 11th, but the week following Idul Fitri will also be a busy (and expensive) travel period in Indonesia.

Batu Karas to Jogjakarta (Yogyakarta)

Getting away from Batu Karas proved to be a bit more difficult than getting there was, and as I’ll describe later on, I really did feel like I was getting away.

There is really no direct line between Batu Karas and Jogjakarta. One could fly to Bandung on Susi air; then catch a train from Bandung to Jogjakarta – there are several. The total cost would be about Rp.480,000.

The public bus is the cheapest option. You would need to get an ojek from Batu Karas to Cijulang, and catch a bus to Cilacap when they are running. If not, you’d need to go to Pangandaran and get a bus to Cilacap. From there, you can get a bus directly to Jogjakarta. The name of the bus you want in Cilacap is “EFISIENSI.” The total cost for this option is about Rp.65,000.

You also have the option of ojekking it to Cijulang; then taking a bus to Pangandaran, and another bus to Banjar, where the trains to Jogjakarta stop. The problem with Banjar is that the trains are though trains, so turning up and hoping to buy a ticket to travel on the same day can be hit or miss. Should you have to wait a day or two in Banjar, extreme boredom would surely set in – there is not much there. It’s far better to book ahead, but sadly there is no reliable way to do that from Pangandaran or Batu Karas. You would have to book the ticket in Jakarta, Bandung, or Jogjakarta before coming to Batu Karas. The total cost to do this would be about Rp.125,000, unless it’s a busy holiday period, when they require passengers who embark in route to pay the full fare from the train’s point of origin.

For me, the public buses aren’t a good option because I have more luggage than I can carry in one go. On public busses in Indonesia, there is sometimes a bit of jostling for position, so you need to have all of your luggage in your hand as you board the bus.

The worst option, and the one I chose, actually sounds the best. There is a mini bus that offers a package deal. It’s picks up in Batu Karas and takes you to the train station in Sidareja for Rp.250,000, which includes the minibus ride and the train ticket.

Unfortunately, there is no travel agency in Batu Karas, so you need to find a local who has the number to call, and who will tack on a little commission to the price. The price I was quoted by a Batu Karas local was Rp.500,000. Knowing that was way too high, I went to Pangandaran and booked the same trip for Rp.250,000 – the price printed on the brochure in the travel office. However, I didn’t even get back to Batu Karas before the local network kicked in and I got a call saying they had made a mistake and the price was actually Rp.500,000.

What happened is obvious – the local got his commission.

I decided to go ahead and pay the higher price because I wasn’t sure if I would get a refund for the Rp.250,000 if I didn’t, and it was still the quickest way to Jogjakarta. But, after a miserable ride in the hot, non air-conditioned, cramped mini bus, over a derelict road, I would surely choose to fly back to Bandung, and book a train from there, for about the same money.

It’s a sad thing – I had a great time in Batu Karas, and the people were very hospitable. Besides staying in a hotel, and eating in local restaurants, I rented a motorbike from a local, and also paid him to guide me around a bit. One would think they would want visitors to leave with a good feeling about the place, so you’ll speak well about it, and return some day. But instead, some of the locals feel they need to get one last fistful of cash.

Would I return to Batu Karas? Sure, but not without my transport out pre-arranged. If going from Jakarta or Bandung, I would either fly, or take a train to Banjar, and I would have my return ticket in hand. There are cars one can hire in Banjar to go to Batu Karas for Rp.150,000. I’d get the drivers number, and arrange for him to pick me up.

What I would never do, is trust a Batu Karas local with my transportation arrangements.

Currently, the hotels in Batu Karas don’t book transportation because they don’t want to compete with the locals. It’s certainly a policy they need to look at.

At the end of the day, being overcharged Rp.250,000 is not the end of the world, and I’m sure it’s not the last time it will happen on this trip. None the less, it’s still annoying, so I’m tagging this post and any similar, future posts, “overcharged” so it will be easy for everyone to see what they need to watch out for.

Do you have and overcharge stories? Please tell us about it in the comment section below.