This article was originally published in the Jakarta Post on 2 May 2019.
Indonesia is about to head into the hotter weather of its dry season: It’s time to start heading to the mountains instead of beaches for climbing and hiking.
After the afternoon rain clouds start thinning, the afternoon will mean heavier sweating, and those of us in the cities will need a break from our daily battle with the heat – as well as the traffic, noise and routine. A day or two off to escape the milieu is necessary for taking some deep breaths of cleaner air and for zoning out, staring at a more serene panorama, before we charge back into the fray, feeling refreshed.
Beach vs. Mountain
While beaches are a safe bet for a weekend getaway, why not challenge yourself by climbing a mountain? Most major cities in Indonesia (and many others throughout Southeast Asia) have great climbs within easy reach. And it’s an option worth considering because climbing a mountain has its own special type of “Zen” that can have the same – if not better – effect in purifying your mind, body and soul from the residues of urban life as any beach.
Climbing a mountain is almost as simple, mindless and relaxing as sitting idly on a beach. Where idling on a beach is more about not exerting yourself, mountain climbing has a different aim: Challenging yourself to reach the summit. This will require conscious, mindful and consistent effort in lifting your legs. What’s more, your progress toward this goal is based purely on merit. The summit won’t be delivered to you like food and drink to you on your beach recliner. All trails are economy class and nobody is a VIP, as far as the mountain is concerned.
You’re also refreshingly invisible on a mountain. Fellow hikers are paying attention to their own feet, and ogling is reserved for nature and the views. Pictures of you sweating through your insect repellant and flap hat or striking an exhausted grimacing smile at the summit are not ‘Gram-worthy.
Climbing is also a richer social activity than sitting on a beach. Although hauling yourself up that mountain is a personal mission, having others with the same mission somehow lighten the load. They’ve made the same choice to be there and are heading toward the same goal, feeling the same pain. That’s how friends are made.
What’s more, people tend to mix on a trail. You might start off walking with your friends, but as your hiking group stretches out and blends with others, you’ll find yourself alongside that friend of a friend you never had the chance to get to know. Then, the stranger behind you will chime in on the conversation.
By the time you all meet again at a rest stop, your group has tripled in size and now includes a beekeeper from Finland who shares your taste in music, an elderly couple who wants to adopt you and a Japanese guy with whom you’ve been cracking jokes all day long, even though he doesn’t speak a lick of your language.
As you climb higher, the air becomes cooler and cleaner than at any beach. The sweat will evaporate from your shirt, and you may even reach for a sweater. And just as you start needing to take more stops to rest, the views become more worth stopping for.
The naturalist in you will get a lot more out of a mountain than a beach, because the vegetation will start to evolve as you ascend. Rainforests turn into cloud forests,and grassy meadows that seem slightly surreal, especially when shrouded in mist. Then you’ll find yourself amidst a surreal moonscape made of solid granite that natural forces have contorted into unlikely shapes.
Or you might suddenly step into loose debris of various colors and tones that remind you that you’re on an active volcano. And when you eventually reach the top, you might stare into a caldera containing a ghostly lake or a smoking mound of dirt, or perhaps a glowing or bellowing pit of lava – an alien world.
At the summit, you can enjoy the ultimate reward for the mountain climber: a panorama over the valley, plain or coast you came from, and others on the other side you’ve yet to explore. You might be surprised to see that your mountain isn’t alone – other peaks sit silently, waiting to be explored. If you’ve timed it right, your mountain will cast its shadow across the landscape below as it changes color in the rays of the setting (or rising) sun.
Then there’s the most Zen moment of all, when you set off to completely undo your day’s work by descending to the same point you started. The day plays back in reverse a little quicker, like rewinding a video cassette. When you step back onto the car park with a “clunk”, you pray your keys haven’t dropped out of your pocket – like at the end of a day at the beach.
Where you go depends on where you are, or perhaps where you’re passing through.
Jakarta has the twin peaks of Mount Gede and Mt. Pangrango, and as well as Mt. Salak within a few hours’ drive. Gede-Pangrango, as it is often called, has just been reopened to the public after the rainy season. The twin-peaked volcano overlooks the outskirts of Jakarta, and offers an accessible hike for a taste of Indonesia’s volcanoes. At almost 3,000 meters high, it will be around 10 to 15 degrees Celsius up top, cool enough to warrant a sweater.
In East Java, Surabaya has Arjuna, Semeru, Bromo and a handful of other peaks while Central Java is rich with a handful of great mountains, including the famed Mt. Merapi. Bali’s Mt. Agung is currently off limits due to its rumblings, but also has Batur and Bratan. Mt. Rinjani, one of the most picturesque peaks in Indonesia, is just next door on Lombok.
SE Asian peaks
But if you’re travelling through Southeast Asia, you might want to squeeze a climb into a stopover, as many major cities in the region are within reach of a good mountain.
If you find yourself in Kuala Lumpur, Bukit Tabur is a technically challenging climb that can be accomplished in a morning. Mt. Tahan is a more serious multi-day trek through some of the world’s most ancient rainforests, yet is only a few hours’ drive from KL airport.
If you’re in the Philippines, Mt. Pinatubo – or what’s left of it after the second largest volcanic eruption in the 20th century – offers an incredible hike to a picturesque crater lake and is within reach of Manila, as are Arayat, Natib, Mariveles, Banahaw and Makiling.
Chiang Mai has nearby Doi Inthanon and Doi Chiang Dao – respectively the first and second highest points in Thailand – but you can feasibly scale both in a weekend, with a night spent camping out under the stars on Chiang Dao.
Of course, Kota Kinabalu in Malaysia’s Sabah state has Mt. Kinabalu, the most famous and the second highest peak in Southeast Asia. And Sarawak has Mt. Santubong just a short drive from Kuching, and you can feasibly go from beach to summit to beach in a single day.
There are many others: Fan Si Pan, the highest point in Vietnam, is within reach of Hanoi; Malaysia’s Malacca state has Mt. Ophir, a fun day hike that can end with a swim in some waterfalls. Although barely a hill, Singapore has Bukit Timah, which has some beautiful rainforest walks, and can be reached within a half-hour of landing at Changi airport.