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On the Obama Trail – Bali and Java

Published:   Garuda Colours In-Flight Magazine, September 2017

In June this year, following an invitation by Indonesia’s President Jokowi Widodo to visit the Presidential Palace just out of Jakarta, President Obama came to Indonesia. This visit had special significance for Obama as he had lived in Jakarta for four years as a child while his mother was completing her PhD studies in anthropology. He took the opportunity to also bring along his wife and two teenage daughters on vacation. Their itinerary was fine-tuned so they would see some of the best Indonesia has to offer. So, where did Obama and his family go and what did they do? We take a look at highlights of this presidential visit.

During the first five days, the Obamas stayed in Bali, known as The Island of the Gods. Arriving on Friday, 23 June by private jet, they immediately headed about 37 kilometres inland to the mountain town of Ubud, widely recognized as the cultural and artistic heart of Bali. There, they stayed in a luxury villa in the Four Seasons Resort Sayan, where Julia Roberts had also stayed during the making of the film Eat, Pray, Love.

The family began their first weekend in Indonesia with a visit to the Agung Rai Art Museum in Ubud, where they were greeted by traditional dancers. Set in beautiful grounds, this museum has an outstanding collection of traditional and modern artworks by locals and foreigners. Obama was reported to be particularly interested in a 1930s painting by famous local artist, I Gusti Nyoman Lempad.

The next day the family was spotted near Jatiluwih Village in Tabanan, 41 kilometres from Ubud. The village has spectacular views over lush UNESCO listed rice terraces. They were photographed looking happy and relaxed as they hiked along a popular 500-meter route circling the paddy fields and chatted with local farmers.

Following the weekend, the Obamas and their entourage took six boats and cruised down the Ayung River just out of Ubud on a two-hour rafting trip. The river is suited to beginners, making it an excellent family-friendly activity for them. This trip provided the opportunity to relax, paddle through the quiet parts, race through low-level rapids and enjoy the beautiful jungle-lined river.

The Obama’s only had 30-minutes to spare to visit Tirta Empul Temple, in Tampaksiring, about 18 kilometres from their Ubud base. During this time, they were followed by hundreds of people as the former president spent time at the ancient walled-in fishpond and his family toured the complex. Tirta Empul water temple, famous for its pools, is fed by spring water believed to holy by the local Hindu population. Though the family did not have time to participate, they would have seen people, locals and visitors alike, immersing themselves in the water as part of an ancient purification ritual. The temple is set in sprawling grounds, which exude an atmosphere of peace and antiquity, and is surrounded by jungle. The Presidential Palace overlooks the complex from a nearby hilltop.

The Bedugul area in the northern part of central Bali was also part of the official Obama tour. Bedugul’s scenic drive takes in three beautiful crater lakes: Lake Bratan, Lake Buyan and Lake Tamblingan. Fishermen can be seen there plying their trade at the lakes’ edge. A Hindu water temple, Pura Ulun Danu, overlooks Lake Bratan. Lying 1,500 meters above sea level, Bedugul also offers stunning mountain vistas and refreshing mountain air.

The Obamas left time later in their visit to see some of the coastal areas which international tourists most frequently associate with Bali.

One such place is Tanah Lot Temple, just 20 kilometres from the southern capital of Denpasar. The temple’s silhouette at sunset is one of the most photographed island scenes. Perched on top of a large rock island, with the sea crashing below, it has formed a vital part of Balinese mythology for centuries and is steeped in mystery. Tanah Lot is very busy and normally receives hundreds of visitors every hour and security was reportedly very tight during the Obamas’ visit.

The Obamas also took the spectacular winding road through limestone cliffs to the Pandawa Beach, where a massive Hollywood size “Pantai Pandawa” sign is visible on arrival at the cliff top viewing area. The beach boasts a perfect long stretch of white sand that greets the aqua-blue waters and offers great snorkelling and safe swimming. The surf break lies far offshore at the reef’s edge. The many rock pools near the giant cliff face at the end of the beach offer an excellent opportunity to explore these pools.

The Obamas were also spotted buying souvenirs in Nusa Dua, 19 kilometres south of Denpasar. This is an upmarket enclave of hotels and shops with beautiful white sand beaches, most of which are private.

As one of Bali’s most important temples set in a stunning location, Uluwatu, was another important inclusion in the Obamas’ itinerary.

On the southwestern tip of the Bukit Peninsular, the temple is perched 70 meters above the Indian Ocean on a headland famed for its dramatic sunset views. A little further on from the temple, there is a wide staircase leading to a string of cafes and bars, which winds all the way up to a high point.

On the 28th of June, the Obama family said their goodbyes to Bali and moved on for two-day visit to Yogyakarta on the island of Java, 279 kilometres from Jakarta. Yogyakarta is a student town, seen by many as the cultural hub of Java, and perhaps of Indonesia as a whole. The family stayed in the Presidential Suite of the stylish Tentrem Hotel, close to the centre of the city.

Many people come to Yogyakarta to visit Borobudur, a 9th-century temple and the largest Buddhist monument in the world, lying 40 kilometres outside the city. During his visit, Obama recalled having been there as a child but said how much more special the visit was this time because he was able to bring his family with him. The UNESCO World Heritage listed temple has a number of stupas, 504 Buddha statues and a remarkable nine levels lined by 2,672 stone reliefs. These tell, among other things, the story of Buddha’s previous lives as gods, humans in various professions and animals and the law of karma.

Later that day the Obama family visited Prambanan Temple, another UNESCO listed site, where Obama also recalled his earlier childhood visit. Lying 17 kilometres from Yogyakarta, it is the largest Hindu temple site in Indonesia, and one of the biggest in Southeast Asia. It is has a dramatic 47-meter high central building which stands amidst a large complex of individual temples.

Following the temple visits, the Obama entourage stopped off for 15 minutes to take the short but beautiful walk through a pine forest to Becici Peak, 22 kilometres outside Yogyakarta. The peak offers a fantastic views extending for miles and attracts many photographers.

From Yogyakarta, Obama went on to Jakarta for his “appointment” with the President and to deliver a keynote speech at a conference.

Obama and his family left many memories of warm encounters with the Indonesian people. He showed a true interest in and respect for local culture and special places. The visit by the former US president also attracted considerable media attention overseas, and this is anticipated to soon boost tourism numbers to Indonesia.

Story by Stephanie Brookes
Photos by David Metcalf

Stephanie Brookes is a travel writer and blogger with tales from Indonesia and beyond.
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David Metcalf runs photography and cultural tours in Java, Bali, India, Myanmar and USA. David operates Taksu Photo Gallery in Ubud, Bali.  By taking a workshop or tour with David you help support education and health programs in Bali and Kalimantan.



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