Borobudur and the Goroka Festival – one ‘bucket list’ item inspires a visit to another

By Steven Emmet
This article appears on page 40 of the March 2020 issue.
A performance by the mudmen of Papua New Guinea.

How could anyone see the National Geographic pictures of the Goroka Festival in Papua New Guinea (PNG) and not want to go there? But, calculating the cost of a tour plus business-class airfare — around $30,000 for two — I had to say “Another time.”

However, with the discovery of gas off the coast of PNG and how that might disrupt the local culture, not to mention my approaching dotage, it seemed that “another time” had arrived.

My wife, Yuki, and I contacted Trans Niugini Tours (Mt. Hagen, PNG; phone 675 542 1438,, who informed us that their boat tour down the Sepik River was fully booked, but there was still space available to attend the Goroka Festival. Hurray!

Making plans

Yuki got out a map to see exactly where we were headed, and we saw that not far from Singapore, from where we would fly to PNG, was Yogyakarta and, nearby, Borobudur Temple, which was also on our “must see” list… but also too far and too expensive to visit on its own.

Yuki then spent a few days searching both English and Japanese websites, documenting possible flights that might allow us to add Indonesia to our itinerary. She finally settled on going from Los Angeles to Singapore and down to Yogyakarta, then returning to Singapore three days later for an overnight before flying on to Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea.

We have found that the folks at the American Express Platinum Travel Service can often find business-class flights cheaper and easier than if we search ourselves, and they award us either five points for each dollar we spend or refund one-third of the points if we pay in points.

When we called, the young lady there, on hearing our proposed destinations, said it would take her some time to put the flights all together, to which I answered, “Here are all the flight numbers and times.” She seemed both surprised and pleased.

She told us it would cost about $9,500 each for business-class tickets, with two different airlines being used, but we had enough points for one free ticket. Done!

The design of the Amanjiwo resort reflects that of nearby Borobudur.

Then we had to figure out how to get to Los Angeles from San Diego (and return).

In the past, we’ve rented a car each way, but our return flight, after 30 hours of travel, would bring us in at midnight. Having just saved $9,500 in airfare, we decided to take a limo up and back, $250 each way, including taxes and tip.

Some disappointments

As I have always thought that Singapore Airlines was the “ne plus ultra,” we looked forward to flying with them, but it seemed to be a case of “how the mighty have fallen.” In order for your seat to go flat, you have to stand up, pull the back of the seat down and then squinch your toes into a small hole in a corner at the base of the seat to stretch out. The food was strictly so-so, and I felt the stewardesses weren’t particularly well trained.

As we had to spend a lot of time at the Singapore Changi Airport before our flight to Indonesia, we opted to stay at one of the transit hotels there, where you pay by the hour. We opted for a 12-hour stay for about $200.

The next morning, after a not particularly user-friendly routine of waiting in line to check in at one place, leaving our luggage at a second location and returning to wait at still a third area, we availed ourselves of the “free tour” of Singapore offered at the airport. We wouldn’t recommend it. Instead, we’d suggest heading to Jewel, a mixed-use development with gardens, shops and dining options attached to the airport.

We flew to Yogyakarta on SilkAir, the very model of a cheap subsidiary airline, but the Amanjiwo resort (, near Borobudur, made up for everything. The only problem with staying at such a hotel is it will be hard to settle for less in the future!

Our private villa was spacious and extremely well designed, the food was excellent, and the service was beyond compare.

I booked our resort stay through the AmEx Platinum Travel Service for about $1,200 per night, which included two “extras” per person that we used for guided tours.

Borobudur and beyond

Perhaps the main reason to stay at Amanjiwo is it allows you to take the evening, not the morning, tour of Borobudur. The sunset tour is closed to regular tourist buses, so, while there will still be a lot of visitors, it is more manageable. We opted for the “no guide” visit, and after a thousand or so photos we returned to the hotel for an excellent Indonesian dinner.

Breakfast was a feast served on our private lanai. Afterward, we toured local village markets with our guide, an imam who discussed not only the area’s history but also Islam in Indonesia. He explained that while nearly 90% of Indonesians are Muslim, they cherish their historical sites like the Buddhist Borobudur and the Hindu Prambanan temple complex, visiting them in great numbers.

Our guide offered to take us to a festival in support of local orphans, and we enjoyed watching 50 or so kids eating a really good lunch and playing with the toys they received. The authorities who arranged this event seemed pleased to have foreign visitors.

A village visit in Indonesia offered a chance to interact with local children enjoying a prepared lunch.

On the way back to our hotel we also sampled kopi luwak coffee, made from beans that are fed to civets, then…ah…recovered, washed and brewed. It is a bit of an acquired taste.


The next morning we stopped off at Prambanan. At 6 a.m. there were no other tourists. Perfect!

The airport was but a few minutes away, and soon we returned via SilkAir to Singapore, where we asked staff at the transit desk to transfer our luggage to Air Niugini. (You have to contact them to do this; it is not done automatically.)

On the plane, there was a big hole between the toilet enclosure and the cabin, causing me to seriously wonder if we would survive this flight, but we did, and a mere six hours later we were in Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea.

But we did have a stroke of good luck upon our arrival. We had requested a wheelchair from the plane for Yuki (who had osteoarthritis, corrected with a new knee soon after we returned home), and Paul, the wheelchair guru, was perfect!

With his influence, we skipped waiting in line to get our visas, went through the VIP line at Passport Control and quickly had our bags okayed. After purchasing some local currency, we were soon on our way to The Stanley Hotel.

This huge, chrome-and-glass hotel even had its own shopping center. Our room ($180 for the night) was excellent, with two queen-sized beds and hot water pressure a Californian would die for.

After a few hours, we were up and rarin’ to go. We did some shopping at the huge, clean mall conveniently located on the hotel’s first floor. It was filled with a zillion restaurants, clothing stores and an unbelievably huge supermarket — amazing. (Note: Stores didn’t accept American Express.)


The next morning, Paul once again kindly assisted us through luggage check-in for our flight to Goroka and arranged for a wheelchair for Yuki from the waiting room to the plane, which was actually a fair distance.

At Goroka, our driver, Jerry, and Francis, the guide, met us at the airport and took us to the nearby Bird of Paradise Hotel. Our room had wires wandering through the walls, a broken toilet seat and water ranging from hot to scalding, but the sheets were clean, the beds were comfortable and the toilet flushed (and there was hot water). Wi-Fi? Occasionally.

We grabbed our camera gear and it was off to the mudmen show. After 45 minutes on a dusty road filled with potholes, we arrived at the mudmen’s village, Francis’ hometown.

One of his brothers, a teacher at a local school, discussed the nature of the dances, then about eight performers ranging in age from 5 to 52 came out adorned in masks and white mud and brandishing some fearsome weapons. Francis’ brother explained to them that we were the good guys and that they should not kill us; Yuki reinforced this by saying we were old and not very tasty anyhow.

One of many colorful dancers at PNG’s annual Goroka Festival.

After the dancing, the mudmen removed their masks and told us their ages and a bit about themselves, and we did likewise.

The next day it was on to the “big show” — and it was stupendous! Using our VIP passes, we snuck in ahead of many thousands of attendees as more and more dancers from local and distant villages showed up wearing a plethora of homemade costumes.

There was some fierce “shake yer booty” going on, and good fun was had by all. All of the dancers stood and smiled as we took their photos.

Later that afternoon, we visited a coffee-roasting plant. (PNG is famous for its arabica coffee. Who knew?!) Dinner, at the Pacific Gardens Hotel, was superb.

Our Sept. 13-16, 2019, Papua New Guinea tour package cost $3,420 per person, including accommodations, internal flights and airport/hotel transfers as well as guide and driver.

We did a lot in only 10 days, and we were both exhausted for a week, but it was a great trip. We highly recommend going to the Goroka Festival while it is still relatively pristine.