Indonesia: Java

As I write this, I’m immersed in the tranquil garden of our hotel in Borobudur. The place is roughly in the middle of the island of Java and is home to Indonesia’s top tourist attraction, though you wouldn’t know it from here. Long-legged, scrawny-necked chickens are strutting between shady patches provided by palm and banyan trees, the muezzin’s call to prayer is drifting over on the breeze, birds chirp enthusiastically and the occasional gecko makes itself known from the red-painted roof above me. Oh, and a big orange spider just crawled over and startled Dean!

It’s a fairly complicated adventure this year, with 13 flights and 16 different accommodations during the 30 day visa. The archipelago of Indonesia consists of around 17,000 islands and so we’ll only skim the surface of what the country has to offer but hopefully we’ve planned for a good variety of experiences. Here is the trip in map form:

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This section has probably been the most touristy part – Yogyakarta and Borobudur. On Sulawesi we’ll do a wildlife trek to find wild tarsiers and then dive on Bunaken island. After that we head to Indonesia’s ‘final frontier’ – West Papua – where we hope to attend a tribal festival. Then it’s off to Bali’s rice paddies followed by the dinosaur-esque komodo dragons on Rinca island with a little more diving. Finally we will relax on Gili T’s beaches before heading back to Jakarta via Lombok.

A fairly ramshackle train took us out of the sprawling city of Jakarta. The impoverished areas on its outskirts were defined by rubbish heaps, patchwork tin roofs on windowless concrete buildings and colourful clothing drying on the graffitied railway fences. Improbably ornate mosques and their minarets rose above it all. Soon, though, all gave way to lush green rice paddies dotted by ocasional pickers, bent double with their fat sacks and conical hats. Palm trees contrasted with the rich red roof tiles adorning the sparse housing. In the distance, volcanos.

Eight hours later, we arrived in Yogyakarta and checked in at a lovely hotel, very ready for our first proper meal since England and a good night’s sleep.

Our first non-travelling day of the trip began with a huge buffet including green pancakes, noodle soup, ‘beef bacon’, waffles, fried rice, French pastries, Indonesian style porridge, fresh fruit and chicken feet! Truly something for everyone!

Intending to get a feel for the city, we opted to walk to our day’s destination, the kraton – the Sultan’s palace.A continuous string of food vendors lined each street, usually specialising in one particular dish and often offering a covered mat and low tables to sit at. We soon realised that we were literally the only people on foot in this area! The fumes, little in the way of pavements and the sweltering heat probably have something to do with why! Not to mention that absolutely everyone seems to ride a motorbike (a good 80% of road users I’d say). That said, there were cars too, plus a handful of cyclists and a few horse and carts.

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I haven’t got much to say about the kraton because, even with post-visit googling, I know very little about it! I do know that there is still a sultan living there somewhere and that the complex stretches out to form a kind of walled city, home to 25,000 people, many of whom work for the sultan. This is a picture of a previous sultan:

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Friendly older Javanese men in traditional dress are dotted around the compound, although ‘guarding’ would be too strong a word for what they’re doing.

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The best reason to go, though, was to see the wayang golek (wooden puppet) show accompanied by at least 30 gamelan musicians and singers, dressed in batik sarongs, navy blue shirts and colourful sashes holding wooden handled swords. Some took a fairly casual approach to their job, chain smoking, drinking and chatting away!

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After the kraton, we wound our way through some of the walled city’s quieter streets where the constant buzz of the traffic was replaced by the tweeting of the caged songbirds, hung outside more or less every house. The bottles of motorbike fuel for sale on the roadside were exchanged for rice drying on the ground. And almost everyone you pass has a smile and a greeting to share. The Javanese are so friendly! Next we visited the sultan’s (no longer used) pleasure palace: a series of pools and waterways he would have once enjoyed with his wives. It was very difficult to restrain ourselves from jumping straight in!

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For the benefit of tourists, outside was a woman doing batik and a man creating a shadow puppet from buffalo skin.

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We’d learnt from our earlier walk so for the remainder of our time in Java we got around on a becak (rickshaw) – a bike or motorbike with an open seat on the front, only just wide enough for two squashed people! In general the low cost, zero effort and the wind in your hair means it’s a great way to get around,with the exception of when you’re stuck at traffic lights facing a crowd of revving exhausts!

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Although today Indonesia is a predominantly Muslim country, our next two days’ excursions were to a hugeHindu temple complex – Prambanan – and an enormous Buddhist temple – Borobudur. Both, strangely, were built in 9th century at a time when Buddhism was giving way to Hinduism suggesting there was some level of understanding and cooperation between the two religions. A couple of centuries later, both had been more or less abandoned as the population converted to Islam. The same dark grey stone from nearby rivers and similar building methods were used for each – interlocking the stones rather than using mortar.

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An earthquake in 16th century and another in 2006 destroyed much of Prambanan whilst Borobudur was swallowed by jungle and volcanic dust. Once rediscovered, both were subjected to treasure hunters, souvenir collectors and locals in search of building materials. Both are now protected by UNESCO and have been substantially restored.

Prambanan was first. It cost us 20p each to travel the 17km there from Yogyakarta on an air conditioned bus! We splashed out on the services of a guide for £6 who brought two trainees – teenagers Esti and Milani – along with him so that they could practise their English on us.

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There were once 240 structures in the complex. The 16 larger temples and shrines in the inner zone have been reconstructed but only two of the remainder, which would have been set out in four concentric squares, are viewable today. Where possible, original stones have been found but carvings have not been reproduced, instead the spaces are filled with blanks.

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The main Shiva temple (Candi Shiva Mahadeva) is 47m tall and has four steep stairways leading to chambers containing statues too large to have been looted: Shiva the Destroyer standing on a lotus leaf (a Buddhist symbol); Agastya, with his giant belly and beard; elephant-headed Ganesh; and Durga, Shiva’s consort. Worshippers would touch them to inherit certain traits such as beauty, wisdom, knowledge or wealth.

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The story of the Ramayana is told in the bas-reliefs around the gallery and simpler motifs like lions and birds are carved at ground level. These also appear on the two other main shrines – to Brahma and Vishnu.

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One of the temples had monstrous mouths above its doorways.

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Some parts are still under reconstruction…thank goodness for UNESCO!

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Borobodur was next. Today in fact. There’s a sunrise ticket but we opted instead for motorbike taxis taking us there for 6am.

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Seeing the morning haze, we were pleased with our choice and were in and out by 9am, before the tour buses descended and while the temperature was bearable.

By any measure, Borobudur is impressive. It is one enormous pyramid-like temple, on a hill, topped by a huge stupa and, some say, it may once have been in the centre of a lake. With that theory in mind, it’s said that the view from above could represent a huge lotus flower. A nice idea if it’s true.

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When we arrived, we climbed straight to the top as the sun burnt away the remaining haze.

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The three levels below the top hold 72 bell-shaped perforated stupas which once all contained a buddha statue – many are now headless or gone completely. The first picture is a sneaky one of inside a stupa.

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This was the only buddha without a stupa so he got a lot of attention.

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Then there are six further platforms down to the ground which featured thousands of carved panels about Buddha’s life, teachings and past incarnations.

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There were also over 500 other (often headless now) buddhas.

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Gargoyles in the shape of giants and makaras act as water spouts for the drainage system.

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It’s said that for Buddhists the temple is representative of their path to enlightenment. Pilgrims walk from a temple about 3km away, stop at another half way and finally reach Borobudur. They then walk around each level from the base to the top. The base represents Kamadhatu, the world of desires.Rupadhatu, the world of forms is the next five platforms where a being no longer has desires. The final three levels and the stupa at the top represent the formless world – Arupadhata where full buddhas experience nirvana.

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Apparently traces of colourful pigment and gold foil were discovered at the site. I love the idea that it was once a multicoloured marvel! I couldn’t get far enough away to take a picture of the whole thing so this is the best I’ve got.

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Well I think that’s all I can remember about these places and that’s pretty much it for the historical section of the trip. We’re off out for dinner now to the same place as last night: a little cafe where the bats flit about at dusk, the geckos hang out around hoping to catch a bite to eat, the frogs croak and sometimes hop under your chair and, once night falls properly, hundreds of tiny green fireflies light up the view.

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Selamat tinggal!

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