Published: May 18th 2011April 29th 2011
It was with great excitement that I landed on the island of Java – a place famous for volcanoes, temples and batik. Arriving at Yogyakarta saw me enter the smallest International airport of my travels. Obtaining a visa on arrival was unsurprisingly chaotic, and the baggage claim area was more compact than most hotel rooms, just a bunch of bags sitting in a cramped corner.
Yogyakarta was a congested city filled with all manner of vehicles and motorcycles. Passing streets adorned with billboards and clusters of power lines, finally the taxi emerged onto some more pleasant scenery where tall palms, rice paddies and flowing rivers all combined for a typically tropical vista. If one raised their gaze at times, it was possible to espy the flattened summit of one of the many volcanoes that have caused so much grief to this area.
My visit coincided with Easter so I chose the little visited city of Magelang and its premier accommodation, the Puri Asri Resort so as to avoid any overseas Easter crowd. This resort, located on a steep hill bordering the Progo River was set amongst some delightfully manicured landscape. Most pleasant was that the clientele was overwhelmingly
Indonesian – so instead of the sense of isolation one feels when staying at resorts that are foreigners’ enclaves – here one could relax in comfort and still connect with the local people and culture.
Being a Thursday afternoon, it was the start of the weekend and many Indonesians were visiting the resort to use its facilities such as the huge pool, horse and buggy rides or to ride some forlorn looking bicycles – the chain broke when I attempted to use one. Given the resort’s patronage, it was surprising to discover that the room’s only music channel contained the best ever collection of western soft-rock music from the 70s and 80s I have heard.
The days were sunny, warm affairs but every afternoon brought a terrific storm that saturated the area and caused the Progo River to rise at an alarming rate – which caused a few anxious moments as thoughts of my recent flood experience in Brisbane returned. The balmy nights allowed me to sit on my porch listening to the river whilst watching insects that swarmed around outdoor lights being swooped on by fluttering bats who would dive into the lit area seeking a meal.
On one evening my attention was drawn to an orange light that flew above me and to my immense joy it was a firefly. It was magical to see this point of light flitter around a tree before landing and taking off again only to disappear into the night.
Prices in Indonesia are cheap, and visiting the resort’s day spa was no exception, where I could indulge (not once, but twice) in a two hour full body massage complete with scrub and aromatherapy for under $20. The setting for the spa was superb, an outdoor area adjacent to a rushing brook and wooded hill. After my pampering, I sat in the warm aromatic bath regarding the slender trees and the sound ofwater and chirping birds. Leaves were gently falling in the warm wind and whilst admiring this Elysium simplicity, I pondered that the further removed we are from nature, the more complex and less happy our lives become.
I understandably left Magelang feeling very relaxed, and it was in this peaceful state that I visited Borobudur, the largest Buddhist temple in the world. Constructed 1200 years ago, it was (and still is) an important pilgrimage destination. Staying at
the adjacent Manohara Hotel, my cramped room was only a five minute walk to the base of the temple – a wonderful location to visit the temple as often or a little as one wished. The temple contains over 500 Buddha statues sat amongst nine levels of reliefs and miniature stone stupas, all constructed from two million stone blocks.
Each morning of my visit, I was besieged by teenagers school students who wished to practice their English for their forthcoming examination. The students were sweet, but it became draining after 90 minutes, so I scuttled to other sections of the temple. The reliefs in the lower levels depicted events in the Buddha’s life in addition to various parables involving animals that promoted the Buddhist philosophy. Some of the carvings were in a very poor state of repair, and a small army of restorers swarmed over the temple daily to arrest this decay. The reason for this deterioration became obvious when the afternoon storms that pummelled Magelang also visited Borobudur.
I was photographing the upper levels of the temple and chose to ignore the rolling thunder and threatening clouds that covered the encircling mountains, which was a miserable decision.
Pool at Puri Asri Resort - Magelang, Java, Indonesia
One could slide down the tongue on the middle statues on the right.
Suddenly, the storm unleashed and the deluge was so intense that I donned my rain jacket and sheltered in one of the covered archways. This provided no respite as water leaked between the cracks of the stonework and onto me. Confronted with the option of remaining at the temple and slowly soaking over a long period of time, or to receive a shorter but more complete drenching by returning to the hotel, I chose the latter and had to negotiate a ground filling with rushing water and large puddles that were ankle deep in parts. My saturated body finally sloshed into my hotel room, but I discovered that water that had alarmingly found its way into my camera, but that thankfully dried in a few hours.
The prime time to visit Borobudur was sunrise. The minimal light and few visitors gave this place a serene feel perfect for quiet contemplation. I attended two sunrises, but the one of the second day was especially special. The sun was going to rise over Mt Merapi, a volcano whose top was covered with steam clouds issuing from its crater, whilst below the verdant valley was layered by a tranquil fog. Sitting next
to a Buddha statue that has watched a similar spectacle for over a millennia, the glowing rim of the sun peered over the volcano and its delicate scarlet light brushed against the stones and stupas of Borobudur. Magical.
After leaving Borobudur, I returned to Yogyakarta, and to my accommodation at the magnificent Phoenix Hotel, a choice based on reading the blog Underrated Borobudur in Yogyakarta (Java, Indonesia)
18 months ago and the rapturous review given to it by Lili. A sumptuous place adorned with stained glass windows and crystal chandeliers sporting phoenix motifs, the exceptionally courteous staff were tremendous, and I was graciously upgraded to the Splendid Suite – a two-room lodging that was impeccably decorated. Eating the delicious meals in the Paprika Restaurant next to giant Koi swimming in a large water feature was one of the many delights on offer.
I journeyed to nearby Prambanan, the largest Hindu temple complex in South-East Asia. I had heard fantastic reports about this complex , but it did not impress me as much as hoped. This could be due to the main Shiva temple being closed due to its instability caused by an earthquake several years ago.
That evening, I attended a Shadow
Puppet (Wayang kulit
) performance at the Museum Sonobudoyo. The puppets, made out of buffalo hide and bamboo are intricate, colourful creations; curious considering that the performance is supposed to be seen from the shadow side of the screen so that none of these colours are visible. The performance piece from the Ramayana was accompanied by an ensemble of elderly men playing traditional instruments and equally elderly ladies singing. It was wonderful to see this display, but one felt that it could sadly be a dying art given the demographics of the participants.
It is rare for me shop extensively when travelling, but Yogyakarta was an excellent place to break my usual parsimonious practices. Batik shirts were garish affairs, some so lurid that one’s eyes squinted when looking at them, but there were more tasteful offerings to be had. The Indonesian clothes sizes were so small that the perfect fit for me was a XL sized shirt - who would have thought this possible on my slight frame. I left Indonesia with a pile of batik clothes to inflict on my friends and work colleagues when the opportunity arises; but it was not the only enduring gift of my time
here, for my visit to Java is filled with memories of a gentle people surrounded by historical and natural marvels.
There are more photos below