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Published: October 8th 2006
Descent into Java
On our flight from Denpasar to Yogyakarta, dark volcanic peaks push through the fluffy white clouds. Many of Java's volcanos are still very much active.
Java, Java, Java...The name alone never fails to conjure dozens of images in my head.
Images of rumbling volcanoes, tumbling rice paddies, crumbling temples. Images of coffee plantations shrouded in mist. Of graceful dancers, shadow-puppets and mythological epics. It conjures the sound of the gamelan wafting through the Sultan's palace.
Modern Java offers all of these things, of course. But that is only half the story. This long, thin island, only two-thirds of the size of Great Britain with over twice its population, is at the heart of 21st-century Indonesia, its seat of government and economic powerhouse. An island of polluted metropolises, traffic-clogged highways, impoverished shantytowns and filthy waterways, of churning factories and neon-lit shopping centres. Mobile phone ringtones and modern pop compete with the centuries-old gamelan here.
Home to some 125,000,000 people, Java's teeming cities have long attracted Indonesians from across the archipelago eager to make their fortune, with many ending up as impoversihed becak
(cycle rickshaw) drivers in Jakarta. Meanwhile, the island's massive overcrowding has led the authorities to encourage relocation of Javanese elsewhere in their policy of transmigrasi
, often leading to tensions - and worse - in regions with no ethnic links to Java in
Just like on the tube...
A couple of very talented buskers entertain us aboard our bus to Borobudur from Yogyakarta. Beats awful karaoke music...
the first place.
Java elicits a whole range of sentiments among the people of Indonesia. Resentment in Sumatra, as Java reaps the lion's share of the profits from Sumatran oil. Suspicion in Bali, always - and, tragically it turns out, justifiably - wary of being hemmed in on all sides my Muslim neighbours. Frustration in the Moluccas, long left out of Indonesia's economic development, and finally outright hatred in Aceh, which for centuries has fought tooth and nail against dominion by kings, sultans, colonial governors and now presidents, whether they are Javanese or not. It took Boxing Day 2004 to ease tensions between Aceh and Java...
Java is impossible to ignore.
We manage to get on a flight the day following our arrival in Indonesia from Denpasar to Yogyakarta. Yogyakarta, a somewhat confused city when it comes to spelling its name - but always pronounced Jogjakarta - lies at the heart of the island of Java. The island's seemingly endless chain of volcanoes is even more in evidence as we fly in Adisudjipto airport. Rather than catch a ride into town Alex and I make a beeline for a town some 50km or so north of Yogya,
A bus station between Yogya and Borobudur where we make a brief stop. A veritable army of buskers goes through the buses, singing their hearts out for 100 rupiah coins (less than one pence).
a small town whose name has become synonymous with Java and almost as famous as Angkor's - Borobudur.
A chainsmoking driver (kreteks, of course) gets us there in barely half an hour (thanks to some completely insane driving - Viet Nam, all is forgiven) on one of Indonesia's gargantuan fleet of rickety, smoke-belching (I guess they match their drivers) buses. On arrival there is little sign of what we have come to see. A couple of trusty becak
get us to our hotel, a modest affair tucked down a side alley in a quiet part of town. The staff seem quite miffed to see visitors - looks like the FCO's overenthusiastic warnings about Indonesia have had their effect. The small town is quite dry and scrubby, though we manage to sniff out some delicious sate
The next morning sees us awake bright and early (a-gaaain...), our alarm clocked helped along by dysfunctional cockerels with out-of-tune circadian rhythms and my the muezzin's call to prayer. Easy to forget, after Bali, that we are on an overwhelmingly Muslim island, and a fairly conservative one at that. The sun has already risen by the time we arrive at Borobudur's
Borobudur in the mist
This early in the morning, Borobudur is almost deserted. The surrounding hills are shrouded in mist, giving the temple a very ethereal atmosphere. These are the latticed stupas on the upper circular levels.
gates as they open.
Borobudur is the world's largest Buddhist monument, built in the early 9th century when Java was under the rule of the Sailendra Dynasty, a heavily Indian-influenced Hindu-Buddhist kingdom (in this respect not altogether different from Angkor). It is a truly massive structure, a giant pyramid of 6 square bases beneath 3 concentric circular ones. The square sections are decorated with bas-reliefs and hundreds af Buddha images, while the circular ones are topped with many latticed stone stupas that have come to symbolise the temple as a whole. From the top of the structure we are rewarded with stunning views of the surrounding hills and fields, all shrouded in a carpet of mist. The perfect cone shape of Gunung Merapi, an (increasingly) active volcano, towers in the distance. Although perhaps less ornate than some of Angkor's temples, Borobudur by its sheer size and massiveness leaves a strong impression.
That afternoon our bus whisks us back (in the front row, noses to the windscreen and hanging on for dear life) to Yogya. A city of 600,000 inhabitants, Yogya is famed as a centre for learning and for traditional Javanese arts, but in light of our next
Sun in the stupas
It's barely 7am and the sun is rapidly rising in the sky over Borobudur. By 9am it is already too hot to be in the sun.
city, we use it simply as a base for exploring Central Java's ancient temples. As mentioned earlier, the 9th century saw Buddhism and Hinduism flourish concurrently in Java, and sure enough the island also has its fair share of Hindu temples as well. The most famous of these is surely Prambanan, situated right on the main road out of Yogya towards Surabaya and the east of Java. We catch a very dodgy looking bus out of Yogya, and as we head eastwards up a gentle hill on the motorway, the motor whizzes, coughs, splutters and gives up the ghost. The bus looks like it should have been retired decades ago, so it's no surprise. The driver rushes out to quickly put a piece of rock behind the wheel to stop us slipping back down again (I guess a handbrake would be far too much to ask for) and attempts to fix it. It's at least 35 degrees in the tiny bus and even the Indonesian passengers are looking pessimistic. Bad sign. We blame the heat and hop out, and no sooner have we landed on the pavement that another bus, this one much larger and distinctly more reliable-looking, screeches to
The Upper Levels
We are practically the only people here, which makes a wonderful change from the hordes at Angkor !
a halt beside us. We barely have the time to get in that it speeds off again. Much better !
I somehow always manage to entertain fanciful notions of all these sacred temples being lost in the jungle of the countryside (they once were...), but no such luck in Java. Mere metres away from the honking horns (Indonesians are the undisputed masters
of honking), the huge towers of the main Shiva Temple are impressive, to be sure. Sadly however, a recent earthquake has destabilised the temple's structure and made it impossible to approach the temple closely enough to observe the carvings. The park contains several other temples, although none are as impressive as the first. Overall, Prambanan seems completely unprepared for visitors despite it being a World Heritage Site (with accompanying hefty admission fee) - the exhibits in the park's small museum have nearly all toppled over and cracked their glass cases after the quake. The whole place seems oddly neglected, which although charming in a way, is hardly a desirable state of affairs. Still, we are treated to a stunning sunset, the temples silhouetted against the backdrop of the ever-present Merapi.
The silver lining, though, is that
The latticed stupas all contain a Buddha image, although on nearly all of them the head is missing. This stupa has been left open, leaving a serene Buddha gazing out towards Gunung Merapi.
we are here on just the right day to enjoy a performance of the Ramayana, the epic so loved by the people of South East Asia. After a dinner with the back-lit towers of Prambanan as a backdrop, we are treated to the tale of Rama and his love Sita, to the accompaniment of a gamelan orchestra. A real treat which more than made up for the slight anticlimax of Prambanan !
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