YOGYAKARTA | INDONESIA
HOME OF THE FIERCE KOMODO DRAGON THE INDONESIAN ARCHIPELAGO IS THE LARGEST IN THE WORLD. SOME OF ITS 3000+ ISLANDS INCLUDE SUCH EXOTIC LOCALES AS SUMATRA, BORNEO AND EVEN THE WESTERN HALF OF PAPUA NEW GUINEA. I FOUND MYSELF ON THE ISLAND OF JAVA, AND MY FIRST PORT OF CALL HERE WAS THE CULTURAL CAPITAL OF YOGYAKARTA. OR “JOGJA” AS IT’S KNOWN TO THE LOCALS. I’LL GET AROUND TO THE REMAINING 2999 EVENTUALLY.
It was the end of Ramadan when I arrived in Yogyakarta and the place was heaving. I squeezed myself through the throngs before ducking in to get something to eat. Once again I’d arrived at a late hour and was finding it hard to find a becak (rickshaw) driver who knew where my hostel was. Three hours, three drivers and several wrong turns later I was finally settling down for a good nights sleep in Indonesia, confident that tomorrow would go a lot smoother.
If I’m giving out the awards for worst public transport system in asia then Jogja take a bow. I’m sure it works well enough outside of huge national festivals but right now things were mental. My plan was to traverse town to reach the temples of Prambanan on the other side of the city. It shouldn’t take more than half an hour, an hour at the very most.
It took all day. And I mean all day.
The buses weren’t very frequent, and when they did turn up they were already full. I took my chances by walking to different stops but the result was the same. After chatting to a local woman and her son, we all decided to share a taxi. This didn’t work either. Eventually after a few hours of walking and blindly waving at everything with wheels we jumped on a bus heading for Prambanan. After setting out that morning it was evening when I finally reached the temples and I had less than an hour of daylight left. Luckily the temples here, while impressive, are not that large and it didn’t take long to talk around and admire them in the failing light.
The building style here struck me as being very similar to Angkor Wat. Like Angkor, the temples here are in the hindu fashion and are the largest in Indonesia. Legend has it they were created by demons during the course of the night. In order to win a bet to marry a princesss, Prince Bandung was asked to build 1000 temples in one night. I don’t know what the hell this guy was smoking but he readily agreed. After 999 temples were built the Princess tricked the demons into thinking the sun was rising. Furious the prince cursed her, turning her to stone and creating the most beautiful temple in the entire complex. The Sewu temple here is supposedly the unfinished temple the demons left behind. And that’s the problem with hiring demons. You just can’t trust them to finish a job. Letting them unionise caused the collapse of the Javanese building industry if you ask me.
Probably the most famous attraction here lies 4o kilometers north west of Yogyakarta. The great temple of Borobudur is the largest Buddhist temple in the world. Nine stories high, and richly decorated with over 2600 intricately shaped panels and carved with 504 Buddha statues it stands as a testament to ancient Javanese engineering. Built using hardened volcanic rock it sits on an elevation between two twin volcanoes – Mount Sumbing and Merapi.
Mystery surrounds the construction of Borobudur. Very little, if anything, is known about who built it and why. It is believed to have been started sometime in the 8th century before being abandoned in the 11th, possibly because of continued volcanic eruptions. Borodubur then entered a period of rapid decline and was eventually smothered by layers of volcanic ash and tangles of jungle. Maybe it was those demons again. I warned them.
Right now it was smothered in tangles of people. It was poor timing to arrive here in the middle of a national holiday. There are six levels to the temple here, it’s almost like an asian stepped pyramid, and it was almost impossible to get up and down the stairways. The idea is that you begin your journey at the bottom and spring up platform by platform to the top where you gain enlightenment, like a truth-seeking Donkey Kong. I bet Buddha never considered posers with selfie sticks to be waiting for you at “enlightenment”. I guess it make sense. Enlightenment allows you to truly know yourself and become at one with the world. The amount of selfies taken and uploaded to facebook here would definitely fulfill that criteria. I’d wager I appeared in most of them too. I don’t know whether it was my village people hat or my pale death-like skin but everyone wanted their picture taken with me. Everyone. It got to the point where I heard a couple behind me asking each other who I was – “I don’t know, but he must be famous, let’s get our picture with him too”. The hell?
Eventually despite the amazing views (once you had squeezed your way to the edge) I beat a hasty retreat. Not because of the heat, or giant barrel tossing monkeys, but because of the incessant crowds. I felt like Jamie Dornan having accidentally wandered into a sex addicts clinic. Goddamn paparazzi.
Back in Jogja I was counting my lucky stars I didn’t have to take the bus again today. I made the short walk from my hostel to the Sultan’s Palace, or Kraton, as it likes to be known. This is the residence of the sultan of Java, and has been since the 18th century. It’s not particularly big but the architecture is pretty interesting and the pavilions house some neat looking stuff like ceremonial Indonesian drums, swords and devilish masks. The Sultan must still hang out here a good bit because the tea procession passed by me while I was gaping at the courtyard. Apparently the Sultan takes his tea very seriously and this tea ceremony is repeated several times a day. It’s worse than my mum. And the worst part? You’re not offered any. I don’t care where you’re from that’s just rude.
As I passed through the palace and back into the streets I was ushered into a small workshop where men were beavering away at making puppets. I always thought Indonesian shadow puppets were cool as hell so it was a great opportunity to see them, especially since I missed the puppet show that morning. In Indonesia the puppets are called wayang, and are mostly used to showcase stories from hindu scripts such as the Ramayana. The wayang themselves are cut by hand from leather using templates, the intricate design and craftsmanship on the characters are amazing. Of course the hustle is that once you’ve seen the “free” tour of their creation you’ll want to buy one. Which I did, because they’re awesome.
With my tiny leather hindu god in my backpack I strolled to the nearby Water Palace. This place gives off strange vibes. Mostly in ruins nowadays its bare walls, empty rooms, and dirty ponds are a far cry from its hey day as the royal garden for the nearby Kraton.
Leaving the cultural capital behind I jumped on a bus heading north east to Surabaya, and from there I’d be getting a lift to a small mountainous town called Cemoro Lawang. Here, in the Bromo Tengger Semeru Natonial Park smolders East java’s most iconic landmark Mount Bromo. The name “Bromo” comes from the god Brahma, and the Tengger people here conduct a yearly ritual in which offerings are thrown into the volcano to appease the deity.
Having got off the bus at Surabaya I was waiting for a shared taxi or van to take me up to Cemoro. The local biker gang convinced me that the next one wouldn’t depart until six that evening. Screw that. I have a volcano to climb. I negotiated a price with one of the T-Birds and in no time we were zipping up the mountain with me and my backpack dangling on for dear life.
It’s bloody freezing up in Cemoro Lawang. The Bromo massive lies at roughly 7,500 feet. It was evening when I got there and got sorted with a place to stay. I walked to the edge of the caldera and peered tentatively over the edge. Mist ebbed and flowed across the enormous crater and the glimpses I got of Bromo and it’s surrounding mountains was like nothing I’d seen before. The cone of Bromo lies inside another impossibly large crater surrounded by several other volcanic peaks. Craters inside of craters, it’s like the russian nesting doll of volcanoes. Everybody was talking about watching the sunrise, and with this in mind I retired to bed. Blankets inside of blankets, like a russian doll myself.
It was pitch black when my alarm went off. I fumbled outside pulling my layers on me, my fingers struggling with my headlamp. The previous evening I’d mapped out a route for myself that I was confident would bring me to a good viewpoint. Everyone else had taken a jeep tour up to the viewpoint further up the mountain but I elected to stay closer to the crater. Because it was free. There as I settled myself in, the sun began to rise and paint the smoking volcanoes in various shades of purples and pinks. I’m not usually a big sunrise groupie but as the morning mist began to recede I found myself appreciating the beauty of it all. Maybe I’ll do this more often.
Nah. It was still bloody freezing.
I continued to hike up to the viewpoint further up the road. It took about two hours of constant climbing to reach 9,000 feet. The sun was high, the sky was clear and the air was crisp. The view of Mount Semeru, Java’s highest peak, was fantastic. Now I wanted to get up close and personal with Bromo, and that involved trekking all the way back into town.
Inside the gaping maw which contains the volcanoes themselves is an area called the Great Sand Sea. As the name suggests its an area of deserts and shifting sands that comprise the base of the caldera. Soon I was sloshing across it on the back of yet another motorbike to get to the steps which lead up to Bromo’s crater. Once there I was given a mask to protect against the sand, dust and sulphur. I peered into the mouth of the volcano. The edge was tainted with green and yellow suphuric deposits and smoke billowed ominously from it’s center. I turned around to take in the panorama. To the left of me was another sinister, albeit dormant peak, across the desert the wind had whipped the caldera floor into a dangerous sandstorm. People shielded themselves against the biting gale as the sand pounded into the walls of the temple at the volcanoes base. “We should go back!” I heard someone yell. No shit.
That night I had a potato curry. Despite being Irish I’d never thought about mixing potatoes and curry together but it’s a dish I’d had a few times now in Asia. I basically lived off the stuff in Tibet. It was either that or goat testicles.
The next morning a group of us gathered to take a shared van back down to the Surabaya bus station. It struck me how similar theses little towns in the Javan Highlands looked like pictures I’d seen of villages in Peru, or other Andean countries. I’d resolved to visit South America on this trip and I only hoped the scenery was as otherworldly and spectacular as I’d seen here.
Next time : I get attacked by ninjas, I get attacked by a typhoon, and I get attacked by a robotic toilet.