Java – its temples and volcanoes
Java is the political, economic and cultural centre of Indonesia and, despite being only the fifth largest island, over 60% of the population – some 141m+ people live there.
My relationship with Jakarta was confined to transiting from its train station to its airport and with Surabaya from airport to bus terminal. Not so the Sultanate city of Yogyakarta where I spent several happy days exploring the historical quarter which has preserved its royal legacy. My guide Akan is a direct descendant of the 8the Sultan (now on number 10) who had 25 wives and 78 children, of which her mother was one!
Historical stuff ticked off I spent a day in an art studio learning the art of Batik making. It’s complex but straightforward if you follow your teachers instructions and have 7 hours to spare. The satisfying end product being this 50×50 oeuvre which is a gift for my soon-to-be-born grandchild.
Another fun thing to do in Jogja is to be blindfolded spun round and then attempt to walk in a straight line between two big trees. Noone seems to manage it but if you do it means you have a pure heart. The trees as in the main town square which comes alive at night to the sound of music coming from brightly illuminated electric cars being driven round the square by happy families. The nightly tradition grew from a group of students wanting to brighten the lives of children traumatised by the 2006 earthquake which killed 3,500 people.
Java boasts 38 mountains that have at one time or another been active volcanoes. The most active in the whole of Indonesia is Mount Merapi, an hour’s drive from Jogja. It erupts on a regular basis, most recently in 2014.
Close by Merapi is the 9th-century Mahayana Buddhist Temple, Borobudor. Following a series of volcanic eruptions in the 10th and 11th centuries, Borobudur lay hidden under layers of volcanic ash and jungle growth until the early 1800s when it was discovered by staff of British Governor General Sir Stamford Raffles. Careful restoration of the 2,672 intricate relief panels and 504 Buddha statues, resulting in UNESCO World Heritage status, have ensued that Borobudor remains the world’s largest Buddhist temple, as well as one of the greatest Buddhist monuments in the world.
At the same time that Borobudor was under construction, 10km to its east the Hindu Shiva temple Prambanam was also being built. Like Borobudor, Prambanam fell victim to volcanic eruptions and earthquakes and fell into ruin. Unfortunately it has been impossible to reconstruct the 240 temples within the compound. However the three main temples dedicated to Shiva, Visnu, and Brahma and the three temples in front dedicated to the mythical animal of each god; Nandi, Garuda, and Hamsa have been restored along with a handful of other smaller temples. I watched the story of Ramayana unfold against the nighttime backdrop of these temples – it was beautiful.
There is a well-trodden route which travellers follow from Yogjakarta to the volcanoes of Mount Bromo and Mount Ijen and then on the Bali. Most do the long, arduous journey in 2-3 days. Being older and with time on my side, I spent two days at each mountain and then, having ready been to Bali flew completely the other way, to Sumatra!
So, first up Bromo which required a 3:30am wake up for a steep climb in the pitch dark to the vantage point (aptly name King Kong) for sunrise. My track record with sunrises isn’t brilliant, but that was about to change. As dawn broke three mountains were silhouetted against a sky changing from blue to yellow to pink to white with the smoke spewing from Bromo reflecting the changes. As the light increased so it became possible to see the valley below and several distant volcanoes. The whole thing was jaw-droppingly beautiful. And it was about to get better as commandeered a Sumbawa horse to cross a sea of volcanic ash to climb to the rim of the crater. Bromo erupted in December with punters only being allowed to the rim in March.
Standing on the rim (behind a sturdy wall, I hasten to add), I felt overwhelmed by the sheer force and grandeur of nature and for once, was lost for words as I stared into the mouth of the crater, listening to the crackle of the magma and then an eerie ‘boom’ as clouds of smoke sometimes white, sometimes black or brown rose up from the depths of the volcano.
Mount Ijen was a totally different experience. It required an 00:30 wake up in order to climb 3km uphill to the crater rim and then to descend 1km into a sulphurous pit, belching out toxic yellow smoke to witness the ‘blue light’, which is only visible pre-dawn (i.e. 3:30/4am), and is on,y found here and in a crater in Iceland.
As we descend into the mouth of the volcano we passed men digging out hunks of sulphur and then carrying 100kg pallettes up the mountain. It was clearly back-breaking work for which they receive a pitiful £2 a load and they looked prematurely old. Back up the crater and along the rim for sunrise, where normal service of a mediocre event was resumed. Back down the mountain in the rain notching up 12km before 7am. Christ did I need that cup of tea!
The area I stayed in near Ijen was great. The guesthouse was in the middle of a coffee plantation producing Indonesia’s famous Luwak coffee. Originally made from the pellet droppings of wild civets the coffee now comes from civets force fed in captivity. They seemed quite happy in their cages, and it has to be said the coffee is delicious but is it ethically right???
The village is also famous for its strawberry farms and for its neat houses with immaculate front gardens – all a bit surreal.
Java is the first of the islands I travelled through which is predominantly Muslim. I very much warmed to the people who I found really friendly, interesting and interested. Because it was Ramadan it was difficult for them to be hospitable but having been warned about frayed tempers through lack of food and sleep, I witnessed nothing be good humour (and bad breath!!). Muslim faith is profound and especially during the holy month, requires much praying. This meant that the Imam chanted for long periods both during the day and at night. At first I would always wake up with the 4am call to prayer, but after a couple of weeks it washed over me like being in a trance.
I’ll be sharing more stories about lovely Muslim communities and the Idul Fitri celebrations which follow the end of Ramadan, from my final destination – Sumatra. Meanwhile I said goodbye to Java with the first ever flight I’ve missed due entirely to my own stupidity!!