Java: Among Temples and Volcanoes
Today we are presenting you a very special material about Java, the most populous island on Earth and the heart of Indonesia. Java is an awesome destination to visit – it’s a place where you can climb a volcano, see an open-air ballet and visit exotic (for a European) palaces. It’s a lot of fun to go there! Our editor Kate, has proved it recently, and in this article she shares her adventures on Java.
The Not-so-Cultural Shock
Ok, so this may sound like something obvious to people who are more experienced in traveling in Asia, but oh my god how different it is from Europe! I had to forget all my assumptions about travel and learn everything anew. Take the cities on Java, for example. There is nothing you can call a “center”, instead, there are just hundreds of small streets packed with market stalls, street take-outs, and motorbikes. If there is some kind of attraction to be found in the middle of this unending labyrinth, it’s equally packed with souvenir stalls and talkative salesmen.
The bigger roads are full of traffic that doesn’t abide by any apparent rules. Sometimes it’s downright scary, especially considering that you often have to walk on the carriageway, as the pavements are occupied with impromptu eating places. In them, people just sit on the rugs on the street sides having dinner and chatting. Needless to say, Google maps are usually unequal to the task of mapping all this mess, and relying on them is very unwise.
The lack of organization is somewhat compensated by the overwhelming friendliness of the people on Java. They are more than happy to start a conversation with you in the streets (sometimes it can even get a bit tiresome), walk you wherever you want, and tell you about the city. Some of them have taken it to a professional level and will expect a small financial compensation for their trouble. You will only see this in the very touristic areas, though, everybody else is just excited to talk to a foreigner. Local schoolchildren will ask you to pose for a picture with them, especially if you’re blonde or tall. Some will even try to interview you for their English assignment. You’ll feel like a star!
The City of Yogyakarta
During our stay we mostly kept to the special region of Yogyakarta. “Jogja” is a cultural center of Java and a former glorious capital of Mataram Sultanate. If you want to imagine how the court lived in the 17th century, visit the kraton – sultan’s palace. Unlike western palaces it is composed not of rooms but of open pavilions, which is a clever decision, considering the sometimes unbearably hot (over 30°C with humidity about 80%) weather here. Another highlight of the city is Taman Sari (“water castle”) – a huge royal bathing complex, unfortunately badly destroyed by one of the frequent volcanic eruptions. The legend goes that some tens of the most beautiful women were brought here to bathe, and the sultan observed them from a high tower to choose the one (or more) to share his private bath.
Staying in the oven-hot cities on Java can be very tiresome, so most of the tourists prefer to escape them as soon as possible. Luckily, Yogyakarta region has two of the most renowned temples in the world in just an hour drive radius – Borobudur and Prambanan.
Borobudur is the world’s largest Buddhist temple, and it’s very impressive in its mystic glory. You can walk around the levels of the temple enjoying 9th-century reliefs or just sit on the top and try to catch the Zen in spite of the obnoxious tourists ruining the mood. I really recommend getting a sunrise tour to Borobudur, it’s a magical feeling you’ll never forget! You arrive at the top at about 4.30 in the morning and wait for the sun to go up. Or, if you’re not very lucky with the weather, watch the mists and the beautiful colorful clouds gradually and subtly giving way to the heat of the day. After the sunrise, you have time to go all over the temple before the sun gets unbearably hot.
Prambanan is also a 9th-century site and also one of the biggest in the world, but unlike Borobudur, it’s a Hindu temple. The towers of the temple, looking like huge anthills, rise nearly 50 meters high over the jungle. Prambanan is lit at night, and they perform Ramayana ballet in front of it in the evenings. Now, I don’t know much of the Ramayana story, but luckily there were some Indian friends sitting nearby who could explain to me what was happening on the stage. But even without the explanations, traditional Javanese court dancing is a delicious visual treat. The music can get on your nerves in the beginning, but you’ll get used to it when you see how fitting to the story it is. Needless to say, the towers of Prambanan temple are the best possible background for a show like this.
Conquering the Nature
Preparing for a Volcano Climb
I’ve already mentioned that Yogyakarta has been subject to a lot of volcanic eruptions over the centuries of its existence. Gunung Merapi, which is translated as “fire mountain”, is indeed very close to the city and is erupting regularly. Needless to say, we wanted to climb it! Our crazy team of three decided to make the more than 1 km altitude gain at night, in order to see the sunrise from the top. The plan made a lot of sense, as it’s too hot for climbing during the day, so a lot of tourists choose these night tours. Little did we know how hard it will be…
We booked a car with a driver to get us to the foot of the mountain and back in the morning. At about midnight we arrived at a small village where we met with our guide at a dingy tourist center and waited until 1 a.m. to start our ascend.
On the Top
The less is said about the next four hours, the better. The climb was very steep and led us first along the slippery clay paths in the jungle, and then through patches full of loose pebbles and rocks that we needed to climb on all fours. We were sweating, then we were freezing, and my companions were cursing me because it was my idea to do the climb. After the first half of the journey, I started to agree with them.
However, when we reached the top, half-dead, all this ceased to matter. There was a strip of red light appearing over the pink clouds covering the valleys between the distant mountains. The stars bade farewell to the skies, vanishing under the urge of the daylight. A distant storm was playing out in a flock of outlandish-looking vertical clouds. We sat there, mesmerized, watching the sky change, with our backs to the scary cavern oozing serum-smelling steam. It was indeed a moment of a lifetime!
Was this adventure difficult? Yes, very! Was it worth the sweat? Totally yes! Would I do it again? The answer is also yes, but next time I will try to be better prepared. We had only handheld flashlights, which was an obstacle on the steeper sections of the climb where we needed to use our hands. Tourists with head flashlights had it much easier. I’d also feel better in a helmet against loose stones and in warmer clothes, as it’s freezing on the top before sunrise!
By the next morning, when we finished our descent from the volcano, we hadn’t had a proper sleep for three days already. First the ballet at Prambanan, then getting up for the Borobudur sunrise tour and then climbing Merapi had its toll on our not very sporty scientists’ carcasses. To unwind, we went to Parangtritis beach, a long sand-and-sea paradise close to Yogyakarta. Unfortunately, the waves were high, and we didn’t risk a dip in the ocean. Instead, we found a beach resort (Queen of the South) with a swimming pool overlooking the beach and spent a peaceful afternoon there.
The Biggest Mistake
The next day we flew to Jakarta, stayed there for a day and flew home in the evening. I wish we hadn’t decided to do that and stayed in Yogyakarta for a day more! As I’ve said, cities in Indonesia are big, crowded, hot, and dusty, and Jakarta was much worse that Yogyakarta in this aspect. Apart from the colonial center and a decent (but also very hot) maritime museum, we haven’t found anything interesting enough to keep us to the streets. At the same time, our colleague who stayed in Jogja, sent us breathtaking pictures from Kalibiru national park, which we didn’t have time to visit. We envied him so much!