Indonesia Travel: Motorbikes, Monsoons, Monuments, and Monkeys – Part 3

There are three must-see sights in Yogyakarta on the island of Java. You don’t endure 20+ hours of travel and miss out on two monuments on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites and the mighty volcano Mount Merapi.

I highly recommend that you get a driver to take you to these main sights. They are all near Yogyakarta. We found our driver and host through one of my companions’ tennis pro in Jakarta, who knew a guy…. This “guy,” our host, also plays tennis and his son is a ranked junior in Indonesia. It gave us something to talk about. We had a full day and were lucky with the weather — mostly cloudy, humid, no rain.

Our first stop was Borobudur, the largest Buddhist temple in the world. Religion has factored large in Indonesia’s long history. One dynasty or another has held sway through the centuries, and their favored religion — Buddhist, Hindu, or Islam — would be dominant. The Sailendra dynasty, of which there is little information, ruled Java for five centuries. They presided over Borobudur’s construction in the late 8th century. After about 70 years and the input of successive generations of Sailendras, Borobudur was finally completed. There is no written record of how the temple was used, but it is attributed to Buddhism. By the early 11th century, the Sailendras went *poof!* and abandoned the temple. Indonesian dynasties came and went over many centuries. Could Mount Merapi’s massive eruption in 1006 A.D. have caused the Sailendra exodus, or were they displaced by another dynasty?

Borobudur was re-discovered in the 19th century amid shrubbery and underbrush. Nature had reclaimed its space over the centuries. Indonesia restored the temple in the 1970s and it was added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Walking through park grounds toward Borobudur, we encountered a gigantic spider exhibit. They were hanging in trees, in webs, and presented in assorted creepy ways.

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You’ve got to get past the spiders to reach Borobudur.

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Borobudur’s construction consists of nine stacked platforms and a central dome. There are 2,672 relief panels and 504 Buddha statues, including some without heads. We climbed a lot of stairs and walked around several levels before reaching the top. See this website for an art historian perspective.

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We interacted with groups of charming Indonesian students. Their teachers told them to find foreigners, practice English with them and take a group photo. First of all, in a total eight days on Java, I never saw another Black person, not even from Africa. Second, we are American, which might have been another prize (?) among the foreigner contingent. (We had encountered few Americans ourselves, which was fine with me because I was on vacation from other Americans. But, I digress.) Being Black and American might explain why these school kids stared at me. If I looked halfway friendly, they came over. It was cute to see each group push in front the kid who spoke the best English. And they were so polite!

The star English speaker is right in front of me in this photo.

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We rejoined our host, who took us to his restaurant, Pondok Merapi. This is an off-the-beaten path restaurant, and our host was nothing if not enterprising. By hosting a day tour with a driver, the itinerary included lunch at his restaurant.

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He walked us around his property to show the fruit trees and vegetables they harvest for the meals. A rooster and hens roamed the property. The chicks were cared for in a separate area. Our host explained the system he installed to route fresh, unadulterated water to his property.

Pontok Merapi chickens

As for lunch, there was no menu. The meal was comprised of whatever was grown or raised on the property. We had delicious soup and vegetables. Best of all, we had the “real chicken” our host promised. Even if we had first encountered our chicken in the restaurant’s front yard, it was a novelty to eat food so fresh, organic, and delicious!

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After lunch, we loaded up in a jeep to see Mount Merapi, one of the most active volcanoes in the world. It has had more than 70 eruptions since 1548. The most recent was the catastrophic eruption in October 25, 2010. Between October 23-24, 2010, more than 500 volcanic earthquakes were recorded until Mount Merapi finally blew and lost about 38 meters of its height. It was true to its name “Merapi,” which means “Mountain of Fire” in Javanese.

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Our first stop was House of Memory in Cangkringan Village. This house is now part of a museum showing how Mount Merapi destroyed a nearby home.  The scene was how I imagined nuclear aftermath complete with dust and ash.  In one room, a computer keyboard and television were melted in place.  (I could only take a couple of photos before museum personnel shut me down.)

Nearly 1 million people live near the volcano. After the devastating 2010 eruption, approximately 400,000 people evacuated and 2,200 families lost their homes. Displaced households were permanently relocated to safer areas.

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We got back in the Jeep for a jarring drive to a spot where we could view Mount Merapi.

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When we arrived, we went to Bunker Kaliaden. It was built to provide temporary shelter from hot gases caused by Mount Merapi’s eruptions. In 2006, two men, who were helping evacuate people from the area, sought shelter in the bunker, and became trapped. To reach them, rescuers had to dig through six feet of hot ash and debris, and then remove a red-hot boulder at the bunker entrance. The trapped men died from the intense heat. You can read more here and here.

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Our host walked us to this location to see the great Mountain of Fire. As we wondered what was the point of walking to this particular location, our host pointed in the direction of the volcano. It’s “over there.”

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Taking his word that it was “over there” somewhere, the volcano was completely obscured by fog. Then he told us that sunrise is the best time to see it. (I could actually see Mount Merapi from my hotel balcony so I had to be satisfied with that.) In one way nature didn’t cooperate with us on this excursion, but in another way it did. At least Mount Merapi didn’t act up and make us run for our lives.

Back in the Jeep, we bumped along the gravelly road back to our host’s restaurant, arriving with bruised hind parts. (Maybe I’ll speak for myself on that one.) We transferred to our suddenly super-luxurious SUV.

In late afternoon, we arrived at another outstanding monument, Prambanan — a large Hindu temple complex.

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Like Borobudur, Prambanan was constructed while the Sailendras were still in power sometime in the 9th century. It’s the largest Hindu temple in Southeast Asia. I wonder if the monument-building was a little competitive:  Buddhist vs. Hindu, or Buddha vs. Shiva. Regardless, at that time, there was peaceful religious co-existence.

By now, you should know that Indonesia is prone to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. According to the UNESCO World Heritage Centre:

The temples collapsed due to earthquake, volcanic eruption and a shift of political power in the early 11th century, and they were rediscovered in the 17th century. These compounds have never been displaced or changed. Restoration works have been conducted since 1918, both in original traditional method of interlocking stone and modern methods using concrete to strengthen the temple structure.

You can see piles of stones around all the temples, probably from previous disasters. Prambanan was damaged again in 2006 by another earthquake. In Indonesia, it never ends ….

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Prambanan Temple from staircase

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Prambanan was dedicated to three Hindu deities — the Creator (Brahma), the Preserver (Vishnu) and the Destroyer (Shiva). Three temples were also erected to the animals that serve them — (Nandi (a bull calf), Garuda (a bird-like creature with bird and human features) and Hamsa (an aquatic bird).

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Prambanan is a large compound and it had the feel of sacred space. In all our movement around in that area, I discovered I lost my little purple camp towel. I considered it a stroke of inspiration that I had packed this towel. I needed that towel because, being monsoon season, it was humid. It was not possible to re-trace my steps as I had gone up and down temples, in one entrance and out another. I scanned the grounds from a perch to see if a little purple towel had sullied the grounds. Then, I went to one security guard after another and used this photo to ask about my towel.

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I took a seat on the wall for a bit. I showed a guard I hadn’t seen earlier this photo of my towel. He went somewhere, and came back with it. I was so happy ….

We shattered the 10,000 steps per day activity goal exploring monuments that day. And we still had a cultural performance at Prambanan as the day’s last event. We skipped it, though, because dinner was more compelling. Thus ended a long and very satisfying day.


Indonesia Travel: Motorbikes, Monsoons, Monuments, and Monkeys – Part 2

In January, Indonesia is in its monsoon season. When I realized monsoon season would be in full swing, I wondered how much of a damper — pun intended – this would put on our trip.

Indonesia has tropical weather and the humidity that comes with it. I was prepared with a light rain jacket, a rain poncho, umbrella, and waterproof hiking shoes. Major thunderstorms moved rain onto and off the islands and then the sky cleared up. It rained all day, but lightly, only two of the 14 days we were traveling.

I recommend traveling to Indonesia during monsoon season. The sky reveals its moods throughout the day, and you might even get lucky with some sunshine. Monsoon season is manageable. Plus, there are fewer tourists and it’s cheaper to travel.

Still fully jet lagged from 20 hours travel to Jakarta, we were back at the airport early the next day. This time we flew to Jogyakarta (also spelled Yogyakarta, and called Jogja for short).

This much smaller city, also on the island of Java, is about an 1 hour 15 minute flight from Jakarta.  Jogja is the art and cultural center of Indonesia. The region is unique in that it’s headed by a Sultan — a hereditary monarch — who has the power of a regional governor. Historically, the sultans have been political survivalists with a knack for picking the winning side during conflicts. I’m reminded of House Lannister from “Game of Thrones.”

We stayed downtown at The Phoenix Hotel.  Before it became a hotel in the 1940s, this elegant building was a wealthy Chinese merchant’s home.  For $70/night (split between two people), we had a very nice room, excellent hospitality, and the best breakfast buffet I have ever had. From our balcony, I watched the sun rise each morning. The volcanoes were a secondary backdrop to an untended cemetery.

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The Hotel provided earplugs because we were a few blocks away from a mosque and its loudspeakers. Annoyingly, calls to prayer started at 4:15 a.m., and went on and on and on as other mosque loudspeakers added their calls to the din. (No complaints from me while I was there because I could have been charged with blasphemy!)

One of the historical areas of Jogja is Taman Sari (Water Castle), former palace of the first Sultan of Jogyakarta. Between earthquakes, wars, and invasions, most of the 59 building complex was destroyed, or left in a state of ruin. The bathing portion of the complex was restored in the 1970s.

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Nearby Taman Sari were walkable streets with art galleries, street art, crafts, batik, and restaurants.

 

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My favorite find was the puppets at a small artisan shop. Indonesian puppetry (Wayang) is a traditional art form dating from the 10th century. During the rise of Hinduism on Java and Bali, the puppet performances were used to further the philosophy of the religion. The puppets served a similar purpose during the later rise of Islam. In addition to being used to proselytize religion, folklore was told through puppetry. The puppets in this shop were the flat two-dimensional variety (wayang kulit) used for “shadow puppet” shows, and three-dimensional puppets made of wood (wayang bambu).

I was not leaving Indonesia without a puppet (or two)! To me, these were art pieces. I secured my travel companions’ promise that we were going back to the puppet shop before leaving Jogykarta. I know my companions were tired of hearing me talk about these puppets. Mission accomplished — I bought three wood puppets, including one for my mama!

Stay tuned for more on Jogyakarta in Part 3, and Bali, and Kalimantan (Borneo) in Parts 4 and 5!!


Indonesia Travel: Motorbikes, Monsoons, Monuments, and Monkeys – Part 1

Indonesia is my most unique travel experience so far. Credit goes to my travel companions for planning this trip. For the first time in years, I was along for the ride and had no expectations. In fact, I knew next to nothing about Indonesia and its geography. This travel adventure included cities, countryside, a four-passenger river cruise, and a rain forest.

After the December 2018 tsunami, someone asked me if I was still going to Indonesia in January. Of course! I didn’t think I’d be anywhere near where the tsunami hit on Java. And, unlike a certain world leader, I fact-checked my assumption and tried to at least have a clue about this Asian nation.

10 Facts About Indonesia

  • Indonesia has two seasons — wet (monsoon) and dry. I was there in January during monsoon season, which lasts from about November to March.
  • Two of my city destinations — Jakarta and Jogyakarta — are indeed on the island of Java. The tsunami originated in the Sunda Strait between Java and Sumatra. Jakarta was on the end of the island near tsunami impact.
  • Indonesia is in a region known as the Ring of Fire due to its frequent volcano eruptions and earthquakes. In fact, it had three disaster events in 2018: flooding and mudslides, earthquake, and tsunami.
  • Indonesia is an archipelago of more than 17,000 islands. It is Southeast Asia’s largest nation.
  • Java is the most populous island in Indonesia.
  • The island of Borneo (the Malaysian name) is shared by Indonesia (whose territory is called Kalimantan), Brunei, and Malaysia. Borneo is the third largest island in the world.
  • Indonesia is the fourth most populous nation in the world after the United States.
  • Bahasa Indonesian is the official language; and there are over 300 native languages.
  • Indonesia is a Muslim-majority nation. Religious tolerance is part of the Constitution; however, blasphemy is against the law and the penalty is prison.
  • By law, since 2006, Indonesians must carry an ID card that declares affiliation with one of six officially recognized religions: Islam, Hindu, Catholic Christianity, Confucianism, and Buddhism.

JAKARTA

Jakarta was my home base for travel in the archipelago. It is not a tourist destination, but it is the nation’s center of commerce. Considering we flew in and out of the city three times in two weeks, my observations are superficial.

Modernity and luxury co-exist with pockets of squalor. Go down any tiny alley and be amazed at how densely populated it is. Street food abounds. There are also many good restaurants, including international ones. We enjoyed a very good meal at a Japanese restaurant called Sakana.

You need to be aware of clean water issues for drinking water, fresh fruit and vegetables. (Sometimes I forgot about that and ate raw fruits and vegetables. Luckily, I didn’t suffer any GI issues.) Security checkpoints and scanners are everywhere: mall entrances, gated communities, and office buildings. And, rush hour traffic….!

Traffic was epic. It moved under a code only Indonesians understand. Road rules seem to be very loose, and signage and road markings are treated more like a suggestion for order. Three clearly marked lanes become five when about a hundred motorbikes join the fray with cars, trucks, and buses. There is neither time nor space for distracted driving. All motorists are squeezed and traffic becomes a game of inches.

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The dreaded Jakarta rush hour.

Motorbikes might travel both ways on a one-way street if it’s more convenient for the rider and the rider can get away with it. All motorists use horns frequently — a tap, not a blast — to warn other motorists that they’re being passed, or they’re really, really close. Of course, that’s the intended purpose of horns, as opposed to how they’re used here in the Washington, DC region to signal annoyance and rage. It was fascinating to watch traffic maneuverings at street level or from a high-rise. My conclusion: Indonesians are the best motorists (car or motorbike) in the world. You can’t teach those skills.

Motorbike riders wore helmets (by law) and flip-flops. If it rained or stormed, riders might huddle somewhere, but most just popped on their rain ponchos and kept it moving. Riders with helmets that say “Grab” or “GO-JEK” operate like Uber. I assume that those motorbike operators can only have one passenger at a time. Otherwise, there was apparently no limit to the number of passengers a rider can have. The record number of people I saw piled onto a motorbike was five. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a photo of that record-setter. The fifth passenger was a baby strapped to a passenger’s chest.

 

There is no such thing as motorists automatically yielding to pedestrians. In fact, the cities — Jakarta and Jogyakarta — were not especially walkable or pedestrian-friendly.  Where there was a sidewalk, it was little wider than a curb. Crosswalks near malls were, again, a suggestion to motorists to let pedestrians cross the street. In addition to all of this, motorists drive on the left, like Brits, which adds another layer of challenge for perambulating the city. Ninety-nine percent of the time we took a “Taksi” everywhere we wanted to go in the cities.

Jakarta is a city whose population has outgrown its road system.  The good news is completion of the rapid transit project scheduled to open March 2019.  (And I wonder what it will be like for people to walk to those stations.)


Stay tuned for upcoming posts featuring Jogykarta, Bali, and Kalimantan!