Speedboats, ultra-light aircraft, alpine slide, trek by camel, elephant and horse, caves, mountains and deserts: we have a lot of adventure stories to tell. But inevitably, the ones that top our list are the ancient civilizations we explore. (We’re American, of course we have a ‘Top-10’ list. And some day I’ll post it)
The oldest surviving stuff in Indonesia is generally on Java, it’s main island. In planning the trip I had to decide whether or not to make the somewhat expensive trip to Java and add yet another island and another set of flights (We did six islands total including Java) to the itinerary. Yogyakarta (JOG-ja-karta) seemed worth the trip.
The mother of all temples, and actually the largest religious building on the planet, is Borobudur outside Yogyakarta. It’s considered one of the great Buddhist artifacts, up there with Bagan in Myanmar and Cambodia’s Angkor Wat (spoiler, that’s our all-time favorite, not Angkor Wat itself, but Angkor-Thom nearby.)
And on the other side of town, is Prambanan, a great Hindu temple at which we will see a dance version of the Ramayana, performed nightly in front of it’s baroque spires. Anywhere else it would be the top local destination but it plays second fiddle to Borobudur
Still dark outside, Amanda collects the Hyatt hotel’s ‘Breakfast box’ from the front desk and we head to Uncle Sam’s taxi. Borobudur in summer can get ten thousand tourists in a day and the heat is oppressive. Dawn is the time to get there. Beat the heat and the people.
Lily and Emma are quiet for the 75 minute ride. I know they would rather be in bed, but we’ve done this drill enough that they don’t complain. Lily laughs a little when I crack the hard-boiled egg on my forehead. How else is one supposed to do it? They didn’t give us utensils.
The parking lot sprawls, interwoven with little stalls, most of which are closed at this time of day. Uncle Sam drops us off and directs us to the visitors center, which is quite lavish for a government run ticket office. We are given batik cloths to tie around our waists, in honor of the sanctity of this temple. And we are given a choice of bad coffee or bad tea with the ticket, which isn’t cheap by Indonesian standards – $15 bucks or so. The schoolkids that come here daily surely get a different experience.
Borobudur’s origins are a bit of a mystery. It dates to the ninth century AD and took at least 75 years to complete. The name was first referenced in the 1400’s, some centuries after it had been permanently abandoned and it’s not clear that was the original name. Volcanic eruption may have influenced the abandonment, but Islamic conversion sealed the deal.
The building is a series of 3 square platforms on top of which are 3 circular platforms. There are no rooms, it’s a ‘Stupa’ or bell-shaped design that also functions like a step-pyramid. The intent is that you walk around level by level observing the carved reliefs depicting the story of the Buddha as well as local Indonesian folklore and history. Observed from above, the building represents the Buddhist and Indian Mandala which is both a cosmology and a theory of consciousness. You sort of go from the outside ‘world of forms’ to the inner ”formless world’ at the top.
And the top is in fact magnificent. It’s perhaps the most photographed object in Indonesia, the bell-stupas in the lush misty valley between the two smoking volcanoes.
The Stupas (bell shaped shrines) at the top each have a buddha inside, with carved designs. There are 72 of them on the top and we circle and climb them in the orange glow of sunrise. It was worth coming up here first to see the morning sun on this monument. There are a lot of people here, but it’s still early. I duck an dodge other tourists to appear as if we were alone.
But it was nothing like what happens at 10am and the school hordes arrive from all over Indonesia – the come here like kids go to the Statue of Liberty. It’s a rite of passage. Several of them stop us and ask for pictures. Big parts of Indonesia still don’t see that many tourists.
The walk around the temple is long and to an uneducated observer, repetitive. There are almost 3000 reliefs, far too many to even glance at in a morning. Lily gets bored from time to time, but then a particular carving will stick out, like the awesome epic one where a beast attacks a boat and it’s rescued by the turtle. It could be a Hollywood summer movie. Many depict the Buddha, but there are also scenes from everyday life.
The building is the largest temple in the world – at least by volume. It was constructed on a natural hill, which may have been cheating in the record books, but was very efficient. The stones are all laid without grout, hand chiseled with corners and dovetails hand-carved. There are natural drain spouts with gargoyles all over to prevent flooding in this wet climate. It has gone through extensive renovation but most of it is original. In fact, evidence shows it was once painted bright colors, but they have chosen to leave it as it has worn over the years.
Amanda’s attention to the reliefs holds out longer than the rest of us, and once she has had her fill we head back. It’s only 10:30am and everyone is delighted that we are going to hang out at the hotel for the afternoon where we rest up for the remained of the day. It takes about 30 minutes to actually leave the compound because they force you through an endless gift shop…
Uncle Sam picks us up around 4pm, and brings us an hour across town to the Prambanan, a massive spired temple (or ‘candi’ in Indonesian) dedicated to Vishnu, Brahma and Shiva. Prambanan is one of those places that got screwed by having an even more amazing temple (Borobudur) so close that it plays second fiddle. Anywhere else it would be the centerpiece of any tourist agenda.
Prambanan was built in the ninth century, not long after Borobudur, almost certainly as a Hindu response to it’s scale and statement. In fact, it may have been a statement that the ruling Medang dynasty shifted it’s alliance from Buddhism to Hinduism.
We know more about it’s builders than Borobudur – Rakal Pikatan was the architect and constrictor of the series of temples, the largest of which is in front of us today. The project included moving a fucking river out of the way of the temples. It took more than 50 years to build these towering, ornate spires.
At the time there were dozens of temple groups, but we visit only the main group. Although abandoned in the 11th century, they remained intact (more or less) until and earthquake toppled them into big piles of boulders and stone fragments. Locals knew of them, but didn’t know their origin, and made up stories of giants and fairies.
When the Dutch began to do restoration in the early part of the last century, it was sloppy. Locals carried off a lot of the stone for re-use elsewhere. With 240 temples to restore, they a pragmatic decision in 1930 to reconstruct only temples that had at least 75% of the stonework available.
What we are looking at was the largest and central group – and they look magnificent, but they have been completely restored. They are so intricate. I can’t imagine how much time it took to reassemble. Inside each is a statue to one of the main Hindu gods, and although they aren’t that recognizable to me, Amanda knows a bunch about them from her time in India. She and Emma seem to especially like this place, and they longer while Lily and I fool around outside.
It’s a difficult place to photograph, everything is so narrow and tall, but when I step back to get it all in, I lose the intricate detail of the carvings. Truly this is a place you need to go to yourself.
We hang out till the sun goes down, so I can get a few more of the spires against the sunset. It’s warm but not too hot. We’re in good moods despite the long day and Lily and Emma goof around.
Uncle Sam picks us up, and takes us to our final destination in Yogyakarta, the Ramayana ballet performance. It’s a tourist event held year round for something like 30 years rain or shine. (For this they want or maybe got a Guinness world record.) The show in held behind the big temples we were just visiting. They sit illuminated in the background as we enter the compound.
We were hoping there would be a decent restaurant there, but like many tourist traps, the food is crappy. We actually eat ice cream for dinner instead of anything more substantial because the buffet looks pretty gross – especially for three vegetarians. Even Lily the carnivore who has never met a buffet she didn’t like, comes back scowling.
This reminds me of the traditional Chinese dance and dinner theater we did in Xi’an, China, except we opted out of the dinner part and substituted delicious salted caramel ice cream bars and Coke Zero. Dinner of champions.
The dance itself is in an open theater, and we couldn’t have picked a more beautiful night. The full moon rises slowly during the third of five acts, and the warm air is comfortable. I splurged for VIP seats which gave us each a Grape Fanta and some kind of souvenir that I’ve already forgotten – snow globe maybe? No, it probably wasn’t a snow globe in Indonesia.
There is a big sequence in the fourth act where Hanuman burns the golden city Lanka to the ground after escaping his own fiery death. The production here is good with real fire on stage, but as we turn to the girls to show our enjoyment, they are asleep. Ah well, it’s a long day, and honestly this dance isn’t that great.
We saw enough, and decided to leave early. It’s sometimes good to take your winnings and quit. We had a great day and we get up early to go back to Bali tomorrow.