On the long road from Yogyakarta to Jakarta

Photo shows the Prambanan Unesco heritage complex. Picture: Paolo Coluzzi and Agencies

Sunday, April 11, 2010

I LOVE Yogyakarta. It is not too big, but it's full of life, of art and of history. And the people are really friendly. If the sky is clear, the volcano Merapi (at 2,911m) looms on the northern horizon, always with a puff of white smoke coming out of its top. Merapi is one of the most active of the over 150 volcanoes present in Indonesia.

Yogyakarta, or Yogya (pronounced Jogja) as people often call it, is the town famous for its batik, its traditional wayang orang dancing — particularly its Ramayana ballet, its shadow puppet theatre or wayang kulit, and, perhaps more than all this, for its ancient Buddhist and Hindu monuments, particularly Borobudur and Prambanan, both Unesco's world culture heritage sites.

In the five days I spent there I had plenty of time to relax, enjoy this interesting town, do a little bit of shopping and visit all the main sights. I stayed in a small but pretty hotel in the area around Jalan Sosrowijayan, a maze of narrow alleys full of small hotels, restaurants, Internet cafes and backpackers and tourists, at a stone's throw from Jalan Malioboro, the main shopping street in Yogya. This is a wide avenue with two lanes: the main one for cars and motorbikes, and the other for the hundreds of becak and horse-drawn carts that are ubiquitous in Yogya; at the side of the street there are long porticos with hundreds of shops and markets and small stalls selling everything, from food to handicraft.

The first day I took it easy, relaxed and started to get acquainted with this attractive town, but the second day I rented a motorbike and, together with three other travellers I had met at Bromo, one French guy and two Dutch girls, in addition to two other friends of theirs, I went to Borobudur, 42 kilometres north-west of Yogya.

The traffic was quite daunting, but as we got further away from the town, it became easier to drive. Borobudur was one of the places I most wanted to visit during this trip, and there it was at last, this huge monument built in the first half of the 9th century to honour the Buddha and to inspire its followers. It looks like a big pyramid: at the bottom six square bases progressively smaller and three circular ones above, topped by a big stupa.

Each level is adorned with narrative panels telling, among other things, the story of the historical Buddha and his previous reincarnations; there are nearly 1,500 of them, in addition to 504 Buddha images. And from the top the view of the surrounding countryside is beautiful. On the way back we also visited the temple of Mendut, containing a three-metre-high statue of the Buddha.

The third day was devoted to visit the Hindu temple complex of Prambanan, easily accessible by bus from Yogya, smaller than Borobudur but equally impressive, particularly the three main temples dedicated to the three main Hindu deities: Shiva, Brahma and Vishnu, built at approximately the same time as Borobudur in a similar style, with narrative panels around. The towering Shiva temple, the biggest one, is as much as 47 metres high!

In the evening I went to see the famous Ramayana ballet, telling through beautiful choreographies the story of the heroes Rama and Sita.

The Kraton, the sultan's palace with its ongoing shows of traditional arts (Javanese gamelan, the famous gong orchestra, on the day I was there) and the Taman Sari, the Water palace, both lying at the centre of Yogya, were the destination of the third day, while the rest of the time it was just hanging around practising my Malay-Indonesian, haggling with the vendors and meeting my temporary travel companions for a meal and a chat.

On Saturday morning the 3rd of April I got on the train to Jakarta, a nine-hour ride through kilometres and kilometres of green farm land and small villages. A taxi took me to my small hotel close to Jalan Jaksa, the bagpackers' area south of Lapangan Merdeka, a vast park laid out around the Monas, Jakarta's most famous landmark, a tall column 132m high capped with an illuminated flame. The following day I took a train from Godangdia, the station near my hotel, further north to Kota, the old colonial centre near Jakarta's bay. A little seedy and run down, but interesting, particularly Taman Fatahillah, a square surrounded by colonial buildings built by the Dutch, like the old city hall (1710), now the Jakarta history museum. I visited the Wayang museum, the museum of puppetry, where loads of Indonesian teenagers who were visiting it wanted to take pictures with me! Then heavy rain started to pour down, flooding the streets leading to the station, so that I had to wade some roads with water up to my calves!

Before going back to my hotel I stopped in Jalan Jaksa for lunch, and I bumped into a Korean guy who had climbed the Bromo with me! And I ended my day with a walk in Lapangan Merdeka. Tomorrow early afternoon I'm catching a coach which will take me over to Sumatra as far as Bukit Tinggi, near Padang. I must say I'm quite happy to swop this sprawling, not particularly attractive metropolis with the natural and cultural beauties of Sumatra!

The Brunei Times