A Little Java Culture
Indonesia is a fascinating country, about which I knew very little before this trip. It is the 4th most populous country in the world; Indonesian is the 6th most spoken language in the world (and I don't believe that I have ever heard it spoken before!); it has 17,000 islands, most of which are uninhabited; and its people represent 6 primary religions, with 87% of the people being Muslim. We were going to get a small taste of its rich cultural history by exploring central Java.
Our train pulled into Jogyakarta (Jogya) at 4 am. We had a driver, Mas Dito (Mas means "Mr" and his first name is "Dito" so we quickly started thinking of him as our "mosquito" as he drove us through traffic), waiting for us to take us exploring that day. Our original plan was to go to our hotel, drop off our luggage, and then drive up to where we would watch the sunrise. But Mas Dito said that if we took the time to take our luggage to the hotel, we would miss sunrise. It wasn't until that evening that our hotel was a mere kilo away, but it is a perfect tribute to Indonesia traffic.
We had two options for watching sunrise - a fancy version from Borobudur (that included breakfast!) or one that was visited by mostly locals. We chose the local option. It was interesting to see that many places in central Java offer lower entrance fees for Indonesian locals at a fraction of the cost of the fee charged to tourists. I am actually in favor of this idea! The locals do not make much money and the tourists can obviously afford to be on a trip to Indonesia. For the locals, the cost is often less than US$1 and about US$3-4 for tourists
Hiking up to watch the sunrise was a beautiful way to start our visit to this region. The weather cooperated so we had a perfect view. We took pictures on swings with the mountains behind us and forgot how tired we were. After we were finished, we headed over to see the "chicken church". If you have ever seen the Big Chicken on Cobb Parkway in Atlanta, you get an idea of its design - with the added bonus of a gathering space for worship - in any religion.
After we left the chicken church, our guide asked if we wanted to try Kopi Luwak. I had no idea what he was talking about, but I love coffee. So we sad yes!
Kofi luwak is the Indonesian coffee that became famous because no one could believe that you would actually drink it! And it is expensive. Why? Because the beans have gone through a very special process. They have been eaten by these cat-like creatures called "luwaks" (they are actually Asian palm civets). The animals eat the coffee beans and then they are partially digested and then vacuated (not sure if this is the right word, but you get the point) via their bowels. The beans are then collected, then cleaned through numerous processes, before they are then roasted and ground for coffee. The coffee came to the world's attention via BBC and CNN stories about the costs of the coffee (in the "if you have to ask how much it costs..." kind of way).
Since they have gotten so much attention, many places are exploiting the critters, using intensive farming methods to produce more coffee beans to make more money. But the place we went (so we were told) is the first place to offer these beans, and keeps their civets in a wild environment. I could have been sold a story, but I did see the wild civets and one slept beneath my legs as I drank coffee.
In my opinion, the coffee is not worth what they are charging for it. It was good, but I like my coffee with milk and sugar, so not worthy of paying five times more than regular arabica beans I do not have a sophisticated palate so there is that fact to keep in mind... We did not buy any beans to bring home.
There were two highlights of our visit to this area - Borobudur and Prambanan.
Borobudur - This is the world's largest Buddhist temple. It rises like a pyramid with nine levels topped with a large central dome. There are 504 Buddhas around the lower levels, along with carved reliefs of stories about Buddha and Javanese history and folklore. At the higher levels, there are 72 Buddhas on stupa (temples). To properly see the site, you follow along clockwise from the base, ascending on the stairs on the east side at each level. The site was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982.
We spent about 3 hours exploring the site. It is not to be missed if you are in Indonesia. One weird thing that I noticed here (and visible everywhere in Indonesia) is the presence of musholas. Musholas are small temples for Muslim worship. Each one has a washing station - men and women are separated - and then a place for prayer. I thought it was interesting to see these in a Buddhist temple pavilion, but then I saw them again the next day at a Hindu temple.
The second site was Prambanan. This is a 9th century Hindu temple in central Java. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There is a large central temple surrounded by several other smaller temples. The temple was largely abandoned in the 10th century, then most of the temples collapsed during an earthquake in the 16th century. and then re-discovered outside Indonesia in the 19th century during the British occupation. Archaeologists did some excavation work on the compound, then the Dutch began to reconstruct the compound during their rule. This work continued under the Indonesian government and the site has again become an important religious center for Hindu rituals.
In 2006, the temple experienced major damage from an earthquake and again in 2014 after being covered by ash from an eruption of a volcano in eastern Java. As a visitor to this site, you see an area with an assortment of stones that they have not yet determined where they were originally from. It is like a giant puzzle with pieces of assorted sizes, which may or may not still resemble their original design. DOM might enjoy such a puzzle.
To cap off our visit to this site, we had tickets (VIP!) to see the Ramyana ballet at the Prambanan. I am not going to be able to do this justice, but picture seeing an outdoor performance on a stage with UNESCO World Heritage site as its backdrop! It was amazing!
Leaving the performance to return to our hotel brought back a taste of reality - traffic! It was 10:00 at night and we moved as slow as during the day. I offer eternal thanks to the fact that someone else was driving as I would not have been pleasant to be around if I had been the driver.
The town where we were staying, Yogyakarta, is known for the variety of art that is found in the area. One of the trademarks of the area is the beautiful, locally made batik fabrics. We had the chance to watch the patterns being drawn by hand with wax syluses on fabric, and then dyed with the lightest colors first (I think!). Many of the patterns are used exclusively to represent a particular family. In visiting the "keraton", the sultan's palace, we learned that each wife (he had four! along with several mistresses..) had her own batik pattern. These are on display, along with the historical family batiks.
Indonesia is a presidential constitutional republic, so you might be wondering why it has a sultan? During the revolution for Indonesian independence, the Sultan supported the new republic. and even fought on the frontlines and financially supported the new country. He was rewarded with a non-elected governorship in the Republic. He is very highly regarded in Yogyakarta, to the point that when the current government tried to eliminate his unelected position, they were widely rebuked!
Leaving Jogya involved another over-night train. This time, we were headed to Malang, to see an area where there are few Western tourists. Kat's family is from this region so we were going to learn more about her background. I was looking forward to being "taken care of" by Kat's family again ... and (hopefully), leaving the traffic behnd.
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