Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Yogyakarta: A 13-Hour Tour

I made a last-minute decision to spend the last few nights of my Indonesian visa in Yogyakarta, a small town on the island of Java, a short flight away from Bali.  I chose Yogyakarta for two main reasons:  it was known for beautiful batik prints, and the famous temple of Borobudur - the largest Buddhist temple in the world - was located just outside the city.  I splurged on a private room at a tiny spot in the Lonely Planet called Delta Homestay, spending a few hours to simply relax after the very early flight.  I finally emerged for lunch, wandering down the road and over to an adjacent street, admiring the street art along the way, and avoiding the hawkers trying to get me into a pedicab for a city tour.  I had some tasty pasta at a spot called Via Via (which had a highly recommended hostel that was unfortunately booked up), then spotted a cafe across the street with a large section of batik prints.

I wound up at the owner's second shop just down the street, chatting with an Australian woman who had been living there for the last few months with her husband as I picked out a few gorgeous prints.  While I would always prefer to buy directly from the artist, I liked the prints, the prices were reasonable, and I would wind up getting some valuable advice from the shop owners.  When I returned to the cafe to pay for the pieces and have a coffee, I met a couple of American girls who were staying in the adjacent guest house.  I learned that they had been working in New Zealand for the past year and were traveling until Thanksgiving.  As we got to talking, we discussed visiting Borobudur together on a tour that would include a sunrise stop.  When I returned later to confirm the logistics with them and grab dinner, they had started chatting with a Dutch couple about hiring a driver for the group, rather than booking through a tour agency.  The English cafe owner gave us a detailed list of places to see and helped us book the driver for a very early departure the following morning.

I woke up insanely early - at 2:45 am, for a 3:15 departure.  After picking up the rest of our group and driving to Punthuk Setumbu, we arrived well in advance of sunrise at 4:30 am.  Not long after we arrived, a small crowd began to form, as we watched the sky slowly turn from black to hazy grey to pink, as the sun suddenly appeared in a break in the clouds, glowing red, illuminating the haze and the magnificent temple far in the distance below.  It was slightly disappointing to not be able to spend sunrise at the temple, but the gates didn't open until 6 am!  We arrived before most of the crowd, just as the gates opened, and we were given tea and coffee and sarongs to wear through the grounds.

While Borobudur was quite large and impressive, it was actually smaller than I had expected.  We split up to climb the stairs and explore the six levels of the temple, full of images of the Buddha, between thousands of reliefs and over 500 individual statues.  The top levels contained Buddha statues covered with large geometric stone domes, with openings in the shapes of diamonds revealing the Buddhas within.

As I walked, I came across a group of young girls with bright pink and purple headscarves who stopped to quiz me on various things - my name, where I was from, an activity I enjoyed, something about my country that they may not already know.  Whether they were doing an assignment or just practicing their English, they were sweet and inquisitive, and I saw them stopping many other people for brief interviews along the way.

After exploring the temple, we wound our way through the exit path, clearly set up to take us past dozens of souvenir stands, most of which weren't yet open.  We finally found our driver, then sat down for a small breakfast before proceeding.

Our next stop was called Pawan, an absolutely tiny temple, then to Mandut, a slightly larger one-room temple with three figures inside.  The central image was a large Buddha sitting "Western style" - as if on a chair - an unusual posture for a Buddha!  Outside the temple was an enormous tree with long limbs that reached back towards the ground.  We took a few moments to climb and swing from the tree, in the company of some local children who happily joined us.  On the other side of the temple was a small anthropological excavation site - it looked like an entire other temple was potentially buried there!

Next, we visited a beautiful monastery across the street, a peaceful, quiet place full of ponds and fountains, Buddhist icons and flowers.

Then, we piled back into the car to drive about an hour to the site of a volcano named Mount Merapi - particularly to a town which had been wiped out by a very recent eruption in 2010.  The 300 villagers had been killed with the local guru - the spiritual leader of the town - had insisted they would be safe and that they should stay.  We had a quick snack, then were taken to an open Jeep for a rough ride out to see the village and a collection of melted, damaged belongings.  It was a bizarre and jarring experience, to see such modern artifacts - TVs and motorcycles and such - set out like ruins in Pompeii.  The jeep ride also took us to see the path that the lava had taken in its flow down the mountain, stopping to see a collection of rocks that were somehow still warm.  We were also shown a bunker before returning, where the operator used compressed air to blow off the dust that had collected all over us.  Between the rough Jeep ride and the oddly upbeat tour of an area so tragically decimated, this was my least favorite activity of the day.

Luckily, lunch turned out to be cheap and wonderful, as we sat down in a spot called Resto Kinahrejo.  We ate nasi goring, washed down with delicious banana ginger palm leaf tea, followed by fried banana fritters for dessert.  We were served by a smiling, friendly old woman who ran the tiny restaurant - little more than a hut with a picnic table out front.

After lunch, we drove to our last stop of the day, the Hindu temple Prambanan - the largest in Indonesia, and one of the largest in Southeast Asia.  Both Prambanan and Borobudur were built around the 9th century, and both have been designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites.  Prambanan was actually larger and more impressive than I expected, with a large central structure surrounded by smaller, individual temples, each with a single room containing a stone icon.  All the buildings were covered in ornate carvings of animals and Hindu imagery.  We slowly explored the complex, venturing inside where we could, before heading back, again following a path that took us past dozens of vendors.

As we walked past a cluster of identical looking shops, each selling drinks, each with a pile of fresh coconuts out front, I stopped to take a photo of the symmetry.  Each of the individual vendors called out to me, hoping to entice me to buy something, but the woman in the center of my frame caught my eye - she was definitely posing for the camera, with a huge smile across her face, wearing a bright blue floor-length skirt, shirt, and headscarf.  I went directly to her to ask if she had soda water, hoping to ask her for a portrait.  I didn't actually think that what she had brought me was soda water, but she insisted I taste it, "try it first!", and sure enough, it was.  I asked her for a portrait, saying she was beautiful, and she responded with a booming laugh!  Her friend said, "You just made her day!  No one has ever asked for her photo!" and she proudly - and beautifully - posed for a portrait with her daughter.

Bonus:  We spotted a motorbike carrying a live sheep!

After a long, exhausting, and very full day, we returned to the town - at only 4pm! - and were dropped off at our individual guest houses.  We planned to rest and meet again for dinner before each departing in different directions the next morning, but sadly I wouldn't get the chance to rest or to meet them for dinner, as I would be tangled in another transportation adventure that would last through the following morning.


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