Borobodur, Prambanan and Yogyakarta: Backpacking back in time

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There were five names on the plane e-ticket print outs I held. But I was the only one to make it to Jakarta from Manila. Discounted tickets bought half a year in advance, none on its list of names had anticipated life’s unpredictability. Floods and the consequent repairs that homes needed, and work and studies with their intractable deadlines had whittled down what was supposed to be an eight-day trail running and mountain climbing adventure among five buddies in Java to just myself and our friend Rashel Pena, a Filipino who worked in the island Sumatra, who had already flown to Jakarta to meet me and our Indonesian guides—college students who were part of a jungle survival organization. And now, on the fourth day, after running up and down Mount Pangrango on the second and paragliding among its scenic tea plantations on the third, we were to part ways. Rashel had to fly back to work. And I had five more days with nothing to do in Indonesia.

To complicate matters, it was the time of Ramadan. Besides the questionable wisdom of running up major mountains in a foreign land all by myself, the cost of entry into these protected national park areas as well as that of transportation and lodging had risen dramatically because of the holy season. I wasn’t too keen on going to Bali; its beaches offered little of anything new to a Filipino who had been to the best of Palawan and Boracay such as I. And then, Rashel, after conferring with Medico Eka Putra, one of our gracious mountain guides, thought of an itinerary for me; I would travel from Jakarta, the modern metropolis of Indonesia, to Yogyakarta, also known as Jogja, the country’s ancient capital, and, from there, seek out the once lost and forgotten temples of Borobudur and Prambanan.

How could I have not thought of it myself? A quick look through the internet revealed them to be such an obvious choice. Both Borobudur and Prambanan were World Heritage Sites proclaimed by no less than the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO.) According to UNESCO’s world heritage committee, among its ten criteria, a place must “represent a masterpiece of human creative genius.” And both Borobudur and Prambanan were a short distance from Yogyakarta, the jump off point for both ancient temples and itself an attraction with its Kraton (the Sultan’s palace,) its “water castle” of Taman Sari, and the narrow neighborhood alleys of its old quarter filled with artisans and artists.

Stuck with too much time to spare at the world’s most populous Muslim nation during the most sacred month of the Islamic calendar, I thought it best to sojourn to Borobudur and Prambanan, Indonesia’s most important pilgrimage sites for Buddhists and

Hindus, respectively, instead of gallivanting and rambling through the rest of country, which was in the midst of devout fasting and prayer for much of the day. Borobudur itself has long been Indonesia’s most visited tourist attraction, attracting more travelers than any single beach in Bali. For its part, Prambana is Indonesia’s largest and most important Hindu temple. And as for the Yogyakarta, it was also known for another name—Kota Budaya or “Cultural City.” Dico called up a friend of his, Veronica Erlina, another college student who lived in Yogyakarta, to serve as my guide there.

Ride to Ruin

Choosing Borobudur, Prambanan, and Yogyakarta as destinations was one thing, getting there during the time of Ramadan—when it seemed all of Indonesia took the opportunity to travel for either reunions or pilgrimages—was another. All the plane flights going there were fully booked. So too were the trains. My only chance to get to Yogyakarta— more than 500 kilometers to the east of Jakarta—was to take a bus.

At first I couldn’t quite understand why Dico was so profusely apologetic for getting the “VIP Class” instead of the “Executive Class,” which was the very best but had sold out. To my uninitiated ears, a bus for “Very Important People” sounded luxurious enough. But when I entered the vehicle, I understood my mountain guide’s trepidations. It was reminiscent of one of those city buses I rode as a child during the 1980s, except that it looked like it had been used continuously since the 1980s without a change of drapes, seat covers, or even a having its floor swept by a broom. It didn’t seem to have any sort of air conditioning. And there were holes on the steel floor from which I could see the road below. Of course, Indonesia—boasting the 16th largest economy in the world and a member of the G-20 major economies—possessed state-of-the-art luxurious bus transportation; this just wasn’t it. But as dismal as the lack of comfort and ambiance was, it wasn’t the worst part of the journey.

I had to endure that bus ride for more than 24 hours. There were many reasons: It stopped by the roadside just at the outskirts of the city to wait for passengers to fill up the bus, and it did this twice, each time for more than two hours, both beside mosquito-infested trash-clogged canals. (I was the only one on the bus wearing shorts instead of pants. It was a good thing I packed mosquito repellent lotion.) There was horrendous traffic for much of the way, and when the highway cleared of congestion halfway to Yogyakarta, the bus proved to be as slow as it was ramshackle. Nonetheless, the journey allowed me to immerse myself in Indonesian life.

There were all sorts of buskers singing for alms—a troupe of street urchins with clods of crass still clinging to their backs from the ground they slept on, a leather-clad punk duo with studded belts and enough grease on their hair to lubricate a fleet of buses, and a transvestite clad in makeup applied thickly, as if with a butter knife—all wielding and playing ukuleles. And then there were my fellow bus mates, none of whom spoke English, save one, who did so sparingly as if he might quickly run out words to say. It was he who told me halfway through the journey that the bus driver had decided not to go all the way to Yogyakarta, since I was the only passenger who needed to get off at this route’s original endpoint. So I called Veronica and had her talk to the bus driver in Bahasa and Javanese to work out a solution. They decided to let me off where I could board another bus to Yogyakarta.

When Veronica and I met at Yogyakarta, I realized how fortunate I was that I traveled alone. Had I been with anyone else, we wouldn’t have all been able to ride on the back of our guide’s scooter—a quintessential Indonesian experience and by far the best way to get around the country’s traffic. A party can only be as fast, as adventurous, and as inquisitive as its slowest, most fearful, and least cultured member. With no one to hold me back, I realized I could explore Java’s ancient culture on my own terms.

History Comes Alive

Long before Islam took root in Indonesia sometime during the 13th century, a sophisticated Hindu-Buddhist culture flourished, establishing its capital in what is today Yogyakarta during the 8th century. In the 9th century, construction began on the nearby Mahayana Buddhist temple of Borobudur by the Buddhist Sailendra Dynasty. That same century, with the return to power of the Sanjaya Dynasty, the building of the Shivaist Hindu temple of Prambanan commenced, even as the new Hindu rulers allowed Buddhists to continue construction and worship at Borobudur. This tradition of tolerance lives on today as Hindu and Buddhist pilgrims as well as tourists continue to flock to these ancient relics within this overwhelmingly Muslim country. Modern Yogyakarta has become also known as Kota Pelajar or “Student’s City” because of its many universities that attracts scholars of all faiths.

Just a century after their creation, both Borobudur and Prambanan fell to disrepair and neglect as an eruption by Mount Merapi volcano as well as power struggles among the ruling class led people to abandon the temples. Volcanic ash and jungle foliage soon overtook both ruins and worship turned to fear as superstitions arose about tragedy befalling anyone foolish enough to loiter the ruins as well as myths about giants roaming the towering temples and a cursed princess trapped among the latticed stone stupas.

In 1811, during the period of Dutch and British colonial rule, Colin Mackenzie, a surveyor in the employ of Thomas Stamford Raffles, Lieutenant Governor-General of the Dutch East Indies and founder of Singapore, stumbled upon the ruins of Prambanan. Dutch residents soon ransacked the ruins of what artifacts they could haul to use as ornaments or construction material. Raffles, himself a collector of Javanese artifacts, brought the world’s attention to both ruins and ordered the razing of the jungle and unearthing of the temples. From 1907 to 1911, Theodor van Erp led efforts to restore Borobudur, painstakingly cataloging each stone piece, then dismantling, cleaning, and reassembling all of them. But he failed to fix the temples’ drainage and the structures began to sag and crack as soon as they were restored as the soft moist tropical earth beneath them shifted under their enormous weight. Worse, the modern cement used to hold the reassembled pieces began to react and degrade the original stones. The restored temples seen today were the result of a monumental effort undertaken by the Indonesian government and UNESCO from 1975 to 1982. Even now, visitors can see workmen painstakingly restoring certain portions and maintaining the drainage of its foundations.

Borobudur and Prambanan are both pyramids—manmade mountains like the Babylonian Zigurats, the Mayan temples, or those of Egypt. Both Borobudur and Prambanan were constructed during the same epoch, with the same materials, and with the same breathtaking ornate stone relief workmanship. Yet Borobudur and Prambanan are vastly different experiences, as I learned.

Prambanan is a collection of towering spires devoted to Hinduism’s many fantastic and superhuman gods. The steep spires direct one’s eyes to the heavens and invite one to enter and worship a holy statue nestled inside each spire. In contrast, Borobudur is a hulking solitary squat pyramid devoted to one man, Siddhartha Gautama Buddha, whose teachings the faithful believe lead to enlightenment. Instead of looking up to the heavens, one is invited by Borobudur’s architecture to examine its walls and learn of Buddhism through its ornate reliefs running through all four sides on all its three levels. Instead of a chamber inside the pyramid—there are none—one is led to the top, where, around a central dome, eyes are piqued to peek into the diamond-shaped lattice holes of 72 stone bell-like stupas, each one enclosing a statue of Buddha.

This link between elevation—a desire to be closer to the heavens— and spirituality is a near constant I’ve witnessed in my many travels. I observed this, having been to Bethlehem, Nazareth, and Jerusalem—all biblical pilgrimage sites located upon mountain top cities that Jesus Christ, a man revered as the messiah by Christians, a prophet by Muslims, and a rabbi by Jews, was said to once tread and climbed. Even the towering edifices of Saint Petersburg’s Church of the Spilt Blood, Petra’s Al Khazneh, and the Nile River’s Abu Simbel had my eyes gazing up their spires. At its best, architecture has been about divine worship. So too with Borobudur and Prambanan.

At these temples, both male and female visitors were required to wear a traditional Javanese sarong over their clothes to show respect. I found it handy to bring my smart phone—small enough for me to shove inside the stupas and take pictures of the Buddha statues—as well as my large digital single lens reflex camera. It was important to get to the temples early in the morning or late in the afternoon when sunlight was not too stark and glaring. Borobudur and Prambanan are not the only ancient temples worth visiting nearby Yogyakarta. Though I prioritized these two World Heritage Sites,, Veronica also took me to other nearby Hindu and Buddhist sites.

Beyond the Ancient

Zipping around in Veronica’s scooter and taking pictures, I quickly found myself famished. I told my guide that I wanted authentic Indonesian street food; no international fast food franchises and no touristy expensive restaurants. I wanted to eat where the Javanese ate. From ikan bakar (grilled fish) and batagor bandung (fried tofu) paired with rice and homemade sambal (hot sauce), to the bizarre kopi joss—a hot cup of freshly brewed java with a piece of charcoal floating in it, supposedly to neutralize its acidity and improve its flavor, I savored it all in open-air roadside eateries that served them on simple plastic plates and bowls. Though the Malay cuisine is similar to that found in Malaysia and Singapore, Indonesia’s is arguably better, being juicier, fresher, more flavorful, and less oily.

Beyond ancient temples and ruins, Yogyakarta, meaning a “city fit to prosper” in Sanskrit, offered so much more. Foremost among its attractions was the water castle and royal gardens of Taman Sari, meaning “flower park” in Javanese. It was a complex of pools and flower gardens enclosed by walls decorated by intricate Javanese reliefs. Built in the 18th century, it was said to have been designed by the mysterious Demang Tegis, a Portuguese architect who was shipwrecked on the island. Aside from the many sunlit gardens and placid pools, the Taman Sari complex hid many corridors leading to wondrous chambers inside, most especially the elevated platform within the Sumur Gumuling, where the four staircases meet at a circular sky-lit center. Designed as a mosque, its acoustics allowed a muezzin to call the faithful to prayer with his adhan without shouting, his voice reverberating throughout the chamber.

Wreathed around Taman Sari was a maze of picturesque narrow streets and quaint homes, a number of which were the galleries, workshops, and residences of artisans as well as the cafes they frequented and exhibited at. Not to miss were the makers of shadow puppets and batik paintings. As visually stunning as this neighborhood was, I had to take time to close my eyes to appreciate its auditory splendor. All around me were the melodic warbles and sweet chirps of songbirds. It was custom for each Javanese house to have one caged by their home’s entrance. These elegant traditional wooden birdcages were themselves works of art. Though I pitied the animals, I thrilled to their singing.

Fronting the kraton or sultan’s palace and the adjacent Taman Sari was an alun-alun, a huge courtyard lawn with twin banyan trees in the center. A place for royal processions, public addresses, and dialogues with the sultan, the alun-alun transformed at night into a festival of lights, with pedicabs slowly circling round the square, each adorned in multi-colored light emitting diodes. I saw the sky lit up by whirly gig propeller toys lit up LED bulbs spun by children. The mood was especially festive with the breaking of the day’s Ramadan fasting, coinciding with the sunset. It is said that if you can successfully walk between the two banyan trees blindfolded after being spun around, your wish will be granted.

The last day of my stay in Indonesia coincided with Eid Al Fitr, the joyous end of Ramadan and its days of fasting and contemplation. All around me, fireworks lit Yogyakarta’s night sky as people feasted on sweet treats and shared meals. Street side bazaars overflowed with gorgeous handicrafts and other wares. People were all smiles. Everyone I met, I greeted, “Eid Mubarak.”

I had explored the art and culture of three faiths—Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam—and climbed mountains and pyramids. I had gone back to ancient times and arrived at the present. Thankfully, Dico had secured a plane ticket for my trip back to Jakarta from where I was to board my flight back home to Manila. No more bus rides for me. I was all smiles.

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