Temples, mosques and monuments, getting around the historic Javanese sites on our own two wheels… 138 days in.
The best plans are always the ones scribbled on the back of envelopes. No hour by hour itinerary, simply a name of a city and an attraction to see, often in a place we’ve never heard mention of in any geography lesson or history class. Of course, last week’s encounter shows us that the best adventures are those not planned for. So as we arrived in Probolinggo and thought ‘a tad non-discript’ it was with (relative) ease that we jumped on a bus to the next town, Surabaya, 2 1/2 hours away. Then as we trundled through the sprawling mass of workshops, food stalls and homes all under the one corrugated roof we thought ‘nah, let’s keep going’. And so it was that some 12 hours, two buses, a car and becak journey later, we arrived in Surakarta, or Solo as the locals call it.
The long trip was worth it, not least for the 8 hours air conditioned, seat reclining, non-smoking luxury of the coach which included bottled water and evening meal all for £5 each (cheaper than the hideous journeys on Flores when despite repeated requests to the narrow minded men to smoke with the window open, it would be closed again the minute you turned your back and worst was when you looked back to see a sneer across their face, troglodytes). For a large Indonesian city, Solo was almost nice! Clean, tree lined streets and a marked reduction in the numerous requests for photos and taxi rides, heck, it was nice! Solo’s big claim to fame is the production of Batik, a cloth most often used as a sarong or dress, that involves repeated applications of wax and ink dipping to achieve its unique patterned images. One Batik can take over a year to make! We even spent an hour in a museum just with Batik cloths.However, with our Visa getting closer to its expiration date, we travelled the next day to Yogyakarta to immerse ourselves in the historic buildings that surround the city. Our first stop was the Kraton, the Royal place of the old Sultan and a chance to escape the ringing sound of moped engines for an hour or two. Now, the word palace may well conjure up images of grandeous columns and marble white staircases; however, aside from a nice veranda it is simply a collection of 200 year old buildings with most of the masonry still intact housing basic everyday items, and the art gallery has the appearance of a swimming pool changing room! The highlight by far was Mr Widodo, the puppet painter, and his workshop. His buffalo hide shadow puppets are world renound and packed full of symbolism. He repeated to us the three elements of each puppet; nature, heart and mind – not as a preacher, but in a manner that felt genuine and as if he knew a secret that he wanted to share, and share he did. Next on the go see list was the Hindu temple of Prambanan. Where there are sites to see there are tourists. Where there are tourists there are tours. Tours are always overpriced. And so, with trepidation and a dash of excitement we followed through with Helen’s cost saving plan and hired our own scooter. Neither of us have ever driven a scooter and certainly not on the likes of Yogyi’s choked streets. Mike was first to the controls of our Honda Vario F1 and before saddling up with a passenger thought it pertinent to have a quick spin around the block. Darting off quicker than Colin Jackson it was a full twenty minutes of street parades, one way roads and grid lock until he returned to collect Helen, but essential learning was had – traffic lights only apply to cars, pavements are simply narrow roads and so long as you go slow enough you can travel in any direction. And so an hour later we had completed the 14 km journey to the temple with only one close call of passenger dismount (U-turns on dirt tracks are tricky). The pay to pray fee for the Prambanan is $15 per person and with many other Hindu temples waiting for us in India, we settled on a view from behind the gates before hopping back on the scooter for sunset at Ijo temple perched 400 metres above the city, and free! We bounced our way up the very steep pothole strewn road with Mike claiming that full throttle was the only way to get up. As is typical the world over, sunset is preceded by night time and darkness, and so we started our return trip in the twilight with a degree of apprehension. With the aid of Helen’s glasses as fly defenders for Mike, we did battle with the evening traffic and returned a little more stressed and in need of cleansing away all the spoils the traffic had doted on us. Our next day began at 5 am in an attempt to beat the traffic as we made the 40 km trip to Borobudur. Now seasoned scooter pros we arrived in just over the hour and paid the $20 pay to pray fee each; after all this is the biggest Buddhist temple in the worls and at 1200 years old, pretty ancient to boot! An hour in though and really there was little more to see as the building has no inside so it’s all stone facia’s and bell shaped stoopa’s at the top, it sounds fairly average from that description and made Mike question the steep entrance fee but for Helen this was her first trip to a massive temple complex and a sufficiently impressive sight. As we rested from the hot morning sun, we spoke with Fu and his wife before his trip to England to help him with the ins and outs of the lingo, he even did a decent cockeney accent!
So Borobudur was pretty expensive. We both enjoyed walking around it, and we probably would recommend it, but Mike explains why. We have met a fair few travellers who have done some of the big trips – the ones that cost a buck or two; like climbing mount Kinabalu or Rinjani, and to a man they all proclaim “but it was worth it”. Now we’ve climbed a few mountains ourselves this trip and seen in a few sunrises and they have been a mixed bag. However, if we’d paid £250 each for the view (from the top of Kinabalu), then we would very much wish to justify it to ourselves by saying “but it was worth it”. The alternative is to admit to yourself that you were conned out of money by partaking in a leisure activity that should essentially be free; and then to say this to a stranger is almost like saying “I got done”, and who likes to look stupid to a person you’ve only just met! So yes, Borobudur is unique and being so far from home would have been a missed opportunity to pass it by, but with no context provided by the custodians with which to help the tourist gain an insite as to what one is striding over, it is only half the experience it should be.
And so we bid farewell to Indonesia after the briefest of stops in Jakarta for Helen to get herself trapped in the local park whilst visiting the national memorial tower. A mixture of the best of nature and the misgivings of man left us with our different opinions of the country, but as always, it was worth it!