Head On

Writer Joyce Yip | December 10, 2018

At 8.30am, our SUV pulls out of our hotel driveway amidst rowdy, uniformed tour groups. The city awoke, but its tropical feel and swaying palms make morning grogginess linger. It also probably has to do with where we are heading in a few hours.

I am in Yogyakarta – most commonly known as Jogja. Located in Java and an hour’s flight from Jakarta, it prides itself on traditional arts, cultural heritage and generations of special-region rule under its Sultan. Yogyakarta is a city of resilience, having been victim to multiple devastating earthquakes and quadrennial eruptions from the country’s most volatile volcano, Merapi, our destination.

Mount Merapi

Since the 2010 earthquake that killed 347 people, most of whom were local villagers, hiking is banned and more than 400,000 habitants have been relocated to safe zones. Today, the only way to explore the mountain is via rental motorcycles and jeeps, whose drivers repeatedly reassure us the trip is safe so long as we remain at least 3km away from the crater, adding that it was business as usual as soon as the smoke cleared after the eruption in May.

Tours vary depending on duration and number of people and come with a sunrise option, ours was the 180-minute long route. Big breakfasts not recommended if you want to brave the road bumps gracefully.

Major sites include volcanic ash-clad relics, animal fossils, memorials and a mishap bunker turned burial ground in 2010. Grave remains are interspersed with scenic surface mines where locals still clock in for their nine-to-five.

Instagram hotspots on Merapi alleviate visitors’ grief somewhat. They range from makeshift stages complete with printouts of reference poses and heart-shaped frames to the bunker’s name in the Hollywood-sign font, which our driver points out is popular with local couples who also come here for the skyline view at night.

Prambanan Temple

An hour away from the volcano is the Prambanan Temple, a 10th-century relic and the largest religious compound in the country dedicated to Shiva, the Hindu god of creation and destruction.

The eponymous compound itself consists of 240 temples, including those for Vishnu, Brahma and the animals that served them; but after withstanding centuries of earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and shifts in political power, only 20 are left standing today. Luckily, lava from the volcanic eruption in 2010 stopped 12km away, but it still took close to nine months to clear the ash. Though conservation teams have worked hard since 1918, restoration progress remains slow, given that only 75 per cent of the structures must compose the original rocks, which are the ones with carvings.

Ramayana Ballet

A city of heritage, Jogja doesn’t have a lot going on at night. One option is the Ramayana Ballet, a gamelan rendition of a God attempting to rescue his kidnapped wife from red-masked demons. Popular in Central Java provinces and in Bali, the performance has entered the Guinness World Records as the most continuously staged performance in the world as well as one involving the most performers. It can be enjoyed by everyone as it’s dialogue-free and offered in places ranging from cultural centres to buffet restaurants. We watched it in the latter where I enjoy Jogja’s pride of the kitchen, gudeg pawon, stewed jackfruit with coconut chicken.

The space for our Ramayana Ballet is a three-sided auditorium. To either side were gamelan orchestras that played as the stage filled with performers dressed in immaculately detailed ensembles and fire-breathing men in monkey costumes. Prior to the performance, we received a summary of the story and a brief introduction to the characters to clue us in for the next 90 minutes. I am admittedly thrilled when the host offers a photo-taking opportunity with the actors at the end.

Sunrise Trek on Setumbu Hill

At 4.30am Setumbu Hill is completely dark and the trail, though paved, was only half-lit. The ascend is quick, at around 400m over sea level and takes only around 15 to 20 minutes, maybe less considering our eagerness to see what locals call ‘Nirvana Sunrise’ when the egg yolk peeks out beside the Merapi and Merbabu volcanoes as fog halos around the Borobudur Temple.

However, luck wasn’t on our side. Instead of forming a crown around the holy site, fog limited visibility to no more than three metres and the sunrise to a floating slit of light. Even so, I didn’t mind taking in the crisp Javanese air and listening to nature wake up.

Borobudur Temple

Here we are, the highlight of our trip: Borobudur Temple, one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

Deemed the world’s greatest Buddhist monument, the Borobudur Temple compounds started construction in the 8th and 9th centuries AD. The main temple is a colossal stupa built around a hill and divided into nine platforms connected by the ‘Stairway to Heaven’. Each platform represents a stage of enlightenment in Buddhist beliefs with walls inscribed with cultural and religious engravings, reflecting the changing of rulers over time, and telling of how Indonesians embrace different backgrounds.

Covering a total surface area of 2,520sqm and designed as both a Buddhist shrine and a place of pilgrimage, the steps are not easy to climb though they are in reasonable shape. The reward is a magnificent view of Javanese countryside amidst rings of stupas at the top, each home to its own Buddha. Folklore says that touching the holy statues grants wishes – something I wish we could have used to change the fate of our foggy sunrise this morning.

Water Castle

Our last stop is the Water Castle, former holiday home of Sultans I, II and III. Located 2km from the royal family’s home, where they would horseride to enjoy the natural spring pools, gardens and mosque until the 1867 earthquake that destroyed several buildings and cut off the water source.

Today, visitors enter from the back door as more than 500 locals now call a portion of the ex-summer home theirs. Past generations in the area were granted land ownership as thanks for their service and loyalty to the Sultan. Residents must continue to demonstrate this for a week each month, whether acting as a tour guide for the Water Castle, gardening, making crafts or working in the Sultan’s home. So it’s not a surprise to see Luwak coffee farmers, batik artists and leather puppet craftsmen on site.

Look out for the burahol fruit tree on the tour, deemed the royal tree and exclusive to central Java. It’s slim and has fruits hanging from short, dangling branches like small potatoes, during the winter. Eating three to four is said to naturally perfume the body.

In the bathing area, visit the Sultan’s private pool, changing room and observation tower which overlook the wives’ pools allowing him to select which would be his companion.

Another remarkable feature of the Water Castle are its underground tunnels, said to lead to the Sultan’s home. We visit those that led to the underground mosque. Though relatively petite for Muslim prayer grounds, it has all the necessary parts: semi-circle mihrabs, small bathing areas now defunct and a maze of picturesque staircases connecting three floors and five doorways.

Though this country has lived through the rise and fall of rulers and religions, no resentment or grief can be found in Indonesians. Instead they remain resilient, welcoming and proud of their culture, food and roots, finding a silver lining with every peace sign they make in former disaster zones and with each rock restored in ancient temples.