From Borobudur to batik cloth: Exploring the island of Java

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It is 5:40 a.m. and, directly on cue, the sun rises slowly over the horizon, silhouetting volcanic Mount Merapi and casting early-morning light on the majestic Buddhist temple of Borobudur.

Tourists wait silently as sun rays clear the morning mist and add color and focus to the 504 statues of Buddha that dominate this remarkable structure. Built between 750 and 842, it is Indonesias most recognizable tourist attraction.

Situated about 25 miles northwest of the old Indonesian capital of Yogyakarta -- also known as Jogyakarta, Yogya or Jogja -- in central Java, the temple fell into disuse around 1000 and was not discovered again until 1814. 

An expedition the following year led by the British governor of Java, Sir Stamford Raffles, unveiled Borobudur from a covering of undergrowth that had hidden it during centuries of neglect. Borobudur again fell into a neglected state before further restoration by the Dutch in the early 20th century.

Built on a small hill, the 390-square-foot Buddhist monument has six square-stepped terraces, Photo by Roger Allnutttopped by three circular ones with a bell-shaped chamber at the summit. 

A Unesco World Heritage site, Borobudur is often compared to Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Built of 2 million blocks, the structure, which features over 1,400 bas-relief carvings in addition to hundreds of Buddha statues, is a monument to the craftsmanship of the sculptors, masons and laborers who constructed it. 

A mile away lies Mendut, a temple worth visiting mainly to see its unusual 10-foot statue of Buddha, who sits with both feet on the ground rather than in the usual cross-legged lotus position.

While nearly 90% of the Indonesian population now profess Islam, the equally impressive Prambanan temples, about 10 miles east of Yogyakarta, remain centers of Hindu worship.

Built around the same time as Borobudur, Prambanans eight large and eight smaller temples, all intricately carved, rise from the surrounding plain.

From May to October, the Ramayana Ballet is held at an outdoor theater close to the temples, the largest of which -- the floodlit Candi Shiva Mahadeva -- provides a spectacular backdrop to the production of gamelan music and dancers.

Outside the Prambanan temple perimeter lies an incredible array of souvenir stalls where vendors battle to attract customers.

Prambanan is so close to Yogyakarta that the city makes an excellent base from which to explore temples and other attractions in the surrounding region.

Touring the city

Yogyakarta, in the center of the island of Java, is synonymous with Indonesian culture and artistic heritage.

It is a famous university city, with more than 60 centers of learning. Many students come from abroad to study language, dance, music and arts and crafts, with batik particularly popular.

Local performances of traditional Indonesian gamelan music and wooden and leather puppet plays are refreshing and different.

The old part of the city around the kraton, the palace of the sultan of Yogya, is like a small village, complete with its own market, craft shops and mosques.

Visitors can stop at the kraton reception hall and museum, home to an interesting collection of heirlooms and musical instruments.

Particularly attractive is Taman Sari, or the water castle, on the edge of the kraton, with its ornate pools. Close by is the Pasar Ngasem, a noisy market for the caged birds that are extremely popular in Indonesia.

Batik cloth is the local product most sought after by tourists. There are two varieties: batik cap, or printed batik, and the much more expensive tulis, which is hand-made batik. 

Silver is a major industry in Yogyakarta, and the best place for top-notch examples of silversmith work is in the old town district of Kota Gede.

Each evening, main thoroughfare Malioboro Street, named for the Duke of Marlborough, becomes a seething market of hundreds of stalls offering the widest range of clothing, watches, batik, souvenirs, silverware and leather in the city. 

Beyond Yogyakarta

A number of other worthwhile places to visit, besides the aforementioned temples, are within a two-hour drive of Yogyakarta. It is a land where time has stood still and traditional ways of life continue unchanged, except for the constant roar of thousands of motorbikes.

To the north, volcano Gunung Merapi towers over the surrounding plain. As it has been rumbling in recent months, and has erupted a few times in recent years, tourists cannot get too close. But there are great views from the hill resort of Kaliurang.

Forty miles northeast of Yogyakarta, Photo by Roger Allnuttbeyond Prambanan, lies Solo, another old hub of Javanese culture.

Solo is the hometown of former Indonesian President Haji Mohammad Suharto, who ruled for 30 years. His house, and the palace of the local sultan, can be visited.

Solo, once known as Surakarta, is a good base from which to tour the surrounding hilly countryside of rice fields and tea plantations clinging to the steep slopes.

Two more temples, Candi Cetho and Candi Sukuh, perch serenely on the top of rugged hills about an hour east of Solo.

Getting there

Yogyakarta can be reached from the U.S., from Los Angeles, via Thai Airways, China Airlines, Malaysia Airlines, Cathay Pacific and Japan Airlines.

Most fly to their respective Asian hubs and then on to Bali or Jakarta in Indonesia. From there, visitors connect to Yogyakarta on Indonesian national carrier Garuda or one of the local low-cost airlines, such as Merpati.

There are a host of excellent hotels in Yogyakarta, including international brands such as Novotel, Mercure, Sheraton and Hyatt. For something different, the Puri Artha Hotel is in a restored Dutch mansion.

Generally, hotel rates are remarkably low for the high quality of service offered. Many hotels have excellent restaurants, and there is a vast selection of other places to eat. Consult your hotel concierge.

For more on travel to Yogyakarta and Java, contact the Indonesia Tourist Promotion Office in Los Angeles at (213) 383-5126 or visit www.my-indonesia.info.

To contact the reporter who wrote this article, send e-mail to [email protected].

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