Fury, serenity share stage on scenic Java

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The stupas of the Borobudur temple compound on Java. It is the largest Buddhist monument in the world and contains 72 statues of Buddha.
The stupas of the Borobudur temple compound on Java. It is the largest Buddhist monument in the world and contains 72 statues of Buddha. Photo Credit: Rob Garratt

With its marketable mix of golden sands and bright blue surf, Bali takes all the headlines, with nearly half of Indonesia's 9.4 million annual visitors limiting themselves to that 0.3% sliver of the country. But far greater gems lie on Java, the most populous of Indonesia's 922 inhabited islands.

Separated from its smaller, trendier brother to the east by just a few miles, our underwhelming introduction to Java was the dusty port town of Banyuwangi. But the goal was some 100 miles inland, and some 7,600 feet skyward: the peak of Mount Bromo.

In the nearby town of Probolinggo, weary backpackers congregate at the sandy spot where the buses stop, scarfing down nasi goreng fried rice, waiting for the 15 passengers needed to split an overpopulated minivan to the tiny mountain outpost of Cemoro Lawang.

After an anxious, hours-long wait, we made our glorious, vertiginous ascent as night fell.

Mount Bromo, a volcano that still billows smoke and soot.
Mount Bromo, a volcano that still billows smoke and soot. Photo Credit: Rob Garratt

The few hotels were full; we negotiated a stay in a waterless hovel and flagged down a 3 a.m. four-wheel drive to take us to the base of Bromo's crater, from where the peak is a short climb.

I can say with confidence that there are few more humbling feelings than staring down into the core of a smoldering volcano, billowing smoke and floating soot invading all senses. Tour groups are conspicuous here, but few dare to wander around the precarious, ever-narrowing path that traces the volcano's ridge.

There is no such easy access to the more bellicose Mount Merapi, which sits some 250 miles west in the island's center and erupts regularly to this day.

The quaint, educational Merapi Museum Center offers a viewing platform and a small cinema. It screens a tragic documentary detailing the destruction wrought by Merapi's last outburst, which claimed 353 lives in 2010.

Little has changed: More than 1,000 years earlier, it is believed to be Merapi's wrath that drove settlers from the awe-inspiring ninth century Hindu temple complex, Prambanan.

The screening room at Mount Merapi presents a documentary about the volcano’s last eruption, which killed 353 in 2010.
The screening room at Mount Merapi presents a documentary about the volcano’s last eruption, which killed 353 in 2010. Photo Credit: Rob Garratt

One of two man-made Unesco World Heritage-recognized blockbusters easily visitable from Java's cultural capital, Yogyakarta, Prambanan was mysteriously abandoned in the 10th century. Today its jutting, staggered stone peaks, surrounding the 150-foot-tall central tower, are equally eerie whether framed by looming storm clouds or artfully lit at night.

More impressive still is Prambanan's contemporaneously constructed Buddhist cousin, Borobudur, lying just 30 miles northwest. The centerpiece of the site's three ninth century temples is the largest Buddhist monument in the world; it stands rightfully alongside Cambodia's Angkor Wat and India's Taj Mahal as one of Asia's most breathtaking sights.

Built on a 400-foot-wide, square base, paths slowly wind around each of the nine staggered levels, split into stages representing the three realms of Buddhist cosmology.

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Tackling the entire circular ascent offers a 3-mile walk past hundreds of decorative and narrative panels — artistic marvels offering glimpses of Javanese life more than a millennium ago — before arriving at the monument's majestic plateau, lined with 72 serene Buddha statues.

From this vantage, the shadow of Merapi framed ominously in the distance, it is impossible not to feel awed by the human achievement, and the indifferent natural Earth these marvels stand on that could wipe everything away in an instant.

Visit www.indonesia.travel/en.

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