This was a short holiday break, last just one and a half days. Our flight got in around lunch time on Friday and took off at dawn on Sunday. It turned out that this was quite enough to catch the key sights and sounds of the place.
Yogyakarta (or ‘Jogja’ as the locals call it) has a tiny airport with a confusing visa payment queue. Landing from the cool, calm efficiency that Singapore is all about, this can cause some flutter. But the minute we slipped into our pre-paid taxi and started towards the hotel, I remembered why I love travel. There is quite nothing like seeing a new place, especially one so different from where you live. Also, it helps that Indonesia always looks like a cleaner, wealthier India and it fulfils the subconscious cravings I apparently have for India.
We checked into a local hotel, Gallery Prawirotaman, breaking from the tradition of staying in one of the dull but reliable hotel chains. Trip advisor had given it good reviews, and for a day and a half its location suited us well. We had chosen to stay in the main city itself in order to be close to both the key sites.
After possibly the briefest rest in our recent holiday history, we set off to see Prambanam temples, Hindu temples built in the 9th century, destroyed by a massive earthquake, lost in time and then rediscovered in the 19th century. Since then, it has been pieced back together, reinforced by concrete and its historical origins have been established. The restoration work is still ongoing, occasionally interrupted by the reoccurring earthquakes and volcano eruptions.
We reached after an hour’s drive, paid for the foreigners tickets (with a 90% markup – ah, so much like India) and hired ourselves a guide. The complex is dominated by three temples built in honour of the trinity, with the Shiva temple taking the place of pride and flanked on either side by temples for Brahma and Vishnu. There are several small temples, each added by successive rulers. With only the Shiva and Vishnu temples currently open to the public, we had only a bite-sized temple to see, which was just as well. Months of having eschewed exercise in any form meant that I was rather unfit. Moreover, we also had a 2.5-year old to contend with. How was he going to react to spending our time wandering up and down historical monuments?
Not too bad, as it turned out. Bobo was more than happy to hear our guide spin stories about the temples and then walk up and down the steep steps looking for elephant god, bull god etc. The guide told us that the temples were similar to Kajuraho (not having been there yet, I could not compare) but the carvings looked a lot like the ones in the South of India, albeit with slightly Indonesian faces. The temple apparently marked the shift in power from Buddhist to Hindu rule. The guide regaled us with the story of gods in whose honour the temple had been built – stories we had heard all our lives and hence could easily verify if they were told in a similar manner this far off as well (they were). After an hour, we were done and so the three of us wandered about, going for a jolly ride around the complex in a toy train-truck, feeding some deer and rattling the doors of the closed museum. By 6.30 we were seated for dinner, at the highly recommended Kali Opak restaurant and tucked in a lovely Indonesian meal.
At 7.30 we were to catch a dance-drama about one of the episodes from the Ramayana. The open-air theatre had the well-lit temples as a backdrop and would have been a lovely venue but for the uncomfortable stone seats. We sat in the premium category which had cushions to ease the discomfort. I wish we had bought the VIP tickets which eschewed stone seating altogether for comfortable sofas.
Bobo’s bedtime was upon us and he looked tired. We urged him to sleep on our laps and settled down for the play to start. I gathered cushions from the various empty seats around us and made a comfortable bed. Then the play started, and Bobo sat upright, watching the whole thing from start to finish, without even blinking. This was entirely surprising. Even more surprising was that I fell fast asleep after half an hour and woke up only right towards the end. Clearly associating with Bobo has pushed up my already early bedtime even earlier. On the other hand, lack of TV has probably made Bobo appreciate any sort of entertainment that comes his way. From the bits I managed to watch, I gathered that the initial bunch of supporting dancers were a bit off the mark but the quality of the solo dancers was significantly better. There were a lot of children as well and they did a much better job than some adults.
The next morning, we were off to Borobdur. These Buddhist temples are said to have been built around the same time, or perhaps slightly earlier than the Prambanan temples. Like their neighbour, they had also been lost in time and rediscovered by the Dutch (who unfortunately savaged it slightly) and the British.
The first sight of it was impressive. There was a mountain of stupas from what we could see at sea level. Our jovial guide for the morning (hired at the complex) gleefully informed us that we had to climb 150 steps. In the heat it felt much more than that. The bottom layers had carvings from the life of Buddha. Had we examined each carving, identifying the stories, apparently we would have taken a week. We contended ourselves with the select few the guide pointed out. His theory was that the whole edifice depicts life – we begin with dreams, then harsh reality hits us and the wise man attains nirvana when he realises the illusory nature of life. So the panels would have so-so carvings in the bottom and middle and then the faces would look better (I somehow suspect that the three-tier theory could not have been applied to each individual panel, but who knows?). In any case, the workmanship did seem to get better as we ascended. The topmost layers had multiple stupas and a giant one greeted us right at the top. It was simply breathtaking.
The day was hot and so as soon as we were done, we began to check out other places. We serendipitously ended up watching some elephants having a noon-time soak. Then we wandered off to the museum, whose most impressive content was a wooden ship that had been rebuilt based on the carvings in the temple. It had actually made a trip to Ghana and established that even back then Indonesians had been seafaring. The rest of the museum was mostly stone pieces waiting to be restored and pieced together. The remnants of the youthful dreams I had about becoming an archaeologist was dashed immediately. The thought of fitting all those jigsaw pieces together seemed truly daunting.
From here, it was onto lunch at another Indonesian restaurant and then back to the hotel for some R&R.
In the evening, we decided to take in the tourist shopping area. The road was called Malioboro (after Malborough. A fitting nod, I would say, to Indonesia’s heavy smoking culture). When we got there, it was packed and stuffed with shops which all seemed to be selling the same trinkets. So we jettisoned the shopping idea for a 15-minute ride in a horse-drawn carriage. This turned out to be a good experience and we caught sight of what a lively town Jogja itself was, with the locals enjoying themselves immensely on a sultry Saturday evening.
The next morning, we were back on a flight to Singapore. Contrary to being a tiring outing, it was actually invigorating. Post-Bobo we have barely done any trips that have included monuments. D and I both love visiting these. I had not realised that to visit one was like coming up for air for me. And having established his credentials as a reasonably-good traveller for a toddler, Bobo has paved the way for many more.
Where is that planning diary…?