Before leaving, someone asked me incredulously, “You’re spending one WHOLE month in Indonesia?” as if they thought I would run out of things to do. That was a totally nonsensical idea when you analyse the reality of this extraordinary country. As an archipelago nation of more than 17,000 islands straddling both sides of the equator for 5000km, Indonesia possesses surely the most complex geography of any nation on Earth. When you consider how tremendously fragmented Indonesia’s huge landmass is, you begin to appreciate how ethnically and culturally diverse the population is; how extensive the coastline is (with warm tropical waters); and how difficult travelling between regions is likely to be. One month is barely sufficient to explore just a small portion of Indonesia and deciding which islands to visit is quite challenging (should I travel to the second largest island in the world, or perhaps the third or fourth largest? Or do I want to visit the most populous island in the world, or the historic “Spice Islands”, or visit a cluster of isolated islands to see dragons, or a group of islands boasting the best dive sites in the world…).
Indonesia as a sovereign entity is a relatively recent concept and a colonial construct, formed under the hegemonic rule of the Dutch. Prior to European interest in the region, the archipelago was politically separated by its natural borders, with each island or cluster of small islands forming independent identities. Historically, even the larger islands like Sumatra, Java and Sulawesi were usually divided into rival kingdoms. The Hindu-Buddhist Majapahit state was the only empire that established brief control over most of the archipelago, in the 13th and 14th centuries. Islam gradually spread throughout the archipelago in the 13th to 15th centuries, destroying the Majapahits and isolating Hindu-Buddhists to the small island of Bali. The Portuguese (as usual) were the first Europeans to arrive in the region, enticed by the lucrative trade in spices (specifically clove, nutmeg and mace) grown on a small group of islands near New Guinea. In 1595, the Dutch East India Company (VOC) was established at Banten (Jakarta) on Java to conduct all Dutch business in the East Indies (the corporation is often evaluated as the wealthiest corporation to have existed in Western history). The VOC ambitiously attempted to monopolise the spice trade by forcing European rivals out of the region. They seized control of the Spice Islands and numerous ports throughout the archipelago. The corporation was bankrupt and corrupt by 1800, and consequently its territories passed to the Crown of the Netherlands. The archipelago was thus transformed from a trading empire into the colonial Dutch East Indies, with the Netherlands claiming and conquering everything between Australia and British-controlled Malaya and northern Borneo over the next century, excluding Portuguese East Timor. The Japanese “liberated” the archipelago from European colonial rule in World War II and the Dutch failed to reconquer the islands thereafter. The fourth most populous independent nation on Earth was thus born. Nearly half a century of virtual dictatorships ended in 1998, when Suharto resigned and the first democratic presidential election was held. Indonesia is now a fully democratised republic with a predominantly moderate Muslim population, and is home to 250 million residents.
While Kayla would have happily spent her entire Indonesian vacation on Bali as basically every Australian does, I unilaterally decided that we needed to be slightly more adventurous. I selected Java as our target island for exploration, and what an outstanding choice I made. Java, with its evocative name, has always fascinated me. How can a landmass that is less than a third the size of Victoria support 145 million people?! How can Australians (including myself) know so little about such an improbable island, since it is located so close to our continent? Java represented an exotic destination awaiting discovery, the perfect place to visit for this trip. We spent one action-packed week travelling in Central and East Java.
Most foreigners enter Indonesia through the capital Jakarta or the tourist mecca Bali, but Kayla and I dared to be different and initiated our Javanese adventure in the “small” city of Solo (Surakarta). On our bus journey from the airport to the central area, I was immediately struck by how clean, organised and affluent the city appeared relative to Asia. The city’s streets are uniformly paved, decorated with orderly rows of trees and absent of any rubbish. While the traffic is incessant, road rules exist and are obeyed, creating an unusually pleasant and safe urban experience (for Asia). The city’s infrastructure seems modern or adequately preserved (for Asia), while the people themselves appear to live a “comfortable” existence (for Asia). This description may sound rather mundane, but it came as a real surprise to me. I expected Java’s extreme population density would condemn the island to the horrendous traffic, overcrowding and noticeable poverty that are synonymous with other countries in Asia. But Solo exhibited none of these characteristics, which challenged my preconceived understanding of Indonesia’s fortunes.
Solo was the perfect destination to commence our travels in Indonesia from. The city does not feature on the mass tourist trail and consequently we encountered relatively few Westerners. Solo therefore provides an authentic insight into the reality of Javanese cities, free from the commercialisation and exploitative characters that plague tourist hotspots. The central area of Solo exhibits two aspects that are also fundamental to inner Melbourne’s layout: the grid-like division of space by arterial roads and the presence of atmospheric lanes between them. Kayla and I revelled in ambling through these peaceful havens of tropical colour, decay and manicured vegetation, where we met many local families. The friendliness of the local residents overwhelmed us, as people were eager to hail the Great White Bearded Gentleman and his secretary bird. It was quite a profound experience to be welcomed with genuine enthusiasm and warmth. We visited Solo’s kraton (Javanese name for royal residence), which is still the abode of the city’s Sultan. The complex is dominated by a vast, teal-coloured pavilion that exhibits traditional Javanese architecture with its open-air design and pointed-roof composition. Solo is apparently a “city that never sleeps”, so Kayla and I opted to sample the nightlife by attending a traditional gamelan performance. While Kayla demonstrated her lack of cultural appreciation by sleeping through the entire show, I watched a most unusual dance routine that was characterised by slow and excessive hand movements.
Borobudur is among the most iconic sites on Earth and was therefore a “must-see” for our journey through Indonesia. We decided to stay locally in Borobudur village to visit the temple, rather than join a lengthy tour from a nearby city. Our friendly English-speaking tuk-tuk driver directed us to an excellent homestay with a very hospitable family. They live in a moderately sized modern house with a central courtyard and two spacious guestrooms. They provided us with delicious snacks (crisp savoury biscuits with anchovies) and refreshing drinks (sweet jasmine tea) every time we walked through the door. Unfortunately on one occasion, the father enthusiastically offered us repulsively sweet drinks of coconut water and red (?) syrup. I graciously sculled my drink, while my rude companion, Ms Walker, poured the contents of her glass down the toilet (potentially clogging it with coconut shavings). The homestay was located among a cluster of dwellings surrounded by palm trees, thick vegetation and pockets of agriculture. In the early evening, we ventured to a tranquil landscape of vivid green rice-fields to watch the sun set gloriously over the tip of Borobudur temple in the distance. We also climbed a hill to observe the sun rise over Borobudur, but the scene was less spectacular and the atmosphere tainted by the presence of other tourists. Nonchalant toward the foggy view, we entertained ourselves with a most enthralling game of guessing the nationalities of our fellow foreigners based on appearances only. After submitting our answers, we would casually gravitate toward the target foreigners to hear their accent or first language. Needless to say, I was the champion of this riveting activity.
Borobudur Temple is the world’s largest Buddhist structure. Completed approximately 1,200 years ago, Borobudur consists of more than two million stone blocks formed into a colossal and symmetrical stupa. The 118m by 118m base supports six square terraces and three circular terraces, which are connected by four staircases that lead to the apex of the structure. The temple is intended to portray the everyday world spiralling up to the Buddhist heaven, nirvana. Visitors are supposed to walk around each terrace (although Kayla lazily skipped a few) in a clockwise manner. Circumambulation subsequently became a defining theme of our trip, as we circumambulated anything worth circumambulating. I participated in this routine to pay respect to the Buddhist faith, while Kayla was merely mocking it. I found it difficult to appreciate the immensity and thus uniqueness of Borobudur, probably because the temple is best viewed from the air. The terraces are decorated with exquisite sculptural works that depict Buddhist doctrine and Javanese culture from more than millennia ago. Small stupas resembling giant bells are planted on the upper levels. Somewhat ironically, this extraordinary edifice to Buddhism, the most popular tourist attraction in Indonesia, generates substantial income for the predominately Islamic local community.
The city often touted as the epicentre of traditional Javanese culture and history is not the national capital and megalopolis Jakarta, but another city with a reputation for many names. Yogyakarta, Jogjakarta, Yogjakarta, Yogya, Jogja, Djogdja… they all apparently refer to the same place. Yogyakarta is my personal favourite, so I’ll be sticking with that name. We stayed in a relatively pleasant tourist zone in the city, which featured traffic-free lanes decorated with tropical motifs. This area branches off Yogyakarta’s primary thoroughfare, Jalan Malioboro, which is lined with a seemingly endless sequence of shops selling trashy merchandise and rip-off batik. While not particularly interesting to intrepid travels like myself and Kayla, Jalan Malioboro was nevertheless rather charming with its decaying and multi-coloured edifices and designated lanes for the exclusive use of tuk-tuks and horse-drawn carriages. We walked the two kilometre length of Jalan Malioboro to a vast and dusty square, which we assumed to mark the edge of the central area and our tour of the city. We were thus somewhat underwhelmed by Yogyakarta.
That was until a 63 year old pocket-rocket named Dibio jumped out of a bush and suddenly became our very excitable guide for the next couple of hours. I’m naturally suspicious when locals show excessive enthusiasm toward foreigners, but Dibio quickly won me over when he started joking about the “Batik mafia” that plague Jalan Malioboro. To our surprise, Dibio revealed that we had yet to even reach the heart of Yogyakarta, the city’s immense kraton. The kraton is more than just the home of Yogyakarta’s sultan; it is a vast fortified palatial city with nearly 25,000 residents. The area is divided into orthogonal streets with relatively placid traffic, low-rise buildings and tropical landscaping. The kraton thus exudes the ambiance of a typical suburban neighbourhood, which is unusual for the centre of a large city. The kraton predominately consists of solid stone buildings and walls with white colouration or vernacular wooden structures with terracotta roofs. Dibio led us through untouristed lanes that were reminiscent of Solo’s. He passionately explained the customs of the kraton’s residents, including a neighbourhood-watch system. The local men of the kraton rotate duty to patrol the streets of their respective zones each night. Wooden instruments are hung beside gates that divide the zones, and the men bang on them to indicate that all is safe. At least I think that’s what Dibio was saying, he was rather difficult to follow. Kayla didn’t make much effort to understand and tuned out completely when the conversation turned to the apparently “boring” topic of politics. I surprisingly took some interest in the paraphernalia that draped virtually every building promoting the two contenders in the Presidential election, the third biggest exercise in democracy on Earth. Dibio identified that the eventual winner Jokowi was strongly preferred in Yogyakarta.
While ambling through the kraton the subsequent morning, Kayla and I stumbled across a “nifty” café operated by friendly locals (this event has since been referred to as the “coffee encounter”). The café specialised in serving coffee luwak, a luxury drink produced in Sumatra. A small arboreal creature named the civet digests coffee beans plucked directly from coffee trees. The beans are recovered from the creature’s excrement and processed into fine coffee without the usual bitterness. The inefficiency of this process logically results in high prices for coffee luwak, so Kayla stingily ordered a regular brew. We had a pleasant conversation with the café owners about coffee, food and lifestyle in Java; an experience that Kayla cited as one of the highlights of her trip. As a Melbournian however, chatting over coffee was not exactly an exotic ritual for me. I therefore find it somewhat perplexing why Kayla remains so enthralled by this event, but perhaps her origins from the lesser half of Melbourne (south side of the Yarra of course) partly explains it.
We made a half-day trip to the World Heritage listed Hindu temples at Prambanan, near Yogyakarta. The complex was constructed in the same century as Borobudur, but its architecture and dedication is completely different. This represents the duopoly in power in ninth century Java, the Buddhist Sailendras and Hindu Old Mataram. The main temple compound originally consisted of 240 temples arranged in a square plan, but most of these structures have since been destroyed by earthquakes. The six largest and most important temples in the central part of the precinct still exist after reconstructions. The architecture is characterised by tall and pointed design, which give the temples the appearance of giant bulky spires. The constituent temple, dedicated to Shiva, stands at 47m high and features the most impressive carvings of Hindu iconography.
For those not interested in food, look away now! Java boasts perhaps the most vibrant street-food culture of any place I have travelled to. Small carts and vast market stalls cater particularly to the fervent obsession Indonesians have with deep-fried offerings. Health conscience Kayla usually goaded me into purchasing outrageously cheap bags of fried goodies, so she could try everything discreetly while foregoing the appearance of a glutinous person eating food from every cart passed. Fried banana (not sweet enough- better in Bali), fried cassava (too dry), fried vegetable fritters (sensational- by far my favourite), fried giant spring rolls (vegetarian and delicious), fried dough (too plain), fried tofu stuffed with vegetables (moist and delectable), fried parcels of clear noodles enclosed in a bean curd skin, fried chicken (slightly better than KFC) and fried sesame balls with a peanut filling (Kayla’s favourite) were all sampled. Sate, grilled over hot coals, is another ubiquitous street-food option in Indonesia and every region is renowned for a specific variety. Kayla and I perhaps irresponsibly tried Sate Padang from Sumatra, rather than the local speciality, but it was delicious nonetheless. Skewers of bite-sized pieces of beef were served in a pool of spicy and thick peanut sauce. In Solo we ate a delicious local street-food favourite called serabi, which are thin pancakes filled with coconut milk custard and topped with tropical fruit or chocolate. As a fruit fanatic, Kayla made liberal use of our presence in the tropics by stuffing her gob (in a most uncouth manner) with unusual fruits that are rarely, if ever, sighted at home. Sirsak, or “snakeskin” fruit, was the most commonly available fruit and became a particular favourite for both of us. A Sirsak is the size of a small apple and features an unappealing dark brown outer layer that resembles snakeskin. The skin is peeled off to reveal a crunchy and relatively dry white flesh, which tastes quite similar to pineapple. For sit-down meals, Indonesians often eat at a small “warungs” that specialise in specific dishes. In Solo, Kayla and I wandered into a very local warung (and had many strange looks directed our way) and ordered nasi liwet, a delicious meal of coconut rice, unripe papaya, tofu and curry chicken. Arguably the dish of the trip was a sensational soup we slurped up in Yogyakarta. Soto consists of a rich beef and vegetable broth with rice and slices of beef or chicken. Soto is found throughout Indonesia and is usually quite insipid, but this particular edition was a corker. We tried Yogyakarta’s famed jackfruit curry (cooked slowly for hours and is very dry) known as gudeg and determined that although the flavour is reasonably nice, its reputation and work required are unjustified.
I didn’t know what to expect from Java, mainly because I heard so few anecdotal stories. The world’s most populated island sits right on our continent’s doorstep, yet Australians seem to totally lack any curiousity whatsoever for this extraordinary sliver of volcano-strewn land. After spending an enthralling four days in Central Java, I became increasingly puzzled as to why Australian tourists generally ignore visiting this region. Australians hardly lack adventurism when it comes to international travel, since few touristic places exist where the Australian accent is seldom heard. Likewise, Central Java hardly lacks tourists, as we were swamped by French and Dutch travellers. Yet for whatever reason, Java remains a blind spot on Australia’s travel radar. Hopefully this entry will inspire a wave of Australians to visit Java!
That’s all for now,