YOGYAKARTA – Every year thousands of local and international tourists flock to Central Java to visit two ancient temples: Borobudur and Prambanan. Borobudur was built by the Syailendra Dynasty in the 8th Century and remains the world’s largest Buddhist temple, while Prambanan was built 100 years later and is considered one of the most significant Hindu temples in existence. Our final destination is Yogyakarta, a steamily hot and bustling city situated a few kilometres from both temples. We arrive after a two-hour flight from Bandung and are escorted in air-conditioned comfort to our hotel where two rickshaw drivers sit waiting for us. Their rickshaws consist of open-air passenger seats attached to motorbikes! I slide onto the seat, hold on tight and hope for the best while my driver whisks me into thick traffic towards Yogyakarta’s shopping district.
The next morning we enter the sacred territory of Prambanan. Wrapped in a sarong, I gaze at the intricate stone turrets rising up from the dirt. 240 temples were originally dotted around the three main structures which symbolize the creator, the destroyer and the preserver. We’re led into the first tower where a statue of Ganesh stands illuminated in a vaulted room. Decorative stone carvings cover the walls of the temples and I’m told that Prambanan is an embodiment of a centuries-old Hindu tale that involves the kidnapping of a beautiful queen and her dramatic rescue.
From Prambanan we’re driven to the Merapi Volcano situated an hour away. En-route I see apple-green plantations, palm trees and villagers wearing conical hats and carrying impossibly heavy loads of grass strapped to their backs. Our driver tells us about how the volcano violently erupted in 2010 causing the deaths of 324 residents living in the area. Warnings were issued, but many of the locals refused to leave their cherished homes, cows and fertile land. Since that tragic event, tourism has ironically increased around the volcano. On arrival at the base of Merapi, we hop aboard one of many Jeeps that transport tourists to an outdoor museum of a house that was destroyed during the eruption. There’s a burnt clock frozen in time, the carcass of a cow and a traditional gong blackened by ash.
After a sombre two hours at Merapi, we lunch on crispy duck and sticky rice pudding and make our way to Borobudur. The magnitude of this Buddhist masterpiece is immense. Nine mounted terraces stretch skywards towards a central dome standing high above the ground. We walk up a series of stairways passing some of the 72 Buddha statues that form part of the temple. Each level represents a phase in the ultimate quest to attain nirvana. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Borobudur was mysteriously abandoned in the 15th Century and officially rediscovered in the 19th Century. Over time it’s become a prevalent place of pilgrimage that is loyally frequented by Indonesia’s predominantly Muslim population.
On my last morning in Indonesia, I bow my final bow, pose for one more photo and start the long journey home to South Africa. The exotic smells, sounds and tastes of Indonesia linger in my mind for days and it occurs to me that this country of islands changes one’s perspective. Here people are deeply connected to ancient traditions and rituals, and communal living is expressed through every shared meal. Indonesia’s humble and curious people put their faith in a greater good and despite maddening urban crowds and bee-swarm traffic; they live a remarkably peaceful existence as one multicultural whole.