Alluring sister cities


Catch a glimpse of the past and a peek into the future while in Yogyakarta and Solo.

FROM the outside, the humble single storey Adi Sucipto International Airport in Yogyakarta seemed more like a bus station.

“The airport will be expanded if there is a need to,” said one of the airport staff, casually waving towards the scaffolding in the distance. Changes happened so often that locals don’t make much of a fuss.

Travelling through the streets of Yogyakarta quickly illustrated his point, with motorcycles dominating the roads, riding alongside horse-drawn carriages and a mix of cars firmly divided between the latest Japanese models and well-maintained antiques from the 80s.

Pop culture: The Borobudur monument is one of the most visited tourist spots in Indonesia. – QISHIN TARIQ / THE STAR

To a Malaysian, the scene wasn’t all that different from being in the older parts of Malacca or Ipoh. Unless you looked closely at the signs, the words sounded vaguely familiar: the offer of gratis (free) parkir mobil (car park), or the threat of polisi (police) action against errant parkers.

At the heart of the city lies the Kraton (the Sultan’s palace), which is made up of several landmark locations like the Agung Mosque and Taman Sari Water Castle.

Taman Sari, the former royal gardens, is one of the better preserved remnants of the palace complex that was abandoned more than a century ago. Originally designed as a retreat for the Sultan and his concubines, it still looks like a resort. Unfortunately, visitors aren’t allowed to swim in the pools.

Surviving earthquakes, invasions and neglect, the gardens are on the mend thanks to the local government’s efforts.

“The water palace has been under renovation since 2004. After the initial restoration efforts, we’re now focusing on maintaining the compound,” said foreman Dwan, who along with his team, had chosen to work on the palace restorations to honour their ruler.

“The belief still persists that to serve the palace is to serve the Sultan, and by extension, it’s almost a form of holy work,” said the wiry 30-year-old.

Reaching nine terraces tall, the view of the rolling valleys from the peak of Borobudur makes it worth every sweaty moment trekking up the stairs

Taman Sari is open to the public for a small fee of 7,000 rupiah (RM2.50) and contains several bathing pools and courtyards. While mostly filled with tourists, the local residents start to trickle in as closing time (3.30pm) nears. A group of children gather at the palace courtyard to play football, using the ancient totems as goal posts.

An obligatory stop while in Yogyakarta is the famed Buddhist monument Borobudur, a Unesco heritage site and annual pilgrimage location for Buddhists.

Located about 40km away from town, visitors can see the devastating traces of Mount Merapi’s eruption in Oct 2010, Even a year later, husks of burned down houses and heaps of ash are scattered all over the countryside.

The Javanese are a hardy bunch who face Merapi’s wrath on a regular basis. While some would take the ash as a bitter reminder, the locals instead have made an industry of it, compacting the ash and sculpting it into lawn ornaments and statues.

Being in such close proximity to the violent volcano, Borobudur was closed for almost a month while the ash was removed.

“After the 2010 explosion, the temple was covered in nearly 10cm of ash. If the ash isn’t removed, it could potentially damage the relics while the rain will spread the ash in crevices which in turn cracks or loosens the bricks,” said temple caretaker Suprat M. Supritadi, 59.

He has been caring for the holy site since 1973, returning on a contract basis after retirement.

The Ramayana Ballet’s first act ends with the character Hanuman setting the stage on fire, burning down the prop straw houses.

According to him, a complex series of chalk markings composed of numbers and symbols are used to keep track of where each brick goes.

“When I first started work, we had to literally take the temple apart brick by brick and put it back in the exact same order, after repairing sections or reinforcing with concrete,” reminisced Suprat.

Foreign tourists are given a separate entrance and an ornate batik sarong to wear. Unfortunately, this dress code draws the attention of dozens of relentless souvenir salesmen. Security around the site prohibits salesmen from following tourist up the monument, but leaving can be an ordeal as the entrepreneurs make a last attempt at a sale.

Commercialisation aside, Borobudur is truly a wonder of the ancient world. Reaching nine terraces tall, the view of the rolling valleys below makes it worth every sweaty moment trekking up the stairs under the blazing sun. If you forgot to pack correctly, you will quickly find yourself caving in to the salesman’s offers for a hat or umbrella.

Another famous temple in the region would be the Prambanan Hindu temple, another Unesco heritage site dating back to the ninth century.

Known for its beautiful backdrop against the setting sun, the temple’s proximity to the airport means seeing the occasional plane cruising through the sunset, a subtle reminder of a progressing nation.

Another stunning feature of the Prambanan is the Ramayana Ballet, performed at the Ramayana outdoor theatre, just a stone’s throw away from the temple. The production, shown only if weather permits, features some 200 elaborately costumed dancers and a Javanese gamelan ensemble performing the Hindu epic about love and war. More a treat for the boys, the first act ends with the character Hanuman literally burning down the stage, while the second act focuses on the war, with dance fights aplenty.

The Taman Sari Water Castle, once a retreat for the Sultan and his concubines, is now a popular tourist spot.

Unlike Yogyakarta, its sister city Solo, located two hours away, features more western influences, with some formerly Dutch-owned mansions being converted into stores or rented as private residencies.

Solo is a mecca for batik and the material can be purchased in Kampung Batik Laweyan and Kampung Batik Kauman. However, the House of Danar Hadi (a batik museum) gives the villages a run for their money. The museum supposedly houses 10,000 pieces of batik of Javanese, Chinese, Indian and even Dutch origin, all owned by designer H. Santosa Doellah, whose career in batik spans nearly four decades.

The museum also houses a workshop that actively produces batik. As part of the museum tour, visitors are allowed to enter the workshop to see how its been made.

“Depending on the number of colours on the batik, creating one foot of material can take between one to three months,” explained Bakti, an employee of Danar Hadi.

Bakti has been with the museum for five years and spends his days pressing the wax patterns into cloth. His section of the workshop is particularly hot and muggy as the wax has to be at a constant near boil temperature to keep it in liquid form. The tall, vented roof helps reduce the thick smell of wax but does little to reduce the heat. Bakti’s singlet clings to him from the perspiration.

“It’s hard work, but I’m willing to sacrifice a little to do a good job,” he said, adding that the heat was part of the workers’ “training process”.

Solo’s mayor Joko Widodo perfectly summed up Indonesia’s unique duality between the modern and the old by coming up with the slogan “Solo Masa Lalu, Solo Masa Depan” (Solo’s Past Is Its Future).

“Tourist come here for our heritage, not shopping malls and hotels. If you go to a shopping mall, it’s the same whether you’re in Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur or New York,” he said.

“If we don’t defend our identity, we will be indistinguishable from others – all merged into a kind of fast food tourism. Imagine touring through McDonald’s across the world, what’s the point?”

Now that’s food for thought. [Article link]