Ancient marvels in Yogyakarta

Above: The writer at Prambanan, a 10th-century Hindu temple compound east of Yogyakarta.

I’m in a minivan travelling along a gravel road just outside the heart of Yogyakarta, and things are getting decidedly, shall we say, rustic.

The sound of cicadas chirping accompanies a chorus of bullfrogs. I stare out of the window tentatively, my eyes adjusting slowly to the fading light.

I think: This can’t be where we’re staying. We’re in the middle of nowhere.

As if sensing my hesitation, my tour guide, Made, smiles and says: “Hang on, just wait and see. The hotel is very beautiful; it overlooks a paddy field.”

The wait is worth it.

As soon as the van turns into the premises of a private villa, the beautiful Rumah Sleman Private Boutique Hotel, I am awed by the large wraparound verandah that does indeed overlook a paddy field.

The setting is perfect for getting back to nature. And there are many other wonders in store on my four-day trip.

A 45-minute drive away from the villa is the Borobudur Temple, and I delve into the ancient mysteries of this Unesco World Heritage site.

Borobudur is a Buddhist pilgrimage site.

Built in the 8th century over a period of about 70 years, the temple was abandoned in the 14th century following the decline of Buddhism in Java, then rediscovered in 1814 by Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles – five years before he set foot in Singapore.

Listed as one of the Seven Wonders of the World, Borobudur is both a shrine to Buddha and a place for Buddhist pilgrimages, as the temple is a Mahayana Buddhist monument, with 2,672 relief panels and 504 Buddha statues.

Here, the journey for pilgrims begins at the base of the monument, which is shaped like a mandala in a series of platforms – five square platforms below, four circular platforms above – with a pathway that takes pilgrims through three levels of Buddhist cosmology.

Unlike most temples, which were built on a flat surface, Borobudur was built on a hill. I climb to the top, beads of sweat rolling down my forehead as the sun beats down mercilessly.

But, upon completing the ascent, I am rewarded with a spectacular view of volcanoes.

A stone’s throw away from Borobudur is the Prambanan Temple – another designated Unesco World Heritage site – which is another must-see.

Built in the 10th century, this is the largest temple compound dedicated to Shiva in Indonesia, and is about 15km east of the main city of Yogyakarta.

Its proximity to the Buddhist Borobudur temple is an indication that in Java, Buddhism and Hinduism were able to coexist peacefully.

At Prambanan, I see the silhouettes of a collection of sharp, jagged sculpted towers stand darkly against the pink salmon skies at dusk.

After dinner, I catch the Ramayana ballet on the premises of the Prambanan temple, performed on an open stage under the stars. The ballet is based on the epic Hindu tale of the same name, set to gamelan music and featuring Javanese dance.

Back at the hotel, I wash away the grime accumulated from a day of climbing centuries-old temples. But even here, history abounds.

The Rumah Sleman hotel, located 20 minutes away from the Adi Sutjipto International Airport, was built in 1814 and used to be an Indonesian sultan’s villa, before it was transformed into a boutique hotel.

The building still retains the essence of royal Javanese style. The interior is replete with heritage furniture that exudes a sort of elegance taking you back to a bygone era.

The next day, I am back on the road to see the sacred Mountain of Fire, otherwise known as Mount Merapi – yes, the volcano whose eruptions killed more than 240 people in October and November last year. The torrents of lava destroyed entire villages near the volcano then, leaving thousands displaced and homeless.

I watch as the volcano’s vents emit gas clouds gently, and seeing an active volcano – even one in relative repose – commands reverence.

For a more thrilling adventure, you can go up the mountain trails via bike tours.

I leave Yogyakarta feeling like I have touched another realm – one that almost demands that I return, to see more.

The Jakarta Post reported flooding and landslides in several areas in Indonesia last week, due to the rainy season. As of press time, no travel advisory for Indonesia was issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Call 1-800- 476-8870 to get updates if you plan to travel there.

Flight

Fly direct from Singapore to Yogyakarta via AirAsia (www.airasia.com). A search for travel next month reveals flights starting at $335 (round-trip).

Lodging

To experience staying at a private villa in classical Javanese style, choose Rumah Sleman Private Boutique Hotel. Visit rumahsleman.com to make a reservation. Prices are 1.2 million rupiah (S$172) and up.

Or, live it up at a five-star international hotel, the Sheraton Mustika Yogyakarta Resort & Spa (www.starwoodhotels.com/sheraton), featuring state-of-the-art facilities, whether for business or leisure. Rates start at one million rupiah.

For those with a budget to consider, yet want to enjoy a cosy ambience, stay at Puri Artha Hotel (http://puriarthahotel.com/), a building with a charming blend of Javanese style with modern facilities. Each room has a verandah that overlooks gardens. Rates start at 659,000 rupiah for a superior room.

A Deluxe Special room at Puri Artha Hotel.

The author is a freelance writer. Her trip was sponsored by AirAsia.

Photos: Cheah Ui-Hoon, Lynne Hong, Puri Artha Hotel

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