Three peaks of interest

Yogyakarta’s wonders show might of nature and faith

by Chen Fen Updated 12:48 PM Mar 24, 2011

Gunung Merapi was billowing smoke. It looked benign, almost like a giant gently breathing, beckoning from a distance. The volcano made a pretty picture framed by the glass windows of the cafe on the top floor of my hotel in Yogyakarta. But it is not for nothing that its name means “mountain of fire”. Gunung Merapi is the most active volcano in Indonesia. It has erupted with frightening regularity since the middle of the 16th century, bringing death and destruction to the land around it.

Do not be put off though. Thousands of people continue to live under the shadow of its grey, bare slopes. Its majestic beauty draws tourists daily to it. Take a chance. Have a look and you will be better able to appreciate the duality of nature, for what Merapi has taken through its destructive eruptions, it has given back in equal measure. The verdant countryside is ample evidence of its beneficence.

The more adventurous can make the ascent to its top, 2,968m above sea level. The climb will take about 10 hours in the relentless heat of the equatorial sun. We preferred to admire its almost perfect conical shape from a vantage point many, many kilometres away.

There is surely safety in distance, we thought. Then we were told that was the very spot where a few people were buried in hot lava as they took shelter in a bunker meant to protect them from the volcano’s poisonous fumes. But Merapi was kind to us that sunny day, coming out from under its cloud cover to reveal its picturesque best.

There was not a cloud to be seen when we visited Yogyakarta’s other wonder, the Borobudur temple, 42km from the city in central Java. The air-conditioned visitor centre with its free drinks provided a welcome respite from the heat before we made our way up the seven levels of the temple.

Over a million people visit Borobudur every year. So be prepared to wait your turn going up the steps to the terraces laid out in a concentric pattern with each level smaller than the one below. The top level is said to represent nirvana, the transcendent state that is the final goal of Buddhism.

It is difficult to imagine achieving that goal amid the hubbub of the jostling crowds. Perhaps it is best to just concentrate on the exquisite bas-relief stone panels that tell the story of Buddha and other enlightened beings. Nearly 1,500 of such panels can be found on the terraces leading to the top where a giant stupa stands as a reminder that you might have at least achieved some spiritual merit by climbing all the way up.

No climbing is necessary when you visit Yogyakarta’s other ancient monument, the Prambanan temple, 17km outside the city. But that does not make it any less magnificent than Borobudur. The 9th century Prambanan, a legacy of Indonesia’s Hindu past, may well be its best kept secret, often overlooked by the package tourist eager to add Borobudur to his been-there-done-that list.

Do not make that mistake. Prambanan is the biggest temple complex in Java. There are over 200 temples in the complex with the biggest of them soaring up to 47m tall. The towering structures may be old, yet they still manage to look like futuristic skyscrapers that Gaudi might design, were he to be alive, after he is done with the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.

So, be sure to make the trek to Prambanan, no matter how tired you are after a day in the sun visiting all the usual tourist spots. You will be amply rewarded when you behold the beauty of Prambanan.

GO: AirAsia now flies directly from Singapore to Yogyakarta daily. The flight takes 2 hours 10 minutes.

While in Yogyakarta, it’s best to hire a car with a driver to go sightseeing. Car hire is about 600,000 rupiah ($85) a day. The return trip to Borobudur is about 300,000 rupiah.

SHOP: Malioboro is Yogyakarta’s main shopping street. Shop for cheap batik, clothes, shoes and even batik laptop bags for just 40,000 rupiah. Don’t miss Pasar Beringharjo, at one end of Malioboro, where you will find lots of handicraft, batik products and foodstuff.

EAT: Malioboro transforms into a food paradise in the evening when the shopping stops and “lesehan” food stalls take over. Sit on straw mats on the pavement and indulge in some gudeg – jackfruit cooked in coconut milk and palm sugar – and other Indonesian delights placed on low communal tables.

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