Mary, Susan, Indo Part 3: Borobudur and Prambanan

Have I mentioned my undergraduate degree in archaeology? Few things get me feeling all warm and fuzzy like old stuff, and Central Java might as well be called Archaeology Disney Land. Unfortunately, three weeks is not sufficient time to see all of the ruins around Yogya, and we only had three days, leaving us just enough time to see two: Borobudur and Prambanan, both UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Susan has a major thing for UNESCO World Heritage Sites. In an effort to rest Susan’s sprained ankle, we stopped at a drugstore to buy a pair of crutches before setting out and then had a wheelchair to minimize walking when we weren’t climbing the structures. Susan scaled the uneven steps of both Borobudur and Prambanan on crutches and in the rain like a champion – with a smile on her face the whole time.

Borobudur

In case it wasn't clear that I'm in Indonesia, here I am riding an elephant with Borobudur in the background.

In case it wasn’t clear that I’m in Indonesia, here I am riding an elephant with Borobudur in the background.

Borobudur is a mammoth Buddhist structure built in the 8th century and abandoned shortly after. UNESCO ran a major restoration project on it in the 70s – which included disassembling it brick by brick and putting it back together (woah). In 1983, bombs were planted near the top destroying some small stupas, but nothing that couldn’t be repaired. Today, it is magnificent. The colossal size of the structure is one thing, but I was most entranced by all the carvings that lined the corridors.

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One is meant to enter the temple and walk clockwise in meditation looking at the reliefs that depict life on earth – with all of its pleasures, pains, and punishments, the transformation of the original Buddha from a lavish prince to The Enlightened One, and finally, Nirvana is at the top. Strolling through Borobudur was incredible, albeit confusing, and it wasn’t until after reflection and reading about the experience that I’ve been able to understand the genius behind the building as a meditation tool. For three levels, you are overwhelmed by visual stimuli. From the base of the floor are reliefs that are impossible to appreciate – due to quantity and detail – unless examined slowly and thoughtfully. It is overwhelming. Looking up, there it seems endless and there are few spaces to look outwards over the vast green field that Borobudur is situated in. One almost feels trapped, and, especially for the ignorant tourist, very confused. Upon reaching the, now circular, platforms of Nirvana, everything is open and there are no carvings, only soft shaped Stupas with Buddhas inside of them at in the very center, a large, empty Stupa. When we made it to Nirvana, I remember thinking “this is it?” But now, I understand, that yes, that’s it. Buddhism is about abandoning worldly possessions and preoccupations and reaching a state of empty clarity, Enlightenment or Nirvana. The summit of Borobudur evokes exactly that.

Susan and I at the top.

Susan and I at the top.

Stupas in the Nirvana representation

Stupas in the Nirvana representation

One cannot help but to notice that many of the Buddha statues are missing their heads. As it turns out, that even at a place meant to motivate people to abandon greed and possessions, people struggle to resist themselves and still take.

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Prambanan

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After visiting Borobudur, we went to Prambanan, a Hindu temple complex roughly one hour from Borobudur and built only fifty years later. Java embraced both Hinduism and Buddhism, and it was very interesting to see the similarities and differences between the two sites.

Prambanan is said to be one of the largest and grandest examples of Hindu art. Unfortunately, it has not survived the earthquakes as well as Borobudur. Restorations are still underway and not all the temples are completely stable, check out the hard hats we had to don in the main Shiva temple.

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The main Shiva temple tells the Ramanaya epic in reliefs, which was very interesting to see because the previous night, we had attended the ballet. It was amazing how easy it was to identify parts of the performance on the temple walls. The story is about a princess who is abducted and then rescued by Hanunan, the white monkey. The ballet was incredible complete with armies of colorful monkeys, fire, and beautiful costuming.

 

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I was not as taken by Prambanan as I was Borobudur, but we also didn’t allow ourselves sufficient time to embrace the complex. Eight key temples are clustered together while just on the outside is a border of temples that now lay in complete ruins. The entire complex lies over many square kilometers that would have been wonderful to explore on bike, like we did at Bagan in Myanmar.

I was most impressed by Prambanan’s beauty at night when the main temples were the backdrop to the Ramanaya Ballet. It was very cool to see the reliefs brought to life with gamelan music and Javanese dance. IMG_2625

 

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Mary, Susan, Indo Part 2: Gunung Merapi, the part we thought would kill us.

After three glorious beach days in Krui, we went back to Bandar Lampung for a night and then flew into Yogyakarta in Central Java. We had the sunrise Merapi Volcano hike in the back of our mind, and then upon arriving at our guesthouse, we decided that that very night was our night.

Anyone with a reasonable level of fitness will be fine. says Lonely Planet Indonesia. Susan — a marathon runner — and myself — well, thin — have always considered ourselves to be in AT LEAST a reasonable level of fitness, so we set off in the middle of the night undaunted and unprepared to scale the volcano — one of the top ten deadliest in the world.

Already chilly, the rain did not help at all. The Rp 7000 (70 cents) ponchos that Susan bought us at the base turned out to be the most — er, only — valuable piece of equipment we had. Besides that, Susan was wearing exercise spandex, a light jacket, and tennis shoes while I was wearing shorts, Chaco sandals, a tank top, and a cardigan. I know better than to set off on a hike like this, and punished I was for not using my head when I was packing. Fortunately, I had my sarong to wrap around my legs, which added some warmth.

The hike was steep right from the get go and never flattened out. We were marching into cold, slippery darkness with no briefing from our guides, no maps, and just in general no idea of what to expect. There were six of us in the group. Two seemed pretty serious about hiking, and also in a hurry for some reason, while Susan and I and the a Dutch couple felt like Merapi was killing us slowly and painfully.

We lost hope at various points of the hike, but we snapped and vocally said that we wanted to go no further when we reached the first plateau and had this conversation with our guide.

Will we make it to the top? No, the weather is too bad.
Will we see lava? No, it isn’t clear enough.
Will we have a nice view for the sunrise? No, it’s very cloudy this morning.
Can we just stay here then? No, we need to at least make it to the second plateau.

And then we saw lightning in the distance.

Three hours in.

Three hours in.

We continued our death march, now, with the lowest of expectations.

When we made it to the second plateau we huddled in a tiny cave for warmth. Some managed to get a little bit of sleep, I decided to quit smoking. By the time we arrived at the second plateau, I realized that I was indeed NOT in a reasonable level of fitness, so cigarettes had to go — I’m one week in.

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One of the guides came into the cave and announced that the weather had cleared and we were going to continue on to the third plateau and possibly the crater. Skeptical, we followed. Significantly lighter outside and the breath taking scenery coming into view, this part of the hike was easily the best and we all began to feel much better about the previous four hours.

the first sign that we had made it through the night

the first sign that we had made it through the night

When we arrived at the third plateau, we couldn’t make it up to the crater because the volcano is active and was smoking, so we watched the sunrise from where we were. It was magical. We were high above the clouds and other mountains were all around us and the forests were lush and intriguing. The view from the top truly was stunning and offered one of the most intense feelings of freedom that I’ve experienced.

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Not going up there with all that smoke coming out!

Not going up there with all that smoke coming out!

Unfortunately, a helicopter did not come to pick us up, and we had to hike down. It was just as bad as the hike up, and especially awful for Susan because early on, she sprained her ankle. I’ve always said that Susan is the toughest girl I know, and watching her get down the mountain with a bum ankle and, all things considered, in good spirits, is now making me wonder if she is even human. Having walked off the mountain without any injuries, I cherish that feeling of freedom that I felt at the third plateau watching the sun come up, and if Merapi blows in 2014 as it’s expected, I will be saddened and feel lucky that I got to know her a bit. Susan, has different feelings on whether the hike was worth it.

So the bottom line if you’re planning to hike Gunung Merapi is wear the sturdiest of hiking boots, go during the dry season, bring a head lamp, and prepare to be cold, even though you’re in Indonesia. It’s not easy, hiking at night is scary, and no matter your level of fitness, you’ll probably really hate at least a portion of the hike.

back down near the bottom. We survived.

back down near the bottom. We survived.

The Java Jive

For as frequently as I travel to Java, it rarely ends end up in blog, so I’m changing that now and am going to combine months of visits to the island of Java into one post.

Situated in Bandar Lampung, I’m pretty close to Java. The bus/ferry option takes about 12 hours, but by flight, I am only 30 minutes to Jakarta.

This is awesome because I have some family who live there and the night life in Jakarta is amazing. Unfortunately the city itself is famously congested and spread out. Jakarta is largest city in Southeast Asia and the entire metropolitan area makes it the second largest metropolitan area in the world. Getting anywhere means sitting in a cab for roughly an hour – often times more – which can be infuriating if you don’t possess the virtue patience. Macet, the Indonesian word for traffic jam, is one you learn instantly on arrival, and there are three types: Macet Normal, Macet Besar (big traffic jam) and Macet Total. It varies on time of day and destination. One Friday, I spent two hours getting from the airport to a hotel in central Jakarta, but then on Monday morning, it only took me 30 minutes to get back to the airport. Who knew.

view of Jakarta from a hotel room in the city center

view of Jakarta from a hotel room in the city center

Not quite the charm of colonial plazas in Latin America, but I love the tandem bikes with matching hats!

Not quite the charm of colonial plazas in Latin America, but I love the tandem bikes with matching hats!

Shanghai Blue, a 1920s Cantonese restaurant. Very cool. Very yummy. One of my favorite restaurants in the world.

Shanghai Blue, a 1920s Cantonese restaurant. Very cool. Very yummy. One of my favorite restaurants in the world.

 

Fortunately, escaping the city is fairly easy. One hour (and 90 cents) will land you in Bogor. Bogor, while the city itself isn’t too much to look at, has a stunning botanical garden. Besides being tropical and beautiful, this is really special because local parks, green spaces, and plazas didn’t really catch on here like they did in Europe, the USA, and Latin America, so once we found this place, it was very easy to spend all day leisurely strolling about and leaving was very difficult.

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Lots of Indonesians head to West Java to relax for the weekend and it’s very easy to see why. That being said, without a car getting around can be challenging. Wanting to completely escape the city for a few days, a friend and I took off for Situ Gunung National Park to take refuge by a lake and hike to a waterfall. It looks very close on the map

In Cisaat, West Java trying to get to Situ Gunung. We didn't want to be separated because it was night, we were in a strange place, and only one of us spoke Bahasa, so the police looked the other way as both of us got on one motorbike (illegal). The sign in the background reads "Do you want to die?"

In Cisaat, West Java trying to get to Situ Gunung. We didn’t want to be separated because it was night, we were in a strange place, and only one of us spoke Bahasa, so the police looked the other way as both of us got on one motorbike (illegal). The sign in the background reads “Do you want to die?”

Getting there was an adventure that we did not anticipate and no one seemed to be able to give us reliable information on how to get there or how long it would take. From Jakarta, someone said the total journey would take four hours. When we were on a small local bus, almost at the drop off city to transfer to a motor bike, we were told that it would be an additional four hours and that we would be lucky to arrive before the early morning. Fortunately, that person was wrong and, while it was dark when we arrived, it wasn’t early morning, or even late at night.

The second we settled into our little cabin by the lake, though, we knew the journey was worth it even just for a night and leisurely morning and afternoon. Besides the birds, frogs, and insects, it was dead silent and while walking around, our only light was from the moon. We found a group of campers on a company camping trip, which was very fortunate because they had food and we had none and we got to enjoy a proper camp fire jam session.

We slept through the sunrise, which was unfortunate because that’s when the lake is supposed to be at most beautiful and set off to find the waterfall. It was beautiful, refreshing, worth the trouble, and very difficult to leave.
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The journey back wasn’t nearly as stressful – until we got to Bogor and no one wanted to tell us how to get back to the train station. One daring taxi driver even tried to tell us that the station was closed – liar – and that he would be happy to drive us back to Jakarta. I’m sure he would have been happy, because that would have cost us a fortune. Arriving in Jakarta a two hours later, by train, was very satisfying since we had just done what at least five people told us would be impossible. We were tempted to go back and find the taxi driver who said that the train station was closed and say “see!”, but we chose cocktails instead.

Java is a really intriguing island, home to the Borobudur archaeological zone, lava rivers, the highest concentration of Indonesian people, and most of the Dutch leftovers from the colonial period. I haven’t been able to explore the island enough and I probably won’t, which is a frustrating reality of living and working in such a large and fascinating country and mostly only having the weekends to travel. It’s been an important island in my experience here thus far though and I’m sure that I will continue to get to know Java better in the coming months.

Dorky Travelers in Myanmar….

This is the last of my Myanmar posts, but I realized that I was leaving my travel buddies out of my blog posts, which I’m going to fix right now.

Myanmar Holiday Part 7: Mount Popa

From Bagan we took a day trip to Mount Popa before going back to Yangon for New Years, and it was seriously National Lampoon’s Burmese Vacation. Hiring a car for the day cost five of us $8 a head and we had a list of places we wanted to see. Sinister is the adjective we can best use to describe our driver, and I do not have any photos of this individual because honestly, he was kind of scary. Our day with him did make for a good story though.

Driving out of Bagan, he pulled over and yelled out his window to many a passerby “Come on! Mount Popa!” Not surprisingly at all, no one hopped into our van. We did, however, make a stop at another guesthouse where we were to pick someone up. We were told not to discuss money with the new guy because he was being charged $10, while the rest of us were being charged $8. This guy later told us that he thought he would be on a guided tour.

On our drive, we stopped at a local toddy distillery, that we were not interested in, and were told “Stop. Get out. Alcohol. Photos.” Confused, we asked to continue on to Mount Popa, which he begrudgingly did.

Our next stop was a vista looking out a Mount Popa where we were swarmed by children selling rocks – magical rocks that RATTLE – and petrified wood. Yes, I bought tons of rocks for my friends back in Indonesia, who, luckily, think they’re as awesome as I do.

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When we arrived at Mount Popa, music was blaring from a temple where woman, seemingly in a trance, was dancing, monkeys were running all around, and colorful egg shaped human figures were all over. The place was instantly captivating and worth the very awkward car trip.

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We climbed the steep steps up to the temple perched on top of Mount Popa, stopping for a quick lunch of noodles where we got a taste of the monkeys’ relationship with the people. It’s not good. After my trip to the Sacred Monkey Forest in Ubud, Bali, I’m hesitant around our furry cousins, but they are still fun to watch. From a distance. A man walking around beating a stick gave us a nod and a thumbs up — like an trusty uncle who had our back—and made sure that we stayed a safe distance from the monkeys. The old ladies serving up our noodles also protected us… by sling-shotting the monkeys when they got too close.

When we reached the top, were rewarded with a stunning view of wide open space. Looking northeast, we were 300 miles from India, but the area between us and India is currently full of conflict, making it impossible to cross. We also saw an impressive crater that Lonely Planet says is a fun hike and were determined to do it. We descended to find our driver so that he would take us there, as well as the petrified forest.

Explaining the crater was challenging and thank goodness we had Blake to draw it. We were confident that he understood where we wanted to go and he told us to meet him back at the car at 1:15pm. We got some more food, and I was really enjoying an ear of sweet corn when a monkey snuck up behind me and ripped it out of my hands while I was gnawing on it. Where were my sling shot ladies when I needed them?

 

I hope that he enjoyed his corn...

I hope that he enjoyed his corn…

When we met back up with our driver, he was decorating the car with flowers and said with a big betel nut grin “my lady”, and a woman we had never seen got in the van. We drove for a while, stopped, and were sent up a hill for “45 minutes!” There was a reclining Buddha, and a nice view, but we were really confused as to where we were. Looking out, we were trying to work out if we were on the edge of the crater or not, but you can see in the picture that the trees look big and then there’s a cliff and they get really small, so we figured that maybe we were.

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are we on a crater?

are we on a crater?

Also on that stop, I lost my pretty sunglasses in a squat toilet, and the lady guarding the toilet kept telling me they were gone forever while I was in mourning.

Blake and Joe went back to car to find all the curtains drawn and our driver in the backseat with his lady. When we dropped her off at her house that was nearby, we realized that we had not been to the crater, and probably wouldn’t go there. Our driver and his lady just needed some alone time, and he knew how to distract six tourists for forty-five minutes.

We asked him to then take us to the petrified forest, which we settled on being “stone tree” and he took us a roadside tea shop that had petrified wood as a fence. Stone trees, sure, petrified forest… not quite. I don’t have any pictures from that special stop. We went back to Bagan after that, awkwardly laughing and with no words to describe the day trip. It was National Lampoon’s Burmese Vacation, and one of the weirder days that I’ve had traveling.

Myanmar Holiday Part 6: Bagan

Bagan, officially the Bagan Archaeological Zone is an area of 22 square miles of temples, constructed between the 11th and 13th century, that was the site of the first Burmese Kingdom. Google ‘Burma’ and you will undoubtedly find photos of misty hills with temples popping out, or you’ll recognize Bagan from the opening scene of The Lady, a biopic about Aung Sung Suu Kyi. Not only is it an iconic image of Burma, but the archaeologist in me was not about to miss it.

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We arrived to find that our reservation had been given away and as we walked down the street of Nuang Oo, we were told by each and every passerby that there were no rooms. This was a little unnerving because, like I said in my first post about Myanmar, only those holding a permit from the government are legally allowed to house foreigners. Being the high tourist season, we were starting to worry that we wouldn’t have a place to stay – or at least one that was within our budget. Fortunately, one of the guesthouses let us stay in the back which was the owners’ family home as well as a school house.

We woke up at 4:30am to see the sunrise. We were cold on our bicycles, the streets were dark, and we had no idea where we were going, so following a horse-drawn carriage with tourists in the back seemed like the right move. When we arrived, Blake was concerned that we were in the wrong spot since “we were supposed to be able to see thousands of temples” and we could only see two, but sure enough, as the sky lit up, more and more temples appeared.

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The hot air balloons were a nice touch.

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We spent the rest of the day riding around on our bikes going down to the Aeyerwaddy River and then in and out of as many temples as we could.

It was an interesting site because the land – and the temples – are still in use. They sit side by side restaurants, in farm fields, host hoards of Buddhism practitioners. What this means for the structures is that they can’t be left to crumble and demand preservation. Also, an earthquake in 1975 destroyed many of them and much of the site had to be rebuilt.

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While the accuracy of some of the reconstructions is debatable, they were, for the most part, beautiful. However, there were a few temples like this one though, where is looked like they put tape over the crumbly bits to try and save it that would make anyone say “Seriously, Myanmar Archaeological Society? This is the best ya got?”

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Few buildings remain impressive on account of their antiquity, but as a site of cultural continuity and preservation, Bagan is fascinating. Spending a day on bikes riding through an archaeological zone in the warm sun is my idea of heaven, and I loved every minute of it.

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Myanmar Holiday Part 4: Trekking to Inle Lake

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The three day trek to Inle Lake, as opposed to the hour and a half bus ride, was well worth the extra time and effort. Not only were we walking through beautiful scenery, but we were also able to get a taste of daily life in rural Myanmar as we were trekking through agricultural areas and staying in people’s homes. The trek was organized perfectly to give us a mix of nature and culture, the culture bits being the most interesting for me. It’s difficult to describe the experience with words, so enjoy the photos.

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The scenes that I loved the most were looking out over rolling hills and seeing a patchwork of green, amber, yellow, and red below the brightest blue sky. The red areas were where chili was being laid out to dry. Unfortunately, I don’t have any photos that do it justice, but I do have a cool idea for a quilt that I can’t wait to discuss with Mom!

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I love visiting agriculture areas. One thing that I really don’t like about western culture is how separated we are from our food sources… I loved seeing chili farming in action, and being able to munch on fresh chilies while walking. To my surprise, they didn’t set my mouth on fire!

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We started our trek on Christmas Eve and really enjoyed thinking about what our families’ were probably doing back home, and of course getting a bit homesick. I missed spending the holidays with my family, but I will say that these three days were filled with uncountable unique and memorable moments that I’m very thankful to have had.

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