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Sultans, Temples, and Coconut Rice

Exploring Yogyakarta, Indonesia

Photo by Kata Hati on Unsplash

I stood in the pre-dawn darkness outside of the Losman (Indonesian hostel) and waited for the bus. When I entered the bus, I was pleasantly surprised to meet two young European women about my age. They were both from the Netherlands and we chatted as the bus wound its way through the Indonesian countryside. The sky lightened and we could see the rice fields and terraces in the mountainside where the tea fields were. The sun rose above the horizon and the sky filled with color. I looked at Mt. Merape in the distance, Yogyakarta's famous active volcano, to see the sun hovering above its peak, illuminating the mountain and the countryside below. I gazed at the stunning beauty before me, imprinting the image in my memory. After about an hour of scenic beauty, the bus arrived at Borodobur, the ancient Buddhist temple site.

I gazed in awe at the massive ancient temple complex. It was huge and imposing, set against a brilliant blue sky. It was still early in the morning and the rising sun illuminated the ancient stones. I slowly walked towards it with the other members of my tour group. The closer we got, the more imposing the temple became. The temple sprawled out before us, looking more like a fortress than a place of worship. The steep stone steps ascended to multiple levels, each level allowing walking access completely around the temple. Massive stone bells sat atop the walls on each level. As I ascended to the top, I gazed out across the mountain ranges in the distance, thickly covered with tropical forests. My contemplation was interrupted by a group of Indonesian students wanting to practice their English. I gladly consented to being interviewed. We chatted for a few minutes as they asked me how I liked Indonesia, if I liked the food, and where I was from. After a few minutes, I said goodbye to them and continued exploring the temple.

As the sun rose higher in the sky, our tour guide collected us. We went to the large pavilion and ate the Indonesian breakfast that was provided for us. I rejoined my new friends and we talked about the temple and our lives back home. We explored the temple grounds, looking at the artisan's wares. Then we headed back to the bus to continue our journey. We went to a smaller temple complex, exploring the temples and the grounds where the monks lived. It was a short stop and then we continued to our final destination, the ancient Hindu temple complex of Prambanan. Indonesia has a rich history with various ancient temples, having been conquered by Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim invaders at various points in its history. 

Instead of one large temple, Prambanan was filled with several different smaller temples, many that you could climb in and explore. The steps were steep and narrow with thick stone handrails that were hard to grip. I climbed up one, gazing inside the narrow interior, and then gingerly inched my way down, fearful of breaking my neck. I explored the temples with my new friends from the tour group, marveling at the ancient stonework and ornate designs.

Finally, it was time to leave. We got back on the bus and headed back to our various hotels and losmans. I said goodbye to my new friends and headed up to my room, tiredness settling in. I went to my room and took a nap. After I awoke, I spent the rest of the afternoon swimming in the pool. I reflected on my time in Yogyakarta thus far. I had arrived in Yogyakarta the previous day, having taken the train for eight hours from Bandung where I was working at a chiropractic clinic. A family emergency for my boss had given me and my co-workers an unexpected vacation and I was determined to explore more of Indonesia. I asked my staff at the chiropractic clinic and they recommended going to Yogyakarta for a few days as it was safe, popular with foreign tourists, and most people spoke English. They also recommended a famous Losman for me to stay at that was fortunately also very cheap. I was able to make the reservation online and left early in the morning on the train. I arrived in Yogyakarta in the late afternoon. After asking a few people where the Losman was (and being assured that I needed to hire a motorbike taxi because it was much too far to walk), I headed to the hostel on foot. The Losman ended up being a five minutes walk, hardly a great distance away.

After checking in, I headed out to explore. I walked down the street and wandered into an artist's shop, filled with beautiful paintings hand-painted on fabric. I bought one and listened to the artist tell me about his work. I headed out and found myself in another gallery a few stores away. After purchasing a painting, I asked about getting some batik cloth. A motorcycle taxi driver offered to take me there. After purchasing some cloth from a friend of my driver, the driver offered to take me to see where the puppets were made (puppetry is an integral part of Indonesian culture).

I watched the puppet being made from water buffalo hide and then went into the shop. I looked over the puppets. The artisan told me the story of the two female puppets, Rayna the faithful wife who remained faithful to her husband even after being captured by the monkey god, and Srikandi, the female warrior who led her people to victory after they were attacked by invaders. I connected with the story of Srikandi and bought the puppet. Then the driver took me to my next destination, to buy tickets to an Indonesian dinner and traditional dance on the grounds of Pramadan.

The bus arrived in the late afternoon to take me to the dinner. It stopped at several other hotels to pick up other western tourists. We arrived to the dinner to the sound of traditional music played by musicians scattered around the pavilion where we ate. The music was beautiful and the food was delicious. After dinner, we headed to the outdoor amphitheater where a troupe of Indonesian dancers put on a play telling the story of Rayna, the faithful wife. As the beautiful wife of an Indonesian king, she was much desired by other men and gods. When she was out in the forest with the king's brother, they were attacked. She was put inside a circle made by a sacred rope that would protect her. Alas, she reached out of the circle to pet a deer, who was really the monkey god in disguise. The monkey god kidnapped her and took her to his magical palace while the king and his brother fought to get her back. Rayna resisted the monkey god's advances and was eventually rescued by her husband. Her husband didn't believe that she had remained faithful to him. In desperation, she jumped into the fire to prove her loyalty and the fire refused to burn her. In this way, her husband was convinced of her innocence and they were reunited and lived happily ever after. 

Despite its dubious moral of burning yourself to death to prove your innocence, the play was beautiful. I gathered with my fellow tourists and made an uneventful trip back to the Losman where I quickly went to bed in preparation for the sunrise tour of the temples, which I had previously made reservations for. After the tour and my afternoon swim, I went to eat on the outdoor patio of the Losman. I was quickly becoming friends with the kitchen staff at the hostel and spent the evening chatting with a young woman that worked there while I ate my favorite dish, chicken coconut rice. She arranged for me to take a motorcycle tour to Mt. Merape and to the beach. I had planned to do the tour with her but at the last minute, she said she had a prior engagement and sent me on the tour with another one of the kitchen staff.

We left early in the morning and headed up towards Mt. Merape. I was surprised at how chilly it was. The wind was blowing and I shivered, riding on the back of the motorcycle. We went to the national park but it wasn't open for visitors yet. My guide told me that tigers lived in the park and would sometimes come down into the villages. I thought that fact was cool... he did not. He took me to Mt. Merape but we could only go up part way because the volcano was active and there was lava flowing down the other side. After that, we went to the beach.

We went to the beach and I splashed in the water. My guide told me about how people believed that there was a sea goddess who would snatch people away and carry them into the watery depths if they were wearing green. I suspected that the area was prone to riptides so I didn't attempt to swim. After lunch, we returned home. There was a thunderstorm coming and I hoped we would beat it. We didn't but I didn't want to be trapped somewhere so I told him I was willing to ride through the rain. I felt fully alive hearing the thunder crash around us. The rain poured down and we got soaked. The steam rose and the smell of wet earth and fresh grass was all around us. I looked at the rice fields, the cattle grazing, and the people running through the rain and felt connected to all of it.

The next day was my last day. I packed and checked out, saying goodbye to my friends at the hotel. I wasn't leaving 'til late so I took a bicycle rickshaw and went to explore more of Yogyakarta. Borobudur is a silver mining area and I went to a factory to watch the silversmiths at their work. It was fascinating to watch them form the medal into delicate necklaces and earrings. I looked at the jewelry for sale in the shop but I had already spent my money on art. 

Afterward, we went to visit the Sultan's palaces. The Sultan's water palace was the first stop. This was a palace that was filled with pools, where previous sultans and their harems would come to enjoy themselves. We went down into the bedroom where the sultan would stay with his harem. The bed was made of stone but there was an area underneath the bed that could be filled with hot coals to warm it after the sultan and his mistresses came in from the pool. It was fascinating to think of all the people that had once lived in that room. 

After touring the inner part of the water palace, we came to the palace grounds. Many artisans lived on the palace grounds and sold their artwork there. I was fascinated to see many depictions of Jesus in the artwork since Indonesia is predominantly Muslim. I asked if the current Sultan was a Christian. I was told that he wasn't but he respected all religions and celebrated all the religious holidays of the people in his region. There was also Koranic art on the walls.

My last stop was the main palace. A pleasant tour guide took me through a room filled with artifacts from the previous sultans' rule and photos. She told me that the current sultan's grandfather had seven wives but as for the current sultan, "one was enough for him" and his wife was a member of Parliament and spent much of her time in Jakarta. I was a bit sad to leave the main palace because it meant that my time of Jogya was coming to an end. My rickshaw driver took me back to my Losman where I collected my luggage and headed back to the train station the same way I had originally arrived at the Losman... on foot. 

I boarded my train and traveled overnight through the Indonesian countryside back to Bandung. The only memorable event was when I woke up in the middle of the night while we were traveling through the mountains because I was freezing. I had never been truly cold in this tropical country until then. I wrapped the blanket that had been provided and fell back asleep. I woke up in the early morning to see us arrive back in Bandung. I was very glad to go straight back to my tiny apartment and fall asleep!  

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