Monday, 3 October 2011

Day 30: Yogya Days - Prambanan By Bike

After our couple of days in Borobudur, Burness and I returned to our base of Yogyakarta.

Yogyakarta, or just Yogya to its friends, is a city in central Java, regarded as a cultural centre of Indonesia. I have mixed feelings about it. I really enjoyed my time there, but on reflection the best times I had in Yogya were when I wasn't actually there. Yogya has a wealth of riches around it, from ancient temples to live volcanoes, and acts as a superb base to see all these riches, but Yogya itself I never really took to.

In fairness, like a girl you only see at bedtime, I never got to know Yogya and only spent one very underwhelming but exhausting morning looking around it. My accommodation was half the problem. Yogya reminds me of a few other backpacking places I've been to, such as Dahab in Egypt, and Istanbul, in that it was a little like a backpacking resort. Our actual hostel, the astonishingly cheap Anda Losmen (£3 for a twin room), was grubby, basic but oddly comfortable, and was down a small lane called "Gang II". Along with the nearby "Gang I", all the facilities a traveller could ever need are packed: an array of upscale and lowgrade hostels, small shops, travel agents, restaurants, bars, and mosques. Ok, mosques perhaps aren't a backpacker staple, but they were certainly an unmissable feature of Gang II, as each morning at 4am I - and everyone else in the surrounding area - were woken up with the very amplified call to prayer: "AAAAAAAALLLLLLLLAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHH!!!!!" Oh Allah indeed. It was like the mosques were in competition to outcall each other.

Regardless of the mosques, the overall effect of the Yogya backpacking resort was to restrict the experience of Yogya as an actual city. Everything was very convenient but a little artificial. Restaurant menus were in English and featured more Western food than Indonesian. Very handy tours were readily available to all the nearby sights. The net effect was to limit the experience of Indonesia. As I write, I'm on a tour bus with seven other Westerners, away to somewhere called Bromo the first night, then somewhere called Ijen the second, and finally to some island called Bali where we are let off the leash to become free citizens again (I've let Burness do all the organising, as I'm only really interested in visiting Wonders and have no strong opinions about anything else). The trip worked out almost cheaper than if we'd gone our own way, and is a hundred times more convenient, but I can't help but feel something of the experience is lacking. I feel like we're ticking boxes - Bromo, tick, Ijen, tick, Bali, tick. But in this case, the prices of the tour were so good and it went everywhere we wanted to go anyway, not to mention that our time is limited if we have any hope of visiting most of Asia before May next year, that it was only sensible. Sensible, most definitely, but the purist in me doesn't like it.

It was in a little of this purist spirit that we visited the 9th Century Hindu temple compound of Prambanan on Monday. Available as a cheap and convenient bus day trip, some in combination with Borobudur, we eschewed the air-conned box-ticking for a minor adventure and hired some bicycles. Prambanan is only 16km or so from Yogya, so readily accessible by bike. Burness is a very keen cyclist and I'd proven my worth by cycling around Borobudur just a couple of days earlier (despite some unfortunate chain-breaking) so a leisurely cycle to some nearby temples sounded like a pleasant day's excursion.

Replace "pleasant" with "intense" and "excursion" with "misson" and you may get a closer impression of how it really was.

In fact, it was an interesting experience, even to the point of being enjoyable, but for the cycling amateur like myself, it was not a relaxing day. After several fairly cool days, the sun had returned and the heat was searing. Burness bought a silly yellow cap to protect himself, I just relied on my over-long locks which daily become a sweaty mess. Still, a little heat isn't so bad, but mix it in with a million mopeds, some narrow and bumpy roads, and a liberal sprinkling of erratic drivers, and you have an all round sensory experience. Heat, fumes, engine roars and rattles, horns beeping, cars and motorbikes weaving around the place, many going the wrong direction, it was exhausting, exasperating, and all rather exciting.

Our route to Prambanan was along side a canal, which ran parallel to the main road. Even finding it required a long cycle through Yogya's busy streets, hoping that the motorbike riders were paying more attention than it seemed. The scenes at traffic lights, after a minute's wait as the green light went on, reminded me of a large flock of small birds in flight, all swooping about the sky in seeming unison, miraculously never hitting each other. One careless move would take out a whole bunch of riders, but the individual sense of preservation generated overall crowd control. Our eventual discovery of the canal made the journey a little less intense, but no less confusing. The supposed direct route to Prambanan was as crystal clear as the grubby canal water, and it took the assistance of various villagers and labourers to keep us on the right track.

It was all worth it upon reaching Prambanan.

When compiling my Wonder candidate list, I came across Prambanan a few times and considered it, but ultimately rejected it as I didn't feel it had top Seven potential. My judgement was harsh. Although it perhaps wouldn't be a finalist, it really deserves a place on my list, and I've no doubt it will be more impressive than some of the future places I'm to visit. It is almost - almost - the equal of Borobudur. In fact, it is often called the Hindu equivalent of Borobudur, hailing from the same era, built from the same materials, abandoned at the same time, and rediscovered by one of Raffles' explorers. That said, it has a different impact and purpose. Surrounded by a ring of 224 now-ruined small shrines, the central compound features six large temples, the largest of which is dedicated to Shiva, a supreme god in Hindu mythology, and measures 47 metres in height. All are elaborately designed in the Hindu architectural style, which for the layman kind of looks like a whole loads of bulbs piled on top of each other, with carvings and sculptures all around. It is elaborate and beautiful. The temples can be entered by the main stairway, which leads directly into the central chamber, but also gives access to a terrace that runs around the temples. Inside each temple is a statue dedicated to a Hindu god or their assistants (or there used to be at least, as some are now empty).

Sadly, access to the Shiva temple, the largest and most impressive, is prohibited, due to structural fears following an earthquake in May 2006. It will hopefully be reopened sometime soon, as it appears to be the most elaborate inside as well as out. Most of the remaining temples are free to access.

Prambanan is spectacular, and has only a fraction of the tourists of Borobudur, plus there is no requirement to wear a sarong to "preserve Indonesian character". Even better, the entry ticket allows entry to other temples within the same overall site. Some are pretty ruined, but I was particularly impressed with the Sewu temple compound, an 8th Century Buddhist temple. More ruined than Prambanan, in large part due to the 2006 earthquake, we were practically the only people there save for a group of men lounging in the shade, half-heartedly trying to sell us water. The main temple had a better interior and terrace than the Prambanan temples (although I can't speak for the main Shiva temple).

By now early afternoon, the day had reached a heat that was truly soporific, and made us wish for the cool convenience of tour bus air-con. For a while, we had to take shelter from the sun, as it was in an unrelenting and furious mood. Eventually we knew we had to go for it, and cycle home, this time taking the direct route - the main road to Yogya.

It was intense, but in fact it wasn't nearly as bad as I'd expected it to be due to the side lane by the road, possibly actually intended for bicycles. Sure, motorbikes used it - going both ways - and cars were parked there, or people just stood there chatting, but it made a huge difference. Entering the city approaching rush hour meant there were plenty of motorbikes to be aware of, but generally I could just cycle straight and let them overtake me. Only at the very very end did the inevitable happen. Passing across a small but confusing crossroads, I became aware of a motorbike too late, and he crashed into the side of me. It was probably more my fault than his, but it was very slow speed so no damage was done.

A cold shower, dinner and then bed by 7pm. Because we had to be up for 10pm, for a night-time trek up a live volcano...

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