Wednesday, February 13, 2013
yogyakarta in 5 days
My family and I made a whirlwind trip to Yogyakarta, Indonesia over the Lunar New Year break. As holidays are concerned, it was very touch-and-go - just enough to do the things people head to Yogya for: to visit the 9th century Borobudur, Buddhist monument in the world, built before Islam came to Indonesia; and climb/see Mount Merapi, one of the world's most active volcanoes.
Neither of those things are actually in Yogya, so honestly I hardly got the measure of the city, which is one of Indonesia's oldest, and has a long literary culture. It feels like an unassuming place that doesn't seem to make too big a deal of its long history and place in Javanese culture, but almost everything one might find familiar about Indonesian arts calls Yogya its capital - beautiful batiks, "shadow play" puppets, gamelan music.
Although the temples of Borobudur and Prambanan are crowded and have the usual sideshow of stalls selling touristy wares, the people who trade in tourism are far, far less aggressive than anything you'd find in Vietnam, Bali, or Phuket. I also saw none of the frightening sleaze that seems to invade every Southeast Asian tourist destination like the plague. It was relaxing, to be around people who seem very relaxed about your presence, friendly without being effusive.
Borobudur is a must-see, even with the hype. I visited very late in the afternoon, just an hour before in closed, and the crowds were thinner (I was told). There was a coolness in the air from a heavy thunderstorm, and steam rose from the surrounding jungles and mountains, while the setting sun cast a warm, diffused glow through the aged stupas and serene Buddhas. The place is stoic, eternal, less grand than the temples of Angkor, but with the same feeling of dignity.
Climbing Mount Merapi, which most recently erupted in 2010, was quite an adventure for me, and one that was pretty much unplanned - having not climbed a mountain in almost a decade, and done no training whatsoever before the trip, I thought I would only make it as high as its third plateau (pasar bubrah), about 400m below its summit, where I would enjoy a leisurely breakfast watching the sunrise. But after my sister and I reached, our guide had other ideas, and nudged me towards the start of the horrible, heart-in-mouth trek to the top. "You can do it," he said reassuringly, as I eyed the tiny flag of Indonesia, small as a pinhead, flapping on the summit (elevation 2,900 metres).
I did it, yes. I did it with my legs sinking into gravel almost to my knees with every step, chest almost bursting with the exertion of trying to climb when I was sinking backwards 2 out of every 3 steps. After that, it was a near-vertical clamber over rocks that left my legs burning, with the wind whistling my ears to remind of how exposed I was, perched on the side of a steep rocky mountain over 2,000 metres above sea level. The only thing more unnerving was thought of the descent.
The summit is a narrow strip of rock that tips into a crater 200 metres deep. On the day of my climb, steam was billowing gently below, keeping the mountain's vulcanic rages to itself, with only a hint of sulphur in the air. I peeled an orange, snapped photos with my camera (more in another post) and tried not to fall off. It was a less a moment of triumph, more a moment of disbelief, and at the same time, a sense of exhilaration from surprising yourself. I found myself eyeing the beautifully symmetrical Mount Merbabu opposite - at 3,300 metres, just a shade taller than Merapi - and planning a future trip.
(The descent was no fun for someone with pretty clumsy feet. My advice is to go slow. I'd rather arrive an hour behind schedule than break something.)
Just two more things about Yogya:
- Taxis are cheap and plentiful and every driver uses the meter without asking.
- Eat fried chicken ("ayam goreng"). Eat lots of it.
All pictures here taken on my phone