August 22, 2007

Borobudur and Batik Art
Yogyakarta (Java), Indonesia

Any foreigner staying in Yogyakarta is persistently hounded about two things: Borobudur and Batik art. Forget the art.

Background on Borobudur

Borobudur diagram

Borobudur is a ninth century (circa 800 AD) Buddhist monument in Central Java, about 40km northwest of Yogyakarta. Both a shrine to the Lord Buddha and a place for Buddhist pilgrimage, the journey for pilgrims begins at the base of the monument and follows a 3,000 meter (1.86 mile) path circumambulating the monument, while ascending to the top through the three levels of Buddhist cosmology.

The monument, comprised of six square platforms topped by three circular platforms, is decorated with 2,672 relief panels and 504 Buddha statues. A main dome is located at the center of the top platform, and is surrounded by seventy-two Buddha statues seated inside perforated stupa.

Approximately 55,000 m³ (almost 2 million cubic feet) of stones were taken from neighboring rivers to build the monument. The stone was cut to size, transported to the site and laid without mortar. Knobs, indentations and dovetails were used to form joints between stones.

There is no written record of who built Borobudur, or of its intended purpose. For centuries it lay hidden under layers of volcanic ash and jungle growth. The facts behind the desertion of the monument remain a mystery. It is unknown until when the monument was still in active use and when it ceased to function as the pilgrimage center of Buddhism.

A general assumption is that the temples were disbanded when the population were converted to Islam in the fifteenth century. Another theory is that a famine caused by a volcanic eruption (circa 1006 AD) had forced local inhabitants to leave their lands and the monument.

Evidence suggests Borobudur was abandoned following the fourteenth century decline of Buddhist and Hindu kingdoms in Java, and the Javanese conversion to Islam. It was rediscovered in 1814 by Sir Thomas Raffles, the British ruler of Java.

Borobudur has since been preserved through several restorations. The largest restoration project was undertaken between 1975 and 1982 by the Indonesian government and UNESCO (to the order of about seven million U.S. dollars), following which the monument was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Borobudur is still used for pilgrimage, and is Indonesia's single most visited tourist attraction.

In 1974, 260,000 tourists of whom 36,000 were foreigners visited the monument. The figure hiked to 2.5 million visitors annually (80% were domestic tourists) in the mid 1990s.

On January 21, 1985, nine stupas were badly damaged by nine bombs. In 1991, a Muslim evangelist, Husein Ali Al Habsyie, was sentenced to life imprisonment for masterminding a series of bombings in the mid 1980s, including the temple attack.

Beefy Borobudur

Path to Yogyakarta

The overnight bus journey along the serpentine roads from Jakarta to Yogyakarta was endured for just a few hours too many. I don't think it was necessarily the winding road or the temperature of the chilly bus that was making Tatiana feel bad, but the perpetual chain-smoking of clove cigarettes by the driver and his sidekick was certainly getting to her. I've never seen a country where clove cigarettes are as wildly popular as they are here (about 90% of smokers usually smoke them in Indonesia), or a pair of men inhail so many packs during a single 10-hour period of time.

Yogyakarta is a forgettable town full of tuk tuks, tourist shops, dirty buildings, and aggressive touts. As a city that has become the staging point for a visit to Indonesia's most popular attraction, I would've expected nothing less to have developed and flourished in such a place.

With no intention on staying in Yogyakarta any longer than necessary, Tatiana and I explored the town and sized up our options after arriving yesterday, visited the temple today, and plan on taking off tomorrow. Cold showers and an environment where I'm constantly on the defensive doesn't provoke the desire to hang around.

With so many hundreds of thousands of Indonesians visiting Borobudur every year, I knew there must be an inexpensive option for getting up to the temple grounds. Such transport was discovered at the Giwangan bus terminal—US$0.50 for the two-hour ride (…to go a mere 26 miles).

The ride had taken longer than expected—thanks in part to the excessive stops as a result of being converted into an afternoon school bus—and it was already getting late into the day by the time we arrived.

Sunrise and sunset at Borobudur are the big draws for touts and agencies in Yogyakarta looking to ferry (non-Indonesian) tourists to their photo op. The monument grounds are open from six o'clock in the morning until five o'clock in the evening. A hefty US$10 entrance fee is required for each visit, regardless of nationality (with a tiny discount for students with ID).

At 10 bucks a pop, does that mean this place grosses more than US$25,000,000 every year? …A bit excessive on the admittance fee, no? Tisk, tisk.

Expecting our bus journey to last an hour (instead of two), Tatiana and I set off for the station after hunting around for lunch—what is the deal with the fried foulness served up with every meal?—ultimately arriving at the terminal near Borobudur just after four o'clock in the afternoon. We decided not to scrap the visit or the afternoon spent traveling to the site (which would have meant staying in the town for another night), and pressed on at a hurried pace.

As I attempted to work out what time the last returning bus of the day left town, I sent Tatiana off to procure us transport to the monument. With no English-speakers in earshot, the best I could get out of those willing to talk with me was a final departure around 5:30 or 6:30, or as soon as the bus was full—not very helpful. In the meantime, Tatiana had scored a rather peculiar mode of travel: A bicycle rickshaw.

Jumping in the cramped enclosure of the bicycle rickshaw—the first time either of us had ridden in such a thing—I willed the elderly man peddling us along the potholed pavement to put what little muscle he had left into getting us to the site. He, in turn, took the opportunity to try and convince us (in broken English) to use him for the ride back to the station.

After poking around the temple for a bit, what really amazed me about Borobudur was the lack of mortar, and how so much rock was engineered joined together with such precision. And of course the carvings—wow—with the stones laid first, talk about some pressure not to make a mistake. The level of detail and preservation of the entire structure is amazing.

Climbing around the monument, you tend to forget the size of the thing. And it's not until you've finished walking down the final set of tall stairs and start walking away from the structure that you really marvel at it.

I also suppose I can't help but continue to wonder why people want their photo taken with me—especially a group of Muslim women (who don't speak any English). Tatiana and I were both left wondering what they'll tell people who see the photo back home. Well, for all the images I've exposed of others, I think it's good karma to just go with it and smile. Good times.

Time passed faster than expected at the site, and as I snapped a few parting shots of the monument as the grounds shut down, I expressed my concern to Tatiana about the hour. It was closing in on 5:30, and we were still running around, trying to find her an open restroom.

Jumping in the first transport we saw (another bicycle rickshaw), we sat and watched the pavement creep past us in the failing light. I was quite concerned at this point. If we didn't catch the last bus out of town, then we could easily be forced into paying an excessive amount to get back home.

My fears materialized when I saw a departing bus turn a corner and disappear in a cloud of dirty exhaust a few dozen meters away from our rickshaw, which had finally arrived to an empty bus terminal. I had no idea if that was our bus, or one for another destination, but we'd just been put in a bad spot.

Ideas and a sense of frustration started rushing through my head: Maybe we could get back to the monument parking lot to pay for a ride back into town with an agency minibus, if anyone was still left… Shit.

As the rickshaw driver told us to take a taxi—um, no.—I spotted the minibus that was soliciting us on our slow ride back to the terminal. His opening offer was absolutely outrageous—something to the order of US$80. Then he lowered it after I walked away from him in disgust: US$60.

The guy was aggravating me with his crazy prices, when I came to realize that he kept hitting the zero on his calculator an excessive number of times, turning 60,000 rupiah into 600,000.

Almost dark at this point, I agreed to the price, and cautiously loaded Tatiana into the minivan, warning her to keep her guard up. I was getting a bad feeling about the situation, as these guys could've potentially driven us anywhere in the darkness.

SOP (standard operating procedure) for any private transport I ride in is to lock the doors. First thing I do in a taxi is to lock the doors on both sides of the car. This keeps beggars and bad people from entering the vehicle without breaking the window (something that Tatiana has experienced in Peru). It's also been shown in crash tests that a locked door reinforces the body structure of a vehicle, decreasing the rate of fatalities. This is why pricier new-model autos have doors that automatically lock when you start driving.

Likewise with the minivan, I locked the sliding door, which would temporarily prevent assailants from rushing the compartment (should the van slam to a stop and spring a trap on us). With a pregnant Tatiana at my side, I'm even more defensive and cautious than normal. The woman can certainly handle herself—much more than most any other female I know—but I'm still protective of her in her current state.

For the majority of our 30-minute journey I was a coiled spring. Although the trip was completely uneventful, and exponentially more comfortable than the bus, I'd never second guess my level of alertness. Habits and attitudes formed on the streets of Central and South America have kept me save and unharmed, and I'd like to keep it that way. This is the reality of travel.

Comments:

DivaD

October 17th, 2007

Hey man! We miss you! Hope all is well.

Post soon,
d

Indonesia

Unpatriotically Honest

June 19th, 2012

LOL! Fried foulness…
As a native Indonesian, I must agree. We have too many fried foods and sometimes the vendor would use the same frying oil over and over (buyers beware!). At the risk of sounding unpatriotic, I would honestly venture to say that I do not enjoy the flavor of gudeg (the jackfruit stew so touted by local Yogyakartans). Yogyakarta as a tourist town sometimes feel too crowded and messy. Getting through the throngs souvenir hawkers in Malioboro street..ugh!

On the other hand, I myself had been to Borobudur twice. Both times on chartered vans with foreign tourists. I could easily take a public bus like you did. But hey, why bother? The chartered vans cost about 60K rupiah (appr. 6.5 USD, no double pricing since the foreigners pay the same). The car takes you all the way to the temple and back with no hassle. Is it a so-called 'genuine' travel experience (what with me avoiding the public transport)? Perhaps not. But hey, I went there to get the full temple experience without having to worry about buses and haggling with taxi drivers.

Borobudur is worth the trouble and journey. When my husband and I went there, we were sorry not to make it a whole day trip (from morning til late afternoon) since there is the museum, the video screening, the kiddie bus ride, etc. We even had to hurry through the circumambulation because we got so caught up discussing the carvings on the walls and we almost did not notice the temple was about to close.

You can find these van services in the Malioboro sidestreets, such as Dagen and Sosrowijayan streets.

I love you, Indonesia. With all your fried foulness, your unreliable transport, your sneaky cab drivers, etc.!

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