Yesterday Jamal arrived astride the Mad Buffalo at 4.30am and took us to join the rest of the eager punters awaiting the special sunrise visit to Borobudur. After paying a hefty entrance fee we were given torches (flashlights) to take us up the steep steps of the Eastern gates to the monument. We waited near the top and watched a row of encircling stupas silhouetted against the pre-dawn sky. The ceaseless chattering of most of the rest of the audience did not do much for the atmosphere but, nonetheless, it was a spectacular dawn and our photographs are magnificent.

Not so satisfying were the subsequent breakfast snacks, I’m afraid. A credit card sized banana fritter and the smallest muffin have ever popped into my mouth were carefully supervised to ensure that no-one had more than one each, the coffee was accompanied by powdered creamer and I was told that if I wanted fruit juice or drinking water I would have to buy them at reception. Such details usually don’t bother me (or at least not enough to make me write about them) but, in a country where fresh fruit practically falls from the trees into your lap and hospitality is literally part of the inhabitants’ genetic code, it seemed churlish in the extreme.

We split up so that we could take in the sights at out leisure and, probably not having done enough preparation, I headed first to the museums. Unlike Prambanan, with which it is roughly contemporary, this is a single structure; a nine staged, four sided pyramid with a stupa on the top. Its squat, slightly rounded silhouette would not be particularly impressive but for its great size and the amazing state of preservation of its carvings. Over two and a half thousand panels depict detailed scenes from the Buddhist sutras (the most complete set in the world) in intricate detail. These religious texts are of paramount importance to scholars and devotees but I found myself fascinated by the intimate details of daily life and the depiction of such scenes as the market place or a musical performance.

Easily the most striking, however, were the beautiful, oceangoing ships that took Javanese traders along the Cinnamon route, across the Indian Ocean and around the coast of Africa, during Europe’s Dark Ages. I’ll admit to not having heard much about this before but at least I didn’t make the mistake of one Dutch visitor, pointing out the boat to his companion and asking “does that show the arrival of the European colonists?” Apparently, in 1982, these detailed wooden outriggers so fascinated Philip Beale, a visiting British sailor, that he instigated a twenty year project to have a replica designed, built and sailed along the original route all the way around the Cape of Good Hope to Ghana.

The Samudra Raska (Ocean Star) journeyed almost half way around the World in 2005 and is now housed in its own museum on the temple site. As to how far the Indonesian seafarers actually travelled in antiquity; well, new theories are being expounded all the time and it is probably safe to say that some of them will astound us. I’ve commented before about how a Eurocentric view of World history blinds us to the achievements of other peoples and this is nowhere more so than in the Southern hemisphere. After all, if the early hominid “Java Woman” made it all the way here from Africa a million years ago, just how much human development have these islands been witness to?

The hill that supports the two million basalt blocks that make up Borobudur is an artificial mound which has been gently subsiding over the centuries. In the 1970’s engineering plans were drawn up to underpin the whole structure by piping concrete into the core and simultaneously inserting drainage channels to deal with the run-off. Of course future generations will probably criticise these methods; “pure” archaeology nowadays usually prefers leaving things under the ground, tourists be damned, but the most difficult decision to justify here has to be the covering up of the lowest layer of carved panels.

Some blurred photos in the museum can give an idea of the content although some of the captions are rahter esoterically translated (situation in heaven – reingkarnation of sinful person to a himal – medical car for the sick person – ilustrationof am abortus etc.).  But if re-building was so badly needed then why were the original panels not removed and put into the museum for all to see? Perhaps I have misunderstood.

After Borobudur we took up Jamal’s invitation to swim in the pool at “his” guesthouse. Here we ate fruit and relaxed into the late afternoon while I had a chance to discuss the creeping Islamisation of this “already perfectly Muslim enough, thank you very much” country with A’hah, the real owner. Indonesia is without a doubt a colourful, pluralistic and hospitable country with huge ethnic diversity and a high level of gender equality (after all, a number of tribes are still matrilineal) but it is also home, on paper at least, to the largest Muslim population in the World. No wonder the eyes of the Middle East are turning in this direction.

{I also had a bit of a lesson in pisciculture from Jamal. When I commented on the murkiness of the hotel carp pools as compared to my pond at home, he explained how these small orange and black speckled fish were all rescued from local irrigation channels and streams. Apparently he is so soft hearted he goes around collecting them up when the water levels drop. I hope he finds a wife before too long}.

This morning, our last together, was delightfully occupied with a ride around the handicraft villages on a cute little horse-drawn carriage. Pure tourist kitsch you might think but there are not many foreigners around yet and it was all vastly enjoyable. You can see us enjoying a cup of Java in the featured image, Elisabeth threw a rather wonky vase in the pottery village, we attempted to photograph the amazing ultra-green of the paddy fields, I bargained for an “antique” wooden mask to mount on the apex of my summerhouse at home in Kent and we generally took the atmosphere. It is going to be hard to leave but at least I will have Elisabeth’s account of her journey around the Islands to look forward to.


  • Sandy says:

    Once again you find the pearls of any culture.

  • Sandy says:

    It is so nice to have a photo of you and Elisabeth enjoying a cup of tea!

  • nicolaainsworth says:

    It’s not actually tea. It’s Kopi Luwak, the famous Javanese specialty, made from beans that have passed through the digestive track of the indigenous civet cat.

    And thanks a million for your kind words about my writing. I try very hard to strike a balance between the spectacular sights and the human details but it’s sometimes difficult to know if I’ve gauged it correctly.

  • Ann says:

    So nice you had time to travel a bit with Elisabeth. Look forward to reading two blogs now.

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