Although Indonesia is not as diverse as Malaysia or advance as Singapore. Nevertheless, it has a unique population with an older generation that is proud of and clanged to their history and a split younger generation that either embrace or silently revolting the conservative value of Islam in this society.
I took a short flight and landed at the gateway city, Padang, on the island of Sumatra, from Singapore. Without much touristic attractions, I learn to best spend my time people-watching and visiting local markets. A friendly local took me on his motorbike to find a homestay/guesthouse when the airport shuttle dropped me off somewhere with no taxi in sight. I wasted no time to walk to the public park close by. Before sunset, children and family crowded the go carts and old video arcades corner while others practice football. Adults gather for volleyball and badminton. Being in the vicinity of families is comforting to me when I am traveling alone for a long time. There is also a very lively and crowded market with motorbikes and horses in between locals shopping everything from food to clothing. What a great way to be introduced to this unique culture. I had a traditional Indonesian dinner with over 10 single dishes with rice and tea for less than a dollar(us).
The next morning, I took a local bus to a hilltop town called Bukittinggi, a popular local resort town. Coincide with the two-week Indonesia holidays, it took me a few tries to find a 1-star hotel. With cooler and dryer weather, it was a pleasure to walk around this beautiful town. After stopping by the panarama where rice fields populated in a deep canyon and a large tunnel city built by the Japanese during WWII, I headed to the local market for a local snack - satay on top of rice cake with peanut and curry sauce, then wandered around and watched local tourists and families enjoyed themselves in the large square in the lazy Saturday afternoon.
A two-hour minibus ride took me back from Bukittingo to Padang where I would catch my next flight to Jakarta, the capital. From the train station there, I took an overnight train and headed straight to a medium city in central Java called Yogyakarta (Jogja). Arriving on a Saturday morning at 5 am during local holidays means virtually impossible to find accommodation. After walking around with my backpack for over an hour, I finally found a room to sleep.
Since there are 57 universities in town with Jogja, it is the history, art and cultural soul of Indonesia. Galleries and cafes lined the busy streets next to local shops and restaurants. I felt in love with this rich and diverse atmosphere. History and modern society almost seem to exist in harmony in this quiet yet lively town. Unlike Vietnam, motorbike and motor cars share the streets with no honking. Traffic jam disappears before any agitation set in.
The major tourist attraction here is the Borobudur Temple located about an hour ride north of Jogja. I took an hour of motorbike on winding roads through villages. Built about 1000 years old, it is a symmetrical structure carved with reliefs of stories of Javanese Buddhist lives. Local tourists carry umbrellas for the strong sun added touches of color to an otherwise monotone canvas of latticed stupas of headless Buddha on the six terraces. I reached my hand into the Buddha inside one of the lattice on the top terrace and made a wish.
I visited the Mendut Temple close by which has a Buddha sitting on a chair, instead of the traditional crossed lotus position. Next, we rode to Gunung Merapi, an active volcano that erupted two years ago causing considerable damages to nearby villages and covered many ancient sites with dusts. Viewing the panorama from Kaliuburg only increase my thirst to hike up this magnificent volcano. While heading down the mountain, my motorbike driver stopped by a rusty house where groups of students stay for two months and work as volunteers to educate local villager handicraft, art, music or other fields of their discipline. It is a program that all university had to go through before graduation.
The next morning, I visited an unusual place where most tourists rather stay away from – the hospital. The past few days, my arms and legs were bitten by insects and became very swollen. Instead of putting antibiotic cream, I decided to confirm with a doctor. The local hospital has a spacious waiting room with cafes and friendly staff registering each patient their information according to queue. Then we went up to a corner on the second floor especially for skin problems. I waited for a good 45-minute before seeing the doctor who confirm my suspicion and prescript me both stronger oral and exterior medication. I then went downstairs to pay for the doctor and administration fee (US$5), and medicine (US$25). After my bedbug episode in Malaysia’s jungle guesthouse two weeks ago, this is my second encounter to the blood-thirsty insects in this part of the world, targeting fresh and tasty tourist blood. It is just part of rough travel.
Next I visited the local Bird Market, where not only all types of singing birds and pigeons are for sale, cages of lizards, monkeys, rabbits, even cats, snakes and bats are all over the floor. My heart became very heavy when I look into the eyes of these frightened and neglected animals. But this is also local culture and tradition that cannot simply be eliminated, even with authority and connection. I could not help but pray for the fate of these animals and hope they find a good owner.
After the depressing stroll in the bird market, I passed by a Batik painter’s studio. Batik paintings, made with wax and special color chemical found mostly in nature, are famous in Java and sold all over the world. Batik artists acquire their skills over a lifetime. I sat down and talked to the artist for over an hour. While most paintings feature traditional patterns and subjects, more and more young artists use this traditional technique to express abstraction in the last 20 years, creating a large artistic community here. That night, I visited a neighborhood where families made sandals, handbag, and wallets for a living. Every Javanese welcome me with smiles and hospitality I could not find in large cities. That evening, I visited a couple who designed traditional Javanese dress. Of course, I took the opportunity to put on a wedding outfit and became a Javanese bride for a short time.
On the next morning, I visited the sultan’s residence, Kranton, a small but elegant house for the 10th sultan and his family of five daughters. It also housed some of the international gifts and traditional batik from the beloved 9th sultan and his wives. Outside the palace, a very vocal prisoner gibbon was kept in a small cage inside a courtyard where the gift shop located.
My day continued with a visit to the Hindi Temples at Prambanan. All the temples were built in the middle of the 9th century, around 50 years after Borobudur. With the main temples of Candi Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma and courtless smaller structure dedicated to even the vehicle cow Nandi, this complex looks surprising similar to Angkor Wat. Me and my driver, who happened to be also a history student, strolled thru the large complex, discussing colonial politics and modern Javanese religion. That evening, I enjoyed a wonderful performance at the open air theatre here for the love and war story of Rama and Sita, with live musicians, singers and the magnificent Candi Shiva in the backdrop.
My last day in Yogya was spent in galleries. Among them is the famous Affandi Gallery in the outskirt of town. The eclectic complex includes his galleries, studio, residence, cafes. He and his wife were also buried among their beloved home and artwork. Affandi's work are mostly impressionism on portraits. His excellent use of colors reflect the atmosphere of the painting and mood of the artist at the same time.
Then I visited the Clementi Art Gallery and a few other artist homes. Each with a unique style, it is a pleasure for me to be introduce into Javanese art. I love all of Jogja.