In an instant a true sense of panic turned to relief as our flight touched down in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. I couldn’t tell if I was more excited to be away from the island of Bali or alive – truly. By our own procrastination, we had allowed almost all reasonably priced flight offers from Bali to Yogyakarta on the island of Java to expire leaving us with no other choice than to fly Lion Air – an airline known for its less than stellar reputation for safety. In fact, just more than a month before our flight a 24-year-old Lion Air pilot overshot the runway upon landing sending the plane careening into the water as it snapped in half. So, to say that I was unsure whether my relief was derivative of a safe landing or escaping the hellish, dirty, tourist rush of Kuta, Bali says a lot about my time on the island.
As hundreds of people pulling bags from the conveyor belt caused a rush of confusion, we grabbed our backpacks and headed out the door and into a sea of eagerly waiting cab drivers. We pushed through the excited, short men in blue shirts to the information desk where we asked how much a cab to the Sheraton Hotel should cost. “8,000,” replied the man behind the counter. As if we couldn’t believe it, we repeated it to him several times to be sure as we most likely came off as idiots asking the same question over and over only to receive the same answer. As we turned to walk back into the crush of people to find a driver, one pulled us aside. “Sheraton,” Dan said simply. “Yes, Sher-a-ton,” he repeated back in a thick Indonesian accent. “How much?” Dan asked inquisitively. “5,” replied the driver. “5,000?” Dan repeated. “Yes, 5,000,” he nodded enthusiastically.
As we followed the driver for what seemed like forever, he darted in an out of families lugging baggage through endless hall ways, up escalators. Failing in my attempts to keep up, I picked up my pace to a near jog..my backpack bouncing on my back. I too was weaving in and out of women covered in the traditional muslim hijabs, and men and children all seemingly not in a hurry to get where they were going. When we finally caught up to our driver, we found ourselves at a booth to pay in advance. They handed us a piece of paper: 50,000 IDR was printed next to the Sheraton. Not wanting to argue, we paid the approximately $5.00 US and hopped in the cab.
As we pulled out from the airport, it was mere feet before we turned into the Sheraton hotel. Yes, 8,000 IDR or .80 cents US was the right price. We considered it our first tourist rip off, but instead of mulling over the loss of $4.20 US – we quickly turned our attention to our beautiful hotel.
As we rolled up to the security gates surrounding the compound one officer checked the trunk while another watched video of the engine relayed from cameras placed in the street beneath the car. Once we were cleared, we pulled down a long road, beneath a beautiful, elevated ballroom and up a steep hill lined with tropical plants, flowers and small white horse statues. At the end of it all atop the hill was the beautifully worn Sheraton hotel. Once our bags were carted off by the bellmen, we proceeded by yet another security guard and through a metal detector into the lobby.
It didn’t take us but moments to settle in to our beautifully appointed executive suite. The six rooms including a butler’s pantry literally had everything but the kitchen sink. It’s here we were a world away from the camper vans we struggled to live in in Australia, and honestly, we were at the time unknowingly blocked from the dirty, chaotic world outside the hotel walls.
Now, more curious than ever to find what lies beyond the towering security walls surrounding the Sheraton, we reserved our spot on the free evening shuttle to the Malioboro street market. Our black, plush SUV dodged in and out of the dozens of motorbikes surrounding the vehicle. A mother grasping her infant child clings tightly to the back of a scooter whizzing by and a father steers as his toddler son stands between his arms at the front of the bike. Here there are few helmets, and even fewer safety regulations as entire families who are struggling to make ends meet pile on to a single scooter to get to work and school.
It was quickly becoming apparent that my initial assumptions of Indonesia were shattering and unlikely to be resurrected. Here hundreds of thousands of people are jammed into a relatively small area. Homes are built literally on top of each other as one wall proves to useful to not one but two homes. Lining the roadways are tiny, rundown stalls selling phones, toys, eye glasses, clothing and food. Hundreds of bicycles rigged to hold a double seat on the front served as taxis while larger groups piled into carriages pulled by donkeys through the dirty streets.
As we stepped out into the Malioboro district, which we later learned is simply a street turned into a bustling market, we did what any true American couple a world away from home would do – we followed the golden arches straight to McDonald’s. After we were thoroughly satisfied that we’d grabbed a meal and dodged the risk of food poisoning, we wandered into a mall to watch a bizarre wrestling match set up in the middle. It was here I was taken aback to see a small, sheepishly shy, young muslim girl wearing her hijab tackling, kicking and wrestling a girl twice her size to the floor.
As we wandered back onto the street and into the market, we realized we were further away from the tourist crush of Bali than we had imagined. While some international tourists visit the Yogyakarta temples of Prambanan and Borobudur, many people from the Indonesian countryside who visit the city still haven’t seen a white person, and if they have before it’s rare. As Dan and I made our way through throngs of people, it was apparent we were becoming the main attraction, not the market. “Bule,” little girls whispered to each other as they scrambled to get a view or snap a picture with their phone. Some people tried to hide that they were staring, others would stop and turn with their mouths gaping and eyes wide as if they’d seen a ghost. At one point a group of young men began singing and chanting, “Bule, bule, bullee…bulle!” to the chorus of Ole, Ole, Ole..Ole. The market nearly came to a halt, and we hurriedly made our way across the street.
As we made our way farther down the street and into what clearly seemed to be the food section of the market, the overwhelming smell of smoke burned my nostrils. Lining the sidewalk were dozens of women fanning small, square pots of coals beneath lines of beef and chicken sate. Small and brightly colored balls, which we later learned were traditional Indonesian sweets, were stacked high on carts loaded with other delectable goodies. It’s a way of life many people in the United States don’t know about, understand and quite frankly wouldn’t care much about. Yet, it’s a culture rich in tradition, history and pride – and they get by with much less.
That night as I drifted off to sleep beneath the crisp, white covers of my oh-so soft, luxury bed, I was once again a world away from the way of life outside my very door.
Well before the sun peeked through the cracks in the curtains, the Muslim 4am call to prayer woke us from our sleep. The chilling yet beautiful chanting and singing through nearby loudspeakers penetrated the balcony doors, and even the pillows we jammed over our heads in an effort to drown out the noise.
When it was actually time to drag ourselves from bed, we prepared for the day by lathering on obscene amounts of sunblock and bug spray before catching a cab bound for Prambanan temple, the largest Hindu temple in Indonesia. As we wandered through the tarps covering makeshift markets marking the exit, a small woman gladly pointed us in the right direction, “Ticket,” she said pointing away from all signs market tickets. Confused we turned in what we were sure was the wrong direction before noticing the special international or foreigner ticket booth.
Once we were wrapped in the required sarongs, designed to cover any unholy parts, we walked toward the towers spears shooting toward the sky. There we stood in awe of the dark grey stone temples standing out against from the crystal blue sky as they had for hundreds of years. As we stepped forward to explore the exquisite carvings cut deep into the rock, we were immediately caught by a group of young boys in matching green t-shirts. “May we practice our English with you,” they asked politely. We nodded hesitantly unsure where this would simple conversation would lead. The boys asked the basic questions..where are you from, what do you do for work, etc. The more they asked, the leerier we became. We dodged into the Shiva temple, the largest in the complex, to try and shake them from our trail. As we oohhed and ahhed over the ancient construction and detailed markings, we realized we wouldn’t be able to truly enjoy the splendor of this ancient temple. Outside another group of students was waiting, then another. No, they weren’t trying to sell us anything or get our personal information – they truly were young students trying to learn English. Each ten steps we took, we were approached by another group then another. When it was all said and done, we’d spent hours talking with the students who were trying to learn about us, and us about them.
If we weren’t helping someone practice their English, we were pausing to take photographs with those who wanted to remember seeing the ‘bule’. We were bombarded, and somewhere along the way we lost the joy of exploring an ancient religious icon. As we made our way to the next temple within the Prambanan complex, we seemingly escaped the crowds. We walked along dirt pathways worn through the grass and alongside other smaller temples standing in ruin until we stumbled upon a beautiful celebration. Women dressed in their best traditional clothing, and men in Batik shirts and slacks gathered beneath flowing red curtains billowing from beautiful tall tents. An Indonesia singer belting out a startlingly good rendition of Celine Dion graced the stage.
We continued on toward the Sewu temple, the second largest Buddhist temple in Indonesia, only to realize we were the only ones there. Finally, the solace and peace we were looking for. As we wandered around the beautiful ruins of a temple and through the stacks of grey stone waiting to be restored, we were able to imagine a different time – a time when the temple was used for worship and traditional ceremonies.
It wasn’t long before we were being followed by a group of young boys eager to snap a picture of us with their old Nokia cell phones. We took it as our cue to leave.
The exit led us through a maze of a market with hundreds of stalls selling everything from souvenirs to clothing to food. As I wandered beneath the tattered tarps covering the seemingly makeshift yet permanent market, I was left to wonder how those selling food and trinkets make any money at all. People rarely stop to buy anything, and the tenants in each stall sit or lie around while shouting invitations to uninterested tourists to buy something.
The following day landed us with a driver who spoke little to no English and the intent to explore Borobudur, the largest Hindu temple in the world. Somehow before we found ourselves at the Sultan’s Palace with a sweet, Indonesian woman leading us through as she detailed the Sultan and his many wives as well as certain rooms and the knick-nacks filling the palace. By all standards, it was unimpressive; however, the palace was perfectly fitting for Indonesia. In a way, it was strangely humbling to see the emphasis placed on each trinket, perfectly preserved behind glass, gifted to the Sultan from countries across the globe. It was a sign of hope that even with the highest ranks, appreciation is not lost and international relations can be cherished.
Back in the car, a series of grunts and points seemed enough to convince our driver to skip several smaller temples and take us directly to Borobudur. Nearly two hours of winding through the dirty, narrow streets lined with people, businesses and homes and we finally clamored out of the car and into yet another maze of markets. Our driver, walked us to the entrance and handed over two tickets, which we somehow secured for a few dollars less through some sort of a backdoor deal with man on the street about twenty minutes from the temple. Luckily, the tickets were not part of some scam and worked like a charm. In moments, we were wrapped in yet another sarong before entering the temple complex.
It seemed we were in another “tourist park”. We meandered past elephants sitting idle alongside the path waiting for eager children to persuade their parents for the money for a ride and alongside beautifully manicured gardens. As we rounded the corner, the great Borobudur temple came into a view. I expected to feel some sort of pull to the beautiful Buddhist temple, but as we marched forward in a line of tourists all I felt was frustration. Clearly, I was failing to follow the ‘middle way’..a pillar of Buddhist beliefs. From the sweet old men asking us to pose with them for a photo to the precious little girls staring and pointing, everything was agitating me.
Upon entering the great temple from the East, it’s requested you circle each level three times before proceeding up the stairs toward the center atop the some 200 stones that create the massive complex. Circling the temple represents the three levels of Buddhist Cosmology including the realm of desire, the realm of forms and the realm of formlessness. Not only is it a great sign of respect, but it’s also a great way to see and appreciate the thousands of relief panels etched into the light grey stone.
As we made our way away from the line of tourists climbing straight to the top and alongside the first terrace, I was entranced with the intricate stone work lining the walls. Here, it was just Dan and I, and although we didn’t know the spiritual meaning behind each relief carved into the walls, we were able to marvel at the craftsmanship and the religious dedication of those who spent years building the temple. I must admit, with six square platforms topped by three circular levels as well as the threat presented by the dark, ominous clouds quickly approaching, we didn’t encircle each level three times and instead eventually joined the masses headed directly to the top, again stopping for photos with wide-eyed Indonesians on the way up.
As we reached the top levels of the temple, a few sprinkles began to fall. Unfortunately, it didn’t seem to stop the other tourists from asking for photos with us or weaving in and out of our pictures. Determined to capture the pristine shots seen in magazines and promotions across the globe, I dodged in and out of dozens of stupas each with a Buddha inside. As the heavy rain began to fall, I was still feverishly snapping away pausing only to wipe water from the large fisheye lens affixed to the camera.
Still snapping, Dan drug me down the stairs and into a small archway already crammed with people. The struggle to put our already wet camera into a trash bag to shelter it from the rain was surprisingly complicated. Twenty or so minutes passed and hoping the rain had cleared the tourists, I headed back out to snap what photos I could. Just as quickly as the rain let up, it started to fall again. The camera was shoved back into the trash bag with our other precious electronics – this time for good. After waiting again for the dark clouds to depart, we gave up. I remained huddled under the archway as Dan darted down the steps toward a man renting umbrellas at the base. By the time he made it down, he was soaked. Even from the top of the temple, I could see the water dripping from his clothing. As if it made a difference, he opened an umbrella and headed back up the slick stairs to get me. After quite and argument in front of dozens of onlookers, I convinced him to carry the umbrella over the camera bag in an effort to keep it from getting soaked. The rain drove in from the side of the umbrella and spattered up from the hard stone beneath our feet – all attempts to stay dry were futile. I dodged from the umbrella and out into the heavy rain, to spin and play like a child. If I was going to be wet and our time at the temple basically ruined, I was going to have some fun. Stomping and splashing like children, we made our way toward the exit.
As we walked from the temple, soaked to the bone, a woman approached us waving two ponchos in her hands. While I can always respect someone for trying, it was hard not to chuckle at what was the absolute worst sales pitch I’d ever seen. Trying to sell two ponchos to two people who looked like they just jumped into a swimming pool in their clothes was obviously going to end in failure. The sales pitch was about 20 minutes too late.
As we made our way through yet another massive market set up to sell souvenirs, I took a second to revel in the surreal moment. Water was rolling off the worn, holed tarps used to cover the poor market and the people working so hard inside. Old women still beckoned us into their booths or offered us fruit or hot Indonesian soups and dishes as we passed.
Back in the car, wet and now chilled by the air conditioning we headed for lunch and the Mt. Merapi Volcano actively brewing outside of Yogyakarta. As we approached the behemoth of a mountain, now shrouded in the clouds, the rain began to let up and the clouds cleared giving us our first glimpse of the beast lurking over the city.
At the base, the skeletons of structures stood alongside the road – a reminder of the volcano’s power. Mt. Merapi is still very much an active volcano, in fact, it’s the most active volcano in Indonesia. Merapi erupted last in 2010, spewing lava and ash from its cone covering parts of the land below. As we approached the giant, we struggled to discern if smoke was spewing from volcano or clouds were simply clinging to the top. As the rain eventually cleared, it was evident – Mt. Merapi was smoking. Our car began to climb up the steep incline and past large, yellow signs depicting a skull and cross bones. Although we couldn’t make out what it said, our driver would point and in broken English repeat the phrase, “Danger,” with a chuckle.
Along the main, highly-trafficked roadway near the bottom of the mountain, heavy machinery and men still work to clear ash and create a bed in which lava can flow during another eruption. Still, we were shocked to learn of those who still live directly in its shadow unafraid of what might happen.
After a quick hike at the bottom, we were back in the car headed for Yogyakarta, just 17 kilometers away. It seems the natural wonders, the ancient sites, the people, the culture and the food have combined to put Indonesia on the list as one of our favorite places in Southeast Asia. However, it’s not the best destination for the average tourist and can easily be skipped altogether by luxury travelers as the choices for high-end shopping, dining and accommodation is limited. However, Yogyakarta is perfectly positioned to become a target for adventurous travelers looking to step outside the tourist trap of Bali in Indonesia.