Journeys by train, illuminated bicycle-car and in the mind lend Indonesia’s cultural gems all the more sparkle
MOUNT PATHUA is the “old man” of western Java, its name taken from pak tua in the local dialect. One of its dormant twin cones is enshrouded in forest and inaccessible, the other dressed in strange colours and emitting pungent smells.
On top of the cone you can visit is Kawah Putih (White Crater), with a surreally gorgeous, sulphuric lake that’s usually an eerily bright pale blue, even under grey skies.
A meandering road to almost lifeless Kawah Putih from the town of Bandung, where the air is mountain-fresh, passes fertile fields and tea plantations. You next navigate dense fog, catching glimpses of a canopy of soaring foliage that protects the coffee plants nestled on the forest floor.
Lake eerie: A blue lake on a grey day can mystify visitors at the volcano Kawah Putih (“White Crater”). Its neighbouring cone, Tangkuban Perahu, is still smoking.
Signs at the crater warn visitors not to stay more than 15 minutes, lest what lies within the kaleidoscopic pastel lake leave them gasping for oxygen. The wildlife wisely gives the toxic stink a wide berth.
Two years after the Asean Economic Community was born, the great majority of tourists to Indonesia still eschew the country’s cultural heartland of Java in favour of Jakarta, Bandung, Yogyakarta and the mostly Hindu enclave of Bali.
Yet Java, the world’s most populous island, offers a wealth of places worth getting lost in.
Western Java delights for its vivid, verdant topography, its mix of Hindu and Islamic cultural elements, and moments that defy easy description. You can hail a Grab ride around the cities and up the adjacent mountains, and cross the island aboard comfortable trains.
Named for the national hero who defied Portugal’s colonial ambitions in Indonesia, Fatahillah Square bustles with vendors, magicians and domestic tourists.
In between, meaningful moments pepper the experience, more so than what you’re apt to find in the better-visited countries of mainland Southeast Asian, including Malaysia, which is Indonesia’s cultural cousin but receives far more visitors, only in part because English is more commonly used there.
Bandung comes as a lovely higher-altitude surprise, sleepier yet more posh than Jakarta – which, for the capital of the world’s fourth-largest country, seems amazingly under-visited.
Rather pedestrian-unfriendly, lacking the appeal of most Southeast Asian metropolises, and with much of its Dutch colonial architecture replaced by faceless modernity, Jakarta, the “City of Victory”, is still a convenient launch pad for a Javanese adventure.
And, to its enduring credit, it has Fatahillah Square, a bustling public plaza named for a warrior who helped chase off the Portuguese imperialists.
The Dutch, determined to benefit from the lucrative spice trade, would prove much harder to expel. Before Indonesia gained its independence following World War II, the Netherlands ruled the archipelago largely from this square. Today it bustles with domestic tourists on brightly painted bicycles, artists and magicians and cafes with peaked roofs that would look at home in The Hague.
Cafe Batavia, a quaint spot ideal for escapism into earlier times, features a dim interior where hundreds of photos are displayed, edgily artistic or historically significant. Franklin Roosevelt is among the 20th-century politicians portrayed on the wall, along with screen actors and other personalities, and his stern British wartime counterpart holds place of pride over the Churchill Bar, shouldered by current Dutch royalty.
The British sparred with the Dutch over the spice trade in the 1700s across this fascinating archipelago that seems so isolated from mainland Southeast Asia. While the Dutch largely won the battle for cloves, nutmeg and other spices, the Brits briefly extended their empire to Java in the early 1800s.
The train is the best way to travel among destinations, affording a rapid way of seeing and feeling the landscape without the confinement of buses or planes.
Three hours beyond Bandung lies Yogyakarta – typically referred to Jogya – gateway to the stunning temple complexes of Borobudur and Prambakan.
Most visitors to Borobudur, the world’s largest Buddhist monument, are Muslim tourists. Elsewhere is the Pramnakan temple complex, testifying to lingering Hindu strains in the world’s largest Muslim country.
Built over a millennium ago, Borobudur, the world’s largest Buddhist monument, is a place of beautiful sunsets and moments for reflecting on impermanence.
Rediscovered in the sliver of time when the British under Stamford Raffles administered Java, the mountain-shaped structure is reminiscent of a mandala. It is elegantly situated on a hill and still radiates with its original sense of purpose. The Dutch, who oversaw the site much longer than the English who rediscovered it under volcanic ash and jungle growth, deserve ample credit for its present grand state.
Joyriding in Jogya by illuminated bicycle car. It’s family fun as residents gather in Yogyakarta’s Southern Square to scoot about in pedalpowered roadsters decorated to look like Doraemon or Pikachu, with pop songs blaring.
The elegant truism that roads are for journeys, not destinations, becomes self-evident in Yogya’s Southern Square, where locals choose among colourful, pedal-powered roadsters that are decorated to look like Doraemon or Pikachu, pop songs blasting from their sound systems. The low-key, family-oriented entertainment is a charming way to end a day spent soaking up the culture with, for example, a tour of the palace of Yogya’s nominal sultan.
Shadow puppetry can be viewed as originally intended, away from the puppeteers and musicians on the other side of the screen.
At the nearby Sonobudoyo Museum, a suspension of disbelief is useful when watching a shadow-puppet performance. The secrets of the art form are laid bare right at the front entrance as the puppets are manipulated in synch to the sounds of a classical orchestra.
But the magic and mystery are eternally there to be enjoyed on the other side of the screen, the theatrics still enthralling children and firing the imagination.