Even as we were leaving Batu Karas, we realized something was up in the air. That something made it a little hard to breathe and covered the broad palm leaves in a fine layer of light gray. It was volcanic ash. As with everything else, details were difficult to come by as. Through the bus and train ride to Yogyakarta we pieced together that a volcano near to this city has erupted, and consulting our guidebook we deduced it must have been Mount Merapi, a mere 26km away.
When we got to Yogya nothing was amiss. The winds apparently blew all the ash west and the city was untouched. However, with good internet access we quickly learned that western media were abuzz about the volcano, and the tsunami on the neighboring but far away island of Sumatra. We are OK and there was never any danger or fear for safety, at least from the volcano.
We liked this city so much we ended up spending five nights here. It is vibrant, full of life, and has very good traveler infrastructure. Our hotel was clean, neat, had a nice and pleasant atmosphere, and a pool. They even made our bed every day. I know this does not sound like much, but given the backpacker standard to which we are used to, this is full blown luxury.
One of the reasons we stayed so long in Yogyakarta is that it is a central city in an area which has many Hindu temples. Even though quite a bit of distance separates this places from India, Hinduism got here, got cut off from the mainland, and evolved its own special flavor which often combines traditional Javanese believes. More astonishingly, they’ve built temples–huge temples–the biggest Hindu temples in the world.
There was a lot to see and quite a bit of distance to cover. Naturally, this meant motorbikes. Unlike in Malaysia, the driving here is less serene. At first it may even seem crazy, but there is a method to the madness. Everyone just concentrates on what’s ahead of them, with just a little alertness dedicated to their peripheral vision. Horns and long beams serve as communication signals (and not usually offensive ones). You mainly mind yourself and what is in front of you. You need to change lanes, you gradually do. If the road is not clear, you soon find out with a friendly honk or three, at which point you return whence you came. At night, brights from oncoming traffic mean “hey you, ahead, I know you’re passing and are in my lane and I see you and am making sure you see me as well”. In general, it’s hectic and tight, but not hasty and rude. An added bonus is that most bikes and cars seem to be incapable of anything over 70kph.
We saw the ruins of Parambanan. They consist of six large stupas, the tallest–Shiva–47m tall. The others decreased in size and all of them towered high above two hundred plus little piles of rubble. These were the remnants of little stupas which are yet to be restored after 1200 years of earthquakes reduced them to not much more than piles of rock.
Then were the ruins of Plaosan. Two large restored Buddhist-Hindu temples, a result of interreligious marriage of nobility at the time. Many headless statues littered the landscape and populated the temples, victims of European art connoisseurs. A pity, really. It was very serene, surrounded by rice paddies and corn fields.
Finally, there was Borobudur, the granddaddy of Hindu temples. Fantastically large, built around a hill, it is a marvel to behold. We explored the terraces of this huge temple with the help of our very animated tour guide. We got basic lessons in Javanese Hinduism, politics, philosophy, and dancing. Afterward, we decided to visit a nearby village known for tofu production. We rode around on our motorbikes through narrow potholed roads only to get lost s it was getting dark, those tofu connoisseurs we are. Needless to say, we found no tofu factories, but did have a very picturesque drive through some very local landscapes.
Mount Merapi continued to explode and spew ashes into the air. After the unfortunate first eruption on Tuesday where over thirty people lost their lives on its mountainside, no more casualties occurred as people have been evacuated. One day we woke up and found the city covered in a thin layer of fine dust. We donned facemasks from then on and this is the extent to which we were affected by this fiery mountain.
We filled our time in Yogyakarta with exploring the city, visiting the kraton of the sultan, and stopping by the zoo-like bird and animal market. Charmed by the shadow puppets found for sale, we went to the shadow puppet theater. We obliged our newly-awakened desire for batik by stopping at some of the countless galleries where these colorful cloth paintings are thrust upon tourists. And of course we practiced out motorcycle skills, riding around in the rain, in the dark, and in the volcanic ash, sometimes lost, occasionally quickly, and always carefully. Alas, as always, the time came to leave and now we are on our way east, heading towards the majestic Bromo volcano, as Merapi spews another cloud of dust into the air far behind us.