Nestled in the centre of Java, Indonesia, Yogyakarta is a charming little town.
There were horse-pulled carts, and rickshaws still plying their trade, palaces to visit, batik pictures to purchase, and satay to eat. Yogyakarta is well worth a day or two to explore, to wander down the narrow alleyways, haggle at the markets. A university town, there are plenty of local guides who speak English and can give an insight into the town that you might otherwise miss out on. But explore on your own too. It’s worth it.
Today Yogyakarta is a predominantly Muslim town and region, but prior to the arrival of Islam on Java, both Buddhism and Hindu religions saw the construction of great historical monuments, surprisingly at around the same time.
Prambanan is a 9th or 10th century Hindu temple complex, now a UNESCO World Heritage site, but when we visited it was still undergoing reconstruction. Blocks of stone lay strewn about, but there was order in the chaos. Each block was carefully identified and numbered, ready for restoration. It looked like the world’s largest jigsaw puzzle.
It is hard to imagine how otherworldly its spires must have looked, emerging from the steaming tropical Javanese jungle. I find it easier to understand religion when I see ancient structures like this, imagining how it would have seemed to someone living at the time. So alien, so separate from the reality of everyday life, so heavenly.
Borobudur is of course the most famous of the monuments surrounding Yogyakarta. Abandoned, it lay for almost a thousand years under volcanic ash and rampant jungle. By the time I saw it however, the Buddhist monument had been meticulously restored by UNESCO, and sat in a manicured garden. I find I feel less connected to a pristine reconstruction. So I struggled to imagine how it must have felt for those first explorers sent by General Thomas Stamford Raffles, coming across something so magnificent, something previously lost in time.
Climbing to the top of Borobudur is the must do.From there you can see the volcanoes in the distance, the plains full of rice fields and palm trees.
Whilst Borobudur did not have the relatively (at the time) unexplored magic of Angkor for me, it is still possible to imagine the awe in which this amazing structure was held, a thousand years ago.