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Delving into heart of Jogja
Published on: Sunday, December 01, 2019
By: Neil Chan


I NEVER thought I would one day get to stand atop the biggest historical Buddhist temple in the world, waiting in the cold morning air for the sun to creep over the horizon. 

But there I was in October, perched on top of the Borobudur temple complex in Yogyakarta or “Jogja”, as locals affectionately refer to it, in the cultural heart of Java.

At 3.30am, the hotel morning call came in to get ready for the trip to the temple complex.

The fact that my hotel room air-conditioning was set at freezing point the night before made it harder for me to leave my cosy bed. 

With a packed breakfast and hot coffee prepared at the lobby, our bleary-eyed and half asleep group were soon on our way on a tour coach in the darkness driving through still slumbering village roads. 

Arriving at the site in the dark, we were issued torch lights and soon found ourselves in the midst of other tourist groups as well, all heading for the temple complex.

It was a 15-minute walk from the car park to the temple and about 100 steps more or less (although some sources state its around 500). 

In any case, I was soon happy to discover the Borobudur steps were not as steep as those at Batu Caves, allowing even the most weak-kneed in our group to climb without too much problem.

The temple complex’s three main stages also meant visitors could rest and explore around each stage before proceeding to the top.

Located about one hour’s drive from Jogja, Borobudur was built in the 9th century, with the whole structure resembling the idea of a terraced mountain blending in with the Buddhist concept of ascending steps to attain Nirvana. 

Capped by a main bell-shaped structure called a stupa, the temple is decorated with 2,672 relief panels and 504 Buddha statues with a central dome surrounded by 72 Buddha statues in perforated smaller stupas. 

Reading more on the temple, I discovered that Borobudur remains a popular place for pilgrimage, with Buddhists in Indonesia celebrating Vesak Day at Borobudur. It also happens to be Indonesia’s single most visited tourism attraction.

Reaching the upper areas, we searched in the dark for the best side to catch the sunrise (the eastern side, obviously) and found it filled with western tourists and their respective guides.

After wandering around a bit, we found a decent spot to pitch camp and waited for the sunrise. 

Soon it was sunrise and the sky lit up but alas the sun was shy and decided to play peek-a-boo with us all, shining briefly through the mist and clouds to a cacophony of a hundred tourist camera clicks before quickly disappearing again. 

Ahh... No matter, we got the sunrise pictures we wanted. 

Our guide, Pak Maryoto, then brought us on a tour around the temple complex explaining the meaning of relief panel scenes decorating the temple walls which chronicled the life of Gautama Buddha.     

We were told that the rock walls were originally black but some areas showed traces of a white coating. That our guide told us was the work of Dutch filmmakers in the past – from the time when they ruled Indonesia. Their primitive black and white camera equipment could not show the intricate carving details – so they resorted to whitewashing the rock panel faces to make the details stand out enough to be photographed. 

Soon, we all hungrily trooped down the temple to the nearby Manohara restaurant for some excellent Indo-continental breakfast spread.

Feeling sated and recharged, our group then boarded what could be best described as a mini safari vehicle, basically a van with an upper viewing deck and chairs on its roof.

No way was this setup going to be approved on the road back in Malaysia, I remembered thinking to myself. 

“Waa, we’re going on safari,” someone joked as the vehicle started moving and to our delight, soon found ourselves going down the main town road with the local people on the roadsides and motorists alike grinning and waving at us and us waving sheepishly back at them.

A few kilometres down the road we soon arrived at a parking area where we all boarded two-wheeled horse drawn carts known as Andong or Dokar, a traditional form of transport in Indonesia that is still quite common in the rural areas. 

A few bumpy kilometres down the road with bells jingling like Santa’s ride and the sound of clip clopping hooves, we soon arrived at our next tourist attraction – Candirejo Village.

Candirejo village sustains the old customs of the Javanese Community. One can also choose to explore the village by an old bike or by horse carriage like we did.  

On arriving to a hut in the village, we were ushered in to witness the village Tempeh maker at work.

Tempe is a traditional Indonesian soy product made from fermented soybeans, created using fermentation process that binds the soybeans into a cake form. 

We were shown the process by which whole soybeans, which are softened by soaking,and dehulled were then partly cooked. 

The beans are mixed with the special yeast and spread into a thin layer on a woven tray and allowed to ferment for 24 to 36 hours at a warm room temperature of around 30°C. Rapid mould growth then occurs and the soybeans would be bound into a solid mass by the mould and ready to market. 

We were told the tempeh maker’s wife would then wake up early to bring the tempeh to sell at the nearby market for around RM0.40 to RM0.50 per stick.  

Next the group was also brought to a cassava chip snack producer in the village. There we watched her process singkong (cassava) into a paste to be made into fried snack chips and also tried our hands also at forming tapioca snack rings from the paste.

Then back on the horse carts again we went until we reached the main Candirejo village hall where a complete set of Gamelan music instruments awaited us. 

Gamelan is a traditional set of musical instruments predominantly of percussive instruments. 

In Indonesia, gamelan often accompanies dance, wayang puppet performances, or rituals and ceremonies. 

The most common instruments used are metallophones: Bonang, Gender, Slenthem played by mallets and a set of hand-played drums called kendhang which register the beat and gongs. 

After quick lessons by the Candirejo village hosts with written playing notes on a blackboard for everyone to follow and after a few misstries, everyone was soon playing their part in banging out a cacophony of a gamelan performance and trying out several sets of  traditional tunes arrangements.

I can only imagine our attempts must have been pretty cringe worthy for the resident villagers and our musicians hosts who nonetheless good-naturedly praised our performance.

Suffice to say the Javanese Gamelan medley is nothing like the typical Peninsular Malaysian Lambang Sari Gamelan piece once hears being often being played at university convocations, hotels and important official events. 

The Javanese version has more of an upbeat tempo which at times rises and falls, speeding up and slowing down which is not really surprising as this was used to accompany live theatre performances and dances while the Malaysian version tends to be more of an easy listening background music nature. 

Alas, all good things must come to an end so off we went again to our next destination where we learnt to make souvenir pottery at a nearby village restaurant named Omahe Biyung Candirejo.

There our group took the opportunity to learn how to craft traditional pottery on a traditional hand spun stone potters wheel from clay mud. 

Many of us chose to make the stupa shaped oil lamp and signed their names on it, while some just made simple cups. Then the group proceeded to enjoy the local cakes spread and tea brunch laid out for us at the restaurant.

After this the group proceeded for lunch proper to the Omah Mbudur restaurant at Dusun Jowahan which was located a few kilometres away.

After a trip through a maze like path of narrow village roads, we soon arrived at our destination. 

Climbing down from the bus we were greeted by our hosts in impressive and intricate Javanese traditional and historical costumes and stage makeup. 

Making a beeline for the nearby traditional buffet lunch, we quickly helped ourselves to the delicious traditional spread and settled down as the announcement came that the traditional show would be starting soon.

That traditional show would be Soreng or Perajuritan dance representing the soldiers of the Mataram Kingdom.

The Soreng dance is actually an active and very expressive dance comprising sudden movements of the hands and feet about the preparation and training of his men for war by the protagonist in the dance, a ruler Arya Penangsang from the Duchy of Jipang and the dance illustrates the bravery and skill of his warriors practicing warfare and preparing for battle.

The protagonist Arya Penangsang was a real person and the adipati ruler of a territory called Jipang in the mid 16th century. However the legend behind his life was a story that featured political intrigue and strife that resembles episodes from the popular TV series “Game of Thrones”.

Local legend has it that Arya Penangsang was reputedly a man who was strong and invincible in battle thanks to his martial skills and practise of supernatural powers which rendered ordinary weapons unable to hurt him. 

Armed with an impresive set of whiskers our protagonist also carried with him a heirloom keris or Malay dagger called Setan Kober and rode a mighty black stallion named Gagak Rimang.

However his end came in battle when he was defeated by the rebel forces of adipati Hadiwijaya of the Kingdom of Pajang.

However, Pak Maryoto told me our protagonist met an interesting and somewhat gruesome end, according to legends.

The story goes before the start of a battle pitting his forces versus the Kingdom of Panjang at the side of Bengawan Sore river, Arya Penangsang came forward on his famous mighty warhorse Gagak Rimang to survey the battle field.

Seeing him a man named Sutawijaya, a nephew of Hadiwijaya of the Panjang forces also hauled his white horse down the rivers edge to confront Arya Penangsang, and immediately turned his horse around and turned his back on the horse Arya Penangsang.

Now it is said that in the event of a battle or battle on the Bengawan Sore River, those who go down to the river first will lose. Arya’s beloved black horse suddenly behaved strangely and became wild because Sutawijaya horse was a female horse.

As Gagak Rimang became more and more wild, Arya Penangsang had a hard time handling his horse. Seeing Arya Penangsang busy with his horse, Sutawijaya didn’t miss the opportunity. He immediately thrust his heirloom spear into the stomach of Arya Penangsang until it was cut open and some of his intestines were exposed.

Nevertheless, Arya’s supernatural powers allowed him hold on although his intestines were now outside of his body. Arya then simply wrapped his intestines around the hilt of his keris which was tucked at his hip to keep it out of the way as he continued to fight.

In the end, thanks to his martial prowess, Arya held the upper hand over Sutawijaya. However, as he pulled out his keris Setan Kober to finish him off once and for all, he supposedly forgot about his intestines and as such ending up severing them which led to his death. What a way to go.

But then I digress. In any case we saw the dance Arya Penangsang arriving on his black horse to inspect his men and them going through their war dance paces. 

At the end of their Soreng dance performance, our group was also invited to dance with the Soreng dancers to which our group enthusiastically joined in, mimicking their moves, waving their hands in the air and dancing around in a circle.

Leaving Omah Mbudur we left for central Yogyakarta city as we had one more attraction to catch before the end of the day. 

After checking into the Tentrem Hotel, a luxurious five star hotel located about less than three kilometers from Malioboro street, our group was assigned to various local bechak or trishaws in the evening.

The lucky ones of our group had the luxury of a bechak all to themselves. the rest  had to share two people to a bechak which was rather cramped to begin with.

Heading in a creaking manner towards Malioboro street, we braved crossing the chaotic rush hour evening traffic which was all around us and eventually ending up at the end of (or beginning of) the famous Malioboro street where we continued exploring the street on foot.

Malioboro street is a lively place is famous for its street vendors who sell a lot of textile stuff such as Batik garments and cloth and some varieties of souvenirs such as the usual t-shirts, key rings, fridge magnets, traditional hats and fans and so on and also a variety of local foods. 

This is the main street and probably the busiest road in Yogyakarta, it is located close to the Yogyakarta train station.

there are lots of hotels and sidewalk restaurants as well. It was once the ceremonial avenue for the Yogyakarta Sultan to pass though on his way to and from Keraton.

Some say the name Malioboro is derived from the name of the British Governor Marlborough from the era when Britain ruled the archipelago between 1811-1816.

The best time to visit the street is from 6pm onwards. A place for the local young and old to hang out and stroll around. it can be packed, especially on the weekends or holidays and one can also find buskers playing music there as well. 

Across the road is the old Vrendenburg fort which used to be the Dutch soldiers’ barracks and is now a centre for arts and painting exhibitions. 

On the same side is the Beringhorjo market, the main market there with the cheapest prices but it’s only open from 7am to 5pm.      

Other attractions of note are the nearby Garuda Hotel, Jogja’s oldest hotel built in the Dutch Colonial architecture. 

Nevertheless, one must be prepared to bargain for the best prices (up to 50 per cent or more) if one intends to do a bit of souvenir hunting.

After walking to the end of the street, our group then proceeded to board the tour bus which took us to the Bale Raos restaurant for dinner that serves the dishes eaten by the Kraton Kings of Yogyakata. Then it’s back to hotel sweet hotel as we have an early start the next morning. 





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