The island of Java is a living museum; no other place in Southeast Asia can claim such intimate convergence of cultures and beliefs.
Here are six sacred places in central Java that reflect Indonesia’s spiritual richness.
The Indonesian archipelago is comprised of over 17,000 islands; most are volcanic in origin, comprising part of the Pacific Ring of Fire, a zone of geophysical volatility that stretches through Japan and Southeast Asia.
On Java, Gunung Merapi (“Mountain of Fire”) is the most temperamental. A thousand years ago, a particularly violent eruption decimated an entire Hindu kingdom. Merapi’s last eruption was in 2006, right before a deadly earthquake shook the nearby Sultanate of Yogyakarta.
The coincidence of both events was not lost on those who believe the volcano is home to ancient spirits that control the fortunes of the Javanese.
Thousands of people live on Merapi’s fertile flanks. Every year, the Sultan of Yogyakarta makes offerings to placate these spirits through a specially appointed mystic.
For the adventurous, it is possible to ascend the mountain to view the glowing lava flow up close.
Several companies offer day trips and multi-day treks, starting from the resort town of Kaliurang on the southern slope or the quiet village of Selo on the northern side. You can also hire your own guide from either of these bases.
The Dieng Plateau is another geological wonder. A caldera, the site consists of crumbling 7th century Hindu temples on marshy, steaming terrain. The landscape is hauntingly beautiful. Framed by terraced fields, mist glides off boiling springs and sulphur-colored lakes. At 6,500 feet above sea level, the air is cool, making this a great respite from the midday heat.
Another group of ancient temples, Gedung Songo offers solitude in equally impressive surroundings. The ruins are situated among hiking trails, camp sites, and hot springs open to bathers, with views of cloud-capped mountains and volcanoes.
Borobudur, a massive 1,200-year old Buddhist monument, is the most frequented site in Java but it’s well worth the trip.
Most likely built by early propagators of Buddhism, the reconstructed structure is a mandala consisting of nine tiers, crowned by a huge pagoda.
Both pilgrims and tourists make the clockwise hike to the top, a meditative exercise that represents the timeless journey of man.
Avoid the tour buses by arriving early. An additional fee gets you a pocket flashlight and entrance into the grounds at 5 AM, an hour before the site officially opens.
The pre-dawn hour contributes to Borobudur’s mystique. First light breaks dramatically, revealing dozens of latticed, bell-shaped stupas, life-sized images of Buddha, and bucolic surroundings shrouded in mist.
In the distance, Merapi emerges, tinged with the fiery light of the rising sun. The crowing of village roosters pierces the silence, yet serenity remains.
Constructed during the 9th century, Prambanan is a sprawling complex of over 200 temples and shrines. Its main square houses eight reconstructed temples with soaring steeples and intricate carvings.
Dedicated to Shiva, the main edifice is flanked by smaller temples of Vishnu and Brahma. Most temple groupings are within walking or biking distance. More distant structures can be reached by horse cart.
Several buildings sustained significant damage during the 2006 earthquake. Fallen pinnacles and cracked stones are strewn about, awaiting restoration, and extensive scaffolding envelops some of the main structures.
To escape crowds and vendors, head to nearby Ratu Boko, an archaeological site on a breezy plateau. There isn’t much left of this former palace, but if you look beyond the goats grazing among the foundation stones, you can envision the grandeur that once stood on these peaceful highlands.
Where to Begin
Yogyakarta (simply called “Jogh-jah”) is a good base from which to explore central Java, as most of the above sites are easy day or half-day trips.
The city is served by daily flights from Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, and Denpasar on both low-cost and national carriers. Check online for passengers’ takes on Asian airlines; note that Indonesian carriers have not had the best safety records in recent years.
Other options are to take the train from Jakarta’s Gambir Station, an 8-hour ride, or to charter a vehicle with a driver.
Matador member Pras is a 26 year old Indonesian man originally from Yogyakarta. Pras hopes to become a foreign service officer.