31: Big Fish

Jakarta Bound is a travelogue about life in one of the largest and most densely populated cities in South East Asia.

Giant gourami lunch

Aftet leaving the Samudra Raksa Museum I went in search of my driver, Nana. I walked through the site grounds, past the exterior market stalls selling refreshements and toward the car park where I found him having a little down time with the other drivers who were waiting for their tourists. When he saw me approaching he quickly broke off from his conversation and switched his big smile back on as he walked over to resume his role as the tourist’s driver. I was hungry so the first thing on the agenda before we continued on the rest of the day trip was food.

I had asked Nana to take me to a nice Indonesian place to eat – nothing too extravagant, but a good few tiers up from a street warung. Although I know he meant well, when we rolled up at some swanky looking outdoor restaurant with a roofed terrace and a mâitre d’ I laughed and shook my head. The place was full of couples and looked more suited to a wedding reception than a tasty lunch.

“No no Nana” I said, “This is too much. We’re not going on a date mate. I don’t want to be sat in here on my own with all these couples. Just take me to an ordinary place. Somewhere decent, but not a full-on restaurant.” Of course he didn’t understand a word I said, but the paralinguistics were clear. So we got back in the car and he drove us a few meters up the road to another restaurant. This place also had an outdoor terrace area along with its own pond and a little bridge that led to a pagoda with seating on the other side. There were islands of seating dispersed pleasantly amongst the dried grass around the edges of the pond and it all looked very nice. Unfortunately, whilst it was a good idea in theory, the reality was that the pond feature was little more than an algae filled stagnant body of water that looked like a murky green soup. Mosquitos and flies were hovering and pestering and it just wasn’t a place where anyone would want to sit and eat food. So we walked back inside the main building and took a seat by the window.

I had an aquarium for many years and I’ve had all manner of tropical fish as pets, including gouramis. Gouramis are a colourful species from Asia that are a good addition in a tank full of community fish, or even in amongst a semi-aggressive collection with breeds like cichlids and catfish. They typically have two little whisker-like pectoral fins, which are their genetic trademark, and there are numerous colourful varieties ranging from silvery blues and golden oranges to luminescent pinks. Since I had been in Indonesia I had noticed gourami being offered on a few of the menus and was intrigued as to what breed they used for cooking. I’ve had dwarf gouramis, pearl gouramis, kissing gouramis and even giant gouramis, but none of these had grown more than two or three inches long. So when I ordered the gourami that was on the menu I wasn’t expecting a ten inch-long beast of a thing spilling over the sides of my plate. Clearly this breed of gourami wasn’t on offer in the pet shops in England.

The beast of a fish dish I got was delish. It was covered in a pineapple, pepper and a sambal sweet and sour sauce and served with sticky rice. My mouth watered just looking at it. But it was way too much for one person to eat so I invited Nana to share. He declined at first, I assume because he wanted to retain the driver/client professional protocol (he was going to wait for me in the car until I told him to come in). But I insisted. It would have just been a waste otherwise. 

As Nana and I sat sharing the monster gourami in the air-conditioned cool of the café I asked him about the rest of the day’s agenda. He told me our next stop was Telaga-Warna – the Colour Lake – after which we would be heading to the sulphur mines and craters of the Dieng Plateau. He said that this was going to take another two hours or so of driving. Another two hours listening to those three decades of love ballads again with a man who only spoke about twenty words of English. This wasn’t what I had planned for and I really wasn’t looking forward to it. Sometimes though, the best experiences are those ones of which you have least expectation.


30. The Samudra Raksa

Jakarta Bound is a travelogue about life in one of the largest and most densely populated cities in South East Asia.


Having taken in the full splendour of the Borobudur temple, I took the north exit through the market. Here the ubiquitous traders sell all things Borobudur; models of the temple in various sizes and materials as well as wall hangings, sculptures, buddahs of all description, bangles, bracelets and other unrelated souvenirs. There was some really nice stuff in all fairness and I really wanted to take away a statuette or mini-model-monument. But I wasn’t on a two-week vacation and I already had more than enough stuff for my potential one-year stay. What is more, with my current living situation uncertain, who knows how many times I would have to cart all that stuff around before I headed back home. Previous experience has taught me that I’m pretty clumsy and I usually break souvenirs in transit; well either I break them or the heavy-handed baggage handlers do. That being said, I still have a fair amount of extravagant mementos from my travels. However, today I was travelling light and I was satisfied with the fact that I had enough digital memories of Borobudur stored in my phone and camera to fill a book and I was still only half way through my day trip. So I quickly made my way through the market trying to avoid eye contact and the invitation of buying and bartering and emerged out of the other end into the Borobudur archaeological park.

It was still relatively early in the day and I was in no rush to get back to my driver, so I followed the directions of a signpost that led me up a path toward the Samudra Raksa Museum. Inside was a life-sized replica of an 8th century Indonesian sailing ship of the same name that was built in 2003 by a British sailor called Philip Beale. Beale had visited Borobudur in 1982 and seen images of ancient Javanese sailing ships engraved on the base level of the temple that is below ground level. Cross-ocean trading had been going on between Africa and Indonesia since the Roman era and Beale wanted to recreate one of these journeys. Inspired by the Borobudur inscriptions and using the limited information he could find about the early Javanese sailors, Beale set upon a project to construct the Samudra raksa. After completing the building of the ship, Beale and his crew sailed it from Java to Madagascar and the west coast of Africa.

The Samudra Raksa Museum isn’t very big, but it is worth taking a look to gain a little bit of insight into the historial legacy of Indonesia. One of the great things about travelling is that you learn aspects of world history that you would otherwise never have known existed. Whilst most Europeans would be aware of the Vikings, the Spanish Armada, Admiral Nelson and the great British navy, how many would ever know what accomplished mariners the Indonesians were? Histories are more often promoted as a badge of honour and used to wedge a gap between us and them; typically the victors and those that were conquered. As such, you tend to be taught a history that is somewhat skewed in such a way to imbue a sense of pride and indoctrinate an attitude of nationalist superiority. So it is that in western education and culture, huge swathes of the historical achievements and the legacies of those ‘others’ from the dark continent that came before the European colonisation of the world are omitted. My brief tour of the Samudra Raksa Museum gave me the opportunity to learn a little bit of Southeast Asian history that I would have otherwise never known. It also gave me a brief reprieve from the heat of the sun.

29. Pradakshina

Jakarta Bound is a travelogue about life in one of the largest and most densely populated cities in South East Asia.


According to the ancient Kayumwungan and Karangtengan inscriptions, the construction of Candi Borobudur was completed around May 824 AD and took an estimated 75 years to build. Unfortunately, about a hundred years later Mount Merapi erupted and buried the temple in volcanic ash for a thousand years. In the aftermath of the volcanic eruption the whole region suffered from famine and starvation, whilst all across the island there were religious and political conflicts. Although the temple was eventually uncovered by the Javanese people, it was left neglected for hundreds of years.

Whilst circumstances may have no doubt contributed to its neglect, nobody really knows for sure why such an epic and culturally significant monument was left to degenerate into a state of chronic disrepair. Nevertheless, it was rediscovered again in 1811 when Java was under British administration. The then Governer of Java, General Thomas Raffles, heard stories about the ruins of an ancient temple in the jungle so he commissioned a team led by Dutch engineer H.C. Cornelius to begin excavation of the site. It took more than two decades to uncover the entire area, but by 1834 it was completely cleared and work continued over the subsequent years to unveil some of its mysteries.

Unfortunately, as interest in the Borobudur site developed it was plundered by thieves and souvenir hunters for many years after its discovery. The Dutch colonial government even gave away eight containers of statues and relics that had been escavated from the site to the King of Siam as a diplomatic gift in 1896. However, in 1973 a new restoration project began and over 700 workers spent the next twelve years meticulously reassembling almost one and a half million stone bricks, sculptures and reliefs to restore the epic monument to its original glory. In 1991 all this work was rewarded when Candi Borobudur was listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.

Borobudur ariel view archive

The Borobudur temple has survived a volcanic eruption in the 9th century, terrorist bombings in 1985, an earthquake that measured 6.2 on the Richter scale in 2006 and hundreds of years of natural erosion and human neglect. Today it still stands high and mighty and is the most popular tourist attraction in Indonesia, visited by around 2.5 million people a year. Today it was my turn.

Like the other Indonesian monuments, there is a two tier pricing system for Indonesian residents and tourists. Entrance into the site for the visiting non-Indonesian public is 110,000 IDR, which buys you the privilege of feasting your eyes on one of the world’s greatest man made monuments. My driver declined my offer to pay for his entry and decided to wait for me outside instead. I told him it would be likely that I would be a couple of hours, but he simply smiled and nodded and told me where he would be parked when I came out. There was little shelter from the sun’s rays in the car park, but he probably knew the other drivers that visited the site every week with tourists so I assumed he would find something to do to fill the time, even if it was just to take a nap.

Like Prambanan, visitors entering the Borobudur temple are instructed to wrap a sarong around their waists as a sign of respect for the religious significance of the site. Visitors are offered a complimentary beverage before entering the grounds, so I asked for a coffee and took a seat in a little terrace area before I started what was likely to be a lot of walking. As I sat in the sun I was interrupted by a huge, bright-green grasshopper that came from nowhere and made a heavy landing on the floor in front of me. Four-inch long grasshoppers may be the norm in Asia, but for a western city boy this was like an added tour feature. I played with it for a few minutes, trying to get an action shot of the giant bug in full jump mode, but the critter was just too damn quick for my me and my little digital camera. So I left it alone, finished my coffee and made my into the site.

Borobudur grasshopper 2

The gardens that surround the main temple are well maintained. Large stretches of grass, bleached blonde by the relentless year round sun, reach out toward the jungle at the edges of the site. An irregular scatter of large palms and other tropical trees grow from the lawn like organic parasols, offering the option of shelter every thirty or forty yards. You walk along the wide, flat-stoned, granite pathway upon entering, passing small pagodas and vendors offering elephant taxi tours of the grounds. It isn’t long before you see Candi Borobudur through the treeline. The path leading directly down the centre of this treeline to the east entrance of the temple is about a hundred metres long, splitting into two like an elongated running track. A long two-tier section of landscaped garden fills the centre. Miniature trees line the lower tier whilst a bed of colourful little flowers on long stalks crown the top tier, large black butterflies flitting amongst their mini blooms. Looking down this line of colour your eyeline takes you up the steps of the huge black monument and there you see the peak of the Borobudur temple rising imperiously into the blue sky.

Borobudur entrance panoramic 1

The design of Borobudur is based on the mandala, a Buddhist diagram representing the universe as depicted in Buddhist teachings. Outside there is a marble plaque with a diagram of the temple giving instruction to visitors on how to correctly walk up an around the temple, a practice known as pradakshina. This ritual involves pilgrims walking around the temple clockwise from the base of the monument at the east and walking around each of the terraces three times up to the main stupa that rises 115 feet at its peak. The story of the Buddhist universe is depicted in over 2500 bas-reliefs carved into the walls. There are nine platforms decorated with 504 Buddha statues, many of which have been vandalised and had their heads stolen (one of these Buddha heads sits on display in the British museum). These have been built on a 118 metre base and comprise of six square terraces with three circular platforms at the top. The top three platforms have 72 small stupas surrounding one large central stupa in the centre, each housing a statue of Buddha.

Borobudur buddahs 3

Borobudur buddahs

All in all, the complete pradakshina walk, which circumambulates the monument and includes gated stairways to each level watched over by 32 lion statues, is almost five kilometres long. Quite a mission in the searing Javanese heat, but if you are going to take a look at the monument you may as well take the prescribed route to do it. That being said, unless you are a Buddhist, walking around each terrace three times isn’t really necessary. The engravings and the views are impressive enough on the first viewing.

Without research, religious devotion or the informative narrative of a guide, an unenlightened tourist such as myself can only assume that the Javanese islanders lived in happy times. Topless maidens, lords in procession on elephants and people in various contortions of Buddhist repose adorn panel after panel as you make your way to the top. It is like a stone-carved recording of a massive island party that makes you wish for a world of peaceful Buddhist indulgence and spiritual contemplation.

Borobudur panoramic 2

Borobudur pathways 4


Borobudur detail 3

Borobudur detail 4

Borobudur stupas 2

Borobudur view panoramic 1

Like the other tourists visiting the site, I didn’t stay completely true to pradakshina. Nonetheless, I took my time and I enjoyed my walk up to the top of the monument and its crown of bell shaped stupas with their resting buddahs enclosed. The spectacular views of surrounding jungle, blue sky, soft clouds and distant mountains immersing into a vista of greeny blue hues are wonderful. Each platform is designed to represent one stage of enlightenment and the three levels of Buddhist cosmology: Kamadhatu (the world of desire), Rupadhatu (the world of forms) and Arupadhatu (the world of formless). I like to think that, whichever way you make your way to the top or whatever your beliefs, with its beautiful natural views and the manmade craftsmanship that adorns the structure, you are imbued with a feeling of some kind of Buddhist contemplative calm.

Borobudur buddah

28. The Road to Borobudur

Jakarta Bound is a travelogue about life in one of the largest and most densely populated cities in South East Asia.

Boko river Jogja 2

It’s about 40 kilometers from Yogyakarta to the Borobudur temple, which translates to about an hour and a half. But this is quality time, because it’s a beautiful drive that takes you through some glorious scenery.

Glaring through my passenger window, I feasted my eyes on a vista of lush, green, mountainous landscape bathed in South East Asian sunshine. As the driver weaved along the road that passed through the verdant screen of trees and valleys, rice fields and farmland, passing the 3000 metre high Mount Merapi volcano to the east, crossing the Kali Krasak River and into Central Java, I felt intoxicated. This was the reason I had chosen Indonesia as my work destination. This was where I wanted to be every weekend. Even the saccharine sounds of popular ballads from the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s and 80’s couldn’t spoil it. If anything, listening to the likes of Cilla Black, Elvis Presley and the Bee Gees added a charming surreality to the epic, natural wonderment of the landscape – you just would never get this living the life more ordinary. As Claire, and others had told me about working in Jakarta, it’s all about the holidays.

The language barrier between the driver and I proved to be a somewhat of a blessing. I did attempt to make some idle chit-chat, mainly just to be courteous and inject a more friendly dynamic between driver and passenger: “Are you from Jogja?” “How long will it take to get to Borobudur?” “Have you got any other CD’s?” “Do you like 60’s music?” Anything Nana could reply to in English was returned with a broad smile. Anything that wasn’t understood was replied with a nod and a broader smile – “No understand sir.”

Regardless of the dearth of convivial chit-chat, both of us were quite content with our roles – tourist and driver – and the lack of conversational distractions allowed me to absorb the visual reel of natural beauty without interruption. As Buddah once said, “Don’t talk if you can’t improve on silence.” Obviously, the silence is more complete when Tom Jones isn’t singing ‘What’s up Pussycat’!

By the time we reached the town of Borobudur the love ballads of the 50’s and 60’s had given way to the sounds of the 70’s – a much better decade in my opinion. Unfortunately, Nana’s CD had seemed to bypass most of Motown and the silky, soulful sounds of legends like Marvin Gaye and Teddy Pendergrass in favour of the pop hits of that era. Nevertheless, the likes of Dionne Warwick, Al Green and Barry White were represented, and so it was that we entered the village of Borobudur to the deep bass and baritone of Mr. White on ‘Can’t Get Enough of Your Love’. ‘Lovely Day’ by Bill Withers might have been more apt, but we had already had that en route.

The Borobudur temple is probably the main tourist attraction for visitors coming to Jogja and its influence on the trade in the area is evident. After driving through the mountains for over an hour and seeing nothing but the occasional farmer, the odd ox or cow and a few cars and trucks passing by on the road, as you get closer to the town of Borobudur, there is much more activity. There are more cars, people and houses, as well as a host of restaurants, warungs, gift shops and small hotels.

As we came through the village of Mendut we passed a giant Banyan tree where children were playing and I saw what looked like another large ancient temple that was set off the road behind a fenced enclosure. I asked the driver what it was and he told me that it was Candi (the Indonesian word for ‘temple’) Mendut, one of two other smaller temples that are linked to the main temple of Borobudur. The smallest of the two is Candi Pawon, which is situated in between the Borobudur and Mendut temples. These three temples have some kind of symbolic connection and are set in a geographic line, with Borobudur west, Mendut east and the small Pawon temple being the axis of this triumvirate of Buddhist worship.

Borobodur Candi Pawon

The original name for Candi Pawon is not known for certain. In the Javanese language the word ‘pawon’ literally means ‘kitchen’ and is derived from the root word awu, meaning dust. The design of the Pawon temple includes six large holes at its base, which could have been vents. This has led some researchers and archeologists to conclude that the actual meaning of its name is ‘Per-awu-an’ – a place that contains dust – suggesting that the temple was built as a crematorium for a king.

The Mendut temple is the oldest of the three temples, which were all built between the 8th and 9th century during what was the Sailendra dynasty. According to JG de Casparis, one of the archaeologists who researched the temple, its original name was Vennuvana Mandira – The Palace in the Bamboo Forest – and it holds a special significance for Buddhists because of the three gigantic Buddha statues sitting inside the temple that are believed to radiate an aura of blessedness. It is also where Buddhists stage the annual ritual ceremony of Vesak during the full moon in May or June. The holy waters from the springs of Jumprit and the torch with the natural eternal flames at Mrapen are kept at Mendut before the monks and congregations conduct their procession from there to Borobudur.

Like many of the ancient monuments in Indonesia, not much is known about the Mendut or Powan temples. Nevertheless, they form a significant part of the ritual pilgrimage to Borobudur made by many Buddhists each year. For a Philistine tourist like me, Candi Mendut was merely an added visual snapshot en-route to the main showpiece of Borobudur, the largest Buddhist temple in the world.

27. A Sound Sleep, A Big Breakfast and A Road Trip With Nana

Jakarta Bound is a travelogue about life in one of the largest and most densely populated cities in South East Asia.


I slept very soundly amidst the soft cotton and deep layers of bedding on my hotel bed. Unlike the Grand Prix Inn, there had been no roar of traffic, noisy neighbours or early morning call to prayer to disturb me. The Javanese tranquillity of the Puri Artha remained silently intact; that is until the insistent, chiming, alarm, rang repetitively from my phone to tell me it was 7am. Morning had come too soon.

With my head enveloped in the plump, padding of pillows and quilt, nothing was more appealing than staying right there in that bed and not moving, so I snoozed my alarm and postponed my awakening for “just ten more minutes”. But it was off again in what seemed like a few seconds, only this time I was ready.

An intense beam of sunshine forced it’s way under a gap in the blackout curtains to sell me another glorious, sunny, South East Asian day, but there was no pitch required. After filling myself up at the breakfast buffet, I would be spending the day being driven through the hills and valleys of Central Java and seeing some sights. With this type of motivation, getting out of bed isn’t the chore it usually is for me. So I sprung out of my quilted pit and into the shower before heading to the al fresco restaurant to see what the breakfast buffet had to offer.

I was expecting a message from reception at around eight to tell me when my driver arrived so I didn’t have a huge amount of time to eat breakfast, which was a shame because there was plenty of it. Fresh fruit and juices, yoghurts, cereals, croissants, cakes, pastries, teas and coffee; there was a chef at the hotplate throwing together freshly made omelettes-to-order and there were also a host of Indonesian style spicy dishes, noodles and rice.

I was one of only a handful of guests who were eating at the time, so there was no waiting or crowding or noisy chatter and clinking of plates and cutlery. I chose a table and had a glass of juice and some fresh fruit to start before the waiter came over to offer me a hot coffee. As he poured I went to the buffet and gathered a collection of the little cakes and pastries and brought them back to the table. I then went to see the hotplate man about an omelette. Whilst the omelette was being put together I got myself some spicy vegetable noodles and some chicken wings; I had a long day ahead of me and I wanted to start it on a full stomach.

Puri Artha Gardens


I fully enjoyed my four-course breakfast under the roof of the pagodalike restaurant. As I looked out into the sunny little hotel garden, the delicate sound of trickling water features gently filling the empty silent space, I felt the most at ease and relaxed than I had been since arriving in Indonesia. Although I had only been in the country a couple of weeks, between the preparation for leaving and the initial settling in period, I needed this holiday break.

As I washed down the last of the mini Danish pastries with a mouthful of warm coffee it was almost eight o’clock.I returned to my room and got together everything I would need for the day: phone, camera, sunglasses and wallet. I didn’t want to be encumbered by any unnecessary incidentals. But as eight came and went there was still no call from reception about my driver, so I decided to go and find him.

I walked into the reception area and saw a little Indonesian man sat on the sofa reading a newspaper. He looked up as I approached, seemingly knowing I was his passenger.

“Are you my driver?” I asked.

“Mr Green?” He replied.

“Yes” I said, “Sorry I’m late, I thought someone was going to call to tell me you were here”. He just smiled, stood up and took the hand I offered. He shook my hand weakly, still smiling in the friendly and subservient manner that Indonesian workers do. I suspected straight away that he couldn’t speak English, so I asked; “Do you speak English?”

“No speak English.”

“No English at all?” I asked in frustration – constantly not getting what you’re told your going to get is very, very frustrating.

“No English sir, only speak Indonesia” he replied, his big smile still holding.

I smiled back at him and shook my head with a big, wry, sigh; it’s all you can do when you’re faced with the Groundhog Day of Indonesian ineptitude you faced in this country. I had all day with this driver and he didn’t speak any English, but what was I going to do? 

“Ok”, I said, “I was told that you could speak English… err… Ok, well, erm… Ok, well… let’s go then.”

The driver’s name was Nana and he drove an air-conditioned Toyota SUV with tinted windows, so at least we would be comfortable. Although he said he didn’t speak any English, he knew the odd word here and there. Not enough for a conversation, but I had Google translate on my phone so we had the means for the most basic of communication. I told myself it might be a fun experience and an opportunity to learn a bit of Bahasa spending the day with a non-English speaking Indonesian. I had to tell myself something rather than be pissed off about being out all day with a driver who didn’t understand me. Also, since the Puri Artha also advertised a spa and its own in-house ‘beauty therapists’, I decided that after twelve hours of driving and walking around the sights of Central Java, a massage would be the perfect tonic for when I returned.

Before we took to the road, I had to make a stop in town so that I could change some more money, so I loaded up some useful words and phrases on my phone to elicit simple conversation as we set off to the nearest money changer. Nana selected one of only one CD he had to play so that the silence was filled with music; soundtrack 1 – How Much is That Doggie in the Window by Doris Day. This was going to be an interesting trip if nothing else. And even if it was nothing else, coming back to a Javanese massage would be some consolation.

26: Satay Supper and a Good Night’s Sleep

Jakarta Bound is a travelogue about life in one of the largest and most densely populated cities in South East Asia.


Before going back to my room I stopped at the reception to confirm that my driver was booked for the following day’s sightseeing tour to Borobodur and the Dieng plateau. Santi wasn’t there, but she had left a note for me to say that the driver was coming to collect me at eight in the morning, which meant I had to probably be up before seven to get ready and have breakfast. It had already been a long day so I needed an early night if I was going to be up that early, but I needed dinner first. I was going to eat in the hotel restaurant, but despite its Javanese charm and tranquillity it was totally empty. If I was going to eat alone I at least wanted the cultural, social osmosis of dining amongst some other people. It was Saturday night and the district seemed like a youthful kind of place. It couldn’t be too hard to find a café serving some nasi goreng, beer or even a burger I thought.

The pavements around Yogyakarta weren’t that much better than the pavements in Jakarta; stone slabs and rocks roughly slapped together with cement and concrete. The roads crookedly clashed with the ad hoc pathways and kerbs, forcing any attempt at strolling into a stumbling negotiation of trip hazards. I walked around the block to find something resembling a vibrant hubbub of Saturday evening eating and drinking, but there wasn’t much more than random, small groups of people lazily passing time in small, grimy looking cafes that looked like they were closing for the night. I walked for over half an hour, but despite the ceaseless traffic and the screeching, ripsaw noise of mopeds, the town was totally dead. Nevertheless, I was still hungry.

It was after eleven by this time and the only places that seemed to be still serving food were the grimy, little tarpauline covered warungs on the main road. Their charcoal burners seemed to go on into the night, serving fish, chicken satay, goat, beef, rice and noodles. So, feeling a little weak and weary, I took a seat at one of the wooden trestle tables in one of these warungs. As I sat down on the dirty little plastic stool, I stared at the grimy, laminated menu and tried to decipher what it said. But all my energy left me. I rested my elbows on the plastic tablecloth hopelessly staring at the words on the card as the man approached. He smiled at me, clicked and clacked something in Indonesian, to which I could only reply, ‘No Bahasa’. I was too tired to try and attempt any kind of paralinguistic communication other than pointing. So I pointed at the food he had cooking on his fire. ‘Ayam?’ I asked. He nodded and smiled, I nodded and smiled; he then said something that I assumed meant drink and I nodded again and said ‘Fanta’. He scribbled on his pad and came back five minutes later with half a dozen hot, little, chicken skewers with satay sauce and a plate of steaming white rice. The Fanta followed.

It didn’t take long for me to finish my food. I’m not a huge fan of satay sauce, but when I’m hungry my palate doesn’t discriminate and I thoroughly enjoyed my late night street dinner.

It was almost midnight as I made my way back to the hotel. As I negotiated the pavement in the dark, I saw a man asleep in a baja. These things don’t look too comfortable to ride in as a customer, but this poor guy – barefoot, his legs dangling over the side of this tiny three-wheeled, motorised contraption, with his arms crossed across his chest – was sleeping like an overgrown babe in the arms of his crooked, shabby, little taxi. Nothing but the sky between him and the gods; I felt for him. I really did. I felt for him and I felt blessed to be spending the night under a roof in a bed that felt like the palm of Buddah’s hand. Waking up to the sound of trickling water and a buffet breakfast. I should really be more grateful for what I’ve got and stop complaining, I thought. I then turned the corner and realised I was about another ten minutes away from the hotel. Shit. Why had I walked so bloody far?

25: The Prambanan Temple

Jakarta Bound is a travelogue about life in one of the largest and most densely populated cities in South East Asia.

Prambanan 1

Santi told me the taxi would only be about 50,000 to Prambanan, but the driver decided that he wasn’t going to use his meter and wanted 100,000 for the fare. He was a big, fat, wide-eyed, swarthy looking man who looked like a dieting Jabba the Hut with hair. He had long, dirty fingernails, the longest being on his pinkie, which was fashioned with a cheap metal ring with a big blue oval stone in it. This long dirty fingernail and big nasty ring thing seemed pretty popular amongst some of the mainly older men in Jakarta. I think it’s just an Indo-ring-thing – to each their own I guess – but I just didn’t like the driver. He was by far the most aggressive Indonesian I had encountered. He didn’t speak any English and he was being a dick, so I got out of his car, which he didn’t like. I walked up to the porter to ask him to get me another driver when a young French couple, who had just checked in to the hotel, came walking out. The porter said that they also wanted to go to Prambanan, so we agreed that we would share the taxi.

In the taxi on the way to Prambanan, Alex, Delphine and I introduced ourselves to each other. They came from Paris where Delphine had just completed university and Alex worked in some kind of marketing job. Jogja was the beginning of a three-week Asian tour, the last such holiday they would have an opportunity to have together before both of them started working full time. They had arrived in Jakarta the night before, but upon advice had wisely decided that they didn’t want to spend any of their limited time there, so they had immediately got a flight out to Jogja. They were only staying for a couple of days before they moved on to Cambodia and then Vietnam. They were both in their mid-twenties and weren’t exactly a complementary physical match; Alex was a very slight, almost effete, man, whilst Delphine, who was by no means fat, had a quite robust build. However, physicality aside, they complemented each other and seemed a really nice couple. They also spoke good enough English for easy conversation.

The journey from the hotel to Prambanan only took about half an hour. There wasn’t much to see en route, apart from one strange interlude when we we saw a bizarre sight in the middle of the road. There was a group of very badly dressed transvestites – or transsexuals, there was no way of telling, although it was pretty obvious they were all men – wearing garish make up, colourful dresses, short skirts and high heels and they were just… there; in the island in the middle of the road, walking amongst the cars and drivers, pouting and blowing kisses. If I had have been in Thailand or Brazil it would have seemed normal, but in Indonesia it was pretty strange.

Soon afterwards we arrived at the Prambanan site. The taxi meter read 49835 when we arrived. I got 60000 off Delphine and Alex and reluctantly gave the fat driver a 100000 bill. We stepped out of the car into searing heat and headed toward the ticket office for the temple and I suddenly felt a little awkward as I thought to myself, ‘wait a minute; I’m gate crashing this couple’s Prambanan experience.’ I don’t like feeling awkward so I said, “If you guys want to go off and do your own thing, that’s fine. Just tell me.”

“No, it’s no problem.” Alex said in a typically Gallic laissez-faire manner. So we paid for our entrance tickets and were handed white, finely print-patterned sarongs to wrap around our waists before we entered the grounds. I didn’t know the significance of the sarong, but I assumed the covering up was a sign of respect for the religious site.

As we walked through the spacious, surrounding grounds, I become aware of gentle Javanese music being piped through speakers that were dotted around the area. It was very calming and helped to put me in the reverential mood needed for appreciating a visit to an ancient historical temple. But as we continued to walk through the grounds, across the arid, sun-scorched grass, we came across an outdoor performance that was taking place that wasn’t quite so calm and tranquil. There was an audience of about thirty people scattered around the area watching this performance, which was a bit odd to say the least.


There were a group of young musicians with Javanese instruments who were positioned at the steps under a small pagoda. They were playing some perky, upbeat, traditional music whilst an Indonesian woman sauntered around the area in front of them, singing along in a lazy, whining, karaoke voice. I couldn’t tell you what the narrative thread of the show was exactly, but there were about ten performers or so, some dressed in bright coloured, satin, calf-length leggings with black and white chequered sarongs wrapped around their waists. The others looked as if they were wearing what they came out in. Some of these performers were dancing around erratically to the eclectically rhythmic, Javanese drum and pan beats being played by the musicians on the pagoda. Others were writhing around in the grass, clowning around and just generally acting as if they were a bit crazy. Some characters appeared to be beating others, whilst there were another group of performers crawling around on all fours with crazed, intense, looks on their faces, sweating in the sun and stalking, wide-eyed, amongst the audience; they looked liked they had just come out of an all night hardcore rave from 1992. There was some guy ripping up grass and chewing on it, someone else was being chased by a man with a stick; all the while the singer smiled as she swayed and swung her hips lazily. It appeared like she was conducting the crazies surrounding her, all of who seemed to be improvising some kind of representation of madness and oppression. It really was a bit intense and none of us really had a clue what it was all about. So we watched for a while, until the bafflement got boring, then we headed toward the main temple.

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Prambanan is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It was built around the 9th century and is the largest of the many Hindu temples in Indonesia. There are hundreds of shrines surrounding the main temple structures, which rise up at least 100ft into the sky. These bullet shaped monuments to the Hindu gods, with their spectacular masonry and artistic reliefs, are an impressive sight and a popular tourist attraction.

It was a busy day and dozens of people were walking amongst the huge monuments taking pictures. Camera’s snapped everywhere and almost all of the tourists, mostly Asian and many in Muslim dress, were armed with long selfie sticks, striking pose after pose in a tourist frenzy of image capturing in the heat of the afternoon sun. Bodies streamed up and down the high steps that led in and out of the big temples, stopping and posing and shooting and smiling, gathering as many visual mementos of the day as they could. I had left the Parisian couple to share their time together whilst I wandered around and took some photos of my own.

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A relief in the shade.

A relief in the shade.

It’s hard to get the feel of an ancient monument without a guide. The sculptured images on the stones at Prambanan are undoubtedly very impressive in their sheer number and intricacy, but they don’t really have much meaning without an expert’s commentary and after a while it all started to look much the same to me. Plus, with the merciless rays of the the midday sun bearing down and no shade other than a single parasol shaped tree with a bench beneath it, there was nowhere outside to get relief from the heat. So, despite feeling a little bit like a cultural philistine, after about half an hour of wandering and taking photos, I just wanted to get a cold beer and sit in the shade. I found Delphine and Alex, who were also a little exhausted from the heat. I took a few photos of them as a couple and they took a few photos of me before we wandered out of the main temple grounds to see what else there was to see.

Within the grounds of Prambanan we found an interesting museum housed in a garden with a couple of small pagodas. The garden was filled with a display of stone figures that had been excavated from the site. Many of these were statues of the Hindu God Ganesh, a multi-armed man with an elephant’s head. Inside the museum it was dark but cool. There were exhibits with accompanying text on display explaining the excavation history and the significance of the site and its artefacts, but it was mainly in Bahasa. However, I think for most tourists, sites like Prambanan are more of a visual fix than of academic interest, and in both respects Prambanan is satisfying. But being hot and thirsty, the main thing on my mind at that point was ‘cold drink – preferably beer’, so we left the museum to find refreshment.

Outside I couldn’t resist dipping my hot feet in the water of a shallow little moat that bordered one of the pagodas. I sat for a while whilst the fish nibbled at the dead skin on my feet. A fish foot massage is an odd sensation, but quite relaxing. However, it’s not quite so comfortable when some of the fish are big enough to get a whole toe in their mouth – Alex and Delphine certainly weren’t tempted.

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On our way out of Prambanan we stopped to look at some tired looking deer that were in a large fenced enclosure. Whether there was any significance of a little animal farm to the rest of the temple site is unlikely, but the young children seem to like them.

We finally exited through the gift market, but I never got my beer. Instead I got a big coconut filled with fresh juice that was just as good. So I hydrated myself on the warm juice as we wandered into the car park to find a taxi to get back to our hotel, but there were none. So I suggested that we walk out to the main road. “There’s always loads of taxis on the road in Jakarta”, I told them. “We’ll be able to flag one down on the road”, I said.

The Parisian couple were going to head into Yogyakarta centre to eat and invited me to come along. I couldn’t tell whether they were just being polite, but I was hungry so I agreed. The only problem was that we couldn’t find a taxi and I now I felt a bit stupid. Everywhere you look in Jakarta there are taxis waiting to be hailed, but there seemed precious few outside Prambanan. So after spending quarter of an hour or so without any luck, we walked back to the site’s car park. However, the only transport there was a man in a two-seater mini chariot that was like a large becak, only it was motorised. The vehicle was clearly designed for couples, so I told Alex and Delphine to take it and I said would maybe see them back at the hotel.

I ended up waiting for almost another hour to get a taxi. I myself had no luck getting one of the rare taxis that passed to stop, and I had no call credit on my phone, so I couldn’t call the hotel to ask for a taxi number. Even if I did I wouldn’t have been able to speak to them in Bahasa, so I ended up asking a policeman for help. There was a ‘Polisi’ hut on the corner at the junction of the main road, so I sat inside in the shade whilst one of the officers kindly hailed down a taxi for me. I was relieved and gateful because by the time I got back to my hotel it was already dark.