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.

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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.

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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 all the images and strange creatures depicted in the figures 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 as a solo traveller 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 almost 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.

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