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Leaving Bali, you'll find magic in Java

AAP logoAAP 22/11/2016 Jenny Tabakoff

Humans or homanids have been on Java since "Java Man", a Homo erectus who lived here about a million years ago. No wonder the culture of Indonesia's most populous island (140 million and counting) is as rich as its volcanic soil.

The ancient temples (candis) of Borobudur and Prambanan, on the outskirts of Yogyakarta, are part of this history of civilisation and cross-fertilisation. Between the eighth and 10th centuries Java was ruled by Buddhists in the south and Hindus in the north.

Today Java is mostly Muslim, but pockets of the older religions linger in Indonesia. Bali, to Java's east, is predominantly Hindu. Next time you visit Bali, spread your wings and explore Java - especially its cultural heartland, Yogyakarta. There are direct flights there from Denpasar.

Yogyakarta is where to see authentic wayang puppets and Ramayana ballet. Watch its skilled silversmiths at work, or visit batik workshops where wax is hand-painted or block-printed onto fabrics in the traditional way. And the shopping is good, especially along Jalan Malioboro..

Yogyakarta, in the middle of southern Java, is small compared with Jakarta, but not sleepy. Four million people live in the wider region, and they bustle about town on mopeds and becaks (trishaws). Yogyakarta is a buzz.

Yes, its name is a problem. It sounds confusingly like the Indonesian capital (though Jakarta is 430km to the northwest) and there's no consistency about Yogyakarta's pronunciation. Locals tend to say both Ys, unless they are talking to foreigners, when they turn them into Js. They usually just call the city "Jogja".

Yogyakarta is a sultanate and a special region. The present sultan - the 10th - is revered. His 18th-century wood-and-gilt palace complex, known as the Kraton, is the heart of Jogja in more ways than one.

Cultural shows are held daily in Kraton's pavilion, so watch a drama, puppet or gamelan show before your tour. Expect the guide to tell you a lot about the ninth sultan, whose long reign bridged Dutch colonialism, Japanese occupation and Indonesian independence. He was a keen Scout, loved polo and had five wives and 22 children. Our guide tells us the 10th sultan has one wife and five children: "All girls." Oh.

However, Jogja's highlights are Borobudur and Prambanan, which lie respectively to the city's northwest and east. Java is alive with volcanoes (Mount Merapi is a brooding presence over Jogja), and the ancients built their temples from volcanic rock.

Borobudur, about an hour's drive out of Jogja's CBD, is a 10-tier mountain of devotion that was built by Mahayana Buddhists in the eighth and ninth centuries. Come prepared for exercise; you cross the surrounding park, then climb the giant steps that lead you up from the sutra (base) levels. As you sweat your way skywards, remember the temple's structure echoes the Buddhist path to enlightenment.

Borobudur is an enormous squat square. Detour around the levels and "read" the beautifully carved friezes that depict incidents from Buddha's life.

Near the top, three tiers are dotted with 72 latticework stupas, enormous latticework bell shapes that each contain a Buddha.The temple is crowned by a giant stupa - solid, our guide explains, "because the nature of god in unknowable".

Borobudur fell into disuse in the 15th century, as Islam took hold. As volcanoes, earthquakes and encroaching jungle took a toll, it was lost to memory until the British stumbled on it in 1815.

Today Borobudur is a magical place, surrounded by parkland and majestic hills. They say sunrise here is wonderful.

They say the same about Jogja's other famous candi, Prambanan, a Hindu complex built largely in the ninth century.

Both Borobudur and Prambanan are Unesco World Heritage Sites. Each deserves three or four hours of your attention, so visit them on separate days to avoid getting "temple feet".

Prambanan, dedicated to Shiva, is a complex of well over 200 temples, in all sizes, each topped with an elaborately carved pinnacle. Collectively, they resemble sandcastles on which wet sand has been built up in careful dribbles.

Prambanan's inner zone contains eight big and eight small temples; the three largest are dedicated respectively to Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma. In front of these are three Vahana temples, dedicated to the vahanas (mounts) of those deities. There's more, much more to it than than.

Though you can wander Prambanan on your own, it's hard for non-Hindus to wrap their heads around so many temples and deities. An official guide will help, so when you buy your entry ticket consider paying 100,000 rupiah (a shade over $A10) for his services.

The architecture and religions behind the Borobudur and Prambanan are different, but there's a certain unity from the fact that the candis are roughly contemporaneous, made from the same rock and elaborately carved.

There's another subtle similarity. Both sets of builders cleverly interlocked their stones with L-shaped slots. Yes, volcanoes and earthquakes have done their worst, and Unesco and others have carried out restorations. But the fact that Borobudur and Prambanan still stand after 1200 years is testimony to ancient ingenuity.

IF YOU GO

GETTING THERE: There are no direct flights from Australia to Yogyakarta, but there are plenty of services from here to both Jakarta and Denpasar. From Jakarta, Garuda Indonesia, Citilink, Batik Air, Lion Air, Sriwijaya Air and AirAsia all have direct flights to Yogyakarta. You can fly direct from Denpasar to Yogyakarta on Garuda Indonesia. Lion Air, NAM Air and AirAsia.

STAYING THERE: Yogyakarta has loads of hotels. We stayed at the comfortable and centrally located Cavinton Hotel, convenient to the Kraton and the Malioboro shopping district. Details: cavinton.com

PLAYING THERE: Borobudur and Prambaban are both open from 6am until about 5pm. Go early to either to avoid the heat. For foreign tourists, adult admission costs 260,000 rupiah (about $A26) to Borobudur; 234,000 rupiah (about $A24) to Prambanan. Children and students are half-price.

* The writer travelled as a guest of Indonesia's Ministry of Tourism, as part of its Wonderful Indonesia trip.

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