Sunday, December 28, 2008

A trip to the hill temples around Solo

My local friends were busy this morning whilst I had been doing my tricycle tour of Solo, but one of them had agreed to accompany me to Candi Ceto and Candi Sukuh – two temples up in the hills, about an hour's drive to the east of Solo. However whilst I was having lunch at Rocketz, they called me to say that maybe it wasn't such a good idea to go up into the hills because it had started to rain, and even if the rain cleared by the time we got there, the temples would all be shrouded in cloud. But sometimes taking photographs in places like that when it is misty and drizzling, can produce some nice images, so I convinced them that we should go.

At a little after two o'clock, the taxi driver that had driven us from the train station yesterday picked me up from Rocketz. We had decided to take a taxi because my friend's brother – who had driven us around Jogjakarta yesterday – was still busy running errands. Taxis are not expensive in this part of the world, so if you find a good driver with a reliable car, it's a better option than hiring a car yourself.

We picked my friend up from one of the shopping centres in the city, and headed out towards Karanganyar. The rain was really pouring down at this stage, and it didn't look good for us, but after we turned off the main highway at Karangpandan, the rain eased off and it looked like we were going to be lucky with the weather.

As we headed up into the hills we stopped for a few photographs of the tea plantations:

We decided to go up to Candi Ceto first, because that was the higher of the two temples at about 4,500 ft, in case it got too dark to see them both. When we reached Candi Ceto the rain had stopped completely and there were already about a dozen visitors at the temple:

Looking back down from the top of the temple complex, which is spread over a terraced hillside, we could just make out two volcanoes in the far distance:

Candi Ceto and Candi Sukah were built in the 15th century, and they were the last two Hindu temples to be built in Indonesia outside of Bali. The architecture is very reminiscent of the temples that you see all over Bali:

Whilst wandering around the temple complex, a man asked me to take his photograph. I don't know who he is, or where he comes from, but if he sees this blog, here's your photo:

Next to the temple complex, there was a vegetable farm with beautiful volcanic soil:

As we made out way back down to the taxi from the temple complex, the weather looked like it was clearing up nicely:

We headed back down the hill to Candi Sukuh, passing many tea plantations and villages on the way:

We reached Candi Sukuh as the light was fading, but we managed to get off a few shots before it got dark. Candi Sukuh is quite a bit smaller than Candi Ceto, and the main structure in the temple complex reminded me of the architecture of the Mayan temples in Mexico:

There are more carvings of figures here than at Candi Ceto, but they are not as erotic as some guidebooks make out:

With one exception maybe! I asked our taxi driver to pose for a shot by this little man. He didn't realise what he was leaning on until I told him to have a look at the front of the statue (after I had taken the picture!). He recoiled in shock – although I am not sure whether he was genuinely shocked or whether he was just putting an act on for me:

Candi Sukuh is at a height of about 3,000 ft, and as we headed back down the road from the temple, it wasn't long before the sky over the hills below us started to turn a bright orange. We stopped on top of a ridge overlooking a valley and watched the sun set, with its rays reflecting against the remnants of the afternoon's storm clouds. It turned out to be one of the most beautiful sunsets that I have seen in a long while:

My friend's brother had invited us to have dinner at his house which was on the north side of Solo, so we cut across country and got there about an hour after dark. He has a lovely house of which the front half has been constructed out of recycled timber with open walls, shielded only by bamboo blinds – such a practical design for this climate:

I took another shot of the house from the front. You can see the TV in the back – that's the enclosed part of the house. Note the shoes on the front steps. Like in Malaysia, it is customary to remove your footwear before entering a home in Indonesia:

We had a lovely meal and then we said goodbye to the taxi driver (who had been invited to join us for dinner). The taxi fare for the whole afternoon, including all the waiting time, showed 340,000 rupiahs on the meter (about US$30) but I gave him 400,000 and he was very happy with that.

I wonder if there are many other places in the world where you can hire a clean, late model air-conditioned taxi, with a uniformed driver, from about 2 pm to 9 pm and drive 3,000 ft up into the mountains on a three-hour plus round trip for US$30? Central Java is definitely good value for money for travelers who like to get off the beaten track.

A Sunday morning tour of Solo

This morning I woke up early to take a tricycle tour of Solo. I'd read on an Internet blog that a trip across town in a tricycle should cost around 3,000 rupiah (about 25 cents US), so I walked from the Alang Alang Cafe up to the nearest street corner and hailed a tricycle. I asked the driver how much to the Puri Mangkunegaran. He said 12,000 rupiah. I assumed he was inflating the price because I was a westerner, so I just said “too much” expecting him to come back with a lower offer. But he just shrugged his shoulders and rode off. I hailed another tricycle and asked the same question – and got the same answer. I said “yeah, that's the foreigner price, what about the local price?” He replied: “same price for everyone, you want to go for 12,000?” “No,” I said, thinking I was still being ripped off. So he rode off as well. I had to wait a while for another tricycle to come along, and this time the driver asked me how much I wanted to pay. I said 3,000 – and he just laughed. “Minimum price 8,000 for short trip, your's is long trip, minimum 12,000.” By this stage I was starting to wonder whether the information I had read on the Internet was wrong – or long out of date. However we bargained for a while and he agreed to take me to the Puri Mangkunegaran for 10,000 rupiah. I settled on that. He said it was because he needed the money but that the price was really “too low”.

Later I felt guilty about having driven him down to 10,000 rupiah (about 90 cents US) because after taking a few more tricycles around the city, I realised that the information on the Internet was indeed wrong. The going price is apparently 8,000 for a short trip (up to 1 km) and 12,000 for a 'long' trip (up to 2 km) – and the ride from the Alang Alang Cafe to the Puri Mangkunegaran was certainly the longest one that I did all morning (at least 2 km). I later checked the Lonely Planet guide book, and that said the price was 7,000 rupiah from the train station to the city centre (a long trip) but that was published two years ago, so I guess inflation has pushed the prices up since then.

So I wasn't being ripped off because I was a foreigner after all. In fact, I didn't see another foreigner the whole morning in Solo, so I guess the practice of ripping off foreigners which is so prevalent in most Malaysian cities and towns hasn't spread to Solo. The tricycle drivers in Solo seem to be very honest. That made me feel even more guilty about having forced the first driver to pedal me halfway across the city for a mere 90 cents. I think if I had seen him again I would have given him an extra dollar to apologise for thinking he was trying to rip me off. The moral of this story: Don't believe everything you read on the Internet and what you do believe, make sure it's up to date!

I took a few photographs from the tricycle as we rode across the city (they were slightly bumpy rides so most of these were shot at 1/2000th sec at ISO800 to avoid blur from the movement):

The city was very quiet even for a Sunday, and there wasn't much traffic around:

We passed the Matahari shopping centre and a couple of other tricycle drivers gave me a wave:

Along some of the streets, vendors were setting up stalls to sell plastic trumpets and horns for the forthcoming New Year celebrations (they like to do it noisily in Indonesia!)

The Puri Mangkunegaran (the palace which is the home of the second royal family) was not very interesting, but as I walked across the field next to it I noticed these four men pushing a trolley and what looked like some drums (that's not the palace in the background – that's the Kavallerie Artillerie):

It wasn't until they got closer to me that I noticed the man on the left had a monkey on a lead. The monkey was riding a small bike and wearing a waistcoat and trousers, so I guess they were on their way to some sort of performance:

After Puri Mangkunegaran. I walked along Jalan Ronggowarsito for a while, and down Jalan A. Dahlan taking 'daily life' photographs along the way. I rested for a while near a restaurant in Jalan Yos Sudarso where we had had dinner the night before. The meal – fish, rice and vegetables – had cost only 9,000 rupiah (about 75 cents US). I wondered why there were no backpackers in Solo, because this would be a very cheap town for them to visit. Maybe it is because of Solo's reputation as a 'bad town' with links to extremist groups like Jemaah Islamiah and the memory of the riots of 1998 when mobs went on a rampage through the city, looting and burning shops. But it's a quiet city right now.

By now it was getting very hot, so I hailed another tricycle to take me to the Mesjid Agung – the largest mosque in Solo. It was only a short trip, and the driver had agreed to take me for 8,000 rupiah, but when we got there he demanded 20,000, and got very angry when I wouldn't pay him more than 8,000. He actually took 10,000 off me because he claimed he didn't have any change for 10,000. So there was at least one 'bad apple' amongst Solo's tricycle drivers.

The next tricycle driver was much more accommodating, agreeing to take me to the Pasar Gede for 8,000 rupiah. That was only about a kilometre away, but he was an old man, and his tricycle wasn't in the best of condition, so I gave him 10,000 when we reached the market.

Pasar Gede is Solo's largest undercover market and had many stalls selling local fruits and vegetables:

I tried some of the local salak palm fruits, which were much tastier than the Malaysian variety:

The market was not just selling produce, but meat, poultry and fish as well, but the lack of refrigeration would make me hesitant to buy anything from those sections:

There was quite a lot of food being prepared on stalls within and around the market too. One stall that had a lot of customers waiting was this one just outside one of the side entrances. I don't know what the man was deep frying (gourds or cassava maybe?) but it looked to be very popular given all the people patiently waiting. Whatever it was, it didn't look very healthy though!

After Pasar Gede I took another tricycle down to one of the modern air-conditioned shopping centres to buy some batik shirts (half the price of shirts in Malaysia). When I had finished there I discovered I had a problem getting back to the Alang Alang Cafe because none of the tricycle drivers had heard of it, and none of them wanted to take me, not knowing where they were going. So instead I decided to take a tricycle to cafe called Rocketz that I had seen along Jalan Slamet Riyadi the previous day where I had an espresso (yes, even Solo has an espresso placethese days!) and a memorable lunch – memorable because halfway through the meal I noticed something moving in my broccoli. It had several small yellow caterpillars wriggling around in it. I wondered how many I had already swallowed!

A full house in Solo

Yesterday afternoon after the wedding reception we headed down to the railway station in Jogjakarta to catch a train to Solo – an old colonial style building in the centre of the city. (Solo's proper name is Surakarta. Solo is the colloquial name of the city).

As soon as we entered the station it became clear that we were going to have a fight on our hands to get a seat on the train – the station was packed.

When the train pulled in we could see there was no point fighting for a seat because they were already all taken by passengers who had boarded at the previous station – so the challenge was more to make sure we could get onto the train before the doors closed.

We managed to squeeze in, and fortunately it was a fast train so only took an hour to get to Solo. I wanted to take a photograph of the inside of the train, but we were all squashed in like sardines in a can, so there was no way I could get my camera out.

When we got to Solo we took a taxi to a hotel that my friends had recommended that I stay at, but were told it was full. We then went to another hotel, and that was full. And then another, and another, and after about an hour of driving from one hotel to another we realised that I was going to have a problem finding anywhere to stay that night. It seems that as it was the weekend of the eve of the Javanese new year, everyone had decided to treat themselves to a weekend in a hotel (by ‘everyone’ I am referring to locals because I saw only two westerners the whole weekend I was in Solo).

I had almost given up when someone suggested that there was a place called the Alang Alang Café behind the palace that might still have a few rooms left. We drove past the palace and down a backstreet:

and stopped outside this place:

“Oh dear,” I thought. “This doesn’t look good.” But then I realised this was not the place to which we were going – it was in front of us behind some massive gates:

“This doesn’t look like a café and it doesn’t look like a hotel,” I thought whilst my friends went inside to see if there were any rooms available. They came back and said I was in luck – they had a room available for 200,000 rupiah (about US$17). We had a look at the room – it was what they described as a ‘traditional’ hotel room (I wondered whether the live parrot chained to a stand outside the room was part of the tradition). It was very very basic, but as there was nothing else available in the city, I said I would take it.

But my friends weren’t happy with it. They felt I should be staying in something better. They questioned the man who had shown us the room as to whether he had anything better, and he said that he did have a larger room for 350,000 rupiah, so we went to have a look at that.

We set off across the large courtyard around which the other rooms were located. Within the courtyard there was a large open structure which looked like a mini-palace:

We walked down the side of that and through an open doorway:

Into another smaller courtyard where it looked like some old buildings had been knocked down:

Then through an archway:

This was looking less and less like a hotel to me! We got to a small block of wooden rooms behind a concrete wall and had a look at the one which was available.

Unfortunately the air-conditioner didn’t work (and the floor felt like it was going to fall-in) so we rejected that. Pressed again, the man admitted that there was one more room available, but it was 500,000 rupiahs. So we set off to look at that.

We walked around the back of the block we had just been in and made our way down a narrow path:

And through yet another archway which was almost obscured by raphis palms:

And then after negotiating our way around a large banyan tree we saw some small bungalows:

One of them was the ‘room’ that was available (actually two rooms, but one was empty except for a wooden table and two chairs) but it looked nice from the outside with its marble floor, verandah and little garden:

Inside I discovered it was not so impressive – it was quite basically furnished with a bed, a sheet, a pillow and a blanket (and a straw brush on the bed to brush the insects off before retiring), but it was a big improvement on the other two rooms I had seen, so I said I would take it:

The place looked like it hadn’t been cleaned properly for months:

And the electrical wiring looked a bit dodgy:

But at least the air-conditioner worked (sort of) and a good spray of the room with an aerosol can of mosquito killer (supplied) got rid of most of the insects.

The tap in the bathroom didn’t work (well, it did in a way, if you count spraying the water all over the bathroom when you turn it on) but the shower did work and (surprisingly) there was actually some hot water.

I took a photograph of the toilet too, but decided against posting that as it was a sight better forgotten.

After brushing the dead insects off the bed, I settled down for a reasonably comfortable night’s sleep. It was very quiet there – deadly quiet in fact. I don’t think a woman on her own would feel comfortable in that room. It felt like I was sleeping in a ghost town.

In the morning my biggest challenge was trying to find my way back to the entrance.

I never did find out why it was called the Alang Alang Café. There is definitely no café there. Maybe there was in years past. There was no reception, no registration (payment was in cash – I wasn’t even asked my name) and only two employees – a very strange ‘hotel’ indeed.

But at least I had found a place to sleep.

The moral of this story is that if you are traveling in Java around the Javanese new year – book in advance!

Saturday, December 27, 2008

An out-of-place wedding guest

I was invited by my Indonesian friends to attend a wedding reception this afternoon so that I could photograph some of the traditional clothes that they would be wearing. I asked whether I was appropriately dressed, as I was only wearing an old polo shirt and jeans, and very dirty walking shoes, as we had been out photographing old temples and buffalo ploughing rice fields on the southern slopes of Mt Merapi in the morning - but I was assured there would be no problem.

I thought that meant I could photograph the reception from a discrete distance, but when we arrived at the reception I discovered it was in a large hall and I had to walk past some family members who were lined up in traditional dress to greet the guests. They probably wondered who this scruffily dressed foreigner was, camera in hand, but they just smiled as I filed past.

We didn't stay long because my friends just wanted to pay their respects to the bridal couple and leave a gift. That's just as well because I felt the most out-of-place person in the hall (and I got a few strange glances from some of the guests) but I managed to get off a few shots to capture the atmosphere of the occasion.

Many of the men were wearing the traditional keris knives in their belts, so this was definitely an event where you wouldn't want to pick an argument with anybody!

Friday, December 26, 2008

Beautiful dawn at Borobudur

The main purpose of this trip was to take photographs of the sunrise at Borobudur, so I had booked the pre-dawn entry to Borobudur through the Manohara Hotel which is inside the Borobudur complex. I couldn't get a room at the Manohara Hotel as it was full, but I managed to get a room at the Saraswati Hotel (a very nice boutique hotel – much nicer than the Manohara) which is less than five minutes drive away, just outside the main gate to Borobudur.

The pre-dawn entry ticket gets you into the complex at 4.30 am – an hour and a half before the official opening time of 6.00 am. The cost is 250,000 rupiahs – around US$20-25 depending on what the exchange rate is at the time (if staying at the Manohara the cost is only 115,000 rupiahs) – but it is worth every cent because the experience of seeing the volcanoes around Borobudur appear out of the darkness as the first light appears is just magical.

The ticket price includes a torch and a guide for the short walk from the hotel to the temple complex (you need a guide because it is pitch black at that time of the morning and you would get lost in the gardens of the hotel).

There were about 30-35 people taking advantage of the pre-dawn entry, and most were just sitting up on the top dome watching the sun rise, so I didn't have any problem getting photographs without any people in – something that later in the day is impossible to do. (They call the pre-dawn entry a 'sunrise tour' but it is not really a tour as such, because just sitting up on the top of the Borobudur complex, taking in the magnificent 360 degree views in the early morning light and the silence of the temple complex is all most people want to do – the guides all look very bored!).

The 'sunrise tour' is an experience that every visitor to Borobudur ought to do because once the gates open to the general public, the complex becomes over-run with tourists and the early morning ambiance quickly disappears.

By the middle of the day the tourists climbing over Borobudur are like ants swarming over a nest, and the peaceful atmosphere is completely gone – you only have to compare the three pictures above with the three pictures below to see what I mean.

The people in the picture above who are reaching into the bell shaped stupas are trying to touch a Buddha statue inside – there are 72 of them around the main dome on the top platform of Borobudur. I was told that if you are a woman, and you touch the Buddha's foot, any wish that you make will come true, and if you are a man, you have to touch the Buddha's arm (much harder to do as the feet are much closer to the holes on the outside of the stupa).

After several attempts through different holes, and much straining of my arm muscles, I managed to touch the arm of one of the Buddhas. I made a wish - but it hasn't come true yet.

Borobudur is a ninth century Mahayana Buddhist temple complex that was 'discovered' in the early 19th century over-run by jungle and partly buried in volcanic ash. It was reconstructed in 1973 with funding from UNESCO but was badly damaged by bombs planted by Muslim extremists in the mid-80s. Borobudur fortunately escaped damage from the 2006 earthquake that damaged Prambanan.

Today Borobudur is Indonesia's most visited tourist attraction – with over two million people passing through the gates every year – all the more reason why it is worth getting up at 4.00 am in the morning to see before the crowds arrive.