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Chicken temple and volcano sunrise in Java

Yogyakarta and temples

You wouldn’t really call either of us spiritual, I guess, unless you’re referring to whiskey. However, I have finally found a temple where I can truly worship.

Bukit Rhema

I mean, never mind the glories of ancient Borobodur and Prambanan, world renowned as they are. This is magnificence. A spiritual young man had a dream, and created this temple, Bukit Rhema,  to be a true church of peace, across all denominations, with spaces for Christians, Hindu, Muslim and Buddhists alike to pray in their own ways. To represent this, the church was shaped like a dove.

Sadly, the locals are as disrespectful a crowd as ever nicknamed a dream  ‘The Chicken Temple’. And he ran out of budget, so it’s been mouldering away for the last couple of decades, though work restarted recently. There’s now a lovely cafe in the chicken’s arse. And you can climb up and have a chicken’s beak (or crown) view of the world.

It overlooks Borobodur. And yes, that, too, is a mighty sight: the biggest Buddhist temple in Indonesia, over a thousand years old and amazing engineering – a giant mandala wrapped around a small hill, transforming from the square bottom layers of earthly desires, to the uppermost circles of nirvana, using 2 million stone blocks on the way.

Beautiful as that was, we rather preferred the less famous Prambanan. It was created just 50 years later, in the mid 800s, just 50k from Borobodur, but is Hindu, and being less famous, is still being reconstructed – the piles of blocks awaiting painful assembly stretch far around it; 244 ‘minor’ temples still to go, with just 8 minor and 8 main temples reconstructed. But what’s been done is already impressive.

A couple of lovely young trainee guides showed us around to practice their English. They helpfully explained a huge amount about the temples and Hindu symbolism – very useful, as I’m even more ignorant about Hinduism, than about Buddhism. I’ve retained almost nothing of what they explained, but there’s not much they could do about that. However,  a big belly is a sign of wisdom, which made me very happy, and able to nickname Vanessa ‘Little Belly’, to our guides’ delight.

Speaking of delight, however, it turned out that the most interesting thing among all these wonders, was ME. ME ME ME ME ME. Everywhere I went, people would gasp in wonder, and beg me for photos. Seriously. Every few meters, it seemed, people would either surreptitiously take pictures of me, or – if brave enough – say the magic word ’Selfie?’ and I’d stop for yet another photoshoot.

After the first few hundred, I started to get professional – ‘oh, just a moment, I’ll take my sunglasses off so you can see my (freaky) blue eyes…’; ‘Hmm, the light’s behind us in this one, you might need another’; and, of course, always finishing with ’Sami sami’ – local dialect for ‘You’re welcome’, and a final, flashing smile as I sauntered off, flicking specks of dust from my impeccable lace cuffs… well, mopping the sweat from my face, chest, arms… hell, even the tops of my feet were sweating. Really, I wouldn’t have chosen me melting under the Java sun as the moment to be immortalised in local legend.

I’d thought I was relatively tanned – I’ve gone all the way from pale blue, through pink, to almost light shortbread colour after 6 weeks in blazing sunshine with factor 50. But still, I am possibly the whitest thing most of these people have ever seen. Vanessa – who’s tan is now almost as deep as the locals – is sulking. I don’t know why, she got invited to some of photos. Though admittedly, she was more often asked to take the photo instead.

Anyway, that was Yogyakarta – and a rather nice city it was, too, beyond the temples. We porked out on western food – it felt like we’d been eating nothing but fried rice or fried noodles for years.  We’d booked  what turned out to be an alarmingly posh hotel – on arriving in the bling-tastic, gold-ornamented, be-chandeliered place, we gulped: we looked like total knackers, having been travelling for the last 20 hours in our most basic clothes. They were very polite and charming, and didn’t refuse us entry. It was noticeable, though, that our taxi driver – who was less obliged to be polite – asked in some disbelief when we set the destination ‘You staying there?’. As in: You? Staying? There? It was only £50ish a night – yes, bit expensive for here, but hadn’t expected it to be the equivalent of the Ritz. Anyway, we still prefer slightly less upmarket places. We really didn’t pack for posh: our ‘best’ clothes are still very underdressed. But, they stayed polite and charming throughout.

Mt Bromo

So, we’d arrived there from the Mount Bromo trip. And wow, that was good. However, we discovered that what we’d always though was Mount Bromo, wasn’t. The big, spectacular volcano is not Bromo, but Batok, which is inactive. Bromo is the smaller, steaming one to it’s left.  They’re both located inside a huge caldera, 10km across, surrounded by the “sea of sand” – so  you’re looking from the rim of an ancient supervolcano, across the”new” ones. Further behind, beyond the caldera, is the tallest in Java, Semeru, which has a mini eruption a couple of times an hour. Sunrise there was freezing – our hands were shaking so hard it was difficult to photograph. And after an hour standing in the cold, clear night, we were horrified to see clouds covering everything just at sunrise. But – sigh of relief – it cleared in time to show this.

We climbed Mount Bromo afterwards. Well, to be strictly accurate, went up a couple hundred stairs, but that sounds less impressive. The local Tenggerese people worship at the mountain – they still sacrifice live animals there once a year, to keep the volcano happy: one of the most understandable superstitions ever. So there’s a temple at the bottom, in the area of sand (just about visible in the pictures). And a tiny statue of Ganesh, the elephant god, at the top on the crater rim, surrounded by clouds of sulphuric smoke. Some people were praying and leaving flower offerings when we arrived. Apparently, some locals scramble down inside the crater when money offerings are made: getting that money after its been offered is meant to be extra good luck. As is not falling into the boiling cauldron, I suppose.

View from top of Mt Bromo

Whatever about the local superstitions, these guys can farm. The fields are near vertical, no tractors would stand a chance – so they manually plough every square inch into a perfectly draining lattice at an angle you’d struggle to walk… To grow, mostly, cabbages, for some odd reason.


Java’s cities are huge sprawls – the two biggest in Indonesia are on this one island. We managed to avoid Jakarta, but Surabaya, the second biggest city, was unavoidable on the way to and from Bromo. Not a city of obvious charms, but it did have a mud volcano, which few places can boast . Not that it does boast about it too much – the whole thing is controversial as hell: the volcano, which swamped 16 villages, and is still erupting, was caused by oil well drilling a couple of decades ago. Though the drilling company, Lapindo, says it was nothing to do with them: a earthquake at the same time caused it. And the government ministry for welfare, who is a major shareholder in Lapindo, says the same. So it must be true. Anyway, twenty years later, some of the compensation payments have been made, so why worry?

Concluding thoughts on Java: lovely island, shame about the coffee. I’d had high hopes – Java! The clue is in the name! But like Brazil, seems they export the best, and don’t take what’s left seriously. We even – dreadful confession -wound up with Nescafé as the better option in some places. Local brew is done with the simplest method – pot hot water over grounds in a cup, drink with condensed milk. But while I’ve got the hang of letting it style and not getting a mouth full of grounds – the flavour is still not all that.

Great volcanoes, tho 🙂

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