Beckoned By Batik, Becaks and Borobudur

Watching the sunrise, surrounded by the awe-inspiring structures that form Borobudur, led me to contemplate the word “wonder”. The thesaurus gives us the words such as “miracle”, “marvel”, and “phenomenon” as synonyms, but I came to the conclusion that there are no words to express the “wonder” of Borobudur.  It left me spellbound, without the desire to search for meaning. A rare moment to treasure.

borobodur

Waking from my wonder-induced state, I found myself a local guide keen to educate a novice. Charming, quietly spoken and at the right times downright cheeky, Ari took me on a journey filled with fascinating facts about Stupas, Buddhist beliefs, and the history of Borobudur. By the time we got to carvings of dancers, Ari and I were comparing Javanese and Balinese dance moves. Needless to say he moved with considerably more grace than myself.

It was fascinating, complex and enlightening and I recommend that you find yourself an Ari type guide. Guidebooks will never compare to conversation.

I will not attempt to relate what transpired on my tour for fear of mixing up facts. The Borobudur Park website has condensed the complex story into an easy to read, informative piece of work.

But no amount of information will fill you with the “sense of wonder” felt whilst sitting at Arupadhatu
, the 3rd zone of Borobudur – The highest sphere, the abode of the gods. Put it on your travel bucket list.

Tip – early morning is the only time to go. Aside from the obvious benefits of a sunrise, you will avoid the busloads of phone–toting students arriving around 9am. They descend upon you for photos at every opportunity. I have never had my photo taken with so many people I didn’t know in the space of 15 mins! Plus it is searingly hot… I headed back to the Phoenix Hotel for a poolside nap, feeling no need to further fill my day. Extraordinary experience achieved!

cultural hotbed

Jogja is known as a “cultural hotbed” filled with arts and crafts, claiming many philosophers, thinkers, artists and master craftsmen as their own. It is a mecca for students, enabled by the donation of land for Universities by the much-revered Sultan of Yogyakarta.

Travelling in from the airport it is hard to see evidence of this reputation. Traffic, the ubiquitous phone stores jammed in amongst street stalls and office buildings towered by billboards plugging cigarettes, begs questions. It was not difficult to get beneath this city veneer.

Time spent at The Kraton (Sultan’s Palace), Taman Sari (Water Palace) is a good place to start, taking you on a journey to the past. Eating the local delicacy Nasi Gudek (jackfruit cooked in coconut milk) from a street stall, taking a becak ride and buying batik local style soon puts you in place.

textiles kebayas

Batik was designated by UNESCO as a “Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity” in 2009.

Music to my ears as a fan of Indonesian textiles both new and old. I encountered the best of both worlds during my brief stay in Jogja. I explored the exquisite, antique pieces of batik displayed at the Kraton; browsed small boutiques selling pieces using local cloth styled in a modern way; shopped with the locals amongst stacks of sarongs, batiks, silks at Mirota Batik (a chaotic department store at the southern end of Jalan Malioboro) and had to stop myself from constantly drooling over an exhibition in my hotel of kebaya inspired creations by hot local designers. (photos above)

There are posts all over the internet about scammers selling batik in Jogja, often citing the becak drivers as their partners in crime. I guess because I speak some Indonesian it’s a little easier for me to know what’s going on, but I really don’t get the fuss. There are scammers all over the world, and the rules are the same in my view. Use your common sense and don’t lose sight of what’s important. If you pay more than the perceived local price for a piece of art or batik, but you love it, then what’s the big deal? Unless you can speak and trade like a local, you will always pay a little more. Be smart and be polite, it’s all part traveling amongst the unknown.

Becak

I like to explore on foot as soon as I arrive at a new destination. A quick dash down an alley, an unexpected photo opportunity or the chance to chat to a local at their eating-house are easy to navigate on foot. My chances of getting lost are off the Richter Scale as I am not one of the chosen few who have an innate sense of direction. Turn me round once and it’s all over, but I no longer let this cause distress, my wandering has brought many delights.

Jogja is hot, walking just a few blocks in the middle of the day will leave you dripping with sweat. The three-wheeled Becaks would have to be the next best mode of transport. Each one is a moving piece of art, driven by guys with lean bodies and bulging calf muscles. They were my source of local knowledge, tipping me where to go for the best street food and the place to buy batik like a local.

Travelling at slow pace amongst the chaos of traffic and crowded streets is quite surreal on these man-powered vehicles. This is no air-conditioned cocoon. Sounds are amplified. The creak of the pedals, the rattle of the carriage as you hit a pothole, the chatter as you pass crowded market stalls. The becak has right of way, and stopping enroute is easy.

My advice – find yourself a friendly becak driver for your stay. Don’t be tempted to hire them for one-way trips. It’s hard for them to get fares out of their own neighbourhood, let alone compete with the new kids on the block – taxis. Let them wait for you, pay them for their hard work, and tip them for their local insights. You’ll be grateful for that friendly wave as you are searching through a mass of parked becaks. (Big tip – take a good look at the artwork on your becak to avoid embarassing mix-ups with drivers) 

phoenix jogja

Staying at the Phoenix Hotel was hands down one of the best hotel experiences in my globe trotting life. (No, I am not being paid for this rant!)

It’s a boutique hotel without the designer attitude or price tag.

Walking in to the reception area, you know the building has a story to tell. This is not the result of a hotelier engaging an architect to create the perfect design-led hotel. There is obvious evidence of its colonial past, you can feel that it was someone’s home at some stage, whilst newer additions blend in seamlessly. Artworks abound, giving a sense of a personal collection.

I found the staff to be friendly and helpful, going beyond giving me the typical pile of brochures, connecting me to a good local driver for my trip to Borobudur and Merapi area.

The Phoenix is touted as a hot destination and I believe it deserves all the accolades that are out there. After a hot day in Jogja, poolside cocktails are highly recommended!

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