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Most people go on combined tours of Prambanan in the afternoon + Ratu Boko sunset, and Punthuk Setumbu sunrise + Borobudur in the morning. But if you are overnighting in the the villages outside of these temples, it’s absolutely possible to go on your own.

In Prambanan, I found a crusty hotel 500m past the entrance. The moldy wall and bucket bath didn’t appeal to me, but it was the cheapest of the bunch, and the owner was nice enough to let me use their bike for free. Direction was straightforward: 3 kms south of the temple. You only have to turn once and then just keep following the road, and you could actually see the hill right from the beginning of the road. I didn’t know that was it because built onto the hill is a multi-level structure with lots of staircases and pavilions that from afar sort of looks like one of those monasteries you’d see in a Chinese kungfu film, where shaolin monks’d be practicing on the platforms or hauling up buckets of water up the mountain; except that in this case, it was empty. Even after I had seen the sign and asked a couple of little girls that it was indeed Ratu Boko, I still felt unsure as I stepped timidly forward. I never figured out the purpose of the edifice, but on the very top is a restaurant with a sign saying “romantic sunset dinner,” and a ticket booth where they want to charge a whooping $11 to enter the actual Ratu Boko ground and the sunset viewpoint. That’s 11 Indonesian dinners. I didn’t care about this hill temple, and I thought sunset should be free. I promptly turned back and walked down to roam around the puzzling space beneath the restaurant. You could actually get a great view of the plain below with Prambanan in the distance, and possibly of the famed sunset. There was no sunset. It turned out to be a cloudy day and the sun quickly dipped into the thick fluffy blanket and disappeared.

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Chicken Kingdom restaurant, Prambanan, central Java, Indonesia, chicken knight

the awesomest restaurant name and logo in central Java

The information on Punthuk Setumbu was a lot more vague. Luckily, I saw a primitive map which shows that I’d need to go around the temple to the south and then turn west. A staff member where I was staying, Pondok Tingal, offered to take me on his motorbike for $8 but I declined, opting for a bicycle rented from next door. The next morning, setting out at 4:30, I was a bit worried that there would be no street lights and signs. Luckily, a few people were already up at that point for the prayer, and the yellow house lamps together with my headlights gave me enough to go by. There were only a couple of signs along the windy road, but a simple Punthuk Setumbu? to any villager cleared up any doubts. The last few minutes up the hill had me out of breath, but I felt a proud sense of achievement: I was the only there by bicycle. A few sweats, but it wasn’t really that hard. Dawn already set in as I made my way up a decently maintained stairway. Every few steps there sat a local guy with an enormous flashlight; I wonder if they were guides or just there to shine the way for tourists who forgot their lamps. Either way, none of them was interested in this #1 on tripadvisor sunrise, and neither were the drivers who all contented with waiting around at the parking lot. Any beautiful spot in the world might very well be someone’s mundane backyard. Folks already filled the line along the ridge. I sat on a bench in the back waiting and couldn’t help smiling as I looked at Merbabu and Merapi whose summit I had just climbed a couple of days before.

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I never had any particular interest in Indonesia, but the sheer virtue of being at Wesleyan and then at the East West Center –  both with strong communities of Indonesians and researchers on Indonesia – gave me a casual education about the country’s cultural riches: shadow puppet theater, carving and woodwork, gamelan music, Javanese dance. My trip took me to the 2 powerhouses of Javanese culture: Solo (Surakarta) and Jogyakarta. I watched a ballet of Ramayana in the open air theater set against the gorgeous backdrop of the thousand year old Prambanan temple. A few days later, I sat through a two hour shadow puppet play (also of Ramayana) despite not understanding a thing that was going on even though I knew the story quiet well, for an outsider at least.

A more accessible heritage to the common tourist is batik. And like many visitors to Solo, Indonesians and foreigners alike, I spent the whole afternoon wandering around the traditional batik neighborhood Kampung Kauman. While the myriads of motif appealed to my taste for the colorful and floral, the fabric was just standard cotton or silk. I’m a sucker for fine textile, so I hastily concluded that it wasn’t that special after all.

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And how wrong was I! Solo is the hometown of Santosa Doella, the owner of the premium batik brand Danar Hadi, who opened a museum dedicated to this art next to the flagship shop on the city’s main boulevard. I had the morning free before taking the bus from Solo to Jogya and decided to check it out. The guided tour cost a modest $2 and it was easily the best tour I’ve ever had.  The diverse influences on the evolution of batik art was a big surprise: from European colonists to Chinese settlers to  Indian, Arabic, and Persian traders, each group brought stories and images from their homelands. I also learned how to differentiate batik used for different royal houses and in different functions. Needless to say, the collection of the biggest name in the industry was full of mesmerizing pieces, leaving me awed as I followed my guide from one section to the next.

But the most impressive is the production. It is a long, labor intensive process that involves multiple steps drawing and putting waxes on and off the entire fabric, and then dying it one color at a time.It’s not easy to explain in words. Even though I was toured around with all the tools in front of me and looking at artisans working live, it still took me many a clarifying questions to “get” it. For example, if you have a figure 8, and you want to dye it in the following scheme: blue for number 8 itself, black on the exterior, and beige on the interior. You’d put wax on the outside and the inside of the number 8 , dye the fabric blue. When you take the wax off, you’d have the blue 8. Next, put wax over the exterior, and over the number, dye the fabric beige (for the interior). Repeat the process of taking wax off, applying it again, this time over the blue 8 and the beige interior, now you can dye to exterior black. It is so time and labor consuming that a skilled artisan at Danar Hadi, using the accelerated method of stamping (saving them the first 2 steps of drawing and putting wax over the motif) can only produce 2 pieces a day.

I was really surprised at how “primitive” the factory was. It was hot and crowded and loud, in sharp contrast to the quiet air-conditioned and sparkling showroom and museum. Luck was on my side; the workshop here was running in its last days before being moved the week after. Indeed on the men’s section, they’d already packed up all the stamps and ready to go.

The result of all this education? Right after I arrived in Jogya, I took off immediately to Mirota, an enormous batik shop, and picked up a few pieces. It is truly unique, and I consoled myself that I wasn’t shopping for clothes, but for arts.

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batik tulis (hand-drawn): applying wax or canting over the motif

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men chilling with all their caps (copper stamps)

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brush painting, used for the more vibrant color combos

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a typical court batik: the colors are somber, and the motif parang, likened to the wavy kris dagger, was once reserved for the royalties

 

Feeling supremely confident after Mt. Lawu, I decided to tackle the most active volcano in Indonesia – Mount Merapi, an hour west of Solo. I’m not in reckless things, but you have to agree that the title certainly adds a lot of excitement and thrill to the hike. A popular option among foreign tourists is to start with a guide at 1 am to reach the summit for sunrise. Sounded fantastic to me. I rolled into Selo, the base village north of Merapi, with an Indonesian woman and her 2 children piled on the back of my scooter. Her husband’s motorbike couldn’t handle all the steep inclines of Ketep pass and the family was by the roadside trying to fix it when I stopped to ask for directions. And naturally as we were all going to the same place, the woman and her kids hopped on behind me for the remaining 5 kms. Arriving in Selo, they asked me where I was headed to and I replied New Selo, which is the true base camp where the trail starts, and the husband took me to the turn where the road forks. Indonesians build some impossible roads; I felt like I was struggling up a vertical rise. After 15 minute, I arrived at a row of warungs with a big NEW SELO sign on top. They were all closed; not a soul around. Not a single one. The air was crisp, cold, and smoky under the orange light of a couple of lamp posts. Where was basecamp and other hikers? Dejectedly, I turned around, but on the way down, I stopped by a local’s house to ask and he pointed me slightly off across from the road and said basecamp. I said, yes, basecamp, I’m looking for basecamp. I looked at the direction he pointed and couldn’t see a thing so I decided that he wasn’t understanding what I was asking. And I clearly didn’t understand him, because the next day, I would find out that it was indeed basecamp where he had pointed. But it was so dark that it looked like any of the other houses in the village. Back at Selo, after 2 dinners, I found my way to a couple of lodging and guide houses. As I parked my bike in front of them, I heard a French dad and his son talking from across the street. I turned to say hello and asked for information. They told me how they got a guide and how much they paid and where they were staying. We talked for a little while and they offered to take me into their group and split the cost. Perfect, just as I had wished. But first we would need to find the guide and negotiate with him. To keep the story short, I met “Superman” – the owner of one of the 2 tour guide lodges. He quoted me 300,000 rupiahs for a guide, and 150,000 for a room in his house. It was steep, as much as the French team were paying in total for 2. After much discussing, Superman offered me a great deal of 200,000 rupiahs ($18) for both room and a group guide. Honestly it was a great deal, but I said no. Superman didn’t make a great first impression on me, and as the conversation went, I didn’t like the vibe of how he ran things. I felt like he was trying to push me to join his son’s group of hikers, and he was also trying to scare me away from hiking without a guide early in the morning, which was exactly what I decided to do in the end. I found a cheap homestay and went to bed early, setting my alarm for 4:30 a.m. Luckily, the home stay is right next door to a mosque which started blasting prayers at 2:30 in the morning. An hour later, after admitting that I could not ignore all the loudspeakers pointing at my window, I grumpily got up and got ready. By 4, I was at New Selo. I had the sleeping bag around me again as a jacket, but it was surprisingly warm so I took it off right away. A group of 3 young Indonesians were getting ready and we made acquaintances. Unfortunately, one of the guys in the group got sick so I left by myself, thinking I would see them either at the top or on my way down so we could chat more. I never saw any of them on the trail and assumed that they had to turn back to take care of their sick friend. The beginning 45 minutes was mostly dirt trail and fairly well trodden so I didn’t have any problem following the path with my headlamp, and later, in the soft lights of dawn. I was walking on a ridge with open views over the flanks on both sides. To my back, Mount Merbabu was so elegant and gentle. There was no way I could make it to the summit for sunrise, but luckily, the open terrain and low sitting clouds meant that I could still catch the sun rising out from the fluffy white blanket.

Mount Merbabu, Gunung Merbabu, Indonesia

stately Merbabu

sunrise, Mount Merapi, Gunung Merapi, Indonesia DSCN4622 By the time the sun had peeked out from the clouds, the trail got rocky but was fairly easy to navigate in the daylight, and I thought with caution, I could even hike that part in the dark. So far it had been surprisingly not too challenging. 2 hours and a half after I started, I made it to the base of the crater where I ran into the French group on their way down. We were happy to meet again and exchange our news. They were worried that I was outside the night before when the rain was pouring, but I happily reported back that I found a warm clean place and was soundly asleep then. They warned me that the ascent up the crater would be the most difficult part. The rocks were blown up during explosions into fine powdery black grains. Like stepping on a sand dunes, you slide down considerably for each step up. And since I was wearing open toed sandals, it would be quite uncomfortable with all the particles slipping inside. But I was elated, I was so close, and I was proud of myself for making it solo. This was not gonna stop me. Of course not. We said goodbye and I eagerly hopped forward, at the same time as a group of 4 young Indonesians.

Mount Merapi, Gunung Merapi, Indonesia

Mount Merapi crater walk

And damn my butt was kicked! Hardcore! At one point, I had to take off my sandals and socks so my toes could dig in deeper and grip firmer. But I couldn’t walk barefoot for long because the sun hadn’t been out long enough to warm the ground. Luckily, shortly after, I remembered my riding gloves and promptly put them on, climbing up on four whenever possible. I was panting way harder after 15 minutes than the whole trail before. Not what I expected it. On the other hand, the challenge was fun. How often do you get to hike up the crater of an active volcano? You look around when you take a mini break and the landscape is menacing – all black as a result of complete destruction. It took me a good 25 minutes to get past the sandy part before we hit the boulders. By this time, despite the complete lack of mutual language understanding, I had become a member of the Indonesian group and they were kind enough to show me the path to maneuver past the rocks. DSCN4667 DSCN4671 DSCN4694 DSCN4695 Another 10 minutes and I reached the crater rim. And wow! I definitely didn’t know what to expect and was so taken aback at the sight. You have been walking up the mountain for 3 hours, and all of a sudden it’s a sheer drop right in front of your eyes into a ragged hole. Sulphur was spewing out from cracks.  I was awed and humbled. I could easily slip down. It was extraordinary, even surreal. There was no magma but I was reminded of the lava boat tour on the Big Island. Feeling small and fragile at the power of nature. Such a sight to behold. DSCN4713 DSCN4717

I have to admit right away that I didn’t intend it to be that way. My plan was to leave Solo, my base city, at noon and start climbing at 1:30 pm so I could reach the summit at dusk and walk down a warung to have hot food and to lay down my sleeping bag, and then wake up to a beautiful sunrise the next day. Things didn’t go as planned right from the start. Before leaving Solo, I had to rent a sleeping bag. Given most people’s limited English here, and my non existant Indonesian, it was a struggle to communicate what I needed, to coordinate, and to find my way to the shop (which turned out to be a students’ outdoors club). I didn’t get to Cemoro Kandang, one of the 2 trailheads at Gunung Lawu till a little before 3pm. After reassuring the folks at the registration office that I’d be just fine by myself, I eagerly started, and got lost almost right away. The next hour was spent huffing puffing as I ran up and down trying to find the right track. Turned out that a sign should have pointed up instead of to the left. It was 4 by the time I set out again, and I panicked a little, not so much because it was a late start, but because I had doubts about my skills now. It’d been a long time since I last hiked.

Fortunately I made it to Post 1 in good time, and again by Post 2, and by then I’d had a significant confidence boost. Lights were starting to fade. I calculated that if I kept up the pace, I could make it to the top by 9pm. That didn’t sound too bad. And more importantly, by now my body was getting used to it. My heart wasn’t pounding anymore; my legs kept pushing forward steadily. I was also motivated by what I glimpsed of what must have been a beautiful sunset. As the sun descended behind the clouds that circled around the middle of the twins Mount Merapi and Mount Merbabu to the west, it cast a golden glow over the vast valley with towns snaking around the mountains. Though the night view had its own charm and peace, I really wished then that I hadn’t wasted so much time in the beginning.

hiking Mt Lawu, gunung Lawu, sunset

 

hiking Mount Lawu, gunung Lawu

sunset over Mt Merapi and Mt Merbabu

I was on schedule when I reached Post 4 and tackled the last leg. About 100m after Post 4, the trail leveled for a while and then sloped down. I panicked thinking I must have missed the sign again. I traced back, didn’t see any sign, walked that section again and still there was no indication. I couldn’t see the terrain and the mountains well to guess which way the trail was headed toward, and my experience in the beginning made me doubt myself. In the end, I decided to turn back to sleep at Post 4 and wait till the morning. Dinner was a bag of egg coated peanuts that I’d been snacking along the way. And I was out of water. I’d brought 2 small water bottles; one I dropped right from the beginning as I was running looking for the trail, and the other I just finished thinking I was close to the warung. I found a bottle lying inside Post 4, cap already twisted open, but the water inside still almost full to the top, and after much looking and smelling, I gave it a try. No taste. Lucky me!

Given my condition, I was surprised that I had a relatively good night sleep, waking up only once near the morning because I had to pee and then realized that I was hungry, thirsty, and cold. I semi fell back to sleep, turning left and right and left again with strange dreams. I dreamt that it was a popular sunrise hike and people lined up like pilgrims to walk up at midnight, including 2 friends from college. But of course not a soul was around. Like I said, there are 2 trails going up Mount Lawu. The other one is a lot more popular with Hindu pilgrims visiting a holy well and there are a few warungs servicing along the way, while the one I was on was completely deserted.

At 6, I finally rose and after 10 minutes examining the surrounding, determined that there is indeed only 1 trail. The morning was cold so I fashioned my sleeping bag as a coat and went the direction that I’d gone twice the day before. In the daylight, I could now see that although the trail descends, it doesn’t go down the slope to the left but wraps around the cliff to my right. Indeed only 150m after where I abandoned it the night before, the trail turns and the climbs up. I was kicking myself wishing I’d pressed on a little more. I was so close!

The rest of the trip was a lot less eventful and a lot more social. At the summit I met two young Indonesians and after half an hour admiring the beauty around us and taking photos with each other, they brought me down to the warung that I had hoped for last night. I was ravenous; the steamy hot rice tasted damn good just by itself. I met another group of Indonesians here, and one girl speaks very good English. She said this warung is extremely popular among Indonesian hikers as it has been there for 23 years, and you can indeed see all kinds of logos from hiking clubs all over the country.

I hiked down using the pilgrims’ route and started out with the newly acquainted Indonesians, but we parted away shortly after as I had to hurry down.

It was a half success half failure case. It didn’t work out the way I’d envisioned, but in the end, I summited and descended safely, saw some beautiful mountains, and regained a lot of self-confidence, which was very important, as Mount Merapi, the most active volcano in Indonesia, was my next goal.

hiking mount Lawu, gunung Lawu, Indonesia

hiking mount Lawu, gunung Lawu, Indonesia

 

hiking mount Lawu, gunung Lawu, Indonesia

 

hiking mount Lawu, gunung Lawu, Indonesia

Want to spend a few days in this idyllic island group north of Central Java? If you’ve done any research, you might think it’s fairly straightforward: starting from Semarang, take a bus to Jepara, hop on a ferry or fast boat (or charter plane if you have the money to drop) and bam, you’re in paradise.

The ferry time from Jepara to Karimunjawa is available on a few websites and they’re fairly consistent, but I couldn’t find certain information on the bus from Semarang to Jepara, and I thought no problem, I could figure it all out once I was in Semarang. It’s always much easier on the ground.

And it is. But my big mistake was that I asked around at my hostel and tried to call various numbers from brochures. People don’t always pick up, and when they do, they might not speak enough English to communicate with me.

In the end, I did get all the information I needed, but it was too late and I had to ditch my island getaway weekend. Now I’m passing what I’ve gathered onto you so you don’t have to waste time and can plan better than I did.

There are 3 important things to remember:

1. The first thing to do in Semarang is to stop by the Tourist Information Center TIC for the most up-to-date timetables.
2. You have to be in Jepara the day before you depart for Karimunjawa.
3. There are no ferries or boats departing Jepara on Thursday or Sunday (as of July 2014). There are no ferries or boats departing Karimunjawa on Friday (as of July 2014).

Now, step by step:

1.  Arriving in Semarang, immediately go to Tourist Information Center TIC for the most up-to-date shuttle and ferry schedules. The TIC is located at #147 Jalan Pemuda. It’s a big building and can be easily spotted thanks to the red Pandu taxis that park in front of it.

In the back of the TIC are the offices of Yoglosemar (Yogyakarta – Semarang and Solo – Semarang shuttle busses) and Central Java (Semarang – Jepara shuttle). If you arrive by a Yoglosemar bus, for your convenience, make sure you get off at the TIC (last stop).

2. Take the shuttle bus from Semarang to Jepara. This trip takes 3.5-4 hours. If you want to take the fast boat, you have to leave Semarang in the morning in order to arrive in Jepara before 4pm so you can go buy ticket before the office closes.

Here’s the shuttle schedule as of July 2014. The shuttle leaves from the Central Java office in the back of the TIC building.

(departing Semarang and Jepara at the same time)
Monday: 06:00, 10:00, 14:00, 17:00
Tuesday – Friday: 07:00, 10:00, 14:00, 17:00
Saturday – Sunday: 07:00, 10:00, 13:00, 16:00

3. Take the ferry or fast boat from Jepara to Karimunjawa. You need to buy ticket for the fast boat the day before. No need for the ferry. The fast boat takes 2 hours, the ferry takes 5 hours.

Jepara – Karimunjawa

Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat Sun
Fast boat 11:00 11:00 x x 14:00 11:00 x
Ferry 09:00 x 09:00 x x 09:00 x

 

Karimunjawa – Jepara

Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat Sun
Fast boat 14:00 x 11:00 x x 08:00 14:00
Ferry x 09:00 x 09:00 x 09:00

 

P/S 1: Semarang – Karimunjawa boat: This service starts July 26, 2014. The boat leaves Semarang at 9:00 on Saturday and returns from Karimunjawa at 13:00 on Sunday, taking 4 hours one-way. Sounds pretty convenient if you want a short weekend trip.

P/S 2: Tour packages are available, leaving from either Semarang or Jepara. 2d1n: Rs. 850,000/pax. 3d2n: 1,150,000/pax. 4d3n: Rs. 1,250,00/pax. Prices include accommodation, meals, transfers, boat tour, entrance fee. Contact at the Tourist Information Center in Semarang.

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