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Trip Report Eight Days in Central Java

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It's been a while since anyone posted a trip report about Central Java, so I thought I'd recount my recent trip there. Although I've made a few brief stops in Yogya on business over the last few years, it's been about ten years since I saw the major sights like Borobudur and Candi Sukuh. I decided it was time to revisit these places, as well as take in some others that I missed on my first visit. I'll probably do this trip report over a few days.

THE PLAN
One of the first decisions was to spend time in Solo rather than trying to reach the sights around the city on day-trips from Yogya. I did the day-trip thing last time, and it made for long days that left out a lot. I also decided to stay in Magelang to be closer to Borobudur, and in the end I decided to also see the Dieng Plateau while I was there.

Air Asia flies direct into Yogya from KL. The only problem is there's only one flight a day, and it leaves KL at 7:00 am, so that meant flying to KL from Bangkok and staying overnight in the KLIA area. This worked out quite well. I took a flight from Bangkok at the civilized hour of 10:00 am, checked into the Tune Hotel at the LCCT and then hopped on the KLIA Transit train into the city for a little shopping.

This was my third or fourth stay at a Tune hotel. They're okay for one or maybe two nights, if you know what to expect and set your expectations accordingly.

Since the return flight from Yogya to KL was at 9:00 am, it sort of dictated that Yogya would be my last stop. The final plan was to spend two nights in Magelang, three nights in Solo and two nights in Yogya. I really should have spent three nights in Yogya, but I didn't realize that until too late.

I would need a car and driver, of course, so I contacted the Borobudur Park web site about arranging one. I was very surprised to hear back from them within hours acknowledging my request and asking for details. Within a few follow-up emails I had everything arranged.

FIRST STOP: MAGELANG
Since my flight landed at 8:30 am, I arranged for the car to pick me up and take me directly to Borobudur. I was met by the man who runs the Borobudur Park travel services, who introduced me to my driver Johnny.

It turned out that the Eid al Fitr holiday in Central Java extends for five days after the end of Ramadan, and I was arriving on the first work day after that, although many schools were apparently out for the week. So, there were a lot of locals at Borobudur when we arrived. Aside from a new visitors center, very little has changed at Borobudur since my last visit. The upper levels (the circular ones) are closed off for 'restoration', although I didn't see any signs of any work being done.

After stops at Pahwon and Mendut temples, as well as lunch, I checked into the Oxalis Regency in Magelang. The hotel is apparently a couple years old, but it looked like it was still in the soft opening stage. Apparently, this was because of some issue with their license, which was being withheld by a local official. My guide told me that the official was arrested on corruption charges the day before I arrived, so the hotel might finally get its license.

The lobby of the hotel was big, but oddly designed. I had to walk through the coffee shop, which itself looked a bit of an after-thought, to get to my room. The room was in a newer wing of the hotel. It was large and spacious, with a balcony that looked out over a wide valley to Mount Merapi. While the room was large and comfortable, it also looked not-quite-finished. There was a large desk, with a little flip-top opening where I expected to find outlets for power and Internet, but it was empty. In fact, the room had no Internet, wi-fi or otherwise, at all. The big flat-screen TV only had two English channels. Breakfast was rather basic, but then there were probably only a half-dozen guests in the hotel.

The next day was the Dieng Plateau. I know that conventional wisdom is that the place isn't that interesting, but I've never been much for taking conventional wisdom on faith. It features two of my favorite things - volcanoes and ancient temples - so it can't be all bad.

From Magelang, it was still more than an hour's drive to reach Dieng. The first stop was the multi-colored lakes. This is a water-filled caldera, very similar to some places I visited in Manado last year. The 'crystal' lake was almost dry, as it was near the end of the dry season. The colors of the big lake were very pretty.

Next was Sikidang Crater, which is more like a big open scar on the landscape, with several vents spewing steam and bubbling mud. It's like a tiny Yellowstone. From the crater it's a short drive to the Arjuna temple complex. This is a group of small stone chapels that are the oldest Hindu shrines on Java, but in truth they aren't all that impressive.

In all, it was a really good day out, but I'd have to agree that Dieng really isn't a 'must see' place for most people.

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    Michael, I had the same reaction to the Dieng Plateau as you did. It was a very interesting day (we drove from Yogya)but not a must-see. I'd love to go back to Java, and one of these years we'll get there. Air Asia flying diectly to Yoyga makes it so much easier.

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    PART TWO: SOLO
    We left Magelang early in the morning. Getting to the main highway to Solo from Magelang means backtracking almost all the way to Yogya, and it can be quite congested, so Johnny suggested we go via some country roads. We wound our way through tobacco plantations, up and over a saddle between Merapi and one of its neighbors. As we neared the crest, we got some great, nearly cloud-free views of Merapi (see http://ow.ly/i/gXxY). You can still see great slabs of ash piled up on the slopes, and Johnny told me they estimate that less that 25% of the ejecta from the eruption last year washed down before the rains ended. In the coming rainy season they've been told to expect some nasty lahars.

    Arriving in Solo, I was struck by how different it looked. When I last visited, about 10 years ago, there were still burned-out hulks of buildings left over from the race riots that led to Suharto's downfall in the wake of the 1997 financial crisis. Now those are no longer to be seen, and while I wouldn't describe Solo as pretty, it's pleasant enough.

    Johnny took me straight to the Kraton Mangkunegaran, the smaller of Solo's two palaces, and the one most day-trippers see. I visited it 10 years ago, and it really hasn't changed at all, right down to the old crone selling jamu in the corner of the great reception hall. From there I went to the Antiques Market, which really has changed. It's got a nice new tourist-friendly building near the Kraton. However, you can still find the copper and brass batik stamps here, if that's what you're looking for.

    After this brief city tour, I checked in to the Ibis Solo. The hotel is rather new, and right in the middle of town. Either it or the Novotel next door are probably the best places to stay if you want to be able to explore the city on foot. My room was small but exceptionally well laid-out. There was a small desk facing the window, which for me is the perfect place to work. I hate desks that face a mirror. There were two outlets in a flip-top space next to the desk, so you could charge your phone or camera while keeping your computer plugged in. There was also free wired Internet. My room fee didn't include breakfast, but I did try it one day. A fairly good buffet, probably more oriented to Asian tastes.

    The next day Johnny picked me up for a trip up Mount Lawu to see Candi Sukuh and Candi Ceto. I had visited Sukuh on my first trip 10 years ago. It hasn't really changed, except that it seems to be getting more visitors now. Last time I was there, the guest book showed only one other visitor the whole week before I visited. This time, there were actually a couple of other western tourists there at the same time. One thing I did notice on the way there was that where last time the countryside was full of clove trees, they're almost gone now. Apparently, since Philip Morris took over Sampoerna the emphasis is on tobacco cigs. and there's not much of a market for cloves any more.

    The drive from Sukuh to Candi Ceto is mostly through rolling hills of tea. It's quite pretty. The Ceto temple looks more like the temples you'll see in Bali today. It's built into the side of the mountain, and climbs the his in several levels. If you look carefully, there's a gate off the side of one of the levels that leads to a path that eventually takes you to another temple called Candi Kethek. This temple is little more than some stone terraces cut into the hillside. I enjoyed the walk through the forest there more than the temple itself.

    On the way back to Solo we swung around Mount Lawu to Grojogan Sewu Waterfall. It's a rather spectacular fall, but the way it's been developed is sort of an 'only in Indonesia' moment, when you reach the base of the falls and find a water park shoehorned into an otherwise pretty natural setting. Not that it wasn't worth the trip, and we had a rather lovely lunch of lamb sate at a stall just opposite the entry to the fall area.

    The next day I had on my own. I set out on foot from the hotel and walked through the Batik Kampung to the other kraton, the Kasunanan Palace. The batik village is a warren of small alleys full of batik shops. It's very sedate compared to the craziness of Yogya's Malioboro Street, and probably a better place for serious batik lovers to shop.

    The Kasunanan Palace is much larger than the other palace. It's actually in two parts, divided by a narrow busy street. The front part has a giant pendopo, and behind this is a cannon-lined wall protecting a smaller audience hall. The paid admission to this area is separate from the admission to the main palace, and I'd suggest skipping it.

    The main palace appears to be huge. The big attraction here is a large museum displaying various memorabilia from the palace, as well as a few archaeological bits from temples around Central Java. The collection is rather dusty, and none of the signs are in English, but it's still rather interesting. The museum occupies the halls around one large courtyard. The next courtyard is part of the private area of the palace, and you can see some of the formal rooms but not enter them. I can see why most tours don't take in the old palace, but it really is worth visiting.

    There are a couple of other museums in town. One, in an old mansion belonging to one of the godfathers of the batik business, looks very interesting, but I missed my chance to see it as it was being used for a function. On the whole, I would say Solo deserves more attention than it gets. It has some nice hotels as well as taxis and other basic necessities. The one drawback is restaurants. I didn't find a lot of places to eat, but like a lot of larger Indonesian cities, it's more oriented to people in cars rather than on foot, so restaurants don't pay much attention to luring in people walking by.

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    I remember well the drive through the clove trees to Candi Sukuh, it was really lovely. I'm sorry to hear it's all tobacco now.

    I'm glad to hear more about Solo. We visited one kraton there and also went to the workshop where they made the batik pattern for the kraton - all tulis, of course - just beautiful.

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    PART THREE: YOGYAKARTA
    Rather than use a car and driver, I decided to try the train service between Solo and Yogya. The Prambanan Express is a relatively new commuter service that runs between the two cities. It takes just 65 minutes and costs only 10,000 Rupiah, so it's a real bargain. Don't expect a lot of comfort, but it's quick and easy.

    I chose a hotel close to the train station in Yogya, so it was a short walk from the station to the 1001 Malam Hotel. The place looked a little more 'boutique' on Agoda, but it was more of a budget place. The room was basic but comfortable. There was free wi-fi as well as free coffee and tea from a small self-service area on each floor. There's a number of small hotels and guesthouses in the area, as well as several restaurants that are a little more tourist-friendly than other places around town. But you are right under the flight path for planes landing at the airport, so it can be a little noisy in the day time.

    After checking in, I took a walk down Malioboro street. I had intended on just walking through the main market area, and then getting a becak to the water palace, but I ended up walking all the way to the old water palace. This was one place I hadn't been before. It's hard to imagine what this place was originally like, with all the houses crammed into a space that was once a lake, but it's still a very interesting place.

    I ended up walking back, stopping off at the Carriage Museum of the royal palace as well as the Sonobudoyo Museum near the palace.

    The next day Johnny picked me up again to take me to the Prambanan. The last time I was here was just after the 2006 earthquake, and the inner sanctuary with the big temples was completely closed off. It's now open again, although two or three of the temples are still closed to visitors.

    While I was at Prambanan, I wanted to be sure to take in Candi Sewu, which is a large Buddhist temple within the same grounds. While it's in the same park, most people don't seem to visit Candi Sewu, even though it's quite impressive. In basic concept, it's similar to Prambanan, albeit on a much smaller scale. There's a large central sanctuary, this one a single structure topped by five domes, surrounded by hundreds of small chapels.

    From Prambanan we went to Ratu Boko, a hilltop palace (or monastery, there's no certainty about what it really was) not far from Prambanan. It's interesting, if not particularly spectacular. Since it was (probably) a palace, the ruins are mostly of stone terraces that once supported wooden structures. It's still impressive, and you can also see Prambanan from the coffee shop.

    On the way back to Yogya, I stopped in at the Affandi Musuem. I'd passed this place so many times visiting Yogya and was alway curious about it. It's really a fantastic place, although not as weird as the Blanco museum in Ubud. Lots of great are on display (and for sale) by local artists.

    The next day it was back to Bangkok. My 3 hour layover in KL turned out to be a little tight, thanks to a slightly delayed flight out of Yogya and the longest immigration queue I've ever seen at the LCCT. I wish Air Asia would expand its transfer program to non-X flights.

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    Michael; I am surprised you were not impressed with the bountiful crop trreces, not just rice, that was in abundance in the 20-30 minutes prior to arriving at Dieng Plateau. We found some of those views breathless and dare I say more impressisive than East Bali.

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    @StanKase I didn't say anything about the landscape, which is nice. However, IMO, it's not nearly as dramatic as say, Toraja. As it was the dry season there was very little rice to be seen. It was mostly tobacco everywhere I went.

    I did say it was a nice day out, and that includes the pretty scenery on the drive there, but for me the scenery wouldn't be enough to recommend the trip for people trying to balance time and money in Central Java.

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