The names Yogyakarta, Borobudur and Prambanan are nearly always uttered in the same breath; if you visit one, chances are you visit them all. Like Borobudur, Prambanan is also UNESCO listed and is also dazzlingly impressive. This time, we did not need to venture out while it was still dark and had a more leisurely start to the day. We’d opted once again to engage a private driver for the day, as we had several places on the outskirts of town that we wanted to visit. Our new driver, Aida, was working on her English but at this point spoke very little so we communicated largely through the voice function of Google Translate; it’s super impressive but you do have to be connected to the internet. Anyway, Aida picked us up and whizzed us through the streets of Yogya and east to Prambanan.
The Prambanan temple complex is a short drive out of the city. It is certainly more touristy at the entrance than Borobudur, but once you are through the tat shops and cafes the temples are quite astonishing. They rise out of the flat land around them like something other worldly or from a forgotten time, which of course is what they are.
As you near the primary complex the piles of stones surrounding the main temples become more obvious. Prambanan has been severely rattled by earthquakes throughout its life and was badly damaged in the most recent event in 2006. Reconstruction efforts are ongoing throughout the complex, but judging by the sheer scale of work to be done, it will be very a long time before Prambanan is fully restored.
We climbed the steps up into a couple of the temples but you can’t actually see much inside, so we mostly just strolled around absorbing the incredible feat of human engineering and the beautiful detailed carvings that cover every inch of every building.
There were a number of groups of schoolchildren hanging around the main complex. They come to Prambanan for the sole purpose of practising their English, a fairly ingenious approach as there are plenty of English speakers there. We ended up talking to four different groups of nervous teenagers, mostly answering the same questions over again. It did take up a fair bit of time and we could have done without the delays but it seemed such a simple thing to do to help them out that it would have been churlish to refuse. It must be quite a daunting prospect; we flipped the scenarios in our heads, imagine walking up to some French tourists in Leicester Square or overhearing Spanish voices in the Tate and tapping the speaker on the shoulder and asking if they would mind if you practiced with them for a bit. Just thinking about it makes the stomach churn.
The main temple complex is what most people come to see, it’s the holiest area of the whole compound and the 47-metre tall Shiva temple at its centre is the iconic image of Prambanan. Having said that, it’s definitely worthwhile wandering around the other temples within the wider area. They are lower down the priority list so not as well conserved or reconstructed, but renovation work is ongoing and it is still interesting to see. Also, it takes about 15 minutes to walk around to Candi Sewu past a couple of smaller temples, so most people give it a miss and you will most likely only have to share it with a handful of other people.
We really liked this area; it was Caro’s favourite part of the whole complex. There was something eerie about it and the layout of the smaller temples made it feel a bit like an abandoned village of small identical houses.
Where Prambanan is Hindu, Candi Sewu is Buddhist and so there some key differences in the structure and layout of the buildings. The central temple is built so that you can walk around and through the middle, emerging outside every 10 steps or so. The combination of shade and breeze that this created made it an ideal spot to take a break from the heat.
We spent a couple of hours wandering around before heading back towards the car. The exit is a literal tourist trap; you have to walk through a vast covered tat market with narrow passageways that never seem to end in daylight and it is only the occasional exit sign that saves you from giving up hope entirely and curling up in a pile of elephant trousers.
We had decided to include the much-lesser visited Plaosan Temple complex in our itinerary; it is minutes by car from Prambanan. The Plaosan complex also dates from the 9th Centruy and the style of the temples is very similar to Candi Sewu although they are larger and squarer.
It costs pennies to get in. This cost discrepancy will certainly be due to the difference in size; there are just two main temples surrounded by much smaller buildings, but probably also has something to do with the fact that this site has not been recognised by UNESCO and therefore lacks that license to triple the entry price. We may have imagined it, but it seemed as though the reconstruction efforts were a little bit more haphazard and less considered than at Prambanan; we weren’t really sure the right bits had been put back in the right places, and we thought that maybe this was also because the high standards that UNESCO requires for restoration work do not apply here.
The upshot is that it’s so easy to visit here as well, and it makes for a nice, quiet place to sit, so why not?
By this point we were well and truly templed out; it was time to go and poke around a volcano. Mount Merapi is pretty punchy as far as volcanoes go; it is Indonesia’s most active volcano, and its explosions wipe out fields and villages and frequently result in fatalities. An eruption in 2010 killed over 300 people. It is the absolute last volcano that you would want in close proximity to a heavily built up area; Merapi is just 32km north of Yogyakarta, so the whole thing is pretty spicy. It’s possible to do a jeep tour around the lava flows but the safety record for these excursions is dubious at best and we would only be doing it for the views of the volcano, which are far from guaranteed, as it is usually shrouded in cloud. So, we gave the jeep option a miss but still made our way to the Merapi Volcano Museum where, we have now realised, we failed to take a single photograph.
The museum is a grownup geography lesson on plate tectonics and volcanic activity globally, as well a little history about the Mount Marapi eruptions and the precautions the locals take, which include annual sacrifices. James was completely hooked and could have spent the best part of a day there. Caro wasn’t quite as enthralled but still felt that it was definitely worth a stop if you are in the area.
Up next was Ullen Sentalu, a private museum on the slopes of Merapi which is raved about on tripadvisor and in blogs and in the Lonely Planet. Given these accolades we were very eager to get there. Did it live up to the hype? Sadly not. We were happy to hand over the fairly steep entry fee, remembering all those amazing reviews, and sat waiting for our English-speaking tour to begin. The lobby area felt more like an art gallery and truly out of place in an out-of-the-way building on the side of a volcano.
A small group of locals set off on their tour before us and from then on, we didn’t see another soul other than our guide, so it truly was a private viewing. You are accompanied the whole way through the tour, which is probably a good thing because there are many twists and turns and little buildings to get lost in. The thing to prepare yourself for in advance is that this is a private museum and the collections reflect the interests and whims of the family who own them. This family really love the Yogyakarta royal family. Like a lot. Each room we were shown in to was packed full of their paintings, clothing and belongings and at one point a whole gamelan. Our guide clearly knew a lot about the collection but she also seemed to be in a great rush; she practically ran between the rooms gabbling so quickly that we could only understand about a third of what she said. It was evident from the little that we did pick up that she too loves the royal family.
To be perfectly fair there’s a lot to see and Caro found the collection of traditional batiks was particularly interesting. It’s just a long way to go and a lot to pay for what is a rather small, ordinary museum with niche appeal. When we got to the outdoor courtyard full of statues we learned that nearly all of them were replicas. The piece-de-resistance is a recreation of one of the reliefs at Borobudur. Perhaps it’s petty to point out that we had already paid to see the original so we were unlikely to be blown away by the replica. It’s the only thing in the museum that you are allowed to take a picture of so we did, because we could.
We came out of Ullen Sentalu a little bit bemused and really none-the-wiser but it was an experience and we have added our average review to the glowing testimonials on tripadvisor. Our intinerary for the day complete, Aida drove us back to Yogya.
Our last stop of the day was one of the most entertaining. On Java, you can either buy train tickets at the station or in shops like Alfamart, which is what we tried to do next. We strode confidently up to the check out and asked to buy two executive class tickets from Yogyakarta to Probolingo for Tuesday the 28th of August. This request was met with awkward silence and a blank stare that indicated all too well that the only words the poor girl behind the counter had understood were Yogyakarta and Probolingo, and given our terrible pronunciation there’s a good chance those passed her by too. We tried again, simply saying: “train tickets”. The girl looked at us and did what everyone we have met in South East Asia does when they don’t understand you, repeated the sounds back at us “tren tiket”. We took this for understanding and gratefully said “yes, we want to buy train tickets”. More silence. We briefly considered asking Aida to come inside and help, but the thought of adding another party and Google Translate in to the mix was not at all appealing. We dithered. The girl behind the counter called for a friend and fortunately when we said “train ticket” she said “yes” and moved behind the ticket machine to help us. Progress. Feeling back on safe ground James asked once again for “two executive class tickets from Yogyakarta to Probolingo on Tuesday the 28th of August”. Information overload, blank stares. Several minutes of awkward confusion later, James took matters in to his own hands, sidled behind the counter and managed to secure our tickets.