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“In the Shadow of Krakatau”

December 2009

Like many of my trips this one was purposely timed to encompass the Christmas and New Year period. This was a journey of exploration to Java and Bali, 2 of the 17,500 islands that constitute the archipelago of Indonesia. Situated on the Pacific “Ring of Fire”, Indonesia has had its fair share of earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions. Just a few miles off the north of coast of Sumatra is the location of the world’s largest volcanic eruption where the volcano of Krakatau blew itself apart in 1883. More recently on Boxing Day 2004, an earthquake and tsunami emanated from Aceh on the northern tip of Sumatra; the devastation reached India, Sri Lanka and as far afield as the coast of Africa. Some 250,000 people were killed and countless millions made homeless. This event has a poignant meaning for me as I was on holiday in Sri Lanka when the tsunami struck the island.

A Brief History

The archipelago of Indonesia was first inhabited by peoples of Malay origin who migrated there from Southeast Asia around 4000 BC. By about 1000 BC there was evidence of an advanced culture who engaged in the cultivation of rice crops, bronze casting, and the custom of erecting megaliths. These early Indonesians were animists; they held the view that all objects had a soul or life force. They believed in an afterlife and would bury weapons and other objects that would be of use in the tombs of the dead ancestor. By the 1st century AD small kingdoms controlled by petty chieftains were scattered across the islands. At this time Indonesia’s geographic location on the sea routes between India and China proved fruitful in providing a link between these two trading civilizations. Various Hindu and Buddhist kingdoms held power in Indonesia through to the 13th century, at which time Islam became the dominant power. By the 16th century Islam replaced Hinduism and Buddhism as the state religion.


The first colonial Europeans to arrive in Indonesia were the Portuguese. Their aim was to appropriate the highly lucrative spice trade that had made the local petty chieftains exceedingly wealthy. By the end of the first decade of the 16th century the Portuguese had secured strategic trading ports throughout the area. The next European power to enter the region in search of wealth from the spice trade were the Dutch, and by the close of the 16th century they had become the dominant colonial power and trade broker in Indonesia. By the mid 1800s the Dutch were profiting to the extent that Indonesia supplied most of the world’s quinine, pepper, over thirty per cent of the world’s rubber and twenty per cent of the world’s tea, coffee, sugar and oil.


On the 27th August 1883 - having been dormant since 1680 - the volcanic island of Krakatau blew itself apart with the loudest explosion ever heard on earth. So violent was the explosion that a column of ash extended 80km up into the atmosphere, the ash was deposited as far as 6000km away and the sound from this cataclysmic eruption was heard 4600km away. For three years the ash clouds circled the earth creating spectacular sunsets. The ensuing tsunami, more than 40 metres high, brought devastation to the nearby islands of Java and Sumatra with almost 40,000 people killed and numerous millions displaced.

Despite growing Indonesian nationalism, and amid the suppression of numerous insurrections, the Dutch remained in control of Indonesia until the time of the Second World War. In 1942 the Japanese Imperial army stormed through Southeast Asia wresting control of Indonesia from the Dutch. With the end of the Second World War, on the 17th August 1945, Indonesia declared independence but the persistent Dutch were not yet ready to give up their colony. Another four years of bitter struggle and bloodshed followed until finally on 27th December 1949 the Dutch handed over power to the independent Republic of Indonesia.

An atmospheric scene, Telaga Warna Lake on the Deing Plateau, Java

The road from Independence to a democratic system of governance was to be a rocky one. Separatist movements in Aceh, Papua and East Timor, military coups and the 1997 Asia currency crisis are just a few examples of the road that finally led to Indonesia’s first truly free elections in June 1999 - the first in over 40 years. The 2002 Bali bombings and the 2004 Aceh earthquake and tsunami put Indonesia in the world’s spotlight, for all the wrong reasons.

The Journey

After arriving in Yogyakarta in Java, the first day started with a visit to the magnificent Prambanan Temple complex. This is the largest complex of Hindu temples in Java and reminiscent of temples I’ve visited in India. Built between the 8th and 10th century AD, the wealth of exquisite sculptural detail make this complex the most exceptional example of Hindu artistry. The central terrace is dominated by three towering temples dedicated to the Hindu gods of Vishnu, Brahma and Shiva - the most imposing edifice towering to over 47 metres high. The site was devastated by an earthquake in the 16th century, thereafter it was abandoned to the elements. Restoration of this magnificent site began in the 1930’s, and sympathetic restoration still continues today. Numerous satellite complexes are spread around the site which in total contains over 250 individual temples.

Situated in the heart of Yogyakarta is the Kraton. This huge palace is the traditional home of the sultans of Yogyakarta. Effectively it is the centre of a small walled city within the city itself. The main group of buildings were constructed in the mid 18th century: luxurious halls; expansive courtyards and impressive pavilions make this one of the finest examples of palace architecture. It’s possible for tour groups to arrange to have a formal meal with the current Sultan, set in such sumptuous surroundings you can only guess at the price tag attached to this.


Jet lag kicked in on my second day so serious R & R was called for which included a full body massage. The evening was taken up by a trip to see a performance of the Ramayana Ballet - an adaptation of the Hindu epic. Set in an open air theatre the performance was spectacular - a mixture of theatre, dance and acrobatics. The costumes and make- up of the performers were resplendent - it was a truly magical evening’s entertainment.


A visit to the Batik factory began the following day. Batik is the technique of applying wax or other dye-resistant substances to cloth - producing multi-coloured patterns which adorn everything from shirts to sarongs. The process of producing Batik in Java goes back to the 12th century.


The Mendut temple is small and rather charming; it houses a enigmatic 3 metre high figure of Buddha and is one of the most outstanding statues in any temple in Java. The outer walls of the temple display carved relief panels. Adjacent to the temple is the Mendut Buddhist Monastery; a tranquil and peaceful haven away from the hustle and bustle of the souvenir vendors.


Next on the itinerary was the main reason for choosing this trip. Borobudur Temple is one of Southeast Asia’s most spectacular sites - an architectural wonder whose aesthetic magnificence ranks it alongside the majestic Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Constructed in the 9th century it was conceived as a Buddhist vision of the cosmos in stone. Built from two million blocks of stone (coincidentally, the same number of blocks as the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt) in the form of a gigantic symmetrical stupa (Buddhist temple). When viewed from the air the structure approximates to a vast three-dimensional tantric mandala. Abandoned barely a hundred years after its completion, Borobudur was “lost” for 900 years when Mount Merrapi erupted and covered the site in a layer of volcanic ash. The temple consists of six square terraces topped by three circular ones - the upper levels of the temple display an array of latticed stupas with Buddha images concealed within. Detailed on the walls of the temple are exquisite reliefs and carvings, over 2,600 decorative panels display Buddhist doctrines as well various aspects of day to day life as it was 1,000 years ago. Over 500 serene-faced enigmatic Buddha images stare out at the hoards of visitors at Indonesia’s number one tourist attraction.

Leaving Wonosobo, our overnight stop, we drive up into the mountains to the Dieng Plateau, situated at 2093m above sea level. This is the location of the oldest Hindu temples in Java. Between the 7th and 9th century around 400 temples were constructed on this site and today the vast majority lay in ruins. The Arjuna Complex consists of five temples, each named after the heroes of the Mahabharata tales. Whilst being of great archaeological interest, it is their dramatic location on a mist covered plateau surrounded by mountains that really impresses.


We travelled next to the nearby volcanic lakes of Telaga Wama and Telaga Pengilon. The bubbling sulphur deposits have given the lakes a beautiful turquoise hue and the arty photographer in me came right to the fore. The nearby volcanic crater of Kawah Sikidang is quite a sight; hot vents of steam spurting skywards and bubbling mud ponds make up this surreal moon-like landscape.


Really noticeable about the countryside is how every inch of land is intensely farmed, the hillsides being steeply terraced to make the most out of the available land. Due to the volcanic nature of the soil the land is extremely productive and allows for two or three crops per year, with little or no drop in soil fertility. Rice cultivation on the ubiquitous terraced fields has been practised here for over 2,000 years.

A field worker collecting in the rice crop

Our group was invited to dinner at the house of a local family. We were escorted from our hotel to the house with a torchlight procession, music and dancers. We were then treated to a marvellous home-cooked Javanese meal. We were then presented with flower garlands and  the entire village turned out to greet our group. Seated in an open courtyard we were then regaled with our very own private performance of the Ramayana ballet staged by the local village theatre group. Every participant was resplendently dressed in the colourful ceremonial costumes. There was sword fighting on hobby horses, glass eating, young children dancing and a dragon dance culminating with the dragon “eating” one of the children. The performance concluded with each of our group in turn dancing with one of the performers. The whole evening was a magical and unforgettable experience; we had been part of a special moment in time. The largesse shown to this group of visitors was truly humbling.


We arrived in the city of Surakarta after a long journey. Here, the main point of interest is the royal palace of Puri Mangkunegaran built in 1757 and members of the royal family still live in a section of the palace. The centre of the palace is dominated by a cavernous pavilion with a ceiling intricately decorated with the signs of the Javanese zodiac. The palace museum has some fascinating exhibits including gold plated dresses, Javanese gamelan (musical instruments) and his and her gold plated genital covers.


Candi Sukuh, built during the 15th century, is a spectacular Hindu temple reminiscent in architectural style to a Mayan pyramid. This bijou erotic temple is believed to be dedicated to a fertility cult, various carvings on the temple walls allude to this; there are the ubiquitous lingam and yoni (male and female fertility symbols) as well as a crude squat headless figure holding his ample manhood. The day concluded with a pleasant two hour walk through the countryside allowing for some pleasant interaction with the locals who were tending the crops in their fields.


The next day involved a long trip, travelling from 8am until almost 7pm and the landscape views were of exceptional beauty. Our lunch ‘stop-over’ was at a beautiful restaurant in the style of an Indonesian village house with curvaceous sweeping roof profiles and bamboo furniture. The meal was a buffet of meat, chicken, tofu, rice etc., as much as you could eat for the princely sum of £3.00. The journey after lunch was dominated by a tropical storm … it hammered down cats and dogs. Our journey terminated in the conurbation of Malang - first established by the Dutch towards the end of the 18th century. Its success was based on the growing of coffee which proliferated on the surrounding hillsides. The mad dash from the bus to the hotel lobby was only a few metres, but with the storm in full flow I was as wet as if I had swam ten lengths of a pool. Nuansa Fajar is an enterprise that trains and employs blind masseurs. The massage was a fantastic experience as the masseur channels everything into their sense of touch which allows you to experience the massage in its purest form. One hour of this heavenly hedonism cost a mere £1.00.

Two young children play up to the camera

Our destination today is to Gunung Bromo; a still smoking volcano. It rises to a height of 2392 mtrs and is one of the most ancient in Java. Bromo is one of three volcanoes to have emerged from the enormous Tengger crater that stretches 10km across. Legend has it that the crater was originally dug out with half a coconut shell by an ogre smitten with love for a beautiful princess. The smoking volcano stands in a vast sea of sand and volcanic ash, giving the feel of a surreal and almost lunar landscape. Our base for the exploration of this area is the dormitory village of Cemoro Lawang. The village owes its entire existence to the nearby Bromo volcano. Cemoro Lawang has the feel of a wild-west outpost: a couple of hotels; a few restaurants and a veritable mass of vendors cater for the inexorable stream of volcano visitors. At 3.30am our group meet up to go see the sunrise. Cemoro Lawang has just one road straight through the middle of the town, and at this unearthly hour it was heaving with literally hundreds of Toyota jeeps belching out fumes and emitting exhaust noises that would do a Ferrari proud. Given the early hour and the altitude it was absolutely freezing as we squeezed into our jeep and headed off into the darkness. After an hour’s bone-shaking drive across the caldera we reached our destination - the summit of Mt Penanjakan, which at 2770mtrs is the highest point on the crater. The scene that awaited us at the top was chaotic: several thousand people; hundreds of jeeps; motor bikes and stalls selling woolly hats, scarves, tea and food. The sunrise was spectacular and we were fortunate as this was the first visible sunrise in the last five days. Maybe that utopian ideal of witnessing the sunrise on a deserted mountain top with half a dozen other people is an anachronism in these days of mass tourism, its antitheses as we discovered is now the norm. In the afternoon we walked across the caldera then right up to the rim of the Bromo crater - it is traditional to throw offerings of flowers or food into the crater to appease the smoking giant.

A most welcome stop was at a local primary school. The students and teachers are overjoyed to welcome foreign visitors and show them around their school. Every single child wanted to say hello, shake our hand in welcome and eagerly await their turn to have their photograph taken. We toured the classrooms and looked at the students work. This was a heart-warming experience that our so called developed society back home would probably never permit these days. Then, a further journey took us through the resplendently named little town of ‘Big Banana’ which raised quite a few chuckles as we passed through it. At the end of a long day we arrived in Kalibaru, which was to be our final stop on the island of Java. Situated in the heart of what is plantation country, our hotel was luxurious. The main building was an old Dutch inn and the accommodation was chalet-style bungalows set in the middle of an enormous botanical garden; a bit like staying in Kew Gardens overnight. There were exotic trees and plants from all over the world in a peaceful and tranquil setting. The hotel is situated adjacent to its own plantation and in the afternoon we were taken on a guided tour. We saw pepper trees, cocoa and coffee, rubber trees, passion fruit, vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg and much more. The whole process of growing, harvesting and preparation for market sheds a fascinating light on how these exotic products make their long journey from the plantations to the shelves in our local supermarkets. After a swim in the beautiful cool pool there was nothing for it but to indulge in yet another Javanese massage, then an oil massage followed by an intense head massage. After an hour I was floating away …


Onwards! We take a 40 minute ferry trip across the Bali Strait to Gilmanuk on the western tip of the island of Bali. Whereas Java is predominantly Muslim, Bali is 98% Hindu and as such the two islands have a completely different feel to each other. Here on Bali every house and every shop has a Hindu shrine in the front garden, and Hindu-style architecture predominates. Bali is far more tourist orientated than Java and has been the paradigm “paradise island” destination for many over the years. Our base for the next couple of days is Lovina and our hotel is situated right on the beach.

A fierce demon at the Ulun Dariau temple in Eastern Bali
Highly colourful New Year Party Toys

The Air Panas Banjar hot springs are a wonderful way to sooth away a few hours. Beautifully landscaped with a vast array of tropical plants, the springs are a magnet for locals wanting a relaxing day out. Water from a natural spring pours out from the mouths of ornately carved stone naga into three large pools - the largest of which gives a pummelling massage as warm water pounds from a height of 3mtrs. After a tasty lunch by the pool a short trip is necessary in order to visit Bali’s singular Buddhist monastery in Banjar. The Brahma Vihara Arama monastery is an oasis of tranquillity and harmony; paths lined with exotic plants and trees lead in all directions taking you from one temple to another. As you reach the highest point on the site there are a series of bell-shaped stupas reminiscent of those at Borobodur on Java. There, devotees meditate and offer prayers making for an atmosphere of complete serenity.


Bali has a rich tradition in the arts and crafts - this is evident from the highly decorated temples and shrines through to the plethora of local arts and crafts shops. If you’re feeling the need to ‘splash the cash’ on some serious Indonesian art then the Biyu Nasak Gallery in Lovina is the place to shop. This establishment is a repository for tantalising objects such as: small wooden carvings; bronze Hindu and Buddhist statues; life-size pieces of artwork destined for a hotel lobby and a vast array of unusual ethnic art. I spent an obscene amount of money on a beautiful and rather large bronze statue of a Buddhist goddess, giving absolutely no thought as to how I would drag this item around the island, or get it on the return flight home. We spent our evening under the light of a full moon and had a BBQ meal on the beach. The menu included rice, vegetables, locally caught fish - as much as you could eat. Then we were entertained by two talented guitarists around a fire and we sang songs into the small hours; a great way to end a fabulous day.


The holy springs at the Tirta Empul Temple were founded in the year 962 and are a major pilgrimage site for the Balinese who come here to immerse themselves in the waters in order to cleanse the body and soul. As it was the time of the ‘full moon’ the temple was full of people who came to pray and make ritualistic offerings. The temple’s centre piece was a large pool with water gushing out of numerous ornately carved spouts. Devotees lined up in the pool - up to their waists in cold water - to pass clockwise underneath the spouts; all smiling and shivering with the cold – waiting patiently to complete their devotions. There were other areas where offerings were made in highly decorated shrines and the devotees were all beautifully turned out in their “Sunday best” clothes. The photographic opportunities here are abundant with the wealth of architectural gems and enthusiastic people keen to pose for my camera. The friendliness of the locals makes each temple we visit a personal experience rather than a regimented affair.

The royal tombs at Gunung Kawi are Bali’s oldest ancient site. Dedicated to various members of Bali’s 11th century royal rulers, there are 10 rock cut memorials hewn directly out of the rock face. They are redolent of the tombs at Petra in Jordan and Raqsh-E-Rostam in Iran that I have been fortunate enough to visit. The tombs are reached via a long stone staircase which ends alongside a river in a lush green valley. This delightful setting is greatly enhanced by the steep approach and the oppressive humidity which discourages all but the hardiest of visitors. Our eventual destination today is the town of Ubud, which is the thriving centre of arts, crafts and traditional dancing. As such, Ubud has a rich collection of museums, temples and ‘arts and crafts’ galleries. The town is a great place to chill out, stroll the streets, check out the galleries and outlets, sample the wonderful food or just check-in for a relaxing massage. This evening’s entertainment was the Kecak, one of the best known dances of Bali. Kecak is unique amongst the Balinese dances in that it is accomanied by a choir of rhythmically chanting men, rather than an orchestra. The Kecak relays the story of the Hindu epic ‘Ramayana’; the quest of Prince Rama to rescue his wife Sita who has been kidnapped by the King of Lanka. The colourful costumes of the performers were stunning and the nuances of the stylised head and hand movements - an integral part of the dance - made for compulsive and mesmeric entertainment. The finale was as spectacular as it was unexpected; a pile of coconuts was scattered on the floor and then set alight, a performer on a hobby horse then danced across the burning embers scattering them in all directions. Each of the dance performances I have seen here in Indonesia has been different, but compelling.


The cave complex of Goa Gajah (Elephant Cave) dates back to around the 11th century and is believed to have been a sanctuary for Hindu priests. Entered through a giant mouth that resembles that of an elephant (hence the name), the interior of the cave contains fragmentary remains of lingam, the phallic symbols of the Hindu god Shiva, as well as their female counterpart the yoni. Then we took a delightful hour long walk through the forest to the 25 metre long carved rock face at Yeh Pulu. Dating from the 14th century the frieze depicts scenes from everyday life - the elephant god Ganesh is also depicted adding a religious significance to the site.


The final day was a nice relaxing one spent strolling around Ubud, taking in the vibrant market, ambling around the local shops which are mostly new and crammed with stylish and quite expensive goods that would not be out of place in a European setting. After some obligatory cafe stops and a visit to the swimming pool, a really relaxing day was complete.

An Overview

As a holiday destination Indonesia was an eye opener. I was fortunate to participate in some splendid experiences that will live long in my memory. The islands of Java and Bali were quite different in terms of architecture, religion, culture, landscape and economics. Bali appears more affluent probably due to its greater exposure to tourism. Java has far more important historical and religious sites, whereas Bali lures its visitors with its laid back atmosphere and the promise of enough arts and crafts outlets to keep the most avid of retail therapy junkies more than happy. This was an extraordinary journey of discovery and given that I have only scratched the surface of Indonesia, a return visit to a few more of the 17,500 islands is now added to my holiday list.

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