by Lee Foster
Though the island of Bali ranks unquestionably as the first place of interest to a traveler considering Indonesia, there are many appealing additional areas to explore, starting with the great central-Java culture around Yogyakarta and the Muslim island of Lombok, adjacent to Bali.
Both destinations are easily accessible by air from Bali. It is advisable to allow for two overnights at each location to plan sufficient time to explore.
The largest Buddhist shrine in the world, Borobudur, and the Palace of the Sultan of Yogya are the cultural highpoints of central Java, an area that has nourished major cultures and seen them extinguished by volcanic upheaval.
Borobudur was literally dug out from under volcanic ash by the English adventurer, Raffles, in 1814. An eruption in 1006 A.D. and later pyrotechnic displays wiped out the cultural life of the area and caused the monument to be buried under three meters of ash. The mammoth size of the monument, complete with a large frieze describing the life of Buddha, can occupy hours of traveler time. The monument dates from the ninth century and consists of 10 terraces with a total of 504 buddhas, 461 of which are still intact. Borobudur is a symmetrical mantle around a hilltop dome. The ten levels of the structure suggest the ten stages of the Buddhist cosmic system, emphasizing the Buddhist tenets that life is suffering, suffering stems from desire, desire can be controlled by meditation, and life can be made bearable by good deeds. Near the main monument is an enclosed temple with a 12-foot-high statue of Buddha. Borobudur is an hour’s drive from Yogyakarta.
Within the city the Palace (called the Kraton) of the Sultan is a compelling cultural attraction to see. The Sultan still flourishes, though now with a ceremonial rather than political role. At the palace, built in 1755, you can see the red and gold pavilion, where the Sultan met his visitors, and the opulent carriage in which he was transported by 40 bearers. The treasure room in the Sultan’s palace displays many gold artifacts and a gallery of paintings and photographs depicting the many Sultans in recent centuries. An elaborate family tree indicates the lineage going back to the time when the palace was built.
Yogya, as the city is affectionately called, retains its leadership role today as the cultural capital of Java, the main island of Indonesia. Almost a third of the residents of Yogya are university students. Artistic and craft life gets major attention here.
Among artistic events, be sure to see Javanese dancers and singers as well as the puppet performances, known as wayang puppets. You will find that the music, dance, and song of Java exhibit a hypnotic slowness of movement that contrasts sharply with the spirited and athletic emphasis of similar dances in Bali. The typical Indonesian orchestra, the gamelan, consisting of percussion instruments, plays a soft, sensuous rhythm in Java, unlike the more vigorous melodic lines of Bali. Connoisseurs of Indonesian dance and music take positions on the merits of both approaches. Segments of Hindu epics are portrayed with shadow puppets, called wayang puppets, nightly in Yogya. The puppet stories are tales of virtue and strife, guiding lessons in life, accompanied by the hallucinogenic music of the gamelan orchestra.
Modern crafts receive ample attention in Yogya, especially batik fabric design and silver working.
Batik fabric craft can be observed at the batik factories, where the material can also be purchased as clothing or art hangings. At the factory you can observe all phases of the complicated batik process, starting with designing the wood blocks, then wax blocking of the fabric, followed by hand dyeing of the fabric, and finally a boiling water bath to remove the wax.
Silver production shops show many artisans working in the typical Javanese style, which amounts to pounding rather than casting the metal. Even silver wire is pounded to the desired thickness.
That Yogya is the spiritual and cultural heart of Java is no small claim. Java is the size of New York state, but supports a population of 136 million, a sizable portion of the total 237 million people of Indonesia.
A visitor to Yogya finds oneself immersed in the hustle and bustle of a developing city, a good illustration of the growth in productivity that the country of Indonesia enjoys. The main street, Malioboro, is alive with bicycle taxis and cars. Markets are full of produce and the shops bulge with merchandise. Children in their school uniforms play soccer on the fields in front of the Sultan’s Palace. Always, in the background, hovers the volcano, Merapi, hiccuping a soft plume of volcanic ash, capable of eruption at any time. There are about 16 active volcanoes in Java in any given year.
The Muslim island of Lombok lies immediately east of Bali and is sometimes portrayed as the Bali of a generation ago, but Lombok actually possesses a very different character.
The best way to explore Lombok is to take a tour organized by one of the main tour companies, such as Satriavi. In one day, many high points of the island can be explored.
The gardens of Narmada are one of the major legacies from the past. Balinese princes who established control over west Lombok built the gardens in 1727 as a summer palace.
Balinese dominance in western Lombok left another legacy, Lingsar Temple, dating from 1710. At Lingsar both Hindu and Muslim services are held.
The native people of Lombok, called the Sasaks, can be seen in typical villages, where the subsistence crop is rice and the leisure industry may be weaving. Some village compounds can be visited. Here you witness the native Sasak architecture, which consists of a rice storage area on stilts, off the ground, with the family’s living quarters underneath.
Lombok is famous for its weaving, especially from the village at Sukarara. Women of the village may toil for a month to produce a single colorful sarong. A nearby village, Penujak, is noted for mammoth ceramic jars. The island also boasts some lovely beaches, especially at the southern tip.
Along the way, while taking a day tour, you experience memorable moments and absorb pleasing views. The luminescent green rice terraces, the Muslim school girls in their uniforms, the horse-drawn taxis (called cidomos) that are still an island transport, and the ominous presence of volcanic mountains linger in memory.
The island also shows a marked Chinese influence, with Chinese graveyards and Chinese ownership of many of the shops.
Like Bali, Lombok consists of volcanic mountains that have created a rich alluvial fan at their base. However, unlike Bali, Lombok has less water and can generate only one rice planting a year, which explains partly why the island people are somewhat poorer than those on Bali.
For many visitors the comparisons between the two adjacent islands, Bali and Lombok, prove fascinating. For example, the houses on Bali resemble small temples, while the houses on Lombok are more traditional units. The racial stock of Lombok, the Sasaks, is darker than that on Bali and includes lovely eccentricities, such as long, curly eyelashes. While the Balinese have been oriented to the mountains and the land, the Sasaks have been fishermen and traders, sailing their small triangular-sailed boats, prahus, with their colorful crazy-quilt sails and fish-mouth bows, out to the straits between the two islands. The daily pageant of these fishing boats going out and returning is one of the diverting experiences along the west Lombok coast.
Although Bali should be your first destination of choice in Indonesia, this vast archipelago of 17,000 islands offers many other attractions. Explore Yogya and Lombok on an extended first visit or during a repeat trip to the country.