Destination: Mt. Merapi and Borobudur (Indonesia)


I recently jetted off to Central Java for a quick weekend in Indonesia. This was my first time south of the equator, and we packed quite a trip into the limited time frame. First up - the world's most active volcano and the world's largest Buddhist temple.

Mt. Merapi

Mt. Merapi, known in the local Indonesian dialect as Gunung Merapi (Fire Mountain), is consistently listed among the world's most active volcanoes, if not number one. (Fun fact - the common #2 most active volcano is Mt. Taal, which I happened to visit a few months back in the Philippines.) Mt. Merapi belches smoke at least 300 days per year, and lava can be seen flowing down its side every few weeks.

These were all in the same room
My host for the weekend was Fulbrighter Emily, who is teaching English in a school in nearby Semarang. Joined by another Fulbright wiz, Sarah, we arrived at the little lodge just before midnight, giving us plenty of time to rest up for our 4AM breakfast.

The next morning, our bleary-eyed trio met the other three other girls who would also be ascending the volcano. With eggs and tea providing some sustenance, a volcano veteran named Christian gave us a brief background on the history of Mt. Merapi. A massive eruption in 2010 played a large part in his talk, as its devastation was still fresh in the minds of locals. Hundreds of people died as a result of the fast-flowing lava and toxic clouds of ash that swept across the land, causing hundreds of thousands to flee their homes.

Crayon-coloured maps never fail
Bolstered by this cheery intro, we set out on the hike. It was not a terribly difficult path, though some of us had issues doing barrel-rolls over obtrusive logs. We were not able to ascend the volcano and reach the summit, as the government instituted strict guidelines about approaching the mountain. Even so, we were treated to some spectacular views of Mt. Merapi and were able to witness evidence of past eruptions.

The final lookout point. This rock may have come from the volcano during a past eruption

Trying to explain who the King of Merapi is
A local woman collected these grassy greens and brought them back to the village for use in various handicrafts
She's the boss for this operation
Perhaps most remarkable about the hike - we were back at the hostel by 10AM. But the day was only halfway done. Next stop: Borobudur.

Our merry crew
(with the sun fully risen) 


Our hiking crew split up after lunch, so Emily and I headed off west into Central Java for our next adventure. Our destination was Borobudur, a 9th-century Mahayana Buddhist Temple with more than 500 Buddha statues throughout the structure. It is the world's largest Buddhist temple and a UNESCO heritage site.

Visitors are encouraged to visit from the east entrance, where they would begin their clockwise circumambulations, or Pradaksina. Walking around the six square levels (each representing one stage of enlightenment) and three circular levels at the top in this manner is a nearly 5KM trek. The top of the temple is dotted with many individual stupas. Borobudur is one giant stupa itself and forms a Buddhist mandala, representing the cosmos or universe as understood by Buddhist traditions.

The weather turned cloudy with some light showers, but nonetheless we hiked our way up the temple. The reliefs found in the walls told a couple epic tales; we took note of the explanation of karma and also the origin of the Buddha and his awakening. 

We soon reached the top, where most of the other visitors had proceeded directly too. The landscape was marvelous to behold, with mountains lining the skyline in the distance. Most of the stupas contained buddha statues in various poses. The entire structure, though built on a hill, is symmetrically organized, though some of the restoration has helped to stabilize the temple.

The most unusual part of the experience was our interactions with some Indonesian schoolchildren. While Emily and I milled about the top, we were both approached by students clutching notepads and cell phones. They then asked if they could practice their English with us, using the cell phones as voice recorders. With their teachers watching in the background, they hurriedly asked a couple of basic questions, before requesting to pose for a picture (or six). I found the whole experience flattering, though Emily had experienced this attention on a daily basis. She explained that many young Indonesians had never seen a white person before, and would be eager to show all of their friends that they had met a bule.

Stupas to spare
Overlooking the Javanese countryside

A wet Borobudur
Bule love

Overall, fantastic first day in Central Java. We took some diverse forms of transportation - bus, mini-bus, motorbike, angkot, plane (for me) - but somehow made it to our destinations in a timely manner. The food was pretty fantastic as well, especially the satay that we enjoyed post-Borobudur. After a bus ride filled with noxious fumes and enterprising singers, we arrived in Semarang.

Part 2 (coming soon) - Semarang