One of the most populous places in all of Asia, Java is also characterized by great natural beauty. Its central spine is dominated by hundreds of volcanoes, many of which are still very evidently active, their fertile slopes supporting a landscape of glimmering rice fields spotted with countless small villages. To the south of this mountainous backbone is the homeland of the ethnic Javanese and the epicentre of their arts, culture and language, epitomized by the royal courts of Yogyakarta and Solo. Still steeped in traditional dance, music and art, these two cities are the mainstay of Java’s tourist industry and offer first-rate facilities for travellers. They also provide excellent bases from which to explore the giant ninth-century Buddhist temple Borobudur, and the equally fascinating Prambanan complex, a contemporary Hindu site. To the east, the volcanic massif of Gunung Bromo is another major stop on most travellers’ itineraries, not least for the sunrise walk to its summit. But there are plenty more volcanic landscapes to explore, including the coloured lakes of the windswept Dieng Plateau, and the world’s most famous – and destructive – volcano, Krakatau, off the west coast of Java.
Aside from Yogyakarta (locally called “Jogja”), Java’s cities are not nearly as enticing to travellers, although Jakarta, the chaotic sprawl that is Indonesia’s capital, boasts interesting museums, a host of gargantuan new malls, and the best nightlife on the island. Moving on to Java’s neighbouring islands is easily done – Sumatra is just ninety minutes’ ferry ride from Merak in the west; and Bali is a mere forty minutes from Banyuwangi in the east.
At 10am on August 27, 1883, an explosion equivalent to ten thousand Hiroshima atomic bombs tore apart Krakatau Island; the boom was heard as far away as Sri Lanka. As the eruption column towered 40km into the atmosphere, a thick mud rain began to fall over the area and the temperature plunged by 5°C. One single tsunami as tall as a seven-storey building raced outwards, erasing three hundred towns and villages and killing 36,417 people; a government gunboat was carried 3km inland and deposited up a hill 10m above sea level. Once into the open sea, the waves travelled at up to 700kph, reaching South Africa and scuttling ships in Auckland harbour. Two-thirds of Krakatau had vanished for good, and on those parts that remained not so much as a seed or an insect survived.
Today, the crumbled caldera is clearly visible west of the beaches near Merak and Carita, its sheer northern cliff face soaring straight out of the sea to nearly 800m. But it is the glassy black cone of Anak Krakatau, the child of Krakatau volcano, that most visitors want to see, a barren wasteland that’s still growing and still very much active. It first reared its head from the seas in 1930, and now sits angrily smoking among the remains of the older peaks. To get here requires a motorboat trip (4–6hr) from Labuan or Carita, then a half-hour walk up to the crater, from where you can see black lava flows, sulphurous fumaroles and smoke. The easiest way to visit the volcano is with Krakatau Tour in Carita. Alternatively, Krakatau tours are cheaper from Sumatra. Try enquiring at Bandar Lampung or the port of Kalianda.
Boasting one of the most sheltered stretches of sea in the western reaches of Java, Carita is the best spot in Java to arrange tours to Krakatau as well as to Ujung Kulon National Park. When you arrive in town, be wary of unlicenced guides who will try to take you out to the site. Krakatau Tour (t0813/8666 8811, wwww.krakatau-tour.com) is a reputable company that offers half-day trips. All accommodation in Carita is on or close to the main seaside road, known as Jalan Carita Raya or Jalan Pantai Carita. Prices shoot up at the weekend, when the town is invaded by jet-skiers.
Located 300m above sea level and just an hour’s train journey south of Jakarta, Bogor is home to the famously lush Kebun Raya Bogor or Botanical Gardens, founded by Sir Stamford Raffles in 1811. Worth a day-trip from Jakarta, the magnificent gardens offer wonderful respite from the congested streets of Bogor, and it is a delight to wander the shady pathways between towering bamboo stands, climbing bougainvillea, tropical rainforest and ponds full of water lilies and fountains. Perhaps the garden’s best-known occupants are the giant rafflesia and bungu bangkai, two of the world’s largest (and smelliest) flowers. Near the gardens’ main entrance is the Zoological Museum, which houses some 30,000 specimens, including a complete skeleton of a blue whale, a stuffed Javan rhino and, most impressively, the remains of a huge coconut crab. Bogor is also an ideal base for hiking in Mount Halimun Salak National Park, as well as whitewater rafting and visiting hot springs, waterfalls and some of Java’s most picturesque terraced rice paddies.
Tangkuban Prahu Volcano
The mountainous region to the north of Bandung is the heart of the Parahyangan Highlands – the “Home of the Gods” – a highly volcanic area considered by the Sundanese to be the nucleus of their spiritual world. A very pleasant day out from Bandung on public transport takes you first to the 1830-metre-high Tangkuban Prahu volcano, the most visited volcano in West Java, 29km north of Bandung. Although it hasn’t had a serious eruption for many years, the volcano still spews out vast quantities of sulphurous gases and at least one of its ten craters is still considered to be active. To get there from Bandung, take a Subang minibus from the train station and ask to be put down at the turn-off for the volcano, where there’s an entrance fee to pay. From here you can either charter an ojek or minibus up the asphalt road to the summit or walk up – it’s about 5km up the road, or take the good footpath via the Domas Crater, which starts just over 1km up the road from the guard post, to the right by the first car park. The information booth at the summit car park has details about crater walks; guides will offer their services, but it’s pretty obvious where you should and shouldn’t go – just be sure to wear strong hiking boots. The main crater, Kawah Ratu, is the one you can see down into from the end of the summit road, a huge, dull, grey cauldron with a few coloured lakes. From the summit you can trek down to Domas Crater, site of a small working sulphur mine.
The Dago Teahouse Walk
On the return journey from Tangkuban Prahu to Bandung you’ll pass through Lembang, where you can change on to a minibus for the resort of Maribaya. There are waterfalls near the entrance gate and hot springs, which have been tapped into a public pool. Further down is the largest waterfall, which you have to pay extra to see. An ugly iron bridge has been built right across the lip of the falls, and this is the starting point for a wonderful walk down to the Dago Teahouse on the edge of Bandung. The path winds downhill through a gorge and forests – just before the teahouse are tunnels used by the Japanese in World War II and the Dago waterfall, which lies among bamboo thickets. At the end of the walk is the teahouse, with private tables under their own thatched roofs and superb views over Bandung city. From here, plenty of minibuses head back into the centre of town.
The Dieng Plateau
The moody expanse of the Dieng Plateau northwest of Yogya lies in a volcanic caldera 2093m above sea level and holds a rewarding mix of multicoloured sulphurous lakes, craters that spew pungent sulphuric gases, and some of the oldest Hindu temples in Java. The volcano is still active – in 1979, more than 150 people died after a cloud of poisonous gas bled into the atmosphere – and the landscape up on this misty, frigid plain is terraced on nearly every surface with cabbage and potato plantations that hang off the edge of impossible slopes. More than forty homestay accommodations have sprung up in Dieng village and there is an increasing number of multilingual guides in Dieng and nearby Wonosobo. Though many travellers arrive on day-trips from Yogya, it is worthy of an overnight visit (not least because of the four-hour journey from Yogya). The temples here are interesting and the plateau is a worthwhile destination for those seeking a different, more temperate side to Java.
There are numerous trekking options available on the plateau and further afield, as well as sunrise trips to Sikunir Hill and Cebong Lake. All the main attractions can be reached from the village of Dieng, just across the fields from the plateau’s main temple complex.
From Candi Bima, you can continue down the road on foot for a kilometre or so to Telaga Warna (Coloured Lake), the best example of Dieng’s coloured lakes, where sulphurous deposits shade the water blue, from turquoise to azure. Adjacent to the lake is crystal-clear Telaga Pengilon, which makes for beautiful photos in nice weather.
Gunung Merapi and Kaliurang
Marking the northern limit of the Daerah Istimewa Yogyakarta, symmetrical, smoke-plumed Gunung Merapi (Giving Fire) is an awesome 2914-metre presence in the centre of Java, visible from Yogyakarta, 25km away. This is Indonesia’s most volatile volcano, and some volcanologists consider it the most consistently active volcano on earth. Through the centuries its ability to annihilate has frequently been demonstrated – as recently as 2010 an entire mountain village was destroyed and more than 350 people were killed.
Nearly a kilometre up on Merapi’s southern slopes is the misty and ramshackle hill village of Kaliurang. Bemos here cost Rp10,000 from behind the Terban terminal on Jalan Simanjutak in Yogya. In Kaliurang, you can join a trekking group to reach high on the barren flanks of Merapi, a fairly arduous five-hour scramble, much of it through the humid jungle that beards Merapi’s lower slopes. During Merapi’s dormant months (usually March to Oct) it’s possible to climb all the way to the top, but at other times, when the volcano is active, you may have to settle for a distant view from the observation platform. All treks begin in the dark at 3am, when the lava, spilling over the top and tracing a searing path down the mountainside, can be seen most clearly. Bring warm clothes, a torch and sturdy boots (not sandals, which offer little protection against snakes).
Forty kilometres west of Yogya, surrounded on three sides by volcanoes and on the fourth by jagged limestone cliffs, is the largest Buddhist monument in the southern hemisphere. This is the temple of Borobudur, the greatest single piece of classical architecture in the entire archipelago. The temple is actually a colossal multi-tiered Buddhist stupa lying at the western end of a four-kilometre-long chain of temples (one of which, the nearby Candi Mendut, is also worth visiting), built in the ninth century by the Saliendra dynasty. At 34.5m tall, however, and covering an area of some 200 square metres, Borobudur is on a different scale altogether, dwarfing all the other candi in the chain. Abandoned and neglected for almost a thousand years, Borobudur was “rediscovered” by the English in 1815, though nothing much was done until 1973, when UNESCO began to take the temple apart, block by block, in order to replace the waterlogged hill with a concrete substitute.
Jl. Badrawati, Kw. Candi Borobudur, Borobudur, Kec. Borobudur, Magelang, Jawa Tengah
Borobudur is pregnant with symbolism, and precisely oriented so that its four sides face the four points of the compass; the ticket office lies to the southeast.
The Prambanan Plain
Nourished by the volcanic detritus of Mount Merapi and washed by innumerable small rivers, the verdant Prambanan Plain lies 18km east of Yogya, a patchwork blanket of sun-spangled paddy fields and vast plantations sweeping down from the southern slopes of the volcano. As well as being one of the most fertile regions in Java, the plain is home to the largest concentration of ancient ruins on the island.
Over thirty temples and palaces, dating mainly from the eighth and ninth centuries, lie scattered over a thirty-square-kilometre area. The temples, a number of which have been fully restored, were built at a time when two rival kingdoms, the Buddhist Saliendra and the Hindu Sanjaya dynasties, both occupied Central Java. In 832 AD, the Hindu Sanjayas gained the upper hand and soon the great Hindu Prambanan temple complex was built. It seems that some sort of truce followed, with temples of both faiths being constructed on the plain in equal numbers.
Ramayana Ballet Performances
The highlights of the dancing year in Central Java are the phenomenal Ramayana ballets held during the summer months at the Prambanan Open-Air Theatre, to the west of the complex. The Ramayana story is split into four episodes – the full story is performed four times a month from May to October, with individual episodes performed sporadically outside this time. Plenty of agents in Yogya organize packages including entrance fees and transport.
From November to April, Prambanan’s Trimurti Theatre, an indoor venue to the north of the open-air arena, performs the Ramayana ballet. Tickets are available on the door or from the tourist office in Yogya.
The Prambanan Complex
As you drive east along Jalan Adisucipto from Yogya, you’ll catch sight of three giant, rocket-shaped temples, each smothered in intricate narrative carvings, which suddenly loom up by the side of the highway. This is the Prambanan complex, the largest Hindu complex in Java and a worthy rival to Borobudur.
The complex consists of six temples in a raised inner courtyard, surrounded by 224 minor temples, which now lie in ruins. The three biggest temples are dedicated to the three main Hindu deities: Shiva, whose 47-metre temple is the tallest of the three, Brahma (to the south of the Shiva temple) and Vishnu (north). Facing these are three smaller temples housing the animal statues – or “chariots” – that would accompany the gods: Hamsa the swan, Nandi the bull and Garuda the sunbird respectively.
The Shiva Temple is decorated with exceptional carvings, including a series along the inner wall of the first terrace walkway that recounts the first half of the Ramayana epic. At the top of the steps is the temple’s inner sanctuary, whose eastern chamber contains a statue of Shiva, while in the west chamber is Shiva’s elephant-headed son, Ganesh. A beautiful sculpture of Nandi the Bull stands inside the temple of Shiva’s chariot. Just as painstakingly decorated, the first terrace of the Brahma Temple takes up the Ramayana epic where the Shiva Temple left off, while the carvings on the terrace of Vishnu’s temple recounts stories of Krishna, the eighth of Vishnu’s nine earthly incarnations.
Sixty-five kilometres northeast of Yogya stands quiet, leafy low-rise Surakarta, or, as it’s more commonly known, Solo. This is the older of the two royal cities in Central Java, and its ruling family can lay claim to being the rightful heirs to the Mataram dynasty.
Not long after their establishment – in 1745 and 1757 respectively – Solo’s two royal houses wisely stopped fighting and instead threw their energies into the arts, developing a highly sophisticated and graceful court culture. The gamelan pavilions became the new theatres of war, with each city competing to produce the more refined court culture – a situation that continues to this day.
Like Yogya, Solo has two royal palaces and a number of museums, yet its tourist industry is nowhere near as developed. The city’s main source of income is from textiles, and Solo has the biggest batik market on Java. Solo also makes an ideal base from which to visit the home of Java Man at Sangiran, as well as the intriguing temples Candi Ceto and Candi Sukuh.
Brought from Kartasura by Pakubuwono II in one huge day-long procession in 1745, the Kasunanan Palace is Solo’s largest and most important royal house. It stands within the kraton, just south of the alun-alun; guides are available free of charge and are definitely worth using. Non-royals must enter the main body of the palace by the eastern entrance. This opens out into a large courtyard whose surrounding buildings house the palace’s kris (dagger) collection, as well as a number of chariots, silver ornaments and other royal knick-knacks. An archway to the west leads into the Susuhunan’s living quarters. Many of the buildings in this courtyard are modern copies, the originals having burnt down in 1985. By the southwest corner of the town’s main alun-alun, the three-storey Pasar Klewer claims to be Java’s largest batik market, and designs from all over Java can be found here.
The second royal house in Solo, the Puro Mangkunegoro stands 1km west of the kraton and, like Yogya’s court of Paku Alam, faces south towards the Kasunanan Palace as a mark of respect. With its fine collection of antiques and curios, in many ways the Puro Mangkunegoro is more interesting than the Kasunanan Palace. It was built in 1757 to placate the rebellious Prince Mas Said (Mangkunegoro I), a nephew of Pakubuwono II, who was given a royal title, a court in Solo and rulership over four thousand of Solo’s households in a peace deal. The palace hides behind a high white wall, entered through the gateway to the south. The vast pendopo (the largest in Indonesia) that fronts the palace shields four gamelan orchestras underneath its rafters, three of which can only be played on very special occasions. The pendopo’s vibrantly painted roof features Javanese zodiac figures surrounding the main batik centrepiece that took three years to complete. A portrait of the current resident, Mangkunegoro IX, hangs by the entrance to the Dalam Agung, or living quarters, whose reception room has been turned into an extremely good museum, displaying ancient coins, ballet masks and chastity preservers.
Radya Pustaka Museum
A kilometre west along Jalan Brig Jen Slamet Riyadi brings you to the well-kept Radya Pustaka Museum. Built by the Dutch in 1890, this is one of the oldest and largest museums in Java, housing a large Dutch and Javanese library as well as dusty collections of wayang kulit puppets, kris, and scale models of the mosque at Demak and the cemetery at Imogiri.
The Bromo Region
The Bromo region is best known for its awesome scenery; at its heart is a vast, ancient volcanic crater with sheer walls over 300m high. Within this crater, a host of picturesque mountains, including the dramatic, still-smoking Gunung Bromo (2329m), rises up from the Sea of Sand, the sandy plain at the crater’s base. Hundreds of thousands of visitors come here each year to climb Bromo for the sunrise – a stunning sight, and less strenuous than many other Indonesian peaks.
This unique landscape now comprises the Bromo-Tengger-Semeru National Park, whose highlights are the dramatic smoking crater of Gunung Bromo, Gunung Penanjakan – on the outside crater’s edge and one of the favourite sunrise spots – and Cemoro Lawang, with its brilliant panoramic view of the crater. The park also contains the highest mountain in Java, Gunung Semeru, which can be climbed by experienced trekkers. Views are best in the dry season but, whatever time of year, you should bring warm clothes.
There are two main approaches to the Bromo region. The most popular is to head inland from Probolinggo, on the north coast, to the crater’s edge at Cemoro Lawang, where most people stay in order to make the dawn trip to Gunung Bromo as easy as possible. Alternative access is from Pasuruan, also on the north coast, inland to the less-visited villages of Tosari and Wonokitri. These villages are linked by road to Gunung Penanjakan, so they offer an excellent approach for the sunrise. Many people visit Bromo as part of an organized trip from Yogya to Bali.
There are a variety of excursions possible from Cemoro Lawang, the most popular being the climb to the top of Gunung Bromo (2392m); if you’re lucky with the clouds, there may be an absolutely spellbinding sunrise. To get to the base of Gunung Bromo, you can walk (1hr; bring a torch and follow the white pillars through the Sea of Sand), get a horse, or hire a jeep for the morning to take in both Gunung Bromo and Gunung Penanjakan. However you get there, you’ll still have to manage the 249 concrete stairs up to the crater rim, from where there are great views down into the smoking crater and back across the Sea of Sand. Dress warmly.
The best spot for the sunrise across the entire Bromo area is Gunung Penanjakan (2770m). The whole crater area lies below, Bromo smoking and Semeru puffing up regular plumes while the sun rises dramatically in the east. You can camp up here if you wish, but you’ll be invaded before dawn by the hordes. Otherwise, you can walk from Tosari or Wonokitri at around 4.30am or, more popular, take a jeep tour from Cemoro Lawang at around 4am that will then drive across the Sea of Sand to Bromo before returning to Cemoro Lawang.
The view from the rim of Mount Ijen (2800m) is among the very best to be had in Indonesia. Bounded by sheer cliffs, its crater holds a 200-meter-deep lake steaming with turquoise acid water, its shoreline striped with a bright yellow sulphuric lining. As well as otherworldly vistas, some of the world’s toughest workers may be seen here, battling toxic fumes, treacherous terrain and hauling 70kg sacks brimming with sulphur deposits. Ijen can be reached from Banyuwangi or Bondowoso, although both routes entail sections of dodgy roads and a 1hr 30min drive through forests and coffee plantations to the trailhead at Pos Paltuding. There, hikers must register their names at the PHKA Office and pay the admission fee before making the 1–1hr 30min hike to the lip of the crater. Although not strictly necessary, a local guide is recommended, especially when making the 30min descent into the crater itself, where both toxic fumes and a steep path can be dangerous. The relatively dry months from April to October are ideal for the hike. Transportation to Pos Paltuding is easily arranged in Banyuwangi.
In the far southeastern corner of Java, the fishing village of Grajagan has become famous for the world-class surf in Grajagan Bay, whose awesomely long left-handers, promising endless tubes and walls, are known as G-Land. The surf camps cater for surfers from April to October. Several tour operators on Bali and Lombok run all-inclusive trips.