Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Borobodur, Indonesia's most visited site

Our first port of call was Semarang on the Indonesian Island of Java. Today was going to be quite an adventure. We boarded our bus ready for our ride to the UNESCO heritage site of Borobudur. A police escort was provided for us and little did we know it but it was going to provide a crazy ride. With sirens blaring the police car cleared the narrow road scattering cars, trucks and motor scooters in all directions as we traveled up the middle of the road, or even the wrong side of the road, narrowly escaping scraping the other vehicles. There were several near misses but once again no signs of road rage. Apparently this shortened our journey to two and a half hours rather than the five or six it might have taken. Java covers one tenth of the land mass of Indonesia but has sixty-five per cent of the population of 260 million people so you can imagine how much traffic that creates.

We sped along admiring the greenness of the landscape. There were endless rice paddies. Some even had tall structures for swallows to live in. The nests were gathered from these for export to Japan. We passed many mahogany, teak, rubber and coffee plantations. It takes 40 years before the mahogany can be harvested, 80 for the teak and 20 years before the rubber trees are at their prime. There were many fruit trees such as the jack fruit, the largest fruit in South East Asia, the duran fruit that has a terrible smell but apparently has a lovely taste, the cat's eye fruit that is quite delicious and the snakeskin fruit that has a skin just like its name. Peppers hung in rows from trees and palm trees hung heavy with bananas.

In the distance we could see the mountains that had been formed from much volcanic activity in the area. As you can imagine this made the reddish soil very fertile. In fact we spotted one of the most dangerous, active volcanoes in the world, Merapi, on our way to Borobodur.

Finally we arrived at our destination, in suffocating heat, only to be swarmed by vendors who were relentless in their attempts to sell us fans, very colorful holdalls, postcards and little statues. With some relief we arrived at the entrance, donned our sarongs, picked up a bottle of water and rented an umbrella to keep the sun at bay.

At a time when Europe was still in the dark ages, the Cemtral Javanese Period was building religious structures and art, now recognized as being the oldest and highest level of art within Southeast Asia. One of the largest Buddhist monuments in the world and, unfortunately for us, Indonesia's most visited tourist attraction, the 8th century complex at Borobudur lay hidden under jungle and ash until it's rediscovery in 1814 under instruction from Sir Stamford Raffles. The site contains over 2,500 reliefs depicting the life of Buddha and his teachings, as well as over 500 statues of the Buddha. It has three main levels, symbolizing the three realms of Buddhist cosmology.

Borobodur is also known as the mountain of meditation. It reflects an Indian influence because of the Indian trade routes when it was built. Interestingly, 90 per cent of Java today is Muslim. As you walk around the terraces you see Buddha's with their hands in various mudras. We reached the top level after climbing very steep steps. At the top are many stupas surrounding a very large stupa that tops the building. No one knows what is inside this stupa, although there are many rumors.

The view across to the mountains was magnificent. Here we were in this serene spot with so many other people that it did take much away from the visit. It is quite customary for the locals to ask to take your picture or to have their picture taken with you. As you can see I obliged. Quite happily, we descended the steps to watch all the activity in the shade of a giant Banyan tree. Once again we made our way through the persistent vendors, who just wouldn't leave us alone.

Hot and tired we clambered into the bus. A very nice Indonesian lunch did something to revive our spirits but we still had almost two hours to spend with our very annoying guide, who repeated everything at least three times and once seven times. With the assistance of the police escort clearing our way once again we were much relieved to be back at the ship. The whole visit does raise the question of when would be the best time to visit a site like this, perhaps at six in the morning or the best thing might be time travel to twenty years ago, when the site was less visited.



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