Java is the political, geographic and economic centre of the Indonesian archipelago. It’s a relatively small island, (approximately the same size as England) but has a population of 112 million, accounting for 55% of the country’s total population. The island is long and narrow, with a string of volcanic mountains punctuating its spine. It was on Java that the Hindu-Buddhist empires reached their zenith, producing architectural wonders such as Borobudur and Prambanan. When Islam came to the island in the 15th century, it absorbed rather than erased local cultures, leaving Java with a mish-mash of historic influences and religions. A strong consciousness of ancient religious and mystical thought carries over into present-day Java, providing a bulwark against wholesale modernization.
Much of the young republic’s history was hacked out of Javanese soil – including the major independence battles, the emergence of the two strongest political parties and the pro-democracy protests and riots which led to the recent downfall of Suharto. Today the island plays an extraordinarily dominant role in Indonesia. To a large extent, the rebellions of the Sumatrans, Minahasans and Ambonese in the 1950s and 1960s were rebellions against Javanese domination of the archipelago.
The island is certainly the most developed in the Indonesian archipelago, but despite its political and economic primacy it is still struggling with the twin demons of overpopulation and poverty. The visitor is confronted by a society in transition – one which is keen to embrace the benefits of modernity and reform but determined not to lose its heritage in the process. Thus fast-food joints, shopping malls, satellite TV and the other material accouterments of the West live cheek by jowl with a vibrant traditional culture centered not on the individual, but around the family, the village and religious piety.
Facts at a Glance
Country : Indonesia
Area : 132,000 sq km (51,480 sq mi)
Population : 112 million
Capital city : Jakarta (pop 12 million)
People : Javanese, Sundanese, Madurese, plus minorities
Language : Javanese, Sundanese, Madurese and Bahasa Indonesian
Religion : Muslim – with Hindu, Buddhist and Christian minorities
Economy : Oil, gas, textiles, chemicals, fertilizers, cement
The Ramayana Ballet, Java’s most spectacular dance drama, is performed at the outdoor theatre at the Prambanan temple complex near Yogya on 4 successive nights twice a month from May to September. The month long Jakarta Fair in June-July includes carnival attractions and cultural events in celebration of Jakarta’s founding on 22 June. Parades are held in every town and village on 17 August to celebrate Independence Day. The island of Madura, just off Java’s north-eastern coast stages its famous bull races in August and September. The races culminate in the final race at Pamekasan, usually in September.
One variable festival worth looking out for is the Buddhist Waicak at Borobudur, which celebrates the enlightenment of Buddha. Thousands of pilgrims gather to offer prayers and join the procession from the nearby Mendut temple to Borobudur. The 4 day Borobudur Festival is held at the same time and includes dance and music performances and arts and crafts exhibits.
When to Go
Normally, weather is the main consideration in determining when to visit Java. The dry season, from May to September, is the best time to visit. During the wet season, from October to April, the mountains are shrouded in clouds and rainfall in the highlands can dampen travel plans. Elsewhere, travel in the wet season is not usually a problem since rain seems to fall in short torrential early morning or mid-afternoon bursts. The main foreign tourist season is during the European summer in July and August, when prices rise and accommodation and transport can be tight. The main Indonesian holiday periods are the end of Ramadan, when some resorts are packed to overflowing, prices skyrocket and getting anywhere is a far-off dream. Other peak times are Christmas and Java’s end of school year holidays (from mid-June to mid-July) when high school students take off by the busload to visit tourist attractions.
Once saddled with a reputation as a poverty-ridden hell hole, Jakarta mutated into a metropolis with all the outward appearance of an Asian boom town in not much more than a decade. It took only a week of rioting in May 1998 to reduce some of this modern facade to a burnt out shell. Shopping malls, offices, banks and businesses owned by ethnic Chinese and the Suharto family took the brunt of the rioters’ anger. Jakarta remains very much at the center of political events re-shaping Indonesia, and how quickly the city recovers from the riots and the political and economic turmoil remains to be seen.
That said, Jakarta is the most expensive city in Indonesia, the most polluted and the most congested, but if you can withstand this onslaught and afford to indulge in its charms, then it is also one of the region’s most exciting metropolises. Consider Jakarta the `big durian’ – the foul-smelling exotic fruit that some can’t stomach and others can’t resist.
Jakarta boasts one of the best sights in all of South-East Asia: Sunda Kelapa, the old Dutch port, is awash with magnificent Makassar schooners (pinisi) and anyone who spends an early morning here will not forget the experience. Nearby Pasar Ikan, the early-morning fish market, is a colourful scene of busy, bartering crowds. Other sights include Old Batavia, an area of 18th-century houses and streets that are gradually being restored; the Gereja Sion church, which is the oldest in Jakarta; and the zoo with its Komodo dragons and orang-utans.
There are a number of interesting museums including the Indonesian National Museum, which houses an enormous collection of cultural objects from the country’s various ethnic groups; and the Jakarta History Museum, which contains memorabilia from the Dutch colonial era. The city’s public monuments include the fanciful National Monument (Monas) in Merdeka Square and the Statue of Welcome (known locally as ‘Hansel and Gretel’).
Jakarta’s cultural showcase, Taman Ismail Marzuki, hosts a variety of Western and Indonesian performances, ranging from poetry readings and jazz concerts to premier showings of international films and gamelan concerts. There are a number of upmarket bars, discos and restaurants on Jalan M H Thamrin that feature live acts; for somewhat sleazier entertainment, try the nightlife along Jalan Abang Timur 14. A cheaper alternative is to walk to Taman Ria at Merdeka Square and see the local talent perform amid the bright lights of the merry-go-rounds.
Jakarta’s cheapest and most central accommodation area is along Jalan Jaksa, a small street south of the National Monument. Many of the mid-range hotels are also found in this vicinity. Jakarta has the widest range of street hawkers, markets and restaurants of any Indonesian city; most are found on and around Jalan Jaksa or in the markets around Jalan Surabaya in Menteng.
At 750m (2460ft) above sea level, Bandung is the cool and comfortable capital of West Java. It’s an unhurried place (despite being the third largest city in Indonesia) which makes it a welcome respite from the din and bustle of Jakarta. The majority of the population are the native Sundanese from west Java, who not only have a reputation as extroverted, easy-going people compared with the extremely refined Javanese, but also as zealous guardians of their own ancient culture. So if you want to mix it up with the locals and have an interest in Sundanese culture, Bandung is the place to go. Its other main attractions are the superb surrounding countryside, the famous Tangkuban Prahu volcano, numerous river walks and its faded art deco grandeur. Rowdy ram-butting fights are held in the northern suburb of Cilimus and can be quite an experience for anyone who’s not a fully paid up member of the RSPCA. If a ram gets dizzy from all the head-butting, the owner tweaks its testicles to clear its head.
Yogyakarta or ‘Yogya’ is easily the most popular city in Indonesia. It’s a cultural and intellectual centre, crammed with prestigious universities and academies, and its influence far outweighs its size. Sure it has noisy and chaotic traffic like any Javanese city, but just a short stroll away from the main streets are the kampungs where life is still unhurried. Despite its veneer of modernity and westernisation, the city clings strongly to its traditional values and philosophies.
Traditional performing arts (Ramayana Ballet, gamelan performances etc) can be seen at the Yogyakarta Craft Centre and the Agastya Art Institute. It is also a major craft centre, especially for batik. The walled-in kraton compound, in the city centre, is a city within a city. The kraton is home to 25,000 people and includes the sultan’s huge palace, the Taman Sari (also known as the water castle or fragrant garden), a bird market and several craft industries. There are several worthwhile museums in the city, including the Sono-Budoyo Museum and Benteng Vredeburg. The suburb of Kota Gede has been famous since the 1930s as the centre of Yogya’s silver industry, and is still a great place to wander around and watch the silversmiths at work.
Yogya offers an excellent range of accommodation, restaurants and food stalls, most of which are on or just off Jalan Malioboro. The most interesting way of reaching Yogya is via the rickety backwater ferry from Kalipucang, which crosses Segara Anakan and stops at a string of fishing villages. There’s a beach 27km (17mi) from Yogya at Parangtritis, which is popular with locals on weekends.
Borobudur is one of the greatest Buddhist relics in South-East Asia and is Indonesia’s most famous attraction. Rulers of the Sailendra dynasty built the colossal pyramid of Borobudur between 750 and 850 AD, but very little else is known about the site’s early history except that a huge workforce must have been harnessed to shift and carve the 60,000 cu m (196,800 cu ft) of stone used in its construction. With the decline of Buddhism and the shift of power to East Java, Borobudur was soon abandoned and for centuries lay hidden under layers of volcanic ash. It was only in 1815 that the site was cleared and the technical skill and imagination of the builders was revealed. A mammoth US$21-million restoration programme undertaken between 1973 and 1984 returned much of the complex to its former glory. The Mendut and Pawon temples nearby are important parts of the complex, though easily overlooked by visitors to the main site. Borobudur is 40km (25mi) north-west of Yogya.
Off the Beaten Track
Scattered across the Java Sea to the north of Jakarta are the Thousand Islands – well, 112 of them anyway. Only a few of the islands have been developed, and the empty beaches and scuba sites on islands such as Pulau Damar, Pulau Tikus and Pulau Pari are good day-trip destinations from Jakarta. Further north still, tropical-paradise havens have been created for affluent travellers on the islands of Pulau Putri, Pulau Pelangi, Pulau Perak and Pulau Papa Theo (collectively known as Pulau Seribu Paradise).
The remains of the legendary volcano lie only 50km (31mi) from the West Java coast (not east of Java as the film mistakenly described it). Krakatau blew itself apart in 1883 with the biggest bang thought to have ever occurred on earth – audible in Alice Springs, 3500km (2170mi) away, and affecting the wave patterns in the English Channel. A new crater, ‘Child of Krakatau’, belches glowing rocks and ashes, but boats can land on the eastern side and it’s possible to climb right up the cinder cones to the caldera. The hike is best made in the cool of the early morning, and the mainland German-run beach resort at Carita is a popular base for tours and fishing-boat hire (for once, a tour may be the best bet – unless you fancy the possibility of spending a couple of days adrift at sea).
This lovely archipelago of 27 islands off the north coast of Central Java has been declared a marine national park. The islands’ main attractions are the smattering of white sandy beaches, the calm, clear water, and the peace and quiet. The main island Pulau Karimunjawa has homestay accommodation, but is mostly ringed by mangroves. However, boats can be chartered from here to nearby islands with reefs and beaches. Don’t expect the snorkelling to be too impressive thanks to that scourge of South-East Asian coral – dynamite fishing. A ferry leaves from Jepara twice a week on the four and a half hour trip to Karimunjawa. Smaller fishing boats also brave the seas, but safety standards are minimal.
Baluran National Park
Baluran National Park in the north-east corner of Java, is the most accessible of Java’s large wildlife sanctuaries. The parklands surround the solitary hump of Gunung Baluran (1247m), and its main attractions are feral water buffalo, deer, monkeys, leopards and civet cats. Birds include the green junglefowl, peacocks, bee eaters, kingfishers and owls. The park is billed as ‘Indonesia’s African Safari Park’, and it is surprisingly reminiscent of parts of Australia or African savannah, with dry grasslands bordered by coastal mangrove. The dormant Ijen Plateau, north-east of Baluran, has a magnificent turquoise sulphur lake, and is a popular destination for trekkers.
Getting There & Away
Jakarta is Indonesia’s busiest international airport and is the hub of the domestic air network. The departure tax on international flights is around US$10; on domestic flights it’s around US$4, but is usually included in the ticket price. Be sure to reconfirm bookings at least 72 hours before departure. A ferry shuttles between Ketapang in eastern Java and the west-Balinese port of Gilimanuk. Boat/bus combination tickets between Yogya or Surabaya and Denpasar in Bali can be purchased. There are numerous ships/ferries between Java and various ports in Sumatra. The Merak-Bakauheni ferry is probably the most popular. There are also ships between Jakarta and Singapore via the Indonesian island of Tanjung Pinang.
There’s no reason to fly around Java unless you want an aerial view of the island’s spectacular volcanoes. There are a number of domestic airlines, including Garuda, the national carrier, Merpati, Sempati and Bouraq. A tax of 10% and a domestic departure tax of between 5500 rp and 11,000 rp is added to the fare. It’s essential to reconfirm your ticket since overbooking of flights is common.
Buses are the main form of inter-city transportation. They range from slow, crowded, ordinary public buses to convenient, quick and comfortable luxury services. Small minibuses cover shorter routes, backroads and inner-city destinations. Like the buses, they range from pack-’em-in sweatboxes to a good network of door-to-door minibuses.
Java has a pretty good rail service running from one end of the island to the other. In the east (at Ketapang), it connects with the ferry to Bali; in the west (at Merak), it connects with the ferry to Sumatra. The two main lines run between Jakarta and Surabaya – one via Yogya and Solo; the other, shorter route via Semarang. Choose your train carefully for comfort and speed. They range from cheap, squalid cattle trains to reasonably comfortable expresses.
Cars can be hired in Jakarta, but rates are triple those in the West and you’ll need the patience of a saint and the concentration powers of a grand chess master to drive on Java’s busy main roads. There appear to be no road rules, but a form of logic does exist: drive on the left, and give way to anything bigger than you, more or less sums it up. It’s best to hire a car or minibus with a driver, and private operators can arrange this for a fraction of self-drive rates. Motorbikes are readily available for hire across Java, but make sure that you’re a competent rider because your skills will be tested. Bicycles can be rented in tourist centres; they’re mainly for nipping around town – not for touring the island.