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Indonesia: Bustling Java and our first call in Asia

We emerged from the plane in Jakarta, immediately hit by the humid warm air of midday in Indonesia. Thick clouds hung overhead and our bodies were disorientated after a mega 26 hour transit from snowy Vancouver. This was New Year’s Eve and we were looking forward to enjoying some warmer weather! The parking area made it abundantly clear we were no longer in Canada, with people double parked along the through-ways and steps where there shouldn’t be steps and holes where there should be pavement! Nevertheless, we made our way to our airbnb for the night (our host generously picked us up from the airport).

New Year’s Eve started early in Jakarta, from just after sunset, fireworks started. Every neighbourhood, every street and even the occasional car (whilst driving), had a mini fireworks display. From the top floor of the building in which we stayed we had a view of the entire city erupting in colourful sprays of light. The works were endless, only reaching fever pitch by midnight with a cacophony of bigger rockets and brighter colours as the city brought in 2017. The sea of fireworks continued well into the night, people were pretty pleased to be rid of 2016!

Jakarta New Year’s Eve sunset: the last evening of 2016

Jakarta was a very big city with lots of malls and not much else, we quickly got used to the heat and decided to move on to Jogjakarta, south of Java island. Close to the city is Borobudur temple. The biggest Buddhist temple in the world. Various earthquakes and volcanic activity have threatened its integrity over time but it’s always been lovingly restored and made good again. We had to go and see it having heard only great things. In tradition with the journey, we rented a scooter for the day and rode about an hour outside of the city to the temple.

Borobudur temple ; Nirvana Level


Buddha inside a stupa in Nirvana level of Borobudur (level 8)

We climbed the levels of Borobudur, from the world of desires, through form to formless (Nirvana). The bottom 6 levels are based on a square pyramid design and have beautiful reliefs along every wall one walks along including buddha statues set into the wall and stupas along the crest of each wall. The sculpting artists started along the top level of Rupadhatu (level 6 from the ground) and then worked their way down so that the final sculptures were the ones depicting desires and the right way of behaving. For every undesirable action there was a relief depicting what one ought to do.  this lead to the base sculptures being really beautifully executed and wonderfully detailed as the sculptors were master-craftsmen by then!

Reliefs depicting Buddha’s life from birth to enlightenment










We walked clockwise around every level, learning more about the construction of the temple (made from basalt rock- the whole area is volcanic) and it’s placement being very close to the center of Java and in particular, its position between the two volcanoes, Merabu Merapi and Sumbing makes it a sacred place.  No mortar was used in the construction, with the blocks cut in the local quarry and built using interlocking knobs on each block. All the reliefs were sculpted on site which has made restoration very challenging as every stone has to be dismantled, labelled, then cleaned and re-assembled. Some of the ares which are still under restoration it is quite obvious that the stone are still in the process of being aligned.

View of the surrounding volcanoes from Borobudur (the white dots on the stones in foreground are the UNESCO numbering system for restoration)

Unfinished Buddha

The stupa at the very top of the temple is empty, it is thought that it should have contained a Buddha statue but currently does not. There is an unfinished Buddha statue in the museum part of Borobudur which contains the unfinished statue.  Once at the very top of Borobudur, you’re invited to circle level 8 3 times clockwise in order to receive good fortune. The stupas in Nirvana represent the ground, a lotus flower (which the Buddha statue is sitting on), the curved outer structure represents a rice bowl and the top the walking stick- all the accoutrements of a monk in this lineage of Buddhism.




Close to Borobudur is a very special temple-  Mendut. It also has a monastery next to it which was open to the public. Walking up to the temple, it looked less impressive  than Borobudur as it is of diminutive size but don’t be fooled! Once you climb the steep steps into the temple, you’re treated to a sudden drop in temperature and three 18m high Buddhas sitting over you. It is a place of such peace and calm that it has been totally untouched by the natural disasters which damaged Borobudur. With far less tourists than Borobudur, Mendut was a very special moment for us. We were the only ones there!

Mendut from its gardens

Inside Mendut


Inside Mendut



























We moved on eventually to visit the monastery next door. Entering the marble gates, you’re immediately faced with a serene series of pools containing three mini stupas each. The grounds of the monastery are beautiful, with many Stupas and Buddha statues to contemplate. As the rain clouds rolled in and threatened us with the first few drops of rain, we were drawn to the peace and serenity of the place. After a while, we had to give in- it had started to rain very heavily. We ran back to the scooter and made our way back to Jogja through the warm, fat raindrops. The next day we had a train to catch to get to Banyuwangi, with 14 hours of journeying before we’d arrive.

Monastery stupas in water feature

Our train was due to leave Jogja main station (Lempunyang) at 7:15am which we considered very early particularly after not being on the road for a couple of weeks! For all of $30 we purchased two tickets to Banyuwangi in the east of Java. On the economy class coach (the direct train to the east) there are super air conditioned coaches with straight backed seats. We were pleasantly surprised to find plug sockets on board and frequent coffee deliveries from the kitchen! That’s where the pleasant ride finished. 14 hours is a long time to be on a slow train! Particularly if, like Simon, you are 6’2″ and clearly taller than the average train passenger. We finally made it to Banyuwangi and looked forward to the next day, where we would visit the Sulphur mine and one of only two areas in the world where the gases ignite naturally and give a curious purple flame in the nighttime.

View on Ijen

The next night, we were picked up at 12am for a nighttime trek up Mount Ijen and through to the Sulphur mines. The trek was 4km through a well worn path. The path is used by the miners themselves who work through the night carrying huge slabs of mined sulphur in shoulder bags or in a cart down the steep path to the collection area at the bottom. Occasionally, one must jump out of the way of the miners, particularly on the downhill when the cart has 100kg of Sulphur on board! We eventually made it to the crest and looked down onto the lake. At night, everything looked grey and all we could make out were other people’s head-torches picking out the thick sulphur cloud emanating from the mine. We walked the rest of the way down towards the mine. The path had now reduced to a very stony ridge through rock and scree. At times it was pretty slippery and we were glad for the gas masks we’d been given at the start. The sulphur cloud we could see from the top, billowing out from the mine, was now level with our lungs and its thick, acrid taste made the trek all the harder. We noticed that most of the miners had no mask or gloves and even we, after only a few minutes in the smoke, were coughing and aching in our lungs.

Blue flames of Ijen


We stood on the edge of a hillock before the mine and could make out the blue flames through the thick smoke. It was an awesome sight- the occasional gust of wind would sweep the smoke away enough to reveal tall plumes of purple blue fire above the mine. Just below were the sulphur extrusions, with liquid red sulphur pouring out of the rock and some of the solidified sulphur running in stalactites along the edge.  The lake at the crater is one of the most sulphuric in the world and during the daytime is a flat pale blue. It looked pretty eerie at night.

Sulphur mine at Ijen

Lake Ijen at night

Ijen miner carrying sulphur to the crest


The trek back up was far trickier than the trek down. At this point, 4:30am, the mines had become quite crowded with tourists. Some tourists were behaving pretty stupidly, trying to get selfies whilst jumping across flames and others were impeding the miners who were trying to climb the rocky path whilst carrying their 70-95kg of sulphur on their backs. We were pretty impatient to leave the thick, acrid smoke and hiked up quickly to the fresh air at the crest.

After what seemed like forever, we finally broke through the cloud and reached the crest. Dawn had just broken and daylight was beginning to paint the rocks and smoke.

Done for the night: the miners leave their packs behind

Sunlight struggling to get through

Simon rocking the gas mask look

Keen to remove the gas masks, we continued along the crest until we’d put the mountain between us and the mines. On the west side of the mountain, we were treated to a beautiful vista of the valley, lush and green from the recent rains and with the thick clouds from the mine sitting in the valley.

Actually, as picturesque as it was, the sulphur run off into lake Ijen and the lake’s subsequent contamination of the river has lead to the river being too acidic and unbalancing the natural eco-system of the area. Nevertheless, for a dawn view, nothing beats a panorama of volcanoes, forests and sunlight just creeping along the land. Java was spoiling us with some spectacular views, but we must keep going! Our next stop- Bali.

The other side of Ijen : our dawn welcome




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