Having already witnessed one magnificent volcano in Java, I decided to skip the famous Bromo mountain (which I'd heard was looking a bit ashen these days anyway) and headed straight to Yogyakarta, where I was to stay until the end of my trip in Indonesia. Yogyakarta (Yogya) is Java's second city: Jakarta represents the grey and polluted financial powerhouse, and Yogya the vibrant centre of Javanese arts, culture and heritage. Unlike Banyuwangi, Yogya has enjoyed a steady flow of tourists for many years, and a cute little backpacker district has emerged in the traffic-free gangs of the Sosroijayan area. A South Ifrican friend of mine, Emma, who I had met in Ubud, had arrived in Yogya the same time as me, and so we decided to stay at the same hotel and hang out together. Emma is one of those travellers who is great at planning and is always right on top of what cool local attractions there are, and so I knew from the start that I needn't worry about my itinerary of the next few days.
We decided to make use of this very pretty and trendy (everyone under 35 is trendy in Yogya) local girl working at our hotel, who spoke very good English and could drive us to wherever we wanted to go. Our first trip took us to the Kraton, a walled citadel containing a palace in which the sultan still resides, and to the Water Castle, one of the sultan's former pleasure gardens, now open to the public. The Kraton was pretty boring, with badly curated treasures and historical artefacts, but the Water Castle was very pretty, and would clearly be an awesome place for a massive party.
Next we headed out to the ancient Hindu temple complex at Prambanan. Built in the 9th century AD, it is the biggest and most elaborate of its kind in Java, and was the inspiration for the construction of Ankor Wat in Cambodia some 200 years later. Several earthquakes over the last few centuries had reduced the complex to ruins, but a concerted effort at reconstruction began in the 1930s. The restoration suffered a set-back again after an earthquake in 2006, and many of the temples are still being restored now and are not accessible. The 244 temples surrounding the main platform, built on four levels corresponding to the four castes, have never been reconstructed and lie in ruins; but all three of the large temples at the back, dedicated to the gods Shiva the Destroyer, Brahma and Vishnu, were finished and open for us to visit. Our guide was exceptional and explained to us how carvings on the walls of each temple told a story from Hindu mythology, and that a statue of each god could be found inside the temples. He also pointed out cool little things that you would never have noticed, like an unfinished figure on a wall carving that was abandoned after a volcanic eruption caused the stone mason to flee. Prambanan was cool, but not nearly as cool as the even more ancient Buddhist temple of Borobudur, where we headed to the next day.
We left the hotel at 3.30am with our trendy Indo chick and drove to a hill overlooking the temple. In the distance was the great Merapi volcano, a dangerous beast responsible for wiping out many a civilisation in the valley over the years (burying the temple itself for centuries until it was uncovered by Raffles in 1815), and which had in fact only just erupted again three weeks before. As the red sun popped up from behind Merapi, we sipped our sugary coffees and watched as the misty valley slowly illuminated, revealing the top levels of Borobudur poking out through the jungle. The experience was just magical, and I think it may stand the test of time as the finest sunrise I will ever see.
Borobudur is a massive 118m square temple comprised of ten levels going up like a pyramid: seven square ones and three circular ones at the top, representing the path to enlightenment. Each level is carved with Buddhist doctrine, with tales of vice and debauchery and the bottom, leading up to perfection and nirvana at the top. There are hundreds of statues of the Buddha throughout, including 72 at the top sitting inside latticed stupas, each assuming one of the six sacred hand gestures. The whole site was found to be badly subsiding, and so UNESCO paid for the entire temples to be taken apart, brick by brick, concrete foundations and a drainage system put in, and the whole thing rebuilt - an epic effort! The bottom level is, however, still surrounded by bricks, except for one corner, which gives a glimpse of the carvings which remain unseen underneath. The bricks were put there during the original construction, when it was realised that the temple design wasn't strong enough to support its own weight - whoops.
I hadn't realised just how little I knew about Buddhism, and the principles of cause and effect, or karma, and of reincarnation; but I have to admit that our guide really made me appreciate just what a positive set of ideas it encapsulates. Unlike all of the Abrahamic religions, each with their own form of eternal damnation, Buddhism is all about tolerance, encouragement and perseverance, and of co-existence with the natural world. Even as a devout atheist, I really that feel like there is much I could learn from Buddhism. I guess that temple had rather a profound effect on me that day.
Back in the city I had my face in my laptop again working on the turtle project, but I had also got in touch with SymbioticA to let them know I was in Yogya, since they had been here a few weeks earlier for a DIYbio symposium. They put me in touch with an extremely cool group of Indonesian guys running a centre known as the House of Natural Fibre (HONF), which has been churning out artistic projects and experimental music for over a decade, often critiquing or engaging with the discourse surrounding biotechnology and bioethics. We were a match made in heaven, and they invited me to present my seminar 'To Cre or not to Cre', which I had produced for SymbioticA. The venue and audience were completely different this time - here mostly artists and many with English as a second language - and so I tweaked the presentation accordingly, but the debate afterwards was perhaps even better than at SymbioticA. I had a great night too, and I felt really honoured to be able to leave the tourist area and hang out with some local guys from Yogyakarta. It was eye-opening to see how they had managed to survive doing what they were doing for so many years with so few resources, and to have become so respected and influential internationally, whilst living under the auspices of a sometimes antagonistic religious and political regime. I was really impressed, and I have a feeling that HONF and I will be doing some work together again in the future. They could be the perfect mentor to help me transform one of my ideas into an exhibition.
So after one more day in Yogya, I embarked on an epic 48-hour mission to get to Emma and Simon's wedding in the Philippines. First an overnight train to Jakarta, then a bus to the airport, a flight to Singapore, five hours at Changi Airport, a flight to Manila, five hours in bed in a hostel, then a flight to Dumaguete on the island of Negros, where Emma and Simon live. I had booked all these flights many moons ago, last November whilst living in Sydney... what on Earth was I thinking?!