Destination Java: It’s smokin’

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This article first appeared in Gafencu magazine, September 2015

Type “Java” into any standard search engine and you’ll be faced with page after page of links to an innovative bit of software that helps your browser browse better. Impressive as it may be, however, it is something of a shame that this object-oriented programming language is now better known than the island that shares – if not originates – its name. It’s even more galling that the island itself could well be the gateway to one of the most beautiful, inspiring and magical holidays you’re ever likely to experience.

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Java is fast waking up to the fact that tourism can make a huge contribution to its economy. This has seen it determined to persuade erstwhile visitors that it offers far more than the massage, merry-making and marriage ceremonies so commonly associated with Bali, its easterly neighbour. Sure, it still needs to catch up on the commercial front (no bad thing), but it more than makes up for that in terms of its natural grace, stunning landscapes, culture and spiritualism. It’s fair to say Java is smoking, and that is not just because of the 45 still-active volcanoes on the island, which sits on the Pacific Ring of Fire.

A holiday in Java, however, is one for the more committed of travellers. If you want to fully experience its charms, you will need to cover a few miles and get used to setting the alarm for some very early starts. It will be worth it, though, and you can always factor in a relaxing Bali bask before or after your Java jaunt.

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Java itself is the 13th largest island in the world, which is just as well as it is currently home to some 143 million people. Divided into four provinces – West Java, Central Java, East Java and Banten – it’s essential to plan your visit well before you go. Where to start then and what to prioritise? It all depends on how long you have, and whether you plan to tag on a rest in Bali. You could fly into Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta (West Java), spend a day or two there before flying to Jogjakarta in Central Java, and then make your way east by road or rail (at which point you can hop over to Bali and fly home from there). Alternatively, you can reverse that whole west-to-east itinerary.

Driving yourself around is probably not the wisest of ideas, though. Not unless you have nerves of steel. The road infrastructure isn’t well developed, and there’s no doubt that Javanese take more of an intuitive than structured approach to driving. Rather like Luke Skywalker in Star Wars. If you don’t fancy trusting to the Force as you jostle among a mad scramble of mopeds, trucks and push bikes, it may be better to join an organised tour, using public transport or even hiring your own guide and driver. While the latter, in particular, may sound expensive, bear in mind that the Indonesian Rupiah goes a long, long way after conversion from the dollar, pound, yuan etc. In fact, you’ll be a multi-millionaire overnight with a currency exchange that sees £50 sterling worth over one million Rupiah.

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Let’s assume, then, that you’ve started with a pampered, relaxing stay in Bali for a few days and have then landed by boat in Banyuwangi on the eastern tip of Java. Your first destination is going to be Mount Ijen, the most easterly volcano in the smokestack network that bisects Java from north to south. Its cone rises high above verdant green rice terraces and dominates the landscape. It’s vital to don sturdy shoes if you’re planning to climb from the rest point up to the edge of the crater, which – depending on your fitness level – will take you up to an hour and a half to negotiate the 3km long, 500-metre climb.

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If all that sounds a bit testing, then spare a thought for the hundreds of workers who dig out chunks of sulphur from the crater lake each day. They then have to carry their 90-kg loads, across their shoulders, back up to the edge of the crater and then down the precipitous path to the collection point. Twice a day and all for less than US$3 a trip. No wonder they’re bowed, bent and wracked with respiratory problems.

Here the turquoise coloured lake and the steaming caldera (literally, cauldron) are truly spectacular, and definitely merit the effort of accessing the summit. If you’re feeling really intrepid, it’s also possible to take a midnight hike to the edge of the crater and witness the blue fire phenomenon. This is actually escaping sulphur gas igniting at temperatures of 600 degrees Centigrade. It’s a bit like being inside a gigantic grill. Or, possibly, the first circle of hell. But nicer.

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If Mount Ijen is an incredible – if somewhat infernal – spot, then Mount Bromo (a day away) should be your next port of call. Many countries claim to offer a “once in a lifetime” travel experience, but sunrise over Mount Bromo actually lives up to the hype. You’ll be up early again, though. As you stride out into the middle of the night – 3.30am or you may miss out – you’ll join a crazy Mad Max-style cavalcade of four-wheel drives and motorbikes all heading up the mountain. Flashlights and thermals are de rigueur. As you brave the chill and stare out into the darkness, nothing prepares you for the moment when the sunrise breaks over the chain of volcanic cones before you.

Afterwards, you can make your own personal homage to the late Omar Sharif, riding like Lawrence of Arabia through the ashy wastes to the crater’s edge. Here you can peer into the bubbling caldera below, at which you will, no doubt, ask your guide: “How long until it erupts again?”

If you’re heading for locations like Ijen and Bromo then it’s advisable to nab your hotels well in advance, as many other visitors will also want to stay as close to these landmarks as possible. And there’s not an enormous choice of hotels on offer. Ijen Resort and Villas is accessed by an unmade road, but it more than makes up for that by being set in splendid rural isolation in the middle of a rice plantation. Java Banana at Ngadiseri, close to Bromo, is also incredibly popular – possibly because staying here could make the difference between rising at 3.30am instead of 3am for the sunrise trip.

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After these vulcanian adventures, you may well decide to reward yourself with a trip out to Surabaya on the northern coast. It’s a particular treat if you stay at the luxurious five-star Hotel Majapahit, a hangover from the old Dutch colonial days when Surabaya rivalled Singapore and Hong Kong as a trading post. Today, the port city is more often used as a staging post for Central Java, the next leg of your full-on sightseeing expedition.

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This time, forsake road travel and enjoy a languid, four-hour train journey to Jogjakarta. When you arrive you will face a bewildering array of options for your Central Java itinerary. While you’ll certainly be spending time in ‘Jogya during your stay, a better idea might be to head straight off into the foothills to tackle your next big Once in a Lifetime Moment – Borobudur, which is the largest Buddhist monument on the planet and a UNESCO world heritage site.

Constructed across the eighth and ninth centuries, the monument has a pyramidical base consisting of six rectangular storeys, three circular platforms and, at the top, a giant Stupa. Built with lava rock bricks without any binding agent to hold them together, you can see where the idea for Lego might have originated. Over 2,500 bas-relief panels on the terrace walls depict mythical spiritual beings and legends as well as eighth century everyday life. Should you decide take it upon yourself to count all of the Buddha statues, be warned – there are at least 500 of them.

Borobudur is the single most visited tourist attraction in Indonesia and a source of immense pride to the country. Once you’ve experienced it, you’ll appreciate why. Naturally, you’ll be setting the alarm clock for pre-dawn once again – sunrise over Borobudur is the highlight of any visit here. It’s a mystical, magical adventure, and a tad cooler than at the height of the day.

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Now, with The Big Three in your bag, you can afford to ditch the early morning starts and adopt a more leisurely approach to exploring Central Java. Take advantage of some of the most stunning spa resort hotels in the world – Plataran Borobudur or Mesastila in Magelang – to catch up on your sleep. If you are still up to venturing out, take in a coffee plantation and discover what makes the Java bean so popular worldwide. Or you could give Kopi Luwak a try – made from coffee berries that have passed through a civet’s digestive tract (a civet is a small, cat-like mammal). It’s also the most expensive coffee in the world.

After a day or two of refreshing yourself, sampling Javanese cuisine, lolling round local villages and stocking up on handmade craft items, you should be in good shape to head back to the city and take on Jogjakarta. Here you will find enough activities and sights to keep you occupied for days. Foremost among these would have to be a visit to Prambanan – a collection of 240 Hindu temples (called candi). Were it not for Borobudur 25 miles up the road, this would probably top any other country’s tourist attraction list.

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Prambanan provides the perfect backdrop for popular open-air theatre performances of Ramayana, the Hindu epic, which is widely regarded as one of the great works of Indian literature, along with Mahabharata. A visit to the Sultan’s Palace, known as Kraton, and the Taman Sari Water Palace, as well as their gardens are also delights not to be missed.

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Do you actually need to go to Jakarta after all of this? Well, a short flight gets you there from Jogya, and it would be a shame to miss Kota, the old town of Batavia that was the hub of Dutch colonial Indonesia. It is, however, not strictly necessary to detour there unless in transit. Whatever your plans, don’t prioritise Jakarta over Ijen, Bromo, Borobudur or Jogya.

There’s no doubt about it that Java has the potential to become a hugely popular travel destination in the future. It might not be the right sort of choice for anyone who thinks a holiday is all about sitting on a beach, shopping for brands or sipping drinks by a poolside all day long. And it’s certainly not for visitors who have an aversion to alarm clocks. But if you have a penchant for a holiday with a difference, then our advice is: get up early and beat those crowds.