Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Indonesia Trip '08 – Day 09 : The Last Walkabout – Solo

Since we didn’t have any definitive plans of what to do on our last day in Solo, we went to bed the night before with plans to sleep in. Unfortunately for us, we were rudely woken up at a much earlier time than we expected thanks to the sounds of the other people at the homestay who were rushing to check out to catch their morning flight. As much as we would like to go back to sleep, it was near impossible by then so the best thing to do was to wake up and get ready for the day. Since we were already low on rupiahs in hand and didn’t really have a plan for the day, we initially planned to just stay in and soak up the ambiance of the area. But fortune smiled on us that day when one of my travel companion came back with a plan to go on a 6 hour excursion up in the nearby hills. Seems that while he was walking around the homestay while the rest of us were getting ready, he met with one of the homestay’s resident guides who recommended the tour to him. The package was reasonably affordable for us and we would have something more substantial to do to fill the 10 hours before our flight back.

With our last walkabout travel plans finalized, we sat down for our breakfast which was included with our room bill and pooled the last of our rupiah together to make sure that we would have enough to pay for everything that we needed that day. Since we would be going to the airport directly after our tour of the hills, we had to check out of our room and bring our bags with us on the tour. Thankfully, the homestay provided us with a really comfortable Avanza van for us to use on the tour which was driven by the guide who recommended the trip to us. After paying the bill for both the night’s stay and the tour package at the homestay, we dumped all our bags into the back of the van and left Solo heading to the hills nearby. Early morning traffic at Solo was quite interesting as not only do you share the road with the usual suspects of cars, buses, motorcycles and becaks but also with a commuter train that comes through the main street of Solo twice a day. I had noticed some rail tracks on the main road the day before but thought that it was left behind by some disused town tram system. Imagine my surprise to see an actual commuter train chugging along the tracks amongst the other vehicles on the main street. Of course the train doesn’t have to stop when the stoplight turns red, other vehicles have to stop and give it right of way. No one wants to mess with a train on the road no matter how big their car was.

We eventually reached the edge of town and drove across the famous Solo River that inspired the song “Begawan Solo” headed to higher grounds. Along the way we saw the now common sight of golden paddy plots in between houses as we seen all over Java during our trip. As we came closer to the highlands, the cooler and fresher hill air was wonderfully rejuvenating after the 9 days of traveling. We had earlier planned to have a spa trip in Solo but since we ran out of money before, the trip was an enjoyable alternative to relax ourselves before our trip home. Along the way, our guide was pointing out all the sight to us. Being from the area, Patrick (our guide), knew everything and everyone in the area. We drove pass golden paddy fields in the lower terraces, spice orchards that filled the air with wonderful scents of pepper, cloves and lemongrass before reaching the tea plantations which blanketed the slopes in green splendor. Every little bit of land on the hill was used for cultivation and it was truly a breathtaking sight to see and smell as we drove further up the hill.

(Scenes from the drive up to Candi Sethu - paddy fields, tea plantation, clove plantations and the surrounding village house)

The main purpose of this day trip was to visit the Candi Sethu temple which was located in the hills. Unlike Prambanan that we visited before, Candi Sethu was still in used by the surrounding population. In fact, according to our guide, Candi Sethu was one of the important Hindu temples in Indonesia for followers of the faith. We were lucky that on the day of our visit there, there was a blessing ceremony that we were allowed to observe in progress. Our guide was indispensable here as he explained not only the structures that we saw around us but also the ceremony itself that we were privy to observe. A lot of what we saw there was reminiscent of temples in Bali which was not accidental since these are the originals that was rebuilt in Bali when the people of the ancient Hindu Mataram kingdom was forced to leave these lands to the Bali Islands by the expanding kingdom of Srivijaya. There are in face exact duplicates of these temples in Bali which were considered spiritually linked with each other.

(Guardian at the entrance of Candi Sethu)

(L: Temple grounds and R: Visitors waiting for their entrance prayers before begining their blessing ceremony)

(Temple grounds)

(L: Fog started to roll in, R: The LOTR moment captured)

While we were at the temples, there was this short moment when the winds changed and suddenly brought in a thick blanket of fog that covered the hillside. Patrick called it the “Lord of the Rings” moment which was kind of apt since the temple grounds do look like Mordor when it was covered in fog. For a moment, it felt like we were detached from the outside world beyond the main entrance of the temple grounds. It was quite surreal actually to feel isolated from the rest of the world that way. It gave me the opportunity to reflect on the journey that I have been these past days on our Javanese adventure and how much it has changed me. You can’t help but be affected by the experiences and sights that you experience when you’re on these journeys. That’s partly why I always look forward to the opportunity to travel when I can.

The fog that blanketed the temple area eventually lifted and it was time for use to leave Candi Sethu but not before taking the customary picture when you jump up as high as you can between the entrance pillars as the fog covered everything in the background making you look like you’re standing at the edge of the world. Time started to countdown again to our adventure’s end but we had another temple site to visit on this trip. On the way to Candi Sukuh temple, we stopped at a road side stall run by Patrick’s sister in law for some hot tea brewed using the local tea that was planted around us and some light snacks. One snack in particular that I couldn’t get enough of was “ampas soya goreng” which was basically the solid soy residue left behind after they pressed it for soy milk pressed into thin slabs and deep fried until crispy. It had the consistency of fried breadfruit (sukun) with a milder taste of tempeh and was surprisingly tasty for something that would normally be used as animal feed back home.

After our brief stop, we proceeded to Candi Sukuh which was a smaller temple complex than Candi Sethu. At first glance, the Candi reminded me of a smaller version Aztec pyramid in South America with it’s tiered structure and flat top. There were also many representation of the Garuda, Indonesia’s mythical bird, on the walls of this temple. The most striking feature for Candi Sukuh was the number of phallus representation in the area. Unlike Candi Sethu that had a more feminine vibe, the vibe at Candi Sukuh was definitely more masculine. Some of the walls had relief depicting fairly violent images of people carrying weapons and what seems like going to war. Patrick told us that the site used to be used for sacrifices including blood sacrifices which I wasn’t sure if he meant they had human sacrifices there. He may just be pulling my leg for all I know of the history of the area. There were much less visitors there than Candi Sethu that day and looking at the images at the temple, I would not be surprise if this temple was only used occasionally for a very specific reason.

(Path leading to Candi Sukuh)

(L: Closer to the temple/altar, R: Close up of wall relief at Candi Sukuh)

(L: From the top of the temple, R: Candi Sukuh grounds)

After spending some time at Candi Sukuh, it was time for us to make a move to the airport back in Solo. Before we got there, we stopped at road side eatery that was famous for goat meat sate. Patrick told us that he always bring his Malaysian tour group here and it has never once failed to impress them. Of all the things that I ate on this journey, this was the one that I worried the most. I very rarely eat lamb and have not, to my knowledge, eaten mutton before. I’ve always avoided it since I worry about it’s affect on my existing (although thankfully much less now) hypertension condition. Fortunately I had friends to look out for me should anything happened after eating the goat meat so I felt fairly safe to try it. In hindsight, I’m definitely glad that I did since it was one of the tastiest meal that we had on our trip. We had chunks of goat meat mixed with spices then compressed into meaty tubes that was perfectly grilled on hot charcoal. There was no need for any sauces to dip the meat in as the goat meat sate was perfectly moist and the spices gave it a kick to the taste buds. We had “Nasi Goreng Kambing” (goat meat fried rice) with our sate which tasted equally divine with it’s spikes of pepper and spices from the grounded goat meat mixture that they added to the fried rice. I would definitely recommend a good sate kambing meal for anyone traveling in that area.

(Succulent goat meat sate grilling away)

We made sure that we left Patrick with good comments in his guest book that they use to promote their services to the tourist that stayed at Istana Griya Homestay. We definitely had a great time with him on the tour and would recommend him to others who are interested to explore the hill sides in Solo. After taking final pictures at the eatery, we proceeded directly to Solo airport which we reached at around 2 pm. After unloading our bags from the van and saying our goodbyes to Patrick, we went to the departure entrance only to find out that we had to wait outside until our flight check in counter was called. Solo airport was not unlike Clark Field at Manila where there was not many places to sit and wait outside of the entrance. It was good that we had with us the last of the drinks and snacks that we bought earlier to tide us over since not only were there almost no shops opened for business on that day but we were also short of remaining rupiah to purchase anything.

Eventually we were let in and we made our way to the Air Asia check in counter. We’ve been fairly good on this trip in terms of not exceeding our check in weight allowances for fear of having to pay exorbitant amounts for excess baggage charges. After checking in for our flight, paying the 200,000 Rupiah airport exit tax and clearing immigration, we waited at the departure hall for our flight which was delayed. I tried to keep my mind occupied by finishing my travel notes but I was really worried about the flight delay as it would mean that we would have to deal with transportation after midnight. While I have less of an issue since I stayed in KL, the rest of my travel companions had to make plans to return to their homes in different states since we all had to be back to work on the following day.

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