We rose at 4:30 am and went down to the Asiatic Hotel at the end of the gang (street) where our pick-up for Borobadur was scheduled for 5 am. The sunrise promised to be washed out by the thick clouds wreathing the hills, but the prospect of getting to Borobudur before the hordes of package tourists was worth paying for.
The Borobudur temple complex was built between 750 and 850 AD and is one of the greatest Buddhist relics of Southeast Asia, along with Cambodia’s Angkor Wat and Burma’s Pagan. The monument takes the form of a massive stupa and is wrapped around the top of a small hill. The base is 200 m² and above this, six square terraces and three circular terraces rise in descending order of size. The monument was conceived as a vision of the cosmos in stone, spiralling up to Nirvana. Over 400 serene-faced Buddhas stare out from open chambers while 72 more sit inside latticed stupas on the top three terraces.
We both reached through the lattice of a stupa and touched the face of a Buddha which is supposed to bring good luck. The monument, empty of humans and surrounded by glowering and mysterious volcanoes, was an ethereal place indeed.
On the way back to Yogyakarta, we visited two lesser-known but still very important temple sites: the temple of Candi Pawan (which houses the dust of a cremated king), and the temple of Mendut, which houses a magnificent three-meter high Buddha sitting, western style, with both feet flat on the ground and flanked by the bodhisattvas (priestly attendants) Avalokitesvara on the right and Vajrapani on the left.
Back in Yogyakarta, we packed up our gear and walked for half an hour down Jalan Malabo to try to find the Bimo station for Kariulang but we ended up being shown to another place by a local and after a 10-minute ride on a city bus, we found the right spot and caught a van up into the mountains.
At Kariulang (900 m) we moved into the fabled Vogel Homestay and settled in. After a drink, we walked up to a swimming pool at the foot of the hill and swam there in the cold, clear water. As usual, it rained heavily in the late afternoon but sitting in the restaurant at Vogels, with the windows open and Nat King Cole playing on the stereo, was a very pleasant way to pass a wet evening.
The Lonely Planet guide had described Vogels Homestead as a magical place and the writer who compiled the guide had written that: “when the Nat King Cole song Mona Lisa came on to the stereo, with the windows open and the rain tapping on the foliage of the forest outside, we briefly ascended into heaven.”
At about 7:30, Christian Awuy, the hostel’s owner, came and said “anyone want to go and see the lava?” The six backpackers present lept up as one and Christian led us down to a field on the edge of the village where the shadowy bulk of Mount Merapi¹ could be seen against the black drape of the stars. On the western flank of the mountain, the incandescent glow with the lava shone out against the darkness and every two minutes or so the awesome spectacle of the molten rock rushing down the mountainside could be seen, as magma erupted from the summit came crashing down, sending showers of glowing rock into the year.
The mountain was only 7 km from where we stood and the lava was, according to Christian, moving at 100 km/h so it could overwhelm Kariulang Village very quickly if it came that way. As we watched, a huge spurt of glowing magma spilled over the southeast rim of the crater and flowed down the slope, clearly visible against the black bulk of the mountain.
¹Gunung Merapi is a violently active stratovolcano. Read more about it in this Wikipedia entry.
Footnote: Vogel’s Hostel is still there in Kariulang and is still owned by Christian. A review on Booking.com noted that: The host is offering tours to Merapi since over 35 years. and still is highly motivated. He deeply cares about nature and has done a lot to make eco tourism more well known in Indonesia. He and his team know so much about the volcano and its legends. I can highly recommend to book a tour with them! It was raining when I arrived, but had a beautiful sunrise next day. The place is super clean, basic but all you need. Food is superb!