Seeking Nirvana in Java


It’s three A.M. in the morning, and the iPad is making a high pitched creepy wailing sound building up in intensity to an unearthly crescendo. With puffy eyes I slap at the pad while grumbling to myself and my goofy science fiction alarm setting. Who’s brilliant idea was it to wake up before the sun, silly people. Slapping on our boots, we stumble to the outdoor lobby of our hotel, to be met by five or six equally sleepy-eyed Koreans. All of us equally dishelved, we are handed a flash light and head out on our march. Through a very manicured garden we wearily follow our guide to the bottom of a large hill. The moon is still shining brightly as we pass through a gateway at the bottom of the mound. Guards hand us two pieces of cloth to wrap around ourselves like skirts. It’s ok though, because they are not skirts but Sarongs, which is the proper garb to be worn in a temple. Through the light you can see a staircase going steeply up a tiered hill with multiple gateways. Each step is higher than what would be legally acceptable in the states on staircases, and has a worn down section in the middle from millions of other feet that had tread up the very same stairs. It’s too dark to make out details, but along the walls you can see eyes staring out at you, from numerous nooks and crannies. Also at the entrance were two guard dogs frozen eternally at attention.


We started the climb, going up seven flights of stairs. On each level there were passage ways shooting in each direction. We pushed forward, being the first to reach the top platform on it. As we neared the top we were surrounded by dome like structures that resembled bees nests right down to the geometric shapes cut into each dome. On top was a massive dome, at least twenty feet high. The sky was still dark, and you could see stars, and the countryside in the distance. We got a choice location, and slowly watched hints of light break through the darkness. As more colors began to appear in the sky, you were able to make out some of the shapes around us. As the sun slowly emerged, different shapes began to form, switching from chunky mounds to architectural wonders in early mornings light.

Ahhhh, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves now. Bet you all thought you had heard the end of Yogyakarta in the last blog, but what I did not tell you is that it is not just a city to visit, no, but a gateway to much, much more, and has been for over a thousand years. Still in my favorite town, we had decided enough with the public transportation, we needed our freedom again. So we tossed a whopping huge amount down, 5,000 rupees, equivalent of five U.S. dollars, and rented a scooter for 24 hours. It was time to hit the road and see what the world had to offer. So with Yvonne riding on back, one backpack between the two of us, we wobbled onto the road. A very small road at first, but we knew that would not last. We drove down the street, and turned on one of the main streets. Timing was everything, because even though we had chosen mid-morning to leave, thus avoiding rush hour, there were still hundreds of bikes to contend with. And I mean that literally. Everywhere are bikes, bikes with five people on it, cages of chickens, today’s harvest shooting out both sides, construction equipment, everything went on bikes. There would be two guys up front, and a girl sitting side saddle on the back, texting away and still maintaining her balance. The exhaust was sickening, with many people wearing face masks, or shirts covering their faces.

My big fear besides hitting some one, was getting my feet ran over. Traffic was stop and go, and you always had to put your foot down to support yourself. But with so many bikes, the chance of your feet or legs getting run over were very high. So as carefully as possible, we drove to our destination only 20 kilometers away, to test the waters of riding. Well, we expected the city to fall away to more rural lifestyle, but it stayed very urban the entire way. At one point through the trees I saw some odd shaped buildings poking up, but they quickly disappeared behind road side warangs. But I was certain we had reached our destination, and was super excited. Traffic never eased up the entire ride. A kilometer further we finally saw the sign we had been looking for, Prambanan.

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We parked our bike in the bike parking lot, and went in to the foreigner entrance. Which means you pay four times more and are given a Sarong to wear. We opted for a guide this time, and were we ever happy that we did. He was incredibly knowledgeable with the history as well as the preservation of the temples. We walked down a forested path, to our first good vantage point, and can I just say how blown away we were. It was amazing. Prambanan was part of a huge 9th century Hindu temple complex of which about 15 temples were preserved and rebuilt. After a few hundred years it was abandoned due to armed conflict/volcano eruption. It was forgotten by most everyone except local farmers, who created their own fables surrounding it or used the stones for building their own houses.


There are eight main temples in a square, and then outside of the square were hundreds of small temples. In the square there is one huge temple dead center, dedicated to Shiva, then two large ones on either side, and sets of progressively smaller ones. Each of these temples have enormous amounts of details, covering every inch of them. I have never seen such amazing work or that style before.


The main temple to Shiva, the supreme god, as well as god of destruction raises up above them all. The temple was badly damaged during a earthquake a few years ago, and has only now been reopened to the public, as long as you wear hard hats and spend no more then ten minutes in it. Inside the temple is a 10 foot high statue of Shiva. The main spire shoots about 150 feet up in to the air, the entire length elaborately carved. There are lions and tree statues in many niches, and the story of Lord Ramas wife being kidnapped by a monkey god and other Hindu mythology carved in friezes Long the base. I really can’t say enough how blown away I was from this complex.


Well with the success of our first voyage out by Scooter, we felt fully confident to give it a go for our next destination, Borabudur, which was a few hours out of town. So we crossed the now rush hour traffic of Yogyakarta to head in the opposite direction. Now the traffic was double the amount as before, and would start and stop in fits. A few times we barely avoided being hit as we made our journey. About a half hour out we could here the rumbling of thunder and clouds began to build up over us. At this point we were finally making some speed, when the first big fat rain drop splattered on my helmet. Then more. I saw a big tree overhanging the road and made a beeline for it. All the other cyclists were doing the same, veering off the road to whatever cover they could find. By the time we pulled to a stop it just opened up on us. No need for rain gear, we dove into a hardware shop’s garage as the road we were on became a river. People drove off the road straight into businesses garages, even though they had no business there. It’s just accepted I think, when it rains, you go wherever you need to to get cover. So there was about ten of us under the awning here, waiting or the rain to die down. We watched the brave ones going through the rain, which to me was just nuts. No way I would ride through that. My buddy Pat, an avid motorcyclist, always tells me how many seconds it takes in a fall for the road to rub through clothing to skin and bone, and most these people were in flip-flops. Yvonne likes to point out, so many people, tourist and locals, have large amounts of road rash on them from minor bike accidents.

Well after a good hour in the shop we decided the rain cleared up and we ventured back out. We had thought that it would be rural rice paddies the whole way, but it was really all city the whole way to the last half hour, then we finally hit the country roads I had been dreaming of. We decided to veer off the road near sunset to check out a small temple and get a coke.


This was a stand alone temple, not as ornate as Prambanan, but in a lovely field with kids playing soccer under it. We debated going in, but figured what the hell. This temple was called Mendut. Inside there was a nine foot Buddha statue, flaked by two other statues. It started as a Hindu temple, but was converted to Buddhist shrine at some point.

Excited by our amazing day, and even more excited by the idea of being in a fancy hotel, we pulled into our new digs for the night. We chose the only hotel on the park grounds because you could wake up early and climb the temple at dawn. The hotel also had a film on Borabudur, which played like one of those boring history films in eight grade history class, and about the same quality. It was difficult to stay awake during it, but as we found out later, was filled with so many layers of information that we would keep coming back to it as we climbed through the temple.


Borabudur is a huge temple complex covering a hill with four volcanos in the distance. It has has six square terraces on the bottom, then changes to four circular ones at the top, ending with a large stupa, or dome structure on top. You can walk the pilgrimage walk around the complex, starting at the bottom, and by time you reach the top you will have walked five kilometers. Each layer has carved panels depicting Hindu stories and fables. The thing I found so fascinating is that after walking the path for a bit, I realized this whole complex was a picture book, carved in stone.

The first layer, which we were not able to see because it was covered in dirt, and was needed to keep the whole tructure solid, was the tales of debauchery. Fornication, torture, lust, war, all the exciting stuff. Then each additional layer was the Buddhist path through the cosmos, ultimately ending up at the top in Nirvana. They used animals to depict a lot of the fables, from greedy monkeys to turtles that want to fly. In one tale there is a two-headed bird. One of the heads is stronger, and gets all the good food, not sharing with the other head, no matter how much he pleads. So the other head eats some poisoness berries, in the end killing both it’s heads.

You could spend weeks reading through these stone picture books, there were over two thousand illustrated panels. Then once you worked through all the illustrated panels, you reached the circular terraces, which had 72 Buddas concealed under stupas, which are like domes with lattice work on them. The first layer is diamonds, the last layer is squares, to signify reaching a more solid inner peace. Then on top is the largest stupa, which is empty inside. This is Nirvana, meeting complete inner peace, which is how we felt after this exciting adventure.

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