A clash of colour, culture and smiles in wonderful Indonesia

What does one wear for a visit to a sultan’s palace?

This personal invitation for members of our group during a visit to Indonesia’s island of Java causes a bit of a stir in the wardrobe department – or, more accurately, what we happen to have in our suitcase! Evening gown, cocktail dress, jacket and tie, dinner suit, we wonder.

Batik factory workersThankfully, guidelines advise to include something of batik design. And, as the theme of our stay in Java is the Three Kingdoms of Batik, exploring the heritage, culture, design and production of this beautiful fabric, it isn’t too difficult as we’re all gifted a sarong, a wrap, a shirt or a top. Shoulders, upper arms and legs covered, feeling privileged, we remove our shoes at the doors of the marble-floored Mangkunegaran Palace, dating back to 1785 and located in Solo, central Java.

We meet and greet the princesses, black, polished hair styled into huge buns, with respectful, prayer-like hands and view priceless heirlooms – jewels, masks and gold locked away in cabinets. Tinkling Gamelan percussion instruments make the only sounds as silent and mesmerised, we sit and watch the controlled, syncronised moves of two exquisite female dancers. Their performance is followed by a male duo, who interpret the struggle between good and evil. I’m honoured to receive a garland of jasmine and tuberose flowers. With every breath, the heady, heavy scent fills my senses.

Learning Batik skillsAt about the size of England, volcanic Java, only the fourth largest island in Indonesia, is the most densely populated island in the world. Arguably, the most cosmopolitan of Indonesia’s islands, in some regions it bursts with energy. However, in Yogyarkarta, there’s an air of spirituality, culture and learning, which boasts historic sites and fine temples. Selective Asia offers an unforgettable, authentic Indonesian travel experience which can be tailor made to suit families, honeymooners, singles, couples and adventurers.

From train and coach windows, we see shanty towns of concrete breeze-block shacks with corrugated roofs, old Dutch colonial-style buildings and wide-reaching, green paddy fields. It’s considered impolite not to smile at strangers here, so in response, my teeth are bared constantly.

In Java, batik, a UNESCO World Heritage product, forms part of an ancient tradition. As we discover on visits to three different areas or kingdoms, the art of decorating cloth, using wax and dye, in this way, has been practised for centuries. The red colour, known as ‘chicken blood’, is typical of Lasem; the indigo blue relates to Pekalongan and the brown, in Solo, represents Javanese cultural wisdom.

Rinsing out the dyeWax is applied via a canting, a pipe-like, small tool with bamboo handle, to prevent dye from penetrating the cloth, leaving ‘blank’ areas in the dyed fabric. The process, ie wax resist then dye, can be repeated to create complex multi-coloured designs of flowers, birds, butterflies and abstract motifs, with symbols linked to prayer, hope, balance and harmony.

In batik factories, skilled female workers smile for photographs and ask for ‘selfies’ with their western guests. They perch on low stools for up to eight hours and are paid the equivalent of just £3 a day for their labours. Extended families often live in large houses where an aunt, sister or grandmother cares for the children while their mother is at work in the batik house or factory. This mutual support system is called Gotong Royong.

Batik even finds its way into Java’s thriving tobacco industry. At a cigarette factory in Juwana, women feed clove-scented tobacco into machines which roll it into paper. Each cigarette is hand-trimmed with scissors. Insert paper, fill with tobacco, pull lever, snip with scissors. Repeat process for eight hours. The workers giggle at my lame attempt to replicate their skills. Some cigarettes are hand-decorated with a ground coffee liquid in batik designs.

Prambanan TempleIn the 19th to early 20th century opium smoking was widespread in Lasem. At Lembang, in a former opium house built in the 18th century, a hole in the ground accesses a large water tunnel whereby containers of opium were smuggled into the house from small fishing boats on the river and the sea.

I’m wide-eyed and almost breathless at the first sight of the 9th century temple, Pranganam, in Yogyakarta. A UNESCO Heritage site, this is the largest Hindu temple site in Indonesia. It comprises a 147ft high central structure, dedicated to the goddess Shiva, surrounded by hundreds additional temples, constructed of carved stone, now age-blackened. The largest of these feature huge statues of deities and multiple relief designs depict important myths.

I stand and stare until groups of schoolchildren on a cultural visit beg for five minutes of my time to practise their English. I encourage and question them about their lives and families. They ask, hesitantly, about mine in turn.

Grandpa Lo the oldest man in his villageWomen with young children and babies at the Karang Jahe white-sanded beach want to communicate, take photos and touch my blonde hair. Perhaps they don’t know it’s dyed!  It’s around 36°C and in this mainly Muslim, developing country, women are in traditional headscarves and long robes. We laugh together. Then, as traditional boats bob on the Pacific Ocean, I pick up a black starfish and follow a hermit crab looking for a new home.

The oldest resident in a Chinese village, known as Grandad Lo, sits on a step and gazes at passers-by. At 98, he stands on crooked legs as I follow him into his spacious, but sparsely-furnished house. The dining room at the back has no exterior wall and faces a huge yard of gnarled old trees, rubble and stony, dusty ground. Rain falls almost daily from October until May, but the temperature rarely falls below 28°C.

A taste of luxury for us, though, via an overnight stay at the five-star Phoenix Hotel, Yogyakarta. The wonderful building, which features a fusion of Asian and European decor, dates back to 1918. The glorious balconies, terrace, courtyard and stunning pool of jade green water combine to make this an oasis of tranquillity, far removed from the head-splitting sounds of jostling motorcyclists and drivers weaving around pedestrians on busy roads.

Who's wearing the trousersTempeh, made from fermented soya beans, is a tasty, nourishing staple which appears on almost every hotel, restaurant and family table. Fragrant noodles, rice and chicken dishes are flavoured with chilli, lemon grass, ginger and roasted peanut sauce. Some foods, however, might seem a bit strange to European palates.

Fried fish head, fresh fruit salad with a mayonnaise topping or chicken porridge, anyone?

To find out more about Indonesia, please visit Wonderful Indonesia.

For travel to Indonesia, Silver Travel Advisor recommends Selective Asia.

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Marion Ainge

Freelance travel writer & member of the International Travel Writers’ Alliance

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