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 workers Thankfully, 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 skills At 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 dye Wax 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 Temple In 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 village Women 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 trousers Tempeh, 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.

126 people found this helpful
19161

Share Article:

Marion Ainge

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

Leave a comment

*

Sign up to our newsletter to receive the latest travel tips on top destinations.

Join the club

Become a member to receive exclusive benefits

Our community is the heart of Silver Travel Advisor, we love nothing more than sharing ideas, inspiration, hints and tips between us.

Most Recent Articles

With over 7,000 years of history, Malta is the ultimate holiday destination for any history buff!…

Come feel the love on a Princess cruise. You’ll enjoy the MedallionClass experience others simply can’t, and it’s exclusively for everyone. Visit incredible destinations and be involved in the best experiences around each one of them.

Experience more with Princess and connect effortlessly with the world around you, spend time away with loved ones, take a moment for yourself, and fall in love with your holiday of a lifetime, every time.

With over 20 years of experience, Wendy Wu Tours has mastered the art of creating exceptional, fully inclusive tours which showcase the very best of each destination.

Each tour is led by a world-class guide, who will highlight the very best of their homeland, and includes authentic cultural experiences so you are not just seeing the sights, but truly immersing yourself in local life.

Say hello to ease at sea. Ambassador’s purpose is simple: they want to inspire every guest to experience authentic cruising, effortlessly and sustainably. Passionate about protecting our oceans and destinations, their ships comply with the highest industry emission standards and there is no single-use plastic on board.

On your voyage, you will receive the warmest of welcomes from the Ambassador community as you sail upon the friendliest ships afloat.

This is a global co-operative co-owned by local partners using real local experts and guides, which supports local communities, environments and wildlife. It offers travellers quirky places to stay, activity holidays and learning experiences. Not In The Guidebooks gets travellers off the beaten track into local culture with day experiences and longer, immersive adventures.

From wild wellness breaks in Wales to painting in Portugal, sustainable adventures in Mauritius to food safaris in Brazil, this is immersive, exciting travel.

Seabourn’s five intimate ships carry guests to the heart of great cities, exclusive yacht harbours and secluded coves around the world, while two new purpose-built expedition ships will combine exhilarating adventures in remote destinations with the sophisticated amenities of the world’s finest resorts at sea.

From the luxury of all suite accommodations to complimentary fine wines and spirits, and a no tipping policy, Seabourn exemplifies the definition of travelling well.