By the time I was done with sunrise at Borobudur, it was still only 6.30 a.m. People in Singapore only start waking up around that time for work but the crowds were already streaming into the park. My bus back to Yogyakarta wouldn’t leave for another five hours. After inhaling a plate of mi goreng for breakfast, I rented a bicycle across the road from my hotel and was ready to find the other sights around Borobudur.
The well-travelled among us would probably recognise that Borobudur, near Yogyakarta, Indonesia, is the world’s biggest Buddhist temple complex. They may not realise that the second-largest one, Candi Sewu, is also within spitting distance of the city’s airport. Best of all, it’s a mere 15-minute stroll from Prambanan; you can visit both on the same admission ticket.
Even though Prambanan is a Hindu site, Sewu has stood alongside it for hundreds of years. Rival worshippers didn’t rip each other’s sanctuaries apart (thankfully). Instead, earthquakes and souvenir hunters were what reduced both sites to rubble, before UNESCO elevated Prambanan to the status of a World Heritage Site.
Despite its proximity to such a storied Indonesian attraction, Sewu sees far fewer visitors. It’s not terribly pretty to look at from most angles, and there aren’t any ballet performances in front of it, but it’s no less significant in the local culture than its famous neighbour.
I’ve never been a big fan of jostling with crowds on my travels. When I learnt that I could avoid them by visiting Borobudur at sunrise, there wasn’t going to be any other way I was going to do it. The early entry costs extra was worth every extra Rupiah (400,000 Rp vs the usual 230,000 Rp). This is Indonesia’s single biggest attraction after all.
The sunrise visit begins at the Manohara hotel, which has its own entrance to the site. One doesn’t need to stay at the Manohara to enjoy this; just show up at 4.30 a.m. if you prefer to wait and see what the weather does. Spaces are limited, however. It can be reached on foot from Saraswati (where I spent the night) and Lotus guesthouses. It’s safe to walk through the village that early. The motocab drivers still asked if I wanted to go to Borobudur when I was clearly heading there, but it was more amusing than annoying. [Read on]
It’s really easy to dine among and like the locals in Indonesia; just pop into one of the lesehan for a meal. Lesehan simply refers to trading or dining on a woven straw mat. It’s a common practice on the island of Java and in Bali. There are no special rules:
- Take off sandals (why would you wear any other footwear in this country?)
- Sit cross-legged on the mat
- Order a local speciality, like bebek goreng (fried duck) or a simple mie goreng (fried noodles)
- Wait for food to arrive. Chit chat, smoke, do as you and your friends please
- Eat (photo taking is optional)
- Remember to pay
If one is in Yogyakarta, as I was a few weeks ago, finding one is a piece of cake. Plenty of lesehan stalls pop up along Jalan Malioboro, the main shopping boulevard, in the evenings. It’s dirt cheap and very casual. Observing locals catch up over street food and rough tobacco was a nice break from navigating the sweaty mass of batik shoppers, motor vehicles and horses.
Despite the number of hotels along that stretch, one hardly ever sees tourists under those tents. The lack of air-conditioning may be a factor; perhaps the Asian acquiescence to doing things on the floor also makes outsiders uncomfortable. All over the continent, we sit, eat, conduct business and sleep on it like it’s second nature to us. It may even be healthier. I’d say that from a minimalist point of view, it’s nice to not have to buy and pack up chairs.
Admittedly some stalls look sketchy, and there are so many along the entire street that it’s difficult to pick one. Placed in that position, I’d pick the most popular-looking joint. According to locals there is no difference in quality among the stalls anyway.
Lesehan elsewhere in Yogyakarta
For those willing to venture further for something that looks less dodgy, there are permanent lesehan along Jalan Wijilan, close to Yogyakarta’s keraton. The best part is that these stores specialise in gudeg (stewed jackfruit). I followed the wisdom of the crowd and went where the most scooters were gathered.
After a good walk to get there from the hostel, I was mindful of the grime that was on my feet and ankles. At home I can rinse myself if I feel the need to, but not here. It took a few seconds to forget about it and ease myself at the table.
No such worries when the food arrived on the rattan tray. The sweet jackfruit, spicy beef chicharon and tofu platter tasted like home-cooked food from another mother. There was no lack of sweet drinks to provide relief from the heat. This complete meal cost less than US$2.