Thursday, June 21, 2012

Java: Stronger Than A Cup Of Coffee

Given my aching thighs and calves following Kerinci I was glad to spend a considerable amount of time on buses, trains and boats over the following week (although I was less happy by one of my drivers' enthusiasm for trance music played at full blast in the minivan at 2am in the morning). From the fresh, tea plantations of Kersik Tua I headed east to the hot and humid alluvial lowlands of Sumatra and the not-at-all-touristic town of Jambi. My main (only) reason for visiting was the remains of the capital of the once mighty Melayu kingdom that flourished in the 13th and 14th centuries after the fall of the nearby Srivijaya empire. It is this kingdom that gave its name to the Malay peninsula (which it also controlled) and, by extension Malaysia. This has led to friction between the two countries with Indonesians angered that Malaysia is claiming for its own cultural traditions and heritage that Indonesians believe to be rightfully theirs. The most notorious is batik, the colourful, wax-resist dying technique that is used to make intricately patterned clothes. Long ignored by Indonesian authorities Malaysia quietly stepped in claiming it as their own. This led to Indonesians protesting and quickly registering it with UNESCO as part of their intangible cultural heritage. Ever since then Friday has become batik day (the registration was announced on a Friday) when all office workers are obliged to turn up in garish shirts (the most popular designs often incorporating football team logos) in a sort of nationwide "up yours" to their northerly neighbour that they love to hate.

The executive ManU batik shirt - no self-respecting Indonesian office worker would be seen without one on a Friday.

Be that as it may, I was in town to explore the ruins, the largest pre-Islamic remains in Sumatra. That was, however, building it up a bit too much as there is precious little there: some low walls that have been partially restored and the bases of various temples and stupas (before the arrival of Islam to the Indonesian archipelago Hinduism and Buddhism were the dominant religions, coexisting quite well together). All the best artifacts have long been carted off to the national museum in Jakarta. Nevertheless it was an interesting place to visit as on the weekend it is something of a play park for locals who aren't too interested in the centuries-old remains and prefer to hire out tandem bikes and go cycling around the grounds and have picnics on the lawns.

Some of the few, reconstructed remains at Jambi - a stupa and base of a Buddhist temple. The clay bricks used for construction have not survived well in Sumatra's humid, tropical environment.

Once I reached the southernmost tip of Sumatra it was time to take the ferry 25km across the Sunda Strait to Java. Indonesia may be made up of 17,000 islands, and the biggest are Papua, Borneo and Sumatra, but Java is the uncontested heavyweight when it comes to importance and population. Home to some 138 million people (more than half the population in less than 10% of its area) and one of the most densely populated regions on earth. It is the country's financial and cultural powerhouse. Although the distance separating the two major Indonesian islands is small, the difference was immediately noticeable in the order-of-magnitude increase in people and chaos; although the condition of the roads did improve too.

Passengers sitting on the car deck of the cross-Sunda ferry. There are few chairs and they command a premium price, but people don't mind as they spread out newspapers and have a picnic cooled by the brisk sea breeze.

To inoculate myself from the mayhem that is Jakarta, I decided to stop in the sleepy town of Banten along the way. Once home to an important local sultanate that lost out to the Dutch in the struggle for supremacy in Java and the spice trade it has faded into somnolence and is now solely known for its mosque, which is an important pilgrimage site for Muslims in Java. There was a strange reversal of roles where I was left alone by the many souvenir vendors that throng the path to the mosque, concentrating their attentions on the Indonesian visitors. Obviously they've learnt that their brand of religious kitsch doesn't export very well outside the domestic market: mother of pearl pictures of Mecca and framed Koranic verses just aren't going to sway me. Once my peaceful visit to Banten was through I knew there was no putting it off any longer: I took a deep breath, held my nose ... and set out for Jakarta.

Banten's mosque, one of the most important Muslim pilgrimage sites in Indonesia with its distinctive 5-tiered roof.

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