Landing at Solo airport in central Java, we noticed a certain swagger to Indonesian men. It's not the swarthy skin, the louche moustache or the cool Gudang Garam cigarettes they wield. Theirs are the brightest, most richly printed shirts on the planet. While Hawaiian men and Nelson Mandela give them a run for their money, even they cannot compete with the high pigment, life-affirming patterns on the Indonesian torsos. Ladies too, toted pretty sarongs, and some covered their heads with knotted jilbabs. Theirs must be some of the most picturesque washing lines in the world.
Just beyond, green mountains loomed high, and rice fields sprawled in the valleys, with farmers bending and lifting. It could have been a scene from any equatorial valley, except for the conical hats and the traditional granaries built of straw, called lumbungs, which stood on stilts like sentries in the fields.
We had come to explore the famous eighth century Buddhist Mandala, (a teaching monument) and to trek in the nearby countryside whilst staying at the equally famous Amanjiwo resort, but it was slow progress as the scenery, like the wait-a-bit thorn, kept hooking us to the edge of the road.
Pointing to the tallest mountain, our guide said: "That's Mount Merapi, most active volcano. Pacific Ring of Fire here, so many earthquakes, so many explosions. Want to climb?" Looking at the rather ominous dark ash spewing from the crater, we declined, opting for a gentler stroll further west from muttering Merapi to Selogrio, the sedate Hindu Temple instead.
We plodded along velvet paddy contours past village streets so narrow, the women had to roll back their drying grain to make way for us. Keeping flocks of pigeons seemed a popular hobby. A group of schoolboys (wearing printed uniform shirts) headed to school on a tonga. The hills and valleys were magnificent with runaway rivers and Jackfruit flowers that whistled like birds when the wind blew. The lone temple stood on the hilltop, with Ganesh, Parvati and a couple of Apsaras beaming at the fields below.
Of all the monuments I've seen, the mandala at Borubudur near Yogyakarta manages to convey the philosophy of a religion best. It was built by the Mahayana Buddhist King Sheilendra around 800 AD as a miniature of the Buddhist cosmos. I circled up a gradual slope. The high walls on both sides were carved with scenes depicting Buddha's life and his teachings. As I climbed higher, the walls became lower, making me experience a shedding of worldly weight. At the top, there were forms of Buddha meditating in semi-enclosed bell shapes. Higher still, there was the vast open sky and the breeze. At the finale of the walk, weightlessness was palpable, and the message was clearly understood. I'd read that the monument was re-discovered by the British Governor, Stanford Raffle's men in 1814. I wondered what had made it disappear for centuries? I asked the guide, and he said: "Mount Merapi is the culprit. It erupted and all of this was covered in volcanic ash." Look at it, he said, pointing towards its peak. "The gun is still smoking."
How to get there: Fly from Singapore or Bali to Solo or Yogyakarta airport in Central Java
Where to stay: The luxe Amanjiwo resort echoes the Borobudur temple in its architecture
Affordable style: The Manoraha Hotel Mt. Bromo Lava Lodge is close to Mount Merapi
Explore: The Buddhist mandala Borobudur, The Prambanan temples, museum and antique market in Yogyakarta.
Trek: An arduous trek to Mount Merapi summit or a more gentle climb to the Selogrio Temple in the Menoreh Hills.