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Java travel guide

For 1,000 years, from the time of the great Hindu-Buddhist empires up to the early 1800s, Java’s population of 3.5 million remained relatively stable. Wet-rice cultivation was the basis of civilisation, and as long as the population was small, farmers produced vast surpluses. Then in the 19th century a forced-labour cultivation system instigated by the Dutch to increase food supplies resulted in a spiralling birth rate. By 1900, the population had soared to 28 million and today stands at nearly five times that number.

More than half of its inhabitants live in traditional villages, eking out a subsistence lifestyle as farmers or fishermen. At the other end of the spectrum are its major cities: Jakarta, the nation’s capital and the nucleus of Indonesian business, finance and politics, is here. A bustling metropolis, its people cohabitate with glittering skyscrapers, pricey shopping malls and bumper-to-bumper traffic. Surabaya, Indonesia’s second largest city, is a sprawling commercial centre and the primary trading port for the islands to the east. On the north coast is Semarang with its intriguing mix of descendants of traders from afar.

In the interior, the island’s remaining forests are now limited to its 12 national parks protecting some of the Earth’s rarest creatures. Trekking, climbing, birdwatching and wildlife-spotting at Gunung Bromo, Ujung Kulon and Gunung Merapi attract adventurers and naturalists. Two parks – Kepulauan Seribu and Karimunjawa – are marine preserves; Alas Purwo has some of the world's best pipeline surfing outside Hawaii. 

At the heart of the Javanese culture is Yogyakarta, where painters, gamelan musicians, batik artists and dancers study and perform. Its rich court culture remains in the soul of every Javanese. Outside its realm are Borobudur and Prambanan and countless smaller temples, remnants of past glorious kingdoms.

Places to visit in Java

Jakarta

The charms of this huge sprawling metropolis are well hidden, but Jakarta dwellers are proud of the cultural and intellectual life in their ever-changing, chaotic capital city.

Borobudur

This huge temple was built sometime during the relatively short Sailendra dynasty between AD 778 and 856 – 300 years before Angkor Wat and 200 years before Notre-Dame. Yet, within little more than a century of its completion, Borobudur was mysteriously abandoned. At about the same time, neighbouring Gunung Merapi erupted violently, covering Borobudur in volcanic ash and debris, and concealing it for centuries.

In 1900, the Dutch government responded to cries of outrage from within its own ranks and established a committee for the restoration of Borobudur. The huge task was accomplished between 1907 and 1911 by a Dutch military engineer with a keen interest in Javanese antiquities. 

During the 1950s and 1960s, it became increasingly evident that Borobudur was structurally endangered. UNESCO was called in to direct a rescue operation. The scale of the project was spectacular. It took nine long years to dismantle, catalogue, photograph, clean, treat and reassemble a total of 1,300,232 stone blocks. Each stone had to be individually inspected, scrubbed and chemically treated before being replaced. In the end, the work was completed at a cost of US$25 million, more than three times the original estimate.

Seen from the air, Borobudur forms a mandala, a geometric aid for meditation. Seen from a distance on the ground, Borobudur is a stupa, a model of the cosmos in three vertical parts: a square base supporting a hemispheric body and a crowning spire. The traditional pilgrimage route approaches from the east, and ascends the terraced monument, circumambulating each terrace clockwise in succession to see how every relief and carving contributes to the whole. 

It is unlikely that the full import of Borobudur as a religious monument will ever be known. An estimated 30,000 stone-cutters and sculptors, 15,000 labourers and thousands more masons worked to build the original monument. At a time when the entire population of Central Java numbered less than a million, this represented perhaps ten per cent of the available workforce in one single effort.

Gunung Bromo

Gunung Bromo (Mount Bromo) is an ancient caldera 10km (six miles) across, with four smaller peaks rising in the centre, ranging between 300m and 400m (1,000–1,300ft). Surrounding these peaks on the crater floor is sand and lush vegetation; every few years cinder and ash pour forth in eruptions to carpet the countryside with nutrient-rich deposits.

There are two ways to take in the view: either from the crater’s edge or a panorama of the entire caldera from afar (if time permits, watch the sunrise from both vistas). For the first, start from Cemara Lawang at 2am or 3am to catch an incredible sunrise at the peak. Make the trek across the sand-sea floor, either by pony or by foot, and once at the base of the crater, climb up an incline of 250 steps. At the top is a narrow lip from where you can look into the belly of the belching sulphurous centre of the crater and take in the 360-degree view of the entire caldera and the majestic Gunung Semeru, Java’s highest peak at 3,676m (12,060ft).

For the panoramic view, hire a jeep to Gunung Penanjakan, 400m (1,300ft) above Gunung Bromo and about 3km (two miles) to the west; then it is a short hike along a paved road to the summit. Usually less crowded here, the view is just as amazing. All arrangements need to be made the night before. Both walks can be done in the pre-dawn period; if time is limited, enjoy sunrise at Gunung Penanjakan and after breakfast take a pony ride for the view of Bromo’s navel. June to October, during the dry season, is the best time to visit.

Every year, thousands of Hindu Tenggerese participate in a midnight procession to toss offerings into Gunung Bromo’s caldera in a festival called Kasodo. Descendants of those who fled to Bali when Islamic kingdoms overtook Central Java, their beliefs are more closely related to the Hindu-Buddhist religion of that time than to the Bali-Hinduism practised today in the neighbouring island. Their offerings to the spirits of Gunung Bromo are meant to assure blessings for the coming year.

Yogyakarta

Sprawling Yogyakarta (Jogja) is situated at the very core of an ancient region known as Mataram, site of the first great Central Javanese empires. From the eighth to the early 10th century, this fertile plain was ruled by a succession of Indianised kings – the builders of Borobudur, Prambanan and dozens of other elaborate stone monuments. Around AD 900, these rulers suddenly and inexplicably shifted their capital to East Java, and for more than six centuries Mataram was deserted.

At the end of the 16th century, the area was revived by a new Islamic power based at Kota Gede, east of present-day Jogja. This second Mataram dynasty was founded around 1575 by King Panembahan Senopati. The Yogyakarta and Surakarta (Solo) sultanates came into being in 1755 when the Dutch – fearful of Mataram’s power – split the kingdom into two parts, further dividing each sultanate into two separate entities to dilute their influence. The present sultan of Yogyakarta is descended from one of two Yogyakarta royal families, hence there are two palaces in Jogja. The Yogyakarta court was twice invaded by foreigners for failure to comply with colonial instructions – once by the Dutch in 1810 and again by the British in 1812. Later, it was swept into the Great Java War (1825–30), led by the charismatic crown prince of the ruling family, Pangeran Diponegoro.

In more recent times, Jogja served as the capital of the troubled Indonesian republic for four long years during the fight against the Dutch, from 1945 until 1949. This was a time of extraordinary social ferment. Six million refugees, more than a million young fighters and an enlightened young sultan (Hamengkubuwono IX) transformed the venerable court city into a hotbed of revolutionary idealism. Rewarded for its efforts by the new Indonesian government, Jogja was awarded Special Province status and enjoys the same privileges as the capital city, Jakarta. Today, it is Jogja’s cultural attractions that travellers come to see – ancient temples, palaces, batik, gamelan, dances and wayang puppet performances.

Top hotels in Java

  • The Dharmawangsa

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Jl. Brawijaya Raya No.26

Jakarta

tel: 021-725 8181

Intimate boutique-style hotel with only 100 rooms, a third of which are suites. A haven of understated luxury, with expensive artworks throughout. The dramatic Sriwijaya restaurant combines Western flair and presentation with local ingredients and traditional Indonesian flavours.


  • Losari Coffee Plantation and Spa

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Desa Losari Grabag, Magelang

Java

tel: 0298-596 333

A lovely boutique resort situated on 22 hectares (54 acres) of working coffee plantation nestled in the highlands 900m (2,953ft) above sea level. Approximately an hour's drive from Jogja, Solo and Semarang, it has 26 restored joglo villas, a spa, infinity pool, delicious food and, of course, great coffee.

  • Hotel Tugu Malang

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Jl. Tugu No. 3, Malang

Java

tel: 0341-363 891

This award-winning boutique hotel has splendidly appointed rooms. The luxuriously cosy ambience of the museum hotel is punctuated by superb Javanese and Chinese antiques.

Top restaurants in Java

  • Oasis

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Jl. Raden Saleh, No. 47

Jakarta

tel: 021-315 0646

A landmark restaurant full of old-world colonial elegance. The speciality is rijstaeffel, served by waitresses in traditional dress, each carrying a separate dish.

  • Sari

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Jl. Slamet Riyadi, No. 351, Solo

Java

tel: 0271-719 317

This is the best Javanese restaurant in Solo. Specialities here are nasi liwet (a Solo speciality consisting of rice cooked in coconut cream with garnishes), fried chicken and various types of pepes (steamed or grilled seafood or mushrooms wrapped in banana leaf).

  • Melati Pavilion

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Hotel Tugu Malang, Jl. Tugu, No. 3, Malang

Java

tel: 0341-363 891

This beautiful garden restaurant offers delicious Indonesian home cooking, Chinese Peranakan and Dutch colonial cuisine. Freshly baked bread is served up for breakfast.

Read more about Indonesia

Read more about Indonesia in Insight Guides: Indonesia

Insight Guides: Indonesia

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Places to visit in Java

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