In Java, exploring the temples, palaces, and volcanic scenery while fasting with local friends makes for a uniquely immersive experience of Indonesia’s most populous isle.
With countries across the Muslim world asking their citizens to stay at home this Ramadan, I can’t help recalling an unforgettable trip I went on five years ago with three Indonesian friends. I was living in Hong Kong at the time and had recently quit my job, freeing me up for an 11-day romp through the island of Java.
From Jakarta’s Soekarno-Hatta International Airport, we headed straight for the highway, bypassing the Indonesian capital to drive eastward on the just-completed Cipali toll road. First up on the itinerary was Cirebon, a once-important port whose local culture blends not just indigenous Javanese and Sundanese traditions, but also influences from the Chinese, Arab, and Indian traders who left their mark on the town over the centuries. After two days exploring its heritage buildings, we turned off the Pantura—the main national artery following Java’s north coast—and headed into the highlands up country roads that grew increasingly stony and overgrown. Our destination was the Dieng Plateau, a volcanic wonderland in the clouds that the ancient Javanese revered as the abode of gods. Even today, Dieng maintains a mystical aura. Its handful of Hindu-Buddhist temples are remarkably well-preserved, in part because banyan trees and strangler figs cannot thrive in the cooler mountain climes.
In Dieng, the very earth appears to be alive. This is especially so at the bubbling crater of Sikidang, which may or may not have been the source of the sulfurous aroma wafting through the open windows of our village homestay after dark. We braved surprisingly cold temperatures (a thermometer at the trailhead read 3°C) to witness the sun rising over a quartet of volcanoes from the 2,565-meter summit of Mount Prahu. Descending to the lowlands around the city of Yogyakarta, a three-and-a-half-hour drive from Dieng, we toured a variety of temples both famous and lesser-known: Borobudur, Prambanan, Plaosan, Banyunibo. I learned that tourist draws in Java tend to be far less crowded at Ramadan, particularly in the morning.
And there was another dimension to this trip. Led by the example of an American friend in Kabul, I challenged myself to take part in the Ramadan fast, joining my companions as they abstained from food and drink for the 13-odd hours between sunrise and sunset. My very first sahur, or pre-dawn meal, was a plate of delicious nasi goreng. Despite my passion for food, turning my back on meals or snacks during daytime hours was not that difficult; staying hydrated in the wilting tropical heat proved a much bigger hurdle. I eventually concluded that I would never take another glass of water for granted again.
This Ramadan experience taught me the value of slowing down and recalibrating my body clock to match the movement of the sun. We went sightseeing first thing in the morning and late in the afternoon; the midday hours were either spent on the road or resting indoors. Every night was a celebration—we often broke the fast with elaborate meals at restaurants. I recognized the beauty of performing a collective act in step with 1.6 billion others around the world. Through it all, I felt an unspoken kinship with my companions that transcended ideas of race and creed and culture, something my friend in Kabul had so eloquently described on her blog.
Fasting also had the effect of amplifying the sights, smells, sounds, and tastes of the meals that followed. As nightfall descended on Cirebon on the first day of my fast, we hopped between street-side eateries for local specialties such as empal gentong, a curry-like beef soup, and nasi jamblang, or rice served in a fragrant teak leaf with your choice of assorted sides like squid in its own ink, skewered quail eggs, and deep-fried tempeh.
In Yogyakarta, we tucked into royal cuisine at Bale Raos Kraton, a restaurant fronting a shaded courtyard behind the Sultan’s palace. Our table heaved with an array of delights: there were glossy, turmeric-scented catfish rolls, papaya leaves stir-fried in spices, satay, and tender cuts of beef skewered and rubbed with coconut milk. My travel mates soon introduced me to gudeg, a Javanese young jackfruit stew that has since become one of my favorite Indonesian dishes. We lined up for an hour to buy gudeg for takeout from a rustic, down-home venue for sahur. There, I saw how the jackfruit was slow-cooked in a huge cast-iron vat over firewood, then wrapped in a pyramidal parcel of banana leaf and food-grade paper with white rice, chicken, spiced duck egg, stewed cowskin crackers, and tofu or tempeh. The next morning, as I took my first bite of that heap of goodness, I wondered aloud if I was dreaming.
Five years on, I’m still in contact with my Indonesian travel companions. It may well be easier to plan and coordinate a reunion on the road now that we’re all based in and around Jakarta. Next time, I think we should go all the way to Bali.