A day exploring Central Java small businesses: tofu, batik, palm sugar & coffee

Making tofu

After visiting Borobudur Temple and Mendut, we wanted to see a little more of Central Java. I was particularly interested in seeing tofu production and the making of batik. Our hotel, Amata Borobudur Resort, suggested a horse-drawn carriage (an-dong) tour, but that sounded way too touristy to me…and I wanted to be able to return to the refuge of air conditioning periodically! My desire for creature comforts turned out to be the ticket to a really interesting day since a car allowed us to roam far afield and our driver wasn’t limited to the tourist “craft village” favored by the an-dongs.

Our first clue that the day was going to be something unique came as our driver roamed a neighborhood filled with small tofu makers, apparently looking at random for one that would let us observe. It was easy to spot the homes where tofu was being made by the piles of wood outside. The wood was fuel for the underground furnaces used to heat the vats of soy product. At his first stop, our guide was sent to another place further down a residential road. We waited as he went inside, then came back out to tell us we could go in. As we entered, a cat with kittens watched from a ramshackle space piled high with sacks of soybeans.

We walked past men working with huge, furnace-heated vats (see lead photo and video below) to watch women frying, straining and packaging tofu to be sold at a local market.

Frying tofu

With 8 or 9 people working, this turned out to be the largest business we’d see for the day. We weren’t expected, our driver didn’t seem to know anyone, and no one asked for any sort of payment. Nevertheless, we were made to feel welcome and tolerated with friendliness as we wandered and watched the activity and tried to stay out of their way. A man poured steaming liquid into a mesh then weighted it with a large stone, then a second man pressed this into a mold. Another man carried the rectangles of hot, molded tofu to a woman in another room who placed the rectangles on shelves to cool before yet other women cut, fried and sorted the tofu for packaging. It was hot, busy work.

Driving through more rural residential neighborhoods, we passed houses with large mats on which rice dried in the sun. Our driver questioned people on the side of the road before finding our next destination. We were surprised and pleased at the apparent randomness of our stops. Our driver obviously knew which neighborhoods specialized in certain activities, but had no “special friend” he was taking us to for a kick-back, the all-too-common experience with tour guides. The way he was going about finding places to show us gave things an authentic feel we appreciated.

Drying rice

Our next stop, a husband and wife-owned batik-making enterprise (apparently the result of one of those random inquiries by our driver to passers-by), Lumbini Batik House, was more geared toward visitors. The wife showed us their work in progress, then offered us a selection of patterns on small cloth squares to try our hand at batik making. She showed us how to use a special tool to go over the lines of the patterns with melted wax.

Making batik: Drawing outlines with melted wax

We made some mistakes and David dripped a spot on our project, so we improvised by elaborating the design and adding our initials. A young woman then dipped our cloth in a deep blue dye. The finished product wasn’t bad! Our hostess showed us around her lush garden, pointing out the fruit, bark and leaves that were used for dyes and offering us fruit to eat.

Offering fruit from the batik house garden

After viewing an adjacent shop, but not really wanting or needing to buy anything, we paid our hostess a small amount for her time and our project.

Our finished product.

Since we’d read and heard about Pawon Temple as finishing out a triumvirate with Borobudur and Mendut, we asked our driver to take us there. Pawon turned out to be a tiny “temple” with little to see. It was open to the public without fee.

Pawon Temple

Much more interesting than the little temple was a stop at the nearby home/workshop of a tiny lady who makes palm sugar.

The woven house of the palm sugar lady
Making palm sugar disks

With our driver translating, she showed us how she cooked the sugar in the half-light that filtered through the woven walls of her kitchen. Afterwards, she offered us tea and thick, crispy homemade soybean chips along with disks of her rich, still-warm palm sugar. The sugar reminded me of those semi-soft maple sugar candies found in Vermont and Canada. Delicious!

I felt like the Jolly Green Giant next to our diminutive hostess!

Our final stop was at a small shop a short walk from the sugar lady’s home. We’d tried luwak coffee before in Bali and really enjoyed it, so wanted to give a Javanese version a try. While luwak coffee — made from coffee beans “processed” through the digestive system of a luwak or palm civet — is billed as “the most expensive coffee in the world” and can reportedly cost $30/cup(!) in California, it’s not expensive in Bali and Java.

A tame “luwak” or palm civet. He’s nocturnal, so a little groggy.

We enjoyed our cup of joe, but found it to be not nearly as unusual or tasty as what we had in Bali. This was a pleasant stop, but by far the least interesting of the day. Oh well, we’d had much fun and were ready to head home to our hotel for a little late afternoon pool time and dinner.

Our driver cost us about $30 for the day, a value we were more than happy with.

Amata Borobudur Resort: Javanese bungalows with artistic flair

“Sunibya” bungalow at Amata Borobudur Resort

Eschewing the Manohara Hotel next to Borobudur Temple for something more exotic, smaller and with better dining reviews, I chose Amata Borobudur Resort for our 4-night stay in Central Java. At about $80/night, it was more expensive than a lot of options in the area, but about $60 cheaper/night than the Monohara and with what looked like a lot more local charm and an interesting setting. Amata also provides free transportation to Borobudur Temple (including for sunrise) which is only 10-15 minutes away.

Our 1.5 hour flight from Denpasar, Bali,  was delayed just long enough that we arrived in Yogyakarta, Java, at rush hour. Fortunately, the driver Amata sent for us knew the back roads and was able to dodge some of the traffic once we were out of the city, but what we hoped would be an 1h 20 min drive still stretched to two hours and we arrived after dark. So, the layout of the little resort remained shrouded in mystery and we could only explore our bungalow…which we loved!

Flower petals on the big, comfy bed (along with a tiny salamander) were a nice touch.

Done in classic Javanese style with wooden walls and high ceiling, someone with an artistic touch had really raised it to the next level. The little attention to details charmed us.

What a dramatic and unusual light fixture!
Great organic design. The bag was a sample from the shop in the main building which also sold jewelry and other handmade items.

The shower room, while un-air-conditioned as usual, was surprisingly fully-enclosed. Save for Nusa Dua, all the bathrooms we’d had had openings to the outdoors. This makes large wood ants wandering the bathrooms a common occurrence. We learned to just ignore them. At Amata, no bugs! We did however have a large salamander that lived high in the rafters and “barked” occasionally. Oh well, when in Asia…

The first fully enclosed bathroom we came across in Bali, with a glassed-in skylight.

The next morning dawned bright and sunny and we could survey our new domain. We discovered we had the bungalow furthest from the main building, which we thought was a plus. The distance wasn’t far, but we had lots of privacy and looked out over adjoining rice paddies in the opposite direction.

View from our porch to a neighboring bungalow and the pool. The open-air dining pavilion is beyond the bungalow and the main building/lobby just beyond that.
Beautifully-kept pool. Only minor downside for some is no shade anywhere on the pool itself.

Breakfast in the nearby open-air pavilion turned out to be a multi-course affair served at table.

Javanese rice porridge with hot cane sugar syrup. Yum!
View from our breakfast table
Banana spring rolls for breakfast. Food, like much else at Amata, was artistically presented.

Later, we found dinner to be tasty and even simple dishes we’d grown accustomed to were presented with an extra flair. A limited selection of beer and wine is available, something not always on the menu in Muslim Java.

Amata’s version of one of my favorite Indonesian vegetarian staples, gado gado. It’s not usually served as as a wrap.
Nasi goreng (fried rice) and satay

From Amata Borobudur Resort, it’s a short walk to Mendut Temple which is definitely worth a visit, and very cheap (less than a $1, if I remember correctly).

Inside Mendut Temple

All in all, we really enjoyed Amata Borobudur Resort. I’d stay there again, and feel like we got decent value for the money. I paid 4,500,000 idr ($320 US) for 4 nights, or about $80/night for a “deluxe bungalow.” (Our bungalow was named “Sunibya” and I recommend it for style and location within the resort.) This price included breakfast, 10% tax and 10% service charge. The price is relatively high for the area, but provides a measure of luxury with local flair and is substantially less than the $140 or so rate at the Manohara Hotel next to Borobudur Temple, even factoring in the reduction offered there for entry to the temple. (There’s a spa on-site at Amata as well, but we did not use it.) Plenty of budget options exist in the area, for those looking for more basic accommodations. I booked via Booking.com as they had the best rate at the time and I used Topcashback to get even more off. (Currently, Topcashback is offering a 7% rebate on Booking.com bookings. If you’re not a Topcashback member, you can use my link  here.)

Amata arranged a driver for us to and from Yogyakarta Airport for 300,000 idr each way ($21.34). There was no additional charge for our pre-dawn departure. They also arranged a driver for us to explore the region for a day which turned out to be a great experience and far less touristy than we feared, a bonus of choosing a car which could wander much further than the horse-drawn tourist cart tour they initially suggested. (A car also offers air conditioning, a huge and irreplaceable bonus is steamy Central Java.) The cost was around $30. We paid via credit card for the 3 drivers when we settled our room bill.

The only minor “complaint” I have about the location of Amata Borobudur Resort is that the several mosques in the area begin an almost comical competition of calls to prayer many times a day, some starting in the wee hours and all over loudspeakers. I’m not sure it would be much better elsewhere in the area, though.

 

Central Java: Sunrise at Borobudur Temple

Dawn at Borobudur

When Bali topped the list to kick off David’s “3-month birthday party,” I knew I had to add Borobudur Temple in Central Java to our itinerary. I first heard of Borobudur 15+ years ago from a Frenchwoman at a conversation group in Paris. Her description of this once-lost magnificent Buddhist temple in the jungle sounded magical. An Internet search confirmed everything she said. Now, after all these years, Borobudur was going to be a short flight away from where we planned to be. The opportunity was irresistible!

Planning months in advance, I had my choice of hotels. The most logical first choice seemed to be the Manohara Hotel, located next door to the temple and the sole source of Sunrise Borobudur tickets. At around $140, it was expensive by local standards, but more of a turn-off were the mediocre reviews of rooms and the restaurant. The grounds looked lovely and the location couldn’t be beat, but the rest looked uninspiring. Hmm. Searching further, I hit on the Amata Borobudur Resort, a place that looked romantic and that seemed more like my ideal of a Javanese retreat.

Amata offered free transportation to Manohara (a ten-minute drive) for Borobudur Sunrise, which was the ticket I wanted. Post-sunrise tickets are cheaper, but also more crowded…and minus sunrise! (The sunrise ticket also includes the loan of a flashlight, a post-temple snack at the hotel and a souvenir batik scarf.) Our mini-van driver walked our little group into the hotel and stood in line to buy the tickets for us which we reimbursed him for in cash or credit card. Tickets are unlimited, so are sold on the morning of entry. Another advantage of the sunrise timeslot is that, while popular, the price and hour mean the crowds are less. (Cruise ships even run tours here from the port at Semarang, which I gather is about a 3-hour drive each way. That means hordes from a ship could descend later in the morning. I’d check online port schedules if doing Borobudur later in the day.)

Sunrise behind Mt. Merapi

Sunrise admission to the temple starts at 4:30am. It was a short walk from the Manohara Hotel to the stairs that lead to the top of the 8-9th century temple, which is an atypical structure for Buddhist temples, consisting of a large square pyramid with 72 Buddhas in open, lattice-style stupas on the topmost levels. (“Stupa” is Sanskrit for “heap” and refers to those bell-shaped holy structures common to Buddhist temples.) Borobudur Temple (or “Candi Borobudur” in Indonesian) consists of three tiers comprised of a base of five concentric square terraces, a cone-shaped center with three circular platforms and a large stupa at the very top. When we arrived at the next-to-the-top level, just below the giant stupa, a fair number of people were already waiting in the dark for sunrise. It was not so crowded as to be a problem, disturb the peace of the place, or hinder photography to any great extent.

Early morning visitors assembled for sunrise atop Borobudur Temple
Buddha inside a lattice-work stupa

We were blessed with a perfect morning; blue skies and sweet, fresh air. Birds sang and roosters crowed in distant farms as the sun rose. A light mist filled the valley below. Volcanoes rose in the distance, becoming clearer as time passed. I found the changing light and its effects on the scene mesmerizing and could not help taking way too many photos.

Buddha surveying the morning

With the sun fully up, we descended, following the pilgrimage trail created by the temple, only in reverse. The lower levels are lined with elaborate relief carvings. In fact, Borobudur boasts the largest and most complete collection of Buddhist reliefs in the world.

Relief carvings beneath a stupa

We took our time, admiring the carvings and the view. More people began to arrive at the temple as time passed. A few hours was plenty to arrive before dark, enjoy sunrise, and make a leisurely descent. The temple is large, but a single edifice and nothing on the scale of, say, the temple complex at Angkor.

Looking back up towards the central stupa atop the temple

The base of the temple pyramid is surrounded by a stone terrace. The temple is so large, that we had to walk a distance out to be able to take it all in. To our pleasant surprise, the temperature remained delightfully comfortable throughout our visit, another benefit of the sunrise visit. I was totally braced for another sweltering day and expecting to be a sweaty mess a la Angkor in Cambodia (and most places we’d been in Indonesia), so couldn’t have been happier.

 

Tip for exiting Borobudur: One of the complaints I read repeatedly in reviews of Borobudur was that there seemed to be no way to exit the complex without being routed through a maze of tourist stalls and pushy hawkers. Some claimed it took them 45-minutes to get through this gauntlet. To avoid this, take a path which is to the left of the top of the stairs in the photo below, ignoring the “Exit” signs which direct you to the opposite side of the temple, and follow the signs to Manohara. Even if you did not buy the sunrise ticket, there’s no reason you can’t exit this way toward the hotel and avoid the vendors.

The people in this photo are descending the exit path to Manohara.

The exit to Manohara routed us to an open-air restaurant on the hotel grounds where we were offered coffee, pastries and a souvenir batik scarf. It was a nice gesture, but we only nibbled. Given our early start, we were back at our hotel in time for an 8-8:30 breakfast.

Station at the restaurant offering pastries
Coffee, pastries and a souvenir scarf

Practical info: Tickets for Sunrise Borobudur are available through the Manohara Hotel or “Center for Borobudur Study” as it bills itself. The cost is 450,000 idr (about $32pp) for foreign visitors, 325,000 for domestic visitors, and 275,000 (about $19.60pp) for visitors staying in the hotel. Manohara also offers sunset tickets for the same prices. Tour operators may also supply these tickets, but they’re buying them at Manohara.

Regular (not sunrise or sunset) tickets to Borobudur Temple cost 325,000 idr (about $23.15) per adult in 2018. Combo tickets for Borobudur, Mendut and Pawon temples are also available, although we found tiny Pawon temple (which we visited the following day) was open and free with not much to see. Mendut, which we could walk to from our hotel, cost a negligible price at the site. I think less than a dollar, but am not sure.

This post is long enough (all those photos I couldn’t resist!), so I’ll do a separate post on our hotel, Amata Borobudur Resort, just after this one.