Java shaken, but stirring thanks to big tourism boom
FROM the front seat of an Indonesian becak, or rickshaw-style pedicab, I'm staring uneasily into an oncoming wall of motorcycles.
But I needn't have worried: my becak driver, a toothless old man of leathery skin and a strength which belies his lean frame, pedals steadily on.
He has done this countless times.
The mass of roaring motorcycles divides and slides past me. I feel like a fish swimming upstream.
It's a congested main street in the central Java city of Jogjakarta where motorcycles are the preferred means of transport.
In fact, Indonesia has one of the world's highest ratios of motorcycles to population.
Being a becak driver is extremely hard at the best of times, and lowly paid.
My ride across the city costs a mere couple of dollars in Australian money.
It's been tough to find tourist customers following the Bali bombings and recent earthquakes, not to mention a couple of eruptions from nearby 2920m high volcano Mt Merapi (translated as mountain of fire).
The industry is, however, slowly recovering, with about eight million tourists visiting Indonesia last year.
And with the nation hosting the Miss World Pageant this year, the national tourist office wants to boost that to nine million.
After Bali, Jogjakarta is one of Indonesia's major tourist attractions.
With about 3.3 million people, mostly Muslim, the city is best known for having the world's biggest Buddhist temple, as evidenced in the Guinness Book of World Records, at Borobudur.
And after Bali, the UNESCO World Heritage-listed temple is the most visited place in Indonesia.
Jogjakarta lays claim to being the nation's cultural and educational centre.
It's worth spending a week or more here for the wonderful, spicy Javanese food alone.
We've been roused before dawn to visit the Borobudur temple and to see the sun rise behind Mt Merapi, one of four volcanos that ring the city.
Today, however, the volcano, one of the world's most active, is hiding from us behind low cloud.
So, we press on to see the imposing eighth century Borobudur temple.
Originally 42m high, lightning strikes, and probably earthquakes, including the major quake in 2006, have chopped more than 6m off its top.
More of a stupa design than a temple, it is built of two million blocks of volcanic rock and is used for veneration, worship and meditation.
The temple houses 504 Buddha statues, a quarter of them in small, bell-shaped stupas surrounding the square temple.
I'm told that if you put your arm into a stupa and touch the stone Buddha inside, you will have your wishes come true. Not taking any chances, I reach in and touch a statue.
Even more damaged by earthquakes is the Prambanan temple, 20km east of Jogjakarta.
Claimed to be the tallest Hindu temple in south-east Asia, it rises 47m and is accompanied by 200 other much smaller temples.
Right now the grounds look more like a building site, with a jigsaw puzzle of stone waiting to be reassembled - again, the result of earthquakes.
Our return to Jogjakarta by car is just as fast as our outward journey.
The trick is to attach yourself by chance to the tail end of a motorcycle police escort.
On most tourist itineraries is the Sultan's palace, the Kraton, in the city's heart.
Sultan Hamengku Buwono is the 10th sultan of Jogjakarta and from all accounts is a very personable man.
He is known to go down to the local markets to do his shopping.
Back in Malioboro St, I shop for batik clothing.
Many of the buildings are charming Dutch colonial design and the street is lined with old-fashioned square street lamps.
At night the street comes alive with food stalls, many serving the traditional dish: gudeng.
I haul my shopping back to the splendid old Phoenix Hotel in central Jogjakarta, where it is time for a gin sling.
Forget Raffles Singapore, the Phoenix claims to have invented the drink.
The waiter brings me the ingredients on a tray and ceremonially mixes the brew.
Worth the trip alone.
* The writer travelled with the help of Garuda Indonesia and Indonesia Tourism.
GOOD TO KNOW
The national airline Garuda operates frequent flights into Jogjakarta from Jakarta and other cities. Train and bus services also operate from Jakarta, 600km away.
The five-star Phoenix Hotel. Room tariffs range between $70 and $100 a night.
For more information visit http://www.thephoenixyogya.com.
Omah Dhuwur restaurant, in a unique heritage building, has a daily buffet of Indonesian foods from 1am-3pm and is open until 10pm with its regular restaurant menu.
For more information visit http://www.omahdhuwur.net.
Pendopo nDalem restaurant is open daily from 11am-3pm for a buffet Indonesian lunch.
Built by royal architects in 1872 near the royal palace and royal gardens and pool known as the water castle, the building has had long connections with the royal family.
For more information visit http://www.pendopondalem.com.
The Ramayana ballet performance combines dance and storyline.
It is performed nightly at 8pm in the Purawisata Recreational Park.
Shadow puppet is a traditional art featuring a puppeteer and gamelan music.
Every night at 8pm at the Museum Sonobudoyo.
For more on Indonesia you can visit http://www.indonesia.travel.