WHERE TO STAY: Amanjiwo, Central Java
Inspired by the 9th-century Buddhist shrine of Borobudur, Amanjiwo looks also to highlight Central Java’s replete plantations, social enlightenment and modern art scene, as it celebrates its 20th anniversary in the region.
If you could fold Indonesia’s Java island in half like a book, the ancient Borobudur temple would sit right smack in that middle crease. “I’m still wondering how people back then figured out that this was the ideal spot to put an important monument — without the help of a GPS!” my guide Udin exclaims.
Borobudur’s geographical setting is no doubt extraordinary. Settled between mountain ranges, the pyramid-like structure itself renders a towering impression. Mysteriously constructed during the Sailendra dynasty in the 9th century, when Buddhism and Hinduism thrived in Java, the large shrine is said to be like a “Buddhist university”. Detailed stone friezes fill the lower corridors, illustrating stories to learn from Buddha’s life. The dome-crowned monastery was eventually abandoned, after a series of volcanic eruptions and subsequent conversions of many locals to Islam in the 15th century.
Today, the azan (a Muslim’s call to prayer) echoes across the volcanic valley. The lyrical Islamic recitals sound uncannily like the chanting of Java’s older faiths, especially from the top of the now beautifully restored Borobudur, where its upper three circular levels are studded with 72 pristine latticework stupas housing Buddha statues.
According to Udin, the best time to explore the site is at dusk. “Many tourists opt for the sunrise tour, which is beautiful, but isn’t as private and peaceful as the time of sunset,” he says. During our twilight visit, we had the mountain of devotion to ourselves.
As darkness gathered, the UNESCO site is irradiated by broad-beamed lights to commemorate Amanjiwo’s 20th year anniversary. The distinct shape of the spiky stupas is clearly visible from the hotel — a ringside view as we enjoyed our Javanese delicacy-filled dinner. This illuminated spectacle doesn’t happen every night, but just on the 20th of every month in this year-long celebration.
Hugged by the fertile hills of Menorah, Amanjiwo has rolled out plenty of celebratory activates and adventures to highlight its two-decade relationship with the surroundings of Borobudur. The luxury base’s layout even pays homage to the historical temple it overlooks. The regal stone-wrapped entrance has a bell-shaped rotunda that emulates Borobudur’s huge highpoint. This is lined with 36 standalone suites, arranged in two crescents, drawing out a quasi-blueprint of the centuries-old pattern.
For a definitive aerial view, take a vigorous hike up the 1,000m-tall limestone hills rising directly behind Amanjiwo like sentinels. If that wasn’t challenging enough, there is a 20km anniversary cycling excursion to explore Amanjiwo’s neighbouring rice fields, agricultural forests and Javanese villages, where you zip across gravel roads flanked by waist-high paddies to a pottery village.
Many Amanjiwo guests over the years have had the privilege of spending time with Dutch artist John van der Sterren at his nearby studio-home amid lush foliage, beside a stream. This is a lovely backdrop to spend a quiet afternoon, sketching with the master. A painter of vivid-coloured landscapes, heritage buildings and portraits, Sterren is currently showcasing his works in Amanjiwo’s art gallery till 30 April 2017. Other art shows by various artists will follow suit throughout the year.
For those inspired by the artistic muse, a box of watercolours is readily stocked in each suite. You can even add your masterpieces to the hotel’s guestbook before departing.
These thoughtful touches add to Amanjiwo’s continual immersion in its natural and cultural environment, with greater hope of promoting the beauty of Central Java’s rural heartland. Ian White, regional director of Aman in Indonesia, says: “We’re always trying to come up with different stories to tell. Ideas I have for future guest programmes include a ‘Beyond Bali’ package where visitors can spread their wings and explore more of Java.”
The Borobudur monument will undoubtedly draw more people to this vicinity but beyond Borobudur, the rich landscapes and creative pulse of Central Java are what would garner revisits.