Indonesia 2016

Malang pt. 2: Candi Singosari and Candi Sundersawan

I mentioned in my writing on the other big temples of Java that they seemed a bit sepulchral. Since they are by-and-large stripped of their best iconography; overrun by tourists and secular, they don’t have any of the emotion and fervour that makes visiting temples in India eternally fascinating.

On my second day in Malang I ventured to the northern outskirts of the city to visit two other temples. Both were utterly unassuming compared to majestic Borobadur or Prambanan — and yet visiting them was the most fascinating and compelling experiences of my holiday. (Click to read Malang parts 1 and 2).

(I’d lost my purse at this point, so I’d moved from the homestay on the outskirts to a lovely central hotel, my cash was all in my camera case, I was making regular unsuccessful trips to a nearby bank, and my blood pressure was about 10% too high at all times.)

Having a holiday rather than going on a trip means packing as much as you can into your time and foregoing local transport in lieu of taxis / flights. But that afternoon I was keen to do it the old (i.e. proper) way, and I started by getting a shared taxi to the bus station, ready to get a bus to the suburb of Singosari where temple #1 was.

My far-too-extensive knowledge of the obscure, ramshackle bus stations of south Asia wasn’t enough for me to find where I needed to go — there were no signs — so I adopted the persona I use whenever I’m travelling alone: the village idiot. I approached each person I saw and said “Singosari?” to them, then went wherever they pointed me.

A whole group of blokes latched on to my mission and pointed to a minibus at the other end of the parched bus stand. I puffed my way over only to have it chug off as I reached it, much to their uproarious laughter. They weren’t laughing in a cruel way, though: as always, people were genuinely thrilled to help me, and I was directed to the right minibus eventually. I waved and shouted “Tirimah kasi!” to them as it chugged away. One of them hollered “From?!” at me as I drove off, and grinned as I told him.

That’s all anyone, by and large, ever wants from tourists.

I jumped off the bus when Google Maps told me so, and this was the first sign that I was in the right place: a momentous demon guarding the holy ground whose perimeter it had once marked, on the pavement beside the busy road. Imagine walking past him each day.

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Candi is the Bahasa Indonesian word for temple; this is a Hindu temple to Shiva from nine hundred years ago. (Casual). However, the top part of the temple was never finished, so there are amorphous blobs where there should be demons’ faces. The other statues it once featured have been hacked out and lined up outside, where they stand sadly, looking on with shattered faces.

This temple was surprisingly well-attended by local people of all ages, and I felt quite self-conscious as I made my way along the line of broken statues and up the steps. There were a couple of statues of Shiva inside, including his incarnation as an old man who brought knowledge of Hinduism across the sea. Despite the main shrine being devoid of a statue (it’s in a museum in Germany), there was an offering to the Shiva that should be there and incense was burning. And as I approached the shrine on its right (walking around the temple clockwise), I picked my way past a man cross-legged in front of an existing statue, chanting and holding an offering in his right hand.

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This was a living temple: one that is used, and which matters, to people in the present day.

Although the main statue was gone, and others were broken outside, a god resides in there. Knowing that made walking around the complex, humble and unfinished as it was, more engaging and more intense. In some ways, visiting this temple was more meaningful than visiting those fifty times its size, because it really mattered.

Oh, and 150m further down the road, there were some more demon statues, and these were absolutely enormous, and really kickass. Imagine having one in your garden, or on your street?!

Yeah, to get to my house keep going past the thousand-year-old, five-metre-tall demon, and it’s third on the right.

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I came up to about the heel of their right hands.

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Candi Sundersawan was even less interesting that Candi Singosari, and I didn’t go within ten metres of it: it was the getting there that was so enjoyable.

All I did was find a motor-rickshaw to drive me about 5km to a random field, walk a quarter of a mile across it to see the temple, then come back and get driven back to the bus stop. But it was ace.

I found the rickshaw driver by walking back to the bus stop from Candi Singosari and asking two boys in an auto-parts shop — by giving them my phone with the message written in Indonesian via Google Translate. They found a chap from the street and helped me translate and haggle him down — and were so friendly and kind. Any stress that I had felt about getting to the next candi dissipated because they were so sweet

I arrived at a field between two small villages, and the rickshaw driver stopped and gestured that I was to follow a short path to my destination. The path wound between a rice paddy and stream, in which men were washing themselves in great numbers and with great enthusiasm.

Nothing bad happened on that front — I looked away whenever I noticed a man’s presence — but there was a group of little boys near the start who bounded towards me, saying “Money?!”, and when I replied “No!” they hooted with laughter.

A hundred yards later, I saw a man who was naked, hunched over and nonchalantly washing his hair. Right before I got close enough to him to look straight at the ground, he looked up at me and said “Yes?”. His accent made it sound very like “Jess?”. I jumped, flushed, and looked straight at the ground until I had passed, and I could feel him staring at me as I did so.

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It was the most peaceful and tranquil place. The air tasted lovely.

I then saw a tiny little mouse on the other side of the river bank, and as I watched, it found its way down to the water by flopping off the hill like a lemming over and over. It was so bizarre that I laughed out loud.

A few hundred yards further on, I saw a salamander — or at least I think it was one. It was about six inches long, orange-brown, and quite thick, with legs. It disappeared as soon as I saw it, and no matter how quietly I walked, no others appeared.

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Here’s the candi.

More interestingly, here is the poor monkey that I found chained up nearby.

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Notice how the earth is completely smooth around the tree, where s/he’s scratched everything s/he can from the soil? I passed him/her some pine cones and twigs (very carefully), but they didn’t get much of a reaction. Poor thing.


On the motor rickshaw back, the first thing I saw was a group of teenage boys washing intestines in a river; a wheelbarrow containing the entire corpse was beside them. (It was downriver of the bathing men, fortunately).

The route back went through more residential areas, and every time anyone saw me, we would wave and grin to each other and exchange shouted greetings.

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They were about 50m away, and I sat and snapped as my driver refuelled; I could hear them giggling with embarrassment.
Every. Single. Person. It was absolutely wonderful to make so many people happy.

When we were in quieter areas, my driver leant forward and said nationalities to me. “German? Fransay?” I’d told him I was British, but each time I corrected his pronounciation he grinned from ear to ear.

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This one was too rushed…
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So they raced to overtake us, the driver slowed, and I got a better one and gave them a thumbs up.

I didn’t feel like a part of whatever was going on, but oh my god, I felt appreciated.

This is what the best trips are made of.