Located at a height of over 2000m above sea level and surrounded by mountains, the Dieng Plateau (Dataran Tinggi Dieng in Indonesian), is an amazing area – breathtakingly beautiful and both geologically and historically fascinating, but off the main tourist trail.
We took a public bus from Solo (Surakarta) to Wonosobo (six hours though we were told it usually takes four, ticket price: Rp. 27,000), an angkot (little yellow minibus, Rp. 2000 each) from the bus terminal to the market, and then a microbus from Wonosobo to Dieng (one hour, Rp. 8000 each). When we got on the microbus we took the two remaining seats, and so in my mind the bus was full and would depart. Not here. We waited as more and more passengers got on, taking up all available space, sitting on the edges of seats and standing. Bags of rice and other goods were places under the seats. Eventually the bus departed.
The area around Dieng is extremely hilly and the roads are typical mountain roads with hairpin bends. I was amazed this tiny bus, full to bursting, could pull its load up the steep hills.
Fortunately more passengers got off than on, and we arrived in Dieng in one piece. We checked out one of the hostels mentioned in my outdated Lonely Planet book and decided to stay there (see previous article). It was already 5pm and we were shattered from the journey, so we had a quiet night in. I ventured out to buy some water and saw that (or rather couldn’t see because) Dieng was completely misty, the clouds had come down, and it was hard to see more than a few metres in the darkness.
The next day we got up early and, after breakfast, set out on foot to explore. Brandishing our little map from the Lonely Planet we walked first in the direction of Telaga Warna (Coloured Lake), while taking in the breathtaking views around the village. The land is heavily farmed – mainly vegetable-growing, especially potatoes – and all except the steepest land is planted. The hills are terraced, often right up to their peaks.
We arrived at the ticket booth for the Dieng sights and bought our tickets (Rp. 12,000 each though the advertised rate for foreigners is Rp. 40,000). The countryside that immediately surrounds Telaga Warna and its neighbour Telaga Pengilon (Mirror Lake) is not used for agriculture and has been left forested. Due to the high altitude, the flora of the area is totally different to that across most of Java, and unless you are into mountain climbing, you are unlikely to see some of these trees and plants anywhere else.
First we walked up a hill to the left of Telaga Warna, from which we could see both lakes. It was a beautiful view, with the greens of Telaga Warna clearly visible and contrasting with the bluer colour of Telaga Pengilon. After walking back down the hill, we followed the signs around Telaga Warna in the direction of Goa Semar (Semar Cave). The smell of sulphur from these volcanic crater lakes was quite strong, and we could see little areas of bubbles where the water was being boiled by magma underneath. Semar is a popular character in Javanese wayang kulit (traditional shadow puppet theatre), and this cave named after him is used for meditation. Unfortunately the cave was locked, as was nearby cave Goa Sumur. We asked a passerby why it was locked and she said that there was usually a keyholder present to open it. Goa Jaran was open, but looked very slippery (this is the rainy season) so we didn’t go inside. Despite not being able to enter the caves, the walk around the lakes gave us stunning views across the mountains, and although it is a touristic area with some paved footpaths, the countryside has largely been left alone in its natural beauty.
We walked back to the main entrance and were about to leave when we were told to walk up to Dieng Plateau Theatre and watch the film. We weren’t particularly enthusiastic about this, as we wanted to get on to see the temples. But it turned out to be a very interesting film about the Dieng area, its volcanic activity, and traditional culture, in Indonesian with English subtitles.
The plateau was created by a huge volcanic eruption, which led to the formation of the small mountains that surround the plateau. We learnt that the whole area is still extremely active. The last major eruption from one of the craters was in 1979 when hundreds of villagers lost their lives. Some of the craters emit poisonous carbon dioxide while others give off steam.
One of the more unusual traditions of the area is that the children grow dreadlocks in their hair, which is either considered a good or bad omen. The dreadlocked hair is then cut off in a special ceremony and floated down the river in order to release the child from evil.
The Dieng Plateau Theatre is built at the peak of one of the hills surrounding the lakes. There is a spectacular view across to Sikidang Crater, which continuously belches steam/gas. We ate chips – the Dieng area is one of the main producers of potatoes, so chips (kentang goreng) are sold everywhere and are the most delicious I have tasted in Indonesia.
After walking down the hill from the theatre we inadvertently walked the wrong way and ended up at Sembungan village – this is apparently the highest village in Java. After walking back the way we came, we made the correct turning towards Candi Bima (Bima Temple).
The temples in the Dieng area are Hindu and date from around the eighth century, when this area was thought to be the starting point for Hinduism in Java, and one of its strongest areas. Interestingly, today the Dieng area is strongly Islamic; the vast majority of women wear the jilbab and the mosques are large and lavish for such a rural area.
We looked at Candi Bima. Bima is one of the characters from the Javanese wayang kulit tradition (shadow puppet theatre), and in modern times the Dieng temples have all been named after wayang characters. Candi Bima is thought to be one of the first of the temples to have been built and is characterised by the stone faces that peer out, as if from windows, in the upper part of the structure.
We continued walking to Candi Gatotkaca (another wayang character). I was pleased that all the temples are still open to visitors – you can walk right up to them and even go inside. The Dieng Museum is near Candi Gatotkaca. I was expecting some kind of run-down disappointment but the museum had been recently refurbished and was full of fascinating information about the local area, the temples and geology, and cultural traditions. It was interesting to compare the temples with those in other parts of Java and also with Hindu temples in India. Unfortunately the text was exclusively in Indonesian, unlike that at many other museums across Java which feature some sort of English explanation.
From the museum a footpath led straight across the flat area of the plateau to the Arjuna Complex, the largest group of temples in the Dieng area. There are five temples arranged in a small area: Semar, Arjuna, Srikandi, Puntadewa and Sembadra. All have been named in modern times after wayang characters. The Arjuna temple closely mirrors the design of Indian temples, and as the temples become more recent they take on a more Javanese design, further removed from their Indian origins. Also near the Arjuna Complex are the remains of a Dharmasala, a raised platform used for preparation for ceremonies, and a wooden replica.
We wanted to buy some purwaceng tea as a souvenir. This plant is grown in the Dieng area and said to have aphrodisiac and stamina-improving qualities. We stopped at one shop and looked at the varieties on sale: tea, coffee, dried plant, powdered plant. Then we were shocked to see the price – Rp. 50,000 for ten tea bags – this is the same price as imported tea in Java, and normal tea costs less than a tenth of that. So we decided not to buy any purwaceng.
We then headed for Candi Dwarawati (named after a kingdom in the wayang tradition, not a character like the other temples). This is located on the other side of Dieng village up a hill. The views once again, were amazing. I particularly liked seeing the hills which are completely terraced, right up to their peaks. Imagine the daily walk to work though! Candi Dwarawati is quite large compared to some of the other temples. On the steps were the remains of incense sticks and inside the temple we saw evidence of Hindu offerings which show that the temple is still in use, despite being located in this strongly Islamic area. This is a good sign that it will continue to be protected and preserved, not only as an ancient monument to the past, but by those who continue to worship here.
Returning from Candi Dwarawati the rain began. Actually it had been raining on and off all day, but nothing compared to this downpour. Our feet got soaked inside our shoes as we walked back into the village. We found a nice-looking warung (cheap cafe or food stall) and had a well-deserved meal. The rain eased off and on our way back to the hotel we stopped at a fruit stall. On sale was a fruit we had seen growing on a tree earlier and we wanted to find out what it was. It turns out it is called carica (pronounced “karika”). While growing it’s green and then it turns yellow as it ripens. We tasted some and it was sweet with some bitterness. After peeling the fruit, the fleshy part next to the skin and its heavily seeded insides can be eaten. We bought a jar of prepared carica to take home, happy to have found a suitable souvenir of our trip
One day of looking around Dieng was enough for us on this mini-break, so we headed home. We had seen a lot in a very short time, from sulphurous craters and lakes to ancient Hindu temples and unfamiliar plants and trees. The views were breathtaking and the weather refreshingly cold.