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Looking down on the Maekhong on the border.

Looking down on the Maekhong on the border.

We’ve just done a big loop of a road trip around the North, much of it along Thailand’s borders.

Mai Sai – we started by driving four hours north of Chiang Mai to Mae Sai – much visited by the expat “border run” brigade as for $10 you can renew your visa – just cross the “Friendship Bridge” to Burma and then immediately turn back into Thailand. We come here for another reason; the market here sells jade and its good and cheap. You can also buy  lots of other things; Burmese tobacco and cheroots, fruit wines of questionable alcoholic content, sequinned marionettes and “kalaga” hangings, loose tea and tea paraphernalia, pen knives, electronics and all the other weird stuff men buy, and the usual market gear.

BIG Buddha looking out to Burma

A VERY BIG Buddha – that’s me at the bottom!

The border between Thailand and Burma here is nothing more than a few feet of water which most people could wade across, but border traffic is non-stop over the bridge during opening hours. In the past, we’ve had to cancel trips to Mae Sai because of “border skirmishes” or Drug -War -Lord action but this seems to have quietened down lately and commerce is allowed full reign.

Just a few yards from the madness of the market place is a quiet riverside neighbourhood where we stay, popping out after dark for a kebab barbequed over a clay pot. A huge white seated Buddha looms on the hillside into Burma. The Thai borders with both Burma and Laos feature “Holier Than Thou” wars : ever more enormous effigies of the Buddha stare at each other from the hillsides.

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If you file under the twin elephants while a man chants you can get some merit

The Golden Triangle - Heading east, we stop for breakfast at the village of Sop Ruak or “Golden Triangle” as it seems to have taken to calling itself. From the river bank you can gaze at both Burma and Laos at the point where the Mae Khong River arrives in Thailand. To commemorate this fact, you may take a boat ride to land (and do some shopping, of course) in all three countries.

You can also have your photo taken at all kinds of photo opportunity attractions; an enormous golden Buddha, a couple of gigantic plaster elephants, a sign saying “The Golden Triangle” or indeed at the Hall of Opium. Nearby are some benches “Donated by United States Drug Enforcement Administration Royal Thai Police Narcotics Suppression Bureau Sensitive Investigative Unit Bangkok” Catchy title.  As Jim grumpily commented, They’ve constructed an entire tourist economy on the old opium trade but just try buying some now!

Chiang Saen – On to Chiang Saen, a quiet town on the Maekhong where you can get a passenger ferry all the way to Jinghong in southern China. A few small Chinese cargo boats are in but Chiang Saen seems to be gearing itself up in a big way for a flood of foreign tourists. There are brand new, as yet unopened passenger terminals and immigration

Cargo boats from Jinghong in south-western China loading up

Cargo boats from Jinghong in south-western China loading up in Chiang Saen

offices on the quayside. So what’s going on? I have seen quite a few “Thai Border Police. Ready to ASEAN 2015″ signs on our travels near the Burmese borders lately and wondered what they meant – now it’s time I found out.

ASEAN (the Association of South East Asian Nations) was formed in 1967 and aimed to be a sort of Asian version of the European Union. It’s an economic bloc of 10 member states which is planning to get closer. In 2015 the aim is to allow goods and services to pass freely between each of the countries, for professional and skilled workers (please note) to be able to work anywhere in the union and for tourists from each country to visit without a visa.

The Thais seem to be busy putting in the infrastructure to aid this new development. A second “Friendship Bridge” has been built a few miles from Mae Sai for large lorries to and from Burma, and Chiang Saen is clearly expecting more tourism from Laos and China. And as we soon find out, the former country road which meanders along the river and over the mountains from Mae Sai to Chiang Khong is being widened to a totally inappropriate dual carriageway. Just like in China, the road is being built piecemeal so that a few hundred yards of smooth tarmacked road is followed by a few hundreds yards of potholed old road, followed by a few hundred yards of dust-choked nightmare, all the way along

 ASEAN - its everywhere

ASEAN – its everywhere

for mile after mile.

Chiang Khong – Hot, dusty and frazzled, we get to Chiang Khong – a little town strung out along the banks of the Mae Khong and a place where foreigners can cross the river and emigrate into Laos. It has the feel of a border town. Here too, there is a new border post and a new “Friendship Bridge” to take freight between Thailand and Laos (and ultimately China) A “Chiang Khong New City” of brand new, as yet unlived in offices and apartments is being built and somehow it feels as if China is calling the shots.

So what does it all mean? Already there are cars with Chinese number plates in Chiang Mai, Asian tourism is vastly increasing anyway and that will only continue what with the numerous budget airlines like Air Asia (slogan: Now Everyone Can Fly!) and new international highways being built. One thing I am sure of is that life will not be made any easier for the stateless refugees and hill-tribe people of Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Burma.

These border regions have a long history of being settled by people arriving from other places – usually forced to move by war, oppression and poverty. It’s a place of safety. There are the Mon, Akha, Shan and Karen from Burma, the Yao, the H’mong, the Wah and even little outcrops of Kuomintang coming from China, and the Tai Lu, Lahu and Lisu  on the Laos borders. As you reach each village, you can look around for the small clues which show which people live there; the clothes on a washing line, the style of the roofs, a loom under the house, red lanterns hanging at a front

Those skirts mean its got to be a H'mong village

Those skirts mean its got to be a H’mong village

door. It’s a fascinating region full of people without a country of their own, who are in many ways treated as second class, without the same rights as the “real” nationals. The “hill tribes”seem to be viewed here in the same way many Brits view Romanian or Bulgarian immigrants.

It seems to me that ASEAN’s Governments are keen to make money by dissolving boundaries on their own terms, but if everyone had the same freedom to disregard borders and make their home wherever they wish, they wouldn’t be so happy.

Kanchanaburi

The famous “Bridge” before the tour buses arrive

We took the slow train to Kanchanaburi, famous for its “Bridge over the River Kwai”, part of the so called Death Railway which was to link Thailand and Burma. The railway was built by British and Chinese prisoners of the Japanese in the second world war and we tried to imagine things as they were back in the 1940s. To do this we had to ignore the swarms of tourists taking photos of each other posing on the single track railway, block out the undignified image of the brightly coloured Disney-style train which shunts passengers over it and back, and disregard the legions of souvenir stalls and shops and cafés which surround it. Later that evening, we also had to try and block out the “karaoke cruises” which split the peace with the sound of amateur singers belting out Chinese, Thai and Korean pop classics.

We saw the neat cemeteries of dead allied soldiers impeccably maintained by the War Graves Commission and the wilder, more flamboyant Chinese graveyards. We learnt an interesting fact: the River Kwai isn’t actually the name of the river which the bridge crosses; David Lean, the film director mistook it for a nearby river. After the success of the film and the tourists who came looking for the bridge, the Thai authorities recognised a marketing opportunity when they saw one, and changed the name of the river which flows beneath the bridge. So now there is a Nam Kwai Noi (Small River Kwai) and Nam Kwai Yai (Big River Kwai) and everybody’s happy.

E Thong Village

Indonesian batik – it gets everywhere!

Actually we came to Kanchanaburi to hire a car to take us into the Western Forest Reserve and having succeeded, we took off westwards to look for wilderness. First stop was E Thong, a village on the edge of Thailand inhabited by Burmese and Mon tribal people. L.P. describes it as an up and coming Pai, anyone who has been to both places will know that this is complete bollocks. Everything shuts at 8.30 and there was no reggae bar that I could see! We slept overlooking the village pond, and next morning Jim bought a cup of excellent coffee and I bought  a couple of Burmese longys; the traditional Burmese sarongs, although most of the women around here wear printed batik sarongs imported from Indonesia.

Thong Pha Phum

We continued on to Thong Pa Phum National Park and spent a night in a tiny bamboo hut perched out on a slope overlooking miles of primary forest. It looked as if no-one had ever stepped into it, no roads, no trails, no clearings. In the morning the sound of a troupe of gibbons whooping echoed through the tree tops and made our hearts glad.

Our little hut in the Western Forest

We spent the next night in another National Park at Phom Pee on the edge of a beautiful reservoir. Our own little bungalow was lovely, the sunset was wonderful, the staff were friendly and provided us with fried fish and rice and the place was teeming with exotic birds, so all in all we were feeling pretty happy.

Sangklaburi

We drove on to Sangklaburi a picturesque little town at the end of the same massive reservoir, linked by bamboo bridges. This week has been a particularly cold snap (by Thai standards obviously!) and we had been glad of our National Park standard issue duvets at night. But at Sangklaburi there was just one extremely thin blanket on our bed. I just knew that was not going to stop me from freezing at 5 am.

So we coughed up an extra 30bt each and got one more extremely thin blanket, after that we decided that one night wearing all our clothes in bed was really enough.  The early morning mists were very atmospheric though, and we

houses in the mon village at Sangklaburi

Houses in the Mon village at Sangklaburi

paddled out by canoe through the spectacularly broken main bridge and its low level bamboo replacement to the Mon temple with the tops of the drowned village poking eerily through the water. Sangklaburi feels very remote, but more and more lake side “resorts” are being built for a hoped for influx of Asian tourists.

We travelled on to the evocatively named Three Pagodas Pass a border post with Burma. I love the name but the pagodas are mighty disappointing and the “exciting border market” consists of stalls full of ugly chunky teak furniture and brightly lit gem stones, and no textiles to speak of!

Sai Yok National Park 

We thought we’d try another National Park and went on to Sai Yok, where we found accommodation on a floating raft down by the river near a suspension bridge. Sounds great on paper, romantic even. The reality is that the fast flowing river is used by parties of Thai school children on rafts, who are hauled upstream by long tail boats with noisy outboard motors and then left to float back in rubber inner tubes squealing and giggling as they go.

At night, a thudding generator keeps the lights on all night, as well as the karaoke machine and when all that has quietened down  there are the excruciating creaking and groaning noises made by the various roped up raft barges. It

Jim looking out for the next raft full of Russian tourists

Jim looking out for the next raft full of Russian tourists

sounds like spending a night in a factory. At 7 o’clock the raft hauling begins again and this time its parties of Russian tourists who are floating past our window chatting and laughing.

We make good our escape after one of the worst night’s sleep ever. As the next day is Sunday, we spend it dodging the drivers of large four wheel drive vehicles whizzing out from Bangkok and other cities to take their leisure time at the waterfalls and rafts of the reservoir resorts which seem to abound.

The West has been a pretty mixed experience, some wonderful, some dire. On the plus side, we’ve seen bright yellow black crested bulbuls, drongos, orioles, mynahs, sunbirds, bea eaters, Indian rollers, magpie robins, Asian fairy blue

Storks (or were they herons?)

Storks (or were they herons?)

birds, bright green leaf birds, brilliant red and striped woodpeckers, red-wattled lapwings, a great variety of kingfishers, a velvet fronted nuthatch (apparently!), egrets great and little, herons, stilts and storks, all in abundance.

We’ve spent an afternoon at an amazing ruined Khmer city of Muang Singh in beautiful parkland at a bend in the Kwai with hardly anyone else around. And this just down the river a few miles from the madness of Sai Yok.

Thailand’s National Parks – a brief and unscientific survey

13th century Khmer city west of Kanchanaburi

And we’ve done a quick survey of some of Thailand’s National Parks. They too are mixed. The entrance fee for us “farangs”  (foreigners) is five times more than for the Thais, but most don’t provide a map or any information in English. Some seem to allow indiscriminate tourism to rip through their beautiful places with no regard for wildlife but there are others where the wildlife is being well taken care of. In some places the concept of the Great Western Forest Reserve, a huge swathe of wild land on the border with Burma being preserved as a wildlife corridor, even appears to be more than just a publicity exercise.

Sunset over Khao Laem reservoir

Sunset over Khao Laem reservoir

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Protesting “aunties” wearing the Thai national colours

The Government opposition vowed to “Shutdown Bangkok” on Monday 13th January and we arrived two days later slightly wary of what we might find. Our taxi driver was in no doubt “Why, why you come Bangkok? Bangkok have problem. You can go Chiang Mai, go Samui. Shopping all close, close, close!”

Drama queen! The shops didn’t look closed to me. He refused to drive us past the tail end of a road block and we had to walk to our hotel from there. (ahh, shame, I hear you say) We’re staying here because it’s very close to the shopping mall where we always come to buy silk, but it’s also plum in the commercial centre of the city and so very close to one of the “Shutdown” sites.

In the “good old days” we used to buy from the stalls in the basement of a department store called Narayan Phand where we could get Burmese sequinned embroideries, textile hangers made from old loom parts, hand made paper notebooks, jackets made from soft and subtle antique silk ikat, and wide luxurious shawls of thick slubby silk. After many years of it being threatened, finally everyone was moved out to the Pratunam Centre a block away, and the building has been turned into a Big C Supermarket. Shopping at the new Pratunam Centre wasn’t so good; some of the old stall holders had decided to call it a day but our old suppliers Royal Thai Silk, Koreena and Marie Silk were still there amongst the mass produced fashion wholesalers. We stayed faithful, popping in on our Bangkok transit days and loading scarves and jackets into rucksacks before getting the plane home or dragging big grey plastic bags to the post office.

Silk mutmi scarf

Silk mutmi scarf

Now just to confuse and disorientate us Pratunam has had a facelift and changed its name to the Palladium Centre, but we track it down eventually through the road blocks. All this “shutdown” seems to have affected more than the traffic: the weather has gone all pleasant and the Big Mango is positively cool! I’m just not used to fresh air in Bangkok – where’s that heavy humid heat that should descend on you whenever you move out into the street?

There are still a few familiar faces around at the Palladium but nearly everyone seems to be suffering from “customer fatigue” or is it “shutdown grumpiness”? And the good stuff is just not there any more. It’s now well nigh impossible to find decent jackets in the old “mutmi” ikat silk. I admit it was always a trial to sift through the rails – a lovely fabric would catch the eye but be ruined by the awful garment it was made into – with superfluous frills or horrid rosettes or a daft collar. But now that the silk fabric has become so rare, these abominations seem like sacrilege. However there’s still some nice fabrics to find if you dig around and we are encouraged by a small pile of beautiful ikat scarves. We probably buy more and pay more than we should, but these may be the last and it seems silly to walk away from them.

Shopping done, we can take in a bit of “protest tourism” and wander up familiar roads made totally strange by the absence of cars, the pop up tents and the crowds of makeshift stalls selling “Shutdown Bangkok” accoutrements. The Thais do love an excuse to set up a market and here’s another one – protest whistles, plastic clappy hands, hats, headbands, flags, armbands, and t-shirts by the thousand, all in the blue, white a red of the Thai national flag and the protesters, colours. I very much doubt the “Occupy London” campaign got their merchandising act together as fast as this.

Protest merchandise for sale

Protest merchandise for sale

We wander through peaceful scenes of elderly ladies kipping down in see-through pop-up tents, protesters sitting on plastic mats and eating at canopied canteens, and past the big screens showing a live relay of the speakers on a big stage set up near the Erawan junction ahead. When we get there I am delighted to see that “Gaysorn Plaza” has been forced to close. It’s one of my least favourite “shopping malls”, not just because of its crap name but for the soulless international rich-git brand name shops in it.

Now it’s had to close because there is a bloody great stage right in front of it and revolution or at least reform is being spouted outside its very doors. Ha! The mood is light and totally non-threatening. The protesters themselves are serious and determined, but others seem to be there for the crack, to see what the fuss is about, to buy a T shirt or blow a whistle and cheer the speeches. Strangest of all; there is not a copper or a soldier to be seen anywhere. At all.

How long is it going to last? How long can anti government protesters just set up camp at key road junctions in the centre of a capital city without the baton charges, water cannon, tear gas or rubber bullets which would ensue in London, Beijing, Istanbul, or Cairo, or indeed the all-out brutality which has been the response to anti Government protest in Syria, Libya, Burma and Bahrain? In Thailand it seems the famous tolerance and laid back approach extends to civil disobedience too. At least for the time being.

Saturday – a trip around the neighbourhood

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Our becak drivers have now become like personal friends and they are waiting to drive us through the quiet back lanes of Jogya’s suburbs – children waving, bicycles, corner shops, men painting lamp-posts, a sewing machine on the back of a bike, people smiling hello.

We arrive at the Tenun Lurik factory where around 20 people weave the hand woven cotton cloth used to make traditional  jackets which Jogya is also famous for. We see women winding weft thread onto spindles. It is wound from the hank onto a smaller wheel, from that onto a bicycle sized wheel and from that the spindles are filled ready for the weavers to weave into their cloth.

We see the warp threads which are taken from about 20 or 30 different coloured spools – according to the design of the cloth. We see the dyeing rooms and the yarns being tied with plastic string to get stripes and random “ikat” designs. We watch two people making the two “sheds” so that alternate warp threads are lifted each time the weaver presses his down on a foot pedal. Finally the weavers can get going and quickly weave their cloth usually around 10 metres a day. There is a pre industrial revolution feel about the place and is a reminder that labour is cheap here and textiles and many other products are still made without the aid of expensive machinery.

Back in the becaks, we make our way slowly through the back lanes to Susi’s house. Susi has arranged for some of the local craftsmen to show us their work. There is a “tukang canting” -  a canting maker who shows us exactly how a canting is made (all by hand with extremely low tech methods and a foot pump to power the gas for his soldering iron). There is also a “tukang cap” – a cap maker who makes copper stamps for batik. He gives us some idea of the great skills which are needed to make the intricate copper stamps.

We also have a man who shows us how gold “prada” cloth is made – much favoured for weddings. He applies latex to the cloth – it is left out in the sun for 30 minutes and then gold sprinkles are brushed on to create a lustrous fabric which is still washable with care.

Susi takes around “her” kampung (or neighbourhood) and points out the Pos Kamling where 5 men of the village take it in turn to sit up all night to keep watch. At 10 pm they go round every house on their patch to check all is well and in return each house gives them 500 rps (about 3p) She also shows us the house where the 40 women of the kampung will be meeting later today. Susi needs to be there as she is head (of course!)

We have lunch at the next door neighbour’s “pendopo” a sort of open sided pavilion. The neighbour sells these lovely old teak constructions for around 60 million rupiah each about (£3,500) mostly to Bali for restaurants and guest houses.

After lunch, our lovely lady cook who has made all the food then treats us to a song called “Begawan Solo” then some more classic Javanese singing, all the time wearing her warm woolly hat while the sweat is running down our faces.

The becak drivers get their lunch while we sort through almost every batik picture that Susi has in her stock cupboards and we are finally ready to continue to Pak Jaka’s studio.

Pak Jaka is a batik artist who makes pictures with a very distinctive style. He designs them by drawing onto cotton with a pencil and then his eight expert batiking women have free rein to fill in the details with whatever details they like. He shows us how he gets tiny crackles in certain sections by wetting the cloth with a sponge, applying pure paraffin wax back and front and then gently massaging it with fingertips from the back. Next he shows us the two stage dyeing process with napthol dyes and salts.  In the house we look through a big pile of his work and most people get a small sample to take home.

Our final visit is to the local batik supply shop – there’s thick brown sticky wax, creamy micro-crystalline wax, and white paraffin wax. There are remasol dyes, napthol dyes and dye salts which are sold by the gram and weighed out into tiny plastic bags. There are cantings and “wajan” the little wok shaped bowl which holds the wax and everything the local batik workers need.

Finally dripping with sweat after another hard day of intensive research we get back to the Duta for our wonderful swim and tea and cake. Aaaahhhh!

Sunday – Taman Sari, a new Hotel and the Sea!

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Today our first visit is to Taman Sari, pleasure gardens and bathing pools of former Sultans. It’s a beautiful place with blue pools, arched windows, and huge terracotta pots in an almost Moorish style. There are glimpses of lovely scenes everywhere, much of it is still in ruins but some including the swimming pools have been restored and its a very atmospheric place. From a little room with an enormous stone bed we imagine the Sultan or one of his court officials looking out at the bathing girls and making his choice!

Apparently Taman Sari fell into disuse after an earthquake in the mid 18th century and then was taken over by homeless people until restoration started in 1970s. Many people still live amongst the ruins of Taman Sari and there are lots of little batik studios and shops, meaning lots more opportunities for more retail therapy. It looks a really pleasant place to live with birds singing in their lovely bamboo cages, and plants and greenery everywhere.

On to our favourite little café – The Water Castle Café where we can subside and regroup. There is a festival and a bazaar run by “Sekar Jegad” which is the Jogyakarta association of batik lovers (another Batik Guild indeed!) with stalls of individual batik sellers from around Java. There is a stage and we have to sit through a loud and rather tuneless singer who is on the mic although there are a couple of ladies who are clearly enjoying it (probably her mum and auntie) But  a troupe of dancers dressed in splendour start to assemble. There are brightly dressed monkeys, ogres, masked fools, heroes and Cakil a rubber limbed youth who keeps having to readjust his beard and teeth. They are led by some rather effete but beautiful young men in sunglasses. The band starts up their hypnotic groove and a very ordinary looking chap in a zipped up leather jacket (the temperature is sweltering) takes to the microphone – and against the odds, he has a fantastic voice. The troupe begin their dance with tiny rhythmical head movements and it’s very hard to tear ourselves away from it.

We go back to the Duta and manage to get most of our suitcases and bodies on to the bus which is taking us to our new hotel – the D’Omah which is out on the road to Parangtritis about 8 kilometres south towards the sea. Our rooms are gob-smacking as are the surroundings, a field of very ripe rice in front of the hotel, antiques and art work amongst lily ponds and spring fed stone swimming pools.

Once we have got over the excitement that we are actually going to be staying here for the next 3 days, we get on a bus and head south to the coast. We cross a huge river which comes directly from Merapi volcano and on to the volcanic black sand beach at Parangtritis. There are “prahus” Javanese boats with outriggers on either side and hordes of Javanese families enjoying Sunday at the beach. The sea is wild and huge and very dangerous – several people drown here each year. Its slow progress to walk along the beach as we are a novelty here and have to keep posing for photos with Indonesian families.

Back to the D’Omah in time for “Rijstaffel” – a Dutch invention and another new experience. 15 delicious dishes are served by 15 gorgeous young men all dressed in batik sarongs and lurik jackets. They bring the food in from across the rice field all lit by flaming torches. It’s quite an arresting sight! Good music, good food, good company, all in all a good night.

Monday – the Masterclass

nia and agus

Its the start of our three day masterclass at the Brahma Tirta Sari studio run by Nia Fliamm and Agus Ismoyo. Nia is an American artist who came to Java in 1983 to learn batik from the ladies of the Kraton and Agus is the seventh child of a long line of cap batik makers from Solo. His father was a teacher of Javanese philosophy and the two of them met, married and set up their studio together in 1985. It is a true collaboration between the traditions of Java and the freedom and aesthetic of the West and makes their work unique and fascinating. We are shown around the Gallery and Nia and Agus explain that much of their work has involved collaborations with indigenous groups from other cultures. They have worked with two Aborigine groups in Australia, native Americans in Washington State and with “bogolan” mud cloth makers in Mali, Africa.

After that we go deeper into the Javanese countryside to a lovely space set in a garden with various buildings to sit and work with the canting, the cap, and the dyes. Before we start to work, we get our first lesson in Javanese philosophy which underpins all the arts and crafts of Java particularly music, dance, puppetry, kris making and of course… batik

Nia and Agus talked about the UNESCO citation of 2009 which awarded Indonesian batik status as a piece of “intangible cultural heritage”, the huge effect this has had and how an intangible heritage can be passed on. They introduced us to two important Javanese concepts – “rasa” – an intuitive sensitivity towards something and “tribuwono” – the three worlds or spheres. These are the microcosm or self, the macrocosm of the rest of the world and the greater light or spirit. The artist (which includes anyone who wants to be creative) can draw upon this creative spirit and channel it.

Agus talked about the importance of Mother Earth and Father Sky who give us food and breath – we cannot live without both of these things. He talked about trees and plants in the natural world; some bear fruit, some have flowers which are lovely to look at and some are useful as herbs or medicines and in other ways. That is like us, we are not all the same and we don’t have to be. We can take our inspiration from the natural world which sustains us.

He talked about the master craftsman who makes the famous wavy bladed ceremonial dagger called a “kris”. He mixes metals but the shape of the pattern on the blade is never pre-designed – it emerges from the hope and the spirit which the blacksmith “empu” or craftsman puts into it. This “hope” whether blacksmith or batik maker transfers itself to the wearer or user of the object. 

Full of inspiration (!) we went to our waxpots looking out onto beautiful tress and plants and did a meditation exercise to ground our feet and feel energy through our hands. We were asked to feel as if we were batiking with our whole bodies. Breathe and relax and let the canting take us where it wanted to and let the drips be part of it – don’t be afraid of the drips!

Now much encouraged, we were raring to go. One of the wonderful things about the workshop was the team of expert dyers available in the dyeing area to colour our work with any colour we could imagine, using napthol and indigosol dyes and salts. Our homework overnight was to conceive of a symbol for ourselves – our own symbol which would signify what was important to us and our lives.

Back to the D’Omah for a swim, a lie down, some food, a chat, and a chance to assimilate all that new and exciting information.

Tuesday – a whole new world of caps

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Our second day begins with a talk about the three most important symbols in Java batik : the kawung, the parang and the semen design. All of these were once forbidden designs only to be worn by the Sultan his family or court officials. If you wore one fraudulently you could even end up in prison. This was liberated by Humenku Buwono IX the father of the present Sultan who helped get the Dutch out of Indonesia. He saw his reign as the “Era of the People” and democratised society.  As part of this he relaxed these sumptuary laws and now these motifs are seen very commonly in Java on batik cloth and wood, but also painted onto trains, streets and even planes!

Kawung is a symbol found all over the world – in ancient Egypt, Persia, native Americans, in ancient Rome. It symbolises the four directions, four colours and water and knowledge or wisdom. It is worn by the wayang puppet “Semar” – an ancient character who predates Hinduism and is the earth god of Java. 

Parang is the diagonal knife design which symbolises fire. There are dozens of different parang designs: parang barong (big knife) was worn exclusively by the Sultan and parang klitik (small knife) by his family.  It was worn by warriors and to solve problems by rasa: intuitive sensitivity.

Semen is the symbol of Tribuwono the 3 worlds. it depicts nature with the jungle and plants and sometimes birds and butterflies, and also a little house symbol which has also the significance of “me, myself” The background may be white (reality, the “seen”) or dark (the unseen, the spirit world)

At the ceremony of “siraman” the day before a wedding when the bride and groom are bathed by their family, the parents and grandparents often wear semen designs. The Sultans wear this powerful cloth at their coronation in the form of a “dodot” a cloth which is 2.5 times the normal size.

Then we are back to out batik pots and begin work with meditation to relax and energise. Ismoyo gives us a beautifully clear demonstration of how to use the caps and the day whizzes past as we combine silk, cotton, cap and tulis work and not forgetting work on our personal symbol. 

Later we have a lovely evening all together, helped along by a generous contribution of wine – a real luxury in Java!

Wednesday- The significance of the kris and finishing our work

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We start today with a contemplation of the kris knife and its place in the Javanese cultural and spiritual life. Agus Ismoyo shows us just 2 of his collection of 22 krises, all handed down through his family. Kris is another example of intangible heritage and has been recognised by UNESCO as such. A true kris (not just a decorative one made for the tourism industry) is made by an “empu” a master craftsman who can channel the spiritual energy of the universe into his work which then imbues the object with a powerful energy and transfers itself to the user. Krises were never used as weapons but always as ceremonial and symbolic objects tucked into the back of a man’s sarong. Even during the uprisings against the Dutch, sharpened bamboo was used as a weapon, never the kris.

A kris is made by combining 5 metals including meteorite and they are combined in no set pattern. The “pamur” or patina which emerges is unique and unpredictable but once it emerges it signifies the purpose, character and function of each kris. The empu weaves the metals with his hopes.

As with the other fine arts of Java, (batik, wayang and budoyo dance) the artist or craftsman needs “a pure heart” to do this work and before beginning it will fast, pray and make offerings of flowers and incense. There are now just 2 empu left in Jogya province living in Imogiri and they are the 16th generation of kris makers. The kris is seen in one of the strongest symbols in batik the parang motif (symbolising fire, enthusiasm and energy) Another fascinating insight into the deep philosophical system which informs Javanese arts and how the various art forms interact with each other. I have been coming to Java for almost 30 years, but there is always so much more to learn.

On with the caps and the tulis work, we keep the dyeing guys working non stop – with our work all pegged up in little piles with the next colour we want written on pieces of paper.

We use some indigosol dye today which develops slowly in the ultra violet rays of the sun (so this can only be done when the sun is shining) and gives more pastel shades. Once enough cloths are finished we can begin to boil the wax out and as with every process we have come across, this is done carefully and systematically to get the very best results.

The cloth is washed with detergent and then gathered up from the top and dipped several times (like a “spear”) into boiling water which is also a fixative (with the addition of gelatinous “water glass” or sodium silicate) When half is clean it is turned round and the other half done. Next it is washed out carefully and if needed it will go into the boiling water again. The dyes are incredibly colour fast and there is absolutely no fear of them dripping or seeping into other cloths even when wet.

As darkness fell we came together to share some of our pieces, an explanation of our personal symbol piece and one or two of our favourites. Everyone had some wonderful work to show. Back to the hotel absolutely shattered after a long and tiring but satisfying day and the end of our “Masterclass”.

Thursday – Borobodur temple and Mount Merapi

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We are up with the muezzin and all his mates singing their hearts out at 4 am. This time it serves us well as a wake up call so we were ready for the bus at 5am. Clutching our “breakfast boxes” we head through the quiet streets out to the world famous temple of Borobudur on a relatively cool and cloudy day, a journey of around 2 hours

We arrive at a large car park in neat parkland with few people around, and are greeted in a cool entrance glass hall and each given a blue and white sarong to tie round our waists. An excellent guide explains how the structure of the Buddhist temple was built around a small hill as far back as 8th century. This huge Buddhist temple has a base of 118 m x 118m and has several times been buried under volcanic ash and been hidden from view by vegetation. Sir Stamford Raffles when he was governor of Java in the early 19th century heard about its existence from locals and organised an early excavation but the restoration began with the Dutch early in 20th century interrupted by earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and even bomb attacks. It is now a World Heritage Site and is Indonesia’s most visited tourist attraction.

The impressive huge grey stone structure seems calm and we wonder at the intricate carvings which depict stories of good and evil, passion and a search for Nirvana. Nearer the top the circular walks are said to lead us towards this state of profound peace of mind passing bell shaped constructions (stupas) and many carvings of the Buddha (often headless). At the top is the largest stupa, which is said to be the largest in the world, and it certainly is big.

Unfortunately for us we are destined never to achieve Nirvana or that profound peace of mind as hundreds of excited children and young students of English from local schools come racing around the walkways, taking photos of themselves and wanting to talk to us and include us in their photos. We beat a hasty retreat to cool shade under trees until everyone is ready to walk down this extraordinary monument and learn more from the museum’s excellent photos and displays. Avoiding, with difficulty, the trinket sales’ people we return to the bus and head off to see two smaller Buddhist temples, Mendut with its impressive 3 metre Buddha and Pawon. These two temples lead from Borobudur in a straight line and are somehow ritualistically linked.

After a stop for lunch at a very impressive silver factory and showroom, we drive higher and higher until we reach the village of Kaliurang to view Mount Merapi, the famous very active volcano which looms over Jogyakarta. We arrive at the main viewing area on the volcano – a good safe distance away. The strong sulphur smell, the blasted tree trunks and the grey soil leave us in no doubt that this is indeed the “Fire Mountain”. The last major eruption was not long ago in 2010 when many people had to flee their homes, and those who refused to go did not survive the huge ash clouds, lava flow and blasting heat and 300 people died included the volcano’s “spiritual keeper”.

We decide against racing on 4 x 4 vehicles or motorbikes any further (although there are some who like that sort of thing) but we do manage to glimpse the highest parts of the cones through drifting thin clouds. The luxuriant vegetation close by on cooled lava flows, small houses on the steep roadside and groups of visitors seemed dwarfed by this huge natural wonder nearly 3,000 metres high. 

 

Friday and Saturday – The end of the Trip

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Today is a day for doing just whatever we all want to do – for one of us it means getting up at 1.30 and leaving at 2 am for a very early morning trek up Merapi an emotional and unforgettable experience*, for some it means mounting another assault on the stalls and shops of Jalan Malioboro and for others it means a quiet day swimming in the pools, having lunch and chatting to Tatang, a very nice chap who makes batik in the nearby village and is coincidentally a relative of Susi’s.

Later in the day the first of our party begins to leave and those of us left behind start to feel a little bereft as we realise that this fantastic trip is coming to an end. Tomorrow we say our goodbyes to the D’Omah Hotel. Warwick Purser, the owner is looking out for the arrival of a very important guest – one of former President Sukarno’s daughters. She is coming to stay in the Private Villa at a mere US$250 a night.

On Saturday, those of us who are left round off the trip by going back to the Duta (which now looks slightly tatty after the grandeur of the D’Omah, but feels very much like home) where we had started. There’s plenty more to do in Jogya such as a fabulous morning cooking Indonesian food, more trips to the market and shops, massages, swimming and just enjoying this wonderfully laid back city.

Great company, great visits, great people, great memories, great photos and great batik!

Would I do it again? Yes most definitely. It was a memorable trip for me. I was able to show a group of people who love textiles just how wonderful Java is. They were able to look beyond the poverty and degraded environment to see the richness of the culture, the calm and friendly attitude of the Javanese people and the satisfactions of a very different way of life. If you have been inspired to think about coming on a trip to Java maybe next year or the following one, please get in touch!

*Footnote: Tracy took a trek up as far as she was allowed the following morning and just three days later, early on Monday morning there was a minor eruption sending a cloud of black ash 2 kms into the sky. People from surrounding villagers were evacuated but things later returned to normal. Ash fell into the streets of Solo, but in Jogya it was a beautiful day and Merapi was clearer than ever. 

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The UK Batik Guild Trip to Java November 3rd – 16th 2013

Getting there Well that’s a story in itself as Malaysian airways and so it seems other airlines too decided to do some strange rescheduling. Some of us ended up spending an unexpected night or even two in Jakarta (although some sailed through it all by travelling via Singapore) and I spent rather more time than I had anticipated at Jogyakarta airport waiting for late arrivals, but by Sunday afternoon we were all happily safe and sound at the Duta Hotel on Jalan Prawirotoman in the heart of south Jogyakarta.

Sunday evening- introductions and a Javanese wedding

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After introductions all round and a welcome gin and tonic, some went off to get food and six of us ventured out into the warm wet night for a visit to a local wedding. It’s not in a hall or a grand house but just in the street with a tarpaulin cover over it. There’s a stage where the bride and groom and their parents shake hands with all the guests and where a woman belts out popular Indonesian songs. Having put some money into the collection box, we are all encouraged to go and have our photos taken with the bride’s party. We slowly shuffle past the huge queues waiting for the food to be served all the time taking photos avidly of the beautiful girls in their lovely lace jackets and batik sarongs and the men in their batik shirts, and emerge elated at the other side. A short visit to the wedding organisers shop-house to see jackets, turbans, and other bits and pieces available to hire for a wedding. Our becaks are waiting for us and back we go after a great experience.

Monday – screen prints, Malioboro street and the shadow puppet show

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My very good friend Susi, who I have known for about 15 years, is going to be my assistant and confidante and local guide and she is there first thing Monday morning to lead us on a neighbourhood walk around the local area. We start with the nearby market which is in full swing: jackfruit, mangoes, chillis, tofu and tempe (fermented soya bean cakes) all kinds of ginger, very long beans, small turquoise fish 2 per basket, the “jamu” lady making tonics and pick-me-ups, gula jawa (round cakes of dark brown cane sugar) tiny little speckled eggs, chickens feet and heads, ladles and sieves made out of coconut shells, rattan fans and baskets,

After that, we walk to a silk screen printing factory which I have never known was there. Seven very long tables, and two man working efficiently together on the screen can print one layer on all the fabric in an hour and a half. They apply the first dye and then the long lengths of fabric are hoisted aloft overhead to dry and then they move onto another screen which blocks off the design of the first one and apply black dye.  In another room, the sewing machinists tell us they can sew 300 women’s kaftans in a day. They cost just 50,000rps (less than £3) each and they are ideal to slip on after a shower in this hot and humid climate. 50,000 rps is also the average daily wage of the workers here. They get their lunch thrown in but it shows the huge difference between our societies where our minimum hourly rate is more than double that.

We next call into a shop where all sorts of batik mostly old and second hand, and some real antiques are sold. We look at  stamped batik in the typical browns (soga) and indigo colours of Central Java and some beautiful hand drawn cloths from Pekalongan a city on the north coast, where the traditional floral designs were influenced by Dutch settlers. These batiks were made in the 20s and 30s before Indonesia became independent in 1945. Susi shows us how a sarung should be worn and I decide to take the opportunity to give an impromptu talk on some of the most common types of batik motif to look out for. These are:

  • parang – which means “knife” the diagonal design
  • semen – the organic design with tendrils and lots of little hook infills which is the type of Javanese design which inspired William Morris when Javanese batik was first exhibited in Europe in the 19th century
  • kawung – the four petalled design.

By now dripping with sweat we are all ready to get back and dive into our lovely swimming pool, the waterfall running down over the rocks. A great morning. Thanks to Susi for her expert local knowledge and for taking us right off the tourist track!

Later, after a talk about the wayang kulit leather shadow puppets, we get into becaks for a city tour. Becaks are bicycle cabs for two people (or one if you’re a bit on the heavy side!) powered by the strong leg muscles of your becak driver. There are hundreds – if not thousands of becaks in Jogya and the drivers are always desperate for a fare. We  get going, sometimes stuck behind buses belching out black smoke and sometimes veering wildly into the path of dozens of oncoming motorbikes , but arriving safely at Jalan Malioboro the main street of Jogyakarta. This famous street is lined with stalls selling shoes, fans, keyrings, shorts, T shirts, lighters, toys, puppets, clothes and all the souvenirs you’ll ever need, and on the other side batik shops, department stores, more batik shops and souvenir shops.

We walk or rather shuffle along frequently stopping to find out the price of things, try a bit of gentle haggling, or wait for the others. Luckily with Pak Murdin at the front and Susi at the back like a sheepdog herding her sheep we all arrive back at the same point to meet up with our becak drivers again.

As darkness quickly falls and the call to prayer starts ringing out we head down to the bottom of Malioboro past the monument to the popular uprising of 1st March 1949 which finally persuaded the Dutch to do the honourable thing and grant Indonesia independence. Then we go through the archway to the Kraton and the  high white walls on either side to Alun Alun Lor the northern square with its two massive banyan trees in the middle.

On we go to Griya restaurant formerly the home of a brother of the Sultan, full of lovely antiques and two sets of gamelan instruments, and a great setting for our meal, which is very Javanese and very enjoyable. Next we are treated to a wonderful ride to the Alun Alun Kidul (south square) where there is a huge crowd of people and an amazing array of fully lit up strange and wondrous electric vehicles in the shape of swans, elephants, peacocks, and more. Tonight is the Muslim New Year and at midnight there will be a silent walk around the 4 kms of the white walls of the Kraton, and for now there are plenty of people out to enjoy themselves.

We finish up at Sono Budoyo – one of the buildings of the Kraton , the Royal Palace, for the nightly wayang kulit shadow puppet show. This is a shortened (two hour) episode from the Mahabarata. The puppeteer sits cross legged in the middle with his puppets ranging from smallest to largest on either side of him, their sticks planted firmly in a banana tree trunk. He taps with his foot and manipulates the puppets with somersaults, twirls, and there are skilful fights between Hanuman the white monkey and one of the black monkeys. You can sit and watch the puppeteer and the rather dozey gamelan players and the giggling and very glamorous women singers or you can go round to the back and watch the shadows and fully immerse yourself in the drama.

Those of us who can stick it right until the end are rewarded with the chance to play along with the gamelan players. One of them said he had been performing every night for 9 years! Back home through the dark but still teeming streets to our very welcome beds.  And that’s just the first day!

Tuesday, a cap batik masterclass at Batik Winotosastro

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We cross the very busy Jalan Parangtritis and a little way up Jalan Tirtodipuran to Batik Winotosastro and are warmly welcomed by Bu Hani and her staff. Everyone is smiley and helpful. First of all we take a look at some samples of beautiful scarves and she explains that this is what we are going to make! Then we watch the 3 young chaps who will be helping us doing the cap work. Caps are copper stamps which are used to apply wax to the cotton. They are often very beautiful and little works of art in themselves. Batik Winotosastro has hundreds of them ranged on dozens of shelves, and we have more or less free rein. Hani explains that she always asks the young men to help with the workshops because they are more flexible in their thinking and enjoy new ideas whereas the old guys just want to do the same as they have always done and don’t like to mess with the  traditional designs. 

We are soon confronted with bewildering choices to make – what colours do we want our scarves to be? What caps do we want to use? do we want a border? what will go on the ends? what about the infill? Its a lot to think about but slowly we get our heads around it.  Once we have been given instructions on how to apply the cap carefully, with just the right amount of wax, the heat and the pressure just right, our kind and patient helpers go over it again to make sure the wax resist is really good. This all takes a while and it is after 1pm before we have all finally finished this first waxing. Over lunch in a large cool room upstairs, we look at some of the pieces from Hani’s personal batik collection and at some of her family photos. She is the fifth generation of batik makers and she herself is in sole charge of the family batik factory now.

Soon we go back down to where the dyers have finished dyeing our pieces and are boiling out the first application of wax, washing them carefully and then passing them on to be ironed bone dry so that we can get on with applying the next lot of wax. This layer is to protect all the parts which we want white and it is applied with the canting. We sit on little stools around the “anglo” the wax melting pot and with the help of a young canting worker each (they working fast and precisely, us slower and more sloppily) we manage to get the second lot of wax on. By 4 o’clock everyone has just about finished and now our slendang just has to go into the final dye bath and the wax boiled off again.  We can come and collect them on Thursday. 

It was an absolutely amazing day which gave us all a real insight into the work and skill that goes into “just” cap batik.

We really need that swim and our welcome tea and cake when we get back to the Duta Hotel. The dusk comes down quickly, the bats starts flying and muezzin starts up his song from the local mosque, and there we are in the pool. Bliss!

Wednesday, to Solo for Danar Hadi’s and Trewinddu

The Chinese Batik room

The Chinese Batik room at Danar Hadi

We are up an hour earlier today to get on our little blue and red bus for the two hour trip to Solo with our  Balinese driver Indra who skilfully avoids kamikaze motorbike riders and cars under taking and over taking. There’s never ending ribbon development all the way but with plenty of vibrant green rice fields in between and once in the city of  Solo, we go straight up the huge main street to the Danar Hadi batik museum, shop and factory.

It is indeed a fabulous museum with a very knowledgeable guide who shows us round all 11 rooms containing the most beautiful  batik from all over Java: Kraton batiks with their ultra conservative and ancient traditional motifs full of significance and worn until independence only by the Sultan, his family and Court officials: “merchant” batiks made by commercial workshops with their adaptations of tradition: Chinese batik made by or for Chinese settlers who have lived in Java since well before the Dutch, Portuguese and British arrived in the 16th century: Batik Belanda – Dutch batik depicting flower bouquets, birds, butterflies and even fairy tales and battle scenes made by Dutch and Indische women (half Dutch half Indonesian) in the 18th and 19th century. We also see some of my favourite designs “Tiga Negeri” (three countries) which was batik commissioned by Solonese merchants and sent to Lasem on the north coast for the red “mengkudu” dye, Pekalongan or Jogya for the indigo blue and back to Solo for the soga brown dyes.  I love the fact that they tried so hard to attain the wonderful strong and vivid red that they “head hunted” dyers from Lasem, but still couldn’t do get it. There was obviously something in the soil or the water of Lasem which made so special so it was worth the cloth travelling there specifically to be dyed.

From the beautiful, elegant and air-conditioned surroundings of the museum we pass into the hot, steamy factory with the acrid smell of wax and here around 80 men and 100 women work either at the cap tables or at their bamboo stands making batik. Talk about a sweat shop! We all feel the stark contrast and pass comment that Pak Santoso the owner could spend just a little of his enormous wealth (made from selling batik) on the conditions of the workers who make it for him. It wouldn’t cost a lot to put in ventilation, windows or more fans. The contrast with Hani’s lovely workshop at Winotosastro is extreme.

After lunch (desert was an acquired taste – steamed cassava with cheese and cream) we went to Pasar Trewinddu to have a look at the Antiques market and to try and buy some second hand copper stamps.

On our way to the train station, we drive through Laweyan – Solo’s traditional batik district where the lamp-posts are shaped like cantings and the streets are named after batik designs. The tall white outer walls of the batik manufacturer family homes and workshops in the narrow lanes provide a glimpse of a rich and fascinating past.  We catch the train back to Jogya , a very pleasant journey of just an hour and a quarter through vivid green rice fields, thatched rice barns and little shelters for the bird scarers to sit and shelter from the sun. Tantalising glimpses of Mount Merapi rising hugely through the clouds make us all reach for our cameras.

Thursday, the Kraton, a downpour and the Ramayana Ballet

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Today we are going to the Sultan’s Palace, the “Kraton” through lovely shady streets quiet after the noise of traffic outside, of Dutch style bungalows with  trees and plants everywhere.

We enter through the gates into the grounds of the Royal Palace and a lady guide shows us around  whizzing through her speeches as if she wants to get us processed so that she can go back for another tour. One of the Court’s gamelan sets  is being played by mainly women players and three ladies are singing in that peculiarly Javanese discordant high pitched style which is definitely an “acquired taste” (which I have totally acquired)

We see portraits of the past 10 Sultans and their family trees with leaves for the girls, fruit for the boys and tiny unopened buds for the dead children. One Sultan had 78 children so he has a big tree!

Everywhere in the Kraton grounds, there are beautifully dressed palace guards in the Jogya style brown and white batik sarongs, hand woven lurik jackets, batik turbans and the kris knife stuck into their waistbands at the back. Occasionally there are ladies wearing batik “kemben” breast cloths and sarongs. Luckily we are also able to see the Palace guards “cleaning” the wayang kulit collection (leather shadow puppets) although this seems to consist of laying them out on the ground and then sitting having a chat and a fag with their mates.

Next we stop off to visit a wayang kulit making workshop and the master explains how buffalo hide is prepared by stretching and polishing it and then carved by tapping out shapes with 31 differently shaped chisels and flattened with a sea shell before it is painted and the buffalo horn handles are added.

He shows us the beautiful leaf shaped “Gunungan” which is used at the beginning and end of a scene in the story and the meanings of all the symbols on it. The two Guardians of good and evil the snake winding up through the tree of life, the tiger for intelligence, the bull for power, the birds and butterflies, the monkeys signifying the family and social life and at the top the lotus flower. Who would have guessed there was so much in it? Well of course, anyone who knows anything about Javanese culture I suppose.

We hoped to go on to Taman Sari – the Water Castle, but first we are in need of a stop for a drink and a snack – and its lucky that we do because no sooner are we installed in a lovely little café than the rain starts chucking it down. It’s absolutely torrential and its clear that we’re not going anywhere while that carries on – but luckily the Water Castle Cafe has good food and a very friendly family so we don’t mind. When it clears up enough to venture into the small tiny back streets we jump through puddles to visit a few small independent batik workshops. One  makes huge batik panels which are used to make designer dresses and another who makes pieces made into bright shirts

We visit Susi’s dad and the house where Susi  lived as a child and where her husband Kelik lived next door – childhood sweethearts.

By the time we’ve finally all satisfied ourselves on the various things we need to buy, its too late to go into the Water Castle but we make our way back to the becaks through a pure white underground tunnel – part of the secret way that the Court could walk from the Palace to the Pleasure Park without going through the streets.

Later that evening we get back into becaks for the short trip to Purawisata  for the Ramayana Ballet performance, which has been performed every night for the past 29 years! The outdoor stage is beautiful and we have great seats in the amphitheatre. The two women singers and the gamelan players take their seats and slowly it begins, although not before the performance is blessed by a priest with incense and flowers.

The story is beautifully sung, played, acted and danced – tiny steps, swishing sashes and amazingly delicate and flexible hand movements from the women, incredible acrobatics and fire skills from Hanoman the white monkey, great bow and arrow work as well as grace from Rama and Lakshmana, macho posturing and fierceness from Rahwarna and Kumbakarna, great shoulder-work skills from Cakil with his jutting teeth, and great antics from the monkeys (including three little kids dressed as part of the monkey family)  All in all a wonderful night and the cherry on the cake is getting up on stage for a photo with the main players – you don’t get that at Covent Garden.

Friday – Giriloyo village ladies and the Royal Tombs

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 Today our first stop is to a wood batik workshop  where the sanded wooden bowls, plates, boxes, masks, keyrings, mirrors, fridge magnets and what have you are batiked in just the same way as cloth. They are waxed, dyed and then boiled out and varnished. The end product is superb and everyone finds something they like in the rather dark and dingy warehouse.

Onwards out into the green padi fields to the Bima Sakti womens batik co-op in Giriloyo, a village famous for it very fine batik tulis. We are soon sitting on tiny low stools round tiny waxpots. It’s extremely hot and sweaty and we apply very hot and sticky dark brown wax onto designs which have been traced out onto cotton squares. Everything has to be waxed very well and doubled on the back before the cloth can be dyed. It goes first goes into detergent, then acid salts and then the dye, its washed again and goes through the whole process again (all done in a series of plastic baby baths) before finally ending up in a big cauldron for the wax to be boiled out

We sit down to lunch and then get tempted by some of the beautiful hand drawn cloths which have been made by these village ladies including some sampler cloths which include the names of the designs. We sign the guest book and looking back through it see several names we recognise – this place may be out of the way but its a mecca for batik lovers from around the world.

Our indigo blue squares  are dry so we all pile back into the bus and drive on a little further to Imogiri.  Luckily someone opens a gate (for an appropriate tip) to avoid having to climb a huge flight of stone steps and we find ourselves at the top of a very high mountain where the tombs of the former Sultans of Jogyakarta and their families are. They are only opened once a week, but before we can enter, we must be dressed in appropriate style. So we are shepherded into a very small room where three ladies dress us in tight “kain panjang” and “kemben” breast cloths – breathe in, tug and pin! What a sight we are with our bare shoulders and tight skirts. We totter with difficulty up more stone steps and at the top wait our turn to enter the tiny dark room of the tomb of the late Sultan Humenkubuwono IX. Here we can sprinkle flowers onto the tomb, touch or kiss a sacred stone, say a prayer and slowly back out again. It’s hotter than a sauna in there. About a dozen people are waiting patiently to ask the priest who sits by his everlasting holy fire to convey prayers for them. The atmosphere is solemn and spiritual, which has the effect of making us somewhat giggly.

We drive back through fields of ripe rice until we get back to Duta at 4pm bang on time for a very welcome cup of tea, a swim and the latest teatime snack!

So far, so good. Everyone is enjoying themselves. The weather is hot and sticky but there’s not much we can do about that. It’s just what Java’s like.

I am getting ready to lead a group of batik artists and lovers from Britain into the world of Javanese batik. In a few days time they will be here in Jogyakarta where I am now making my final preparations.  Its something I have thought about doing for a long time, but I have been put off by the practicalities. How will soft European ladies react to the heat and humidity, the mosquitoes, the long flight, strange food, and the general poverty and degraded environment of Java?

Of course if you are a fanatic about wonderful textiles, and batik in particular, then these things can be put up with – at least thats what I’m hoping. Anyway 11 brave souls (plus 2 even braver husbands!) have put their faith in me and will be the willing guinea pigs for my first Java tour, which begins on Monday.

I have found a couple of great hotels with air conditioning, wifi, swimming pool and a recognisable breakfast, so we will all be comfortable.

I have planned some great hands on workshops – one day making cap batik (with copper stamps) in Batik Winotosastro – one of the most famous batik factories in Jogya, a hand drawn batik workshop in the village of Giriloyo with the ladies who make batik for the court of Jogya, and a three day masterclass with Nia and Agus Ismoyo of the Brahma Tirta Sari studio. These will all unforgettable experiences I’m pretty sure!

I’ve organised visits to canting makers, cap makers, and all manner of batik artists living in back street neighbourhoods where tourists never venture. We’re going to visit the famous Danar Hadi batik museum in Solo, markets, factories, palaces, temples, villages set in rice fields, ancient Royal tombs, volcanoes, performances of wayang kulit – leather shadow puppets shows and the Ramayana ballet – honestly I couldn’t squeeze in more if I tried!

Watch this space to find out how it all goes!

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Bena and Bajawa, Central Flores

Here we are in Central Flores  - this entailed a huge and very hairy detour necessary to get round the articulated lorry which has got stuck in the road and gouged out the hillside – and we are in the realm of a new lot of people all together. They are called Ngada, they have a totally different language and perhaps because they were not so accessible to missionaries, they seem to have kept far more of their animist traditions. Maybe because they were not so influenced by traders with their European and Indian trade cloths, their ikat is very different too. The most popular design is of small white horses and triangles and other geometric shapes on a very dark deep navy or black indigo background. In Flores (just as in Sumba where the horse motif is also very important) the horse symbol is an obvious signifier of wealth.

The climate is cool and much more pleasant than the sweltering coast – we even need a blanket at night which makes a very nice change. Most people live in small villages – a collection of houses with tin roofs. But there are still around 30 traditional villages – mostly accessible only by motorbike on tiny dirt tracks through the dense forest. We got to the village of Bena which welcomes tourists for a donation to the head man (our guide, Hero the cheeky devil gave him a bottle of his mother in law’s arak whisky)

We walked to the village through a veritable forest gardener’s dream. Planted within the space of about half a mile we saw coffee, cocoa, and palm fruit (for arak and sugar) cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, lemon grass and chillies. Then there was the fruit, bananas (yellow and red) papaya, jack fruit, durian, pineapples, mango, avocado, candle nut, peanuts and soy beans and others which Hero didn’t know the English for but are good for medicine or other uses. In this perfect climate, high above the heat of the coast, with plenty of year round rainfall, everything needed for a good life – to eat, to drink, to make houses from, for medicine and for textile production is here.

16. The first sight of the traditonal village of Bena. The houses are grouped around a rectangular communal area with spirit houses and shrines. (640x480)The village itself came as a shock – its a definite double take to come upon this alien architecture amongst the trees. The first sight of a traditional Ngada village is almost surreal. Two rows of tall roofed houses are topped with either a male or female symbol, tall standing stones and female and male totems for each of the nine clans. In the central area there are carved poles with thatched umbrellas (the male phallic totem) and miniature huts on stilts (the female womb totem) Of course the first thing I notice is that all the houses have a weaving platform out front.

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Most of the inhabitants are either very old or very young. Many younger people just get fed up with working hard and then having nothing left to spend on themselves.

The villagers get their income from tourism and selling forest produce, but traditions dictate that almost all the income earned gets spent on elaborate ceremonies. These ceremonies eat up huge amounts of money in buying buffalo, pigs and elaborate textiles. There is no room here for the youngster who wants to buy a motorbike or other material goods with his hard earned cash.

17. Weaving in Bena village (640x507)

Textiles have always played a very important spiritual role in Ngada the rituals – they are required at all ceremonies not only as garments but also as a necessary part of the ritual. Warp ikat cloths are used as burial shrouds, in exchanges of gifts before a wedding and the designs often preserve local legends and beliefs. 

For the Ngada people there are ten grades of cloth, ranked for quality, motif and size and a weaver must be able to make cloth at each level before graduating to a higher grade textile. “Lawo Butu” cloths belong to the top grade and very few weavers are qualified to weave them. The cloth is worn by a female clan elder to dedicate a new clan shrine Some old cloths are preserved in clan treasuries for centuries until just the tattered remains are left to be draped over the main post of the shrine.*

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Mama Khaterina is one of the few weavers who still makes these cloths and she shows us two cloths she has for sale. They are unlike anything we have seen before –indigo dyed with pattern of stylised stick horses but embellished with tiny shells and ancient beads in designs of crabs and boats.

The cloths are about three times more expensive than the most expensive ikats we have seen on the coast and although they do not compete in terms of the intricacy and fineness of the design, they have such power and integrity that we are smitten. We have to go away, have lunch, think carefully and visit a cash machine in town before we can go back and make an offer. Mama Khaterina needs the money for a family member who is in hospital – otherwise she wouldn’t be selling, and when we hand over the money, her grandchildren gleefully count it out in both English and Ngada.

18. Mama Katharina wears her ceremonial ikat. (421x640)

The future for fine Flores ikat is uncertain, just as it is for all hand made textiles which require so much time and effort. In most cases, the weaver is producing cloth for herself and her family and the hours are not counted. However when people rely on it for an income, it is inevitable that compromises are made. Time consuming plant dyes are abandoned in favour of much speedier chemical dyes, more complicated designs are left behind and simpler ones take their place, machine spun yarns are used instead of hand spun. Tourists will buy ikat as a souvenir but they usually don’t bother about the more costly refinements.

“Threads of Life” is an exemplary organisation based in Bali which sets up and buys from weaving co-operatives. By marketing top end textiles and attempting to educate the buyers into recognising the value of the very best textiles, they are managing to support some weavers. This is a small but vital drop in the ocean.

The truth is that we are probably seeing the final years in the production of the best ikat from Flores, and if such a thing existed, it would go onto the textiles endangered list. Now if I can just sell what I’ve bought, I can go back and buy some more.

* Thanks to “Threads Of Life” for this information.

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