Aman offers a luxury train journey to Borobudur, the world’s largest Buddhist temple | So Good News
(CNN) — Sitting inside a plush train car furnished with traditional Javanese batik rugs, paintings and books, travelers aboard Indonesia’s newest luxury train will surely agree that the journey is as important as the destination.
Why else choose to take a seven-hour train ride instead of a flight to Yogyakarta, home to Indonesia’s famous UNESCO-listed Buddhist site, Borobudur.
Since Indonesia has lifted its Covid-related travel restrictions for vaccinated tourists, Amanjiwo’s staff hope the unique train journey will entice international crowds to come and learn more about Javanese culture.
– The journey through Java by train was launched during the pandemic and received positive feedback from the domestic market, says Jann Hess, Amanjiwo’s general manager, to CNN Travel. “Our mission going forward is to bring this experience to a wider audience around the world.”
Indonesia’s first luxury sightseeing train
The new train is operated by KAI Wisata, an exclusive subsidiary of state-owned rail operator PT Kereta Api Indonesia, and is said to be the first and only luxury rail experience of its kind in Indonesia.
It begins in the capital Jakarta and ends in Yogyakarta, a city known for Javanese art and culture. From there it is an hour’s drive to Amanjiwo.
Train guests are served Aman-style breakfasts and lunches on board by staff wearing hotel uniforms inspired by traditional Javanese attire.
Yogyakarta in Central Java is the gateway to the world famous Borobudur temple.
In addition to the gorgeous scenery, a major draw is the presence of the resort’s resident anthropologist, who provides valuable insight into the region during the tour.
“Java is known as a mystical land and its culture influenced other regions of Indonesia such as Bali,” says Hess.
“There are so many stories, myths, legends and wisdom that we can learn from the lecture sessions from anthropologist Patrick Vanhoebrouck during the train journey, encompassing spirituality, architecture and art. This learning will build a sense of curiosity and encourage cultural respect and exchange within our guests arrives at Amanjiwo to continue the discovery further.”
Meet Amanjiwo’s resident anthropologist
Originally from Belgium, Vanhoebrouck first moved to Yogyakarta in 1997 to work in the furniture and antique sports industry.
“Yet during my stay here, I quickly became fascinated by the local Javanese culture, its distinctive expression through performance art (wayang cycles), its philosophical and traditional aspects of how to live life,” says Vanhoebrouck.
He was so fascinated that he earned a bachelor’s degree and then a master’s degree in anthropology in the United States and the Netherlands before moving back to Indonesia permanently in 2010.
“As an anthropologist specializing in Javanese spiritual culture and practice … I can confidently say that Central Java is a rich and vibrant playground for the spiritually minded, as the landscape is literally dotted with both built and natural sacred sites,” he says.
Since 2019, Vanhoebrouck has been working with Amanjiwo to hold evening lectures and set up spiritual and cultural activities for guests. When not at the resort, he coordinates retreats focusing on Javanese wisdom and healing powers while continuing his research into Javanese culture.
During the train ride through the mountainous valleys, guests can take in typical Javanese landscapes – rice fields, tropical forests with rolling hills, volcanoes and important rivers in the background – while listening to Vanhoebrouck’s anecdotes.
A guide to Borobudur, the world’s largest Buddhist temple
On arrival at Amanjiwo, guests are fully equipped with knowledge to better appreciate the many historical attractions around the area.
“Situated in the Kedu Plain area at the foot of five major volcanoes, Amanjiwo is surrounded by ancient archaeological wonders,” notes Vanhoebrouck.
The biggest showstopper of them all is Borobudur, an eight-minute drive from the resort.
Dating back to the 8th and 9th centuries, it was built in a pyramidal shape with three main layers around a hill, including five concentric square terraces, three circular platforms and a monumental stupa at the top.
Amanjiwo is located on the Kedu Plain in Central Java, surrounded by historical and cultural attractions.
Around 500 Buddha statues and 72 stupas – each containing a statue of the Buddha – are scattered around the steps. The walls and railings are covered in more than 1,600 detailed relief panels.
“One of the largest and most ornate monuments in the Buddhist world, Borobudur is unique in so many ways,” says Vanhoebrouck.
“Never before has a Buddhist community attempted to express the entire compendium of the Buddha’s teachings on a single standing stone rock-shaped monument, and this is expressed through wonderfully exquisite and detailed sculpted iconography using dark andesite volcanic stone.”
Since the site suffered from natural weathering for more than 1,000 years, the international community came together in the 1970s to finance a major renovation, which was carried out by UNESCO.
In 1991 it was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The traditional pilgrimage route is a six kilometer long walk, slowly ascending each level of the pyramidal temple through its spiral corridors. The trip usually takes about half a day.
For those short on time, Vanhoebrouck suggests a “median solution” by learning about the cultural background of Borobudur Temple before visiting the most representative relief panels on each level – with the help of a local guide.
“Take a minute here and there in meditative balance to understand the effort, time and purpose of the original builders and their dharma-oriented civilization… by meeting one of the 500 plus Dhyani-Buddhas (icons of Mahayana Buddhism) in their alcoves,” advises Vanhoebrouck.
The upper galleries of the temple have been closed during the pandemic. Until the temple is fully reopened, Vanhoebrouck encourages travelers to walk around the temple a few times, also called a kora — a meditative pilgrimage that involves repeatedly circling a sacred site clockwise.
It is popular to admire Borobudur from the top stupa at sunrise “over the misty plains below and behind the two main volcanoes on the eastern horizon”, but Vanhoebrouck believes other times and weather conditions offer their own charms.
Borobudur is popular at sunrise when travelers can see the breathtaking view of the temple’s statues and nearby volcanoes from the top of the temple.
“The monument takes on special significance and a clear aural grandeur during the ceremony of Waisak, a three-day Buddhist celebration of the Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and passing stages,” he says.
Waisak Day, or Vesak Day, takes place on the full moon of the fourth month of the lunar calendar (usually in May or June).
“It is a great moment to participate with hundreds of Buddhists from all over Asia and the world, observe a series of ritual approaches, chanting and contemplative processions towards the temple, and through this perhaps get a glimpse of what was actually intended by the designers or builders who conceived Borobudur in the early 9th century,” says Vanhoebrouck.
As for other favorite Central Java attractions to visit, the anthropologist points to the Hindu-Buddhist temples of the Mataram Kingdom – a sophisticated Javanese Hindu-Buddhist civilization that flourished from the 8th to the 11th centuries – and the royal palaces (kraton) of Yogyakarta and Surakarta.
“Many natural springs, hilltops, caves and shores are still approached reverently by Javanese devotees,” says the Yogyakarta resident.
For those who want to experience the train journey, there are two more Amanjiwo packages available in 2022: From 24-26 November and 24–26 December. In the first half of 2023, the train will run on 20 January, 17 February, 17 March, 7 and 21 April, 5 and 19 May and 2 and 30 June.