Amanjiwo hotel in Borobudur, Indonesia
Here is an article I wrote about the Amanjiwo resort in Borobudur, Indonesia for Harper’s Bazaar:
I first heard of the Amanjiwo when I was chatting with designer Ann Kelly about dream resorts, who said it was one of the places she would most like to visit. Rattled by the constant rumours of war reported in the media, I was looking for a spiritual hideaway and she suggested a visit to Borobudur, the world’s largest Buddhist sanctuary. So I booked myself a ticket to Yogyakarta and arrived at an airport teeming with chaos as the carousel area was jammed pack with clerics returning from their pilgrimage to Mecca.
Amanjiwo is an hour away from the airport, and I wondered what awaited me as the limousine drove me deep into the heart of rural Central Java, passing kampongs and men pedaling vigorously, carrying giant piles of vegetables on the back of their bicycles. When I arrived at Amanjiwo, it took my breath away. Perched on a hill overlooking the spectacular Buddhist sanctuary of Borobudur, the Aman hotel glows like a white pearl amidst the green sea of rice fields. Look behind it and you’ll see the Menoreh Hills, a green tower of trees wreathed in mist. Look out ahead, towards the Kedu Plain, and you’ll see the grey stupas of Borobudur, framed by two mystic volcanoes. Perhaps the greatest challenge is building a resort that can stand up to one of the world’s most breath-taking scenery, but architect Edward Tuttle has created a property that melds in seamlessly with its sacred surroundings. Constructed of soft white limestone, the hotel looks like a beautiful round Buddhist stone stupa. Its circular design gives the place a very spiritual feel – the pathways seem to flow like a circle of the Tao. “Amanjiwo is more like a living temple than a hotel,” said Sean Flakelar, the manager of the hotel.
When I stepped into the lobby, lithe girls clad in rich sarongs greeted me with a shower of jasmine flowers. The bellboy brought me to my Deluxe Pool Suite, a gorgeous room with everything that you would want from a dream Asian resort – coconut wood furniture, your own private plunge pool, an outdoor stone bathtub (for flower baths) and a thatched wood pavilion which offers a magnificently clear view of Borobudur. The interiors are light and clean, as fashionably under-stated as a cream Armani suit. What impressed me the most was how functional the room was – it was as if it was designed by someone who knew exactly what I needed. Whenever I wanted to read something, there would always be a light handy; if I needed to see what I looked like naked, there was always a mirror conveniently situated at just the right moment. The rooms didn’t just look beautiful, they were marvelously functional as well, with everything – water bottles, towels, hairdryers, umbrellas – all placed beautifully at the exact spot where you need them. It’s the kind of room that makes you never want to leave – as night falls, the air is filled with the serene symphony of the rainforest and all you want to do is sit on your garden balcony, letting the hours slip away as you sip tea and breathe in the fresh dark air. “Amanjiwo” means “peaceful soul”, and you can definitely feel like calming energy from Borobudur infusing the resort.
After I woke the next morning, I took a pleasurable walk around the resort, admiring the sandstone walls coloured by spider lilies and mauve morning glories.
Scoffing down a quick breakfast of tropical fruits, I hop into a jeep which drives me to the entrance of Borobudur. On our way there, I see a van crammed full of people. There are 5 boys clinging dangerously to the outside of the van, their bodies swaying precariously in the air as the van zooms past.
“Isn’t that terribly risky?” I asked my guide, Hanafi.
He shrugs. “They believe in two philosophies. The driver needs the money and the people need to save time.”
We arrive at the temple complex in Borobudur and it’s an amazing sight. The dawn bathes everything in a blue light and as we climb to the top, we can watch the Buddhas gazing serenely into the distance, watching the sun rise slowly above the volcanoes. Like a giant pyramid hewn out of grey volcanic stone, the 1200 year old temple is as big as a football field and is filled with over 500 sculptures and 1200 stupas (which a scholar has likened to a badly risen cake). It’s surprising to find such an enormous Buddhist monument in one of the world’s largest Muslim country, and the credit for its discovery goes to the founder of Singapore, Sir Stamford Raffles, who ordered the excavation of the site in 1814. The walls of the temple are carved with figures that illustrate the life of Buddha, so as you walk around the complex, you follow his path from the base life to Enlightenment. Hanafi is an engaging guide, explaining the symbolism behind the various carvings. “This is where the Buddha was tempted by many women,” pointing out a rather erotic carving.
On our way back to Amanjiwo, we decided to ditch the jeep in exchange for a more exotic form of transport – an elephant. “It’s the best way to see the country, you get to go into places where the cars can’t go,” Lindsay Flakelar, Sean’s wife, tells me.
I wasn’t so sure. As my elephant Sela rocked into motion, I started bouncing around like nervous cat on a trampoline and was beginning to feel rather sea-sick.
I clung on tightly to my arm-rest and as the elephants plodded their way through the village, I saw that Lindsay was right.
As we dodged telephone lines along the tree-lined paths, we began to see an authentic view of village life. Sarong-clad women chopped vegetables in their front yards, while children ran out of their houses to wave at us. We passed many kids on the way and they always waved excitedly at us, shouting “Hello! Hello!” The villages are quietly idyllic, surrounded with bright flowers and red fireflies that flit between the trees. We pass a community center, filled with plastic furniture and banners, decorated in preparation for a major wedding.
After a while, we make our way out onto the main road. Muslim women, looking serious in their tudungs, motor pass us in their scooters.
“You’ll be surprised how fast these elephants can go,” Lindsay tells me.
“How fast?” I asked.
“Fast enough to scare the living daylights out of you,” says Lindsay. She told me how her son was on one of the elephants and some children came out to scare the elephants by making meowing noises. “Elephants are terrified of cats because they’re afraid of being scratched,” she said. The spooked elephants started rampaging through the jungle, but fortunately, the young Flakelar escaped unscathed.
We passed by a cat but fortunately it just lay there sleeping.
“Watch out for that branch!” Lindsay said and I quickly ducked.
My ‘driver’ turns to me and offers me a peppermint. I decline and he feeds one to the elephants.
The sun glints off the water on the verdant padi fields, and we have a clear view of the surrounding hills and volcanoes. We reach the river and the elephants sink their bodies into the brown water, and we start wading through the cool river, passing women washing clothes and naked men washing themselves.
After we emerge from the wetness, the elephants bring us back to the hotel, where we reward their exertions by feeding them huge baskets of fruit. There’s something quite special about feeling soft elephant breath on your hand as its huge trunk takes the banana from your tiny fingers.
Apart from elephant trekking, other things you can do include hiking up Menoreh Hill, or visiting Yogyakarta to shop for shadow puppets, batik sarongs and teakwood cupboards. However, I decided to take it easy and spent the afternoon swimming in Amanjiwo’s lovely pool, which offers a wonderful view of the rice fields and the smouldering peak of the volcanic Mount Merapi.
“People go to Bali because they want the beach, or golf at Nusa Dua,” says Flakelar, “but Amanjiwo is for people who want to see interesting things at a very gentle pace. We’re a very gentle experience.” Amanjiwo is the perfect getaway for the person who is looking for a sacred space to restore the stillness within. It’s like a luxurious monastery with great room service. In these uncertain times, it’s always comforting to find a place that has mastered the art of providing sacred luxury.