If there was a collective noun for fabulous first impressions, Mr Smith and I suggest it should be ‘Amanjiwo’. It’s not just the cold towels, crackers and chilled water with the complimentary airport pick-up, or the framed view of Buddhist temple Borobodur seen through the hotel from the steep driveway. It isn’t even the hard-punching ginger beer and cute flower-throwing-by-small-girls on arrival. It’s all that plus the unique stupa-like design of the common areas, with cascading colonnades and silver-gilded ceilings, along with the relaxed but cleverly information-seeking chat with our personal butler, Anwar, and Portuguese host, Duarte, at check-in.
By the time you reach the wide, generous terrace overlooking the temple complex proper you’ll completely understand what we mean. It’s not every day you contemplate mystical 1,300-year-old architecture cradled in a valley created by two massive volcanoes, one to your left shrouded in cloud and heat haze, and the other crystal clear and slightly smoking to your right. There’s breathtaking, but this is gob-smackingly stupefying. As if to reinforce the majesty and strangeness of it all, just as our jaws snap shut again, the afternoon call to prayer starts up and the valley is awash with the imported sounds of Arabia.
While the short flight from Bali to Java’s cultural hub Yogyakarta and the hour-and-a-quarter transfer from airport to hotel had gone smoothly, these Smiths are happy to let the off-site delights of Amanjiwo wait until after a good swim and restorative poolside lunch. Set at the bottom of the terraced property, with views of fields cultivated to supply the hotel’s kitchens, the pool club bears the same styling as the restaurant and lounge areas – all graceful colonnades and shimmering sandstone. You’d think you were in Tuscany if it weren’t for farmers picking crops in conical hats and the huge plates of delicious nasi goreng that appear in an instant (‘comfort food’ is how Duarte describes the menu here).
The pool itself – at 40 metres – is a godsend to this lap-swimming Smith, but somehow, after the first couple of goes up and down, lying on one’s back and watching the clouds skid past seems a more fitting use for it. A lazy dry-off and desultory attempt at reading later, and the theme extends: it’s time for a massage. A self-indulgent connoisseur of the world’s various therapeutic techniques, I opt for pijat, a deep-tissue treatment delivered by a special dukun, or village healer. According to the spa menu, it could ‘verge on painful’ but then it’s also said to ‘mediate with the spirit world’. I’m not disappointed on any front – a transcendental combo of pain and pleasure ensues, followed by a long, gamelan-infused afternoon nap in our suite.
The excitement begins that evening with a trip to a jatilan at nearby Wanu village. Traditional community celebrations with strong animistic roots, jatilans involve ritualised performances of increasing ferocity and noisiness that culminate in the ‘trance dance’. During it, the most experienced dancers end up eating glass, rolling their eyes back in their heads and generally carrying on like Morris-dancing Pentecostalists (they wear bell-strewn leggings). The only Westerners there, we are gently bullied into joining the band on bongos. To add to the effect, every 10 minutes or so the electricity dies and everyone jeers.
The second great Amanjiwo experience is, of course, a trip the next morning to Borobodur itself. A squat, square, Buddha-strewn temple only reclaimed from the jungle in the 19th century, Borobodur is not to the vast, imposing scale of Cambodia’s Angkor Wat or Myanmar’s Bagan. Its potency, by contrast, lies in the exquisite carvings that line its wedding-cake-tiered galleries, one huge instructional religious manual pasted out page by page on grey volcanic rock walls. Not that the present-day atmosphere is quite so elevating. The temple is one of Indonesia’s most popular domestic attractions and crawls with digital camera-toting packs of exuberant extended families, all of whom seem as excited at being photographed with tall, sweaty white people as with the serene Buddhas they’ve come to venerate.
The surprise highlight of our trip is a spontaneous decision, after another poolside lunch of satay and salad, to hire a motorbike and explore the back roads of this exotic, little-visited region. If there is a moment of consternation from the concierge – ‘why not hire the air-conditioned jeep and driver?’ – it passes smoothly and we are soon speeding off down country lanes on a bright shiny motorbike hastily borrowed from the chief gardener. We drive for hours, stopping for lunch at the nearby Muntilan market, with its low-roofed mercantile menagerie of chicken’s feet, bras, dried fish, sandals, crackers and pans, and then follow the signs to the Merapi Volcano observation point, getting increasingly cold and sore-bottomed as we travel the pot-holed track. Our ears even pop as we read the badly translated information panels – ‘hot clouds with face of monster attack village and kills 50 people’ – and help young Indonesian couples on dates take pictures against the smouldering cone.
Later that evening, prone on our terrace day-bed, the remnants of another Indonesian feast surrounding us, a little bit sun struck, tired from our trance dances, temple climbs and adventures on two wheels, we decide that first impressions can be deceiving. Despite its show-stopping welcome, Amanjiwo has even more exotic treats in store. We’ll be back soon to have our breath taken away all over again.