As the sun rose on the horizon, slowly yet mercilessly simmering the ground and everything above it, the commotion at Gambir Station grew intense. The frantic footsteps of passengers searching for their trains and the piercing cries of tour guides shepherding their flocks clashed in an unrhythmic cacophony. It’s an interesting juxtaposition of scenery as Jakarta beyond the terminal was uncharacteristically quiet. Monumen Nasional, which stands right across the platforms, was left on its lonesome, desolate self.
Ever so often gentle gusts of wind would remedy the heat, caressing the skin and blowing the chequered shawl that’s hanging around my neck. “It was hand-made by homegrown artisans in Borobudur,” said an Amanjiwo personnel clad in a traditional white shirt, batik sarong, and head wrap, who ushered me and five others to a private lounge at one end of the station an hour earlier. Scented to a calming effect, the intimate space boasts wood-panelled walls, black leather sofas, and a television set playing clips of Aman properties around the world.
A steadily increasing chugging sound from afar cut through the hustle and bustle. The Kereta Api Wisata emerged from behind the shrubbery, its brakes hissed and screeched before it slowed to a halt. I was promptly escorted to the last carriage, a luxurious coach in a regal shade of burgundy with a gold Aman plaque embellishing the entryway, which brought a much-needed respite. Here, a short hallway decorated with traditional woodcarvings opens to a dining space and a segmented sitting area.
With The Journey Through Java, a pleasant travelling experience is all but guaranteed as the car only accommodates up to 10 people at a time. It is, after all, a seven-hour train ride. Consummate comfort is of utmost importance. Luxury, on the other hand, is conveyed through a muted colour palette. From the ivory walls, wooden window frames, and grey carpeting to the thoughtfully assembled fixtures such as the colour-coordinated long sofas and cushions impeccably dressed in batik textile, the message is clear: Amanjiwo is redefining the art of train travel.
Given the headlining feature in this stay package, I couldn’t help but wonder about the significance of the railway system in the land’s history. And as it turns out, its story goes all the way back to 1864, during the Dutch colonial period when the private company Nederlandsch-Indische Spoorweg Maatschappij constructed the Solo- Yogyakarta railway. In the same year, the Jakarta-Bogor line started operation, mainly to transport commodities, especially plantations from the interior in Priangan to the ports in Jakarta.
The whirring of the locomotive signalled the start of the railway adventure. Sipping on a glass of Kunir Asam—a godly blend of brown sugar, tamarind, turmeric, and jamu—I gazed out the window in anticipation. Sure enough, as the train began traversing across the West and Central Java regions, panoramic views of the rolling countryside gleefully presented themselves. The sights of open paddy fields, kampong houses, and locals going about their day were as illuminating as they were enthralling.
It was a dreamscape in which I could get lost for hours until I was inevitably interrupted by the growling of my stomach. That’s where Amanjiwo’s culinary team came in. Elevating the unique experience, the cuisiniers on board laid down some exquisite Indonesian dishes. Among the highlights on the menu were the sour and spicy fried seabass filet with vinegar and turmeric sauce, and the Sundanese braised beef cooked in chilli coconut milk and palm sugar, accompanied by white rice, kerabu, tempeh, and basil leaves.
The flavourful fish, the oh-so-tender beef, and the sweeping vista outside the window made for the perfect combo for one to recharge for the following lecture by Patrick Vanhoebrouck. With an extensive background in history and anthropology, along with his 10 years of experience living in Java, the Amanjiwo resident anthropologist shared his insights about the region’s wealth of heritage, which covered archaeological sites, dynasties in Java, and esoteric literature, among others.
The sky was ablaze with the fire of the setting sun when the train pulled in at the Yogyakarta Tugu station. Festive ornaments at every corner of the terminal cued the looming Vesak festival. According to Vanhoebrouck, Buddhists from around the world were congregating at Borobudur—one of the most sacred Mahayana temples—for the weekend. I was also told that the resort is situated near the Unesco World Heritage Site, two kilometres away to be precise, should I wish to check out the ceremonial event up close.
It was an intriguing idea that stayed with me as I was chauffeured to the hotel. The 60-minute transfer went without a hitch, save for the occasional hold-ups in the rush-hour traffic, and any restlessness I might have felt dissipated into thin air as the strapping Amanjiwo came into view. Traces of the Kedu Plain and the outlines of Mount Merapi were still fairly discernible from a distance at the time of arrival. Reclaimed from the jungle in the 19th century, the Ed Tuttle-designed edifice lives up to its ‘peaceful soul’ moniker.
Laid out in two perfect crescents below the central rotunda, Amanjiwo’s 36 thatched-roofed suites further exude the beauty and serenity of the hotel’s setting. The Garden Suite, in particular, brings the vision to life with a private walled garden. Lounging outdoors on the daybed has never been more exciting. But if one prefers to enjoy the stunning views of the Menoreh Hills and tiered rice paddies from the comfort of their own suite, simply leave the doors ajar and nestle on the four-pillar king-size bed, spread out on a Borobudur-inspired raised terrazzo platform.
After settling into my new abode, rejuvenating myself in the sunken outdoor bathtub to a symphony of crickets and rustling leaves above, I headed to the grand colonial restaurant overlooking a ring of volcanoes. There, a unique collection of street stalls serving traditional Javanese foods from the region awaited. From assorted home-style fritters and savoury beef pancakes to meatball noodle soup and Javanese-style wok fried rice, I indulged in the Kaki Lima Dinner menu while enjoying the traditional dance performance on display.
Those who wish to work off the calories after such sinful gastronomic pleasure—or merely to shake off the lingering travel fatigue—may head to Amanjiwo’s fully equipped gym suite and hop on the state-of-the-art machines. Otherwise, hit the stone steps that descend in tiers to a magnificent swimming pool for a night plunge. But if a full immersion into Amanjiwo’s sacred roots is what one is after, then the holistic wellness session at the spa, whose menu is informed by customary Javanese healing, is not to be missed.
Authenticity at Amanjiwo extends beyond the gates. Going the extra mile to provide its guests with opportunities for meaningful interactions with the land and the locals, the hotel has painstakingly curated a series of experientially oriented engagements. I had the pleasure of partaking in the intimate Aman picnic on the banks of the Progo River and, at the risk of sounding hyperbolic, it was life-changing. Trekking through the lush greenery in the local village alone exposed me to an entirely new way of life.
A feeling of awe and inexplicable serenity washed over me as the soft burble of the stream began filling the air. As I inched closer to the site, the set-up slowly revealed itself: a sizable garden parasol towered over a woven mat which had been tricked out with a couple of bean bags, plush cushions, and a boho picnic table. A slight whiff of food cooking from a basket of pre-selected victuals—chicken salad, local kuih, spring rolls, salmon sandwich, and Java tea—prompted a rumbling from my own breadbasket.
I sank onto the floor lounger and took a bite out of the sandwich. The silence that ensued, allowing me to enjoy my own company, somewhat sharpened my senses. Butterflies were fluttering about, birds chirping the most melodious tune, and every so often I caught myself staring intently at the clouds, trailing them as they drifted along, guessing the shapes they were imitating. It was a breathtaking sight that one could’ve sworn was ripped out of a Studio Ghibli animation, explaining the drawing kit at the end of the table.
A moment later footsteps in a slow measured tread awoke me from my sweet reverie. Vanhoebrouck, with a local priest in tow, was ambling towards me. It was time for Tolak Balak—a cleansing ceremony to ward off the destructive force of evil and preserve good health. Practised by traditional Nusantara communities, especially in Java and Bali, the healing ritual involves ancestral techniques for self-protection and self-purification, which include mantras, meditation, and jamu.
The 90-minute session started with the recitation of chants to invoke energy and focus the mind. Through a series of breathing techniques, I could feel myself relaxing into deep introspection as my mind reconnected with my spiritual body and was guided into meditation. The ritual concluded with a sampling of local herbal elixirs, which are supposed to bolster one’s immune system to repel physiological threats such as disease and pollution. It was a beautiful gateway into local traditions that left me with a sense of purity, lightness, and energy.
Diving into ancient Javanese philosophies was as gratifying as it was emotionally rewarding. The experience allowed me a taste of the Javanese culture and a glimpse at pockets of its people’s lives, which in turn spurred an appreciation for not only our distinct differences but also striking similarities— and we are much, much more similar than we think we are, and it goes beyond the language we speak. With The Journey Through Java, Amanjiwo has once again outdone itself.
The Journey Through Java is available on selected dates throughout 2023: 29 September-1 October, 20-22 October, 24-26 November, and 22-24 December.