Dieng was a holy city with at least 400 temples, including some of the island's oldest Hindu ones, dating to the 8th century. But like magnificent Borobudur nearby, Dieng was built and then rapidly abandoned. Historians have long been baffled as to why, and there were probably a myriad of factors. But after a visit, one seems obvious: burn out. This eerie, sprawling, smoking plateau is actually a caldera. Steaming vents and bubbling water surrounding ancient rubble testify to what lies beneath: volcanic wrath.
The same applies to Gedung Songo, another group of ancient Hindu temples, in the hills outside Ambarawa. As at Dieng, the temples are small and understated, but the setting is special. The shrines cling to slopes with mesmerizing views of Merapi and Merbabu, two of Java's smoldering volcanoes. While more compact than Dieng, Gedung Songo is even less visited, its ruins scattered around a park with great trails and camping sites. Although half the elevation of Dieng, it's still a cool hill retreat at 1,000 meters.
The other charm that Gedung Songo shares with Dieng is an ambiance of authenticity. Gedung Songo probably looks much as it appeared a century ago to Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles (later founder of Singapore), who dubbed it Gedung Pitoe, Javanese for seven buildings. Songo, in fact, means nine: Raffles missed two temples.
Dieng abounds in delightful decay. Only a handful of the many temples have been fully restored. Others are partially crumbled or left in total ruin. That makes it all the more intriguing for amateur archaeologists. You spot a Siva head or bull carving that's more than a millennium old, then try to imagine the shape of ancient arches and walls back when Java could claim to be one of the world's most advanced civilizations.
This isn't a knock upon the fantastic restorations of Borobudur or at Prambanan, both easy day trips south of Dieng. Prambanan's plaza, with its pointed temples, has been called the most perfect square created by man. The lines and carvings are indeed astounding, but this is only one part of an enormous plain packed with architectural treasures. Most are within walking distance of the main Siva Madeva temple. Other sites are farther afield but easily reached by bicycle. Better yet, hire a horse cart ($5) and rattle along for five kilometers, skirting rice fields and bamboo shacks to distant temple groupings like Sari and Kalasan.
The threat of terrorist attacks has kept central Java particularly empty. "We've had so many troubles and everybody keeps hearing more bad news," says Atik Wildan, p.r. manager at the Hyatt Regency in Yogyakarta. Remarks Sean Flakelar, general manager of the lavish Amanjiwo hotel that overlooks Borobudur: "Sept. 11 killed us." The plush inn has struggled to fill 20% of its rooms. "People have the perception that the trouble is close at hand rather than far away," Flakelar adds. "In fact, things are safe here."
Maybe so, but visitors to central Java are advised to travel in groups and stay in reputable hotels. No sense to skimp on that count: some five-star properties such as the Hyatt are begging for business, with deals as low as $50 per room. As I soak my feet in a hot pool after a long hike on this steamy plateau, I think: that's cool, too.