Photo: Climbing Bukit Sikunir.

Introduction

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Within a cool and misty high volcanic plateau, Dieng’s ethereal landscape with gurgling mud pools, hissing sulphuric vents and enigmatic ancient Hindu temples conjures a mystical atmosphere and it’s not difficult to imagine why this locale was chosen as an auspicious sacred site.



Home to Indonesia’s oldest existing religious structures, the Dieng Plateau perches some 2,000 metres above sea level in Central Java dominated by Gunung Prau (2,600 metres) and Gunung Sindoro (3,150 metres), 100 kilometres southwest of Semarang and slightly further northwest of Yogyakarta. The nearest town of any significance is Wonosobo, 30 kilometres south.

Why not? Photo taken in or around Dieng Plateau, Indonesia by Sally Arnold.

Why not? Photo: Sally Arnold

Winding up the hill from Wonosobo, a spectacular patchwork of verdant crops cling as far up the slopes as is possible to farm and surround the marshy caldera. Peppering this mist-swirled sodden realm are clusters of small squat stone structures. The temples themselves, though historically significant, will likely underwhelm the casual visitor and it’s more the dramatic setting and beautiful scenery that make this area worth the journey.

Dieng’s temples were built in an era of intense Hindu activity in Indonesia between the eight and ninth centuries, in a similar period to the Gedong Songo temples 80 kilometres to the east. While they are believed to have originally numbered in excess of 400 temples, only eight remain today. Although much is yet to be understood, the region is considered to be the cradle of Shivite and Ganesh cults in Central Java, but likely was an important ancestor worship site prior to the arrival of Hinduism as is suggested by Dieng’s name, derived from ancient Kawi “Di-Hyang”, “Di” meaning “abode” and “Hyang” an honorific for divine or ancestral spirits.

At the Arjuna Complex. Photo taken in or around Dieng Plateau, Indonesia by Sally Arnold.

At the Arjuna Complex. Photo: Sally Arnold

The Dieng Plateau is an extremely volitive geothermal region and while it is possible to get up close and personal to boiling mud pits and seething fumaroles, it is not without risk. In 1979 rising carbon dioxide gases killed 142 people and most recently in 2017 an eruption of Kawah Sileri injured 10 tourists and sadly a rescue helicopter crashed killing all eight people on board. Exercise caution.

Dieng is cold and damp, and if you haven’t dressed appropriately, miserable too. The average temperatures is around 14ºC though the mercury can drop below 0ºC overnight. Icy frosts are not unknown and often by mid afternoon, a blanket of mist creeps over the plateau. The drier months of July, August and September are the best time to visit as Dieng experiences high rainfall, so much so that outside of these months it’s likely that on any given day it will bucket down. Bring warm clothes (you’ll be thankful you threw in your gloves and a beanie), wet weather gear and sturdy footwear for hiking around the plateau. Restaurants and guesthouses in the town sometimes offer a cosy brazier as an enticement to their establishment, very welcome on a chilly day.

Photo moments on the way down from Bukit Sikunir. Photo taken in or around Dieng Plateau, Indonesia by Stuart McDonald.

Photo moments on the way down from Bukit Sikunir. Photo: Stuart McDonald

Dieng’s main geological and historical attractions can be explored in one (long) day, rising early to climb Bukit Sikunir (alongside a gazillion other tourists—your homestay should be able to put you on an organised trip, we did it via Tani Jiwo) for (hopefully) spectacular sunrise views over the plateau and as far east as Gunung Merapi. From the village an easy loop walk will take you to most of the temples beginning with the Ajuna Complex, the most ancient of all with five small candi, then Candi Gatokaca and Candi Bima along with Kailasa Museum that houses a collection of sculptures from the area, continuing to the fascinating active geothermal area, Kawah Sikidang, regrettably “enhanced” with selfie props and finally, the turquoise coloured lake of Telaga Warna all of which could be covered in half a day.

In the afternoon, jump on a motorbike to circle the outlying sights to the west of Dieng with more gobsmacking scenery and explosive volcanic discharges. Take an extra day, and another dawn rise to summit Gunung Prau (2,600 metres), so named as it is said to resemble an upturned boat (prau in Javanese).

Kawah Sikidang is always steamin. Photo taken in or around Dieng Plateau, Indonesia by Sally Arnold.

Kawah Sikidang is always steamin. Photo: Sally Arnold

Two hundred and fifty metres from Dieng’s main road, adjacent to the entrance of the Arjuna Complex, Pendopo Soeharto-Whitlam may be of interest to travellers keen on regional politics as the site of a historic meeting between Indonesia’s President Suharto and Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam in 1974 where the future of Portuguese Timor (Timor Leste) was debated. History tells us the unhappy consequences of that encounter. To enter the building, ask at the temple ticket booth and someone will unlock the door. Inside there’s not much to see—a plaque commemorates the occasion, along with a couple of photos from that significant event (fashionistas may note Whitlam’s kangaroo patterned shirt).

Deing celebrates a unique cultural festival known as “ruwatan anak gimbal”, a complex ritual that involves the cutting of dreadlocked children’s (“putri bajang”) hair. The children of Dieng Plateau often develop naturally occurring dreadlocks, the belief is that this only happens after they recover from a high fever and is viewed as a mystical event associated with local folklore. The children only participate in the hair cutting ceremony when they wish to, and can request any gift they desire in exchange for trading in their locks, traditionally livestock, but these days anything from bicycles to iPads are requested. The snipping takes place at the Arjuna Complex and then the severed locks are taken to Telaga Warna Lake, to return the hair to the ancestor spirits. In recent years this has become a major tourist draw in Dieng and if you plan on attending, you should book accommodation as far in advance as possible.

“Enhancing” natural beauty at Kawah Sikidang. Photo taken in or around Dieng Plateau, Indonesia by Sally Arnold.

“Enhancing” natural beauty at Kawah Sikidang. Photo: Sally Arnold

The town is packed with friendly but uninspirin, basic and overpriced homestays, and for an area that sees an abundance of tourists, we found surprisingly little English spoken. This is a conservative area and many establishments advertise themselves as “sharia”, meaning couples may have to prove their marital status. Hot-water bathrooms are generally a standard feature, but some are “fixed temperature” or unreliable. Beware of rooms with dodgy gas water heaters or gas bottles inside the bedrooms—best to avoid these potential hazards. Rooms are generally not heated, but most accommodation provides sufficient bedding to keep you warm and snug, and at most places you can ask for another blanket if necessary.

Don’t expect much in the way a gourmet extravaganza, but there are enough warungs to save you from starvation and due to the areas main crop, potatoes, hot chips are commonly available, though some may be triple fired in oil that has seen better days. A beer to wash them down with is less readily available although we were offered some homemade pink alcoholic concoction “fermented for a year”. A hot toddy would have been more welcome. You will find a decent coffee though, with a couple of hole-in-the wall artisan cafes.

Quite magical. Photo taken in or around Dieng Plateau, Indonesia by Stuart McDonald.

Quite magical. Photo: Stuart McDonald

Dieng is reached by via Wonosobo from where regular minibuses take around one-and-a-half hours to wind their way up the narrow road to the Plateau. Buses and “travel” (share taxis or minivans) connect Wonosobo to larger centres. Dieng Plateau is commonly offered as a daytrip from Yogyakarta and while possible if you are pushed for time, this is a very long day with eight hours of driving for the return trip before you’ve even had a chance to look around. Some travellers choose to stay in Wonosobo, and though the facilities may be somewhat better, you still have a long windy drive if you want to watch the sunrise. We highly recommend overnighting it it in Dieng to give the area justice (and not give yourself a heart attack).




Orientation Arrive into Dieng from Wonosobo, you’ll hit a T intersection, in essence the centre of town as far as visitors are concerned. To the right along Jalan Raya Dieng is a “Welcome to Dieng” sign for the obligatory selfie. Along this road and the road to the left from the intersection, Jalan Telaga Warna, you’ll find most of the accommodation and places to eat.

From Jalan Raya Dieng, near the Indomaret, Jalan Komplek Candi Arjuna leads (you guessed it) to The Arjuna Complex of temples. Watch your step as you wander around the streets of Dieng as some of the footpaths are in a bad state of repair and you may end up down a hole—take a torch at night.

Dieng has only one BRI Bank ATM which can be unreliable with international cards, bring extra cash. The closest police and medical facilities are in Wonosobo, but for anything serious head to Yogyakarta or Semarang.

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What next?

 Browse our independent reviews of places to stay in and around Dieng Plateau.
 Read up on where to eat on Dieng Plateau.
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