Located some 40 kilometres from Solo and set high among breathtaking tea plantations and lush green farmlands on the dramatic western slopes of Gunung Lawu, sit the Majapathit period Candi Cetho, Candi Kethek and Candi Sukuh—together best visited on a tour from Solo.
According to signage on site, Candi Cetho was established in 1475 and is made up of 13 terraces slowly rising to the final shrine at the summit (of the temple—not the mountain!). The candi sits literally at the end of the road, where, after buying your admission ticket, you walk a short distance forward and then start climbing the stairs.
If you’ve already been to Bali, the towering yet slender gates you pass through will be familiar—Candi Cetho was amongst the last of the Majapahit temples constructed and within 50 years of the sites consecration, the Kingdom was no more—but the style was carried across and remains common in, Bali. In some cases the gates are flanked by guardians, sadly often the heads removed—we assume by looters.
As you climb the stairs and pass through the gates and manicured gardens, be sure to look in all directions as the views can be quite spectacular—your best chance for good views are early morning as the site if often misted in my late morning. Also pay attention to some of the decorative blocks, often carved with signs of life at the time. In one we could make out palm trees, in another, an elephant and two people clearly paying homage to a ruler of some description.
After two gates you’ll reach a large, almost Mayan-styled, stone arrangement on the ground in the shape of a garuda with clear phallic overtures—these are believed to symbolise rebirth and dovetail with the temple being a site for the lifting of curses and repentance. Moving on and to the left of here a trail leads off to a secondary temple, Candi Kethek, and a waterfall.
Continue straight and you’ll see wooden pavilions to each side (there are not original, the temple was renovated in 1975/76) which hold in some cases stone statues and others phallic symbols. The final level hosts the inner sanctum, an imposing stone edifice, with a narrow entranceway leading within—this is gated off to casual visitors. From this point, the view back down, through all the gates and to the scenery beyond, is very impressive and photogenic.
It’s worth taking the exit to Candi Kethek, where you’ll walk past a couple of warungs then turn up the hill again to find the ticket booth as to enter this area requires a seperate ticket of 5,000 rupiah. Up the hill a little way, the path splits to Pura Saraswati. If you are pushed for time, skip this and continue to Candi Kethek as all there is to see is a modern and rather kitsch technicolour Saraswati statue and a small ancient bathing site, although the views are pleasant and behind the bathing site is an interesting statue of a man with a fish with what looks like a dogs head. At the Pura you are required to remove your footwear.
The 450 metres or so narrow path to Candi Kethek offers beautiful scenery as it follows the river which you will need to cross to reach the candi. The water at the crossing was deep enough that your boots will flood, although our visit was during wet season and may be no more than a trickle in the dry. By the river you can take another turnoff and continue to Serendeng Waterfall.
According the the information on the site, Candi Kethek is believed to have been built around the same time as Candi Cetho, but its history remains a mystery among experts. The temple seems more crudely built and is rather like a series of stone walls but into the side of the hill than an actual building and resembles the pyramid shaped temples of Central America, stepped over four terraces and connected via a central staircase. You will notice the similarity to Candi Sukuh.
On the second terrace you can just make out the turtle statue at the bottom of the stairs, however other than a couple of badly worn statues it remains mostly unadorned. The best view of the Candi is from the bottom level where you gain a sense of the overall pyramid shape, but you can climb to the top along a side path that offers views of the surrounding. At the topmost level is a small wooden shrine, but as with the similar ones at Candi Cetho this is a modern addition.
Candi Cetho doubles as one of the basecamps for ascending Gunung Lewu—the climb takes five to seven hours to the summit, with five possible camping posts along the way. Tent and equipment hire and arrangements for a guide can be made from small stalls near the entrance to the temple.
Candi Sukuh lies a roughly 20 minute drive from Candi Cetho and to our mind is the more evocative site of the two. At an altitude of 910 metres, the temple was established in 1437 and is built on three levels, with the design intended to represent the three levels of life—the underworld, the middle world and the upper world. As you climb you get closer, step by step to nirvana, but unfortunately on the day of our visit, it was absolutely tanking down rain and our arrival in nirvana was a very very wet one.
The central shrine is remarkably Mayan in appearance—but Sukuh is best known as a “porn temple” for the frequent depictions of genitalia, which makes it unique in Java, all things considered that aspect of the site struck us as being pretty tame. Some of the more graphic statues have unfortunately been disfigured—most likely by due to growth of Islam on Java.
Carvings to keep an eye out for include the blacksmith scene—important as you can see a kris in the blacksmith’s hand while Ganesh dances before him (oddly holding a dog)—Javanese mythology believes magic from the gods could be imparted into a kris. There is also a spectacular and quite wicked looking garuda, a large rendering of a womb and, to the left when approaching the central area, a whole collection of reliefs depicting scenes of life.
An impressive giant (well almost two metre tall) lingga statue was discovered on site when Sir Thomas Raffles visited in 1815, apparently broken in half, the lingga was later removed to the National Museum in Jakarta. The inscription on it included another kris, emphasising again the intersection of krises and religious belief. Historical records indicate there was considerable looting of the site between Raffles visit in 1815 and subsequent visits.
Should you wish to stay in the area (which would allow you time to hike between the temples and visit nearby waterfalls, simple homestay accommodation is available within a short walk of both Candi Cetho and Candi Sukuh. Further afield, Tawangmangu has a raft of mid-range hotel options—check Agoda or Booking for ideas. While we didn’t have time to visit and take a look in person, Omah Joglo in Salere looks like a lovely spot to while away a few days in the hills—from 750,000 rupiah.
Reaching Candi Cetho and Candi Sukuh falls into two categories—fast and slow. The fast way is to arrange a tour from Solo (either by scooter or car) there and back and any guesthouse should be able to arrange this. Once at Cetho it is possible to hike to Sukuh, but this takes a reported four hours and is heavy going in places. We hired a car and driver in Solo for 500,000 rupiah which included the drive to Candi Cetho, then to Candi Sukuh and then back to Solo. To do it by scooter would cost less, though note only one passenger on the bike as some of the hills—especially on the final approach to Candi Catho, are extremely steep.
By public transport you need to get a minibus from Solo to Karangpandan (runs hourly from 06:00 to 17:00, takes 45 minutes and costs 5,000 rupiah) then you change to a minibus to Kemuning (takes 30 minutes; 5,000 rupiah). From Kemuning you would need to get an ojek to Candi Cetho—considerable bargaining would be required for this leg. We would suggest having the ojek wait and then take you onwards to Candi Sukuh (unless you were planning on the four hour hike).
Once you were finished at Candi Sukuh, there is a trail onwards to Tawangmangu (which has accommodation, the walk apparently takes 1.5 to 2 hours) or from Candi Sukuh backtrack to Kemuning, Karangpandan and back to Solo. If there are two or more of you, the value of hiring a car for the trip there and back pays itself off quickly given the convenience.
Address: 40km east of Solo
Coordinates (for GPS): 111º9'24.8" E, 7º35'43.71" S
See position in Apple or Google Maps: Apple Maps | Google Maps
Admission: Candi Cetho 25,000 rupiah, Candi Kethek 5,000 rupiah, Candi Sukuh 25,000 rupiah
Stuart McDonald co-founded Travelfish.org with Samantha Brown in 2004. He has lived in Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia, where he worked as an under-paid, under-skilled language teacher, an embassy staffer, a newspaper web-site developer, freelancing and various other stuff. His favourite read is The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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