Jogjakarta (Yogyakarta, or, locally, Jogja) was our last stop in Indonesia after a month of exploring in Bali, diving in the Gilis and Flores, relaxing in Lombok and communing with dragons in Komodo National Park. We wanted to see some of the famous temples not far from here, and get a bit of “city” culture. A thousand years ago, Jogja was the center of the ancient Mataram Kingdom. People here still seem to have a deep sense of the history and an exceptional amount of pride. Apart from the day-trips out of the city, we spent most of our time just walking. Otherwise, you can opt for one of the many becaks (cycle rickshaw). A word of caution though: be firm in insisting you don’t want to go to any galleries or souvenir shops drivers may want to take you to for the commission. Some drivers can be a bit aggressive, so if you don’t feel comfortable, just politely decline and keep moving. There are many more options just steps away.
Sultan’s Palace (Kraton)
The Sultan of Yogyakarta is a hereditary position, and the current Sri Sultan Hamengkubuwono X was inaugurated in 1998. He resides in the Sultan’s Palace, and holds many ceremonial and cultural functions here. Other political affairs take place in the Governor’s Palace. Having discontinued the tradition of polygamy of Indonesian royalty, the current sultan has just one wife, and is the father of 5 daughters. This means his brother will be the next sultan. We were told by one of the palace retainers/guards (also a lifelong, hereditary, and well-respected position) that he didn’t want his daughters to be part of a harem, so he wanted only one wife for himself as well. Parts of the complex are open to the public, and tours are given in the morning. At the main entrance is a large, protective wall, or baturana, placed to keep evil spirits out. As we learned in Indonesia and in other parts of Asia, demons and evil spirits have a hard time turning corners! They do much better traveling in straight lines. Throughout the complex are collections of cultural artifacts such as art, ceramics, weapons and old photographs on display. Most of the areas are open-air pavilions, supported by ornately-carved columns. Throughout, you can see details reflecting Islamic, Hindu and Buddhist influences. This religious/cultural diversity is perhaps best seen in the Bangsal Kencono or “golden throne pavilion.” The roof has a red Hindu pattern, the pillars are decorated in green and gold Arabic calligraphy quoting the Quran, and there are golden Buddhist lotus petals at the base.
The water temple was built as a getaway for the Sultan, a place to relax and unwind (also used occasionally as a hiding place). The gardens held fragrant flowers, and a bathing pool with fountains and areas for musicians and dancers was constructed in the center of the bathing complex. Beautiful young ladies once frolicked in the blue waters of the main pool, among the mushroom-shaped fountains. We could imagine their laughter echoing off of the cool, stone walls while the Sultan watched from a hidden chamber above. After careful observation, the Sultan sometimes chose a girl to ultimately become one of his wives. The Sultan’s own bathing area is in another section of the complex, as well as a bathing pool for the royal children. The wider complex, not developed for tourism, included two artificial lakes with buildings on them, and an underground tunnel, once used as passage for the royal family. At least one tunnel can still be accessed. Guides are very available around the entrance, and while informative, the story you get about the history may vary a bit from one guide to another.
UNESCO World Heritage site Borobudur Temple is one of the most recognizable Buddhist temples in Indonesia, and one of the most visited historical sites in the country. Building was completed in 824, and reflects Indian influence in Indonesia. The temple is a pilgrimage site and a place of prayer and meditation. It’s best to arrive early in the morning, for sunrise. When we visited, the mists hanging over the jungle and the lack of crowds set just this kind of reflective mood for us. Borobudur is over a hundred feet tall, with ten levels, or terraces, each representing a stage of human development. The Buddha statues are on the upper levels facing westward, and any human who hopes to reach this space, must pass through all the other levels first. Each level has hundreds of relief panels, intricate carvings to study and marvel at, which we did at length. On the highest level are bell-shaped stone enclosures (stupa), each with a carved stone Buddha inside.
Constructed during the 10th Century, Prambanan is a gorgeous Hindu temple, surrounded by sprawling grounds and gardens. The complex suffered serious damage in the earthquake of 2006, but is slowly being assessed and repaired. The three main temples in the primary yard are dedicated to the Hindu deities Shiva, Brahma and Vishnu. Many of the reliefs on these towers depict the story of Rama. Though we weren’t able to attend, the Ramayana Ballet held here in the evenings is one of the best-known and respected performances. The show, performed on a large, open-air stage with the temple in the background, tells the epic story of Rama’s journey to rescue his abducted love. Down the road, you can now visit a number of other, less-developed temples. There was no one else around while we wandered the Sewu Buddhist temple (249 buildings arranged in a Mandala pattern around the central structure), which has some very well-preserved guardian statues. The earthquake damage was clear: it looked like thousands of puzzle pieces, just waiting to be put back together. The entire Prambanan complex has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Jogja was a hidden treasure of street food. It’s said to be a bit spicier than other parts of the country, which is probably why we liked it especially. The sambals (chili sauce) usually include chile peppers, onion, garlic, tomato, lime and spices. Nasi (rice) is served in countless forms and with all sorts of tasty accompaniments. We loved Jogja’s nasi gudeg (a sweet, young jackfruit dish, cooked in coconut milk, herbs and palm sugar and served with chicken, egg, cow skin! and other side items), the ever-present mie goreng (stir-fried noodles with vegetables, chilis and sometimes meat) and the endless parade of satay on grills at every corner. That peanutty sauce is addictive. Other favorites are Bakso, a meatball soup in beef broth, Gado Gado, vegetables, tempeh and tofu with a peanut suace, and ayam goreng, Indonesian fried chicken. Cold drinks help beat the heat. We liked cendol (here in Jogja it contains both cendol, a jelly-like blob made of glutinous rice as well as cam cau jelly from leaves by that name). Other popular drinks are sweet young coconut ice and a drink made from turmeric, tamarind and galingal, as well as fruit juices, ginger drinks and, of course, great coffee! There’s also a wide variety of sweets, most involving coconut.
We’re not big shoppers, but Jogja is the place to hunt for handicrafts and batik. There is a huge open market along Jalan Malioboro, filled with both souvenirs (more on the sidewalk) and local shops and shopping arcades. Keep your wits about you, and don’t forget to negotiate. There are many restaurants along this strip as well. Other markets specialize in rattan and bamboo items, silver, hand-carved leather puppets and, of course, batik. You will inevitably be approached multiple times, and informed that there is a special batik art show that is about to close, and only open that day. We ended up going to one, just to see what it was about. There are some lovely items for sale, but don’t be pressured either to go with anyone down the maze of alleys or, once there, to make a purchase. Beringharjo Market, north of the palace, may be the best place to look for batik clothes and decorations. This three-story building also contains a fresh food market and an antiques section.
Where we stayed
Malioboro Street is the hub for backpackers, and if you can’t find a place to stay among the alleys of Jl Sosrowijayan, you won’t find one anywhere. There’s a wide range of comfort levels and prices, and prices are highly negotiable. After previewing half a dozen rooms, we ended up at La Javanaise Homestay (Sosrowijayan Wetan GT I/187 / Tel +62 274 556054 +62 857-4348-9663 (Mobile)) Prices were very reasonable, the family was great, and the banana pancake breakfast was filling enough to last half the day.