Yogyakarta: Looks like a typo, feels like a gem

Hello friends, near and far! It’s been a while (two months exactly…eek!). I’m back in action after getting settled with a new roommate, a new job, and a trip to the US squeezed in between.

Let me start by saying that until I landed in the city of Yogyakarta, I couldn’t spell its name for the life of me. As the reigning champion of Branchburg Middle School’s 2001 School Spelling Bee and runner-up of the 2002 contest, this didn’t sit well with me. So I started off my trip by understanding just exactly how to spell—and say—the name of this city on the Indonesian island of Java: Joe-g / jah / karta (I’m also including a link to a pronunciation video on YouTube for all our auditory learners out there). Cool kids and insiders commonly shorten it to Yogya or Jogja.

Now that we have that cleared up, let’s begin.

Yogyakarta is the heart of Java, Indonesia, and it pumps with youth, innovation and spirit. Filled with culture and tradition and historical and contemporary art, it was home to Hindu, Buddhist and animist dynasties during the eighth to 10th centuries AD. Needless to say, it was a place I was incredibly excited to visit. I touched down on Wednesday, March 13 (yes, this is quite the throwback post), and checked into my hotel, the NEO Malioboro. It was basic for its price and therefore I wouldn’t recommend it to others, however it was very centrally located. After dealing with a small debit card crisis (Citibank: a bank with fraud security so good, it interrupts your life at every turn), I headed to Wanderlust Coffee for a snack and some coffee (I did come to Java to drink many, many cups of java, after all). It was said to be the best coffee in the area, and, though I didn’t try every cup in every place, it was a damn good cup of coffee. Fresh, fruity, and packed with a kick. I also got a side of the recommended vegetarian rendang, too (definitely worth a try if you visit!). With my stomach full and my head buzzing, I headed out to Malioboro Street, Yogya’s main shopping boulevard. I read lots of reviews about the leisurely delight of walking its path, which stretches out over two kilometers (just over a mile), where shoppers could pick through hidden gems and undiscovered treasures to their hearts’ content. I have to say, this experience fell flat for me. What I found in the first shop is what I found in exactly every shop I visited afterwards. The pieces I found where all carbon copies of the same thing. While many blogs, websites and books will tell you that shopping on Malioboro Street is a good way to spend a few hours, I’d like it’s a 30-minute stroll, max.

After wrapping that excursion up, I headed to a small, very local restaurant to get my paws on some gudeg jogja, a slow-cooked jackfruit stew that is Yogya’s most iconic dish. The vegetarian dish of my dreams, I thought! As I chewed on the dish I began to identify its many parts: rice, egg, tofu, tempeh samba (spicy tempeh). But there was one texture I could not identify, so I asked the restaurant owner what it was that I was chomping on. Crunchy beef skin—very tasty, he exclaimed! I smiled as I covered my mouth politely with a napkin and did what needed to be done. Cultural immersion, huh…?

I hit the sack early that night, knowing I would need to meet the driver I had arranged in the hotel lobby at 4:30AM. It would be a day living on Michael Hayden time, and I needed to be well prepared. Why? It was time to head to Borobudur Temple for sunrise, the ‘can’t miss’ activity in Yogya. It is now an official UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Under the shadow of Mount Merapi, one of Indonesia’s most active volcanoes, lies Borobudur Temple. It is the world’s largest Buddhist temple, comparable to Angor Wat in its importance and majesty. The structure was lost for many years, hidden beneath jungle covering, but was discovered and restored with help from UNESCO in the 1970s.

It is built in three tiers:

  1. A pyramidal base with five concentric square terraces
  2. The trunk of a cone with three circular platforms
  3. At the top, a monumental stupa

The view from above forms a giant mandala.

Guests are meant to walk the ‘ancient pilgrims’ path, meaning the five kilometers (three miles) clockwise around each level, past the lower galleries with images of ‘desire’ to the teachings and life of Buddha, and finally to the realm of ‘nothingness’ at the top. I was not aware of this so, like the other brave souls that trekked up to the top just before 6AM, I parked myself down and waited for the splendor of sunrise.

As the scene ahead of me turned from pitch black to every shade of beautiful that morning, I was feeling very grateful to be where I was. I did capture some photos (below), but sunrise at Borobudur is an experience that is too grand for photographs. There are strong supporters and condemners of the sunrise trek at Borobudur, which you’ll see across the Internet, but I can tell you this experience is worth having.

Following sunrise, the temple became open to the public (the early risers pay a fee to enter early), and my driver and I rolled out (but not before getting ambushed by a group of locals asking for photos; the first of many times this would happen on my trip. At first, charming…by the end, irritating). The next place we went was Setumbu Hill, a quiet and peaceful place where locals go to watch the sunrise with Borobudur in full view. Since the sun had risen already, there was not a soul in the place, making the scene extra serene (surprise…this is now a blog of rhyming poetry, too). The air was fresh and warm, and the mist from the night sky was just beginning to lift as I arrived, giving the sun its first chance to drench the volcanoes, jungle and terraced fields around it in a golden glow that morning.

It was only 8AM by the time we left Setumbu Hill, leaving us the whole day to explore (turns out, living on Michael Hayden time has many benefits). Our next stop took us on a scenic, 90-minute drive to Prambanan Temple Complex. Borobudur certainly steals the show when it comes to landmarks in Yogya, but this other UNESCO World Heritage-listed site certainly shouldn’t be overlooked. Borobudur at sunrise was captivating in its own rite, but I was more impressed at the beauty and architectural style of Prambanan.

First, a bit of background: The complex is the largest Hindu complex site in Indonesia, and the tallest in the world. It was built between the eighth and tenth centuries, during the prime of the Hindu Mataram empire and Buddhist Shailendra kingdoms of Java. The architectural style reminded me a lot of Angkor Wat, with a ton of slender and jagged spires. This temple complex is built on a square mandala plan, and is comprised of over 240 temples.

I visited the main temple only, and spent about an hour walking around there. It would’ve taken me less time, but I was stopped by no fewer than eight groups of Indonesian students asking me to practice English with me (very common in Yogya and other places across Southeast Asia). The students ask a few questions, thank you and leave you with a small gift, like a scarf or a photo frame. It’s incredibly cute, and as much as I always want to help, it does get tedious after a while. You can’t take two steps without a group stopping you. Eventually, it began to ware on me, and I started to politely decline the groups (and the gifts). Is that what it feels like to be a celebrity? If so, I redact my statement of dream job from ‘international pop sensation’ to something far more private.

We had quite a drive back to the city center, totaling about two hours, and made a few stops along the way. First, to a chocolate factory (where I bought exactly four packages of cocoa powder, teas and candies and took exactly zero photographs because my hands were full with precious bounty), as well as lunch at Omah Dhuwur, a restaurant located in one of the historical buildings in the oldest area of Yogya (tasty food and beautiful views, 10/10, would recommend!).

The afternoon sun was hot, hot, hot when we reached our last destination: Taman Sari (literally ‘fragrant garden’) and Sumur Gumuling, or the Water Palace and Underground Mosque. It was once an extensive playground for the Sultan of Yogyakarta (fun fact, there is still a sultan of Yogyakarta today), containing a beautiful, large artificial with islands, rare fruit trees, fragrant gardens, swimming pools, and meditation areas (and a network of secret, underwater tunnels…jealous). Today, it’s a simple complex of bathing pools and Sumur Gumuling, a spooky but fascinating underground mosque. Most of the former complex forms residential areas. My driver told me he and his siblings used to come to Taman Sari as children to swim and play (he also made up many historical facts throughout our day, including my personal favorite anecdote: ‘This is where the sultan and his wife used to stand and greet the people every morning. I don’t know if that really happened, but it might have, because this would be a good place to stand.’ I hired a driver, not a guide, after all).

It was a long and tiring day, I reached the hotel at 4PM, and I splayed out on my bed for nearly an hour, chilling hard in the sweet, sweet air conditioning. I showered up around 5PM, stopped back at Wanderlust Coffee for dinner, and was back on the road by 7PM. Why? Because I had purchased tickets to the Ramayana Ballet. What is the Ramayana Ballet, you ask? Well, I will tell you, for this is my blog.

Based on an epic Hindu history, the story of Ramayana is an important story and dance. While the story originated in India, there is a Javanese version, and it truly encompasses the local style, culture and music. If you visit, be sure to get the written transcript of what is happening in the story—I cannot stress this enough—otherwise you will be confused more than you have ever been confused in your life (the story contains demons, animals that fly, talk and fight, a kidnapping orchestrated by a monkey—you get the idea). It’s a grand and fluid spectacle, with the focused detail and encompassing music of a beautiful ballet. Photos can’t capture the movements and animation of the show, but hopefully the shots below give you a sense of how it feels to be in the open-air theater. You can also check out this video I uploaded to YouTube if you’re interested. Those of you that have seen the movie Knocked Up might observe a strange similarity to the scene where Ben and Pete see Cirque du Soleil in Vegas.

Yogya really took me by surprise. I was there for only two and a half days (with just a quick breakfast and some packing on the last day, before heading to the airport), but there was so much to do. In addition to the cultural and historical sites with deep links to Javanese traditions, there are a variety of coffee shops, art galleries, book shops, and backstreet bars that keep the place modern and hip. For a mix of old and new, I would recommend it, 100%.

Some photos from my trip to Yogyakarta:

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