It’s no Angkor Wat, but it is imposing, sacred and Indonesia’s best answer…
If Jakarta is Indonesia’s financial and political centre, Yogyakarta is its cultural heart. Renown as the birthplace of Java’s fine art scene – including drama, music, poetry, puppet shows, and batik – the eclectic ‘Jogja’ is a world away from much of the rest of Indonesia; not least because of its classification as somewhat of a ‘developed’ city.
If you need to escape the choking rat race that is Jakarta, look no further.
What to do in Yogyakarta
This is the royal palace complex of Yogyakarta, and the man seat of the Sultan and his family. It is also the cultural centre of not just the town, but for all the Javanese people.
The Main Court is a sprawling example of grandeur, while the Residence shows off the homeliness (and the royal family’s luxurious lifestyle). The best thing to do is just to enter and wander around of your own volition – ignore the hawkers and the guides. Don’t miss the Sultan’s Carriage Museum, it’s a novel little place with some impressive carts.
Remember: check the times for the music or dancing shows at the Kraton when you arrive in Yogyakarta. These are free with a Kraton ticket, and not to be missed.
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The Taman Sari Water Castle, or Taman Sari, was once the royal garden of the Sultanate of Yogakarta. A winding maze of ancient buildings, water features and sprawling pavilions, this is a nice option for a look around after the Kraton.
There’s basically four separate areas to this place to wrap your head around: a large artificial lake with islands and pavilions, a smaller lake, and two complexes with pavilions and pools – and one with a bathing complex in the centre. However, these days the remnants of the central bathing complex are pretty much all that are recognisable, as the rest of the areas have been taken over by the surrounding settlement.
Regardless, it’s a beautiful complex and should be the next on your list if you’ve already been to the Kraton.
The Taman Sari is listed as a “tentative World Heritage Site” apparently. And no, I do not know what that is.
Let’s be honest, it’s probably why you’re here. This monolithic temply is a 9th-century Mahayana Buddhist temple in Magelang, Central Java – about 40 kilometres and an hour and a half from Yogyakarta.
It’s an imposing structure of platforms, decorated with hundreds of relief panels and Buddha statues. It’s the most well-known UNESCO world heritage sites in Indonesia, but it still remains relatively untouched (not least because of the degree of difficulty it takes to get there).
The result is likely one of the most impressive temples you’ll ever see, with a fraction of the tourists that frequent the likes of Angkor Wat. If you’re white, be prepared to be stopped by scores of Indonesian tourists wanting a picture with you though.
While it’s touristy as hell, it might please you to know that locals and Indonesians shop here too. This 24-hour shopping mecca is where you’ll find all your souvenirs and your batik, and while it’s hectic at first view – it’s also pretty impressive when it’s in full swing.
How to buy a batik
Don’t. Because chances are, you’re going to get so ripped off as soon as you walk out the store you’re going to realise, and you’ll be angry every time you see that damn batik for the rest of your days.
Jalan Malioboro is where you’ll probably head, in search of Yogyakarta’s famous prints. This 24-hour shopping street is about as touristy as it gets, and within probably three seconds of stepping out of your taxi – you’ll be descended on by a tout in some form. He will inevitably offer to take you to his batik shop, many of which are on the second floor of these kitschy souvenir shops.
One of the first things to look out for when buying batik is to look for the designs on both sides of the cloth – the design should have soaked right through. A tell-tale sign of a machine-stamped batik is the fact you can only see the design from one side of the cloth.
The second thing that’s going to make it hard for you to determine whether this batik is fake or not is that batik traditionally is quite expensive if it’s real. So either, you’re getting scammed out of hordes of money or you’re buying a genuine batik – the line dividing the two is rather fine.
Effectively everyone I have met who has gone in search of a batik has been scammed, so be wary that this is a minefield – much like buying jewellery in India or real llama jerseys in Peru.
You can haggle, and should haggle – though keep in mind the conversion rate to your home country. Know the difference thousands of rupiah is going to make for you. I paid about $50 NZD for mine.
I bought my batik near Jalan Malioboro, but I had an Indonesian friend helping me.
I’m still not sure if it’s fake or not, though.
I don’t know if it’s because my memory is shot or the places I went just didn’t have names, but I cannot remember any restaurants for the life of me. Regardless, you must try Gudeg – which is basically a sloppy curry of jackfruit, chicken and egg served with a steaming bowl of rice. While it looks largely unappealing – basically a gloopy slop in one of a various shades of brown – it’s a regional favourite, and plenty of roadside stalls and restaurants serve up a good one.
Take a train; forget the bus, forget driving, forget what you knew about public transport. In Indonesia, 30 kilometres will take you over an hour.
The train system here is actually surprisingly good. It will take you about eight or nine hours, so the overnight one is a good option for getting down there and maximising your time. However, the trip down through the Indonesian mainland is actually a famously picturesque one, so if you can wrangle an hour or two of daylight on your way back, by all means take it.
The trip through the rice paddies and fields, the surrounding volcanoes and the greenery will give you something to hold on to while you’re navigating the congested, polluted streets of Jakarta again.
Of Indonesian ‘tour guides’. As a single white female travelling to Yogyakarta, I was well aware I might attract some opportunists wanting to make a quick buck, or play on my naivety.
However, when I met a young Indonesian dude while I was at a roadside stall one night having dinner, I genuinely thought this was a chance encounter with a friendly local. Over a smoothie, my new pal offered to take me off to Borobudur on his motorbike the next day. I offered to give him some money but he largely waved me away, saying he “likes showing off his home”.
The next day I was on the back of his motorbike, heading off into the countryside. Borobudur is about one hour’s drive away – so just about enough time to be Taken. I was relatively stupid at this stage in my life.
Lo and behold though, we did arrive to Borobudur, intact and without any trace of awkwardness. Sure, the next hour or so he followed me around and made me pose in various weird positions multiple times, but I wasn’t quite at the point of feeling uncomfortable.
Then we went to Mt Merapi and the guy tried to kiss me on the side of a volcano. After that part I demanded we head back to Yogya. I thrust some money into his hand once we were back and never saw him again.
I guess the red flags probably should have been raised when he showed up to my roadside stall that first night with another white girl on the back of his motorbike. Here I was thinking he just had a lot of friends.