Yogyakarta (pronounced “Jogjakarta” or “Zhogzhakarta) is rarely the first thing that comes into mind at the mention of Indonesia. We’ve learned from school that the country’s capital is Jakarta, and we learned from travel magazines that the most beautiful beaches are in Bali. So what in the world is Yogyakarta? Another name of the country’s capital, or worse, the country’s capital misspelled? Not!
Java is Indonesia’s most populated Island. Close to the western end of it lies Jakarta; right off the eastern edge lies Bali, and right in the middle of it is Yogyakarta, a city of 3 million, counting the inhabitants of its surrounding Special Administrative Region. Politically, Yogyakarta is distinct as one of the only two special administrative regions in Java, the other being Jakarta (meaning they are not governed by Indonesia’s regional governments), and it is the only remaining region in Indonesia that is governed by an active monarchy – the Sultan of Yogyakarta also serves as its governor.
Yogyakarta is historically and culturally rich, having been the seat of power of kingdoms from past to present, one of which was responsible for building historical temples like the spectacular Prambanan which lies within city limits. The city is also the most convenient jump-off point for a trip to the nearby Borobudur, which lies just north around the vicinity of neighbouring Magelang. I myself did not know a whole lot about Yogyakarta before we went there – expecting a somewhat backward and laid back city in the countryside. But what I saw on the ground was an active, lively and pulsating city. It is undoubtedly very urban, progressive and it could even give you a taste of the traffic jams that hound Jakarta daily. Yet it also feels very different. By design (and by law), it is devoid of any highrises, giving it a horizon that’s quite unique among major cities, and despite its high urban density, the city has lots of greens along highways and parks – and it’s one city that I would describe, without reservation as “lovely”.
We arrived Yogyakarta through its international airport, under the heat of the midday sun, and like any city in the tropics, the weather is hot and humid. The airport by the way does not give justice to the city it serves. It is cramped, dated and inconvenient – and reminds me of the airport of my hometown in Davao, Philippines back in the 80’s.
Yogyakarta also does not have a very wide-reaching public transport system that is tourist friendly. There are taxi cabs though, and a local Bus Rapid Transit system called Trans-Jogja, albeit with still a limited number of lines. To save time and effort, a guided tour is highly recommended. I rarely like guided tours, but in Yogyakrata (and perhaps in Indonesia in general), I would make an exception. And we got a good one in Yogyakarta. One of my peeves with guided tours are the numerous stops to shops even if I don’t really want to buy anything, and thankfully we had none of that here.
Lunch at Kali Opak
Right from the airport, we were taken to lunch at a quaint restaurant on the banks of the narrow Kali Opak river, just a breath away from Prambanan. Situated in small, quiet village that time and urban sprawl seemed to have forgotten – if I could define the word “rustic” through a picture, then this would be it. The village lies in the middle of rice fields, with narrow roads and houses that looked like they were teleported from the past. The restaurant, named after the river itself, further enhances the sense that time stood still in this small dot of the Earth. The open air dining area as sorrounded all over by towering bamboo, and the air smells of cool freshness that no air conditioner could give, even on that hot, humid day, and a few steps away from the tables are the shallow waters of the small river.
The food also compliments the beautiful rustic setting, and it was the perfect introduction to local cuisine. It was plain, good home-style cooking – none of the fanciness that restaurants often try to put on their own “versions” of a dish. Everything on the table was good, but the prize winners are the Chicken Bacem – pieces of chicken coated in sweet soy sauce and other spices then fried, and the Grilled Gurami – a freshwater fish that we never previously thought as good for cooking.
The restaurant is way off the beaten track though, so the only way to get there is through private car.
This one was not part of the itinerary, and was a total surprise find. On the very same village along the banks of Kali Opak, right infront of the restaurant where we had lunch, is a Wayang Kulit theater. Wayang Kulit, or the shadow puppet show, is a distinct feature of Javanese culture. There is a Wayang Kulit museum in Jakarta which we no longer expected to see due to the short time we were spending there, so this surprise find in this hidden village in Yogyakarta was a real blessing – destiny really wanted us to see it.
The theater is used primarily for special occassions in the village – meaning this is not a theater meant for tourists, rather, it’s one that’s still part of the culture of the village. Here we found people making the intricate puppets – a painstaking labor of love, and apart from the puppet makers we were the only ones there. It was a quiet, serene experience – an homage to a culture that has endured time and the changes in religion.
Hotel Manohara Borobudur
The primary target of our trip was the temple of Borobudur to the north of Yogyakarta. Though less than 60 kilometers away, it took us more than 2 hours to get there, on a Saturday evening. Traffic in Indonesia is a spectacle in itself.
We stayed the night at the Hotel Manohara, a government-run hotel within the Borobudur complex. “Government-run” in this part of the world might give a sense of foreboding, but the Manohara is surprisingly very well maintaned and well run, one would think it’s an international brand name hotel unless one was told otherwise.
The hotel really is within eyesight of the great temple – in fact one could see it from the restaurant even at night. It is cheap, considering what you get, and food is good – definitely not overpriced. The hotel also runs the Borobudur sunrise tour, and it is the perfect jump-off point to see the magic of Borobudur in the morning.
Coming back to Yogyakarta from Borobudur, we stopped by at the Kraton – the palace of the Sultan of Yogyakarta. Though far from being the palace of fairy tales – Kraton Yogyakarta is definitely humble by palace standards – it is nonetheless a testament to the unique spot that Yogyakarta has in Indonesia’s history.
The Sultanate of Mataram, the predecessor of the current Sultanate of Yogyakarta, persisted during the Dutch colonial period, albeit with the status of a “protectorate” kingdom. Thus the Dutch, to some degree, acknowledged the reign of the Sultans. When what was formerly the collection of Dutch colonial possessions in the East Indies declared independence as the Republic of Indonesia, after the short Japanese occupation in World War 2, the Sultanate of Yogyakarta pledged allegiance to the republic.
The current special administrative status of Yogyakarta was provided by the national government in exchange for its allegiance to the republic. Therefore, the present Sultanate continues to hold the authority to govern over Yogyakarta, but the Sultanate answers to the Republic and the authority of the national government. The current reigning Sultan still lives and rules the city, from the Kraton.
The Water Castle
Still within the Kraton complex, the water castle was the old bathing pool of the royals back in the Sultanate’s more opulent days. Nowadays it serves primarily as a tourist attraction. I didn’t find it particularly awesome or anything, and by itself I don’t really consider it a must see, however if one is around the vicinity of the Kraton with time to spare, then it wouldn’t hurt to drop by for a few minutes.
Lunch at Sekar Kedhaton
Lunch before flying out of Yogyakarta was at Sekhar Kedhaton, a restaurant in the city’s Kotagede district, which has been getting some good reviews in Tripadvisor (yes, Anglaagan uses Tripadvisor a lot). Like the previous day’s lunch at Kali Opak, the restuarant serves genuine Indonesian cuisine. However unlike Kali Opak, it could hardly be called “quaint” or “rustic”, as the place is actually garrish and almost bordering on the tacky. Most real good restaurants I know aren’t really flashy on the outside, preferring to let their food do to the advertising, so at first I had doubts about this one. However all that was gone at the first bite. We just went by the waitress’ recommendations, and we didn’t regret. Everything that was put on our table was exceptionally good…and it wasn’t expensive at all.
Yogyakarta is also known for making “Batik”- cloth dyed in the traditional Javanese way. Batik is one of the most ideal souvenirs one could get from anywhere in Java – you can actually use it instead of just gathering dust, and a short trip to a batik factory would be a worthwhile and interesting stop.
This was another surprise find. My wife had heard about Chocolate Monggo before but we didn’t know where to find it. Luckily we just happened to pass by their shop, unexpectedly, on our way to the batik factory. Chocolate Monggo is Yogyakarta’s own chocolatier, established by a Dutchman who has settled in Indonesia. If you’d like to taste chocolate with an Indonesian twist – like Chocolates flavored with mango or durian for example – or if you simply want to taste chocolates in all corners of the world, then head to their showroom at 10 Jl. Tirtodopuran.
*All photos taken last December 2013, using an Olympus EPM-2 with M. Zuiko 14-42mm IIR.