My most poignant Yogyakarta memories consist of being culturally immersive. A big, bustling city, Yogyakarta is famous for being an educational center and center of traditional Javanese arts. Puppet shows, Javanese ballet, dance drama, music, and batik are Yogyakarta’s cultural highlights. During my stay there, which was probably in late spring, Yogyakarta was bursting with seasonal blooms and huge flowering trees carpeted the streets with multi-coloured petals. Ramadan was over and the Yogyakarta streets were brimming with delicious food, sold from pushcarts, pavements, baskets and sidewalk cafes. Being a busier place than Lombok, my days grew shorter in Yogyakarta. The workload at the nodal office was more and the city’s choking traffic made commuting to my office tedious. I stayed near the Yogyakarta University area and while it was not close enough to the city’s attractions, my apartment was cheap, comfortable, and had tons of pocket-friendly dining options around.
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A brief orientation of Yogyakarta
Now for most people, visitors and locals alike, the orientation of Yogyakarta is the same. The city centers around Kraton, its historic royal complex and the quaint atmospheric pockets near Kota Gede are also quite popular. Street art is a rage in Yogyakarta and the city walls showcase beautiful murals painted by local and international graffiti artists. Incidentally, Indonesia’s most famous artist (and one of my personal favourites), Affandi hailed from Yogyakarta and his home which has been converted into a museum displays his work. The best thing that I liked about Yogyakarta is that the city had a lot of quirks. There was also a wholesome amount of swag and a delightful mix of the modern with the traditional. The city had many beautifully restored heritage buildings of Indonesian and Dutch origins, becaks (trishaws), cycles, and interesting markets, For a city, whose name literally means “fit to prosper” ( Yogya=suitable, Karta=to prosper), Jogja as it called by the locals, was also very double-faced. A brash, modern sprawling giant on the outside, it nurtured a tranquil, traditional heart and derived its name from the Indian city of Ayodhya, from the epic Ramayana. As usual, India never seemed far and I was bombarded with Indian influences at my every Jogja step.
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Kraton and Taman Sari, the water castle
My favourite place in Yogyakarta was the heritage area of Kraton and I liked walking around its charming, tree-shaded lanes on Sunday mornings. Centering around Sri Sultan’s palace, Kraton was expansive in size and consisted of the main palace, Sultan’s residences, and the palace grounds. There was also a substantial area which housed the royal staff quarters. Of all the places in Kraton, I remember the beautiful Taman Sari most vividly. Built as a pleasure garden by the 1st Sultan in 1765, Taman Sari was a beautiful water castle. Although partially ruined, the beauty of its well laid out bathing pools and a fascinating grid of tunnels and rooms was undeniable. The most beautiful pool was dedicated to the Sultan’s harem and his watchtower (from where he would take his pick) overlooked its turquoise water. Taman Sari was surrounded by a thick cluster of low lying red-tiled houses which were delightful to walk past. Those lanes houses artists studios, batik workshops, puppet makers and a slow aesthetic pace flowed through there.
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The silver zone of Kota Gede
Being a very popular tourist attraction, Kraton has its equal share of hustlers, conmen, touts and over-friendly guides. I got duped on my first visit by a phony “official” palace guide near the gorgeous Main Court but it did not leave a lingering bad aftertaste. Although he annoyed me greatly throughout my royal residence walk, (by drawing me towards an overpriced batik shop), it was also him, who informed me to retain the entrance ticket for a free palace hosted music and dance show in the evening. Being an extremely touristy city all roads in Yogyakarta lead to some kind of shopping institution and apart from batik (at Kraton), becaks at Kota Gede are notorious for dragging tourists to silver filigree stores. Though an erstwhile capital of an ancient powerful Indonesian kingdom, Kota Gede does not have any of Kraton’s historic charm. Most of its heritage buildings disappeared long back and modern houses and stores lined its historic lanes. A sort of a city within a city, Kota Gede is known as the silver village. Filigree artisans sell their wares from workshops which open up on the roads and this draws tourists in hordes. Extremely intricate and fine, Yogyakarta silver filigree work is highly prized and make great (though expensive) souvenirs to take back home.
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The bird Bazaar and other markets of Yogyakarta
Remember, when I mentioned seeing the Lombok island residents keeping birds as prized pets. I found plenty of this passion in Yogyakarta too and Indonesians, in general, seemed to prefer having winged beauties over any other creatures. This love for pet birds created Yogyakarta’s famous Bird Market and my visit to it was an unsettling experience. I stumbled upon the Bird Market while walking through a historic area in Joga and was shocked to see rows of pet shops displaying a mind-boggling variety of beautiful rare birds for sale. They were kept in cages along with a large number of cats, dogs, snakes, rodents, rabbits, iguanas, etc. and ornamental rattan bird cages swung in clusters. Owls, eagles, sparrows, parrots etc stared back in a shocked daze and pitiful mews and howls had filled the air. It is one of those few places in Yogyakarta, I truly dislike and avoided at all costs during my entire Jogja stay. Apart from the bird bazaar, Yogyakarta’s markets are an explosion of colours and smells. Beringharjo Batik Market is absolutely stunning and some of the best street food vendors operated their business around those busy places.
Bidding Yogyakarta goodbye with Bromo-Ijen
I left Yogyakarta soon and returned to Lombok, where my mission station was based. But before leaving Java, I made a small trip to Bromo and Ijen. That was the highlight of my Java stay and although the experience left a lingering bad aftertaste, the surreal beauty of both the places was unbelievable. They seemed outlandish, difficult (in parts) and absolutely like no other place on earth. Full of volcanoes, cloud beds, and the sea of sand, Bromo-Ijen trip was the perfect end of my Java episode.
Yogyakarta things to do and see
- Underground Mosque – Sumur Gumuling is better known as the Underground Mosque. The center of the mosque includes three stairs that form a pyramid shape and a huge open circular ceiling revealing beautiful daylight. It resembles an interior stepwell and is part of the larger complex Taman Sari. The complex opens at 9 AM. Visit early to avoid the crowds.
- The Royal Complex and Taman Sari – The Sultan rules Yogyakarta province as the governor and the royal palace is still used. Built in 1757, the Kraton or the Palace is home of the Sultan and his family. It is a gorgeous complex with many sections and showcases old Javanese architectural styles. Decorated with brightly painted gilt ceilings, symmetric floor designs, and exquisite gardens, Kraton is a wonderful place to spend a day. Taman Sari or the former bathing complex is very photogenic and there are a lot of beautiful murals, souvenir shops, cafes, and art workers around the area. Taman Sari and Sumur Gumuling are open from 9 AM to 3 PM.
- Explore Malioboro Street – Malioboro street is a huge street in the heart of Yogyakarta with everything from small street food vendors, art shops, clothing to souvenirs. It is usually visited at the same time as the Beringharjo Market. Once a week there is a China town with all local foods. The best time to explore the market is from 9 am to 5 pm.
- Visit Jogja’s famous museums – Being a culturally rich city, Yogyakarta has many interesting museums. Art lovers should visit the Affandi Museum, which actually used to be the artist’s former home and studio. Check out the Sono-Budoyo Museum for its incredible collection of Javanese art, Indonesian puppets, masks, weaponry, and textiles. The highlight of the museum is the Wayang puppet shows that also take place here. Wayang is the shadow puppetry that is accompanied by an orchestra and is recognized as a UNESCO Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage. Try your hand at Batik craft at Museum Batik Yogyakarta. Founded in 1979, this museum has a collection of various Batik styles from Yogyakarta, Solo, Central Java, Pasisiran as well as tools and equipment used in Batik making.
- Check out Jogja’s awesome street art – The popular area Mantrijeron has a lot of murals. It’s nice to walk around there and see some of the best murals in Yogyakarta.
- Eat Jogja’s famous street food – Yogyakarta is known as the culinary capital of Indonesia and its most famous dish is Gudeg. It is a kind of a curry which consists of jackfruit boiled with coconut milk. Served with rice, Gudeg is Jogja’s pride and is not to be missed if you are in the city. For a more in-depth food tour, choose any of the specialized walks or food tours offered by the local companies.
- Join a silver filigree workshop at Kota Gede – Kota Gede is home to numerous silver handicraft shops, and the process of making silver filigree items can be seen here. Interested people can also join a workshop and try their hand at creating a silver piece of art.
- Borobudur-Prambanan Trip – Join one of the Borobudur-Prambanan tours. These day trips start early so that you can catch the sunrise at Borobudur and end late with the sunset at Prambanan. While magnificent Borobudur is a historical enigma, Prambanan is the biggest temple complex in Indonesia. Don’t miss the Ramayana Ballet Show at Prambanan. The show starts at 19:30 and the performance is held in an outdoor theater stage.
For more information on Yogyakarta things to do, check out these blogs – Saltinourhair (has great Yogyakarta itinerary for three days) and Shershegoes (has loads of info on things to do around Jogja).
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