Although Yogyakarta is a bustling city of nearly 4 million people it is known as Java’s cultural centre. It is affectionally nicknamed “Jogja” and is an important attraction for foreign visitors and Indonesians alike. The best way to travel around is by local becak although don’t forget to hold on tight!
The main attraction is the Kraton. This 18th century palace complex is still the seat of the Sultan of Yogyakarta and is open to the public in the mornings. Visitors can walk around this beautiful complex with its pavilions and courtyards, where every last element has been constructed to reflect Javanese beliefs of both mysticism and philosophy. The atmosphere is one of coolness and tranquility within a busy 21st century city.
As well as being a museum showing artifacts related to the sultanate, the palace is used as a venue to showcase ceremonial and cultural events. We were lucky enough to see a traditional puppet show although every morning there is a performance of some kind, like a Gamelan orchestra or traditional Javanese dance.
Jogja has a rich cultural heritage and is famous for its traditional arts, music, artisans and craftsmen. The are many opportunities to witness these artisans at work and we visited one of many batik workshops where the creative process can be viewed and you can hear the stories behind the traditional designs. The fabric design is painted by hand, in hot wax, before each stage of dyeing and is a very intricate and slow process. This gave me the opportunity to buy some authentic fabrics as souvenirs!
Outside the city you have two ancient temples which have been designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites. To the east is the 9th Century Hindu temple of Prambanan. This is a small complex with a few separate temples dotted around the main Shiva temple which stands at 47 meters high. The bas-reliefs carved on the walls of the temples tell the epic story of the Ramayana, the Hindu narrative of good versus evil.
After visiting the temple we crossed the river to get a panoramic view of the complex and to wait for the performance of the Ramayana ballet, which, depending on the time of year, can be performed either indoors or outside. This is a perfect place to rest and watch the light of the setting sun play on the temples. It also provides the visiting school children with an opportunity to catch a photo with the tourists or for the braver ones to ‘practise their English’ with you.
This overly dramatic performance is an elaborate affair with gold costumes, chariots, fireballs, acrobatics, flying arrows and monkeys and is presented through dance accompanied by a narrator and the gamelan orchestra. Of course, good triumphs over evil!
We used the journey to the Prambanan as an opportunity to stop for tea at the house-turned-museum of the famous Indonesian artist Affandi. I confess that I had not heard of him before this excursion nor did I particularly like his style but as a whole, the experience was worth it and the location of the house on the banks of the Gajah Wong River was lovely. I’m sure that there are many other small activities to include which may suit others’ tastes.
The other ancient temple on the plains around Mount Merapi, Indonesia’s second most active volcano, is Borobudur. Most visitors stay in Jogja and travel up for the day but we decided to stay in a beautiful hotel set in the rice fields outside the village. The idea was to make the early morning trek to view the sunrise over the temple a little easier. The walk was fine but you take the risk with the weather. Although the valley was really misty and the photo opportunity wasn’t a great success, it was still an atmospheric experience.
After breakfast, we went to the temple complex itself. This is the largest Buddhist temple in the world and was built in the 9th Century in the Javanese Buddhist style. The temple is a single structure taking the form of a giant mandala on ascending platforms. Each platform represents a higher level of enlightenment and each level tells a story carved into the stone. There are stories about Siddhartha, Indian aesthetics and the laws of karma as well as depictions of daily life in 8th Century Java. The most interesting is the rendering of the Borobudur ship, an 8th Century South-East Asian double outrigger which traded across the Indian Ocean. From these images a replica was built which sailed in 2004 from Indonesia to Africa along the historical route and is now exhibited in the museum in the grounds of the temple.
The iconic image of Borobudur are the statues and the stupas on the top level. The buddhas all seem the same until you look closely and then you notice that they are all slightly different from each other. They also serve as a back drop for the school tours to get photos with the foreign tourists…that’s you! We found that it’s better to encourage a group photo rather than suffer each person taking an individual one!
There is plenty to do in the area and we spent time visiting other small attractions in the area. There was an interesting market; we went for a stroll around the rice fields and lastly, we went to a very tranquil Buddhist monastery.
You can easily access Jogja from the international hubs of Jakarta or Bali so this tour makes an excellent add-on to any liveaboard charter you are scheduled on. If you fancy a bit of culture and history, shopping opportunities, good restaurants and some time in an interesting city then this is the place for you.
Take home more than just underwater memories.