Yogjakarta is the jewel in Java’s tourist crown and next to Bali the place where most visitors to Indonesia want to come. Yogjakarta (or Jogyakarta) is the only province in the Republic of Indonesia headed by a monarch, courtesy of a bitter civil war fought between two royal brothers of the then Kingdom of Mataram in the 18th century. One wanted to acquiesce with Dutch colonial rule, which threatened use of Javanese slaves by the Dutch company, the VOC, and the other did not. The latter triumphed and independence retained even after creation of the Indonesian republic in 1947, which approved the city’s special status as reward.
The Sultan’s palace (Kraton) is at the far end of Marlioboro, the main shopping street, across a barren square, formerly the army’s training ground. It’s a low level affair and rather underwhelming. There are two large open air buildings open to the public. One houses a miniature model of the palace complex the vast majority of which is hidden away behind massive green doors. There are a couple of display rooms with mannequins dressed in royal costumes from down the ages. Aside from those there is a small museum comprising two rooms, one with portraits of royals and the other pictures of various early model cars, and that’s it.
Outside the city limits is what everyone comes to Yogjakarta to see, the impressive Buddhist temple of Borobudur. Tours can easy be arranged through the city’s hotels or the many tourist shops around town. They’ll take you on all day tours, half-day tours, tours at sunset and if you’re really keen, sunrise. All day tours take in the Hindu temples at Prambanan, and usually throw in a visit to view nearby active volcano, the aptly named Mount Merapi, or “Mountain of Fire”.
Borodubur sits among the “must see” Buddhist wonders of Southeast Asia along with Bagan in Burma, Ayutthaya in Thailand and Angkor in Cambodia. Of this group Borobudur is probably in the best condition bearing in mind that it is one main temple (or candi) as opposed to a collection of structures spread over a wide area as is the case with Angkor and Bagan.
Borodubur is the single most popular tourist attraction in modern day Indonesia and is the single largest Buddhist structure anywhere on earth. It is often described as one of the world’s truly great ancient monuments.
Confusion surrounds its origins. There is no clear record of when it was built, though it’s believed construction took about 75 years and concluded in the 800s. For centuries it lay abandoned and covered in jungle and layers of volcanic ash. It was partially “rediscovered” along with Prambanan in 1814 on a mission prompted by Sir Stamford Raffles, the governor of Java and a man with a keen interest in the history of the island.
But it took years for the monument to be restored and fully appreciated. At one point the Dutch thought it best to dismantle the entire site and distribute its parts to museums around the globe, but gave up on such a task. It wasn’t until the 1980s that full restoration began and UNESCO made it a World Heritage Site in 1991.
Unlike Angkor, at Borodubur and indeed Prambanan, you can see where your entrance fee is spent (the fee is 135,000 rupiah for the former and 75,000 for the latter at the gate but less if you purchase the ticket with a tour office). The grounds are immaculate and the entire area rubbish free. Hawkers, some of them very persistent, are kept away from the temple site itself, though you do have to run the gauntlet when exiting the temple grounds.
Unfortunately, tourists ignore warning signs not to touch or climb on the magnificent stonework. There are guards patrolling the site but at one point I saw a guard taking photos for tourists who were placing their children on the figures and bell-like dome statues that adorn the structure. All the people I saw doing this bar one were Indonesian.
My trip was accompanied by a driver and a guide, except the guide, Gee, stayed with the driver and you wandered the sights alone. The other passengers were two Koreans from the port city of Pusan; she a high school teacher with good English and he a university professor of Korean literature of the long-form novel, who spoke none. Instead he reverted to the wonders of modern Korea, Samsung smart phones and produced translations of what he wanted to say. Later over dinner, he invited me to Korea for drinking, a pastime which he informed me via Samsung, he indulged in habitually, Budweiser and Heineken outside and whiskey at home.
Prambanan was built in the 9th century according to some sources, 10th century according to others, and is the biggest temple complex in Java. The Yogyakarta tourism office refers to it as “the most beautiful Hindu temple in the world.”
It’s a complex consisting of 224 temples and designed as three concentric squares. The inner square is the most impressive and comprises 16 temples including the 47m high shiva temple, which is higher than Borobudur. This temple is now fenced off because of earthquake damage and the complex is surrounded by stone blocks which have fallen off structures due tremors and wear and tear. One or two of the smaller temples you can enter and walk around the various levels allowing close ups of the base reliefs.
You’ll be lucky if you can see Merapi the volcano, as it’s often covered in cloud and obscured from sight. The mountain apparently emits smoke 300 days a year and has a habit of erupting every 4-5 years. Basically, they just about finish the massive clean up task from one eruption and it’s off again. Last time Merapi erupted was in 2010 killing over 350 people and destroying the village of Cangkringang and sending lava flows and rocks the size of small cars dozens of kilometres away.
Today dozens of diggers and columns of dump trucks are fully employed cleaning the mess up. An entire cottage industry of rock carving has grown up in the wake of the eruption with crafts people carving Buddha statues and bowls and large garden pots for sale lining the highway to Borobudur.
Such was the power of the volcanic explosion, the slopes of Merapi resemble the battlefields of the Somme, with the remnants of trees burned and splintered littering the hillsides. For about $6 you can ride on a trial bike further up the mountain to see the destruction. As the cloud came in and it started to rain, there was the surreal sound of the Muslim call to prayer from the nearby mosque echoing across the mountainside. The prayers were followed by enchanting piano music and the sound of distant trail bikes away on the mountain.
Worse still was the earthquake in 2006, which killed over 6,000 people and flattened over 300,000 houses. While Borobudur survived relatively unscathed, Prambanan wasn’t so fortunate suffering much damage with falling stonework and cracks to the towers. The sight is now bordered by rows of stone blocks laying on the ground waiting for someone to decide whether they’re going to rebuild or just strengthen what remains.
The city is also an important centre of arts and crafts including batik painting and the main market on Jalan (street) Marlioboro has more sarongs than is probably healthy for any one place. The market building replaces the old wooden structure that stood for years but was battered in one of central Java’s many earthquakes. The top floor has arts and crafts and the first floor an amazing array of fresh spices and foodstuffs. The ground floor has clothes and the famous sarongs.
Large numbers of Indonesians also come to the city in central Java, one of the country’s oldest, so competition for hotel space can sometimes be intense. Most visitors stay around Jalan Sosrowijayan off the main drag of Marlioboro in downtown Yogjakarta, or near Prawirotaman, further south past the sultan’s palace.
While looking for alternate lodgings I bumped in “Martin”. When he asked where I was from he said “Haere Mai”. He’d just spent six months in New Zealand mainly in Dunedin where his uncle is a lecturer at the University of Otago. He offered to show me some hotels and I jumped on his bike. Most of the hotels he took me too on the street parallel to Sosrowijayan were full, so he took me down alleys running off the streets where you can find cheap deals in Losmen or guesthouses, similar to homestays. Accommodation is usually accompanied by breakfast and owners seem to concentrate on this as an attraction rather than the quality of their rooms, which aren’t great it must be said.
At one losmen the owner ran off the menu for breakfast which included a smorgasbord of fruit so long I lost track of which were included. The trade-off was having to stay in a room barely large enough for the bed, and squeezed next to a smaller bathroom. The quality of Indonesia’s hotels other than the top end continued to be a disappointment, lagging far behind those found in other countries in Southeast Asia.
“I look like a Maori don’t’ I?” Asked Martin, and I must admit that he did. Martin was a Muslim convert having been raised a Protestant in East Timor but moving to Yogjakarta when he was young. He told me he’d converted in order to remarry a Muslim it being much easier to divorce in Islam than in Christianity.
He took me round the newly built market with its marvellous array of goods. At 9:30 in the morning you can get good bargains he said and grinned. He was a painter and wanted to show me his workshop and gallery. I shuddered, mindful of perfume shops in Cairo and the extraordinary lengths people would go to entice you onto the premises in order to sell you their wares.
Martin’s gallery was large holding hundreds of batik paintings all colours and sizes. Prices ranged from about $10 to over $100. Two women were preparing the latest offerings for sale, a labour intensive process encompassing intricate detail. Batik paintings are best displayed with the top of the frame leaning away from the wall and a light behind to bring out the colours. The paintings are all displayed in their frames but if you want to buy the cloth is removed, washed and simply folded up and put in an envelope for carry, pretty simple.
Yogjakarta has more modern attractions also. Near the governor’s palace on Marlioboro is Vredeburg Fort built in 1755 by Sultan Buwono I at the behest of the Dutch, mainly so they could keep an eye on the local royals. Today it’s a museum celebrating the fight for Indonesian independence following World War Two, when the Dutch tried to muscle back into their colonial possession with the help of the British. Today Indonesians visit the fort by the busload to celebrate the presence of neither the Dutch nor the British.
The Ethnographic museum near the former parade ground opposite the Sultan’s palace is small but informative, and a dance show is held most nights at 8pm, a visual appendage to the UNESCO approved exhibits inside.
There are daily flights into Yogjakarta from points all around Indonesia and now other cities in Asia courtesy of Air Asia. Rail and road links with take you to either end of Java in a matter of hours; Bali to the east and Bandung and Jakarta to the west.
The Koreans were flying to Bali, she to stay in a private hilltop villa and he to East Timor, and already fearful of malaria. When I asked why he was going to Timor Leste, he gave the marvellous answer via translation, “Because hardly anyone goes there.”