Yogyakarta is surprising in so many different ways. Yes, it’s an Indonesian city with all its perks and downfalls. Terrible traffic, for starters. Narrow roads that make navigation difficult and confusing. Hot and dusty at all times. Challenging in so many ways.
But there is also a hip vibe to Yogyakarta. The coffee shop and cafés are legendary and there is no reason why they would have to hide behind places like New York and Sydney. Contemporary, cool and sophisticated. They can be found all around the city centre, and if you would like to check out the very best, have a look at this Tripadvisor list.
Indonesia’s Hippest and Trendiest art City
As you might have guessed, Yogyakarta’s city life is young and contemporary. Street art is just another way how this is expressed. Taman Sari district is the best place to find some wonderful examples, but truth be told Yogyakarta’s artistic side is evident everywhere, from stylish old-fashioned lampposts to simple houses with colourful murals in the most random places to beautiful bird cages hanging from eaves and purpose-built poles – this city really is a feast for the eyes.
But there is also a traditional side to the city that cannot be overlooked. People have called the area home for hundreds and thousands of years, and there is a curious mix of Hindu, Muslim and European influences.
A visit to Yogyakarta can be as exciting as you want it to be, from rural escapes to witnessing the sunrise on one of the most spectacular UNESCO Heritage sites, to adventurous jeep safaris on top of a volcano, this city has so much to offer, it is hard to ignore its temptations.
I spent a couple of days recently in Yogyakarta at a famil that was part of the Ministry of Tourism’s push to send the message of Wonderful Indonesia out into this world. Let me share with you my experiences in an effort to encourage you to go beyond ‘Bali’ to discover just one of the many different faces of Indonesia.
Let me give you 5 reasons why Yogyakarta is well worth a visit. Warning: This is a very long post with a lot of pictures, so take your time!
How to get to Yogyakarta
From Bali or Jakarta catch one of the many daily flights. We flew Garuda Indonesia and were very happy with the experience.
How to get around
Walk the streets and take in the sights at a leisurely pace. Beware though: it does get very hot and humid during the course of the day.
For longer distances, grab a taxi which you can order at reception. If you would like to enjoy a fun way of getting around, try the becak (traditional pedal powered rides – be prepared for lots of locals cheering and waving on your way as you ride), or hop into a andong (horse drawn cart).
Tip: Illuminated pedal cars at Alun-Alun Selatan, close to the Sultan’s Palace are a fun way to get around – kids will love it!
Where to stay in Yogyakarta
We stayed at Greenhost Boutique Hotel Prawirotaman, one of the many surprises that we encountered during our stay in Yogyakarta. Greenhost is an eco-friendly boutique hotel with hydroponic plants in the main atrium and a vegetable garden on the roof top. Lots of recycled materials, water saving features and energy saving measures make this a guilt-free stay right in the heart of Yogyakarta.
It’s a cool and funky hotel, young and fresh, with excellent breakfast and a fantastic rooftop cafe/bar/restaurant. Highly recommended.
For more info, follow this link to Greenhost Boutique Hotel Yogyakarta. (Disclaimer: if you book via this link, powered by Booking.com, a small commission will come my way which will help support this blog. It is much, much appreciated, many thanks!)
Visit a volcano
Everybody knows that Indonesia is a country of fire. The many regular eruptions cause havoc with scheduled flights from Bali, but there is of course far worse tragedy attached to events like this. The Mount Merapi volcano 28km north of Yogyakarta is one of the most active volcanos in Indonesia. Eruptions occur every two to three years, with major events happening every ten to fifteen years. This is pretty impressive, to say the least.
The last two big eruptions occurred in 2006 and 2010 respectively, resulting in the government declaring large parts of the slope a danger zone and turning many formerly densely populated areas into a wasteland.
In short, Merapi is a dangerous volcano. During the last eruption more than 320 people were killed, mostly because they had refused to follow government orders to evacuate in time or because they returned to their houses to care for livestock and to protect their possessions. It’s a a very tragic place, with the recent history leaving many people deeply traumatised. Thousands of locals were displaced as a result of the eruptions.
There are many reasons why you should explore the region around Merapi volcano further. First of all, the volcano is a real beauty, a picture-perfect cone that rises high in the air with an unrivalled majestic presence. No wonder locals have believed for thousands of years that Merapi must be the underworld residence of spirits. From a scenic and photography perspective, a visit is a must-do.
But there is also the opportunity to see first-hand the effects of the volcanic eruptions on the local people. A tour to the volcano inevitably will take you past cemeteries and destroyed houses with gaping holes and missing roofs. The walls overgrown by dense jungle foliage, the streets turned to rubble, flanked by massive boulders. The higher up you travel, the less dense the vegetation, with the similar height of all trees a dead giveaway that they all share the same young age.
A stop in Desa Petung, a village that was destroyed by the latest eruption, is a clear indicator that this mountain is nothing to mess around with. A former home, reduced to its very core, now serves as a hands-on history museum of the latest eruptions. The furniture bar any upholstery, rusty lanterns hanging off the broken ceiling, shattered floor tiles, a dead clock on the wall, forever stopped at the time that the hot ash cloud hit the village. Photos along the wall documenting the scenery before the eruption, when the ash clouds were rising into the sky and turning day to night, the devastation after the event and the help received. Everyday objects laid out for inspection, eerily similar to what you would see in a history museum about a volcanic eruption yet strangely modern: toothbrushes, plastic toys, TV sets, music cassettes. Whole skeletons of livestock.
Further up, close to the no-gone zone is another place to visit, Desa Kaliadem. The locals here have returned despite government orders, defying the odds and selling snacks and souvenirs to the visiting tourists. As we sip hot ginger tea with the rain pouring down during our visit, our gazes fall onto the wide opening of the bunker right opposite the shop. Considered a safe haven for the villagers in preparation for upcoming eruptions, this bunker proved to be a death trap, as it was not able to hold off the heat of the hot ash that hit the village front and centre. Two students died here trying to find shelter from the eruption. An eerie place that was meant to be a lifeline for the people here.
Lastly, a visit to the volcano can only be done using four-wheel rides due to the destroyed roads. Many companies in the area offer jeep tours up the mountain, a trip that in itself is a great adventure and definitely something you won’t do every day. We toured with Yoes Adventure who also treated us to a joyride around a river, splashing us with water from top to bottom in an exhilarating and fun adventure that left us squeaking and screaming.
If you would like to visit Merapi volcano the same way, book a taxi from Yogyakarta to basecamp which is at Patung Udang Kaliurang. It’s about an hour drive to get there, but it’s absolutely worth it. Check the website for different tours (sunrise tour, anyone?) and prices (Google translate is very helpful).
Explore the local contemporary art scene
You cannot come to Jogja (as locals like to call Yogyakarta lovingly) and not notice its artistic side. In fact, you might even compare it a bit to Melbourne. I know, it sounds funny but it’s really not that far-fetched.
Aside from street art, there are many performers and artists around town that are being inspired by the city’s fantastic vibe. As part of our tour of Indonesia we were also invited to visit a local puppet theatre ensemble by the name of Papermoon.
Now, I am not exactly a big fan of puppets, they tend to look wooden and don’t express a lot of emotion. But when we are given a short demonstration by artistic director Maria Tri Sulistyani at her Yogyakarta workshop, I cannot help but admire with how much ease she is able to demonstrate a whole range of emotions and situations with just some simple gestures.
The puppets this team create are adorable and cute. They are big-headed, round-eyed, traditionally dressed. But if you think that this form of performance art was meant for little children then you are mistaken.
Papermoon’s shows are primarily designed to be enjoyed by adults. The themes they cover are sinister, dark and complex. Very bravely they touch on topics such as death, injustice and fear. Best of all for us English speakers: all performances are done without words, using gestures only.
If you happen to come across this ensemble while you are in Indonesia, or maybe even abroad (they also tour South East Asia regularly), do check them out.
Other ways to explore the local art scene is by taking part in a batik workshop, checking out the work of the local silversmith craftsmen or maybe trying your hands on some pottery.
Learn about the history of the city
You may not know that Yogyakarta incorporates a former capital city, that of Kotagede. You could call it an old town in the European sense, a maze of tiny alleyways, utterly confusing and at the same time enchanting and intimate. A mix of different styles can be found here: Hindu houses, Muslim houses as well as Dutch colonial style houses are living in cheerful harmony next to each other, creating a patchwork of styles and colours, architectural designs and lifestyles.
Just like with many European old towns, hardly any cars fit into the narrow streets, almost no motorbikes will find their way in here either. It mutes the sounds beautifully, opening your other senses to a wealth of unknown visual experiences.
As we explore the enchanting part of town, a little child discovers us intruders. Playfully it takes the lead as we walk through the maze of streets, until he suddenly disappears in one of the openings, hiding behind his mother’s skirt with a cheeky smile.
The houses in Kotagede are wonderfully preserved, some of them in striking colour, with murals, flower pots, traditional woodcarving adding charming accents. Between them the gaping holes of ruined houses that have been victims of the 2006 Yogyakarta earthquake. Many residents choose to abandon their ruined houses to build in more modern parts of the city, oftentimes deeply traumatised by the events which left them confused, exposed and disoriented in the narrow streets of Kotagede.
We pass through very unique Javanese structures, the so called joglos. Housing complexes with public pathways running through them, yet oddly private as they are flanked by two massive gates to both sides. These passageways, also called Between Two Gates, separate the pendopo, the public wall-less room of the house, from the dalem, the family residence. By making use of this public thoroughfare you are at the same time invited into the very private space of a family home. A very unusual concept for us Westerners.
Kotagede is also home to a mosque and a royal cemetery. While we don’t have time to enter the cemetery (it requires a change of clothes which can be hired at the front gate) we do visit the public front court of the mosque. Incidentally, a local festival is on when we visit, with beautifully dressed traditional dancers, musicians, children and jazz bands all coming together for a powerful explosion of sights and sounds. Besides the dressed up crowd, the mosque doesn’t appear very Muslim at all, because it is built within the confines of a Hindu temple. There are the typical stone carved depictions of mythological creatures and gods, quite unusual for a religion that normally doesn’t tolerate depictions of living things or gods. Just one of the many ways how the Kotagede area is overwhelming us with impressions and new ideas.
It is in Kotagede that we are again reminded of the artsy culture of Yogyakarta. The festival’s music echoes through the narrow streets as we find our way out, baskets have been hung up high in the air for decoration, bamboo tunnels add some charm to the laneways which are no broader than a shoulder width or two.
Before we leave the area altogether we make sure we also visit the central market. A hot and sticky mess with the most colourful foods on offer, from exotic vegetables and fruit to fresh fish, seeds, wooden sandals, handwoven basked, and sweets made from glutinous rice flour. If Kotagede was not confusing and mesmerising enough for you, a visit to the market will do the trick.
Visit the countryside
Even though Yogyakarta is not the biggest city in Indonesia, it still feels good to leave the hectic pace and the traffic of the city behind to explore the refreshing scenery of the countryside.
To make it easy for tourists to visit local villages, Indonesia has developed the concept of tourist villages, also known as desa wisata. These are usually not purpose-built villages but true original villages, lived in by local people who usually work predominantly in one trade or the other. You can see this whole concept quite critically but in my view it is better to get a glimpse like this than no glimpse at all. I have never been harassed by locals to buy things in these villages but have instead been met with a warm smile and a friendly welcome.
While we visit Yogyakarta we also visit three different tourist villages, each of them specialising in some kind of traditional trade. At Desa Pentingsari in the foothills of Mount Merapi (remember, the one that occasionally erupts) we are fed delicious local dishes before we are given the opportunity to plow a new rice paddy for the next planting season. In another paddy we can actually plant rice plants ourselves. Our guide speaks good English and is able to give us some information about the village.
Other villages that we visit are close enough to Borobudur temple that we can reach them in an andong (horse carriage). I really enjoy this experience, the clip clop of the horse’s hooves on the muddy roads, the refreshing wind, the lush landscape with a succession of rice paddies, pawpaw orchards and chilli fields. You get to see some real villages along the way, with weather hardened people, tiny convenience shops, chickens in the front yards. Farmers transporting their goats on their motorbikes, the cloud covered mountains in the distance.
We are invited to try our luck with some local pottery craft, and in another village, aptly called Desa Bahasa (Language Village) we are taught some basic Indonesian words to the point that we can say useful things such as “I am hungry” and “you are crazy” (although, alas, it is all gone now – should have practiced more!).
Witness an enchanting sunrise at Borobudur
I know, I know, it’s not easy to rise at 3am for a sunrise viewing on top of a temple but trust me, it’s all worth it! Borobudur is not exactly in Yogyakarta but in Magelang which means you will need around 1,5 hrs to get there (hence the early start). When you arrive you will be given flashlights (torches) and the guide will take you to the base of the temple. From here you make your own ascent, luckily it is less hot without the sizzling daytime sun to shine down on you, so there’s a plus!
Borobudur is a UNESCO Heritage Site, so this is something you can now tick off your list. Built in the 9th century it is a place of worship until this very day. Which is why you need to dress conservatively, covering your shoulders and knees.
The temple is a geometrically precise square and built like a step pyramid. When seen from above it is in fact not exactly a square but it resembles a tantric Buddhist mandala. The top part is made of round steps. Each step is covered in statues, figurines and bas-reliefs. On top you will find the famous stupas. When you peak inside you can see that they enclose life-sized buddhas.
When you take your time climbing the stairs, not like us dashing up in the darkness to catch the first rays of light, you should take every step with care and an observing eye. Each step is telling a story. The ideology is that of reaching nirvana from a starting point of worldly desire through an ascent in enlightenment. The reliefs on the walls are rather telling. The zigzag pattern of the corridors are disorientating, probably not without reason.
It is a massive structure, and it is hard to believe that this temple was once long forgotten until the British rediscovered it under piles of volcanic ash and a thick rainforest foliage. There is evidence that the temple used to be painted in different pigments and gold-leaf – you can imagine the impression it must have made on the people who lived in its shadow.
On the morning that we visit Borobudur we are less lucky with the sunrise. A thick haze surrounds the temple complex, sucking the colour out of everything and smothering the sun when it first peeks over the horizon. Yet, we can still find beauty in that. The trees in the distance slowly peel out of the fog, showing their crowns first as shadows, then with a more colourful display, while the last carpet of haze still lingers in the middle ground.
A word of warning: Borobudur is a busy tourist attraction, even at the break of dawn. It is hard to get a good photo when there are so many people around that pay no attention to your efforts and will just simply ignore you behind your tripod. Taking sunrise photos here can therefore be quite a challenge, and the frustration should not take away the magical experience of the first morning light touching the solemn faces of the stone buddhas.
On the upside, most visitors will not spend a lot of time on the lower levels of the structure, which means you can study the beautiful artwork all by yourself, or maybe even mediate a bit as you are making your slow descend in circles around the centre of the temple.
>>> Further reading: Check out my Indonesia Travel Guide with lots of tips and information on islands like Bali, Lombok and Komodo. <<<