I wanted to spend my birthday someplace different and ended up in a city with no skyscrapers. Two of my friends flew in from other Indonesian cities to join me on my exploration.
It turned out to be a great idea.
Yogyakarta, better known as Jogja, on the main Indonesian island of Java, is the centre of Javanese culture and the gateway to the great temples of Borobudur and Prambanan, re-discovered by the British in the early 1800s. But as I discovered much later, there’s more to Jogja than these grand monochrome structures. The real Jogja is full of colour.
Like many Asian cities, Jogja has thousands of motorbikes and it’s possibly the best way to get around. But if you don’t fancy revving up on two wheels, two feet will do. We warmed up by walking up and down Jalan Malioboro, lined end-to-end with souvenir t-shirt stalls. From here, side streets lead to backpacker accommodations and tour desks.
If you prefer to explore the old-fashioned way, there are andong (horse carriage) and becak (rickshaws) to take you around, though not so far and not so fast.
I took a becak to church on Easter Sunday. It was a children’s Mass that had a play about Jesus being the football coach. Very entertaining.
Having a meal was an adventure in Jogja. We never knew what to expect. At the House of Raminten, we were greeted by the nearly life-sized photo of the matronly crossdressing restaurant owner. There was also a stately carriage with a horse inside the restaurant. I have no idea why it’s there, but I felt sorry for it.
Once on Malioboro, we were hungry and raring to eat street food. After passing by a few carts, I settled on some bihun (rice vermicelli) soup. I was aghast at the copious amount of MSG the vendor poured over it the bowl that I feared for my health. But I had it anyway and it wasn’t bad at all.
In Jogja, I discovered the delights of gudeg, the local specialty, young jackfruit cooked in coconut milk and spices, and served with steamed rice, hard-boiled egg, tofu or tempeh (fried fermented soybean patty). We had gudeg at an eatery with low tables for sitting crosslegged.
But our favourite haunt was Indische Koffee, a great place to hang out just next to the old Dutch fort, Benteng Vredeburg. The colonial fortress is now a museum and Indische Koffee serves as the museum cafe.
On the night of my birthday, there was a jazz band playing standards in one corner. I approached them to ask if they knew Sinatra’s “Mac the Knife”. “I don’t know it but they do,” said the female vocalist, referring to her bandmates. And so my friend and I danced to the song, wordless but familiar.
A few days later, the cafe was our refuge when the rain poured heavily for hours. It was a much better alternative to walking around in bright plastic ponchos, as we did one night. (Don’t do it; nobody wears them.)
When the rain had ceased, we hired a taxi to take us to Kotagede, the old royal city famous for its silversmiths. We stopped by the tombs of the kings and wore sarongs as a sign of respect. The architecture reminded me a bit of Balinese temples.
Once again walking the stretch of Malioboro, we headed for the Kraton, the seat of the Yogyakarta Sultanate. The royal staff, dressed in traditional Javanese costume, went about their duties in the palace complex.
We did not reach our next destination, the Taman Sari water palace because we didn’t get our directions right. But we came pretty close and discovered the Underground Mosque now barely visible in between the settlements.
There were many young people hanging around as it was a school holiday, but this did not rob the place of its magic. There are still secrets and stories here worthy of a novel.
What I loved about Jogja is that it felt that art was everywhere, on every available wall, whether inside a building or on the street. There was always something to look at.
We ended our trip with a stop at the Chocolate Mongo shop to buy some flavoured chocolate bars to bring home, and left Jogja wearing our souvenir shirts from Malioboro.
See more of Jogja below.