Yogyakarta: The other face of Indonesia

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Borobodur serves as a tourist attraction and as a pilgrimage site

What comes to your mind when you think of Indonesia?

It would come as no surprise if you thought of Bali. You probably picture yourself lying on a beach, enjoying fresh coconut water, as the sun kisses your skin.

If you are bold and adventurous, you might see yourself on a surfboard, riding gigantic walls of water that could drag you into the abyss. Or if you are a party animal, you get thrilled by the vibrant nightlife in Bali that stretches until daybreak.

I have several friends who have traveled to Indonesia. When I ask them where they went, they all gave the same response: Bali.

As the world’s largest archipelago with over 17,000 islands, I was curious whether there is anything else that this vast country can offer. This is not to say that Bali is not worthy of a visit but I was merely looking for an experience different from all the stories I have heard about traveling to Indonesia.

So I did my research and came across this quiet city called Yogyakarta (fondly referred to as Jogja by locals) which is some 547 kilometers away from the country’s capital. I booked roundtrip tickets from Manila to Jakarta and from Jakarta to Yogyakarta. I am glad I did.

Imagine this: You are riding a motorcycle before the crack of dawn, with cool breeze blowing through your hair. A couple of hours later, you are atop an ancient Buddhist temple, watching the sun rise behind the mountains of Java. Darkness slowly surrenders to the light as the first rays of red, orange, and yellow make their way through the night sky. The early morning mist gently clears the fields, while birds create beautiful melodies in the background.

That’s how I will always recall my recent trip to Yogyakarta. From stunning cultural sites, exciting outdoor activities, and to interesting places to go shopping, Yogyakarta has something for everyone.

The city is located in the Special Region of Yogyakarta and is home to around 400,000 Indonesians. A former colony of the Netherlands, Yogyakarta boasts lovely examples of Dutch colonial-style architecture, most of which are now being used as government offices.

Given its significant role in the country’s war for independence, Yogyakarta was granted a special administrative status and is the only region that is ruled by a precolonial monarchy, the Sultan of Yogyakarta. The sultan’s residence, known as kraton, is located in the city and is often part of itineraries of visitors.

The main attractions of the city, however, are its two UNESCO World Heritage Sites: Borobodur and Prambanan. While the country is now predominantly Muslim, proofs of its Buddhist and Hindu past still stand tall up to this day.

Borobodur is the world’s largest Buddhist temple and was built in the ninth century, 300 years before the Angkor Wat in Cambodia was constructed. It has survived countless earthquakes and volcanic eruptions from nearby Mount Merapi.

The monument, which resembles a stepped pyramid, serves as a place of worship and pilgrimage. Each level is heavily ornamented with bas-reliefs that depict daily scenes of that time, including life in the palace court, moments of worship, and common scenarios in the village. Also shown are images of kings, queens, noblemen, priests, soldiers, and common village folk. Each level also has several Buddha statues, each sitting inside a perforated bell-like structure or stupa.

For centuries, Borobodur lay hidden deep in the jungle. It was rediscovered only in the 19th century during the Dutch occupation and has since then sparked the interest of archaeologists, historians, pilgrims, and tourists alike.

Not far from Borobodur is Prambanan, the largest Hindu temple in Indonesia and one of the biggest in Southeast Asia. Built in the ninth century, Prambanan is a collection of towering temples that measure up to 47 meters high. More than 200 temples used to dot the area but now there are only eight. According to popular legend, the temples were erected by Prince Bandung Bondowoso as a sign of his love for Princess Rara Jonggrang.

The princess initially refused to marry the prince because he had dethroned and killed her father. Eventually, the princess agreed to marry but on one condition: the prince must build a thousand temples in one night.

The prince asked for help from spirits and succeeded in building 999 temples. When he was about to fulfill the condition, the princess woke her palace maids and ordered them to begin their daily chores and set a fire in the east wing of the temple to create an illusion that the sun was about to rise.

As the roosters began to crow, the spirits fled, leaving the last temple unfinished. Furious, the prince cursed the princess to stone, turning her into the last and most beautiful of the thousand temples.

If you fancy the outdoors, Yogyakarta is also sure to deliver. As I loved being with nature, I searched for places that I could visit and get an adrenaline rush.

One of the top searches is Goa Jomblang, a cave located just a few minutes outside the city. Even then, on the way to the cave, you will feel that you are already full of majestic views of Yogyakarta – from vast rice fields, thick jungles, and long mountain ranges.

Upon reaching the entrance of the cave, I was instructed to wear a helmet and a safety gear like all the other tourists as we would be hauled down some 50 meters below to enter the cave.

Goa Jomblang is similar to a tunnel. It is 250 meters long, around 4 meters high, and 7 meters wide. Even though the cave is not that long, the trek inside seemed forever because the ground was muddy and everything was pitch black.

However, upon reaching the destination, I felt that all of the struggle I had just endured was all worth it. I was greeted by light at the end of the tunnel. Literally. The roof of the cave has a hole that allows light to come in from the outside, creating a heavenly atmosphere that is perfect for your Instagram.

To wash off all the dirt and mud, I, along with a few travelers I met during the tour at Goa Jomblang, opted to do the river rafting at nearby River Oyo.

The river is about 10 meters deep, with strong current that makes for an exciting ride. There is also a small waterfall along the way where we stopped to take pictures and jump from the cliff to the flowing river.

If you want to bring home traditional Indonesian items, Yogyakarta has them too. I went to Jalan Malioboro, a major shopping street in the city, to buy some goodies.

Sidewalks on both sides of the street are lined with small stalls selling a variety of goods such as household items, paintings, traditional Indonesian dress or batik, sweets and delicacies, woodcrafts, and silverware.

Everything is cheap in Yogyakarta, including food and accommodation. One can already have a decent meal under HKD20, while a simple room with air-conditioning, WiFi, and breakfast will cost you less than 120 HKD per night.

In my case, I got a free accommodation because I stayed at a local’s house that I booked through Couchsurfing. My host brought me to places where locals normally eat as well as provided me with insights into the daily life, culture, and politics in Indonesia.

There are some places you travel to where you just feel comfortable immediately. For me, Yogyakarta is one of them. It is calm, rich in heritage, and proud of its identity. Although thousands of tourists flock to this city every year, it does not get too crowded and intimidating.

It was a short but sweet stay and I am willing to share a different side to Indonesia. After all, this lovely country is more than just Bali.

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