In the dynamic, vibrant Asian region, the highlights are just the beginning. Beyond the UNESCO Heritage sites, the ancient monuments and historical landmarks, Asia’s top destinations are cultural hubs worthy of going beyond the surface. Joshua Zukas is a Southeast Asian destination expert with just the right insider knowledge behind Asia’s highlights. In this in-depth series, discover what’s waiting beyond the obvious in Asia’s top spots.
Yogyakarta, Indonesia, affectionately known as Jogya, is a city steeped in history and bursting with culture as much as it is shrouded in mystery and immortalised in legend. Many visitors are drawn to Jogya for the surrounding delights. An impossibly green quilt of rice fields pave the way to one of Java’s most vicious volcanoes, Gunung Merapi, which suitably translates to the ‘the mountain of fire’ and has been both the inspiration for spectacular myth and the cause of tremendous tragedy. More famous still are the ancient and evocative ruins: the breathtaking site of Borobudur, the world’s largest Buddhist temple, and the Hindu temples at Prambanan, which rival Angkor in their towering majesty.
For me the attraction was linguistic. I reckoned that two weeks in Jogja was enough to get some basic Indonesian, which as it turns out is one of Asia’s most learnable languages. Two weeks was also enough to spark an enduring love affair with Jogya… and the following year I came back for two months. I was fortunate enough to set up an informal homestay with proud resident and history enthusiast, Danu, who is also a (very) distant relative of the sultan. Danu knows his city intimately, and its partly thanks to him that I now do, too. Fiercely traditional but far from conservative, the people of Jogya, including their revered sultan, have a reputation for generous hospitality and astonishing tolerance. The city is undeniably fascinating, but it’s the warm welcome I consistently receive from Danu and the rest of the city that keeps me coming back.
As with many destinations, you need to go beyond the highlights to meet the people and below I’ve detailed some excellent places to start. There are also two things to keep in mind:
1. There is an unclear divide between public and private property in these parts of town, which means that you can feel quite free to go most places. Most Javanese are very gentle and polite, and will tell you courteously if you are somewhere you shouldn’t be.
2. Saying ‘monggo’ is the Javanese way to ask for someone’s permission to pass. You only need use this with adults and it will be met with instant smiles and reassuring laughter – a great conversation opener and a way of demonstrating that you respect the local culture.
The Palace Surroundings
The Kraton (Javanese for ‘palace’), an eclectic mix of European, Javanese and Middle Eastern architecture, is an essential visit, but exploring beyond the royal enclosure shouldn’t be missed. The area southwest of the palace, around Nagan Street and Patehan Street, is extremely charming and well worth discovering. Here you’ll find a network of tree-lined streets and winding alleys where the palace attendants still reside with their families; this remains one of the most traditional parts of the city with close-knit but welcoming communities. As you walk amongst the brightly coloured houses and giggling children playing in the street, look out for art galleries and artisan workshops as you can find talented artists crafting exquisite souvenirs such as the Javanese wayang (shadow puppets).
The Taman Sari Water Castle, also southwest of the palace, is an extraordinary three-dimensional maze of hidden gardens, lovely ponds and underground passageways. Many of the structures lay in ruin after several catastrophic earthquakes but they still provide fabulous photo opportunities, the most photogenic of which is the Sumur Gumuling. It is appropriate that this dreamlike structure of seemingly floating staircases and hole-in-the-wall windows can only be reached through an underground passageway. The small pool here was once used for wudu, the Islamic practice of washing parts of the body before prayers.
The Sumur Gumuling is hard to find and it’s even harder to give directions – better to ask your guide or a local and keep checking as you go.
Water Under the Bridge
Several river canals slice through Jogya from north to south and these also provide excellent areas for uninhibited wandering and a priceless window into local life. Look down from any of the bridges and you’ll see countless tiled houses sprouting up from the riverbanks like mushroom patches – the best view is from where Sultan Agung Street passes over the Kali Code. Be sure to descend the side steps for an eye-opening walk north along the waterside. This is one of Jogya’s poorest and most densely populated neighbourhoods and many houses share washing and even cooking facilities outdoors.
Walking along these river-canals is one of my favourite pastimes in Jogya but visitors should keep in mind that these areas have a bad reputation for crime and are best avoided at night. During the day it’s a completely different story with walnut faced gentlemen smoking kretek and playful children screaming (literally!) for a photo or two. You’ll also find some of Jogya’s best street art stenciled onto the walls of the houses and a number of street stalls selling ice tea and kopi susu – the perfect opportunity to sit down for a chat with the curious locals.
It is easy to lose yourself in the layered and mysterious history of Jogya – but try and lose yourself down the charming lanes and winding alleyways as well.
Explore the hidden charms of Yogyakarta along an Indonesia guided tour, weaving together Java’s top highlights and off-the-beaten-track gems.