Yogyakarta is quite a mouthful. So call it ‘Jog-ja’ if you will, as the locals do.
Jogja lies in the centre-south of Java island; Java in turn is located in the centre of the arc of islands that collectively forms Indonesia (around 17,000+ islands, still validating). Java is not the largest (#5 in terms of size, #1 in terms of population size) but because of its strategic location, it saw a lot of action throughout indonesia’s history: the rise and wane of various empires, birth of modern Indonesia etc.
Jogja is renowned as the home of the Borobudur, that enigmatic monument stacked with stupas and buddhist statutes inside them. The largest buddhist temple in the world was rediscovered by Sir Stamford Raffles in 1814 and restored by the Dutch 93 years later (Raffles founded Singapore a few years later in 1819).
To the east of Jogja, about 60km away is the Prambanan, the hindi rival to the Borobudur. That both are sited in Jogja says something about the richness and depth of Jogja’s history.
You will find Jogja vibrant, friendly, and easy to navigate. For an exhaustive list of to-dos in Jogja, refer to this Tripcanvas post.
Jogja is only 1 hr 10 min from Jakarta and 2 hr 15 min from Singapore.
Malioboro – the Centre of the Centre of Indonesia
We stayed in Malioboro when we visited in May, right in the heart of Jogja. The airport is just under 30 mins away, the bus terminal is there and the Joja-Tugu train station is next to the bus terminal. Malioboro is the perfect place to strike base.
It is impossible to go hungry in Malioboro. There are lots of street food in the day and even more in the night. The entire Jalan Malioboro lits up and bustles with energy when the sun sets and the shops are crowded with even more people looking for bargains on batik clothes.
To get away from the maddening crowd, just head to the alleys parallel to Jalan Malioboro. The alleys are hideouts for various cafes, restaurants and shops. Good food, good bargains and even good massages can often to be found.
We stayed at Hotel Neo Malioboro, a modern, no-frills hotel with clean, well-designed rooms and very comfortable beds. The price was budget but the view was deluxe. I could see Mt Merapi clearly from my room window on those mornings when I didn’t have to leave the hotel while it was still dark.
May to August is the best period to visit Jogja. It is driest then but can get unbearably hot in the afternoons. We typically wound up our daily excursions by 2-3pm in favour of a siesta (swim at pool, massage, chillax at a cafe etc).
What to see
Most of the attractions are far from Malioboro so it’s imperative to hire a vehicle to bring you around. Rates are from 450k rp to 600k rp per day (12 continuous hours), all inclusive (car, gas, driver). The rates depends on the condition, size of car and number of people. The drivers usually take care of their own meals. Here’s how we spread it out.
Day 1 – explore Malioboro (explore by walking about)
Day 2 – Borobudur, Kalibiru national park
Day 3 – Mt merapi, Prambanan, Jogan beach, Indrayanti (Indra) beach
Day 4 – Gunung Api Purba Nglanggeran (hiking), Rencang Kencono cave, Sri Gethuk waterfall
Day 5 – home sweet home
Everywhere is at least 1 hour from Maliboro so that’s a lot of driving.
Here are 2 drivers whom we’d engaged and highly recommend (can be connected via whatsapp):
Agung: +62-878-3826-2223 (speaks a bit of english, our driver for this trip)
Ardra: +62-812-2719-7747 (speaks english, engaged by friend last year)
Borobudur – Sunrise? Sunset?
It seems the best time to visit Borobudur/Prambanan/Merapi is around dawn when the first light is breaking.
For Borobudur, we needed to leave the hotel at 3:30am to get to Hotel Manohara at 430am for the Sunrise Tour. To do the sunrise tour, we had to pay the driver extra (100k rp, for waking up so early) and the sunrise ticket of 450k rp. Note that the sunrise/sunsent tours are exclusively managed by Hotel Manohara. Tour operators may throw in pick-up/drop-off etc to bring you there.
If you are not doing the sunrise tour, the Borobudur ticket is 325k rp (same for Prambanan). The combo Borobudur-Prambanan ticket is 520k rp.
We figured it would be really hard to pry ourselves out of bed at 3am and for such an exorbitant fee. So we decided to give sunrise a miss but still head out early enough to be the first-in-line to enter Borobudur at 6am. Which meant we still left the hotel pretty early at 5am.
There were separate entrances for foreigners and locals. When we got there, there were at least 3 bus loads of students racing us to the start line (it was a saturday). Interestingly, after we separated, we realised there were only 8 foreigners, including us. Guess the rest must have gone to watch sunrise.
Personally, I didn’t feel we missed much. The light was still excellent. But if you are still unsure, read this excellent post: Is Borobudur Sunrise Worth it?
The stupas at the summit didn’t disappoint. The main ones were grand; the smaller ones that encircle them were quite big as well. We couldn’t stop marvelling at the circular bases that were almost perfect circles. What level of masonry did these ancients had? How did they perfect the curves? How did they move the buddhas in?
The stupas overlooked the valley below and we could see the mist lifting from the towns below.
The lower decks were no less interesting then the top, pity most people just walked all the way down without pausing. The architecture, the motifs, the attention to details were mind-bogglingly intricate, a very impressive feat, considering this was built in in the 6th to 8th century.
Every motif was different and seemed to have a tale of its own.
Kalibiru – The Adventurous Selfie Park
Our next stop was Kalibiru National Park. It’s about 50km to the south of Borobudur. To get there, we drove through the mountain range, meandering up and down, past several small villages.
Kalibiru is a small hilltop ‘park’ that affords a panoramic view to a lake. Enterprising locals have installed platforms perched in the middle of the forest from where you can have your photos taken by professionals. The catch: the platforms are only accessible via a network of zip-lines – selfie enthusiasts will need to don safety harnesses and helmets to get there. Entrance fee to the park is 10k rp per pax. The ‘activities’ cost extra.
Kalibiru was quite scenic and a good change from Borodudur but probably wasn’t worth a special trip there.
Merapi – the Surprise
Merapi wasn’t on our cards initially and there was the debate again whether to do the sunrise tour. The answer was a resounding ‘no’.
We had the car pick us up at 5am again, drove to a village near Merapi, then transferred to a jeep that our driver had arranged for us beforehand (350k rp per jeep for 90min).
There were longer versions of the tour ie the medium route (400k-500k rp, 2 hrs) and the long route (600k rp, 3 hrs). For me, 90 minutes of bouncing around on a jeep with an over-active suspension and smelling in ash-filled dust kicked up by the jeep was more than enough.
The route was: base camp->alien rock->bunker->Merapi eruption museum.
The drive was bumpy. It was cold and ash filled my nostrils constantly but all were forgotten when we saw the stunning scenery unfolding before us. And we were in time to catch some of the morning light.
At the base camp, we disembarked and took a slow walk towards the mountain. There were also shops near the car park, for those who preferred to enjoy the view over coffee.
It was beautiful as the clouds cleared and merapi was unveiled. When we turned around and looked back, we could see a sea of clouds floating above the city where we’d come from.
I suppose this was the gorge that the magma carved out, as it flowed down merapi to the village below.
Our last stop was at the ruins of what was left of the village that was devasted by the eruption – Museum Sisa Hartaku. this was an actual house that was destroyed by the largest of the Merapi eruptions in 2010 and the evidence had been carefully preserved (Merapi had begun erupting since 25 oct 10).
When we left merapi, it was still early so we set off to Prambanan next. We got there around 9am and it was already starting to feel like noon. Like borobudur, it was full of school kids on excursions. it must have been a fun one because it was easy to play hide and seek here.
The approach towards Prambanan was beautiful. neatly manicured lawns and carefully planted trees adorned the landscape outside its perimeter. There were many smaller shrines/temples on site but the central compound comprised of the 3 main temples dedicated to Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma. The temples had been painstakingly restored so perhaps that’s why they only allowed us to climb up to the second level and anything higher than that was out of bounds. But still, people flouted that rule and I was irked to see foreigners being one of the main culprits.
By 10:15am, it was getting horribly hot so we decided to call it a morning and go for brunch.
Brunch over we drove southwards to Jogan beach, not realising it was so far away (more than 2 hours). It was a small cape with the bluest sea water we’d ever seen. there weren’t many people, just us and a few locals looking after the place. It was a really nice place to chill, sip on fresh coconut juice, lie back on a hammock and ponder about life. Only it was too hot so we made a quick exit.
No entrance fee but we had to pay 2k rp for parking.
After jogan, our driver brought us to Indra beach (to the west of Jogan). It was crowded and seemed like a popular chill out place that locals love. We walked up a little stone outcrop for the panoramic view then went down the other side of the beach. The views were wonderful, the sand was white and fine. but it was still too hot.
Day 4: Hiking and Others
For a change of pace, we decided to hike at Gunung Api Purba Nglanggeran, 30km to the southeast of Jogja. We left the hotel at 7am, reaching the park at 815am (30k rp entrance fee). We started climbing around 8:30am and finished by 10am including time spent at the summit snapping photos and generally chilling out. It was a nice walk, not difficult and not spectacular. There were multiple split trails so we were glad our driver insisted on guiding us. He said he needed to exercise!
After the trek, we went to the Rencang Kencono cave, 20km south of Api Park. A tree stood at the first entrance: we walked down to it, then saw a smaller entrance framed by some interesting karst formations. I believe there’a path beyond that but we didn’t test our hypothesis. The Sri Gethuk waterfall nearby was more interesting albeit quite commercialised. We walked down to he river, then followed the sign towards the waterfall, the waterfall was quite beautiful; for the adventurous, you could take the plunge from the cliff down into the river then float downstream to where we came from. Or you could keep yourself dry on a open deck barge.
If i’d been well-prepared, I might have joined those kids jumping from the cliff.
Most of the food we had in Jogja was good and reasonably priced. They could do local and western fares equally well, just don’t expect the same of their western-styled desserts. I tried them at every joint, and every one was a disappointment.
The Jogja food du jour is the Gudeg, a dish of rice with spicy and sweet jackfruit fried in grated coconut served on banana leaves. We had ours with fried chicken, at Gudeg yu Djum (Jalan Wijilan). I wish I can describe how the jackfruit tasted like but I can’t because it was spicy and I couldn’t eat it.
Gudeg yu djum: Jalan Wijilan no. 167, Kraton, Panembahan, Yogyakarta 55131 (+62 821-3869-7888)
Our first meal in Jogja was at Roaster and Bear. It had a cafe-like ambience (with cute pictures of bears all over its walls). We thought it was only a coffee joint that also served food, but we were pleasantly surprised by the food quality. Perhaps we were hungry?
Roaster and Bear: Jalan P. Mangkubumi no.52, Gowongan, Jetis, Yogyakarta 55233 (+62 274 2920027)
We heard that they did steaks very well in Jogja so we went to 2 steakhouses. We had a late lunch at Holy Cow on the 2nd day and went to R&B Grill for dinner on the 3rd night. We had almost exactly the same food: pizza, roast chicken and beef steak.
Holy Cow was inside Grand Aston Hotel and the ambience felt like an extension of the hotel’s, as with the service – which was excellent. The food at holy cow was as described – high quality, cooked with care. Everything we had was delicious.
R&B Grill had a more hearty vibe. There was an indoor area and an outdoor area with live music. The service was a bit wanting but wasn’t so bad that it affected our meal. Out of the dishes we tried, my favourite was the starter: freshly made bread with butter.
Of the two, my vote went to Holy Cow though my mates preferred R&B Grill.
Holy Cow: Grand Aston Hotel, Jalan Urip Sumoharjo, Yogyakarta 55222 (+62 622 74565678)
R&B Grill: Jalan Monginsidi 37, Karangwaru, Tegalrejo, Yogyakarta 55241 (+62 811-2652-023)
One of the loveliest place we went to was Abhayagiri Restaurant near Prambanan. part of the Sumberwatu Heritage Resort, it only opened at 11am and we were slightly early but they let us in anyway. Maybe because we were the first customers, service was prompt, contrary to what many people complained about on tripadvisor.
It was too hot for us to dine al fresco but the indoor experience was good. Everything we ordered was delicious. The gado gado, the fried rice with satay, the duck confit with vol-au-vent and the teriyaki chicken with mashed potato. I wanted to eat all of them again.
Abhayagiri Restaurant: Sumberwatu Heritage Resort, Yogyakarta 55572 (+62 274 4469277)
Our final culinary exploration was Via Via Cafe and Artisan Bakery. We had a late lunch there on the 4th day after our hike. As befitting of a hippie cafe, it was full of foreigners, backpackers types. We weren’t expecting the food to impress but it did, even though they were simple, straightforward fares. The ‘artisan bakery’ felt more wanting though: the flourless chocolate cake that I had was average (but still better than many other places in oga).
Via Via: Jalan Prawirotaman 30, 55153 Yogyakarta, (+62 274 386557)
The main surprise was the rice. Jogja rice was extremely delicious I could eat it plain. It enhanced the flavours of all the dishes that came with it, perfectly.
Here are some tips for consideration.
- Download Go-jek. Go-jek is the local equivalent of uber and grab. Point-to-point short distance rides in town cost only 10k rp per trip. This is much cheaper than taxis which start from 25k rp. The cars that came for us were big, clean, and breezy.
- Sim cards cost around rp105k (1 gb data + 5k worth of local calls). You can get them at any mum-and-pop shop.
- Airport transfers from airport to hotel are tricky. We paid rp100k for a ride from airport to malioboro but when we were going back, we only paid 50k rp for metered taxi. So, try to look for metered taxis at the airport.
- Try not to visit Borobudur/Prambanan on a weekend if you can. You want to avoid elbowing those (student) kids.
Visited 19-23 May 17.