Tuesday, October 15, 2013

And Then There Was Yogyakarta

"Why have I not been here before?" I asked myself a few days into traveling through Yogyakarta, an independent city in Central Java, Indonesia. It has everything I love in travel destination: a strong culture, a rich history, and good food.

I guess there are just those places, those places that pleasantly surprise you. Yogyakarta was one of those places for me.

Kraton, Yogyakarta, Indonesia
Yogyakarta, cultural heartland of the Javanese

Reeling from an overnight bus journey from Bandung in West Java, a journey I did not expect would take 14 hours instead of eight, I was only glad to have arrived in Yogyakarta that morning. There was one thought that ran through my head in the short cab ride to my hotel: this city looked awfully familiar.

Signs were written in a distinct script—what I would discover to be Aksara Jawa. Small lanes called gang jut out from main roads forming a maze of neighborhoods within city blocks. The old city center was enclosed by an equally old wall on four sides. Had there been a moat around that wall, I would have yelled, "Hang on! Am I back in Chiang Mai?"

Yogyakarta, Indonesia
The busy southern gate of the walled city center of Yogyakarta

Like Yogyakarta, my beloved Thai city Chiang Mai—the city I considered my second home—also had a special script called Lanna, small lanes called soi, and a walled city center. Upon realizing the similarities, I knew that it would be a rewarding few days traveling through Yogyakarta.

Why Yogyakarta

There is a reason for which Yogyakarta is one of the most visited cities in Indonesia, certainly a highlight for many tourists traveling to Indonesia. It is after all the cultural heartland of Java, where Javanese language and traditions are fiercely protected. It helps that some of the greatest civilizations of Java Island had their kingdoms here.

So what made Yogyakarta a special travel destination for me? Aside from being surprisingly similar to one of my favorite cities in the world, here are my reasons.

1. It has the palace of Javanese Royalty.

Kraton, Yogyakarta, Indonesia
The front hall of the Yogyakarta Kraton

Located in the walled center of the city are the courts and residences of the Sultanate of Yogyakarta—the Kraton. It was built in the 1700s when a sultanate was established in the region. Though it may not compare in scale as the royal palaces in Beijing, Vietnam, or Cambodia, the Kraton did provide an interesting look into royal Javanese architecture. Pre-colonial Philippines had strong ties with the Javanese, so I wondered: If the Spanish had not arrived in the Philippines, would we have similar royal palaces?

Related Post: Photos from the Royal Palaces of Yogyakarta: The Kraton and Taman Sari Water Castle

2. It managed to preserve its Hindu past in the temples of Prambanan.

Prambanan, Yogyakarta, Indonesia
Prambanan is a beautifully preserved remnant of Southeast Asia's Hindu past.

About an hour east of Yogyakarta's city center, I began to notice a couple of unmistakably ancient, tall stone towers. I knew I was close to something special. The temples of Prambanan date back from the eighth century when Java Island was still home to Hindu civilizations. As far as archeological sites go, this is one of the best ones I have visited. The main set of temples is beautifully preserved (and is still being preserved) despite pillaging, volcanic eruptions, and earthquakes. Many more temples are scattered around the complex. It is well-worth spending a few hours in.

Related Posts: It Started with an Old Photo of Prambanan; How to Go to Prambanan from Yogyakarta

3. Located nearby is one of the grandest ancient Buddhist temples in the world: Borobudur.

Borobudur, Yogyakarta, Indonesia
Sunrise in the Buddhist temple of Borobudur

It is said to be the single most visited site in Indonesia and it is not hard to see why. Borobudur is a fascinating place. It was built in the eight century, around the same time as Prambanan. Unlike Prambanan, however, Borobudur is Buddhist. I have to admit, touristy as the experience was (how I came here and the whole temple complex itself), the sunrise here was quite unlike anything I have ever seen.

Related Post: Catching the Sunrise in the Ancient Temple of Borobudur

4. There are a number of great accommodations surrounding the city center.

EDU Hostel, Yogyakarta, Indonesia
With a large rooftop area, a rooftop pool, and views of the city and Mount Merapi, how can you not like EDU Hostel?

I was pleasantly surprised to find a number of excellent, reasonably priced accommodations close to Yogyakarta city center. After having stayed in dorms for more than week traveling through Singapore, Jakarta, and Bandung, I decided I needed a proper night's rest. At only 14 USD per night for a single room, Hotel Winotosastro in the Prawirotaman area was a great choice. It was just south of the city center and a number of food stalls (warung) could be found in the area. For more backpacker accommodations and cheap cafes, Sosrowijayan area north of the city center is a good place to look.

However, as good as Hotel Winotosastro was, EDU Hostel where I stayed the next few nights was something else. I could not summarize why in one paragraph. I dedicated a whole post (an ode, if you will) to this hostel. And here it is: EDU Hostel Yogyakarta, It May Just Be the Best Hostel in Southeast Asia.

5. Yogyakarta is very tourist-friendly.

Malioboro, Yogyakarta, Indonesia
The busy commercial area of Malioboro, north of the city center

Of all the cities I went to in Java, Yogyakarta is the most tourist-friendly. It is not surprising, of course. It is a favorite among travelers on Java Island, so you can be sure Yogya is well-prepared. The city is quite navigable and the public bus system, Transyogyakarta, is easy to use. The commercial heart of the city Malioboro is just north of the city center. It has shopping malls, food stalls, and restaurants and located nearby are the Sosrowijayan area and the central railway station. Come to think about it, Yogya makes for a good base for a few months.

The next few weeks will be all about Yogyakarta. I promise to elaborate on these five reasons above. A city as great as Yogyakarta deserves it.

Which city in the world is your "Why have I not been here before?"

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