Indonesia 2016

Yogyakarta, pt. 1: Neon, Batik and Swords

The first thing to know about Yogyakarta is that the Ys are pronounced as Js, so it’s more like Jogjakarta — or just Jogja or Jog.

Matt and I spent five days here, both exploring and using it as a base for other destinations, and I felt the most at home here. It’s very touristy, but the tourist areas are small pockets spread throughout the city, and elsewhere it has the clearest Javanese culture of anywhere in Java. Street signs were in Javanese; people spoke Javanese rather than Bahasa Indonesian; there was a flourishing trade in authentic Javanese items such as batik, a handmade cloth.

(I am emphatic in my dislike of batik.)

We stayed in the area known as the Sultan’s Palace, which is a large enclave in the middle of the city which was once exclusively used by the Sultan and his household, but now contains his much-reduced keraton or palace in its centre. The main way of getting around was cycle rickshaw: men literally cycle in order to push you around in a little capsule at the front. It’s expensive, slow, and I can’t bear to haggle hard when they work so hard. As well as this, the people of Jogja also hassled us constantly — I think I said “No, thank you” in Indonesian more times in those few days than I’ve said some English words in my life. (Tidak, terima kasi).

The Sultan’s Palace district is full of tourist sights but otherwise it’s not especially unusual or posh, despite its history. The main relics are the small tunnels/gates/doors at each entrance.

It has two alun aluns or squares, one of which featured these monstrosities each night.


Jogja’s Highlights

The Palace

I’ve already mentioned the amazing Indonesian traditional music that we saw here — I think they were singing from the Hindu epic the Ramayana in old Javanese.

But the palace itself was great, too: absolutely beautiful, fascinating, and guarded by elderly men who wore traditional Javanese dress, including a ceremonial sword. In one area many of them sat at a lesson. It was expressly forbidden to take photos of them, but many of them waved when I pressed my hands together at them.

In another area many of them were making traditional shadow puppets — and happily, they did allow me to take photos that time.


Museum Sonobudoyo

This museum was just across an alun alun from the palace. After we bought our tickets a shy man approached us and asked if we wanted a guide, as it was included in the price; when we said we did, he leapt to life and we couldn’t shut him up. He had some fascinating information, and was great at linking what we saw to modern life to keep it interesting.

Ancient WhatsApp.

The artefacts in the museum were also outstanding — rather than just what the royalty wore and used and prayed to, there was an amazing variety of pieces that crossed locations, classes and historical periods.

It’s Jesus.

This museum is also where we saw an evening shadow puppet performance, which I will write about separately.

The Water Palace

This is a big fancy set of pools that the Sultan used to use 300 years ago, with separate sections for him and his wives, his courtiers, and his courtesans. As has been somewhat of a running theme across our holiday, this was closed when we arrived — but never fear. When I asked a man about the opening hours, he said that we could simply walk around the side, through a residential area, and we’d get a great view.

We ended up in another chap’s tiny back garden, where we stood on the wall with some Japanese tourists and snapped away, while the man displayed a surprisingly extensive knowledge of the gardens. Afterwards he took us into his painting shop, which I expected as par for the course — fortunately we extricated ourselves without too much trouble.

It was almost Jaisalmer-esque, this beautifully designed and decorated oasis in the middle of an ordinary cluster of residential streets.

More interesting than the palace, though, were these cuties.

The Touristy Bits

I am only human. There was a street by the rail station, and a street in the south, both of which were overpriced, culturally sterile, tacky, and full of rickshaws — and they were great. We were able to have alcohol, Western (or at least sort-of-Western) food, and to book our excursions at tour agencies. In both Jakarta and Bandung these areas were sorely lacking. They may be a blight, but at least these areas were relatively condensed in Jogja.

(Near the northern area, there was a street called Malioboro, which sold clothes. There were so many examples to add to my list of Crazy Indonesian T-shirts. You’ve never seen as many weirdly designed clothes in your life.)

The other highlight of our stay was getting caught in a thunderstorm.

We had just returned from Prambanan, and flagged down a motorised rickshaw to get to a restaurant for dinner. It was pouring then, but once we set off it get even heavier.

I cannot describe this rain more clearly than “The heaviest rain you can imagine.”

Lightning struck a lamp post one hundred yards from us.

I was completely blinded in my glasses.

The water was so high that it got into the rickshaw’s exhaust.

We got out early, rewarded the driver for being a hero of our time, and ran into the nearest café, where they took one look at us and gave us a whole pack of tissues.

Why was this a highlight? Firstly because unlike many of the nonetheless beautiful artefacts in the other places, I will never forget it. And secondly, I was with Matt, and so he made me laugh like a banshee.