Places are like sentient beings. They feed off of the joy and misery of their inhabitants. They welcome visitors who come in peace and greet with, at the very least, a cold shoulder, those who don’t. Yogyakarta or “Jogja,” a more recent monicker that at once ups the city’s coolness factor and instructs tourists on how to properly pronounce the original, is a city that embraces you from the onset. It invites you to climb its temples, dine right on the streets, and marvel in its natural, almost skyscraper-free beauty. With a name that literally means, “a city that is fit to prosper,” Yogyakarta is fast becoming a travel destination for the in-the-know, attractive to those seeking a serene holiday that merges culture and history with vibrant city life.
Here’s something I never thought I would do: Sit on a sidewalk of a busy street chowing on grilled giblets and sipping charcoal coffee at 9 p.m., but, hey, when in Jogja. Angkringan (root word angkring, which is Javanese for “sit down”) spots are famous in Yogyakarta. A melting pot, not just of delicious halal street food, but also of people from various ethnicities, religions, and economic backgrounds, the angkringan is the great equalizer that every city ought to have. When you’re all on street level, inhaling motorbike fumes while eating modern-day humble pie, socializing is stripped of self-consciousness — immediately, you’ll feel like you belong, even if you’re a tourist dressed to the nines for your OOTD. Locals are especially good at making foreigners feel at home, thanks to their mellow tone and long, lingering syllables, aside of course from their hospitality and love of serving inordinate amounts of food.
There are several angkringans to choose from in Yogyakarta. We went to Angkringan Pak Hendrik (pak means “uncle”) in Jetis, just a seven-minute walk from the famous Malioboro Street. If you don’t feel like navigating on your own, take a Grab or their local app Gojek to Malioboro and walk to P. Mangkubini. After crossing the train tracks and the intersection, you should see a big red tarpaulin that has Uncle Hendrik’s name. His specialty? Kopi Joss, which is local coffee made special with a red-hot slab of burning charcoal. They brew the coffee, drop the charcoal in straight from the grill, and leave it there until it fizzles out. (Don’t forget to remove it before drinking!) The charcoal is said to neutralize the coffee’s acidity, and “joss” is actually an onomatopoeia, after the sizzling sound the charcoal makes in the liquid. Order your choice of giblets (satay, chicken skin, grilled mushrooms, chicken feet, liver, intestines, etc.), find a spot on the carefully laid-out mats along the sidewalk, and wait for your barbecued goodies and piping hot coffee to be served.
I had my kopi joss with milk, first, because I am a lightweight coffee drinker and second, because I was planning on snoozing early. It was creamy and grainy and had a faint smoked flavor. I thought about charcoal masks and wondered if it would be good for detoxification, too. I also thought, I would never take off my shoes and sit on a public mat in Manila, as a proponent of the “Are feet really cleaner than shoes?” school of thought, but that’s just me. There I was in Jogja, enjoying it — the coffee, the company, the hygienic halal isaw, and the free radicals in the air. All of it.
TAMAN SARI AND SUMUR GUMULING
Yogyakarta, being the only region left in Indonesia that is still ruled by a monarchy, should know a thing or two about royal opulence. Jogja’s kraton or palace is a cultural and political landmark located right in the heart of the city. A short drive from it, is another architectural wonder, one that’s well-preserved in parts from the mid-18th century. “Taman Sari Water Castle” sounds like name of a theme park, and maybe for the sultan that once walked its grounds, it was. During those times, it was a resting area, a meditation area and hiding place that had a huge bathing complex that remains intact to this day. The bathing area is spectacular, no wonder it’s such a popular tourist attraction.
A walk through a courtyard brought us to a descending staircase that leads to an underwater tunnel. While the tunnel used to connect to various hiding places, today, it provides visitors access to Sumur Gumulung, which was once a mosque used for Muslim cleansing rituals. Today, it’s the most photographed spot on the site. It takes teamwork and determination to get your photo taken at the elevated platform, as there are many entryways that lead to it, making accessible to tourists from nearly all angles. Our guide explained that the five staircases that lead to the platform represent the 5 pillars of Islam faith: professing faith, praying five times a day, paying alms, fasting during Ramadan, and going on a pilgrimage to Mecca. “Not everyone gets to go to Mecca. There is a waitlist,” he said.
BOROBUDUR AT SUNSET
One of the highlights of our visit to Jogja was a trip to Borobodur, an 8th-9th century Buddhist monument that I’ve only previously seen in photos of cool people I know. While it’s not at all “off-the-beaten-path,” as it had nearly 4 million visitors last year alone, Borobodur, like Jogja, is still relatively unexplored by the masses compared to other destinations in Indonesia. It is 39.7 kilometers from the city of Yogyakarta and is not actually located in the region, but is a part of Central Java. It takes about 1.5 hours to get there (I know, for the distance, that’s quite a quick drive) from the city, where most travelers book their accomodations. There are homestays available outside the temple grounds as well.
What makes it worth the trip? Like many ancient structures, Borobodur transports you back to a different time. While its design may be complex — it was constructed like a giant stupa, resembling a mandala from an aerial perspetive and a step pyramid from the ground — climbing up the flight of stairs and walking around its three levels feels like a decompression for the spirit. Maybe it was the vast plain surrounding it, or the peaceful landscape of mountains that you see from the top, or maybe I simply over-internalized the part where our guide said reaching the top tier represents freedom and enlightenment. One thing I know for sure is that breathtaking views, you know, the kind that brochures promise, are guaranteed, no matter who you pray to.
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In the course of three days, I got to know the city pretty well, thanks to stories of our guide Eka, and our companions from the Embassy of Indonesia in the Philippines, and Indonesia Tourism. Just as I’ve become friends with the amazing group of people that I traveled with (all but one of them for the first time), in some ways I also feel connected to the city and I can’t wait to return.
Where is Yogyakarta?
The city of Yogyakarta is the capital of the Special Region of Yogyakarta, in the island of Java.
How do I get there?
Some airlines have plans of launching direct flights from Manila to Jogja, however at the moment, the best way is to fly to either Jakarta or Bali, then take a local flight to Adisutjipto International Airport in Yogyakarta.
How do I get around Yogyakarta?
While tuktuks are still aplenty, ride sharing apps such as Grab and Gojek are efficient means of getting around the city, especially if you’re unfamiliar with names of places and streets.
How do I get to Borobodur from Yogyakarta?
There are a number of options. If you’re willing to shell out a little extra for convenience and comfort, book a tour that will pick you up directly from your hotel, or from a designated meeting point that is usually in the city center. Most tour agencies can be found along the city’s famous Malioboro Street. Some tours offer multiple destinations, while others just go to Borobodur. Choose one that fits your schedule and budget. They are relatively inexpensive.
If you want to take public transport, that’s also okay, but know that it will take a couple of transfers. This is not advisable especially if you’re on a schedule. Car or van rental with a driver is also an option. Some hotels offer this service, but it would be less expensive to rent a private vehicle.
Can I stay overnight at Borobodur?
If you want to explore more of Megelang, there are several hotels, hostels and homestays at various price points that can accommodate you.
Is there a dresscode?
Because Borobodur is a temple, sleeveless tops and shorts are not allowed. However, they’re not as strict as other temples, like those in Thailand or Laos. Just to be sure though, bring your own sarong to cover yourself with.
What can I buy in Yogyakarta?
Malioboro Street is famous for having a wide selection of stores selling everything from food products to clothes, to souvenirs and handicrafts. Pro tip: Always haggle for half the price. You could also do what my companions call the “fake walking away technique,” which works in almost any country. Just fake-walk away and watch the prices get lower and lower. However, if you are buying clothes, it is advisable to ask the seller what the clothes are for. I almost brought “prayer clothes” that I thought were cute. Having a local accompany you would be an advantage.
How much should I bring for shopping?
It depends on how much you want to shop! Fashion items can range from 60,000 to 300,000 rupiah, depending on the quality and detail. Food items can be be purchased at 30,000 to 100,000 rupiah. Small items, trinkets and souvenirs are usually around the 30,000 mark as well. If you want to stay within budget, 300,000 rupiah is enough.
What else can I do in Jogja?
When you’re in any Asian country, always book a spa treatment or massage. Honestly, we are very good at it. Indonesia is no exception. We had a massage treatment at Taman Sari Royal Heritage Spa at Sheraton Mustika Yogyakarta. Prices range from 250,000 400,000 rupiah.
You can also try your hand at designing silver jewelry at HS Silver in Kotagede or batik painting at Batik Plentong. Bonus (or is it a catch?): You can take home your creation as a souvenir. Make it good!
Where should I change my money?
People would always tell me to not change my money at the airport, but I always do. Sometimes before leaving, sometimes upon arrival. It’s just more convenient than having no cash until you find a “suitable” currency exchange shop. The difference won’t be that huge anyway, and if you end up just going to the ATM out of desperation, you’ll be charged a much higher fee. Shopping streets like Malioboro don’t accept credit cards, so it’s best to be prepared.
When is the best time to go to Yogyakarta?
During dry season, between April and October.
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Thank you to the Embassy of Indonesia in the Philippines, Indonesia Tourism Ministry, and Borobodur Tourism Authority. For tourist information on Indonesia, visit @indtravel on Instagram. Follow the author at @pineapplechonx and @gistph for more lifestyle, entertainment and travel stories.