I’m not the type to travel in pursuit of luxury hotels and Michelin-starred restaurants. Give me spontaneous discovery, street food, getting my hands and feet dirty, and having fantastic, meaningful conversations with the locals any day. Travel to me is about taking chances, getting that fresh perspective and heading home enriched, wiser and more inspired than I was than when I first arrived.
And Yogyakarta is definitely a place that finds its way into your heart and lingers for a long time.
Yogyakarta, or ‘Jogja’ as the locals call it, is a city known as an arts and cultural centre on the island of Java. Most famous for its ancient Borobudur Temples, it also hosts a whole host of architectural and historical gems. So hop on board and here we go!
This was definitely one of the main reasons we came down to Yogyakarta. Widely-regarded as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, this is a must-see in the city. We set our alarm clocks for 330am to make it in time for sunrise at the temple. It’s roughly a one-hour drive from central Jogja and while you can choose to watch the sunrise over the temples from the nearby Setumbu Hill, we opted to go for the less crowded alternative which is through Manohara Hotel — the only hotel located on the temple compound.
For roughly SGD$50 including transport to and from our hotel, we were granted access to the complex from 5am where we slowly made our way up the steps to the 1,191-year-old ancient temple dripping with history and a deep spirituality.
We watched the red orb of the morning sun rise slowly while the early mist shrouded the nearby mountains and fields in a mystic, peaceful calm. We sat for hours just absorbing the quiet, admiring the 504 buddhas in each of the iconic stupas. This was a truly moving, spiritual experience for me. And the beautiful backdrop of volcano Mt Merapi made the scene all the more surreal.
By around 730am, tourists started pouring into the temple by the busloads and we made our quick exit from the complex. But not without a full heart and hungry stomachs. The package included a breakfast at Rambutan Restaurant which was a simple toast with jam, banana and local coffee which I appreciated to keep my energy up.
Quick Tip: Remember there are no sheltered areas in the temple so make sure you bring an umbrella or poncho with you in case it rains. Also, try to avoid going down between the very crowded 8am-12pm hours if you want to get those stunning Nat Geo-worthy shots.
Water Castle Taman Sari
I wasn’t expecting much from this next attraction, but boy was I impressed with how much it taught me about the local way of life and the fascinating lives of Jogja’s kings.
Unfortunately, we visited later in the day and the actual pool was closed by 3pm so we had to go gangster and climb up a 2-metre concrete wall (thank goodness I’d been working out those arms in Muay Thai) to get a good look at the pool. The tiles made the water reflect a beautiful aquamarine which we hear is even more stunning at noon.
Quick Tip: Go between 11am-2pm for the best view.
A lot of our experience at the water castle was so amazing because we ran into a really friendly and warm volunteer local guide there, Albertos. He very enthusiastically took us through the various royal chambers, ruins, tunnels and even into his own home!
He even pointed out some huge avocados (bottom right) growing in the village among the houses built on the castle compound.
It was a real pleasure strolling through the neighbourhood and watching people go about their daily chores. Everyone was so open, welcoming and friendly and this lady doing her laundry even grinned widely and posed for a couple of photos as her elderly mother watched on.
Another interesting part of the tour was learning how the locals still engaged in making batik cloths and some wayang kulit puppets. As i mentioned in my post on The Things We Leave Behind, the dedication that the people had for their traditional craft and the pride they took in the legacy of their family’s work moved me.
Here are some of the natural dyes, wax and painting tools used to create traditional batik cloths. Albertos claims his family made sarongs for the current King and brandished an old photo of the old monarch in similar garment proudly to make his point.
After exploring the water castle, it was almost dusk and we strolled along the compound and large field outside Taman Sari only to run into this magical scene straight out of a fairytale.
Kraton Palace Compound
The sky was a stunning whimsical cotton candy pink and the previously empty field was now bustling with activity. Food vendors had set up there and the locals were tucking into their dinners seated on the grass, watching their kids chase balloons and bubbles while others hopped onto one of these LED vehicles that could seat a whole family and moved like a bicycle would with foot pedals.
Absolutely fascinating. Here’s a shot of a T-Rex lumbering into the golden sunset. Haha!
With the reflection of the traffic lights on the old palace walls and the now purplish pink sky at dusk, this was one of the most spectacular, mesmerising sunsets i’ve ever witnessed. And it came by complete accident. Isn’t that one of the most amazing things about travel?
Gumuk Pasir Parangtritis Sand Dunes
In the days that followed, we wanted a break from the city and went in search of some sun, sand and sea. We’d read that you could sand-board and explore some sand dunes that formed near the popular Parangtritis Beach and so rented a car and driver for the day (12 hours) for roughly SGD$80 to take us around the lesser-known beaches along the coast.
The sand dunes were honestly quite underwhelming and possibly much better at sunset instead of the scorching afternoon sun. But we still got some great pictures and found a giant cactus which I suspect they planted there as an afterthought to make it seem more desert-like. Nice try.
Roughly an hour and a half away from the city centre was Krakal Beach. We were literally the only travellers there, I kid you not. Big thanks to a great tip from our hotel concierge who recommended we avoid the crowded and tourist-y Parantritis Beach in favour of this quieter heaven of blue water and clear skies.
The waves were huge and from afar we could see some bodyboarders try to catch 2m high waves while along the shore, children would hunt for little fish by the rocks and play make sandcastles.
There was even a small playground with a train ride and a small pool for a fishing game that involved plastic fish and magnets for the young children. I thought it was really charming.
We just ordered an ice-cold coconut and spent the afternoon swimming and reading on the beach. We also stopped by Sadranan Beach just 5 minutes away for lunch where there were more snorkelling activities and many operators renting out snorkel gear and life jackets.
Keeping in mind Jogja is a predominantly Muslim country and this was very much a local haunt, we left snorkelling for another day since i would have had to snorkel in my t-shirt and long pants. Heh.
NYE Countdown with Lanterns at Hyatt Regency Yogyakarta
A big highlight of the trip for us is unfortunately something you might not get everytime you come down to Jogja. We celebrated New Years’ with a massive buffet dinner and the releasing of lanterns into the sky at the stroke of midnight in the sprawling golf course at the Hyatt Regency Yogyakarta.
This was a memorable experience for me and it was so heartwarming being immersed in an atmosphere that was so full of hope, excitement and promise for the new year.
But enough about the attractions, you must be hungry so let’s get right down to the food.
Meals are generally inexpensive in Jogja. Most of it consists of rice with mixed ingredients like deep fried/grilled chicken, fish and various spicy gravies, sambals and curries. There was also an abundance of Soto Ayam, Mie Bakso and other soup and noodle stalls. But when it comes to food, here are our favourite eats there.
Waroeng SS (Spesial Sambal)
We enjoyed a huge spread and feast of grilled chicken, sambal prawns, deep fried fish, squid, assam soup, fluffy white rice and all this drizzled with the to-die-for kicap manis (sweet sauce) that they mixed with chopped garlic onions and some killer sambal. The chicken thigh was excellent, as was the sambal.
I couldn’t feel my mouth after but it was so worth it. The best part? The whole meal of 7-8 dishes cost us a grand total of SGD$6. Mindblown.
After three days straight of eating mixed rice, grilled meats and copious amounts of kicap, we decided to take a day off and tried one of the highest-rated restaurants on TripAdvisor, Mediterranea by Kamil for some Western food.
To be honest, we didn’t really think the food was all that fantastic, but we still really appreciated the change in flavours and also the comfortable, laidback ambience. Maybe order the grilled chicken if you go down. It seemed to be a big hit with the patrons.
Knowing I am a huge fan of Mie Bakso or beefball noodle soup, Sean did some research and came across this popular noodle stall near our hotel. It was air-conditioned, clean and while it took roughly 30-minutes for our noodles to arrive, it was worth every minute of waiting. After all, from our table, we could see the boss preparing each bowl, one at a time, with care and close attention. And it definitely shows up in how it tastes.
The beef balls were fresh, firm and succulent and it also came with deep fried chicken balls, boiled shrimp dumplings and tahu goreng with minced meat. All the ingredients were very fresh and not synthetic like many beef and chicken balls tend to be. The broth was flavourful, salty and when combined with the chili on the side, was a belly-warming bowl of comforting awesome.
Yogyakarta is definitely for you if you’re sick of the repetitive tourist-y trips to Bali and want to experience one of the most beautiful ancient temples in the world. The people are wonderfully friendly, polite and very helpful and we loved how much slower life seemed here compared to Jakarta. The beaches are truly hidden gems that i hope will never be exploited and marketed to the outside world. Come with an open heart and mind and Jogja might just surprise and move you in ways you can’t imagine.