Temples, Lava & Gangs: This is Jogja!
As well as having a really cool name, Yogyakarta has much to wow even the most unimpressionable traveller. Vast ancient temples and ridiculously active volcanoes surround this friendly city which lies in the heart of Java, Indonesia’s most populous island. It’s easy to reach with good plane, train and bus links to the rest of this vast country and nicely breaks up the popular but long journey from Jakarta onwards to Eastern Java and Bali.
Jogja (as it is affectionately known) may be first and foremost a base for exploring the surrounding area but it is also one of Indonesia’s most culturally and intellectually significant cities. It is also one of the oldest in the country and has various monuments and palaces from bygone eras that remain in good condition. The main attraction in town is the giant Kraton Complex, which includes the plush palace of a bloke known as Sri Sultan Hamengkubuwono X. There are various other Islamic sights and a few remnants of the colonial period when the Dutch ruled in Java. There are also many impressive art exhibitions and galleries that are worth a visit but they do sometimes try to pressure you into purchasing their items.
There are two popular temple trips that you can do from Jogja. The enormous Borobudur temple (left) is the largest Buddhist monument in the world and probably the most visited sight in Indonesia. Further east are the equally impressive Hindu temples of Prambanan. There is also an open-air theatre inside the park with regular Javanese dance performances.
You can either leave at dawn or in the afternoon on organised trips or find your own way to the temples. The dawn trips may involve getting up ridiculously early but you’ll beat the crowds and the heat and will also see the temples at their most spectacular as the early morning mist rises. If you’re pushed for time it is possible to take a trip that includes both temple sites on the same day.
Be warned there is a somewhat extortionate extra $20 US fee for foreigners at Borobudur and $18 US at Prambanan that isn’t included in any tickets you buy in Jogja. You are also likely to be asked for photos with dozens of friendly if a little bit persistent Indonesian teenagers and children!
One of the highlights of backpacking in Indonesia is the chance to get up close and personal with some of the world’s most violent volcanoes. While not everyone will agree with this sentiment (in case you hadn’t heard, they can be a bit dangerous), this is simply the best place in the world to witness a bit of volcanic activity.
There are several active volcanoes in the region but the most spectacular has to be Mount Merapi which can be viewed from the town on Kaliurang on its southern slope or Ketep, a pass that dissects the mountain and it’s near neighbour Mount Merbabu. Merapi erupted as recently as 2010 killing over 300 people and lava is almost constantly flowing down its slopes. It is possible to climb the mountain yourself but it’s safer to take the organised night-time trip from Jogja when the lava is most visible.
Yogyakarta’s backpacker area is conveniently located by the main train station and is just off the city’s main boulevard, Malioboro Street. The going rate for a cheap room here is around Rp100,000 and most of the accommodation is located off Jalan Sastrowijayan on two gangs (sidestreets & very safe) that run off it. They are imaginatively named Gang I and Gang II.
There are various travel agencies on Sastrowijayan that all pretty much offer the same trips at the same price. Many of the guesthouses will also be able to hook you up with the temple/volcano trips. There’s also no shortage of pesky trishaw and moto-taxi drivers who congregate at the entrances to the gangs and will happily transport you anywhere around town. Agree a price before setting off! Another option is to rent a scooter which can work out cheaper than taking any of the organised trips.
There are a few decent bars and restaurants along Sastrowijayan, some of which offer really good live music but it’s not really a place for wild partying with many travellers setting off before sunrise on trips to the surrounding areas. It is however a biggish city so you can head off to other areas of town if you want to extend your night beyond midnight.
You can find up-to-date info and loads more things to do in and around Yogyakarta on Yogya Backpacker.
This article was published in January 2013.