Yogyakarta - The Cultural Heart of Indonesia


Some people have asked about other places in Indonesia that are worth exploring. Yogyakarta, in Central Java is well worth a visit. It is regarded as the cultural heart of Indonesia. It is a beautiful city with friendly and beautiful people and a culture so different to Balinese culture, that you will find it pleasantly surprising.

Peacefully cradled at the foot of the Menoreh Mountains in Central Java is the city of Yogyakarta. Often referred to as the biggest village in the world, it is the cultural heart of Java’ a culture that spans many centuries. A population of over one million people live in Yogyakarta from a total of four million spread throughout the province. Yogyakarta has the status of a 'special area' and one of only three in Indonesia - Daerah Istemewa Yogyakarta or the Special District of Yogyakarta. It has its own Government and is responsible directly to the Government in Jakarta and not the Government of Central Java. At one time Yogyakarta was the capital of Indonesia and also the base for the revolutionary forces against the Dutch during their occupation of Indonesia. Located some sixty kilometres from the ocean, Yogya is surrounded by the Menoreh mountain range and shadowed by the volatile volcano Mount Merapi. Yogyakarta is a place that has not only the beauty in its architecture but also in its people and culture.

Yogyakarta or Yogya as it affectionately called by the residents, is a one-hour flight from Jakarta and a scenic ninety-minute flight from the neighbouring island of Bali. For me, Yogya was home six months of the year and had been for the last ten years - Yogya captured my heart and never released it. It is a city that possesses so much more than the major tourist attractions of Borobudur, Prambanan temple complex and the Sultan’s Palace. Apart from the backpackers, the tourists in general only stay in Yogya for three days to see the sights mentioned and then return to Bali or from where else they came. Yogya is a city that is 'alive' 24/7 and a city that if you 'look' instead of just seeing, and 'hear' instead of just listening, will captivate all your senses.

Yogya has also been called University city because of the numerous Universities accommodating students from not only all over Indonesia, but from overseas also. It is a city that oozes knowledge and culture. The heart of Yogya is Jalan Malioboro (Malioboro Road) so named after the Duke of Marlborough who visited the beautiful city. Malioboro is a two-kilometre long one-way street running North to South. It is along this stretch of road where the hub of Yogyanese trade is to be found. Street stalls line the street where vendors sell their wares and where bargaining is a must. Opposite these stalls are the established shops: Designer clothes, Batik, Antiques, and many more. It is the Malioboro Mall centrally located on Maliboro that gives comfort from the heat of the day and also a shopper's delight. The air-conditioned Mall has numerous facilities ranging from cafes, eateries, shops of every nature, and even a supermarket on the lower ground floor!. There is another newer Mall, the Ramai, not far from Malioboro Mall and is equally impressive but less frequented.

Whenever I return home to Yogya, there is always some place new to explore, to 'feel' and to experience. The city has a way of becoming a part of you as you amble along Malioboro. Along this stretch of road is also situated the Parliament building, the Governor’s Office, and further along as Malioboro joins Jalan Ahmed Yani, is located the Beringharjo markets, the Presidential Palace and Fort Vredeburg - the stronghold of the Dutch during the occupation. There is always something happening in Yogya and this gives it its uniqueness among the cities of Indonesia. Culturally the city is entrancing. Every corner you turn reveals a delight. Often visitors will see a sign whose words symbolise the feelings of the people – 'Yogyakarta Berhati Nyaman', loosely translated means 'Yogyakarta warms the heart pleasingly and comfortably'.

Yogyakarta is a pure delight for food lovers. Restaurants abound and cater for all travellers. Chinese and Javanese food is predominate and Western food is available for the discerning less adventurous traveller. Along the streets, food stalls serve the tasteful delights of the archipelago. The city is famous for its Lesehan food. Late afternoon, crudely constructed open front tents are erected and by nightfall, the tempting odours of spicy fresh chicken and fish waft through the air. Such delights as Nasi Gudeg - Jackfruit cooked in coconut milk and served with boiled rice and chicken, and Burung Darah - pigeon cooked to your liking and highly spiced. Usually around 9pm when the shops generally close and the street vendors cover their stalls for the night, straw mats are laid out on the pavement where small tables are placed for the customers to sit and eat the delights of their choice. These places are great to acquaint yourself with the friendly locals and be entertained by the wandering minstrels who walk from place to place. The eating and the conversation goes on into the early hours of the morning.

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It is the Arts and Drama steeped in Javanese culture that is the essence of Yogyakarta. Drama that is played out in the Ramayana Ballet with a backdrop of the Hindu complex of Prambanan, the intricate spell-binding traditional court dances of the Kraton, and the street theatre performed by the students of the Institute of Arts (ISI). At least once a week in Yogya there is a Wayang Kulit performance accompanied by a Gamelan orchestra. The Dalang master, performing the whole play himself, the language spoken, ancient Javanese. In Yogyakarta there are numerous art galleries, the majority displaying local works of art. But it is the mystical haunting music of the Gamelan that is the heart of ancient classical dance and drama. The Gamelan orchestra (of which there are many in Yogya) accompanies all ceremonies, festivals and is the focal part of traditional events.

Yogyakarta is an experience. The city evokes peacefulness,, a serenity and a happiness that lingers in your mind long after you have departed. The warmth and friendliness of its people create a joyous harmony as they welcome all travellers. Yogyakarta is the centre of the Indonesian universe - the core of its culture and its history.

GETTING AROUND: Becaks or bicycle trishaw are the most popular form of transport but bargain the price before you set off on your journey. Andong (horse drawn carriages) are also an enjoyable way of seeing Yogya. The bus system is excellent. Taxis are not so cheap and again bargaining is required. Motor bikes and bicycles can be hired from various outlets. But I have found walking to be the best way to get around - you don’t miss anything!.

ACCOMMODATION: Losmens abound from the dirt cheap to reasonably priced. The main areas for these are in the centre of town on the side streets off Malioboro in Jalan Sosrowijayan and Jalan Pasar Kembang. For the less adventurous traveler, hotels are plenty ranging from 3 star to 5 star. The latter being further out of town. However in the centre of town on Jalan Malioboro is located the Mutiara Hotel. Reasonably priced and although a 3 star hotel, it has 5 star service and ambience.

FOOD: In the Malioboro Mall on the top level is a food hall serving all the tastes of Indonesia from 21 outlets. Clean and reasonably priced. Along Malioboro there are numerous restaurants. - Doremei which serves delicious noodle dishes, Soto Tasik for spicy soups and the Prambanan Restaurant which serves tasty Sumatran Nasi Padang as does Andalas. But for the real tastes of Yogyakarta, the street stalls and the Lesehan tents are superb and clean.

PLACES TO VISIT: The Kraton or Sultan’s Palace, the Borobudur Archaeological Park, the Prambanan Temple Complex and the Water Palace or Tamin Sari are a must. Not far from there is Pasar Ngasem or bird market - best viewed with an open mind!. The newly renovated Sonobudoyo Museum houses ancient Javanese artifacts and Batik, and near there, the Mesjid Agung - the Grand Mosque. In Yogyakarta there are several museums all relating to the history and culture of Yogyakarta and Java itself. There is a smaller Kraton in Yogya called Paku Alaman that is well worth a visit.
The friendly and helpful staff at theT.I.O (Tourist Information Office) can assist any traveller regarding the sights and events in Yogyakarta and surroundings. It also house a small telephone exchange open 24/7.

FESTIVALS: Sekaten and Gareb Maulud are the two biggest festivals and centred around the Kraton and the Grand Mosque. The offering ceremony of Labuhan at Parangtritis is a must see. Waicak - commemorating the birth, death and ascension of Bhudda - is a magnificent candle-lit procession from Candi Mendut and Candi Pawon to Borobudur. All year round, there are festivals occurring in nearby villages and in Yogya itself. For dates and times of the festivals, visit the T.I.O.

BEWARE. There are pickpockets in Yogya as in most cities in the world. At the T.I.O, there is the Tourist Police who will assist you with any trouble you might find yourself in.
Demonstrations are an almost daily occurrence. However, in Yogyakarta they are always peaceful. Even during the past political events in Indonesia, Yogyakarta has always been a safe place. The students demonstrate, and then return to their respective Universities after expressing their point of view. It is a well-known fact that in the light of recent political events in the past ten years- Yogyakarta has always been a safe place. The people of Yogya pride themselves in this fact.