Yogyakarta, the Javanese City That Still Feels Like A Secret
Yogyakarta was the breath of fresh air and the change in scenery that I didn’t know I needed until we got there. The reasons I became beguiled by Yogyakarta are the reasons why you need to get to this intriguing Javanese city soon.
Yogyakarta is both the name of this laidback city and the lush region surrounding it in southern central Java, the fifth largest Indonesian island – the world’s largest archipelago with 13,466 tropical islands – and the thirteenth largest island in the world.
With only 500,000 people, Yogyakarta’s population is tiny compared to Java’s whopping 141 million (Indonesia’s population is 215 million!), which makes it the planet’s most populous island. Then there’s the capital, Jakarta, in the west of Java, which is home to some 11 million people.
Without the density of people and the freneticism that comes with that, Yogyakarta’s size and slow pace were a big part of its allure.
Yogyakarta is also home to some beautiful accommodation, from grand colonial hotels to boutique places with heritage and soul, located in laidback villages and leafy suburbs.
Here’s what else we found so appealing.
Yogyakarta, the Javanese City That Still Feels Like A Secret
I can’t recall at what point I became a bit beguiled by Yogyakarta. While I loved our first morning exploring the temple of Prambanan and our drive up Mount Merapi was lovely, once back in Yogyakarta – called ‘Yogya’ and pronounced ‘Jogja’ by the locals – things began to go downhill.
The first hotel we checked into was disappointing, the neighbourhood turned out to be tourist central, and while it was still early when we went out to forage for food, the streets were deserted, it was impossible to find anything Indonesian, and most of the eateries were empty. We stumbled upon a mini-mart and munched on potato crisps for dinner.
Our local guide, Charlotte, suggested we visit Prawirotaman market before she met us the next morning. Low-rise and local, with orange breeze blocks for walls, grimy cream tiled floors and a corrugated tin roof, the petite bazaar was crammed with rickety wooden stalls laden with flat bamboo baskets of fresh shiny produce.
There were pyramids of furry coconuts cut open to reveal their milky-white insides, mountains of perfectly formed purple shallots, piles of polished red and yellow chilies, bunches of giant green leeks that looked like they’d just been plucked from the earth, and ripe pineapples that emitted all sorts of sweet scents.
There were stalls with baskets of coconut-wood spoons, buckets of vintage utensils, and shelves upon shelves of granite mortars and pestles, earthenware pots, and old urns and jugs that looked like the ancient vessels etched into the temple walls.
Then I saw an antique wooden food cart, coated in dirt, a grubby canvas blind pulled down to conceal dusty shelves that once would have transported steaming pots of soups and noodles around the streets of Prawirotaman. I wished I could take it home.
And then I spied another, its jade paint cracked and peeling, ‘soto daging sapi’ advertised in faded yellow lettering on its glass window, white rose-patterned bowls stacked within, and a wonky white table in front to welcome customers.
As we left to return to the hotel, I spotted my first becak (pronounced beh-chak). A local woman, arms weighed down with shopping bags, elegantly settled onto the little vinyl cushion of this most charming of traditional, three-wheeled forms of pedal-powered transport I’d ever seen.
The next day we saw a long line of them outside the main market of Pasar Beringharjo. They were similar to the old trishaws in Phnom Penh yet they were more colourful, curvier and cuter. There were vinyl hoods to shade passengers and smaller wheels with hubs decorated with vibrant naïve paintings of local attractions like Mount Merapi, the volcanic mountain that overlooks Yogyakarta. They were very cool. Terence never got tired of photographing them.
Perhaps it was because we had arrived in Yogyakarta direct from Bali that the differences between the two places were so dramatic. The first thing I had noticed was how the traffic flowed so freely – there wasn’t the gridlock that seemed to grind many of our Bali journeys to a halt. And Bali’s modern taxis couldn’t match the romance of the delightful trishaws, as impractical as they were for all but the smallest Javanese.
Whereas the streets of Bali’s Seminyak, where we’d spent much of our time, were full of foreigner visitors, Yogyakarta was refreshingly busy with Indonesian tourists. And they all seemed delighted to have us there. Unlike Bali, where the locals who deal with tourists can sometimes seem (justifiably) jaded, in Yogyakarta foreign travellers still appeared to be something of a novelty.
At Prambanan, one of Yogyakarta’s main attractions – the other is Borobudur – which was crowded with domestic tourists, we were continually stopped by groups of students. From as young as primary school up to university age, the kids were eager to practice their English (one adorable group of littlies even sang me a song!), while Indonesian families and groups of friends wanted to take their picture with us.
It was the kind of local travel experience that we’ve long appreciated – experiencing sights that local tourists love in contrast to the attractions that lure foreign travellers. They’re often very different to each other and the former can reveal as much about the local people as exploring the backstreets of neighbourhoods can.
Whereas Seminyak, Canggu and Ubud felt so global, with their fashion boutiques filled with spangly kaftans and beaded Roman sandals, swanky European restaurants, buzzing beach bars, and boisterous Mexican cantinas, Yogyakarta felt distinctly Indonesian and I just loved it.
Malioboro, Yogyakarta’s main shopping street was lined with shops selling batik, Indonesian food was blissfully all there seemed to be to eat, and there were very few bars that we could see outside the tourist zone. (Okay, so that was our only complaint.)
Yogyakarta, of course, like the rest of the Indonesia, is predominantly Muslim. Bali is alone in being a Hindu island. And that partly explains why we weren’t seeing half-naked travellers walking the streets with beer bottles in their hands. (We were also far from the beach.)
But it was that respect for others, the rich culture and long history that would reveal itself during our stay, and the maintenance of old-fashioned traditions such as trishaw travel that were so charming. Wait until I tell you about the temples and countryside.
For the duration of our visit, we would only see about two dozen foreign tourists. Bereft of travellers, Yogyakarta still felt like a secret. There’s a reason I’ve waited some months to tell you about it. Now that I’ve shared, you must get there.
Heading to Yogyakarta soon? See our very selective Yogyakarta hotel recommendations.
This post is part of a series from Indonesia. Our trip was supported by Skyscanner, which provided flights, some accommodation and some transport. Reflections, opinions and recommendations are obviously our own.