Our trip to Indonesia really settled into a rhythm when we flew into Yogyakarta on our second day in the country. It’s just an hour or two away from Jakarta, on the southern coast of Central Java, but Yogya (pronounced Jog-ja) has a very different feel. Steve has developed a theory over our travels, that the second-largest and slightly lesser well-known city in each country, can usually be a much better value for your money. It’s usually less overwhelming, less populated, and cheaper, but often has much of the same amenities and conveniences. Think Kaohsiung instead of Taipei, Lyon instead of Paris, Split instead of Zagreb (although all of Croatia is convenient!), Osaka and not Tokyo, etc. etc. Yogya proved to be another point in favor of Steve’s second-city theory.
We took a local taxi service from the airport into town, just fifteen minutes to our Airbnb homestay. We had picked one close to the airport because we knew that our flight out would be very early in the morning (another recurring theme for this trip), and it proved to be amazing. Omah Garuda Homestay was very large, clean, and quiet, run by a family business. Tami, the receptionist, had an infectious smile and laugh, and welcomed us by name when we first came in. We first considered rushing off to have lunch downtown and seeing some of the historical sights in the city because they closed around 1 pm and 3 pm, but since we had three nights in the city, Steve and I called an audible, and decided to take a break.
We went next door for lunch to a surprisingly empty restaurant called RM Demangan with some absolutely delicious local Indonesian food. We got some nasi goreng (fried rice) and nasi kampang (chicken with rice), and eis teh (iced tea) with mint and lemon, respectively. We learned that afternoon that Indonesians (especially people in Yogya) like things sweet – the mint iced tea had about a centimeter of sugar buried on the bottom, which you’re supposed to stir up before drinking. The meal also came with crispy shrimp crackers, which are common in Chinese food as well, but not a favorite of Steve’s, and the spicy red salsa called sambal that is an accompaniment to pretty much every Indonesian dish. I loved it all! Just thinking about it makes me hungry at this point.
After lunch, we wandered around picking up some essentials (more contact lens solution, some juice and snacks, and fruit), and then came back to the homestay. One of the common areas was a garden in the back of the house, with two round tables and chairs, facing a small rectangular pool where many golden and black fishes swam. The back wall was covered in potted plants that provided a very lovely background. It was a wonderful place to sit and do watercolors for the afternoon (though the fish I painted were not all that great) and to do some reading and coding (Steve’s leisure activities aren’t all that different from his day job…). In the evening, we made our way out to the nearest mall plaza, which seems like a very common place for locals hang out. We certainly saw many young people enjoying Western and Indonesian food amid the deliciously cool air conditioning. We checked out the game arcade upstairs before visiting a nearby restaurant for some more local food, and then finally went back to our place for the evening.
Our second day in Yogyakarta started early. Since Steve and I had been getting up between 5 and 6 am every day in order to catch a plane, it was no hardship to rise before 7 am and walk around. In a hot and humid place like this, sunrise is an amazing time, to see the walls of local houses painted with golden delicate light, and to walk around without your shirt sticking to your skin instantly. We savored the quiet and the relative cool air, checking out a morning market nearby, before coming back to have some breakfast. We were definitely the first people to eat breakfast around 8 am, and then called a Grab (the equivalent of Uber in Indonesia) car to bring us downtown to Yogyakarta’s historical sites.
Our first stop was the Kraton, the palace of the Sultan of Yogyakarta. Backtracking to the history of the country, after Indonesia was liberated from the Dutch, it was attacked again during World War II. To save the capital, the Sultan of Yogyakarta allowed the government to take refuge there when Jakarta was endangered, and as a show of gratitude, the city is under a special administrative region. For a long time, there was no democratically elected leader – the city still has a Sultan, the 11th of his line, which rules. As of late, the democratically elected leader is still the Sultan, who is enormously popular. His palace complex was more interesting historically than an ornate building to gawk at. If you’re comparing something like this to Versailles or Schönbrunn, you’ll probably be disappointed. But we did get a guide who was able to give us some of the finer details. Our guide claimed to be a resident of the complex, a musician who has taught gamelan (Indonesian drums) music for decades. We had no reason not to believe him, but he did bring us to a tourist scam selling batik after the tour, so anyway… what he did share about the history of the place was fascinating. The Sultan’s Palace was made up of some large courtyards which did not look incredibly ornate but were brightly painted and sparsely decorated. He showed us the pillars of some of these courtyards, pointing out its reference to the three biggest religions of Indonesia (the lotus representing Buddhism, the elephant’s foot in reference to Hinduism, and the shade of dark green which represents Islam). He pointed out several courtyards only used for coronation purposes, or other traditional purposes. Two ostentatiously polished Western cars sat nearby, and apparently, one was a Cadillac presented by Nixon to the 10th Sultan, who was at the time acting as the Vice-President of Indonesia. Who knew?! We also learned that two chickens are always stationed outside Indonesian houses (here in elaborate cages) because they ward away evil spirits and bad luck. Pretty fascinating.
Afterwards, we walked over to the Taman Sari, stopping for some breakfast on the way. The Taman Sari is also known as the Water Castle, a small complex of gardens and pools, which were originally built for the pleasure of the Sultan and his harem of concubines. Today, it’s a place beloved by people for Instagramming purposes, and was indeed very beautiful, with white plastered buildings with softly worn decorative details. There were four or five large aquamarine pools, one where some families were standing on steps descending into the pool, and enjoying dipping their toes into the waters where the Sultan once did the same. After exploring the complex, we ended up going back to the homestay, mostly conquered by the heat and the exhaustion of getting around the city. We contemplated some other destinations in the afternoon, but ended up just getting lunch at a local place. After a nap, we ended up at the same mall about fifteen minutes away, and spent the afternoon shopping for batik clothing. While Steve ended up with a shirt, I didn’t really see anything that spoke to me, sadly! On the way there, we did encounter something quite alarming. It was May 1, and May Day is better known as Labor Day in the greater world beyond the US. There ended up being a demonstration on the streets where some protesters were burning things and had blocked a rather large road. We found out later that they were protesting against the economic development agenda that the current political administration were pushing, which included a new international airport for the Yogyakarta area. Why wasn’t very clear, but maybe it was something regarding eminent domain and land seizures? It was a jarring incident, and Steve and I ended up just walking by while the attention was on some police who were trying to negotiate with the demonstrators.
We wrapped up the evening at a local bar, which was one of the only places where we found alcohol for sale. It’s really quite difficult to find alcohol in Muslim-majority areas; even the supermarkets had nothing for sale (and the local marts certainly didn’t either). We ended up at Cubic Bar, which was definitely trying to cater to the upscale clientele. We ended up getting some dinner there as well as a lemongrass mojito for me and a Bintang beer for Steve. Rumor says that Bintang, the national beer in Indonesia, which also has a red star on the label, is simply made in the same plants that Heineken used to be produced when the Dutch ruled here. So, just cheaper Heineken! Despite the fact that sitting in the smoking section meant our clothes needed to be washed, we decided it was a pretty decent time.