HEART OF JAVA FOR A CLASSIC JAVANESE EXPERIENCE, SIMPLY ADD JOGJA.
BY NATASHA DRAGUN. PHOTOGRAPHY BY TIMUR ANGIN
Bali may be the country’s resort isle, but when it comes to cultural attractions, Jogjakarta holds all the trumps. Dominated by rice fields and volcanic peaks, Jogja has a landscape as rich as its history. Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim empires made their mark here before the Dutch in the 17th century. Each left behind some of the archipelago’s most enduring monuments, attractions and traditions. Paired with a thriving arts scene, colorful streets, and fabulous food and coffee, Jogja offers a heady slice of classic Java.
Capital of Indonesia from 1946 until 1950, Jogja has long been regarded as the cradle of traditional Javanese culture. Today, the city seethes with a youthful energy, from eye-catching street art to hip galleries and museums, and stylish boutique hotels.
It is easy to get lost in its bustling streets, lined with colorful graffiti art. Kids play football by the roadside, while trishaw drivers sleep under overgrown trees. This is Jakarta as it might have been 20 years ago – vibrant and cosmopolitan one moment, sleepy and relaxed the next. Everywhere, living reminders of an ancient tradition dot the landscape.
The soul of the city is the central kraton, or Sultan’s palace, which is responsible for nurturing a thriving and traditional arts scene, including everything from batik and ballet to drama, music, poetry and puppet shows. The streets nearby house some of Jogja’s most talented artisans. Here, you can watch master craftsmen at work in their studios and showrooms – like living museums, these workshops offer exclusive insights into the history and practice of Jogja’s traditional arts.
Batik here is still made by hand – there are no printing presses or artificial dyes, and a single piece can take months to produce. Similarly, Jogja’s silversmiths craft items with skill and patience, the pieces often inspired by the city’s regal history. Buying a piece of locally made jewelry or some batik, wayang puppets, ceramics or sculptures can provide enduring souvenirs of this region’s rich artistic traditions.
While city life has its allures, it is hard not to get lost in the romance of Jogja’s history at the World Heritage-listed Prambanan – a series of majestic Hindu temples dating to the 10th century and just a 20 minute drive east of Jogja’s city center. Families picnic under overgrown bushes of blindingly pink bougainvillea, and school kids jostle for photo opportunities in front of the majestic stone buildings. If you time your visit right, your tour of the temple site can end at the park’s open-air theater, where ballet performances of the Ramayana (an ancient Hindu epic) take place on the full moon between May and October.
Slightly further afield, dozens of smaller temples dot the countryside, amid endless terraced rice fields and palm trees that grow under the shadows of the region’s volcanic peaks. Set over 2,000 square meters, the intricate Buddhist buildings, stupas, and shrines of Candi Plaosan are a prime example. Unlike Prambanan, visit these temples at any time of the day and you’re almost guaranteed a private reception. There’s something incredibly soul satisfying here: sitting in the shade of these 9th century monuments, enveloped by silence, knowing you may be one of the only people to admire them that day.
The region’s other World Heritage site is Borobudur, which is some 40 kilometers outside of Jogjakarta. Indonesia’s single most visited site and the world’s largest Buddhist monument, Borobudur enjoys a surreal setting atop a small plateau, surrounded by jungle and flanked by a pair of active volcanoes. The temple itself dates to the 9th century and comprises six square platforms topped by three circular platforms, each adorned with 2,672 intricate bas reliefs and more than 500 Buddha statues. Escape the crowds and visit at dawn – as the sun lifts the mist off the jungle, you’ll be guaranteed one of those “so this is what it means to be alive” moments.
In the vicinity, Mount Merapi has a glow of its own. Indonesia’s most active volcano, Merapi has erupted 68 times since 1548, but still manages to attract curious tourists to its lava lakes and sulfuric smoke. The slopes of the mountain are dotted with ancient Buddhist and Hindu shrines: the western slopes are particularly alluring thanks to the Sengi complex which dates back to the 8th century and is carved with dazzling motifs of climbing plants and flowers, reminiscent of the surrounding scenery.
An even more pleasant spot to enjoy the scenery is from the Rotunda Bar at Amanjiwo, a stunning 34-villa resort on the outskirts of Borobudur. Set among verdant rice terraces and palm trees overlooking jade-green paddy fields and the distant peaks of Merapi and Merbabu, the resort takes its design cues from the Buddhist monument it overlooks, with circular limestone buildings, soaring bell-shaped rotundas, and an amphitheatre-style pool. The suites themselves come with four-poster beds, terrazzo floors, and furniture that’s been hand carved from coconut wood. All rooms have a private garden terrace and some feature individual plunge pools. Staying here, you’ll begin to understand what it might be like to be Javanese royalty.
Like many wellness centers in central Java, treatments in Jogja’s spas are inspired by ancient Javanese rituals. Here, jamu, or traditional Indonesian healing, is alive and well, and can be sampled in everything from herbal elixirs, said to cure migraines or hypertension, to body scrubs and wraps and traditional Javanese massage.
Jogja’s cuisine is also a complex collection of influences. Menus across town alternate between much-loved royal dishes, to traditional snacks. Jogja is particularly famous for its sweets. While bite-size snacks like kipo, or green-colored tapioca filled with coconut, make an obvious dessert, local dishes like gudeg, a curry of jackfruit, chicken and egg is more surprising, with its distinctive sugary overtones thanks to a generous dash of palm sugar.
No visit to Jogja would be complete without sampling the local freshwater fish, called gurame, which is similar in taste to barramundi and is farmed in lakes across Central Java. Then be sure to wash down your meal with a mug of strong, sweet Javanese coffee. Established by the Dutch in the 17th century, the coffee estates around Jogja produce both Arabica and Robusta coffee. Many still offer site tours, allowing you to purchase fresh beans, right at their source, and offering you the chance to take home another cup of classic Java, homegrown in Jogja.
Contacts Amanjiwo Borobudur, Magelang tel: (0)293 788 333 www.amanresorts.com
Batik Plenthong 54 Jln Tirtodipuran, Jogjakarta tel: (0)274 371912
Borobudur Silver Jln Raya Borobudur Km 2.4, Mungkid, Magelang tel: (0)293 789 322 www.borobudur-silver.com
Panorama Tours Jogja Ambarrukmo 377, tel: (0)274 488 663
Source: Mandala Air Inflight Magazine