Yogyakarta, also called Jogjakarta, Yogya and Jogja, is located in the middle of the island of Java and is known for its classical art and culture. Yogya lies in an area susceptible to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions; 6,000 people were killed by an earthquake as recently as 2006 and 350 died when a nearby volcano erupted in 2010.
Yogyakarta is the second most visited tourist destination in Indonesia after Bali. Most travellers use it as a base for visiting two nearby temples that were built by powerful empires: Borobudur, a great Buddhist monument, and Prambanan, a large Hindu complex. Both temples are UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Many women in Java wear a hijab, the Muslim scarf, which is seldom seen in Bali since most people in Bali are Hindu. Bali is atypical, however, for Indonesia is largely a Muslim country although five religions are protected. Several terrorist attacks have been instigated by Muslim extremists from Java including one that took place 10 years ago in Bali that killed more than 200 people from 23 countries. Balinese still talk about the severe damage the bombings had on the economy there and the long recovery. Recently, the Islamic Defenders Front threatened “chaos” if a concert by American singer Lady Gaga was allowed to go ahead in the capital Jakarta, also on Java.
Yogyakarta is quite unlike Bali in other ways too. I did not see a rickshaw in Bali but these vehicles line the streets of Yogya. Unlike most tuk-tuks that I took in other parts of Southeast Asia, these ones are propelled by muscle power and not by motor. No taxis were evident other than at the airport and the only other transportation choice besides rickshaws that I could find was horse-drawn carriage.
I also found the city to have a somewhat unkempt appearance, which was perhaps accentuated by walls covered with graffiti.
But Java and indeed Indonesia is a country that has come through 300 years of Dutch rule and half a century of dictatorship to become one of Asia’s fastest-growing economies and the third largest democracy in the world after India and the United States. Its president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, “enjoys international respect as the moderate, successful leader of a moderate, successful, democratic country of 240 million, most of whom happen to be Muslim,” according to a 2012 article in The Economist. And although many of the rickshaw drivers in Yogya seem underemployed and while reportedly 32.5 million of the country’s people still live below the poverty line, “most Indonesians no longer wake up hoping they can simply make it through the day”.
Yogyakarta itself is one of the oldest cities in the country with many heritage buildings. The top attraction is the Sultan’s palace Kraton Ngayogyakarta and I spent an enjoyable afternoon there listening to gamelan music in one of its pavilions and watching a traditional dance performance. At other times there are shadow-puppet shows. The Yogya Academy of Fine Arts has long been a training ground for many of the country’s artists, some of whom have developed international reputations as painters, sculptors, traditional dancers, musicians, and theatre artists.
The city has a well-developed tourism infrastructure and I splurged a little and stayed at a hotel with a great swimming pool and ate several meals at the very popular Via Via café. If you’re into shopping, this is where you’ll find some of the country’s best batiks and works of art.
So while this destination is unlike Bali, it is a contender. It just takes a little more effort to realize its charms.
By Sylvia Fanjoy
Photo credits Sylvia Fanjoy
© Riding the buses 2012