By Mike Smith
[Mike Smith went in search of culture and spice in Central Java and found both.]
Central Java has a mystical landscape of active volcanoes, rice fields and sugar cane plantations as well as an abundance of enchanting, ancient temples. It boasts a rich culture with a long history of arts, music and theatre. Other attractions include local handicrafts, spicy food and shopping.
Yogyakarta, Central Java’s crown jewel, has much to offer and is easily reached from Singapore. The bustling city of 3.5 million people has old palaces, shopping, culture and culinary delights. The vast and beautiful Borobudur and Prambanan temples are world class man made monuments.
Shop till you drop on Malioboro Street
Jalan Malioboro is Yogyakarta’s main street and is the best place to shop, especially in the evening when the night market is on. I browsed the wide selection of local goods such as batik, puppets, bamboo, silver and leather goods plus the more common tee shirts, dolls, hats and key rings and of course parted with my tourist dollar!
Snacking on the kueh desserts and drinking sugar cane juice I thoroughly enjoyed my diversion into Beringharjo Market with its dried fish, assorted chillies, prawn crackers and every imaginable fruit and vegetable.
Mix with royalty at Sultan Kraton
At the southern end of Jalan Malioboro is the Sultan Palace. Built in the late 18th century it is the family home of the Sultan of Yogyakarta.
The shadow puppets performance and soothing gamelan music enticed me to stay longer than I had planned. Low rise pavilions, royal carriages, batik collection and family trees gave additional charm to the place.
Take a dip at Taman Sari
Exiting the Sultan’s Kraton I ambled to the adjacent Taman Sari water castle, stopping en route to view impressive batik and oil paintings in small studios. The late 17th Century rest house for the sultan has recently been restored and is now worth a visit. I kept cool by dipping my toes in the pool and taking advantage of the shade in the underground tunnels.
Inspired by Prambanan
Set in pleasant grounds some 20 km from Yogyakarta The Prambanan Temple Group was also built in the 9th century and is the largest Hindu complex in Indonesia. The 3 main tall, pointed temples are dedicated to the Hindu gods Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu.
They are flanked by smaller temples and a wide area of ruins. Although damaged by an earthquake in 2006 most of the area is still accessible for visitors as repairs continue. The reliefs on the temples depict the Ramayana legend. I preferred the views from the far side of the complex looking back towards the main entrance.
Black beauty – Parangtritis Beach
Beaches are like magnets to me so I headed for Parangtritis some 45 minutes away by motorbike. Parangtritis is not exactly Bali but it is interesting in its own way. The “sand” is black from volcanic ash and high waves and steep hills dominate the view.
My transport was a gentle horse and cart ride but others galloped along the beach on horseback.
A little further up the coast at Parangkusumo is a great seafood market. What made it special was that the stall holders had teamed up with entrepreneurs to cook what you buy and serve you picnic style on the beach. The chilli crab, steamed prawns and bbq squid were superb!
Step up to Borobudur
The largest Buddhist stupa in the world is at Borobudur 40 km northwest of Yogyakarta.
Built from stone in the 9th Century it was damaged by earthquakes and buried by volcanic eruptions from Mount Merapi. It was rediscovered during the rule of Sir Stamford Raffles and fully restored some 30 years ago.
The impressive monument consists of 9 terrace levels including three circular levels containing small stupas surrounding a larger one at the top. It contains over 500 Buddha statues and more than 2500 carved reliefs on 3000 meters of wall telling the story of Buddha and his life.
Borobudur gets the majority of visitors to Yogyakarta and can be busy but if you stay at the Manohara Resort, which is in the temple grounds, it is easy to avoid the crowds.
I was up by 5:30am. Wearing my compulsory sarong and following the guide with his torchlight I climbed to my choice spot, set up my tripod and waited for sunrise.
On my way back to the resort for a full buffet breakfast I had lovely views of the “Great Sanctuary” and was amazed to see a man scamper up a palm tree like a monkey to collect its syrup in a bamboo container. It tasted good too!
Going potty and oodles of noodles
To see daily life I highly recommend exploring the cottage industries and superb countryside located a few minutes drive from Borobudur.
I got a map from the hotel, hired an Ojek motorbike taxi and set off on the narrow winding roads.
My first stop appeared to be a small country house but in the backyard mum was working clay on a spinning wheel and family members fired basic earthenware plates and pots in straw and charcoal kilns. We happily chatted in my broken bahasa as I took photos and bought a souvenir vase.
At the next village a family boiled starch, from what I think was some kind of palm tree, in water to extract a type of dough.
It was then transported to a small factory where the dough was converted into goo and forced through an extruder before being laid on racks to dry in the sun to form the familiar very thin glass noodles which were rolled into “nests” before packaging.
Semarang and Ambarawa
I had time to spare so returned to Singapore from Semarang the capital of Central Java via Ambarawa.
Let off Steam at Ambarawa Rail Museum
For something completely different the Ambarawa Rail Museum will keep the train buff enthralled for hours with its large collection of steam engines. The hour-long train journey on an old train is very popular because of its great views over swamp lands, rice fields, fish farms and always the mysterious, powerful volcanoes in distance.
Ride back in time to Gedung Songo
Not far from Ambarawa you can combine spectacular landscapes, a horse ride and history at Gedung Songo.
OK – I confess I didn’t like the horse ride as I felt very insecure being led up and down the steep-sloping tracks!
Everyone else did though and it was the only practical way to see this small but beautiful group of 8th Century Hindu origin temples located at 900 meters above sea level on Mount Ungaran.
Fly home from Semarang
Preserved buildings and huge, colourful graffiti “artworks” are found in the older parts of Semarang.
The Grand Mosque, with its giant umbrellas to keep the faithful cool during prayers was very impressive and Sam Poo Kong Temple was worth a visit.
However, the newer and surrounding areas offering amenities such as top class spas, golf courses and hotels with meeting and conference facilities are the main attractions.
After a visit to expo at the newly restored Lawang Sewu it was back to Singapore.
I had enjoyed my trip to Central Java and look forward to exploring the cool mountains on Dieng Plateau, the erotic temples near Solo and to catching a carnival next visit.
Grand Quality Hotel
Email – email@example.com
Tel +62 274485005
Tel +62 293 788680
Hotel Santika Premiere
Tel +62 24 8413115
Garuda International flies from Singapore to Yogyakarta and Semarang via Jakarta on a daily basis. Budget airlines fly direct but not on a daily basis.
Mike Smith is a freelance photographer-writer & permanent resident of Singapore. Born in the UK, he left in 1986 on a two-year contract with a chemical company & just never made the move back. You can see more of his photographs at AsiaPhotoStock.com.