Yogyakarta, the Soul of Indonesia

Enjoying the magic light of sunrise at the temple of Borobudur. Claudia Tavani photos.
Enjoying the magic light of sunrise at the temple of Borobudur. Claudia Tavani photos.

Yogyakarta Proves There is More to Indonesia than Bali

By Claudia Tavani

“That is so cool, you’re going to Bali!” my friend said when I announced I would travel soon.

“Not just Bali. I am going to Indonesia,” I specified, much to his amusement and disbelief.“What for?!” he asked.

The sun makes its appearance on the horizon in Borobudur in Yogyakarta.
The sun makes its appearance on the horizon in Borobudur in Yogyakarta.

Oh well, I would find out soon enough, I thought. A country as big as Indonesia was bound to have something more to offer to its visitors other than Bali, I figured.

Don’t get me wrong, Bali is great and I would learn that soon enough — although I don’t surf (yes, you did read me right!) I found plenty of things to keep me entertained there.

I never thought it would end up this way, but Yogyakarta really was the highlight of my trip to Indonesia.

“But you don’t like cities, Claudia!” objected my friend when I mentioned this, once back.

Smiles abound in the friendly city of Yogyakarta.
Smiles abound in the friendly city of Yogyakarta.

Come to think of it, I really don’t enjoy cities so much when I travel and after 2 days exploring, everything looks the same to me: “It is just all concrete” is my typical justification for wanting to escape a city.

“What can I say? There’s bound to be an exception to the rule, and Yogyakarta is one of these cases!” I told my friend, who was as much in disbelief as I was.

One of the things I enjoy the most when I travel is learning about the history, traditions and cultures of the country I am visiting. And Yogyakarta is a great place to do that.

The Soul of Indonesia

Considered the soul of Indonesia and its cultural and artistic centre, I found Yogyakarta to be a lively and fun city.

It’s an incredible mix of modern life – imagine traffic jams, scooters zipping through traffic, fast food chains and trendy restaurants – and the highest expression of millenary cultures such as the production of batik, ancient rituals and traditional music.

Not to mention, Yogyakarta was the perfect starting point to explore the nearby temples of Prambaban and Borobudur.

Yet, what really made me fall for Yogyakarta is its incredible atmosphere. People there are kind, friendly beyond imagination, and always smiling. Not only they would say it was ok to take pictures of them, but they would pose, smile and then demand that I also posed for a picture with their smart phone.

It was quite simple: Yogyakarta welcomed me, just as it welcomes its many visitors, and it makes it incredibly hard to say goodbye.

My journey through the history of Java actually started in Kaliurang, at about 25 km from Yogyakarta. I didn’t know it when I headed there, but Kaliurang makes for a really good escape from Yogyakarta when the weather gets too hot in the city, as it is located at 900 meters above sea level.

There, the temperatures are pleasantly mild compared to those of the rest of the country – something that shouldn’t be underestimated!

Escaping the heat of Yogyakarta in the citadel.
Escaping the heat of Yogyakarta in the citadel.

The main feature of Kaliurang is its Ullen Sentalu museum, where a guided tour through the exhibit allowed me to get a proper feel of the role of the wives of the sultans and of the overall Javanese culture.

Walking Through Chaos

Little did I know, when I left Kaliurang, that I would soon be walking through chaos. By then, I should have known that cities in Indonesia are less than quiet.

But what in other places can be overwhelming traffic, becomes lively and in a way funny in Yogyakarta. The multitude of scooters that incessantly moved from one side of the city to the other stopped by to look at me, just as curious as I was when I stared at them.

They waved and smiled as I made my way across the busy street.

“Can I take a picture, sir?” I asked to a man on a scooter with his children.l

Not only I could, but he demanded his kids to turn around and smile at me for the occasion.

“Hi girls, do you mind if I take a picture of you?” I asked a group of veiled teenagers who were busy chatting.

“Yes, but then you have to pose with us!” they said, as they pointed to their selfie sticks.

And so went my afternoon, as people stopped me as much as I stopped them, eager to pose for the camera.

A Complicated History

In the days I spent in Yogyakarta, I resolved that there is no better place than Yogyakarta to uncover and get a better understanding of the interesting and at times complicated history of Indonesia. I was surprised to learn that they city is still governed by a sultan, and that it served as the capital of Indonesia between 1946 and 1959.

It was founded by Prince Mangkubumi, a Sultan who started the construction of the Royal Palace upon coming back in the area in 1755. Soon, Yogyakarta became the symbol of resistance to the colonial power.

I started my exploration and immersion in the history of Java at the Royal Palace and the Water Palace of Yogyakarta. They are a real oasis of peace within the lively chaos of the city, with their tiny colorful alleys, the artists’ parlors, the mosques, schools and markets, the children biking around, stopping to observe the tourists and exchange a few words.

A matter of trust: clothes are hanged to dry in the streets in the citadel of Yogyakarta.
A matter of trust: clothes are hanged to dry in the streets in the citadel of Yogyakarta.

“Where are you from? Do you want to take a photo with me?” they demanded.

“I certainly will,” I replied as they gave me their best grin.

Life seems to be following a different path and to have a different pace in the fortified citadel.

The Kraton, or Royal Palace, is the enormous palace where the sultan of Yogyakarta still lives, and the heart of the fortified city. This is where the Sultan locked himself when in 1948 the Dutch occupied the city.

The various beautiful buildings, the fantastic carvings and decorations and the exhibits on the lives of the sultans are interesting ways to learn about the history of the city and of Indonesia.

The Kraton was also a good place to observe some of the country’s traditions. One of the features I was able to experience is the consistent sound of gamelan, a traditional Javanese instrument that is played in the palace.

Chores such as the maintenance of the palace are taken very seriously – so much so that the attendants wear the traditional javanese costumes and they pass their jobs to succeeding generations.

The Taman Sari

I also enjoyed the Taman Sari, or Water Palace. This is a gorgeous park with palaces, pools, and channels that were once used by the sultans, their wives and their circle for recreation purposes. It is a pleasant place to walk around, especially as there are no cars there! Such a difference from the buzzing traffic of the city.

But Indonesia liked reminding me that life isn’t as simple, as straightforward. Its contrasts are easily visible. Beautiful colonial buildings stand proudly next to the most modern architecture. Traditional dances and rituals are celebrated every day, undisturbed by the traffic and noise of the millions of cars and scooters.

The job market is hungry for young people to employ in jobs that could not scream more 21st century than that – such as social media managers – but at the same time, many proudly keep working at traditional occupations. No place in Indonesia is better than Yogyakarta to observe and experience these contrasts.

Crossing the busy streets of the city (or shall I say, being stuck in traffic?) I reached Kota Gede, famous for its silver factories and packed with labs where skilled hands produce incredible jewels. The speed at which the workers make earrings, brooches etc made it look fairly simple. Some organize workshops for visitors, and I thought it may be a good idea to try.

Needless to say, it was easier said than done. After hours of trying with all the right instruments and the supervision of a teacher, I was unable to produce anything worth wearing and I resolved to observe the fantastic jewels displayed instead.

Trying to Batik

Prambanan, an ancient site in Yogyakarta, Indonesia.
Prambanan, an ancient site in Yogyakarta, Indonesia.

Feeling a bit of a failure for being unable to produce a simple silver brooch, I thought that perhaps I could use my artistic skills to do something else. I was great at drawing and coloring in school and in my mind, these skills should be invested in producing batik, the traditional colorful printed fabrics Indonesia is famous for.

So I headed to the Batik museum and signed up for another workshop, to learn how batik is made.

Sitting on a tiny wooden stool, I was handed a wooden board with a piece of white cotton fabric where a drawing had been previously penciled. I was then given a pen which I would have to dip in boiling wax and use to trace all the drawings.

Once cold, the wax hardens and the fabric is taken apart from the board. It is then dyed and in the process the wax melts again, leaving the drawing visible. Needless to say, I was hopeless at this too: my finished batik is packed with stains of wax which I dropped all over as I traced the intricate drawing.

A pedicab awaits his fare.
A pedicab awaits his fare.

Of course, the fact that my art heyday is a thing of a far away past should have been warning enough not to embark on such a difficult task, but it was an enjoyable thing to do anyways and it made me appreciate batik and its production process even more.

Shopping at JL Malioboro Road

So much I appreciated it that after my failed attempts at making batik I thought I would show how much I liked it by jumping back into the 21st century and acting like a proper shopaholic. I went straight to Jl Malioboro road, Yogyakarta busiest shopping street, and shopped till I dropped.

And then, another journey through history began, as the morning after I headed to Borobudur, one of Indonesia most famous archeological sites.

It is little wonder that this is among the UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Indonesia. Located on beautiful hills covered by rice patties and palm trees, it is easy to understand why this 9th-century Buddhist temple (the largest in the world) is one of Indonesia top attractions.

As many others, I decided to visit Borobudur at sunrise. I headed there when it was still dark and climbed the many steps to the top, where I waited for the sun to make its appearance. Gorgeous at any time of day, Borobudur shines of a special light at sunrise and that made my early wake up very worth it.

Prambanan Sparkles at Sunset

If Borobudur shines at sunrise, Prambanan sparkles at sunset. Another UNESCO site, Prambanan is the largest Hindu temple in Java. It is a gorgeous and very big site to walk around, although the most interesting part is the central complex.

I visited in the late afternoon and when I saw that the sun was about to set, I moved from the central complex and went a bit far, so that I could get a whole view of the site.

Yet, the best view I got of Prambanan the one I got from the nearby restaurant. The restaurant is mostly geared to tourists and this may turn up many noses. But to be quite frank, the views I got of the distan Prambananan temple completely illuminated were so worth it that, given the chance, I would go again!

“Now I see it!” said – albeit reluctantly – my friend when I showed him the pictures I took in Yogyakarta. There was the proof that Yogyakarta is an absolute must see for anybody who travels to Indonesia. I would definitely go again.

Claudia Tavani
Claudia Tavani



Claudia Tavani is a former human rights lawyer and academic, Claudia abandoned her career to follow her true calling, which has taken her on many adventures and misadventures across the world. Through her blog, Claudia shares her inspiring stories, provides tips for other travelers and occasionally goes on a rant. Her mission? Hiking her way up all volcanoes in the world. Read her blog, My Adventures Across the World. 

Take the Train: Rail Passes Around the World

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Latest posts by GoNOMAD Contributors (see all)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to Top
Skip to content