The world’s largest archipelago spanning between Indochina and Australia, Indonesia is a vast country full of diverse wonders that it can be overwhelming to decide where to begin. Yogyakarta – or simply Jogja, shortening an older spelling – is an excellent starting point located in central Java, the most accessible and populous island.
From Manila, one can fly AirAsia to Yogyakarta from Manila, via the Jakarta, or from Cebu, via Kuala Lumpur.
The capital of Javanese arts and culture brims with incredible attractions from World Heritage-listed ancient temples to elegant art forms like courtly dances and shadow puppetry that have flourished through the centuries.
Here are 10 amazing historic sites and cultural experiences you shouldn’t miss on your trip!
The most visited tourist attraction in all Indonesia, Borobudur is the biggest drawcard for travelers in Yogyakarta. This world famous landmark is actually located in Magelang, East Java – 40 km northwest of the city. Considered the world’s largest Buddhist temple and declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1991, Borobudur was built in the 9th century from blocks of volcanic stone in the shape of mandala, a spiritual and ritual symbol representing the universe. It is decorated with more than 2,600 reliefs and 500 Buddha statues. The temple is very crowded on weekends and holidays, so it’s best to visit on a sunrise tour or early in the morning when the temple grounds open. A photogenic vantage point for spectacular sunrises behind Borobudur and Merapi volcano is Bukit Barede (Barede Hill).
Rivaling Borobudur in grandeur is Prambanan, a Hindu temple complex located 16 km east of the city – also built in the 9th century and declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. While Borobudur is a single massive monument, Prambanan is comprised of several structures spread over a much larger area. While most of them remain in ruins, there were 240 temples in the complex, with three largest in the center dedicated to the Hindu gods Shiva (the Destroyer), Vishnu (the Keeper), and Brahma (the Creator). As with Borobudur, it pays to hire an experience tour guide to help you navigate efficiently through the complex and to acquire a thorough understanding of its history and architectural details.
Overlooked by most visitors to Prambanan is the archeological site of Ratu Boko, situated on a plateau only three kilometers south of the temple complex. While its precise function remains unknown, experts believe that a palace complex or monastery once stood in the area, built around the same time as Prambanan. The area consists of stone ruins believed to be remnants of gates, fortified walls, audience halls and shrines. The most incredible aspect of this attraction is its elevation, which overlooks the temple complex of Prambanan and affords great sunset views, if the weather cooperates. A combined ticket can be purchased for Prambanan and Ratu Boko, inclusive of free shuttle transfers between the two sites.
Taman Sari Water Castle
Built in the mid-18th century, Taman Sari Water Castle in central Yogyakarta was a resting area, a workshop, a meditation area, a defense area, and a hiding place. The royal grounds consisted of four distinct areas: a large artificial lake with islands and pavilions located in the west, a bathing complex in the center, a complex of pavilions and pools in the south, and a smaller lake in the east. Today only the central bathing complex is well preserved, while the other areas have been largely occupied by a settlement. One of the most-photographed structures in the complex is the Gumuling Well (Sumur Gumuling), a circular building with a central staircase previously used as a secret mosque.
Kraton (Palace) of Yogyakarta
Another must-see historic complex within the city center is the kraton or palace, the political and cultural heart of Yogyakarta, which serves as the royal residence of the sultanate to this day. The complex is watched over by royal guards, which serve both ceremonial and security functions. The complex was built in 1755–1756 for Hamengkubuwono I, the first Sultan of Yogyakarta, but later was sacked and looted by British invaders led by Sir Stamford Raffles in 1812. Much of what we see today was built by Sultan Hamengkubuwono VIII, who reigned from 1921 to 1939).
The palace complex is also a venue for traditional Javanese performing arts. According to Lonely Planet, there’s gamelan on Monday and Tuesday (10am to noon), wayang golek (wooden puppetry) on Wednesday (9:00 AM to 12:00 PM), classical dance on Thursday (10:00 AM to 12:00 PM), Javanese poetry readings on Friday (10:00 AM to 11:30 AM), wayang kulit (leather puppetry) on Saturday (9:00 AM to 1:00 PM) and Javanese dance on Sunday (11:00 AM to 12:00 PM).
Looking to avoid the droves of tourists flocking the famous sites? Kotagede – literally “big city” – might just be the answer. The historic neighborhood south of the city center contains the remains of the first capital of Mataram Sultanate, established in the 16th century. Some of the remains of the old Kotagede include the palace ruins, the royal cemetery, the royal mosque, and defensive walls and moats. Kotagede is also well known globally by its silver crafting. Despite being the final resting place for Muslim kings, the cemetery and the surrounding walled courtyards feature Hindu architecture. Complete the experience by renting Javanese clothes and roaming the brick-walled complex in traditional attire.
Tembi Cultural Village
A community-run attraction established in 1994, Tembi Cultural Village offers a cultural immersion by offering handicraft workshops and other immersive experiences to visitors. Our group got to create our own batik tulis, a freehand style using a canting, a pen-like tool used to apply liquid hot wax onto fabric. Batik-making is so much tougher than it looks, and makes one really appreciate the immense skill and artistry behind its creation. Another group had a lesson on playing gamelan, a traditional ensemble of brass gongs. If you’re into cooking, then you can ask the villagers how to make some of their authentic food, like tempe dele, a soy-based side dish, and sagon, traditional cookies made from coconuts. Rustic homestays are available for those who want to spend a night or two in the area.
A wonderful way to spend the evening in Yogyakarta is to witness one of the ancient forms of storytelling that flourished in the city through the centuries. Wayang kulit or shadow puppet theater retells episodes from the Hindu epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata, accompanied by gamelan music. Wayang kulit are traditionally made of intricately carved water buffalo or goat hide mounted on bamboo sticks. In 2003, UNESCO designated wayang kulit from Indonesia as one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. Aside from weekly shows at the Kraton, shadow puppet plays are performed nightly (except on Sundays) at the Sonobudoyo Heritage Museum.
Another type of wayang is as mesmerizing to watch as the wayang kulit. The Ramayana Ballet (Sendratari Ramayana) is a visualization and representation of the epic Ramayana saga, originally written in the Sanskrit language, in a highly stylized dance art form. In Java, this forms part of the wayang wong (literally, “human puppet”) tradition. My most unforgettable experience in Yogyakarta was watching a captivating performance at the open-air stage with the Prambanan Temple as the backdrop. If the Prambanan shows are fully booked or in case of unfavorable weather, there are also nightly indoor performances at Purawisata Theater in the downtown area, east of the Keraton.
Wayang Jogja Night Carnival
If you happen to be in Yogyakarta on October 7, don’t miss the grandest cultural festival in town! Held to commemorate the city’s anniversary, Wayang Jogja Night Carnival is a glamorous cultural parade that showcases the arts and heritage of the city. A fusion of Javanese arts and culture and the whimsical atmosphere of a circus or carnival, the vibrant procession features floats, dancers in elaborate costumes and skillful acrobats depicting scenes from the Hindu epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata. (Read more about the festival in my previous post.)
This blog post was made possible through the Jogja Fam Trip held from October 5 to 8, 2018, organized by the Tourism Office of Yogyakarta City. AirAsia flies to Yogyakarta from Manila via Jakarta, or from Cebu via Kuala Lumpur.