Yogyakarta was a breath of fresh air after Jakarta.
Still very urban – home to some 2 million people – Yogyakarta moves fast and is overwhelming in its own way, but its sights, smells, and overall vibe is just nicer than Jakarta. Plus the variety of it: street markets, rice paddies in nearby villages, and massive stone temples just beyond the urban sprawl, make it a travelers’ dream. It’s a popular destination, but rightfully so.
Yogyakarta offers many options, from volcano climbs to cave tubing, to cycling and cooking lessons.
We stayed at the Zodiak Hotel, which is new and somewhat centrally located, but we wished we’d stayed on the street called Jalan Prawirotaman. This narrow street houses hostels, home stays, restaurant bars, and places to book activities. It seemed to be the real hub for travelers looking to make the most of Yogyakarta. Here we found a cafe for lunch and booked a Borobudur sunrise tour, a trip to the Prambanan Temple, and a bicycle tour with a cooking lesson in the middle.
After our plans were set, our cab driver (who we paid by the hour to show us around for the afternoon) drove us to the Sultan’s Palace. More a museum than anything, the palace compound is full of artifacts and art from Indonesia’s long history of sultan rule, melded with the European influence from Dutch colonialism.
We didn’t have a guide so we wandered and looked and read, guided by our own curiosity.
Our next day was full of temples! We got up at 3:30am for our 4am pickup and rode a shuttle through the dark city to where the Borobudur Temple rises from the paddy filled valley floor. Our tour started at the Manohara Hotel at the base of the temple grounds. We got sarongs and flashlights, followed pathways through the hotel bungalow buildings, climbed stone steps through the starlight, and waited on the ancient carved tiers for the light of dawn to grow steadily in the east, and eventually for the sunlight to break over the mountains and burn off the morning mist. It was beautiful. (Read more about it here).
We took so many pictures in the hour or so of dramatically changing morning light. Here are a few:
After we finished our tour we got souvenir sarongs and had coffee and fried bananas at the hotel. From Borobudur, our driver took us to another temple an hour away called Prambanan – this one a Hindu temple that once must have been spectacular.
The compound has four different temples for four different Hindu gods, but an earthquake left them partly in ruins, or with massive cracks snaking through columns and carved idols. We had to wear hard hats to enter.
Borobudur was more majestic to visit. Because of the time of day, smaller crowds, and more secluded spots easy to find inside the temple, it felt both more intimate and vast.
The morning of our final day in Yogyakarta was spent on bicycles and in a kitchen. We set off from Jalan Prawirotaman again, this time on squeaky bikes, following our guide through the busy streets on the far left edge of the crumbling road. Motorcycles and cars whizzed past us, but we kept going and soon found ourselves bicycling through rice paddies and peanut fields, past roosters and cows, ducklings clustered around their mother, and after a few photo stops and a winding path through the grid of fields, we arrived at a home for our cooking lesson.
We chopped, peeled, sliced and caramelized tamarind, garlic, and onions. We made a sweet and spicy mix of peanuts, tempeh, and potato chips, a noodle dish with chicken, and a coconut milk vegetable soup.
We were at it for hours, but the reward was our best Indonesian meal and the know-how to make it at home.
If we had been in Yogyakarta longer, we could have climbed Mount Merapi or gone tubing through caves, but there was nowhere to go but everywhere so we kept rolling on under the stars and continued on our way.