Yogyakarta is one of Indonesia’s largest cities and tourist attractions.
Unlike urbanized Jakarta, the city does not have massive skyscrapers or problematic congestion. In fact, Yogyakarta’s city center is small and quaint. Pedicabs line the streets. Shops are small. And there are only a handful of Western chains. If in search of latest fashion trends or top-notch eateries, Yogyakarta is not the place to visit. Nonetheless, the beautiful nature and sites found on the outskirts of the city makes the trip worthwhile.
Walking the city streets it is quickly noticeable that not many Westerners pass through. Perhaps the recent “52 Places to Go in 2014” by the New York Times Travel Section will change that. This year Yogyakarta was placed at the number the twenty spot. I mentioned this fact to the hotel’s concierge, but he did not look too impressed. Maybe there was a language barrier. In some other Southeast Asian travel hotspots—think Siem Reap—many locals speak English. However, this was not the case in Yogyakarta.
Yogyakarta’s two premier tourism appeals are temples: the Borobudur Buddhist Temple and the Prambanan Hindu Temple. Another tourism draw is the volcano, Mount Merapi. And yes, it’s still active.
All three of these attractions are actually outside of the main city area, about an hour away, give or take. While there are hotels and villas near Borobudur, Mount Merapi and Prambanan, it is probably preferable for most to stay closer to civilization.
In the Yogyakarta city itself, Malioboro is a very popular street lined with shopping stalls. One could even say overwhelming. Fortunately, I made the smart choice to stay about a ten-minute walk from the bustling street.
Since I was on a tight time schedule, I decided to dedicate one full day to see all the sites outside of the downtown area. Seeing that the primary attractions are outside the city, it is necessary to arrange a tour, motorbike or driver in advance. Basically, some kind of transportation is necessary to get from place to place. Even if one happened to stay near one the sites, such as Borobudur, both the volcano and Prambanan temple are still 30-60 minutes away—driving.
I decided to go with the personal driver. While it is the most expensive option, for me it was worth every penny. Having a driver allowed me to have full control over where we went and for how long. No waiting for groups. No stuffy bus. No following a strict agenda. In the end, the driver ended up taking me to multiple places from hidden markets to a shop where silver jewelry is hand made—places I never could have reached on my own.
I paid a set price for a car + driver + gasoline for up to 12 hours. I had the freedom to go wherever I desired. All other fees (like site admission and parking) are not included. And this was the case with all other tour companies I looked into. Additionally, I went with the “English speaking” driver. This cost an extra sum of money. I would hardly call the driver I had as an “English speaker” but he did understand basic words and phrases. For instance, “I need coffee.”
And coffee was needed throughout the long day. I was picked up at 4:30 AM, meaning my wake-up call was at 3:55 AM. Cringes. So, bright and early – actually, pitch black and early – I was off to the first destination: Borobudur Temple.
From my hotel near Malioboro Street it took exactly an hour to reach Borobudur. Since it was 5:30 AM when we arrived, and the temple opens at 6:00 AM, we had some time to kill.
Although I was slightly irritated I had woken up so early to get there before it opened, I was glad in the end to be one of the first to arrive. The Borobudur Temple fills up so quickly with tourists and Indonesians alike. The early bird catches the worm, for sure, in this situation.
There was a pricey 220,000 rupiah entrance fee or about USD$18.15. To me it was worth it. While that price may sound typical for someone accustomed to museums/attractions in the US or Europe, by Indonesian standards this is very, very costly. By the way, this fee is only applicable to international visitors, not Indonesians.
Borobudur is one of those places that is hard to describe. I feel like I can never give it justice. For me, it was on the same level as the Angkor Wat temples in Siem Reap or the Terracotta Warrior in Xi’an. Borobudur is grand in size. Gardens surround the temple. There were very steep steps one has to climb to get to the top. But the view is terrific, filled with scenic mountain ranges and foliage. It was magical, even unreal. I ended up staying for about two hours. But I probably could have stayed even longer if it were not for the strong sun.
Next on the itinerary was the Merapi Mount. Truthfully, the journey up the mountain in itself was worth the visit. The lush greenery and rice paddies along the way were to die for. There was this emptiness, though. I felt like I was travelling through uncharted territory. The higher you climb, though, the narrower the roads become. At this moment I was really glad I was not in a bus.
At the base of this active volcano there is not much to see except a few stalls and places to eat. There are also stands to rent motorbikes or pay for a guided jeep tour up the volcano. I opted out of all these adventurous activities; I prefer to admire the volcano from afar. Plus, my spending money for the day was already running low with all the unanticipated admission and parking fees. In the end, the scenery was all I needed. Back home, in the US, I never see this kind of untouched nature. I probably could have stayed in the car and still been happy.
After leaving the volcano, we headed to our final main stop for the day – the Prambanan Shrine. Or temple. Whichever.
Pulling up to Prambanan resembles the entrance to Borobudur—there are a plethora of food and souvenir tents set up. Similarly, there is a high admission price for foreigners at 198,000 rupiah. And, again, I would say worth the cost.
The temples sit far past the entrance in a fenced in area. There are eleven temples total, all arranged methodically, with three ones of distinctive prominence. The largest and center most temple is the tallest in Indonesia.
While Prambanan is lovely, for me the temples were a bit awkward. The fenced in are resembled a construction site. Wait… it was a construction site. To enter certain the area with the tallest temple, one had to wear a hardhat. I suppose pieces of stone are known to fall. I was told this was the aftermath of a recent earthquake. Maybe I also enjoyed Prambanan less because the scenery was not so magnificent. It was placed in an open field, basically. While it was definitely worth seeing, I have to say I have seen much more magnificent temples.
In the end, my favorite stop over my long day was the first site: Borobudur. Prambanan was undoubtedly impressive, but there was something enchanted about Borobudur. Maybe the construction at Prambanan took away from its’ glory. Or perhaps it had more to do with the landscape around the magnificent Borobudur. At Borobudur, it was like I experienced some kind of spiritual awakening, basking in such natural beauty. I did not have that feeling at Prambanan.
— All images my own. Top image taken at Borobudur Temple.