Yogyakarta (pronounced “Jogjyakarta”) is a city located in central java in the Special Region of Yogyakarta Province. It holds a population of nearly 700,000 people and is a renowned center of Indonesian culture, known for its gamelan, wayang (puppet shows), and batik. The energy of the city falls somewhere between Jakarta and Solo. Its main streets are clogged with traffic, bustling with motor bikes, taksis, rickshaws, and horse and carriage rides. The avenues are lined with shopping malls, KFCs and Pizza Huts, and gift shops selling knock-off wayang masks and puppets. Unlike Solo, Yogyakarta does not ignore the tourist, absolutely everybody wants to sell you something, and if you are traveling on a shoestring budget, this can be very overwhelming.
The backpacker’s district of Yogya is larger and more refined than Jakarta’s Jalan Jaksa, catering to tourists with its internet cafes, bookstores, bars boasting BinTang Pilsener, and sit-down restaurants serving “Western” food. Its quiet, winding alleys are slathered in colorful street art, and there is hardly a warung in sight. Begrudgingly, this is where we decided to stay (as recommended by the Lonely Planet) – at Homestay Lusey, which, despite its location, provided excellent accommodation (two queen-sized beds, AC and fan, television (which we never used), Western toilet and shower, all for 150,000 Rp per night).
Our first day out proved to be frustrating. It was one of the hottest days of the trip (90+ degrees), and we were already tired from the bus ride from Solo (we took a local bus, which, as mentioned in a previous post, always prove to be grueling, claustrophobic, bumpy, and slow). Our first stop was the Kraton, the grand palace located in the center of town. At the entrance, we were accosted by food and clothing vendors, shoving trinkets in our faces and following us to the gates. We paid the 7,000 Rp entrance fee, and, once inside, were immediately intercepted by a shrewd fellow with a fishy eye and missing teeth, wearing an orange-black batik, sporting a cheap badge claiming his authority as a “tour guide.” The group chose to follow him, despite my disapproval, and after a few minutes of the “tour” (consisting of cheap facts, and half-hearted explanations of the palace’s history) I knew the guide to be a scam. I got fed up and broke away.
Admittedly, I found the Kraton underwhelming when compared to the living, breathing Mankunegaran Palace in Solo. Birds crowded the rafters of the high, triangular ceiling, filling the palace with an eerie music. An unused gamelan collected dust on the raised platform beneath the roof. Faded sculptures of past sultans were dispersed throughout the complex. Lonely chickens strutted and bawked stupidly at nothing. The overall feeling was indeed two dimensional. A stale museum. A relic of some distant past.
Meanwhile, the “tour” continued, led by the obvious-to-me-only scam artist, despite my numerous attempts to get the others to ditch. Once the false-guide led us from the palace, down a shady alley, and motioned us into his batik shop, I demanded we leave. I think by that point the others got the hint, and we left the scam behind without buying anything.
We all felt cheated, and our spirits were low. We decided to wander, to look for food away from the touristy center of town. Zigzagging down alleys and side streets, we found ourselves in a quieter, more humble quarter of town, where trees, bathed in afternoon light, draped over narrow roads, which, instead of malls and gift shops, were lined with homes, nurseries, mosques, and warungs. Locals dozed in the shade, smoking kreteks, drinking tea. We passed men building a new roof on a decaying home, passed women hanging clothes on a line, children in a schoolyard. We were greeted by enthusiastic smiles and curious stares. We were foreigners again. Travelers, not tourists.
We found a small warung about a mile east of the Kraton. A woman served us cold, bony chicken with soupy rice and muddy beef. We were starved and so devoured the food gratefully, but afterward, feeling sick and overheated, took a cab back to the homestay to shower and nap. Perhaps we would try Yogya again in the evening, give the city another shot.
Tips for Visiting Yogyakarta:
Couchsurfing – If you are looking for a more authentic experience of Yogyakarta, I would recommend finding a couchsurfing host rather than taking to the backpacker’s district. There are multiple hosts throughout the city, many of whom, I am sure, will be able to point you away from the tourist vortex that is the center of town, to local hangouts or cultural events not mentioned in most guide books.
Beware the Batik Mafia – This is a very real concern for travelers in Yogya. These men, always donning batiks, will intercept you at many hotspots throughout the city, claiming to be tour guides, taksi drivers, or hostel owners, while their only real motive is to sell you wildly overpriced, poorly made batiks. Our experience at the Kraton is a perfect example of how easily one can fall for their tricks.
Dig for the Real – While our experience in Yogyakarta was less than ideal, I am convinced that outside of the tourist-centric nucleus, this city has a lot to offer. To find it, however, requires a certain fortitude and yearn for the unknown. Start with side streets, let your wandering mind take over. Let it lead you away from the gift shops and bars and internet cafes. Search for those forgotten corners, those quiet neighborhoods where people are simply living. Seek to be foreign. Not a tourist.