Fifteen top things to do in Yogyakarta
It was almost evening when we reached Jogja or Yogyakarta, the cultural capital of Indonesia located in the island of Java. It is believed that Jogja is usually referred to as Ayodhya . It is not surprising at all, as Ramayana, the Hindu epic echoes from these walls. The land of temples, crafts , palaces, performances – even three days in Jogja is not enough. I was here on a trip organised by Tourism Indonesia and personally for me, Jogja was one of my favourite towns. Every moment of my trip was memorable but if I had to choose then here are my fifteen favourite moments in Jogja – which probably means you have fifteen must see places in and around the city including Yogyakarta tourist attractions and top things to do in Yogyakarta
1.The festivity on the streets
Jogja was celebrating when we landed. Princes and princesses sashayed down the streets. Parades followed. It was a burst of colour. We were staying in the quaint historic Phoenix Hotel and the pageantry was right in front of us . I spent a few minutes walking around and photographing them. The celebration was in honour of the formation of the city. Although this was one of the most unexpected events, it was an absolute riot of colours and a great opportunity for photography
2. Sunrise in Borobodur
Less than 40 kms from Yogyakarta is the largest Buddhist temple built in the 9th century with 500 Buddha sculptures and over 2500 relief panels called Candi Borobodur. The central dome alone has 72 Buddha statues, each of them carved inside a stupa . Standing here in the wee hours of the morning and watching the first ray of the sun stroke the monuments and light up the village below is a pristine moment. But the candi which took over 70 years seemed to have been abandoned. It was discovered centuries later after it was built, buried with volcanic ash. No one still knows details about its origins or the reason why it was left in ruins but the Buddhas at the UNESCO World Heritage Site probably are the only ones who know the answer to the history. This is one of the top things to do in Yogyakarta.
3. Tari Topeng Ireng- Greeting at Hotel Atria, Magelang
It was an absolute surprise when we entered the Hotel Atria in Magelang, barely 45 kms from Jogja and were greeted by an absolutely vibrant performance by a group of kids. Dressed in rich colourful costumes, they were performing the Tari Topeng Ireng or the Black Mask Dance, also known as Dayakan dance . Borrowed heavily from martial arts, I was told that this performing arts had its origins in Magelang. Some of these dancers were so adept in their movements that it was literally breathtaking. Some of these masked dances have narratives that tell stories of legends or they pay tribute to nature or ancestors as well. Although Borobodur can be easily accessed from Yogyakarta, we stayed at Magelang in the Atria Hotel so that it was easier to view the sunrise. I know that this moment is not strictly a Jogja moment, but a trip to Jogja starts with Borobodur. And if you get an opportunity to see performing arts or dances anywhere in the city, you must head to one of them as this is one of tourist attractions in Yogyakarta.
4. Kraton Ratu Boko
Translated in Javanese as the “Stork King” , Ratu Boko or King Boko is a legendary ruler who lends his name to this archaeological site called Kraton Ratu Boko or the Palace of Ratu Boko. Standing atop a plateau amidst the ruins, the site is about 196 metres above sea level and one can see the Prambanan Temples from here against the backdrop of Mount Merapi. It was extremely hot when we reached here but the lure of the fortified ruins kept me going. Was this a settlement, a palace or a fort – no one really seemed to know but it is one of the tourist attractions of Yogyakarta.
Spread around, I could see the gate leading you to a vast open space with structures scattered around. One of them were supposedly an audience hall while another was the woman’s quarters and a third was a crematorium. Temples and caves were part of this site as well. There were pools around as well besides bathing areas . In the heat, we could barely walk around and explore the entire site and so , I sat near the entrance and heard about the legend of Boko which connects to the Durga statue also referred to as Loro Jonggrang in Prambanan temple complex, located barely a few kilometress away. This is one of the top things to do in Yogyakarta.
The story goes that a prince Bandung Bondowoso wanted to marry princess Loro Jonggrang, the daughter of King Boko whom he had killed. The princess agreed on one condition – that he build 1000 temples in a night. The prince called out to the magical demons to help him who built 999 temples but the princess created the illusion of dawn. When the demons disappeared, the prince was so angry that he cursed the princess and she turned to stone. She is believed to be the statue of Durga in Shiva temple in Prambanan.
5. Prambanan Temple
Situated about 17 kms from Yogyakarta city is the 9th century World Heritage Site dedicated to the Hindu Gods – Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, worshipped as The Trinity. The towering Vimanas which house the shrines touch the skies and the tallest among them in the centre reach a whooping height of 154 feet. I stood there mesmerised as the sun’s setting rays glance upon the sculptures which are carved in every wall, pillar and relief panel. The faces of kids running around glowed in the evening light . It was believed that at one time, there were more than 240 temples in this complex but most of them are in ruins today while some have been renovated. Destroyed by natural forces – volcanos and earthquakes and the shifting of the capital town, the temple complex were in crumbles and were rebuilt. Legends and myths flood the site. Besides the story of Jonggrang who is believed the be the Durga sculpted in stone here, the local king, Balintung lent his form to Shiva here as locals worshipped kings as gods as well, even after their death. One of the tourist attractions of Yogyakarta, it is also rated as one of the top things to do in Yogyakarta
6. The Ramayana Ballet in an open air theatre
As the sun set, the lights came up on the Vimanas of the Prambanan temple . With the glittering towers in the backdrop, we were seated in an open air theatre across the River Opak to watch the Ramayana Ballet. I must say that although I am very possessive about our epics, having grown on them since childhood, it was fascinating to see another country and its people owning and interpreting it. The story started from Rama along with Sita and Lakshman leaving their kingdom and heading to the forest. With lilting music and dramatic performances , the story unfolded as Ravana kidnapped Sita and killed Jatayu while Rama with the help of Sugriva after defeating his brother Vali sent Hanuman as the emissary to find Sita. More than the final battle between Rama and Ravana, the scene where Hanuman sets the city on fire was a spectacle to behold. I could not have seen a more fantastic performance of Ramayana, not even Ramanand Sagar’s version is a patch on it. Personally, it is one of my favourites among the top things to do in Yogyakarta. Jogja is also a great place for arts and crafts and if you are looking at what to do in Yogyakarta, then do this read.
7. Ulan Sentalu Museum
Listen to the history of the rulers of Jogja or Yogyakarta and the Mataram Dynasty while watching their collections, relics in a beautiful museum tucked away in the hills. Set in caves with natural surroundings, the museum is set in the mountains of Kaliurang region. Carvings and sculptures filled the landscape. The private museum started by a family called the Haryono is now managed by the Ulating Bencong Institue is divided into different sections and they take you through the culture, the history and the traditions of the rulers and their expression of art . Another of the best tourist attractions of Yogyakarta.
8. The Royal Palace or the Kraton
Kings and queens, gods and demons , legends and myths fill Yogyakarta and the Royal Palace is a treasure house of them. It is a living specimen of Javanese art, traditions and architecture. . Built and completed around the 18th century, the kings still live here and employ over 1000 people, mainly as court guards. But what really fascinated me was that this kraton felt like a city within the city with several people living here, running restaurants and shops. Gamelan orchestras are held here as I saw several people cleaning and preparing them for the next event. I could see several pavilions with ornate pillars while the ceiling of the golden pavilion took my breath away. The kraton is not just a specimen of the art and architecture but a living monument of traditions and culture. Bells chimed, chantings were heard while we walked around mesmerised. This is to me one of the top things to do in Yogyakarta.
9. Taman Sari or the Water Palace
Built in the 18th century by the royalty, this bathing complex is all that is left of the erstwhile Taman Sari which included an entire complex filled with water gardens, meditation pavilions, artificial lakes and places of worship. Taman means garden and sari refers to beautiful and one look at the monument and you know why it was given the name. Standing there I could see a tower in the distance built apparently by a Portuguese as a hidden place for the kings. Some say it was used for defence, but it was largely used by the kings to spy on the bathing beauties in the tank. With a fusion of European and Asian architecture, only the bath has been restored while the rest of the complex have fallen into ruins because of earthquakes, wars and neglect. One of the best tourist attractions of Yogyakarta.
10. Sumur Gumuling
This was perhaps one of the most unusual moment of my trip, Walking around villages, we suddenly went underground through a tunnel to see this mystical monument. It seemed like a cave at first but later I learnt that Sumur Gumuling, part of the Taman Sari complex was a mosque with a well in the centre. Gumuling means rolling in the local Javanese and it referred probably to the circular well. It seemed so quiet and serene out there but the guide told me that the walls echoed especially when prayers were recited. I wondered why it was tucked away underground though.
11. Murals of Kampoeng Cyber
Walking around from Taman Sari towards Sumur Gumuling, we came to this area called Kampoeng Cyber which was just an assault on my senses. While admiring the local architecture of the homes as I was fascinated by doors and windows, I saw some of the most beautiful murals on the walls of homes. We were told that there was a local competition at one time – so I went shutter crazy and photographed them. My favourite among top things to do in Yogyakarta.
13. Learn to make silver or batik at Kotagede
Yogyakarta is the hub for all arts and crafts. If you head to the old historic neighbourhood of Kotagede, then you will find quite a few quaint artistic buildings which help you learn to dabble with silver and batik. There are interesting museums in the neighbourhood. As I struggled to make a small silver pendant for myself, I was in awe at the skills of the silver smiths who smiled patiently while teaching me. Batik was very interesting and dabbling with hot wax and painting the flowers , I almost felt like a child again. To me this is one of the top things to do in Yogyakarta.
14. Walking down the streets of Kotagede
Kotagede is not just the hub of culture, but its a historic settlement which was once part of the 15th century capital town of the ancient Mataram Dynasty. As I walked down the streets, I could see old houses and monuments which were remains of the old town. The Royal Cemetery, a quiet and a serene place tucked away in the noisy town was a retreat for a few old women but I was fascinated by the carvings and the architecture around which seemed to have a Hindu influence. A Grand Mosque was located close by . I was told that most of the kings of the dynasty were buried here. Kotagede later came under colonial rule and I could see some homes which resembled Dutch architecture. And this is my personal favourite among top things to do in Yogyakarta.
15. Streets, markets, shopping
By now you would have guessed that my interest lies in people than places, streets than sights .
And nothing can tell you more about a city than its markets, local people, street food. So I walked, shopped, photographed, tasted, drank and took in as many as local experiences as possible. And this photograph I think says it all ! What are your recommendations for top things to do in Yogyakarta ?
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