On his third visit to Yogjakarta, Andrew Drummond Law still finds the city as alluring as ever
TRUE story: I’m flying to Yogyakarta from Kuala Lumpur. A European couple are seated in the same row. He shows me his boarding pass to double-check that we are flying to Jakarta. But his boarding pass says Yogyakarta.
He must have confused Yogyakarta with Jakarta when booking online. Maybe assuming that it was a local spelling of Jakarta.
I share the bad news with him. He looks at me in disbelief and argues with his wife for five minutes. He turns back to me and asks: “Yogyakarta is also good?”
WORLD’S LARGEST BUDDHIST STRUCTURE
This is my third trip to Yogyakarta (or Yogya), so the 2.5-hour direct flight gives plenty of time to chat about its highlights. Its most famous attraction, Borobodur, is the world’s largest Buddhist temple complex, a Unesco-listed World Heritage site.
A sacred place of worship, it is Indonesia’s most frequently visited tourist attraction. The eighth century Mahayana Buddhist stupa and temple complex is located in the Kedu Valley in Central Java, taking more than 75 years to build. It is surrounded by lush green vegetation and sits in the shadow of Mount Merapi, an active volcano that last erupted in November 2010, killing more than 350 people.
Although located 28-kilometres away, Borobodur was also covered in volcanic ash up to 2.5 centimetres thick and had to be temporarily closed, so that the damaging acidic ash could be removed.
Be prepared for incredible sunrise and sunset photo opportunities. See how the light casts upon the temple and the shadows created are unique.
I follow the path of enlightenment to the top of the temple before dawn, when fewer people are around. Ancient Buddhist pilgrims would walk clockwise around each level, beginning with the lower galleries and its images of desire, up to the levels of Buddha’s teaching and life, and finally, the realm of “nothingness”.
Low-lying, ghost-like mists cover the surrounding greenery, adding further to the spirituality and meaning of this place of worship. As the sun rises and the temperature increases, the rolling waves of mist slowly disappear as the heat dissipates the humidity.
Climbing up the volcanic temple structure’s stairs, viewing Buddha’s teachings carved onto the walls, and seeing the Buddha statues through the latticework stupas is truly an enlightening personal experience. Regardless of one’s faith, you immediately know and feel why this is such an important place to visit, at least once in your short lifetime.
From what the local guide explained to me and according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) sources, these are the temple’s most interesting facts:
* The 29-metre high stepped pyramid temple complex is a mass of intricately carved volcanic stone bricks on a small hill, that when viewed from above takes the form of a giant mandala.
* Each side of the almost square foundation’s base is around 120 metres long, and topped by five concentric square terraces and three higher circular terraces.
* In turn these are decorated by more than 2,500 bas-relief panels and 504 Buddha sculptures.
* Above this level stand 72 bell-shaped latticework stone stupas, each containing a statue of Buddha, and the larger central stupa at the top is a symbol of the enlightened mind.
ABANDONMENT AND REDISCOVERY
Mysteriously, Borobodur was abandoned to nature some time between the 10th and 11th centuries. While there is no single explanation, Mount Merapi’s periodic volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, a shift in administrative power towards east Java, and Islam arriving in the 13th and 14th centuries, are all offered as possible reasons.
It is amazing to think that Borobodur lay hidden for centuries under the jungle and volcanic ash, until it was rediscovered by Sir Stamford Raffles, the then Lieutenant Governor of British Java (1811-1815), in the early 19th century. The same British governor who later helped to found modern Singapore.
Using original materials only, Borobodur’s first renovation work took place between 1907 and 1911. But the most recent project was between 1973 and 1983 by the Indonesian government, with Unesco’s assistance.
As well as the natural perils that it faces located within Indonesia’s Ring of Fire, like many other attractions of this type in Southeast Asia, the main threat to its existence is the surrounding economic development, and the potential physical damage caused by tourists.
Another Unesco-listed site is the nearby Hindu Prambanan temple complex built around the same time. With fewer visitors compared with Borobodur, it is a much lower key attraction and built in a style similar to Cambodia’s Angkor Wat.
Sunset is a popular time to visit and there are also evening performances of the Ramayana ballet. In its full glory, there are 240 temples on a square mandala plan, with the tallest spire rising up to 47m.
CULTURE, HISTORY AND LOVE
Beyond these incredible places of heritage, the Keraton Palace is another Yogya must-see.
But make sure you are accompanied by a local guide who will bring to life the palace complex and its protocols, as he explains its remarkable place in Javanese history, and the Sultan’s role in uniting the people. And if you’re lucky, a calming gamelan orchestra will be playing during your visit.
If you want to hear tales of love through the eyes of Javanese princesses, Ullen Sentalu Museum in the Kaliurang highlands is only an hour away. The guide’s storytelling will fascinate you, as will the pictures and other exhibits. And its surrounding gardens are beautiful.
But no trip to Yogya is complete without eating nasi gudeg; steamed rice with unripe jackfruit and coconut milk, served with egg or chicken. There are different types: Yogya (sweeter, drier and redder, with teak leaves); East Javanese (spicier and hotter); wet or dry (more or less coconut milk) and Solo (more watery and without teak leaves).
Thanks to this local delicacy, Yogyakarta is also known as Kota Gudeg. Now there’s a name less easily confused with Jakarta when making an online flight booking!
PICK AND MIX
IN May the AccorHotels group launched the Grand Mercure Yogyakarta Adi Sucipto and ibis Yogyakarta Adi Sucipto in a dual hotel complex.
Located to the east of the city, it is very close to the airport and Yogyakarta’s main heritage attractions. Because of the two hotels’ physical integration, guests can pick and mix their room choice with certain services, according to their budget and hospitality requirements.
Guests at the ibis, the economy option, can enjoy some of the facilities of the more upscale Grand Mercure for a small charge, without actually staying there.
Facilities include the outdoor swimming pool, gym, and Internet broadband, that includes access to Press Reader digital publications, as well as the spa, laundry and meeting rooms. For those looking for a bright, functional and modern room, but do not require these facilities because they are either out all day in business meetings, visiting tourist attractions or just budget conscious, ibis has its advantages.
Or if you are a large group of family or friends and you want full use of the facilities, but only need a functional and less expensive room, ibis may be a more suitable option.
The upscale Grand Mercure is for those in need of a little local heritage, with a unique interior design complemented with modern hotel facilities. Here, the Borobodur temple and lotus flower theme are the main draw.
As you enter the lobby you will notice that the check-in counters are similar in design to the famous temple.
It is on the ceiling, on the walls, and decorative pieces all over the hotel. The light fixtures in the corridor and guest rooms too.And above the padded headboard of your comfortable bed, you will find pixelated and brightly coloured Borobodur stupa artwork, complemented with high-backed decadent armchairs in an electric purple, with matching cushions and bed runner. It is a stylish mix of local heritage, modern fixtures and functionality.
A comfortable night’s sleep overlooked by these peaceful stupas is just the ticket after a long day viewing the real thing.
If you are visiting Yogya, you are most likely there for one reason only: to visit Borobodur. And if you’re not, consider this hotel an advertisement for Indonesia’s most visited attraction. Jom!
Grand Mercure Jogjakarta Adi Sucipto and ibis Jogjakarta Adi Sucipto
Jalan Laksda Adi Sucipto No. 80 Sleman
Website: Grand Mercure: www.mercure.com/gb/hotel-9608-grand-mercure-yogyakarta-adi-sucipto/index... /; Ibis Hotel: www.ibis.com/gb/hotel-9637-ibis-yogyakarta-adi-sucipto/index.shtml#overview
Airasia flies three times daily to Yogyakarta.
The hotel complex is a 5.5km (20 minutes) drive away from the airport and Tugu train station is only four km away.
Solo (AKA Surakarta) is a one-hour long train journey from Yogyakarta. By car it can take as long as two hours, depending on weather and traffic conditions.
Grand Mercure: 305 rooms (10 types); ibis: 144 rooms
EAT The Purple restaurant on the eighth floor serves both local and international food, and drinks. There are also special Brazilian grilled options available, and gluten-free and vegetarian menus too. Get a window booth at breakfast time and see the famous Mount Merapi volcano appear in the distance among the low-lying clouds. Local and international breakfast options are delicious. Look out for the jamu!
The Executive Lounge is for business travellers and those staying in premium rooms and suites. Also try the Eighty-eight Bar (80’8) serving cocktails and mocktails, plus the Piazza Open Theatre for outdoor events and functions.
Meanwhile, the ibis hotel Rendezvous Bar serves drinks and light meals 24/7, while its Kitchen Wok restaurant serves local Asian options.
DO Outdoor swimming pool, gym, spa and sauna.
GO Borobodur is 40km northwest of Yogyakarta (just over an hour’s drive to get there). Prambanan Hindu temple complex is another must-see and only a 16km drive away.
Malioboro Street is three km away, where you will find souvenirs of all types at affordable prices. There’s a free hotel shuttle service. The Keraton Palace is a 10-minute drive away, depending on traffic. A 10-minute walk north of the Palace is Bringharjo market, where you can find everything from fruit to foodstuff, used and new batik, jamu and spices, junk and souvenirs.
HIGHS The hotel moon pia cake, a mix of traditional moon cake (lotus seeds, red beans and pandan filling) and the local delicacy, bapia.
The rooftop swimming pool and piazza open theatre area for outdoor events. Inside the hotel you can watch local artisans at work, and learn how to make batik and leather shadow puppets. The Borobodur interior design theme.
LOWS The traffic in front of the hotel can be very busy.