I was told by a lot of people that if I’m writing about Indonesia, Bali is the most worthy focus. I almost felt like writing this piece just to stand up for Yogyakarta. I mean, sure Bali has an undeniable charm with all those beaches and rice fields over the hills. But you can’t not fall for the eccentricity of a place that offers a becak ride to the sultan’s water palace, and sand-boarding at a sand dune (Gumuk Pasir Parangkusumo) close to a beach (Parangtritis).
The sheer personality Yogyakarta exudes will keep you wanting more. But To kick off, here are the first few experiences to get a true feel of Yogyakarta’s wonderful weirdness:
The fastest way to get to know about a place is through its food, flavours, and culinary traditions. Visit Yogyakarta, and the first thing you want’ll on your plate is Gudeg, a dish made with unripe jackfruit boiled for several hours with palm sugar, and coconut milk. Served with steamed rice, it teams well with various combinations, from chicken in opor ayam (coconut milk) and telur pindang (boiled egg) with tahu (tofu) to tempeh (an Indonesian dish made by deep-frying fermented soya beans) with sambal goreng krecek (a traditional Javanese cattle skin spicy stew dish). The place that had me licking the plate clean was Warung Bu Ageng. He’s a good egg, the chef there.
Sunset at Borobudur
Okay, so there’s a lot of stuff that’s way crazier than visiting a temple in Yogyakarta. But Borobudur is the essence of the place. There’s no escaping that. Apart from being one of the world’s largest Buddhist temples, it’s a beautifully constructed monument. It survived Gunung Merapi’s eruptions, terrorist bombs and the 2006 earthquake and remains as spellbinding as it was 1200 years ago. Watching the sunset here, a particular kind of calm wash over you. You know that Yogyakarta is now your home.
Kopi Joss, or the charcoal coffee of Jogja, is one of the most unusual brews I’ve come across. You begin preparing it in the usual Javanese style, adding loose coffee grinds and sugar to a cup, then pouring hot water in it. Then comes the magic ingredient – flaming hot charcoal. So basically this is a coffee with a piece of burnt wood floating in it. You would expect it to have a smoky or woody aftertaste, but it’s actually just a very smooth coffee. Watching the stall owner add a blazing red piece of charcoal to my second cup, I couldn’t help but think of how Brutus’s wife Portia would have loved this one. Sounds wicked? That was the coffee speaking. There are a row of kopi joss stalls on the north side of main train station (Tugu) that open around 4 pm.
Bling It On
The parties in Yogyakarta are crazy beyond your wildest imagination. And portable – they’re called the bling-bling cars! They are pedal-cars that look like a Beetle – a Beetle that has been lit up more than a tree at Christmas. These cars light up in various patterns and play music I dare you to not sway to. Some of them even have a small television. I took one to Alun-Alun, the main square in Yogyakarta, and the ride was the kind I would want on my birthday. The pedalling gets tiring after a while but on the plus side, you work up an appetite to gorge on some of that brilliant street food on the main square.
Nothing Beats Chocolate
Chocolate is the fastest way for a country to win a traveller over. It’s the reason Switzerland has held the hearts of millions since as long as one can remember. I used to associate Malaysia with chocolate but never Indonesia. Monggo chocolate is Indonesia’s chocolate favourite brand and all of their sweets are still handmade at the factory in Kota Gede, on the southeast side of Jogja.
These are just a few offbeat aspects of Yogyakarta’s personality. If you’re hooked after experiencing them, go ahead and try more unusual adventures like cave tubing on the lazy river at Goa Pindul, body rafting at the Kalisuci caves, the Lava tour of the volcano, Mount Merap,i or go souvenir shopping at Malioboro street. Oh, and don’t forget to try the local bite-sized rice meals here. They go by the name of Nasi Kucing (Cat Rice).