I recently spent a week travelling across Central Java and Yogyakarta, a part of Indonesia that is often overshadowed by its more popular beach destinations – I’m looking at you Bali! Prior to travelling here I knew very little of what this area had to offer. The only place on my radar was Borobudur, because it’s been on my bucket list for years, but aside from that I wouldn’t have been able to name any other landmarks or top attractions. It wasn’t until I started reading blogs and browsing online guides that I learned there were also volcanoes, unique art forms, and local specialties waiting to be sampled.
In many ways, this trip was off-the-beaten path. While I encountered many Indonesian tourists exploring the beauty of their own country, once I left Yogyakarta and ventured into Central Java, I came across very few foreigners. I counted a grand total of 7 during my 2 days in Solo/Surakarta, and then only 1 when I went up to Semarang – he seemed just as startled to see me as I was to see him.
Today I thought I would share some of the highlights from that week-long trip, and hopefully inspire you to visit a part of Indonesia that you may not have previously considered.
// 3 days //
Climb to the top of the largest Buddhist temple
Technically, this place is in Central Java, but if you’re coming all the way to Yogyakarta, you’re going to want to make the day trip to Borobudur to see the largest Buddhist temple in the world. It’s about an hour’s drive north of the city, and you can easily arrange for a driver to take you out there either through a tour agency or through your hotel.
Like with Angkor Wat in Cambodia, many travellers like to get up early to go watch the sunrise. Just make sure you check the forecast in advance to ensure you’ll have clearly skies. We chose to visit later in the morning because the forecast was calling for overcast skies, but thankfully that cleared by the time we got there.
The temple itself consists of 9 platforms: the lower 6 are square and the top 3 are round. At the top, the central dome is surrounded by 72 Buddha statues each seated in a stupa, and across the temple you’ll find a whopping 2,672 relief panels. Imagine the amount of work it took to carve all that!
Admission to Borobudur is $20 USD just for Borobudur, but I would pay $32 for the Borobudur-Prambanan package, which grants you access to another temple east of Yogyakarta.
Go on a jeep adventure on Mount Merapi
Mount Merapi, also known as Fire Mountain, is perhaps the most famed volcano in the region as it happens to be the most active.
Though we did contemplate hiking Mount Merapi (like we did with Mount Batur in Bali), we ultimately decided that a jeep ride would be best. We were a little bit short on time, plus the drive back from Borobudur would bring us really close to the volcano, so why not swing by since we were already in the vicinity?
Our driver took us as far up the mountain as we could go, and then he dropped us off at a tour operator where we got a jeep and a driver to take us the rest of the way. The tour cost the equivalent of $25 and the loop took just under two hours (it all depends on how much time you spend taking pictures).
Along the way, we visited Museum Sisa Hartaku, which was established in a home destroyed by the volcanic eruption of 2010. We also went past communities that were abandoned after the eruption, stopped at a giant rock known as ‘Alien Head’ which was launched out the volcano, and visited a former bunker that unfortunately was not able to provide adequate shelter during the last blast.
Visit Prambanan Temple and watch the Ramayana Ballet
Prambanan Temple is located in the outskirts of Yogyakarta in the east end of the city right on the boundary with Central Java. It is a is a 9th-century Hindu temple dedicated to the Trimurti, which is the trinity of Brahma (Creator), Vishnu (Preserver), and Shiva (Destroyer).
I would say the best time of day to visit is in the early morning if you want the sun lighting up the temples, or in the late afternoon if you want to catch the sunset.
Another activity I would recommend is watching the Ramayana Ballet which takes place in the evenings just behind the temple. This is a Javanese dance interpretation of an Indian epic poem. Some evenings they perform the full Ramayana while other evenings focus on highlights of the Ramayana or showcasing Java’s music and dance heritage, so make sure you check the schedule and plan accordingly.
We decided to watch the full Ramayana Ballet, which was a 2-hour performance with a very brief intermission. I personally found the story a bit hard to follow (though they did have slides every so often that explained what each scene was about), that being said, it was still fascinating to see the colours and the movements, and things really heated up towards the end when they lit part of the stage of fire (all part of the performance, of course).
If you’re interested in cultural dances, you can get more information about the Ramayana Ballet here. And if you don’t want to go all the way out to Prambanan at night, they do stage similar performances in Yogyakarta.
Solo / Surakarta
// 2 days //
Learn the art of batik and shop for your own
Batik is a technique were wax is added to textiles and then dyed to create elaborate patterns. Many of the patterns are symbolic and associated with certain rituals, and these can either be added by hand or using a stamp.
Indonesian batik is considered a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO, so this is something that we wanted to see first hand while in Java. In order to do so, we made our way to the House of Danar Hadi, a private museum in Solo that contains around 10,000 pieces of rare and historical batik from all over Indonesia. And because it would be impossible to exhibit this many pieces at once, every 6 months they change their displays for visitors.
Aside from the artifacts inside the museum, the most fascinating part for me was seeing the making of the batik in the workshop. Here I watched as women blew on tiny pipes to keep the wax warm and then drew patters on the fabric. There were a total of 4 women working in the first workshop and the most experienced of them had 37 years of practice under her belt. I learned that applying the wax by hand to one piece of cloth can take up to 2 weeks, and a total of 3 months until the dyeing and sewing process is complete. Now would you believe all of this work is to create just 1 shirt?
From there, we moved onto the second workshop where we saw the wax being applied with an iron stamp. Using a stamp is more time efficient, so the pieces are finished sooner and are more affordable, so this is something to take into consideration if you’re in the market for a batik.
After visiting the workshops, we browsed the shop inside the House of Danar Hadi, where they had a massive selection. Sam ended up walking away with a red batik that everyone kept complimenting for the rest of our time in Indonesia.
As a note, all visits to the House of Danar Hadi are guided, and no video or photography is allowed in the museum, though you can pull out your camera in the workshops.
Fun and games at Sriwedari Park
So we originally came to Sriwedari Park because we heard this was the place to catch a shadow puppet performance (wayang kulit), which is an important part of the art heritage in Solo. However, what we didn’t realize is that the schedule changes throughout the week. On the particular night we visited they had an Indonesian rock band playing, which wasn’t what we came for, but it still turned out to be a lot of fun. There’s little to no information online about these performances and no one at our hotel seemed to know the schedule either, so you may have to chance it and see what’s on when you visit.
But there’s more to Sriwedari Park than just that! This place is actually a small amusement park, so aside from enjoying whatever performance they have on any particular night of the week, you can also buy tokens to go on the rides. Sam and I were all about the bumper cars, but they had other carnival games and rides to choose from.
Shop for antiques at Triwindu Market
Another highlight of our visit to Solo was getting to visit the Triwindu Market, which is the place to be if you’re a collector of antiques.
The market is spread out across a series of two-story buildings and inside you’ll find everything from wrought-iron chandeliers and leather puppets, to old phonographs and Dutch porcelain. It’s a bit of a maze with tables full of knick-knacks spilling out of the shops, and a mix of lamps, lanterns and masks dangling from the ceiling, but it’s the kind of place where you could easily lose hours just snooping around.
Feast on chocolate coconut pancakes
And now let me tell you about the most delicious pancakes I’ve had in my life!
Serabi is a pancake that is made from rice flour and either coconut milk or shredded coconut and it can be found across Asia, however, if there’s one recipe to rule them all, it may very well be the one from Serabi Solo Notosuman.
We arrived mid-morning craving a snack, and we ended up sampling the fluffiest, milkiest, sweetest, coconut pancakes with chocolate sprinkles on top. It was nothing short of magical, and it was so good that we had to go back and order more. The pancakes are a little crispy on the exterior with a moist interior, and they are served on banana leaves so they’re easy to handle.
You need to track this place down, even if it’s the only thing you do in Solo!
// 2 days //
Explore the Dutch Quarter on foot
Kota Lama is the name given to the Old Dutch Quarter in the north end of the city. Though the wall that demarcated the “walled city” is no longer there, many of the buildings from the Dutch colony still remain. The area itself is a bit run down and it could use a little bit of TLC, but according to this article from the Jakarta Post published earlier this year, the municipality has plans to restore many of the historical buildings in this area. In the meantime, you can browse some of the little antique shops or enjoy a walk along the waterfront.
Visit Sam Poo Kong Temple
Sam Poo Kong is the oldest Chinese temple in Semarang and it was originally established by Zheng He, a Chinese Muslim explorer. The year of the temple’s foundation is disputed, but story has it that Admiral Zheng’s expedition stopped here after one of his lieutenants became ill. Together, the crew found a cave to use for shelter and prayer, and people later built a temple on this very site to commemorate the Admiral.
Devour the famed Semarang spring rolls
Last but not least, there is one specialty you should try in this city: Lumpia Semarang! These are spring rolls filled with bamboo shoots, dry shrimp and chicken or prawns. The dish originated in the Chinese community but these days it can be found on just about every street corner. We found a little road side stand and sampled some there. The spring rolls are served with a sweet chilli sauce that’s sweetened with coconut and thickened with tapioca flour.
And that’s just a quick taste of what the region has to offer. We only had a week there, so in a way I feel like we barely scratched the surface; seriously there is so much more to see and do in Yogyakarta and Central Java. We highlighted a few more activities in this video guide below, but if you have any other suggestions you’d like to share with travellers, feel free to do so in the comments below.
Have you been to Yogyakarta or Central Java?
What were some of your highlights?