Whilst ‘Java’ is a well known US slang word for coffee, that wasn’t our only reason for taking a whistle stop tour through this Indonesian island, oh no! During our time on the island, we’d experience bustling cities, ancient temples, cramped trains, world heritage sites and get well off the beaten track. I’m now going to attempt to give you the low down on our 5.5 days, in 5.5 paragraphs*. Buckle up.
Day 0.5 – Jakarta
We’d heard nothing but bad things about Jakarta, so didn’t plan to spend long there at all. Our flight from Borneo landed at 6:50PM, and as the sun set we made tracks straight from the airport to our hostel. You know how they say you have 20 seconds to make a first impression? We’ve found the same to be true of new places, but just change the units to minutes. Maybe it was the contrast between Jakarta, KK and KL, the two cities we had visited most recently, maybe it was the cultural shift, or maybe our expectations were just so low, but Jakarta very quickly won us around. Whilst there didn’t appear to be a great deal of tourist attractions, people were very friendly (save for that universal leveller – taxi drivers), there was a great buzz about the place and our hostel (Six Degrees) was awesome! We have found that in lieu of things to do, how much you enjoy a stop is often influenced by the people you meet and where you stay, so we’d have loved to been able to hang around a couple more days.
Day 1 – On the Trains
We arose at the crack of dawn the following day, and once again found ourselves negotiating the cabbies to reach Pasar Senen station in time for the 6:15AM ‘Fajar Utama Yogya’ train to Yogyakarta. Jogja, as the city is affectionately known, is the capital of the Yogyakarta Special Region, and was the capital of Java during the Indonesian National Revolution. In many ways, it is what Jakarta is not. Whilst the modern capital is a bustling metropolis, full of high-rises and industry, Jogja prides itself on its traditional arts and crafts and at its heart is a maze of narrow lanes (‘gangs’) full of eateries and backpacker-geared accommodation. After a slightly cramped 8 hour train ride watching the Javan scenery whizz past, we arrived and immediately followed our stomachs to Mi Casa es Tu Casa, where we had a tasty paella lunch (obviously) and negotiated a good rate at a local Losman (guesthouse). Travel-weary, the afternoon was spent chilling out and planning adventures for the days to come…
Day 2 – A Jogja Farce
Our second full day, and it was time to get out and get exploring. After a tasty noodle breakfast, we headed out with a view to visiting the Kraton, a walled royal enclave in the centre of the city. Having wandered down the main street, Jalan Malioboro, and across a large parade ground, we strolled up to the ticket booth and paid our 7,000rp each, only to be pretty disappointed by the smattering of rundown buildings that we found within. However, we did meet an incredibly friendly school group, who all came running over to take a ‘selfie’ with us. “What the hell was that all about?”, we wondered, still much to learn. Anyway, not to be deterred, we went looking for our second stop, the Taman Sari or ‘Water Castle’. To this day I’m not sure if we really did find it, but if we did then it seems that the grounds were being used for a little festival. We enjoyed some unexpected snacks, music and dancing before deciding it best we hang up our exploring boots for the day, and jumped in a becak (cycle rickshaw) ridden by an older gentleman, who seemed less than enamoured with the long journey back up a slight gradient.
Tip: We later established that there are infact two entrances to the Kraton, and by some accounts two names that they go by. One, the proper entrance run by the Sultan, charges 12,500rp and provides access to a fair amount of the complex. This is referred to as ‘Keraton Ngayogyakarta Hadiningrat’ and located down a side street as you approach from the parade ground. The other entrance that it transpires we used is referred to as ‘Keraton Yogyakarta’, so at face value appears legit, and is certainly the more easily reached. You have to walk past this entrance to get to the main route in. This TripAdvisor review provides some good advice on avoiding this scam.
Day 3 – Temple-tastic
After the mild balls-up yesterday, we were keen to avoid a repeat performance, so haggled for a car and driver with the Losman owner’s son to ferry us up to two of the area’s big attractions – the temples at Prambanan and Borobudur. After a scenic tour of Jogja to drop off other passengers, we headed first to Prambanan, a grand Hindu temple complex consisting of over 50 sites. Upon entry, we were lucky enough to have a trainee guide approach us and offer a free tour, which we gladly accepted. Over the following hour we explored the main temples of Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma, learnt the myths and meanings behind the statues housed within, and had our second taste of our apparent fame in Indonesia. Upon reflection (!) the constant barrage of photo requests from young and old, which had started to become annoying, might have had more to do with our western good looks than our burgeoning popularity as writers. Thankfully, as the day drew on and we visited Borobudur the attention waned. This important Buddhist temple was my favourite of the two, with intricate stone carvings detailing scenes of doctrine and Javanese life 1000’s of years ago as you wind your way up the layers to the monument’s pinnacle. Set to a stunning Javan mountain backdrop, with active volcanos spewing gas off in the distance, it was a wonderfully serene end to the day. Upon return to the car, our driver had somehow acquired a woman and baby, who seemingly had no interest in our newfound state of zen and kindly provided a wailing soundtrack for the return leg of our trip.
Tip: There is a sparsely advertised package ticket available for both Prambanan and Borobudur. It costs 420,000rp for an adult, but can’t be used if you’re wanting to see the sun rise at Borobudur.
Day 4 – Solo-tude
As suddenly as it had begun, our time in Yogyakarta was now up. It was time to jump aboard a thankfully more modern train, sporting elaborate decorative livery, to our next stop – Surakarta (AKA Solo). Chosen primarily for its proximity to Jogja and cheap flight to Bali, Solo was a reminder why even in the modern age of the internet and cheap travel, some destinations remain ‘off the beaten track’. We arrived laden with backpacks late afternoon, and with nowhere booked to stay we jumped in a cab, coerced the driver into using his meter and set off for a couple of hostels that are highlighted in Lonely Planet’s ‘Southeast Asia on a Shoestring’. This book, a bible for us and many others we have met, has by chance featured a number of the great hostels (including Six Degrees, above) we’ve stayed at. The hostel it led us to in Solo, Istana Griya, was not one of them. Keen to get moving, for fear the mould would settle on us, we headed out for dinner. This was to also prove a fruitless endeavour, but more on that tomorrow…
Day 5 – Solo
Our penultimate day in Java started slowly. First, relief that we hadn’t been eaten alive in the night. Second, coffee. Third, a brunch planning session ahead of our next-but-one stop in New Zealand. Knowing we’d be busy in Bali with Steffie and Selene for the next few days, and with our glaring lack of a plan hanging over us, we seized the opportunity to escape the hostel and it’s woeful WiFi, parking up in a nearby restaurant. As it would transpire, this would be the only meal we ate in Solo that wasn’t courtesy of one Ronald McDonald, but not through lack of trying. Last night we had taken ourselves on an impromptu walking tour to find ‘Double Decker’, a cool 1950’s American Diner-style joint with a London Routemaster bus inexplicably parked outside. Not hard to miss, you might think, yet miss it we did. It would seem the address on their Foursquare listing was wrong, but never fear, ever industrious Alex had tracked down an alternative on their Facebook page for tonight. After a swift drink and a game of pool at an empty rooftop bar called Amarelo, which stocked a total of four bottles of beer (beware – it’s impossible to find alcohol in Solo, ironically where it’s needed most), we made like Clouseau and got investigating. Some walking later, just as the heavens opened, it became clear this was also incorrect. Cue a row, a tuk-tuk ride and a Big Mac. Not to worry, for the next day, we would be up early for our flight to Bali!
Tip: I have since established the third, and what I’m sure is the correct, location for Double Decker. You should be able to find it a little way out of town at the foot of the favehotel on Jalan Ir. Soekarno. If anyone ever happens to find themselves in Surakarta, please do check it out and let us know what it’s like. The food looks great, and there’s live music too… apparently!
So, there you have it, a whistle-stop blog about our whistle-stop tour of Java. No doubt, there is loads more to see and do on the island and we’d love to go back. Fresh from my victorious ascent of Mount Kinabalu I was keen to scale Mount Bromo – Java’s most famous active volcano, and there were a number of other towns we’d have liked to visit and wildlife it would have been cool to see. That’s one thing we’ve definitely started to realise – under time and budget constraints there’s only so much you can see and do, and with a whole lifetime to fill and an almost infinite number of places to visit, why would you want to do it all in one go? Whilst travelling first time around has been a costly endeavour, I’m starting to expect that expense to pale in comparison to that of return trips to so many of the awesome places we’ve visited, and gladly so. Indonesia is without doubt one of the places I can’t wait to experience again.
*In no way shape or form due to ‘feedback’ from unnamed sources about the length of my previous posts, and the amount of time between them…