Backpacking through Java is probably one of the best things to do when in Indonesia. The Java landscape is both serene and exciting, and much of the traditional culture is still preserved, especially in old towns like Jogja, Magelang, and Solo.
The following was a short trip to the 3 cities over 5 days in the summer of 2009, while writing this article on tourism villages for The Jakarta Globe.
Day 1: The Trip
Off I went on the train from Gambir, Jakarta to Tugu station, Jogjakarta (affectionately called “Jogja”). A lot of people fly cross-Java nowadays as local flights get more affordable, but I still think trains are your best bet. Not only is it much cheaper, you also get to see Java — the misted mountains and verdure fields — pass you by.
Business class costs Rp. 140, 000, executive Rp. 300, 000 [check for most updated rate]. I took business class, which means no air-conditioning, but along the way was entertained by the buskers and hundreds of people passing along selling snacks and cold drinks.
I got to Jogja around dinner time, and went to have a meal at a small warung (small restaurant or stall) in town with friends. Good food is everywhere, quite literally, and street food is always better.
A local dish is the gudeg, a sweet jackfruit stew. For drinks, try wedang teh jahe, hot ginger tea, or teh poci, a local tea served in clay pots with chunks of sugar. Javanese food and drinks are notoriously sweet, but I figured it was ok. I was already predisposed to diabetes anyway.
I was lucky to have a friend live in Jogja so I stayed the night for free. Her house is just outside of town, and she has rice fields and rolling hills for a backyard. Couldn’t have had a better place to stay! Unfortunately, I was on assignment. That meant waking early the next morning to head to Magelang to visit the Borobudur stupa.
Day 2: Borobudur
Magelang is about an hour northwest of Jogja. It’s accessible by bus, but I went on a motorbike, hitching a ride with my photographer. Note: Borobudur is not in Magelang the city, but Magelang the regency. It’s surrounded by some 20 small, rural villages that make the loveliest backdrop to the stunning architecture.
Borobudur was packed, not a surprise during a summer. Found a place to stay at one of the cheap homestay motels right next to the stupa. What people often don’t realise is that there’s so much more in the area outside the stupa grounds.
Villages like Candirejo offers you guided tours on traditional dokar (horse-drawn carriage) and you can join the locals working in the fields or making traditional cane sugar candies or other traditional snacks. You can even take a crash course in the Javanese gamelan, a musical ensemble often accompanying dances, wayang (shadow puppet) shows or other community gatherings.
I spent the rest of the day walking around the villages. The houses were made of woven bamboos, the alleys unpaved, and happy children greeted me everywhere. Dinner at a warung lesehan in a corner, then spent the night pondering life and sorts in the silent darkness of the surrounding ricefields.
Now, some people may tell you that you should catch the sunrise from the Borobudur. This is not true. I mean, sure you can. But I was told, then assured by my experience, that the better option is to go up one of the several hills in the surrounding villages (try Mahitan or Candirejo) so you can see the sun rise over the majestic stupa and the 5 mountains that ring the valley.
I went to Candirejo, again by motorbike, though you can definitely take a longer hike there if you want to enjoy the pre-dawn air. When done with sunrise, then climb the temple. Do this before the sun gets too high, though, because it does get really hot.
Also, consider getting a tour guide lest you’re just staring at beautiful reliefs without truly appreciating it. The temple is decorated with bas-reliefs of the life of the Buddha, and the Borobudur guides are great. They know their stuff about the ancient kingdoms and literature of Java and you really do learn a lot.
Around 3 o’clock, I headed back to Jogja. I took a couple of hours to rest, then went out with friends to the old town. If you’re in town on Tuesday, Thursday, or Saturday night, make sure to go to Prambanan temples to catch the Ramayana ballet that tells the ancient Sanskrit tale of Rama and Sita. Tickets are only Rp 75,000. If not, then one could always wander around town, maybe catch an impromptu music sesh on the town greens.
As with any Javanese town, Jogja comes to life at night. I went to one of the old city alun-alun (courtyard), near the Keraton (royal palace) and the Vredeburg fort. There’s always food, and there’s usually some sort of art or music shows going on. Mostly, though, I was there to absorb the energy of the city as everyone comes to hang out.
Day 3: around Jogja
Now, this is time for some touristy sightseeing. I visited some museums in town, and looked in awe at all the old colonial buildings. Jogja is also a lively place for the arts, so be on the lookout for art galleries or even spontaneous shows on the street (and I haven’t even started on the street art!).
Visit the Jogja Keraton, home to the Hamengku Buwono sultanate, which still holds political power in the region. It’s one of the two sultanates still remaining in Java (the other one is in Solo). The museum houses the palace’s collection of antiques and tells the history of the sultanate. Down the street, the Vredeburg fort, a remnant of the colonial era, showcases old artilleries and exhibits rooms where they once tortured prisoners.
When done with the touring, time to shop. Jogja is famous for its artisanate traditional Javanese batik and other handicrafts, for cheap, especially if you can bargain in crude Javanese (which I, thanking my dad’s eloquent cousins, picked up since the perceptible age of 3). For batik, go to Malioboro street. For ceramics, drive a little south to the Kasongan village. For leather shadow puppets or other leather crafts, go further south to Bantul.
Day 4: Solo
Solo or Surakarta is an hour northeast from Jogja, and I went by a commuter train (Rp. 9,000). Being a much smaller city than Jogja, there’s not as much to see, but just as with Jogja, the Surakarta Keraton is a must. There has always been debate about which Keraton is superior, but those who like Solo’s more found the architecture much more aesthetically delicate.
The Surakarta Keraton also houses a batik house, with a collection of Solo batik, which, of course, differs from the patterns of Jogja batik. There’s the Sriwedari museum by the city alun-alun and a neat antique market next door.
I was in Solo during the Keraton Art Festival, which celebrated the anniversary of the Sultan’s coronation. A series of events, including a culinary festival and gamelan performances and beautiful (slow) traditional Javanese dances, were just exquisite. Best of all, it was all for free!
I was also there for the biannual Solo International Ethnic Music Festival, also for free, catching great artists from around the world (in the show I watched it was Zimbabwe and Singapore) and around Indonesia (Makassar and Solo), jamming with local musicians.
Great food is also everywhere, and I tried a cow’s tongue stew, the local rice dish called nasi liwet, a traditional serabi cake for dessert, and had fresh milk by the roadside.
Day 5: the trip back
Rose early, at 5, to catch a train back to Jogja and then to back to dirty, old Jakarta. As the mountains and vast rice fields rush past me, I can only think of the next time I’ll go back to visit this countryside.
[Photos this time were not by me because I stupidly did not bring a camera. (c) the respective photographers.]