A little different than usual list of things to do in Yogyakarta, Indonesia.
The best thing about traveling is learning while getting a chance to experience new things. If you ask me today to name a destination where I learned the most and did things that I had never done before, I’d say Yogyakarta without a second thought. So friends, let me introduce Yogyakarta to you. It is a destination in Indonesia that transformed me into a cultural traveler.
It is spelled as Yogyakarta but usually pronounced as Jogjakarta, however, most locals prefer to call it “Jogja”. There are many who confuse it with Jakarta.. to be honest, even I did when I heard the name for the first time. (Well done Sonal). A little peek at Google maps made me realize that Yogyakarta was an hour away from Jakarta by flight.
Having done no previous research, I arrived in Yogyakarta with a very little in mind other than the famous Borobudur temple, and boy, was I surprised! As our Garuda Indonesia airplane descended in Yogyakarta, I couldn’t help but notice the similarities between the South Indian and Indonesian landscape. I could see a bird’s eye view of massive farms (I suppose paddy), colorful villages, and many little paths crisscrossing to form a maze.
Anyway, the few days I spent in Yogyakarta were fully packed from morning to night. Here is a list of 13 things I did here, which I had never done before. Number 13 is my favorite! This will give you an idea about things to do in Yogyakarta:
13 Unique things to do in Yogyakarta
- 1) Sunrise at Borobudur Temple – world’s largest Buddhist monument
- 2) Mount Merapi Volcano Spotting [+ a CRAZY Jeep Ride]
- 3) Explore Kotagede (Kota Gede) – Jogja’s Art and Cultural Soul
- 4) Visit Paddy Farms at Desa Pentingsari
- 5) Watch the Famous Puppet Show of Jogja (and learning puppet-making)
- 6) Ride an Andong around Yogyakarta
- 7) Visit Klipoh Village [near Borobudur] for Pottery Making
- 8) Jamu Tasting in Jogja
- 9) Watch the Royal Dance Performance of Yogyakarta
- 10) Visit Desa Bahasa and Learn Bahasa Indonesia
- 11) Watch Jemparingan
- 12) Experience a “Royal” body Massage with Volcano Stones
- 13) Make Your Own Batik in Kotagede
- Where to stay in Yogyakarta:
1) Sunrise at Borobudur Temple – world’s largest Buddhist monument
Never in my life, I thought that I would wake up at 2:30 am just to watch an epic sunrise. The earliest that I did was 4:30 am in Cappadocia but I did the unthinkable on my second day in Yogyakarta.
Do I regret it? Read on to find out! Oh but let me tell a little about this famous temple first.
Borobudur temple is the single largest Buddhist structure and temple on earth and the construction took 75 years. Wow! What blew my mind was that this temple was abandoned and hidden for centuries under layers of volcanic ash and thick forest. It was rediscovered when Java (this area) was under British administration in the early 1800s.
Sounds like an Indiana Jones movie, no? Needless to say, this 9th-century temple is a UNESCO World heritage site. Strangely enough, this temple remained intact during the 2006 earthquake in this area. Visiting Borobudur is surely one of the top unique experiences in Indonesia.
Anyway, we left our hotel at 3 am because Borobudur temple is in Magelang, Central Java – about 2 hours away from our hotel, which was in the heart of Yogyakarta.
We arrived here a little after 4:30 and were given torches because it was still very dark. I ran up the steps and within minutes I had crossed many steps and three levels to reach the top. I wanted the perfect sunrise shot here.
Just like the day before, the clouds did not permit us to watch the sunset. However, I can’t forget the view from the top. As I looked down, I saw many steps. Were they really 100? I never ended up counting. I looked up and I saw the topmost stupa. There were mountains around the temple and everything looked very green. From where I stood, everywhere around were more stupas. Borobudur temple is actually built like a single large stupa with many little stupas inside it. (Stupas within Stupa – just like Inception)
As if it doesn’t get crazier, this temple looks like a mandala from up above. Watch this crazy drone picture by my friend Will Cho.
Another thing I can’t forget is watching how a lot of photographers lined up here for the perfect sunrise shot. Tripods, expensive SLRs and what not – but I stood along with them with my humble GoPro hero 4 black and my Samsung galaxy S5. Every one of us had to wait for a while for our perfect shot because soon there were too many people that came in.
Here is my favorite shot. I don’t know this girl but she was in front of me at the right moment.
After spending most of our morning admiring Borobudur temple’s symmetry, panels, stairs, stupas and many Buddha statues, we finally decided to leave the temple complex.
On our way out, we decided to stop at Manohara hotel for a breakfast buffet. This hotel is in Borobudur temple garden area and was obviously full of international visitors. Unlike most of our earlier meals, this restaurant had local as well as international food.
Do you want to catch the sunrise at Borobudur? The gate opens to the general public at 6 am but SOME packages let you enter at 4:30 am from Manohara Hotel. Here are some packages that I found online:
- Borobudur Sunrise or Sunset Private Tour – includes pick up and drop
- Borobudur Sunrise and Prambanan Temple – includes pick up, drop, and visits to Borobudur and Prambanan temples.
- Borobudur Sunrise, Merapi Volcano and Prambanan Temple – includes a visit to two famous temples of Yogyakarta and a jeep ride to Merapi Volcano
The beauty of Borobudur at the first light of the morning is stunning and is worth waking up early for.
2) Mount Merapi Volcano Spotting [+ a CRAZY Jeep Ride]
Ever spotted a volcano? For me, it was the first time! Remember the 2010 news about volcano eruptions in Indonesia? That was Mount Merapi and it is on the border between Yogyakarta and Central Java. It was close to Desa Pentingsari so it was our next stop after paddy farming. Obviously, we did not go to the volcano but we explored the area around it on jeeps.
Everything around was very green, not how I had imagined it to be. Our jeep driver told us that a few years back, there was no forest here and it was all black. He also told us that as many as 353 people had died here back in 2010 when it had erupted. The government had sent alerts and had asked the villagers to leave this area but many decided not to do so. Many houses burnt and one such house was later transformed into a museum. That place is called Museum Sisa Hartaku and this was my gloomiest moment in Indonesia.
Museum Sisa Hartaku near Mount Merapi
It started raining heavily as we stopped outside Museum Sisa Hartaku. It was as if the weather Gods wanted to match the mood of the inside gloom which we were about to encounter. A charred motorbike and a cow’s skeleton greeted us as we entered. Inside, what was once a cozy living room was now the biggest museum area with burnt remains of furniture.
I felt shivers down my spine as I looked at a clock on the wall, which was stuck forever in time. It had stopped when the eruption had reached the house. On the other side of the house, there was a little room, which was once perhaps the kitchen. There was a table that displayed the family’s everyday things such as toothbrush, broken soda bottles, plates, spoons, etc.
What happened to the family that once lived here?
Within a few minutes, I got my answer. Thankfully, the family that owned this house once had left the village before the eruptions began. Mr. Kimin and Mrs. Wati, the owners had later decided to turn their house into a museum.
Mount Merapi Bunker Point and Viewpoint
As soon as the rain stopped, it was time to get back on the jeeps and explore the area around. We crossed what looked like a river but our driver informed us that it was created due to hot lava. We stopped by a viewpoint next to a bunker. A few people who tried to save themselves during the 2006 eruptions used this bunker but they were unsuccessful. Sad.
We couldn’t see Mount Merapi very well from here because of the clouds. It started raining again and we took shelter in the nearby tea shops. Again, Indonesia reminded me of India and I felt I was sitting somewhere in the Himalayas sipping chai in a little dhaba. The view from the cliff-side tea shop was spectacular.
A crazy jeep ride near Mount Merapi
Perhaps it was because we couldn’t see the famous volcano very well because of the clouds but all of a sudden, our jeep drivers decided that we needed a little rush of adrenaline. They sped the jeeps through the roads that resembled streams due to excessive rain to give us a ride to remember. I won’t say much, but here is a video by a fellow blogger Michael Turtle (Time Travel Turtle) who was there with us and captured it perfectly.
Book your jeep ride and a tour of Mt Merapi with Kaliurang Adventure by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
3) Explore Kotagede (Kota Gede) – Jogja’s Art and Cultural Soul
Did I mention Yogyakarta is an overdose of art culture and history? Well, you can glimpse all of these factors in just a few hours when you visit Yogyakarta’s historic neighborhood, Kotagede (or Kota Gede).
In Javanese, Kota Gede means big city and trust me you need to take out a lot more than just a couple of hours to explore this area. I’m happy that I was carrying extra GoPro batteries here because I ended up taking 100s of photos. I couldn’t help it because every corner here is worth a photo.
We started by exploring a local market that had spices, baskets, meat, tea, coffee, fresh fruits, and vegetables. Interestingly, most of these shops had women owners. Most of them didn’t speak English but understood the universal sign language. As we got out of the food market area, we saw several silver shops around us and later I found out that Kotagede is known globally for its silver crafting. The local market many other interesting shops too such as pottery, batik, flowers, etc.
Next, we decided to get lost in Kota Gede’s many lanes and realized how the old town is just like a maze. Little alleys led to interesting old looking houses and this is where the photographer in me went a little crazy. Many houses were brightly colored and featured elaborate gardens.
If you are into “door porn”, you will absolutely love Kotagede because every house had a beautiful door. Most of the doors had ornate panels on top and looked like they had a story to tell from a forgotten era.
Under normal circumstances, I would have loved to blend in to get lost in the old town. But the fact that my Yogyakarta visit was a press trip with 30 Instagram obsessed social media influencers, things were a tad different. Wherever we went, people knew we were visitors (obviously). The best was seeing smiles and excitement on school children’s faces as they photo bombed us and posed with us. Aren’t they adorable?
This didn’t happen just once but happened at many places of Kotagede where I was surrounded by some really adorable school girls who wanted a picture.
We crossed a few places of worship as well such as an old temple with a massive gong and a 16th-century mosque. It was then we saw a few artists that were sitting by the road and drawing what was in front of them. After asking around, I got to know that Yogyakarta is Indonesia’s art capital and a lot of artists live here. (yes it gets better and better).
Next day, I got to know I was quoted and featured on the front page of a leading Indonesian newspaper – Jogja Tribun. This picture was taken while I was exploring Kotagede.
How did this happen? Agus Wahyu, who accompanied us to Kotagede is a journalist with Tribun which I didn’t know. He saw how I went a little crazy with excitement while exploring the street and asked me a few questions. Next day, he quoted me in his article, most of which is in Bahsa Indonesia and I can’t understand!
4) Visit Paddy Farms at Desa Pentingsari
Love nature? Desa Pentingsari village is the place for you! Pentingsari village is in the North of Yogyakarta and was my first stop in Yogyakarta. We arrived here on a bus from Yogyakarta just a little before 11 am. After a light snack wrapped in banana leaves next to a little pond, we were ready to visit the farms.
A few minutes of walk through this green village, we stopped next to a farmer who was riding a bullock cart. For no apparent reason, within the next few minutes, I found myself trying to ride this cart.
It was funny because I had to balance myself on a little rod “seat” as the bull (or is this an Ox?) moved around with an exaggerated rear motion. As my feet dug in the wet mud, I started enjoying the ride and while enjoying my natural foot spa. My enjoyment was short lived as the bull moved its rail around and I realized my face was too close to its rear.
What if this thing decides to fart?
Oops! At that instant, I decided to end my ride. Yes, I did get myself dirty but loved it. From here, we went back to the same homestay, where a traditional Javanese lunch was waiting for us. Yumm!
By the way, you if you enjoyed reading about my paddy farming experience, then you should surely check out this post about the lovely rice fields of Ubud, Bali.
Do you want to do this too? Contact Pentingsari Tourism Village at email@example.com
5) Watch the Famous Puppet Show of Jogja (and learning puppet-making)
Puppetry has been a significant art form in Indonesia since the early times. More than just art, this was a way of spreading awareness about good and bad. Several parts of the Hindu epics Ramayana and Mahabharata are usually portrayed in a theatrical art form called Wayang.
However, one of the most interesting forms of puppetry that I have seen is in a contemporary art form. It is the famous paper puppets of Jogja – the Papermoon Puppet Theatre.
The puppets at Papermoon Puppet Theater had a “life-like” look on their carefully carved faces. Some of them looked very adorable while others looked a little scary.. as if they were watching me.
Ria, the founder of Papermoon told us that the performances are very emotional and are without dialogues. As soon as I heard that, I wondered, how on earth do they portray different emotions when the puppets have the same looks on their faces? As if guessing our thoughts, Ria showed at least 5 emotions using the puppet that she was holding by just using gestures. Watch this video!
After this, it was time to get creative again and learn how to make puppets. We started by making a newspaper ball for the head and attached it to a stick. Next, we covered the ball with white plaster. The step after this was the most difficult one because we had to carve the face.
At this stage, I realized my puppet had an oddly shaped head. I looked towards my left where Silke’s puppet looked very life like in just a matter of a few seconds and suddenly my competitive streak got a hold of me.
My puppet was looking like an old man but I wanted to make a young girl. No matter what I tried, my puppet refused to look like a girl – as if, it knew what it wanted to be. Just when I was about to give up, I tried making hair on my puppet’s bald head and voila – it was a girl! (a very scary looking girl though).
My happiness what short lived because my puppet started shedding hair while I was traveling in Indonesia and within just a few days, it was back to being an old man.
Lesson learned – if your puppet wants to be an old man, let him be an old man. You can hide its gender by makeup and fancy hair but sooner or later, the truth will emerge.
Anyway, I was highly moved by watching whatever little performance I saw at Papermoon Puppet because of the way they portrayed the emotions. I am fascinated by the thought that their performances are not for children because they are of serious nature. Usually, they are very busy performing all over the world so I was lucky to have met them and seen them in action. I will do everything I can to watch one of their full shows with my husband. I highly recommend you check them out too here.
6) Ride an Andong around Yogyakarta
Wondering what is an Andong? It is a kind of a horse pulled carts in Yogyakarta We decided to ride these carts from Borobudur temple to our next destination – Desa Bahasa . Andong carts looked like they could hold 4 people but I’m happy that we decided to ride them in pairs of two.
Being an overly enthusiastic animal lover, I decided to pet the horse on its head like I would with a dog. The horse jerked its head in anger and made it very clear that it did not like it. Oops! Lesson learned – not every animal is like a dog. I picked a different cart and decided to completely ignore the new horse.
Our ride from Borobudur temple to Desa Bahasa was through the main village area. The scenery changed from historical buildings to green farms in just a matter of minutes. Rice paddies, colorful houses, and farmers with their bullock carts – this truly reminded me of South of India. Is this the area that I saw from my flight? I will never know.
About 15 minutes later, our picturesque ride ended and it was time to explore the village.
7) Visit Klipoh Village [near Borobudur] for Pottery Making
A few months back if someone would have told me that I’d enjoy making pottery, I would have laughed at that person’s face. Perhaps it was because I was sleep deprived or had my face a little too close to a bull’s stinky rear the day before, I felt strangely mesmerized at the sight of rotating pottery wheels. Maybe it is the rotating motion that had the hypnotizing effect but within seconds I was sitting next to a wheel. I was going to make my first masterpiece with the help of a local woman.
I wet my hands as per the woman’s instruction and held on to a ball of clay. As she rotated the wheel, I placed the clay on the wheel in the middle.
“Do you want to make an ashtray?” she asked. Assuming an ashtray would be the simplest thing to make, I said no and decided to make a fancy vase. I enjoyed the hum of the wheel as I concentrated on my soon to be a masterpiece. I was lost in my dreams about Instagramming a pretty picture of the final product (life of a travel blogger) when the realization struck me – my piece was not going to be pretty!
In the end, I ended up wasted a lot of clay as I tried to make a fancy vase. I eventually decided to give up and settle for an ashtray.
Note: Klipoh village is near Karanganyar Village and is around 3 KMs from Borobudur temple.
8) Jamu Tasting in Jogja
Jamu is a kind of traditional Indonesian medicinal juice. The ingredients are always natural – such as honey, milk, flowers, tree barks, etc. We stopped by a roadside stall to try a few of them.
Most of these were bitter but there was one that was delicious. On asking, I got to know that the sweet one was for improving skin. There were Jamu juice medicines for many things such as upset stomach, enhancing stamina and even tightening of a woman’s vagina! Haha
To be honest, when I was informed of a Jamu tasting session in our itinerary, I imagined it to be a local alcoholic beverage. (Yes, I have been spoilt by too many wine-tasting sessions, hehe).
9) Watch the Royal Dance Performance of Yogyakarta
As if right out of a storybook, four beautifully dressed women performed a traditional Javanese dance for us at the Royal Ambarrukmo hotel. It was a dance like no other because it didn’t seem like a celebration but appeared to be of a meditative nature. The seemingly serene dancers moved in slow and graceful motions.
They all wore elaborate headdresses that were made out of bright pink and gold. They wore roses around their hair buns. The rest of their outfits were black and gold. They swayed delicately on the music of bamboo music instrument. I couldn’t understand the words but it sounded like a prayer or a request.
We were later informed that it was the traditional dance from the time this hotel served as the royal palace. This dance was for the palace rulers and hence was a “Royal Dance”. I was later informed that back in the days, this “sacred” dance was a way of spreading moral enlightenment and Javanese cultural values. Oh and Yogyakarta’s most famous dance performance is actually the Ramayana ballet which I did not end up watching. If you want to know more about the Ramayana ballet, then check out this post about Yogyakarta.
10) Visit Desa Bahasa and Learn Bahasa Indonesia
Our next stop for the day was a language school surrounded by beautiful farms – Desa Bahasa. This little school runs many language programs and offers home stay in the village. Check the “where to stay” section towards the end of this post for more information about the home stay.
As some of you know I am learning German and regularly cry when I try to understand German grammar. In fact, it took me a month to say a few things that I could say in just a day after just an hour of learning Bahasa Indonesia. Why? 1) – The grammar is very simple and 2) the method of teaching at Desa Bahasa was a lot of fun. I will never forget how to say “I am hungry” or “I am sleepy” in Bahasa Indonesia for the rest of my life.
After our quick class, I decided to explore the area around Desa Bahasa and walk to the lunch area. We saw more farms, colorful houses, cows and a few chickens crossing the street. If given a chance, I’d love to go back to this village and live here for a month. For now, I decided to find a quiet spot in the garden for a little nap.
Do you want a quick language lesson in Yogyakarta? Click here for more info.
11) Watch Jemparingan
After a long day at Desa Bahasa, we decided to head to Royal Ambarrukmo for a massage. To be honest, watching archers was not a part of our plan but we were lucky enough to be at the right place at right time. Royal Ambarrukmo used to serve as the Yogyakarta Royal palace many years back but is now a hotel.
Outside the hotel building, we saw a row of men and women with bows and arrows. Each archer had a different bow that was appeared to be hand painted.
Riyanni informed me that it was Jemparingan, traditional Javanese archery. For me, it was beautiful to watch how their eyes, mind, and bodies were turned towards the target as they aimed in concentration. One by one, their arrows flew at their aim that was a little dot on the wall much ahead of where they were. I have never seen anything like this in my life!
12) Experience a “Royal” body Massage with Volcano Stones
Yes, the sunrise at Borobudur was fun but nothing can compare to a full body massage experience at Nurkhadayatan Spa, which is at the Royal Ambarrukmo Hotel.
Every massage room featured a bathtub made which was made from the stones of the Merapi volcano. As per the spa staff, the stones of Mount Merapi are considered to be sacred and are high in minerals. A hot bath inside one of these stone tubs is said to have healing power.
I don’t have much to write about the massage because it was truly blissful and I fell asleep during it.
13) Make Your Own Batik in Kotagede
As if the similarities between Indonesia and India were not close enough, the next activity in our itinerary was learning how to make Batik. I later found out that the art of making Batik is the most developed in Java, Indonesian.
The first step was drawing a pattern on a white cloth and putting it in a circular frame. The next was carefully dropping hot wax with the help of a pen-like tube to form an outline of the pattern. This appeared to be easy but was not so because we had to maintain a steady hand. This is the most important step because the wax obviously resists the color from penetrating when the dye is put, resulting in selective coloring. The wax can be later removed by soaking the cloth in boiling water.
While pottery making may not be my strongest point, I felt I did much better when it came to making batik. Here is my batik handkerchief. Do you like it?
If I get over my laziness, maybe someday I will make a few batik clothes and sell them at psytrance music festivals. Would you like to buy?
Where to stay in Yogyakarta:
I stayed in Greenhost Botique Hotel in Yogyakarta and instantly fell in love with it. It is a very beautiful hotel with a massive swimming pool inside the building. Everything is very green, peaceful and serene inside. I love their handmade soap, which is made with rice and coconut milk. It smelled so good that I almost ate it. A room for two is usually as low as USD 35, which is an excellent price for the luxury this hotel offers. The location is perfect because many restaurants are walking distance from here. Click here to check the latest deals on it.
Remember the language school in point 7? Well, they offer homestay in the village at affordable prices. At USD 6-10 per night, it is definitely an affordable option that is only 3 KMs away from Borobudur temple. Click here for info.
This is a five-star hotel, which once served as the royal palace for Yogyakarta. This hotel has an amazing spa, beautiful gardens and a mini museum in it. This is the same place where I saw archers practicing Jemparingan and a local Javanese dance performance. Click here to check the latest deals on a room here.
Have you visited Yogyakarta and have a few tips to share? Let me know in the comments. I’d love to see your recommendations for things to do in Yogyakarta.
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A big thanks to the Ministry of Tourism of Indonesia for inviting Drifter Planet to visit their beautiful country.
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