Exploring the Ancient and Unexpected: Yogyakarta, Indonesia

The first thing that caught my eye in Yogyakarta–one of Java, Indonesia’s largest cities, known locally as Jogja–was its brilliantly eclectic nature; the people, architecture, food, and culture are fascinatingly varied. This seemingly endless diversity is a modern reflection of Indonesia’s deeply layered history and makes for a thrilling place to explore for the unexpected. I began my days from the fashionably traditional Dusun Jogja Village Inn and hit the streets on foot which gave me an up close and personal lay of the land. However, after hours of winding through meandering side roads and endless main streets, I was ready to speed up my trip to Jogja’s most popular neighborhood: Malioboro. As if on cue, a man in a cycle rickshaw beckoned me over and said, “Let’s go!”

As I cruised down the smoothly paved streets of Jogja in my surprisingly speedy rickshaw, or becak, I took in the steamy smells of street vendors selling local specialties such as gudeg – a concoction of jackfruit, palm sugar, and coconut milk – and viewed the passing sites such as the Kraton, the seat of Jogja’s Sultan. I arrived at Malioboro’s swirling streets and made my way through the whirring traffic of 100 zipping motor scooters, browsing the dizzying number of shops and stands selling spices, handmade goods, and clothing dyed and decorated in the iconic Javanese batik style. I took refuge from the chaos of the main streets in a quaint alleyway, grabbing a much needed caffeine boost from the cozy, locally owned Wanderlust Coffee Division.

As I sipped on my latte I was approached by a group of university students who interviewed me for a class project, not surprising considering that Jogja is the academic heart of Indonesia and, as I would come to learn, the Javanese are among the friendliest people imaginable. We spoke of my experience in the city as well as places to visit and specialties to try, with kopi joss being among their recommendations, a mixture of scalding lumps of charcoal in freshly brewed coffee. And when I mentioned plans to visit Mt. Merapi, the nearby volcano, they told me stories of angry spirits and missing hikers – best leave the gods alone, they said.

The ancient architecture that surrounds Jogja defies expectation, with structures dating back over a millennium to ancient kingdoms where Hindus and Buddhists peacefully coexisted and erected massive monuments to their prospective deities. I visited Borobudur, a massive multi-tiered Buddhist monument, at sunrise, admiring the incredible labor and craftsmanship that was clearly poured into it. As I marveled at the nearly 500 stupas and buddha statues dotting the structure, I met a visitor from South Korea who shared elements of Buddhist philosophy and directed my eyes to the south, where the mountains rose up and created what looked to be the silhouette of a sleeping Buddha.

The last stop on my trip was Prambanan, a vast Hindu temple complex with towering structures built in the Vastu Shastra tradition. It’s difficult to put the enormity of these spaces into words, and easier instead to read the expressions of visiting observers, each with a bigger “woah” than the last.

As I departed the temple complex I realized I had missed the last bus, and with no ride home, I was stranded. A parking attendant quickly called over a local who was leaving on their motor scooter, who then offered me a ride back into town. “My name’s Risky!” he said, handing me his backup helmet. As I rode on the back of this scooter, driven by a complete stranger with the most impossible of names, I realized that I was having one of those surreal travel moments one can only achieve by getting lost and letting go. Once we arrived back at my hotel this samaritan on wheels refused any payment, instead smiling and wished me a good day–and indeed it was.

All photographs by Philip Nix

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