Yogyakarta… where the heart is

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On a lush plain studded with thousand-year-old monuments and overshadowed by dormant and smoking volcanos, Yogyakarta retains an easy-going air that welcomes all-comers. With Qatar Airways flying to Jakarta daily, the time is right to explore Java’s cultural roots.


Mr Budi kneels down and scoops a handful of stones. “The lava makes more than 70 different colours,” my guide says as he looks at the pebbles and pumice. “Pinks and coffees, creams, and greys.”

We’re high up Mount Merapi and the air is noticeably thinner – but the volcano soars much higher, reaching for the sun. It can, after all, breathe fire. But today, Merapi’s slopes are calm and lush, and the view surprisingly clear. From here we can look south across Yogyakarta, sprawled at the foot of the volcano, and then another 25 kilometres to the Indian Ocean.

Prambanan temple

Yogya, as it is known, is a pleasant, relaxed place that’s twinned with Japan’s Kyoto, and Vietnam’s Hue – so it comes as no surprise that it too was once a capital and remains the treasury of traditions and culture that it originally nurtured. Its streets are busy with swarming mopeds, schoolkids snacking on banana leaf-wrapped ‘cat rice’, and shops selling embroidered jilbab and heavy-duty paddy hats. The townsfolk are a down-to-earth crowd: welcoming, smiling, curious. And they call Merapi ‘Grandfather’. But it’s a fickle grandfather, despite a spiritual connection with them all, and with the very heart of Yogya.

At its heart – and indeed the heart of Javan culture – is Kraton, the palace. Sultan Hamengkubuwono X’s private quarters aside, its many halls and courtyards are open to visitors. They house exhibits exploring Javan culture – from batik to kris (daggers) – while an orchestra plays classical gamelan music in a pavilion close to the entrance, sometimes accompanying dancers or puppeteers. On Tuesdays there are jemparingan (or seated archery) demonstrations and occasionally sightseers might come across a file of sarong-wrapped attendants as they perform the stately tea preparation ceremony.

Cultural heritage echoes from Kraton like the soulful resonance of a bronze gong. Immediately surrounding the palace, a walled enclave (that’s home to some 20,000 citizens) contains the Taman Sari or Water Castle – once a royal pleasure ground of pools and fountains – and the Sumur Gumuling catacombs. The Sultan’s brother Prince Joyokusumo lives nearby and his house’s restaurant (Jl. Rotowijayan) prepares celebratory Javanese cuisine including the rice-and-cracker dish nasi blawong that traditionally is eaten on the anniversary of the Sultan’s coronation – the day when offerings are made to appease Merapi.

Other notable Yogya dishes include gudeg, a day-long-stewed curry of jackfruit, coconut, and spices available at Gudeg Yu Djum (Jl. Kaliurang), and mie jawa noodles with water spinach and chilli. It’s popular at Bakmi Kadin (Jl. Bintaran Kulon), where they cook over charcoal that glows like molten lava.

Downtown Malioboro Road is a hotspot for cafés, stalls and shops – and in the evening little pop-up lesehan set out short-legged tables on picnic blankets so that diners can watch the world go by while sampling delicious local cooking. Many of the stallholders head to Kotagede’s market for supplies – it’s a good spot to pick up fruit and a reviving glass of secang bark tea. Kotagede was the first capital of the Mataram Sultanate at the turn of the 16th century and it retains an old world charm with traditional Javanese dwellings squeezed around remnants of the 400-year-old palace, mosque, and city walls.

In fact, this region has been a seat of power for millennia. Hinduism was strong in Java for almost a thousand years, and at its height the impressive temples at nearby Prambanan were built. About a half of a century earlier, in 842, Buddhists completed perhaps their greatest south-east Asian monument, Borobudur, which occupies a spot northwest of Yogya. Both are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

These two cultures lived side by side for centuries, and still today their influences are inescapable. They had a mutual understanding that was applauded in a famed 14th century poem, a line of which is now Indonesia’s motto. Bhinneka Tunggal Ika – ‘different parts of the same whole’.

So much that originated here in Yogyakarta remains an intrinsic part of the everyday lives of people across this vast nation. A multi-hued society of many ‘different parts’... like the multi-hued stones that make up the fertile slopes of mighty Merapi.

Jakarta, Indonesia
Distance: 6,918 km
Flight Time: 8 hours, 55 minutes
Frequency: 3 flights a day

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