After having been cared for so fantastically by our host in Jakarta, we felt ready to venture out on our own and moved onwards to the city of Yogyakarta, or “Yogya” as everybody here calls it. Most people will know Yogya as the gateway to the magnificent temples of Borobudur and Prambanan. Naively, due to our lack of knowledge about Indonesia, we expected some kind of small town, rural atmosphere, only to find out that Yogya is actually quite a large city with a population of 2,400,000 in its greater area. Upon our arrival, we were immediately struck by the friendliness and hospitality of the Javanese people. Thanks to a great deal on Agoda and the fact that our visit fell into the second half of the rainy season, we had the pleasure of checking into the very new and luxurious Eastparc hotel conveniently located in close proximity to the airport and the Prambanan temple. Not only was our spacious room top notch, we were also presented with the most expansive breakfast selection we’ve ever seen so far the next morning. It was more or less impossible to not overeat considering the range of foods: from local dishes to Asian favorites, made-to-order crepes, eggs any style, juices, fruit, and delicious pastries. Too bad that we only had three nights in Yogya, so we ended up trying only a fraction of the spread, and we never made it into the lovely pool.
But that was all fine since we (like most other tourists) had decided to come here for some serious temple-visiting. First up was an excursion to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Prambanan, a 9th-century Hindu temple roughly 17 km outside of Yogya. It is the largest Hindu temple in Indonesia, and one of the biggest in Southeast Asia. Within walking distance are several very early Buddhist temples, plus, there is the Ratu Boko palace compound just a short shuttle ride away. Once again, traveling in a place with only few Western tourists, we attracted quite a bit of attention and posed for more pictures then we could count. The smiles and genuine interest made it impossible to say no, so we just patiently played along. The best part was a group of local school girls who were “guides in training” and who volunteered to being our guides at Prambanan in order to practice their English skills. What they lacked in knowledge they certainly made up for with pride and determination!
While the Prambanan temple was quite impressive, we enjoyed exploring the various Buddhist temples by foot a little bit more, since we had them almost to ourselves. After a pretty long day of temple exploration we then were looking forward to return to our hotel, and figured that we would just catch a taxi at the temple exit or the main street. To our surprise though, there were no taxis in sight and after waiting next to the road for a while (no sidewalks of course), we started heading for the nearest market, hoping that we would have more luck there. Finally then, we discovered a shop sign that included “taxi” among several other services. We were greeted by a surprised looking boy who couldn’t have been older than sixteen years, and we assumed he probably was the son of the owner. Nonetheless, we asked for a taxi and after several attempts we were able to communicate our wish for a ride to the hotel. He then got on the phone and we imagined hearing a conversation somewhere along these lines:
"Dad, there are these two Western tourists here and they want a taxi to Yogya. What should I do?"
“Son, remember what I have taught you: never let the opportunity to transport some Westerners slip. You will have to drive them and we will make enough money for the next month. Just charge them ten times more than we normally would. This is your moment to shine!”
In any case and despite our concerns, we got into the car, which (not surprisingly) had no meter or any other features that would actually identify it as a taxi. The boy’s driving skills turned out to quite alright even though we basically had to lead him to our hotel ourselves. Thank heavens for our Indonesian phone card with internet so we could map the route as we went along, while using Google translate to come up with a few words of Bahasa Indonesia for giving directions. We did bargain about the price a little bit, but of course nowhere near as much as we probably should have. Trying to not get ripped off was the most difficult challenge of traveling Java more or less independently, particularly when it comes to transportation. Most hotels will suggest a car rental including a driver for several hours of the day rather than a metered taxi, which would be much cheaper most of the time. Since we didn’t want to be in a similar situation of trying to find a taxi at Borobudur, we shopped around a bit, but still ended up paying a lot of money for a car and driver for ten hours the next day to take us to Borobudur.
Observing sunrise at Borobudur is said to be a magical sight, and is therefor a popular attraction for tourists. But considering the weather forecast and our disappointing experience at Angkor Wat, we really felt that getting up in the middle of the night was not such an interesting prospect. So we chose to have yet another breakfast feast and headed out for the one hour drive to Borobudur at a more reasonable time. The Borobudur temple compound is a Buddhist temple built in the 9th century, which makes it quite a bit older than Angkor Wat in Cambodia (first built in the early 12th century). There’s a bit of a battle between these two temple sites going on in travel forums, but it is of course a bit silly and ultimately a moot discussion. Both Cambodians and Indonesians understandably take great pride in their respective temples, and they will tell you that theirs is the most magnificent one in Southeast Asia. Having been to both, we can say it’s certainly a difficult decision to be made. It was unbelievably hot and humid when we visited Borobudur, which made the climb to the top a painful experience. The views from the top though made up for the sweating, and the accomplishment of erecting such a glorious temple is truly remarkable. Ultimately, we found Angkor Wat a bit more enjoyable and impressive due to the sheer size of the whole area and its location amidst the villages outside of Siem Reap. A small, but nonetheless noteworthy minus point for Borobudur (and Prambanan for that matter) goes to the fact that one just has to feel like the Indonesians are trying to milk every dollar out of Western tourists. Having a two-tiered price structure (for locals and foreigners) is common throughout Southeast Asia and certainly agreeable, but having to pay as much as seven times the local rate does seem a bit too extreme. The icing on the cake was that the girl at the ticket booth refused to accept our US Dollar notes because of minor folds at the corners of the bills. With twenty dollars of admission per person for Borobudur, plus similar costs for Prambanan and the expensive car rental, our costs for temple visits easily exceeded the per-night cost of our hotel, which seems somewhat out of whack to say the least. The downside to all of this is that we really didn’t feel like spending any more money on gifts, souvenirs or food at the temple, which, from a marketing/business perspective, is an aspect the heads of the Indonesian tourism industry really should consider. All in all, we thoroughly enjoyed our visits (ok, sans the sweating), but this aspect just left a slightly sour taste.
To wrap things up we asked our driver to take us to the city center of Yogya around Jalan Malioboro, the major tourist shopping street. Traffic was pretty bad along the way, although nowhere near what we had experienced in Jakarta. The city center definitely seemed like it was worth exploring, but unfortunately our arrival was greeted by what felt like the gates of heaven opening up. The heavy down-pour meant that we had to seek shelter most of our available time and resort to watching poncho-covered locals braving the weather on their trishaws. We only had three nights here before moving on to Bali, so we will have to explore the city of Yogya some other time. In retrospect, we were extremely lucky to actually leave Yogya by plane just a few days later causing airport closures and massive ash deposits. Phew….