Below is an account of what could be expected in chaotic, artsy, and unpredictable Yogyakarta, the second largest city in Java Island, Indonesia (after Jakarta)…

Arriving in Yogyakarta

Myriads of taxis solicit their service to us as we try to navigate through the twisting, crowded airport of Yogyakarta, affectionally shortened to Yogya (pronounce: joke-jah). The airport is humble, unimpressive, but clean. It is a scale down from Bangkok’s airport and a scale up from Delhi’s, like an old government building, devoid of modernity, but also of any threat.  We attempt to use Uber, GrabCar, and Go-Jek as their prices are much cheaper than the taxis. Unfortunately, none of the services can find a driver, a seeming impossibility amidst all of these lurking and unused taxi drivers. I can’t imagine why independent taxi drivers don’t turn to employment by these mobile booking apps except that they may be drawn to the opportunity of uncharging unwitting tourists. 

Yogya’s Soswirijayan Road

Soswirijayan Road – the Backpacker Street
Image Cred:

After several attempts, a driver is found and he brings us through the bustling, polluted streets of the Javanese city to Hotel 1001 Malam on Soswirijayan Road, a cozy and beautiful alley street tucked away in this ugly and uncomfortable urban landscape.  The hotel is lovely, decorated with plants, murals, and artistic tiling, I am pleasantly surprised to arrive at such an oasis after such a disenchanting drive.

We dine at a vegan restaurant, Loving Hut. The food is mediocre but the fact that a vegan restaurant exists gives us hope that this meat-craving society will have food that we can eat.

The Nerve-Crunching Noises of a Chaotic City

Yogya Street Vendor

Image Cred: European Youth Voice

From our balcony facing the hotel’s garden courtyard, we hear the off pitch bellows of two different mosques chanting their prayers what seems like every two hours starting as early as 4am. The jack-in-the box tuned bus horns on the nearest street, the engines of freshly departed flights, and the clattering of cooking ware created by self-promoting roaming food carts makes its way into our room at any hour of the night, although not so loudly as to keep us from remaining asleep. I suspect we would not be so fortunate in less strategically located hotels. The random rapid banging of drums and hysterical squealing of children also frequents the streets at any time of day. As night falls, pitiful covers of both Indonesian and Western live music from a nearby bar compete with arrays of gamelan tunes. Gamelan is the traditional music by the way.  It seems that everyone in Yogya is making noises and practically all of them (save the gamelan) accosts the ears. I regret that I lost my ear plugs before coming here and this isn’t the sort of city where basic Western products are easy to come by. I ponder whether the locals enjoy any of these noises? Do they hire these tragic musicians and come to hear them or do they simply put up with endless impromptu karaoke performances?

Yogka, Some of the Best Arts of Asia

Sultan Palace Yogya
Sultan’s Palace

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But the traditional arts here are fantastic – some of the best in Asia!  On our way to the Sultan’s Palace (Yogya has independent governance under a sultan, sovereign from Indonesian law), a man advised us to go on Sunday to catch the live traditional dance and gamelan performance. In the meantime, we could visit a batik art school for free. He described the directions, which we began to follow until we ran into a man who asked if we were going to the art school and invited us to follow him there as it was on his way.  As the art school was small, poorly marked and a kilometer away from where we met the man, I was astounded how he knew that we were going there and that he was going in the same direction. The path required winding through paths and alleys so we really would have never found the place on our own.  As well the man who had informed us about the art school asked where we were from. As soon as we said America, he asked if we were from Colorado, something no one has ever guessed and something he couldn’t have known from running into us in the street. When we asked how he knew, he said because he about tornadoes in Colorado. This surely didn’t answer the question, but the whole experience left me thinking that the people here may be equipped with a sense of intuition that they may not be so aware they possess.

 Batik Art in Yogka

My New Batik – $35

At the art school, a jolly partially-toothed man sat us down around one of his working students and explained the steps and techniques involved in making batik art. Batik, by the way, is a traditional Javanese cloth-dying art form.  Traditionally reserved for making instructional or religious art and clothing, batik now ranges from modern wall art to the sultan’s handmade sarongs.  He assured us that he would not charge us for the lesson in Batik and invited us to look around the art gallery.  His impression was as kind and welcoming as the men who offered their guidance on the street.  He would benefit if we made a purchase, but he would still be just as jolly I presume if we walked out with nothing. Well we didn’t walk out with nothing. Inspired by his lesson in art, by the creativity, the technical skill, and the culture infused into the art, I decided to buy a piece of batik art – a green and blue scene of a sort of fantasy island. I resolve to use it as an inspiration for my own painting and writing.   Plus, it is light and packs well, so I can save it to be my first decoration in my next stable home.


Student Making Batik Art

Image Cred: European Youth Voice

Learning about batik about my eyes to the intricacies of this culture’s design sense. Batik appears on people’s clothes, accessories, and is reflected in my of the tile work around the city.  It is forever traditional, but still fresh, elegant, and inviting. What impresses me is that the Javanese infuse art into their daily lives and that many new, creative artists progress the local art. Contrast this to most of Asia where art is either dead or is a never-ending process of copying ancients or Westerners.  

 Best Culture Museums of Yogyakarta, Java, Indonesia Southeast Asia
View from Ullen Sentalu Museum

 We visited the Ullen Sentalu Museum as well. We were surprised to be hosted by a gratis tour guide from the museum. She explained the history of batik, how the royal family had special batik sarongs for different occasions and positions, previously forbidden for the common people to wear. A whole factory existed in Yogya just to produce batik for the royal family in fact. And the batik styles of different Javanese cities differed as much as their political systems did.  This is a place with depth, variety, history, and a taste that reflects in their art.

Yogyakarta Traditional Dance

Yogya Traditional Dance

Image Cred: Beijing Tourism

We eventually did make it to the Sultan’s Palace and witnessed the traditional dance. While the palace, well at least the palace open to visitors, was boring, dare I say ugly, the dance temple was traditional, ornate, full of whimsical gamelan instruments and an orchestra of garmented musicians playing them. Dancers is colorful, tribal-looking, but all-the-while elegant and regal attire danced around the stage, communicating ancient stories and exposing the people’s connections to the energetic world, to their glorification of battle, and to their superstitions. It was just other-worldly enough to open the door to the possibilities of a curious mind, but not enough so to reveal all of the secrets of this mysterious culture. 


Buddhism in Indonesia - Backpacker Destinations in Southeast Asia
View from Borobudur Temple

We visited Borobudur, an enormous 8th century Buddhist temple.  It was beautiful, but it is much more a tourist attraction than a spiritual place, perhaps to be expected in a predominantly Muslim island.

 The food here is practically all the same, except in the tourist areas. The tourist restaurants are well decorated, but the music is almost all bad and totally random. Even in the tourist areas, things are relatively cheap to the rest of Southeast Asia and refreshingly cheaper than Bali. English proficiency is so-so and locals want to have real conversations.

Water Temple in Yogya - Beautiful Indonesian Architecture - Yona Unbound
Rather than a photo of ugly streets or frustrating offices,
here’s a pic from the beautiful Sultan’s Pools:)

Dealing with immigration and driving the absolutely horrifically planned streets is a nightmare. I would recommend against staying in Indonesian for more than a month to avoid dealing with the expensive, inefficient, and unsympathetic immigration procedures created by the fleas called government officials that plague these beautiful isles.  And whoever planned these cities’ street must be spending lifetimes navigating hell’s labyrinths with smoke in his lungs, bus horns in his ears, and asinine traffic rules short-circuiting his every turn.  

This is an ugly and uncomfortable Asian city with a magical and mysterious culture – like Bangkok probably was many years ago.  Tourism hasn’t yet made the people too greedy or the infrastructure too friendly.  When the people see Westerners, they seem to more often feel interest, love, and an impulse to sneak us into a selfie rather than that disgust, infatuation, or darkness sensed in Bangkok. If you want to pop off the backpacker trail and experience a moderately well-function Indonesian society, this could be a good place to do so.

Have you been thinking about going to Yogya? Any Question?

Have you been? What do you think of Yogya?