In central Java, Yogyakarta – or Jogja, as it’s commonly known – takes centre-stage.
But we’d read that nearby Surakarta, or Solo (what is it with the Javanese and their unrelated nicknames?) was less westernised and more compelling, so we set our course that way instead.
Peter heroically took charge of the hotel booking and stumbled upon the Alana Solo which appeared unfeasibly swanky yet inexplicably fit our budget. And so, for £23 per night, we found ourselves in a room that looked like this:
With a lobby like this:
And breakfast like this:
How on earth had we wangled such an amazing deal? Accidentally, obviously, but still – how?! For a start, the hotel was on the very edge of Solo – we hadn’t realised quite how far out – which lost it considerable appeal; but taxis are plentiful and cheap. Secondly, it turned out to be their soft opening, and we apparently their first western guests. Thirdly, it marketed itself as a conference hotel.
Have you ever stayed in one of these? I hadn’t – at least not to the best of my knowledge. From what I can tell, they’re super slick, with enormous beds and shiny bathrooms, posh toiletries and cable TV, buffet breakfasts and vast, echoing, gilt-edged lobbies; but invariably nowhere near where you want to be, and despite the nothing-is-too-much-trouble attitude of the staff, lacking that personal edge. Ask for a dinner recommendation and you’ll be pointed unequivocally towards the hotel restaurant, rather than a tiny hole-in-the-wall noodle stall down a nondescript alleyway. It took staying in a few such hotels to realise that for me, personality beats luxury . . . but you know, best to truly embrace the experience at several fancy places just to be absolutely sure.
Peter wanted to catch up with some reading so I headed into town on my own. Since Google’s “My Maps” feature isn’t available offline (why, Google? WHYYY?), I had gone proper old-skool and marked off all my destinations on an actual paper map of the city. (Helpful note to my sister’s generation: maps are like a vintage GPS).
Once again, the city was bereft of western tourists, and I was accosted by a group of young people. The most confident enquired whether she might ask me some questions, before producing a list: “Where are you from?” “How long have you been in Indonesia?” “What do you think of Indonesian people?”
I answered each as best I could until I realised that my responses were largely irrelevant, greeted with a vague nod of acknowledgement and then overriden by the next question. We stumbled through to the end of the list and I turned to leave, but not before a second member of the group was pushed forward by the leader, handed the paper, and made to awkwardly go through the entire list again. I parroted the same inconsequential answers. After the third round, I considered answering something completely different to see if anyone would notice, but their homework had been accomplished (“talk to a foreigner”) and off they went.
A pedicab driver, who had been watching the whole exchange with some amusement, explained that they were students at the local university, and offered to take me into town. Poring over the map, we agreed that he would cycle me to each destination and wait outside. It suited me since I’d completely misjudged Solo’s size (Indonesian maps being no clearer in scale than Korean ones), I have a particular fondness for rickshaws where the driver sits behind the passenger, and it was starting to rain. So in I hopped and off we went.
First stop was the biggest mosque in the city. From the wide, sparsely-trafficked main roads, we turned down a small street teeming with life. Stalls abounded, but instead of the usual tourist tat, they heaved with large, brightly-painted, carved wooden animals.
As we edged past the sellers – my driver getting off to push the contraption through tight gaps, leaving me feeling like a royal invalid or a baby in a pram – I was astonished to see a woman in a full burqa whizz past on a bicycle.
It was to be the first and the last burqa I saw in Indonesia . . . and its wearer was on a bicycle.
I recently learnt that in Saudi Arabia, full coverage only had a resurgence in the last 40 years, after their king’s religious crackdown. Although some Muslims wear it out of choice, many have the burqa forced upon them by arrogant old men terrified that women might take control of their own bodies, lives, and destinies. As a feminist, I support a woman’s right to choose; but I also believe that too often, this right is not freely given. So, I see the burqa as a sign of powerlessness and external control. Yet the bicycle is undeniably a symbol of freedom; it was crucial in the suffragettes’ fight for votes, for Victorian women gaining independence, and today, regardless of gender, it’s the cheapest way to travel.
And so the burkha-clad cyclist endures as my mental image of Indonesia’s admirable, confusing, uniquely multicultural embrace.
Inside the mosque, I was greeted by yet more stalls crammed into the grounds, right up the entrance of the building itself. I had expected a sombre atmosphere, like Istanbul’s almost empty Blue Mosque, or the quiet solitude of most cathedral grounds; not this vibrant market which held so many people and so much activity.
I wandered amongst the stalls until it started to rain again, whereupon I took refuge at a sheltered area under which sat a large group of women, surrounded by fruits and vegetables, pointing and laughing at my yellow hair, or height, or polka-dot waterproof, or unknown cultural misstep. One quickly rustled together a bunch of stuff from her stores and handed it to me: a leaf, with a slick of this paste, a chunk of that block, and a sprinkle of something else, wrapped together around a stick and presented me to with great celebration. I looked at it blankly. Giggling, they gestured that I should put it into my mouth; but did I chew it on the stick? Swallow the whole thing? Spit it out? The woman pulled together another concoction and popped the whole thing into her mouth, chewing rapidly. I tentatively began to chew mine, with much appreciation from the group; smiling and clapping which developed into gales of laughter as I realised that I was dribbling bright orange juice down my chin and all over my hands. My fingers were already stained, like bad henna; I could only imagine my face. I finally cottoned on that I was indulging in paan, a much-maligned substance of which I’d heard tale but never had the opportunity – nor inclination – to try.
The women mimed that it was good for both my teeth and my stomach; categorically not true, I later learnt, since almost every element of the paan quid (small packet of ingredients) is considered carcinogenic. Excessive use of paan has resulted in, amongst other things, a hugely elevated rate of mouth cancer in this part of the world. With no such knowledge at that moment, merely that its potent taste was horribly bitter, I smiled at the women for their generosity and inclusion, displaying red teeth which generated even more hilarity. I tried to hand over some cash but they wouldn’t hear of it, so instead I clumsily spat the remains into my hand, thanked them again, and escaped to locate one of Indonesia’s rarely-seen bins in which to dispose of the sticky, slimy mess.
I may not have enjoyed the paan itself but the warm fuzzy feelings endured almost as long as the orange stains. It was yet another example of Indonesian people going out of their way to embrace even the most clueless of outsiders.
From the mosque we visited a few more places around town – the wet market, a government building, the batik museum (sadly closed) – but most interesting, and highest on my list, was Triwindu Antiques Market.
Housed in an old two-storey building, this place has many dozens of vendors selling all manner of assorted vintage trinkets and local treasures. It was impossible to avoid comparisons with the rabbit warren of permanent shops behind Portobello Market’s streetside stalls; those single-minded sellers of Edwardian candelabra, vintage snuffboxes, ceramic doorknobs, and other specific items aimed squarely at the dedicated collector.
Here, collections were a little more random – wind-up dolls alongside carved wooden Balinese masks, century-old batik masterpieces hung next to a faux-leather handbag from the 1970s – but there was a theme of eccentricity and perseverance, and I rifled through each stall with fascination.
The day was drawing to a close and much as I wanted to take that wooden chest, this broken telephone, and a host of Javanese puppets, I thought of my backpack, and resisted.
Instead, I spent half an hour with a stallholder whose merchandise consisted solely of old Indonesian photographs: boxes and cases of the things. We agreed on a set price for 25 pictures and I fished out all the ones I could find with writing on the back, of people who were long-since dead, in places I would never visit.
My pedicab driver and I parted ways with only the merest hint of a demand that I tip him generously. The man was literally half my size, wearing flipflops, and had pushed me around for hours; I was hardly going to refuse.
Eventually it was time to pull ourselves away from our hotel’s indulgent cocoon. And so, despondently, we headed to Yogyakarta, primarily to visit Borobodur; the world’s largest Buddhist structure. Our new accommodation – an eco-friendly concrete block filled with hydroponic plants – dealt us something of a blow in the comfort factor, but made up for it by being infinitely cooler.
We had accidentally booked ourselves into the closest thing Jogja has to a backpacker district: small, mostly unmarked roads leading off a main street lined with bars which were all in direct competition to pump out the loudest dance music. Still, there were nice coffee shops nearby, and whilst clearly popular, it was barely a shadow of Ho Chi Minh City’s equivalent area, or Bangkok’s notorious Khaosan Road.
With flights booked to Singapore in three days’ time, we looked into buying our onward train tickets to Jakarta, casually scrolling through the options . . . and realising to our horror that they were all fully-booked. We’d been happily applying the fly-by-night approach, but for the first time during our trip, everything was sold out. Surely there was some mistake?
No, it transpired that Jogja was a hugely popular weekend destination for middle-class Jakartaites and we wanted to travel the wrong way on the wrong day. Final tickets vanished before our dismayed eyes. Rapid discussions, option-weighing: we would travel overnight, on the one remaining train which wasn’t fully booked, in literally any class that would take us. But then the website refused our cards, none of the payment options worked for foreigners, the train station was miles away, and the internet kept cutting out.
On the verge of investigating flights, we were casually informed that train tickets could be purchased in cash directly from the Indomart, Indonesia’s answer to Asia’s otherwise ubiquitous 7-11.
With only top-tier tickets remaining, we gratefully snapped up a pair at five times what we had initially expected to pay, leaving at 8:30pm and reaching Jakarta at 4 o’clock in the morning.
Tickets in hand, there was just time for dinner of noodles at a well-renowned local hawker stall, and then to sleep for an early start the next day, when we would see what all the fuss was about at Borobodur.
Is it worth the journey? Well, it’s deeply impressive. Like the Pyramids or Great Wall of China, it’s impossible at the best of times to wrap one’s mind around the astonishing feat of engineering required to construct such an enormous, complicated, ancient monument. And these were not the best of times, because they were unbelievably hot. We clambered up and around with stars flashing across our vision, sweat-soaked clothes suctioned to our bodies, trying our very best to nod appreciatively at the incredible architecture, but increasingly keen to leave, or collapse, whichever came first.
Unfortunately English signs are limited, and once again we found ourselves the unwitting stars of many, many photographs. We had chosen a weekend in the middle of a school holiday to visit one of Indonesia’s star attractions and the family groups were out in force.
We should have read up about it beforehand, but we didn’t; more fool us. So in the end, a lack of information, the murderous heat, and the stream of selfie-stick-waving Javanese and other tourists (including one from East Timor, whom in cooler climes I would have pressed into conversation) forced us into an early escape. After smiling and nodding whilst one happy snapper cheerfully listed all of the English people he’d ever met, we took the long way down, hiding behind stone relics, desperate to avoid any more people.
We dived into the air-conditioned car and headed for Merapi, Indonesia’s most active volcano. It erupts at least once a decade, usually more, and is particularly deadly thanks to its pyroclastic flows. We went as high as we could in our conventional car and then the weather was too overcast for a decent view; so we declined an expensive and pointless Jeep ride into the clouds, and headed down again.
We stopped by the side of the road so that our driver could take us to a particularly expansive vantage point; a beautiful, steep-sided valley, dotted with ghosts of buildings and slowly regrowing trees, with incongruous rocks and hardened lava.
We picked our way past the crumbled remnants of a concrete house, all broken tiles, rusted window-frames and twisted metal struts. “Destroyed by Merapi, 10 years ago,” our driver explained cheerfully. “Whole family dead. You want photo?”
I wish we’d had more time to investigate Jogja itself, but we needed to catch our hard-won train. It wasn’t the damaged, foreigner-ridden city we had been led to believe from online accounts. I found it more walkable and visual than Solo, which – whilst certainly less visited and worth it for the mosque and antiques market – was trickier to explore, and lacked the character I had expected. It struck me that sometimes, the more popular places have a reason for being so.
The stupidly-timed train was delayed – for once, happily so – and we arrived in Jakarta at the marginally more bearable hour of 5am. As dawn broke, our taxi took us past Jakarta’s main sights – the National Monument, a mosque, a church – and we wearily ticked them off the list. At the hotel, despite my booking instructions, we were offered either a non-smoking twin or a smoking double, but they had crossed the wrong sleep-deprived person. Several sharp words later and we’d been upgraded to an executive room on the 21st floor, hastily ushered out of the fancy lobby and allowed to check in some eight hours early, presumably because our backpacks and walking books were dramatically lowering the tone.
Our time in Jakarta was shorter than we’d intended and we spent most of it suffering from sleep deprivation, but then, I didn’t feel we missed out on much. The city has few sights and barely any public transport. Along with insane and constant traffic jams (what should have been a 30 minute taxi journey to the airport took close to two hours), and little provision for pedestrians, it’s a wonder Jakarta’s residents get anywhere at all.
A tropical storm kicked in and we gave up any pretence of leaving the hotel. Sometimes when you’re travelling, you just have to accept certain victims of circumstance.
Instead, we ate dinner on the top floor – and then breakfast there the next day too (a privilege for those in the executive rooms which we were happy to exploit, however unpaid-for our presence). That morning, our final day in Indonesia, we walked along broken pavements to the Old Town, which turned out to be about as “real” as Covent Garden is representative of London. Filled with anime characters and human statues, it also boasted a collection of whimsical, totally pointless multicoloured bicycles, hired out by tourists to be ridden in wobbly circles around the central square.
We drank overpriced iced coffees and thanked our lucky stars (and Google Flights) that we had flown to Denpasar rather than Jakarta, and spent so little time in the capital city.
I’m sure there’s an awful lot to see in Jakarta (especially if one stays in an AirBNB or knows a local who can uncover the hidden gems) but on this occasion, it was a slightly disappointing finale. Still, it doesn’t taint my overall view of Indonesia which enchanted me far more than I had anticipated. Do visit, if you can: travel by train, focus on Malang and Yogyakarta, with a few days in Solo. Take the ferry from Banyuwangi to Bali, and sure, hang out in Ubud for a bit of relaxation; but Java is where you’ll find the true vitality, and the unexpected delights of Indonesia.