First Stop: Yogyakarta
Our first impression of Indonesia came through Yogyakarta, a city of over 3 million people located in the center of Java, the country’s most populated island. It is at once mesmerizing and intimidating, beautiful and intense. The friendliness of the people here is generous and warm. Everywhere we went we were greeted with genuine smiles accompanied by shy giggles. At first the country overwhelmed us, but we quickly fell in love with the beauty of it all amidst the chaos.
Getting to Indonesia from New York was actually quite easy and inexpensive. Originally, we were scheduled to leave for Bali to start our round the world trip. However a couple of weeks before we left, the volcano there started to rumble, leaving the island on high alert for an eruption. While many people still took the trip, we opted out and scrambled to put together a new first stop. We decided we’d fly into Jakarta, and piece the trip together from there.
Starting with a flight on United, we splurged a bit and booked the premium economy seats to get us from Newark to Tokyo. I personally did not see the worth in these seats (they added about 50% more to the cost of the roughly $500 USD ticket), but Joe was convinced the 6 inches of extra legroom made the roughly 16 hour flight bearable. After a three hour layover in Tokyo and quick noodle stop, we hopped on an 8 hour flight to Jakarta on ANA. This flight was actually awesome. It was our first time flying ANA, and we loved the friendly staff, soft lighting, and overall comfort of the plane. We lucked out with an empty seat in our row, and mercifully got a few hours of sleep.
The two nights we had in Jakarta we barely left the airport Ibis Styles hotel, trying to work through jetlag and plan where we should head next. After connecting with a friend of my uncle’s who graciously answered a long list of questions and gave us tips on places to see, we eagerly set off to begin exploring the country.
Sadly, this meant heading back to the airport for yet another flight – this one a short one hour hop on Air Asia to Yogyakarta. This flight quickly blotted out the calming effects of our last one with ANA. It was incredibly bumpy and hot. As a nervous flyer, it was all I could do to stare out my window and focus on deep breaths. Thankfully the flight is only about an hour long, so my anxious self was able to breathe a sigh of relief pretty quickly.
In this new city, we decided to go to our default of using public transportation to get to our guesthouse. It ended up being a bit more intense than we had bargained for.
The Bus Ride From Yogyakarta Airport
The 1A bus was $0.51 for two to ride the roughly 12 stops from the airport to Marlioboro. We always opt for public transportation when travelling, finding it a more interesting way to travel and get to know locals.
The bus came swinging to a rolling stop outside the elevated station just close enough to leap in before it roared back to life, peeling away and onto the streets. We were under prepared, underfed, running on very little sleep, and loaded down with giant backpacks.
Coming from the NYC subways, I felt confident about my abilities to handle the jolting and rolling of a bus in Indonesian city traffic. I was quickly humbled after a couple of awkward falls onto the poor folks sitting around me, one of which took pity on me (or perhaps was trying to protect himself) and moved further into the bus to offer his seat. The woman I sat next to took one look at me and burst out laughing. It took maybe half a second of being frustrated for me to join in and pretty soon we were laughing together, her lightly patting my knee in comfort.
The bus jolted and rocked through our first experience of the infamous Southeast Asian traffic. We watched the sun slowly set out the front windshield as breezes from the open windows mixed with the strong scent of exhaust passed through. I fought between the two sensations of needing to watch the roads as my sensory overloaded brain struggled to get a grasp on everything I was seeing, smelling, hearing, and feeling, and of turning all my attention to not throwing up on the backpack at my feet.
Shortly after, at one of the coming stops, the bus did its usual roll up to the platform making sure to leave a healthy gap for the passenger to manage. This time, it was a man in a wheelchair, who took one look at it and went for it. As his back wheels left the platform, his front wheels slipped and he became suspended briefly between the two, one wheel on the back and one wheel on the bus. Terrified, the bus erupted into a helpful chain of passengers leaping up to grab the wheels and push him on. Soon after he was happily chatting with Joe about his years living in New York.
When it came our turn to get off, the friendly staff at the door waved us through and we took our leap out and hurried into the packed sidewalks. It was our first and last trip on the public bus in Yogya. We’ve since laughed about it often, noting how this experiences differences to others we’ve had in different cities amounts to the same thing. It must be a universal – there’s never a dull moment for a tourist on a public bus.
Our first night in Yogya we stayed at a guesthouse outside the neighborhood of Marlioboro, a choice we immediately regretted when we were scurrying through the streets in the setting sun in a city we did not know. The room was clean, and breakfast was probably the best we had the whole time we were there, but the very thin walls had us up all night listening to the sounds of the busy streets and a crying baby who did not stop. The neighborhood was a bit too busy for us, though definitely the more budget friendly place to stay and more interesting if you are hoping for a genuine look into the lifestyle of people who live here. For us, we were still reeling from culture shock and needed a bit more calm.
We checked out the next day, leaving early in the morning with our first driver, Murti. Murti was early, showing up at the guesthouse before 7:00 am to being our journey to the two famous UNESCO world heritage sites nearby Yogyakarta – probably the biggest draw for tourists to the city.
Borobudur & Prambanan
The first stop of the day was Borobudur, an ancient Buddhist temple set about an hour and a half outside of Yogyakarta. One of the first things we noted was the throngs of tourists, and silently cursed ourselves for not opting for the early morning sunrise option to get here before the tour buses did. However we quickly got over it amidst the beautiful and majestic temple. It was a thrill to be in the presence of something so historical and simultaneously still so awe-inspiring. The intricate details and sheer mass of the temple had us mulling over the people who built this and the experience it must have been.
Ultimately, though, we did not have much time here for reflecting on the temple. We were surprised but tickled to find that we instead spent the majority of this stop posing with sweet school kids who wanted pictures with us. Apparently there aren’t too many Americans around these parts, so we were immediately put to use practicing their English. The same questions popped up again and again:
Where do you come from?
How long are you here?
Do you like Indonesia/Borobudur/Indonesian food/ect?
Can I take a photo with you?
It did not exactly set a peaceful backdrop to our visit, but was just too damn cute to walk away from. So instead of reflecting on the beautiful 1300 year old stonework that lay in front of us, we spent our hours baking in the sun chatting with rotating groups of adorable school kids.
After finally extracting ourselves from our new found celebrity status, we climbed back into the beautifully air conditioned car and headed in the opposite direction for Prambanan, the second UNESCO world heritage site on our itinerary. This temple is an ancient Hindu temple built shortly after as an answer to the finishing of Borobudur.
While both sites were amazing, we liked the ease and accessibility of the grounds at Prambanan, as well as the fact that you could go into each structure (there were quite a few). In addition, there were far fewer people here, though that could have simply been because it was the middle of the day and very hot.
We spent the next 24 hours hanging in Yogyakarta, wandering around our new neighborhood after checking into a hotel we could not afford but with the comfort we desperately needed. Sometimes the extra $20 to help yourself adjust to a new environment is worth it. A cute little cafe that held yoga classes in the back room behind it became our go to spot, and we were able to wander the streets full of bars and restaurants without the same level of traffic as Marlioboro.
Finding our Footing in Indonesia
Indonesia is a very populated and bustling country, at least in the less remote islands. Our first night staying in Yogyakarta, we were beyond intimidated. It was busy, smelly, loud, and just not what we pictured. Upon finally reaching our guesthouse, we were overwhelmed and toyed with the idea of leaving ASAP.
Fortunately, we made drastic changes on our second day that changed the mood for our time in this city. Besides the temple adventure giving us some much needed time to explore, we also changed hotel locations. We had been told to stay in the Malioboro neighborhood, but the vibe just did not work with us. Changing to the more hipster Prawirotaman neighborhood felt much more comfortable for us. Our whole outlook on the city changed immediately. While it still felt busy (that will never change in Indonesia), we were able to engage more and found the city to be full of life and interesting all at once.
This is why it’s important to always give new places a chance before making a decision on whether to stay or go, or how you feel about it overall. We would have missed out on two amazing sites, and a different perspective of life in Indonesia on the largest and most populated island (Java). Finding your footing in a new city can be incredibly difficult, and we struggled with that, but once you get there, everything else finds a way to set itself into place.
The Breakdown of our First Days in Indonesia
We stayed in the two main tourist hubs here: Malioboro and Prawirotaman. Malioboro is VERY crowded and intense, which was not our style. It would be a great place to stay if you want to get a feel for the city overall. Prawirotaman is more of our style, it is very touristy friendly and Westernized. A lot of cool cafes, restaurants, and bars.
Where We Stayed:
Tegal Panggung Guest House (Marlioboro)- Rooms are simple, clean, and fine but the walls are paper thin (we had a crying baby in the room next to us ALL NIGHT). It is also incredibly loud in the Marlioboro neighborhood so sleeping was a major struggle. However the included breakfast was probably the best we had, and the eating area and courtyard were quite nice. It’s family owned and operated and very affordable.
Greenhost Boutique Hotel (Prawirotaman) – Beautiful mid range priced hotel with a greenhouse feel. It’s open air, with a beautiful pool set in the middle and hydroponic plants throughout the lobby. The rooms are small, but clean and modern. Everything is focused around environmentally friendly building materials and greenery.
Both sights are must do’s in Yogyakarta.
Borobudur— UNESCO World Heritage Site, a beautiful temple with stunning views throughout. It was very crowded but well worth the trouble. One of the most beautiful and iconic places we have ever been to. Was built in the 9th century and has a historic feel throughout the grounds.
Prambanan—Another UNESCO site built in the 9th century. Less crowded than Borobudur. It was more comfortable to move around here.
What we Ate:
Via Via— Good restaurant with excellent atmosphere! Outdoor 2nd floor that was incredibly pleasant at night. Food was mediocre but the setting more than made up for it. Room out back that holds yoga classes in English.
Travel tips for Yogyakarta:
- Hiring drivers is the easiest way, although not the cheapest, to get around much of Indonesia. Especially since we do not like driving scooters, this was what we did our entire time in the country. We had suggested drivers from our contact here, but you can meet them on the streets constantly or be referred to one by your hotel. Expect to pay anywhere from $30-50 USD for the day. Be sure to haggle!
- Both UNESCO sites (Borobudur & Prambanan) can be done in a day. Almost all drivers will happily negotiate a package deal, as well as plenty of tour operators for those who prefer to go in groups.
- While we liked the neighborhood of Prawirotaman, it is more expensive than Marlioboro and more catered to tourists. They are very different, it all depends on what you like!
- The local bus is SUPER cheap within the city, but intense. Communicating with the staff on board is helpful.
- Almost all prices in Indonesia are flexible, haggling is common and useful.
We did not stay in the main city nor venture too far from our hotel. This was more of a layover so I do not think we can give a full opinion on this.
Where We Stayed:
Ibis Styles Jakarta Airport– Served its purpose as a theoretical layover for us. Clean, comfortable, but not in a good location unless you are just going right to the airport.