Landing at an airport in Indonesia, any airport in Indonesia, is always the same. It may even be the same across the whole of the Asian continent for all I know. It certainly is in every part of Thailand that I have visited. You must do battle with hordes of porters and taxi drivers trying to persuade you to take their overpriced vehicles to wherever it is that you want to go to, with most touts using tried and tested cajoling tactics.
this photo wa taken on a day the airport was closed to taxis....and passengers
On a previous trip back to Jakarta towards the end of my third year in Indonesia, I still remember being told that a cab from the airport to my home town of Gading Serpong would be Rp300,000, or $30 (I think that you’re starting to pick up on the conversion rate that I’m using which, whilst not being accurate enough for a money changer, is as near as damnit is to swearing). The actual price at the time for this journey, using a metered cab, was closer to Rp50,000, give or take a couple of thousand. When I pointed this out to the tout in my pidgeon Bahasa he was most put out, both by my knowledge of local taxi fares as much as my ability to use his language.
You could always try to circumnavigate this process by staying in a hotel that offers a courtesy car service which will pick you up from your airport or station of choice, or you can try to stoically walk past them with a look of determination on your face that says you know what you want and where you’re going to go to get it. We decided to choose the latter approach.
The last time we were here in Yogyakarta was for our mini honeymoon. On that occasion we gave in and took an overpriced, non-metered taxi but this time we sneaked our way through the taxi drivers and departing passengers and made our way out to the main road to flag down a passing cab. As we were waiting, Yohana struck up a conversation with a guy working in a roadside shop and talked about the best direction for Malioboro, the street on which our hotel was situated and he kindly suggested a suitable spot in which to wait.
I have lived in Indonesia for more than five years now and I can say without a shadow of a doubt that it is the friendliness, inherent in Indonesian culture and which encourages these wonderful people to speak to random strangers, that makes me want to stay forever. 99% of the time the chief reason for this friendly banter is curiosity, a trait that while sometimes uncomfortable for Westerners who aren't overly happy about being asked their inside leg measurement as an opening question, does indeed grow on you. I have been drawn into conversations in all manner of places, from restaurants to urinals, on subjects as varied as my home town to how to shoe horses with one hand tied behind your back.
Not all Indonesians are that pure in their conversational intentions though, so consequently it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between that friendly banter I mentioned and someone who is sizing you up for a sting. Having had my good nature bitten on more than one occasion, I tend to approach all conversations with a healthy dose of suspicion but not to the point of rudeness. If the end of the ‘where are you from?’ conversation ends up with a request for money, I just use a tabloid journalist technique; make my excuses and leave. So as I watched the guy approach us now I still didn't know which way the conversation would go. As it happened, there was no pretence at all towards small talk, it was just a question. ‘Need a lift?’ and for a quickly negotiated $6 we were winging our way towards our hotel.
I should point out that my original holiday plans were for a solo trip. Every year I have the opportunity for a break between contracts and this year I decided that even though it meant a week unpaid, the benefits of an extra week off would be worth that sacrifice. Yohana originally couldn’t have the same time off from her job and her holiday year and mine do not run in sync, so it was only at the last minute that she found she was able to get the time off work to join me. Fortunately she was also still able to book seats on the same flights as me, even paying the same price, plus I’d already picked double rooms in each of the three hotels in which we’d be staying.
I digress slightly but I really, really dislike small beds. When I first left home at the ripe old age of nineteen, I rented a room in a shared house in York. It was a box room in a terraced house, facing onto the busy Bishopthorpe Road and only contained a tiny single bed, a chest of drawers and a meter fed radiator. It is true what they say that we learn from our mistakes as many was the cold, cold night that that meter needed to be fed the fifty pence piece that I’d unwittingly spent on a kebab or a pint of lager. With the exception of my first house on my own in Indonesia, where a borrowed single bed was the extent of my initial furniture, it was the last time where I spent consecutive weeks in a single bed. My dislike of single beds reached its extreme when a year before I left the UK to work in Indonesia I went so far as to buy a super king-size bed. The pretext was that the room it was going in was big enough to house it but so huge was this thing you could roll over three or four times and still not fall out of it. How I know this is a story that would see me digress too far.
The general plan for the week was to see some of the rich culture of Central Java, the earliest area for trade between Indonesia and the Indian sub continent, China, and Europe. The area is home to Batik, the distinctive, sometimes garishly bright, colourful fabrics worn throughout Indonesia and especially on Fridays in Jakarta. This, along with the museums;some of which depict Javan Man, supposedly the closest link between Homo Sapiens and Neanderthals, were of great interest. Plus I just wanted to relax, take some photos and write my blog.
To say that Yohana dislikes walking is something of an understatement. She comes from that Indonesian point of view that believes that Andong (horse drawn cart), Becak (a three wheeled bicycle in which two people can sit in a basket at the front and the rider is perched, cycling, behind you), Bajai (a motorised version of the Becak, called Tuk-Tuk in Thailand), Ojek (a motorbike taxi), Angkot (a mini minibus that holds anywhere from one to seemingly thirty people), Taxis, and trains, were all invented to remove the need for physical exertion, but she agreed to do some walking and that if I wanted time to see things that she didn’t, she’d just go shopping. I stopped short of broaching the fact that with her particular brand of shopping she would need to cover a few miles on foot in a market. So it was that the deal was struck.
The flight to Yogyakarta would see us spend a whole day and night just hanging out in Malioboro, following which we would take the early morning train to Surakarta (now called Solo) for a couple of days. The next stage would be a train North, to the coastal city of Semarang for another two days before finally flying back to Jakarta on Friday. Not so much an adventure as a carefully planned few days.
As for the hotels that I’d booked, they were all pretty basic and budget priced but I’d still plumped for AC instead of fans and made sure breakfast was included. In addition, the first two had swimming pools which for the price was an added bonus. The third, whilst not having a pool, had the added attraction of a pub attached to it. I believed that I’d thought of just about everything, especially with the World Cup showing every night.
There is some trepidation involved in arriving at any hotel that you’ve booked. You hope against hope that it is the same as it looked in the brochure or on the page on the internet. Even worse, it could have been recommended by a friend whose word you took and, even though part of you said that you shouldn’t listen, you booked it anyway. One man’s meat is of course another man’s muckle. Therefore driving across Yogyakarta, smiling at all of the beautiful hotels and hoping yours would bear a passing resemblance whilst inwardly cringeing at the awful ones, turning the corner onto Jalan Pasar Kembang, the street on which our hotel was situated, was enough to encourage a couple of butterflies in my stomach. If it were me on my own I’d make my complaints, if there were any, to the manager and then put up with whatever I’d let myself in for. Now I had the wife to think about too.
Those initial thoughts dissolved as the Istana Batik Ratna came into view and immediately struck us as perfect. The traditional Javanese fascia of the place with it’s decorated teak panels, a well swept frontage (we were adjacent to a busy main road) and working signage bulbs were all pointers that we’d picked something right. We were slap bang in the middle of one of Java’s biggest cities and yet this hotel wouldn’t have looked out of place in the fresh hills of Puncak or the lush fields of Ubud. All good signs.
Approaching the desk and armed with our printouts from Booking.com, we were checked in with the full knowledge that we couldn’t have the room until 1pm. A look around the pool and breakfast area left us happy to pay for the room in advance which at Rp412,000 per night, approximately $40, left me feeling good to have booked it purely from Tripadvisor reviews. The key to why I had booked this hotel in particular was not only the cost, it’s location adjacent to Jl. Malioboro, a thriving market of a street specialising in Batik material, souvenirs and traditional food were of equal importance.Top reason though was that It was also directly opposite the train station from which we intended to make an early start for Solo/Surakarta the following day. So at 9am, leaving our bags at reception, we walked the few hundred yards towards Jl.Malioboro.
The city is more commonly referred to by its shortened name of Yogya, or Jogja as it is sometimes spelled, and it is a big city. It is home to a number of highly thought of Indonesian universities and is also considered to be a creative city, hence the Batik I guess. It has on its doorstep two very high profile temples in Borobodur and Prambenan, both of which have UNESCO heritage status and the city feels as different to Jakarta as black does to white. If the cities were to be compared to animals, then Jakarta is a chamaeleon whereas Yogya is more of a peacock. Yogya does still suffer from many of the same problems that plague much of the archipelago; traffic, pollution, a proliferation of litter, yet it also has a different ambiance which gives the visitor a more engaged feeling. Jakarta is vast with no true centre to the city whereas with Malioboro, Yogyakarta has it’s heart.
Walking along the covered pavements, lined with shops on one side and hawkers on the other, it is a testament to the durability of the locals that whilst everyone is selling exactly the same products, they must all be earning enough to support themselves and their families. Outside the pavements, the open streets themselves are also subdivided. The central two lanes are for motorised traffic such as cars and the more numerous mopeds and motorbikes. On either side of these, next to the pavements, there is another lane given over to the horse drawn ‘andong’ and their poorer cousins, the becak. All forms of small public transport are open to negotiation with westerners, or at least non-Indonesians, coming in for a usually less than subtle price hike. My wife is from the town next to Yogya and even that is insufficient when negotiating with a Bule (non Indonesian) by your side. To tour one side of Malioboro by andong would cost you $5 or Rp50,000 in local cash.
We enjoyed our morning enormously, stopping for a newly introduced Wall’s Magnum pomegranite flavoured ice cream, haggling with a store owner for a baseball cap to keep the intense glare of the sun away from Yohana’s head, passing the time of day with locals who threw out random comments of ‘hello mister’ and at one point undertaking a survey to help local high school kids practice their English. Interestingly, the involuntary nervous reaction amongst teenagers seems to be an uncontrollable fit of the giggles.
Something that was pleasantly surprising was the number of obviously city council motivated modern art pieces on display on the street. The theme was obviously recycling, given the materials involved. Old and rusting paint cans had been turned into a ball around one particular lamp post, plastic bottles had been used to create a kind of sea monster and old water drums had been turned into highly decorative shields. The sad part was this focus on litter didn’t seem to have influenced the local populace to use the numerous rubbish bins any more than the last time we were here.
Form a culinary point of view, and whilst not particularly hungry, Yohana was keen to try some of the food from her childhood that just isn’t the same outside of the area in which you first try it. I consider myself to be from the North of England (even though I was born in Bedford) and the singular truth is that the national English dish of Fish and Chips is only at it’s best when served in the North. At the risk of alienating myself, the North to me includes; North Yorkshire, Cleveland, Wearside, Tyneside and Northumberland. On a good day it may include very specific parts of Cheshire, Merseyside, Greater Manchester, Lancashire and Cumberland but this hardly ever happens. So it is that Yohana believes that certain foods are exceptionally associated with specific places. This thought process was confirmed a second time on telling the staff at my office where I was going on my contract break. “We want Bakpia(a sweet, doughy ball) from Jogja!!” came the cry in unison. When I suggested that this would mean me carrying it around for a further 5 days and that I could easily buy it from Semarang, you could have been mistaken for believing I had committed an act of unconscienable heresy.
If further proof were indeed needed, it came in the form of a warung halfway along the opposite side of Malioboro to where we had started. These warungs, or street food stalls, with no stainless steel prep benches or colour-coded chopping boards, defy everything that my years in catering ever taught me. It is easy to think that you’re going to walk away with a stomach parasite that will eventually push tendrils so far through your body and into your brain as to make you want to voluntarily listen to Justin Bieber songs, on repeat. But in five years I can guarantee I have never wanted to voluntarily listen to the Biebs. Something that I would suggest is that if you’re a vegetarian, or more importantly a vegan, this may not be the place for you, and by that I don’t just mean Yogyakarta. The warung at which we stopped, selling only Lumpia (spring rolls), offered 3 varieties; Egg and vegetable, chicken and vegetable, or just vegetable. Yet they are all prepared in the same space, using the same equipment and then cooked in the same oil. Indonesians just don’t see food issues and dietary restrictions in the same way that westerners do. I have never once come across an Indonesian who is lactose intollerant, a celeriac or allergic to nuts. I guess they must be there, I’ve just never met one. The crowd here was, I kid you not, five people deep, always a sure sign that you’ve hit the jackpot of whatever it is you’re looking for. There were other places selling Lumpia, but this one was obviously the best. Rp3,000 bought you a single Lumpia of your choosing, and I still don’t see how they made a profit once you add in the chillies and garlic. It was also here that I undertook the student survey, grew a beard to rival Father Christmas and mastered 3 new musical instruments, we waited that long. It is another Universal Constant that the longer you wait for something, the better the outcome. Here was the proof.
Hurriedly walking along the street, clutching our long awaited spring rolls, we were looking for a stall that sold Javanese Coffee (a sludge of the most perfectly balanced coffee in the world) where we would also be able to eat our prized lumpia and we soon found ourselves in luck. We ordered our drinks and opened the packet of six huge, piping-hot spring rolls, accompanied by a bag of volcanically hot green chillies and, more importantly, a small plastic bag full of pureed garlic. On biting in to one of these rolls of joy, dipped in soft garlic flesh and supported by an explosion of pleasure/pain that can only come from the tiny, green cabe rawit, the only expression that comes to mind is the currently overused vernacular of OMG!! These deep-fried parcels of pastry, containing a mixture of beansprouts, chicken, julienned vegetables and spices were surely too good to be true. Having left Yogya and able to reflect on the experience, it was still nothing short of spiritual.
After this the rest of the day was spent crashed out by the hotel’s small swimming pool before retiring to the room for a well earned afternoon sleep. The room was basic but clean and the bed more than comfortable. 7pm arrived far quicker than we’d hoped but hunger was starting to kick in. We showered and dressed and once more made our way back to Malioboro and to the Legian Garden Restaurant.
We’d noticed this place earlier in the day, a first floor building perched on the corner of a street leading off Malioboro. It looked interesting, was strategically lit and would offer a great view of Malioboro’s night time street life. We made our way up the marble stairs and along the veranda to a window table. The menu had a variety of Indonesian and western foods but the emphasis was on the local dishes. Yohana chose Nasi Gudeg, a dish of steamed rice and jackfruit famous here in Yogya while I went for a sate with rice. There were three to choose from chicken (ayam), beef (sapi) or goat (kambing) and I went for the latter as it makes a much more flavoursome dish.
The waitress returned with the Gudeg and a few moments later with my sate. “sate sapi” she said as she put down the earthernware pot with the sate sticks on top and a burning coal in the chamber below. “I’m sorry” I said, “that’s not what I ordered.” “What did you order?” she enquired. “sate kambing” I replied. “Yes, this sate kambing” she responded with a huge smile that could also have been a nervous grin. There is a choice to be had here...on looking at the meat on the sate sticks, I knew it was beef and on tasting it it was unmistakeably beef. I could have called the waitress back and got her to change it but by that time Yohana would have finished and it really just wasn’t worth it. The sate was perfectly edible and was served with both a peanut sauce and a sweet soy sauce mixed through with red chilli slices. A cold Bintang beer helped to wash it down and 30 minutes later we were on our way back to the hotel. As we left the restaurant, there was just enough time for a little more street food. Yohana spied a Wedang Ronde stall which would make a suitable dessert. It’s a strong, sweet fresh ginger tea that has pieces of white bread, freshly roasted peanuts and small pieces of jelly, all served in a bowl with a spoon. Ideal to soothe the colds that we had both been nursing on and off for the last week.
We fell into bed exhausted and full, sleep immediately taking the pair of us and both looking forward to a train journey to the historical Surakarta the next day.