Prambanan Temple > TheRoamingNoodle

Adventures in Yogyakarta | Asia’s Hidden Gem

My next stop on Java Island, Yogyakarta, proved itself to be an incredible adventure. Scooter convoys at dawn, chasing waterfalls, temples at golden hour, famous street food, it had it all!

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Rolling out of the train station at Bandung the only thought running through my mind was: “Is it pronounced Yo-gee-ar-ta or Yog-yak-ar-ta?Yogyakarta, or Jogja as it’s better known, was on the docket next for me and with a name like that why wouldn’t it be. Located in the Special Region of Yogyakarta it’s known for traditional arts and cultural heritage. Its ornate 18th-century royal complex, or kraton, encompasses the still-inhabited Sultan’s Palace. Home to famous historical sites such as Borobudur Temple and Prambanan Temple, endless waterfalls to chase with active volcano backdrops and famous street foods, there is so much to do but so little time.

Volcano erupting in the background. NBD.

Over the course of my travels I have used every conceivable mode of transit just shy of a donkey hauling a cart. In other words I was pretty much a pro now at finding ways to get around on the cheap. On Java Island the easiest way to get around is to simply book a ticket on their fantastic train system. I went ahead and booked myself a first class seat out Bandung, relatively cheap all things considered, hoisted my bag in the overhead and hunkered down to a rather plush seat.

… I was pretty much a pro now at finding ways to get around on the cheap.

The cart I was in was all but empty smelled like the inside of a hermetically sealed scalpel. Outside the window it was a balmy 90 degrees while at my seat I strapped on my puffer jacket while the air-con was on full tilt. The next eight hours passed with me watching the scenery change from rice terraces to mountainous peaks and back with the occasional break of stops in-between.

You can hear the food trolley’s squeaky wheel roll down the aisle with all the snacks and water one can buy if only had enough change on hand. I always opted for a bag of crisps and some sweets to munch on to pass the time and there was lots of it to pass. Were there faster ways to get around the island? Of course, but you’d miss out on so much of the countryside I wouldn’t dare suggest you take any other way than by train.

With a couple of nap sessions under my belt I awoke to the thundering halt of the locomotive pulling into Jogja station. It was quite a hustle bustle affair as a lot of the locals were traveling in the other carts unbeknownst to me. A game of bob and weave ensued as I try to locate the wolf pack who were also on this train to say my goodbyes before heading off to SNOOZE Yogyakarta, an eco-hostel, I booked for the duration of my stay. The only game plan after arriving in Jogja was to meet up with Sil and Tom in a day or two and see what kind of mischief we can get ourselves into.

After checking into SNOOZE, which was a very befitting name, a long shower was on tall order. Jessica and her staff were insanely both accommodating and knowledgeable of the area and all the things to do. They also won me over with their breakfast, a daily choice between sweet or savory vegan dishes, to order. Hell they even packed you a lunch if you’re out on early morning treks just like mom would. Go here. Stay here. Learn a bit about sustainability while you’re at it!

With a full eight hours of sleep under my belt and a day to kick back and relax it was back to business as usual. Once I had located both Sil and Tom we hashed out a plan to spend a day exploring the Borobudur Temple and the regions to the north of it. The convoy time was set for 4AM the next day, otherwise known as the ass crack of dawn. The plan was simple enough: leave with convoy, eight scooters and various backpackers, make way in the dark towards Borobudur Temple just in time for the first light. What could go wrong?

For starters:

Riding to Borobudur > TheRoamingNoodle
4AM Blurs.
  • We lost about half of the pack at a round-about not two seconds away from Sil’s hostel
  • Tom has never ridden a scooter in his life before two days ago and decided Java was the perfect place to learn the scooting ways
  • I couldn’t see worth a damn out of my rented helmet because the face shield has been dropped 1000 times.

Setbacks or not we soldiered on during that cold 40km ride that morning in the hopes of a promised beautiful sunrise. There was a last minute change of plans when a local told us of another spot nearby the temple that was free to watch the sunrise. Free? Count us in!

Time now was 6AM when we pulled into the parking spot of this undisclosed location, seriously I had no idea where we were. All I saw were lines of people making their way up the steep hill so we couldn’t have gotten lost that badly. In fact we were exactly where we needed to be, in a manner of speaking.

The hill overlooked extremely lush vegetation below as the perimeter of the summit was lined with hundreds of locals and a handful of tourists, namely us. This was great except my European companions were gawked by everyone. If you’re new to SE Asia or my blog then this is normal because everyone local in the region wants a photo with anyone European or pale in complexion. This left me out of the mix, phew.

Our arrival was timed just right as the sun peaked through all the dense clouds revealing yet another great day to be alive. I wish I could say more about this location but it really felt like you had to know who to talk to and where to go to see it. With the cost only being that of parking it was an affordable option over the sunrise tour of the temple that comes with a premium. With our frills filled, mainly the locals with their photo requests of my friends, we were finally off to the temple itself.

Sunrise in Jogja > TheRoamingNoodle
Undisclosed sunrise in the mountains of Jogja.

Borobudur Temple is the world’s largest Buddhist temple. The structure consists of nine stacked platforms, six square and three circular, topped by a central dome. The temple itself is home to more than a few hundred (502) Buddhas while the central dome is surrounded by 72 Buddha statues, each seated inside a perforated stupa. From the many photos I saw of this place leading up to my visit I had an idea of what I was in store for. In the end photos rarely do the real thing justice.

Borobudur Temple > TheRoamingNoodle
You can always spot Tom in the crowds.

One word that sums up the temple that morning was BUSY. I followed packs of people all heading in the same direction: the staircase of the temple. We’re literally asses to elbows because Tom overlooked just about everyone around him. Here was where I started noticing a trend of just exactly how many locals were around us. Normally you never see so many visiting their own tourist destinations, but on Java that was not the case. A queue formed to walk up to the top dome of the temple and it wasn’t long before I noticed very few backpackers and tons of Javanese.

  • Borobudur Temple > TheRoamingNoodle
  • Borobudur Temple > TheRoamingNoodle
  • Borobudur Temple > TheRoamingNoodle
  • Borobudur Temple > TheRoamingNoodle
  • Borobudur Temple > TheRoamingNoodle

Once at the top the views looking down below was diminished mainly due to the thick morning clouds that still lingered. However, the top dome itself was clear of any viewing obstructions. Earlier I mentioned you can actually come here to catch the sunrise, but an extra ticket must be purchased before hand. They allow only a limited number of people in before the gates actually open to the public. Word from a former colleague of mine said this was actually worth the extra money so if your interested in parting with a few hours of sleep it comes highly recommended.

  • Borobudur Temple > TheRoamingNoodle
  • Borobudur Temple > TheRoamingNoodle
  • Borobudur Temple > TheRoamingNoodle
  • Borobudur Temple > TheRoamingNoodle
  • Borobudur Temple > TheRoamingNoodle

With the bulk of our morning behind us and Tom nearly killing his damn self on the scooter I suggested we all ride to Ketap Pass since we weren’t too far away. My suggestion sunk in when I mentioned nice mountain roads and a waterfall that couldn’t be passed up. I mean who doesn’t love a waterfall though? Our ride out was uneventful, thank god, and we made it to Ketap Pass just in time to enjoy a nice cup of Javanese coffee at a roadside stall. A down moment like this should always be enjoyed, preferably with new friends and mountain views.

Ketap Pass > TheRoamingNoodle
Coffee with a view.

Another reason why I wanted to visit Air Terjun Kedung Kayang (the waterfall) was because of Mount Merapi that sits just behind it. Once again photos of this place popped itself up on the internet prior to leaving for my trip and thought surely this place wasn’t real. I soon found out this island would have set the standard for all of my future “this can be real” inquiries. I assure you it was definitely real and getting there only took a short scooter ride and even shorter hike.

Waterfall, Java Island, Indonesia > TheRoamingNoodle
Air Terjun Kedung Kayang waterfall.

The further we got from the entrance the less road noise you heard and more of the jungle soundtrack took its place. The reverberating of bamboo swaying back and forth, sometime tussling in the wind. Birds high in the treetop chirping away in search of a mate. As we inched closer to the waterfall you start to hear its roaring crash. Situated adjacent to the falls is a rock over hang that has you staring hundreds of feet down below. The powerful water plummets down against all the boulders below, eventually turning them into smithereens. It was both deafening and music to one’s ears. The vistas were bittersweet as we couldn’t see the mountain behind it due to the thick clouds of the day, but the waterfall was still worth the trek.

The next obvious course of action was to head to the base of the waterfall which was decided unanimously. I like how adventurous this group is. Twenty minutes later soaking in my own sweat I found myself taking off my shoes and hiking up my shorts to cross a fast moving stream just to get closer. Was it worth getting drenched by the waterfall just to stare up into its soul? You bet your ass it was, just wish I had packed my swim trunks for this occasion!

By now we’re totally exhausted from being up since dawn that we decided it was a good enough time to head back into the city. Let me take this moment to touch up on one thing: Java traffic during rush hour is DEATH. In the months I have been in Asia I thought I had seen all of what it had to offer in terms of crazy traffic, but I was dead wrong. The traffic on Java island is otherworldly.

Riding in their traffic with a bunch of maniacs sent shivers down my spine, produced goosebumps on my arms and raised all the hair on the back of neck. To put it lightly everyone was essentially a player from Bomberman 64, dodging and weaving in and out of cars, trucks and even semis. Touching another scooter was the equivalent of tossing a bomb at another player, except you’re both the bombs and there isn’t a respawn, ever. Coordinated madness I tell you.

This had me thinking about half of the crew that we lost in the early hours of the morning as they too have not much scooting experience. May the odds be ever in your favor I thought of their possible predicament as I twist a handful of throttle to catch up to Sil. We all made it back in one peace, though part of my soul died out there.

After such a long day I met up with Lou, a friend I made who was staying at the same hostel as I, and talked over my experiences with the adventure. Towards the end of our conversation she mentioned a gelato place that went by the name of Tempo Gelato who had such rave reviews insisted I should go. And so we hopped on the scooter and made a late night charge for gelato, because who wouldn’t?

Although how good it actually was I only realized when the lines was INSANELY long. The wait for a scoop or two took about 45 minutes, so this place had to be good! I am happy to report there was not one belly let down in that queue that night, mine included. Stop by here if you get a chance to because outside of Europe I haven’t had gelato that good in a while!

Tempo Gelato, Jogja, Indonesia > TheRoamingNoodle
One durian gelato, please!

The next morning I was awoken by Lou at the ripe hour of 530AM all in the name of desserts. Yes, you heard it correct, we were up at such an ungodly hour to get our hands on some sweets. These weren’t any normal sweets in question as you might have guessed! Unbeknownst to me during my stay in Jogja there was somewhat of a Netflix celebrity already in the making. Her name is Mbah Satinem and she sold Jajan Pasar a traditional Indonesia snack consisting of sticky rice with shredded coconut and palm sugar. Without much hesitation we hailed a Grab and was off to see the sweet old lady that was the talk of the street food scene.

My bed was so comfortable, the morning was already sweltering, and this hangover is unbearable, things running through my mind as we pulled up to the corner. If I hadn’t known it was THE corner I surely did after seeing a magnitude of other people lining up by the dozens at such an early hour. Beyond them sat a tiny little grandmother who I couldn’t see through the endless sea of heads and shoulders.

Street Food Line, Jogja, Indonesia > TheRoamingNoodle
Queue starts here everyone.

If there is a line then it must be good. This tried and true adage is 100% always correct. We queued up with everyone else, bumping into people to get one of those golden ticket like slips with a number stamped on the front of it. 37. We were 37th in line to order. Not so bad I thought to myself until I heard number 48 called, then 49, eventually 50 and dear god it went back to ONE. The queue numbers had wrapped around and we were on the second round of what seemed like a bad date. “F***,” I thought.

While we waited I watched her work in such rapid fire succession that it was amazing to behold of anyone, young or old. First in the hand was a banana leaf, then she slapled on some rice, add in the other fixings, a drizzle of sweet sauce that looked like thickened molasses, wrap and repeat. It was clockwork and you could tell she was the envy of all mechanical processing plants around the world. She did this in metronomic fashion all the while chatting with everyone who sat before her.

  • Street Food, Jogja, Indonesia > TheRoamingNoodle
  • Street Food, Jogja, Indonesia > TheRoamingNoodle
  • Street Food, Jogja, Indonesia > TheRoamingNoodle

From behind the shoulders I could only image what her life story must’ve been like. Without having watch the Netflix special my mind was left to its own imagination. The tales she could tell if one only willingly listened. You don’t get this popular making street snacks for decades if you didn’t have personality, a genuine kindness, and that all too lovable laugh. She had it all and was killing it. But none of the above was going to get us our jajan pasar any quicker.

My hopes were high that we were going to get a taste that morning. I kept looking at my two friends grinning incessantly at the chance we could get our hands on ONE each, but deep inside I knew. Our fate was sealed when number seven ordered 37 OF THEM! I wish I were kidding about the coincidence in our number and the number she ordered, but I was too infuriated to think straight, and hungry. Quantities are LIMITED and there is NO LIMIT to how much you can buy, as this lady demonstrated. Well played is all I could think of as she got up, three bags in tow, and left. The morning has gone away from me and my stomach was still empty.

Quantities are limited and there is no limit to how much you can buy.

Street Food, Jogja, Indonesia > TheRoamingNoodle
Worth it!

We turned back in our number slips defeated when some locals who shared in our dismay struck up a conversation. They told us that if we wanted we can put our names down for the next morning’s opening to get our hands on the goods before everyone else. HELL YEA! I want to report back that the girls came through super clutch on this one by bringing back a few of these delicious little leaf treats.

Damn they are sticky and gooey, and you better have some industrial strength floss laying around or a local dentist on retainer. It was a smorgasbord of flavors in my mouth, mainly sweet and smoky, at such an early hour of the day. No regrets.

With our morning adventure behind us I chose to walk towards Jalan Malioboro considered to be the most touristy street in all of Jogja. It is lined morning till night with food vendors offering up anything ranging from sweet to savory to the quintessential shaved ice treats to cool off with. Also, it’s known as the Shopping Street where you can find everything from unusual souvenirs to the latest in Javanese fashion.

I made a stop at Hamzah Batik to indulge in a few of the local threads. What actually happened was me walking out of the store with a few more floral shirts in local flavors than I had anticipated. I really loved the styling of the people here so I made it a point to bring the styling back stateside! If the shoppings got you hungry do check out the House of Raminten while you are here for a meal and a show if you’re lucky. Also, don’t forget to use your hands while you eat as it is super customary in this part of the world! Try the gudeg too, you won’t be disappointed.

With only one evening left before I made my way to my next destination I took the opportunity to do an evening tour of Prambanan Temple. Jessica was of great help in setting up this up for me and one other person in the hostel. I want to note that if Borobudur was the sunrise tour then its counterpart is Prambanan for sunset. Just an hour before sunset we all hopped into the hired car and were off!

Prambanan Temple > TheRoamingNoodle
The only people in the entire place.

A little backstory on Prambanan: it’s a 9th-century Hindu temple compound in the Special Region of Yogyakarta, Indonesia. The temple is dedicated to the Trimūrti, the expression of God as the Creator, the Preserver and the Destroyer. Also, somewhat eerily reminds of Angkor Wat, which was built later, in the Kingdom of Cambodia. Although historians would say that King Jayavarman II of the Khmer Empire, who spent most of his life on Java, visited both Borobudur and Prambanan and were his inspiration to build Angkor Wat on such a grand scale.

Prambanan Temple > TheRoamingNoodle
Last rays of the golden light.

Due to Java evening traffic we have missed the sunset here completely, but the sights were still amazing! The crowds were less, most likely due to the fact it is now the blue light hours, so it meant not having to shove elbows out of my ribs. The temple itself, grand in scale still, reminded me very much of a maze with all of its outside corridors that lead into the center. Our tour guide was a great source of information about the temple’s history, from political party changes to nearby natural disasters, eruptions and earthquakes from Mount Merapi to the eventual abandonment that ensued, Prambanan still stood.

We stayed until well after dark, choosing to eat a meal at the local restaurant before the cultural show that was to follow. My companion opted to stay and watch while I myself took in one last view of the temple in those sweet remaining rays of daylight. Once the floodlights came on it broadcast the temple in full view of everyone eating. I took this as my cue to exit stage left on another day of adventures in a foreign land.

Resemblance to Angkor Wat is uncanny!

After a few days in Jogja I realized what an amazing time I had without even noticing. Sure I didn’t manage to do everything I had set out to, but that’s how it goes sometimes. The new people I have met in the last week and a half surely left their imprint on me. From my adventures with Sil and Tom, to my conversations about life with Lou, to meeting the rest of the rag tag crew and sharing multitudes of laughs and memories. This was worth it more to me than sticking to some itinerary.

Sure I didn’t manage to do everything I had set out to, but that’s how it goes sometimes.

Turning in that evening was a bittersweet affair, but I was ready to leave the city behind me for the next: Malang. There will be more waterfalls to chase, volcanoes to trek up and it was just a train ride away. Let’s go!

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