After three weeks in the lap of luxury in Penang, Malaysia, we were ready to shake things up a bit and get back on the road. It didn’t take long to remind us that traveling isn’t always rainbows and unicorns. Sometimes the unicorn drops a turd, like it did when we found out at the Penang airport that our flight to Jakarta had been inexplicably cancelled. Luckily we were able to squeeze onto a flight to Kuala Lumpur and then just barely catch our connecting flight to Jakarta, which still left us in transit on our way to Yogyakarta. And just about the time we were expecting to start boarding, it was announced that the flight was delayed by 90 minutes. I decided to make a rainbow soft cream out of a turd and search the airport for an ATM to get some local currency in my pocket. That turned out to be about as easy as finding a metalhead at a Kenny G concert, but eventually I found 10 ATMs, all from different banks, clustered together in a tiny room outside the airport, a 15 minute walk from our gate without a single sign showing the way there. Fortunately, Indonesians are very friendly and helpful with directions, even in a massive city like Jakarta.
This is where my day went into frustration overdrive, as my card was rejected by the first machine I tried. I then proceeded to get rejected by all ten machines while a couple of local men eyed me with curiosity, and finally I came to the conclusion that the magnetic strip on the back of the card had been worn away to the point of being unusable. Ugh. So I headed back to the gate, cashless, only to find our plane boarding 40 minutes earlier than they said it would. Oh Indonesia… I love you… warts and all. Fortunately Haruka had a card of her own, so we were still able to access that account, which is our primary mode of getting cash while traveling. That account incidentally, is through Charles Schwab, and although it was kind of a hassle to get it, due to the extensive homeland security check to make sure I wasn’ a terrorist, it’s been a very valuable travel tool. Schwab refunds all of our international ATM fees, which has literally saved us hundreds of dollars, and I would recommend it to anybody traveling long-term.
The long, hectic day came to a smooth, soft landing in Yogyakarta, which at first glance is a big, gritty city, but something about this sprawling urban mess endeared us immediately. Where Jakarta is the primary commercial center for Indonesia, Yogyakarta is the traditional, spiritual heart of the nation. Perhaps it was our unique experience here, but we found there to be a genuine softness amongst the people here that I’ve never experienced in a large city before. In a city where motorbikes outnumber cars by quite a bit, the gentle character of the people seemed to be on full display. There’s still a generally chaotic nature in the streets here, but in comparison to other Southeast Asian countries, the drivers here are seemingly slower and much more courteous. I might even go so far as to say that Yogyakartans are good drivers, or at least that was our experience. Throughout Indonesia, motorbikes can easily be rented just about anywhere for $5 – $7 per day, but insurance on motorbikes is unheard of, and most travel insurance policies would never cover a motorbike accident here, so getting into a wreck is not an option. Luckily, other motorists here feel the same way, and the dense traffic here seems to flow conscientiously.
Our main impetus for visiting the region was to see Borobudur, which has occupied a spot on both of our bucket lists for quite some time. It was just a matter of what time of day we should go and how we should get there, since the ancient Buddhist temple site is about an hour outside of the city. It has become increasingly popular for tourists to visit Borobudur at sunrise, and while that was quite enticing, there were a few downsides. First off, you can’t just go on your own. You need to go with a tour that costs at least triple the already steep $25 entrance fee and picks you up from your hotel in Yogyakarta at 3:30 am. Coupled with the fact that there’s no guarantee of seeing a sunrise during the Indonesia rainy season, we opted to go on our own. We jumped on our rental motorbike at 5 am and arrived at the gates of Borobudur just before they opened at 6 am, just after watching the lackluster sunrise through thick cloud cover on the ride up there.
Our decision to skip the sunrise tour was further validated as we entered the site in near solitude, as most of the sunrise tourists had already cleared out and the day trippers had yet to arrive. As if on cue, the clouds began to part and invite the early morning sun rays to light up the ancient temple in stunning fashion. I try not to go anywhere with expectations, but that’s hard with a high profile destination like Borobudur, and certainly our unique circumstances added up just right, but this was one of those rare experiences when expectations live up to the hype. The 1,200 year old temple is symmetrical with 72 stone domes on several levels that work their way up to a large central dome, and each dome houses a meditating Buddha. Most of the stone Buddhas have been decapitated by looters, but still… I’d imagine that Gautama himself might say that the head is over-rated, and the heart is where it’s at, so screw you looters. Well, he probably wouldn’t have said that last part…
We spent the early morning hours floating and gliding up and down through the various levels in a state of bliss and wonderment in what is undoubtedly one of the most inspiring spiritual playgrounds on earth. Within a few hours, the crowds were starting to make their way in, and while most of them were clamoring their way up to the top, we explored the lower levels of the temple and its incredibly intricate stone reliefs, which induced more gliding and floating. By the time the mid-morning heat was raging in tandem with the hordes of tourists, we were fully satiated and making our way out. The takeaway here, and it’s true with all major tourist sites, is that timing is everything when it comes to optimizing the experience. However, even knowing this and practicing this most of the time doesn’t prevent us from sometimes slipping up in that regard. Case in point: Our visit the following day to the other massive ancient temple site in the region, Prambanan.
To be fair, Haruka came down with some nasty stomach crud just as we were leaving Borobudur, and by the next day we were both feeling quite under the weather. In addition, the weather itself was wreaking havoc on the morning with passing thunderstorms throughout the region. However, our fate was already somewhat cast as we had opted to buy our Prambanan tickets as part of a discounted package deal when we purchased our tickets at Borobudur, but the catch was that they were only valid for two days, so we sucked it up and got ourselves over there by mid afternoon. The complex itself is huge and quite impressive with both Hindu and Buddhist temples spread out over several square kilometers. Our timing however, set us up for the perfect storm of tourist misery: thousands of shrieking high school students on field trips combined with torrential downpours and yucky tummies perfected that storm. So needless to say, our Prambanan experience was meh at best, but given better calculated timing and healthier states of being, we could see the potential for it being a magically mystical location.
Over the course of the week we checked a few other historical sites in the city such as Beteng Tamansari and The Palace of Yogyakarta which are well worth visiting. We also explored some some sweet natural areas outside the city, and everywhere we went was marked by smiling faces, warm greetings and good Java vibes. For us, Yogyakarta was an unexpectedly delightful starting point to our 2 month adventure through Indonesia, and a place we wouldn’t hesitate to visit again.