Yogyakarta

If I were to attempt to characterize Yogyakarta into a short expression, lively organized chaos would probably be the words I’d choose. It didn’t feature on my (lengthy) list of places I want to visit – in fact I don’t think I’d even heard of it until I was invited to speak at a conference there (about which I’ve written more on my other blog) – but that all just goes to show how much I know, because it really was fantastic.

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We were staying in a very nice hotel chosen for its proximity to the conference venue, which was useful for me but made even the shortest sightseeing excursion something of a performance. Usually we like to stay close to at least some of the sights, and within walking distance of as much as possible, but this meant taking a 20 minute taxi ride every time we wanted to go into the city centre. Traffic was fairly crazy – two lanes were treated more like three, and enlivened by the weaving presence of huge packs of motorbikes and scooters – but it all seemed fairly relaxed, with little of the New York aggression.

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We had an afternoon between visiting Borobudur and the start of my conference, but weariness after our early start prompted us to seek out something to do in the immediate vicinity, and we were delighted to see that we were just a few blocks away from one of the more idiosyncratic museums. This was the Affandi gallery – formerly the home and studio of a local artist, now a space dedicated to preserving his work and memory (and exhibiting the art of his family members too – the artistic gene continues!). It was a delightfully quirky space, and we enjoyed wandering around – the art and the building were equally captivating, and it was nice to relax in the cafe at the centre of the complex at the end of our tour.

Two and a half days of conferencing later, I was free to tune back in to local attractions. (Tom had amused himself by checking out one of the museums and wandering around shops and markets in central Yogyakarta, but had been taking it pretty easy in my absence.) The final part of the conference program was a day of cultural visits, and we had opted for the city tour, taking in the Kraton (royal palace), Water Castle, and Vredeburg fortress museum (which Tom had already visited, but never mind).

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It was fun to visit these as part of a guided group, and the two guides who accompanied us for the day were excellent, as was the person who walked us around the Kraton. This is an intriguing walled city of mainly single-storey buildings interspersed with open areas shaded with trees. Some of the buildings are still used by the Sultan and his family, others house collections of art and artefacts – everything from grand gifts presented by visiting heads of state to family trees (with sons depicted as fruit and daughters as leaves) to one Sultan’s boy scout uniform.

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We were rather rushed through the Water Castle, which was a shame as it would have been nice to linger – we just about had time to admire the various pools (one for the wives and children, and a separate one for the sultan himself) on the way through.

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By the time we reached the Vredeburg I was rather museumed out (it does happen!), but it was interesting to watch the introductory video, and browse the dioramas telling the story of Dutch colonial days and Japanese occupation.

For our final day in Yogyakarta we took ourselves back into the city for some sightseeing of our own. We started at the Sonobudoyo museum, and were lucky enough to be approached by a guide as we entered. He was really excellent and gave us a great tour of the museum – very few of the labels were in English so we would have missed out on all sorts of interesting information without him.

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Then it was back to the Kraton for their mid-morning performance – they do different things each day, and we were there for shadow puppets. We’d learned a little about these on our Sonobudoyo tour, so it was particularly fun to see them in action, although not much actually happened while we were there. After watching for a bit, and listening to the gamelan musicians (this was by far the most extensive orchestra we saw while we were there), I wandered about taking photos for a bit.

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Back outside, we hopped in a becek to take us up to Jalan Malioboro – Yogya’s main shopping street. Beceks are the local version of the little cycle-rickshaws you see all over the place now, but unlike in some citites they seemed to be used by locals just as much as tourists. I think it’s the first time I’ve ridden in one anywhere, and although there were a couple of anxious moments in the traffic it was far more preferable to walking even a moderate distance on a hot day. (We neglected to haggle, but felt that the quoted price – around $7 US – was totally worth it for saving us the effort, even though I’m sure this was vastly inflated.)

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Batik fabric is one of Indonesia’s big handcraft items, but rather than just being something they sell to tourists it is clear that local people appreciate it as well. Many of the Indonesian men at the conference had been wearing batik shirts, and women had scarves or jackets. On our Sonobudoyo tour we’d learned that certain patterns were historically reserved for members of the royal family only, and others had particular symbolic meanings, and it was fun to spot those as we shopped for gifts and souvenirs along Malioboro. I actually got to have a go applying wax to fabric myself as part of one of the conference activities – of course my efforts were painfully slow and blobby, whilst the pros could have been using a paintbrush rather than a little hot-wax-dribbling tool, but I was pleased to have had the chance to try it out!

As ever there are FAR too many photos from the whole Singapore/Indonesia trip in my Flickr account – it’s possible I’ll get around to editing them one day, but meanwhile click here if you’d like to take a look at the Yogyakarta album.

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