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The idea of visiting Yogyakarta was hatched as the perfect excuse for escaping the cliches and hackneyed rituals of the Chinese New Year, and was conceived half a year before the dreaded season descended amidst the din of lion dances, popping firecrackers, Chinese New Year "music", mahjong and interrogation by relatives. The choice of accommodation was the iconic, venerable Hotel Phoenix, a 100 year old house converted into a posh designer hotel in 2004.
The venerable Hotel Phoenix (pronounced "Phone-nick" locally by the taxi drivers) was given a major refurbishment and re-opened on 14 May 2004 by the present Governor of Yogyakarta Hamengku Buwono X.
The hotel is a veritable feast for the eyes, with artifacts, ornaments and interior design detailing in every corner to titillate and delight the visual senses. A glance in any direction will land on some ornate vase, woodcarving on the wall, sculptural work, floral arrangement, mosaical motif or designer furniture.
Reflection in Venetian mirror. It is the local version of Singapore's Raffles hotel, at a quarter of the price. To me, the symbol of the Phoenix is metaphorically apt to signify the rebirth and renewal of the hotel - in preserving the old and re-inventing itself to keep up with the modern.
The hotel emblem as seen in the corner bevel of a Venetian mirror. Yogya is most famously known for its World Heritage Sites of Buddhist Borobodur and Hindu Prambanan. While traditionally Javanese, and majority
Islam, the ruling visual aesthetic as seen in architecture and household artefacts (statues, ornaments, furniture) is also influenced by the presence of these places, e.g. the stone friezes of scenes from the Ramayana and Buddhist beliefs.
One of the many friezes on the walls of Borobodur which tells of scenes from ancient Buddhist texts.
Borobodur and Prambanen are both about an hour's drive from the city centre and can be covered in one day. They were both built contemporaneously and share similar dimensions and building materials. They are a powerful reminder that different religions, although related and sharing a common history, and polytheistic, can co-exist peacefully.
Prambanan - an ancient Hindu worship complex. The vast flat expanses of the multi-terraced Borobodur, with its square and circle concentricities, is nicely contrasted with the vertical upward spikes of Prambanan's candi.
The famous "bells" near the top of Borobodur. Each one contains a statue of Buddha within.
Apart from these two historical sites, Yogyakarta is also known for its traditional Javanese arts, most exemplified by its ubiquitous batik clothing shops (sadly selling non-differentiated and non-modernised products), but also represented by Gamelan music, Ramayanan ballet, and the wayang kulit or puppetry show.
Batik painting. The wax is poured onto the fabric via a cigar-like device with a small tube. The fabric is dyed successively with darker colours and the wax covered areas are protected from the dyes each time. Waxing is done inbetween the dye stages and the colours and patterns are build up this way.
Unlike its more upscale and globalised cousin city Bali - with its worldrenowned tropical architecture, modern art shops and signature massage, Yogya is comparatively more insular and traditional in its outlook, preferring to conserve the old rather than push new boundaries. One symptom of this is the paucity of modern art galleries and massage parlours, which are bound to be a hit with tourists. Yogya is also home to many local universities, and there is a sizeable student population, adding bustle and youthful energy to the city. Special mention is made of the Richter 5.9 earthquake that struck the province of Yogya on May 27, 2006. The 1 min earthquake killed 6000 people and destroyed 300,000 homes with another 300,000 seriously damaged. The trauma and recovery continues to this day. With about 300 languages and dialects, Indonesia is one of the world's most culturally diverse country. Yogyakarta is the seat of Javanese culture. While Bahasa is taught and used in schools as a national language, a majority of
Indonesians speak their own mother tongue at home and in the villages.
Javanese text. This is the local language distinct from the anglicised Bahasa Indonesia taught in schools. The script is similar to the Thai language, being part of the Sanskrit family of languages.
The city centre is organised according to their local traditional belief of maintaining cosmic harmony, with the Sultan's Palance at the South aligned along an imaginary north-south meridien to Mount Merapi in the north. The 2km tourist stretch of Malioboro street with its numerous shops and hotels lies along this meridien.
Mirota Batik shopping mall along the main tourist stretch of Malioboro road. Housed in an Art Deco building, it is a one-stop shopping solution for the tourist, selling everything from herbs to antiques.
The Sultan is a powerful political figure as well as respected moral leader. The previous Sultan (Sultan number IX) is regarded as a national hero of sorts and extremely popular, as he fought for independence from the Dutch colonial masters in the 1940s. He was Vice-President to Suharto, and is seen as a Renaissance sort of man, with a flair for the fine arts. Because of the influence of the Sultanate, which has been ruling Yogya for ten generations, Yogya is accorded status as a Special Administrative Province of Indonesia with some degree of political autonomy.
The royal emblem of the Yogyakarta governor. The nine feathers represent the nine predecessor governors descended by bloodline before the current one.
The Sultan's Palace is another must-see, for its historical insight into Yogya via its exhibits. The Sultan has over 200 staff, and they staff the gamelan ensemble, run traditional events, clean and cook for the Sultan's family who are actually living there. The guided tour is staffed by knowledgeable friendly locals who speak decent English. The traditional Javanese look of the place (the palace is over 200 years old) is also peppered with little Dutch and Hindu/Chinese influences.
The wedding pavilion which was rebuilt after the 2006 earthquake.
In terms of architecture, the prevalence of Art Deco is a strong reminder of its Dutch colonist past. Art Deco can be seen in the city centre and turn up in unexpected places in sub-urban areas. Sometimes, all you see is an incomplete facade as the other half of the building is converted into something else.
Interesting juxtaposition of Western Art Deco and local Javanese architecture for adjoining shophouses along Malioboro Street.
I encountered a popular tourist scam without realising it at that time. While dining in a respectable-looking restaurant, the "owner" recommended an art gallery selling batik paintings which he claimed was a moving exhibition and that the last day was today. According to him, the gallery also ran a school and he was one of the students. He led us into the back alley and into the gallery which had no signage. Once there, I was impressed by the quality and modern interpretation of batik craft converted into hand made paintings. I was quoted S$130 for one of the smaller paintings which I liked. However, I was not really keen on buying, so I thanked the gallery staff and started walking away. The gallery staff persisted in bargaining, so I quoted him the price I felt comfortable with - S$40. I was shocked that he reluctantly gave in. A day later in the Tourist Information Shop, I was told about this scam and the details of the story matched almost perfectly. Fortunately, the batik painting is, nevertheless, real hand painted batik - you can tell it apart from the printed ones - and that I paid a price I was comfortable with.
This is a hand painted batik print which I bought for S$40 from a shady place, after bargaining the price down from S$130.
If you happen to see food that looks like some brown mish-mash, its probably their most famous local dish - Gudeg (pronounced "Go-dek"), a curry of jackfruit, chicken and egg, with coconut seasoning. It is sweet and palatable. I fell in love with chicken (or ayam) there because the chicken is free-roaming, which means much less fat, leaner meat and definitely healthier than the farm bred chickens. That's it folks. I hope you enjoyed reading this.
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