Populous central Java offers an Indonesia experience you won't find in Bali, with its pool bars and fancy restaurants. Ancient Hindu and Buddhist temples offer a snapshot of the layered cultural and religious history of the region, just as the colonial buildings and mosques rub shoulders in the bustling university city of Jogja (Yogyakarta).
A brand new fancy airport (better than literally every airport in Australia) also has a new railway line heading right into town. This region is one of the Indonesian's governments touted tourist destinations, and development money is pouring in.
The highlight is Borobudur. In a country of 200 million muslims, this temple is the most visited place in Indonesia and is the largest Buddhist temple in the world. Unlike Balinese temples Borobodur and the nearby Prabanan (Hindu) are not working temples and the grounds are set up for tourists.
I visited in 2023 with my Dad, and we landed at YIA after an hour and a half flight from Denpasar. We were driven straight up to Borobodur, bypassing Jogja. While the freeway is relatively new, it was still a 2-hour with peak hour traffic drive so I recommend leaving bali on the earliest flight possible. Our accomodation was a very charming guest house (Bhumi Kasuryan) run but a couple of local sisters. These lovely ladies arranged our travel for the three nights we stayed with them. They organised a delicious light meal after our late arrival and we each had a gorgeous room individually decorated and looking out over the rice fields. In the morning at breakfast we could see Borobodur looming in the distance.
The guesthouse ladies drove us the 5 minutes to Borobodur in the morning, just before it opened at 8.30am (get there even earlier to start the queue). Tourists used to be able to wander around the site by yourself, even getting there at sunrise. Since a refurb in early 2023, however, this is no longer allowed. The site was getting loved to death and authorities were concerned about stone theft and erosion (mostly from hundreds of tourists clambering everywhere) in particular. Now, you have to join a group (or pay extra for a private tour), and your ticket price includes soft slippers that you have to wear.
There is a little confusion at the start as everyone tries to find their slipper size, but the group was small (10 people) and the guide was excellent. The grounds are lovely and well kept, and the temple itself is amazing. It was built in the 9th century during the Sailendra Dynasty which, hedging their bets, also built Hindu temples including Prambanan noted below. The temple, and region surrounding it, was abandoned, probably in 1006 when Mount Merapi erupted. The event was so large that the entire region was covered in ash, and it led to the collapse of the Mataram kingdom. The temple was hidden under layers of ash and jungle until the British administration of Java in 1811-1816. The complex was unearthed by the Dutch in 1835, and received extensive renovations in 1911 and 1983. A newer display set up in 2023 shows this fascinating history with photographs or the excavations.
The complex is lovely to walk around but there is a downside. A gulag of a souvenir market (the locals call it Pasar Ular - snake market) forces visitors through a maze of stalls, harassed as you go by aggressive touts. We would have liked to wander slowly to purchase a few gifts but we were forced to march through quickly, pushing touts away as they shoved wares in our faces. This is unfortunate and there isn't alot you can do. Maybe try NOT to open your wallet right at the beginning as my dad did, these guys just don't take no for an answer and if you buy one item its all over.
Entry to Borobodur is RP. 455k for foreigners, including your slippers and the guided tour. You can also buy a ticket just for the grounds, and look up at the temple for slightly cheaper, but the view from the temple of central Java is lovely so I would go for this option. We didn't realise this but you can get a pass for both Borobodur and Prambanan at Prambanan (which is cheaper), but you have to do them on consecutive days and obviously start at the Hindu complex closer to Jogja. Website.
Open VW Tour
The lovely ladies at our guest house arranged a driving tour for us in an old-fashioned open VW. These colourful little cars are common on the roads, and they are fun to get around in. Our guide took us through the local villages, through rice fields, to a local lunch, a batik factory and, my personal favourite, the chicken church.
This formerly christian and now place of worship was meant to be a dove, but its unfortunate facade meant that the amusing moniker stuck. On top of a hill, with an amazing view, the church was half-built by a gentleman from Sulawesi (there are 23.5 million christians in Indonesia) after a vision.
Sadly, the owner ran out of funds and, presumably, support from up above, and the church was never finished. In fact the muslim residents of Magelang hounded the christians for some years, since the eyesore kind of dominated the landscape and its a very muslim area. In the last few years, enterprising locals noticed tourists starting to visit and decided to set it up on the tourist trail. It's probably one of the top 10 weirdest places I've ever been to, but the drive was pretty, the view spectacular and the little cafe was excellent.
Yogya and Prambanan
For our three nights in Yogyakarta, we stayed at the lovely Phoenix hotel, just around the corner from the lively Maliboro street. It's a gorgeous colonial building, tastefully decorated, and the breakfast buffet is amazing! We got a driver and car to Prambanan in the morning (about a 45 minute drive from central Jogja). We got there at 8am and it was already busy. Being closer to the city means that there are regular bus tours: you might prefer arriving when it opens at 6.30am.
Built on the ninth Century, Prambanan is the largest Hindu temple complex in Indonesia. The first mention of the site was in 856AD. Hinduism came to Bali a little later and Balinese Hinduism developed separately; there are loads of gods with similar names, but the Balinese also have their own gods (from folklore and the old animistic traditions). Prambanan isn't a working temple, but the noticeable difference is in the architecture with much more Indian looking structures. There are three main temples for the Hindu Trimurti; Shiva the destroyer of the universe, Vishnu the keeper of the universe, and Brahma the creator of the universe.
Unlike Borobodur, tourists are allowed to wander around the complex, which is kept beautifully. There are a few restaurants and coffee shops along with some random activities like archery and a mini zoo; the complex being popular with families. There is, of course, the obligatory 'exit through the gift market' and this one was thankfully not the pressure cooker of Borobodur, so wander at your leisure.
One interesting cultural phenomenon: we kept getting asked for our picture. There were no other white foreigners when we arrived and we saw just one or two by the time we'd finished. This isn't Bali where white tourists are everywhere, and Dad and I were a patently fascinating anomaly. I am on the instagram pages of dozens of Javanese kids!
My dad, with whom I was travelling, is a geologist so our day trip to Mount Merapi was a highlight. Neither of us had been so close to an active volcano, so it was fascinating for me too. Merapi means fire mountain in a mix of sanskrit and Javanese (and in fact in Indonesian fire is api), and the old fella erupts every couple of years. The largest recent eruption was in 2010 when 353 people were killed and 350,000 were evacuated. The damage is mostly done by pyroclastic flow and its activity is closely monitored. We took a jeep tour, which was extra fun. There is a little museum on the way up which really brings home the terror of an eruption for the locals. It's a little gory, with two cow skeletons still linked up to the plow they died with during the last big explosion. The store is super cheap so pick up some souvenirs here if you need them. There is an area halfway up the summit that you can stop and walk around in. It's quite close to the peak and is situated next to what was a river of lava just a few years previously.
We went with Tour Jojga and the hotel - mount megapixel - hotel tour is Rp. 425,000 for ; it's 1.5 hours from Jogja.
Pindul Limestone Caves
On the same day as Merapi we went on a limestone caves tour. This was a mistake; we should have gone on another day as there was about 6 hours of driving which was too much for both of us. It is a beautiful drive though, through the mountains south of Jogja. It was also really fun: the Pineal caves are explored on a tube tugged along the Oyo river by a guide. It's low; bats are literally right above your head, but it doesn't feel claustrophobic as you can see each end. This was a charming and fun tour, and perfect for kids and teenagers. My 77 year old dad was uncertain but he did like going through the caves, there wasn't much clambering or walking, and it wasn't particularly difficult.
A regular package for 2 is Rp. 500,000 with Tour Jogja.
Yogya is a university town, with two very large institutions. The outskirts and suburbs look like any big Indonesian city; ugly, a little grotty, goes on forever. The city centre is quite charming, and on Saturday nights the main drag, Malioboro street, is closed to traffic apart from the horsecarts. The street is lovely to wander down in and at the bottom you will find the large colonial buildings housing a couple of museums, and also the sultans palace and water palace. Yogyakarta is still a Sultanate, and the current Sultan serves in the Indonesian parliament.
All the museums are closed on Mondays...the day we had put aside to see them! There are a few places for shopping though, so we did some Christmas prep and searched in vain for food. The street food scene is amazing; although I found the food quite sweet. However, without a big tourist scene, there aren't many cafes or restaurants. Here is a short list:
Tanamera coffee (this liquid gold was found next to our hotel (Phoenix)
Roaster and Bear (Malioboro)
Mang Engaging Soragon Castle
Where to stay
Borobodur hotels High end (+US$100)
Borobodur hotels Mid Range
Jogja hotels Mid level (US$70-90 per night)
Jogja hotels Mid level (<$70 per night)