After more than five years (and one pandemic) we could finally return to Indonesia again. After we visited the islands of Flores and Bali last time, we decided to explore the largest island of the archipelago this time, before spending Christmas on Flores island.
tl;dr – Want to watch a video instead?
Our port of arrival was Jakarta – the capital of Indonesia and the largest city in South East Asia. More than 10 million people live in that giant sprawl and the city is known for its endless traffic jams. Yet, we experienced a city that is working hard to overcome some of these issues, with houses being constructed and new bus lines and train lines being introduced everywhere. We stayed near Thamrin Square in Central Jakarta, which is a perfect starting point to explore Merdeka Square and the Old Town by public transport (Transjakarta Busses and local trains). With the many museums and cultural venues offered in Jakarta, we kinda regretted only staying in the city for two days, as there were many interesting places we did not manage to visit.
Jakarta Kota Tua
Jakarta looks back at a long and varied history – the first settlement in the area was probably founded around the 4th century and went by many names over the centuries: Sunda Kelapa (an old port in North Jakarta), Jayakarta (which means “complete victory”), Batavia (during Dutch colonial rule) and Jakarta (since independence). While the modern city with its skyscrapers and goverment buildings is centered around the Merdeka (“Independence”) Square about 5 km inland, the former, Dutch-built old core of the city (“Kota Tua”) is well worth a visit, too. The difficult relationship with colonial history is very visible here: some of the old Dutch buildings are renovated and in use, but many are unused and slowly fall apart. But things are changing: while most travel blogs I read claimed that Kota Tua is empty, we experienced that recent renovation and traffic management works have led it to become a popular after-work destination for Jakartan people, with small cafés and food stalls springing up in old warehouses decorated by local artists.
Jakarta Mangrove Forest
It’s hard to imagine nowadays, but the area around Jakarta used to be covered in a sprawling mangrove forest. Nowadays, only a few endangered patches remain, mostly in North Jakarta. The forests are a welcome and refreshing change from the usual chaos of Jakarta. You could even stay in small huts in the mangroves – probably the most unexpected accommodation option in Jakarta.
Crossing Java by train
During our trip on Java and Flores, we tried to travel by public transport as much as possible. For Java, this meant travelling by train from Jakarta to Yogyakarta and onwards to Surabaya. Intercity trains in Indonesia are comfortable and clean and much more scenic and relaxed than flying – just sit back and enjoy the views of the countryside zipping past.
On the main routes Jakarta – Bandung – Yogyakarta and Jakarta – Semarang – Surabaya, intercity trains run several times a day. The trip from Jakarta to Yogyakarta via Bandung is the most scenic and even offers panorama carriages since 2023. Tickets can easily be purchased via the tiket.com-App. But do note that you need to be at the train station about an hour before departure time for security checks and to exchange your ticket for a boarding pass at a ticket machine. Getting your boarding pass is very easy: just select the ticket in the tiket.com-App and scan the QR code displayed at the ticket machine.
Within Jakarta and Yogyakarta, we also opted for public transport (Busses and local trains) when possible and were positively surprised by the quality and service on all of them. Just get a an e-Money card from one of the many Indomaret shops, top it up and you can hop onto any local train and bus in Jakarta, Yogyakarta and South Bali.
As usual, the Man in Seat 61 is a great resource to plan your train trip.
Yogyakarta (usually shortened to: “Yogya”) is often called the cultural capital of Indonesia, with its Sultan’s palace, classical gamelan music orchestras, batik schools and nearby hinduist-buddhist temples being seen prime examples of traditional Javanese culture. It is a melting pot of traditional Austronesian, hindu, muslim and European cultural elements – all packed into a lovely mid-sized city.
Kraton of Yogykarta
During the fight for independence, the Sultan of Yogyakarta sided with the independence movement and against the Dutch colonialists and was rewarded for his support by staying in power after the reforms following independence. Today, the region of Yogykarta is one of only two remaining sultanates of Indonesia, with the hereditary Sultan of Yogyakarta also being regional governor. The Sultan’s Palace (“kraton”) is open for visitors for a very small fee and hosts traditional theatre and music performances in order to keep up traditional culture.
More than a thousand years ago, the area around today’s Yogyakarta was a centre of Javanese hinduist-buddhist spirituality, with hundreds of temples rising from the forests. A few of these temples were uncovered and rebuilt in the 19th and 20th century, amonst them the world-reknowned temple areas of Prambanan and Borobudur. While Borobudur was not accessible when we were in Yogya, Prambanan and the nearby temples of Sewu and Bubrah and the Ratu Boko palace proved to be just as spectacular. Noteworthy is the fact that here, buddhist and hinduist temples were built right next to each other and often in similar architectural styles, showing that the religions co-existed peacefully.
The second largest city in Indonesia is said to be named after a mythical fight of a shark and crocodile – sometimes this myth is said to allude to the the fight for Indonesian independence, due to the importance of the Battle of Surabaya in 1945. Hotel Majapahit, where the Indonesia flag was raised for the first time, is still an operational hotel and well worth a stay for its historical importance and just to indulge in some luxury.