Beating heart of Java

Brigid Delaney ventures beyond Bali to a land of smart cities, friendly locals and incredible temples.

Beyond Bali, much of Indonesia is unknown to many Australians. Jakarta has a bad rap for terrible traffic and pollution. But get out of the capital, and you can discover thousands of islands, incredible temples, and smart, interesting second cities such as Solo, Bandung, Sumatra and Yogyakarta.

Yogyakarta is a university town a short flight (or nine hours' drive) from Jakarta with a population of 400,000. It has a relaxed, student vibe, yet is culturally significant - often mentioned in the same breath as Ubud, the seat of Balinese culture. It is also a short drive from two of the most significant temples in South-east Asia - Borobudur and Prambanan.

I arrive into Yogyakarta via a broad street lined with trees which has more than a whiff of old Colonial Indonesia about it. There are horses dressed in elaborate headgear, their carriages decorated in faded gilt and colourful paint, carrying tourists and locals. I pass open-air barbers shops, policeman with whistles directing traffic and street vendors selling fried jackfruit, chicken pieces, and mixing sweet tea.

Adding to the street colour are transvestites with maracas and tambourines who line the highway under the hot Javanese sun and shake their instruments with a hip-flicking insouciance, hoping for some cash passed out the window as you wait at the lights.

Also jammed along the main roads are human rickshaws - one of the only places in the world where they still exist. The guys pushing people in carts are ancients, with faces like a crumbling stone Buddha and calf muscles as round as tennis balls. Along the main street Jalan Malioboro they ring their bells, touting for custom. I want a lift, but I don't want to end up killing one of these old timers. It's hot in Yogyakarta, dry heat around 30 degrees, and I'm twice their size. When I eventually do get in a rickshaw and go for a half hour ride around the beautiful old Dutch colonial buildings and around the side streets (for about $3) I can hear my "driver" behind me making guttural sounds.

Yet still he can make small talk in his limited English, asking me - like so many taxi drivers here do - if I'd like to go and see a mate of his who makes "really good batik". Batik workshops and the silver-smithing that Yogyakarta is known for are not really my thing. Instead I am keen to see what life is like for ordinary Indonesians in this place that is rapidly modernising but still has many trappings of the past.

A bit further out from Yogyakarta's city centre (do not get a rickshaw man to take you, it's too far) is the wonderful street (Jalan) Prawirotaman. It's full of useful things for travellers. This is where you can book tours to Borobudur and Prambanan, find an array of English-speaking restaurants with really good bakery, eat Italian food, meet other travellers - and put your name down for an overland trip from Yogyakarta to Bali.

It's also where I meet a couple of Perth miners who have got cheap Jetstar tickets to Jakarta and decide, like me, to go randomly to Yogyakarta. We are booked on a Jamu Tour run by ethical tour company Via Viva - an afternoon trip to a market to learn about traditional Indonesian medicine.

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The tour starts on motorbikes. The three of us are assigned three young local women who will be our drivers and guides through the heavy traffic. At the market we visit vendors selling ingredients for traditional Javanese medicine, before going to a clinic to see jamu administered to crying children.

Then it's back on our bikes, down a few side streets and to a residential area where the three of us are booked in for ... a massage.

Wow, this is a strange place for a massage, I am thinking. The house is very rundown with dirt floors and two modest-sized rooms belonging to some very elderly masseurs - who also happen to be blind from birth.

"The social department have education for the blind," says my guide. The blind study for "three years and have to learn anatomy. They have a good sense of feeling and acupuncture. Local people go to them (at a cost of around $4 for an hour massage); a spa is a fake massage."

This is definitely not fake - but it does feel surreal. I have all my gear off and am lying on a dirty linoleum table, in a house that in no way resembles a day spa. The poverty of my surroundings is stark. It was also the first - and I hope the last - time my oesophagus was massaged.

Returning to Via Viva we have an illuminating discussion on how Indonesians might use jamu. We sit cross-legged on the floor - applying a clag-like substance to each others' faces (the WA miner tries to look dignified while I apply his face mask) while our guide opens a box that contains some jamu - packets of powder, a dried seahorse, pills. We are shown medicines for Mr P and the V (our guide's name for male and female genitals) and shown the jamu that young girls use to try to induce a miscarriage. This tour is - quite frankly - blowing my mind.

The next day I return to Via Viva to take a farming tour. Me, two Spanish brothers and our Indonesian guide set off on bicycles along a busy highway, then abruptly we turn and it's like we have entered the 19th century.

The land is lush and green, and farmers work it with ploughs and threshers. They wave at us as we go past on our bikes while children sing out a cheery hello from porches. Occasionally we stop and talk to a farmer who lets us operate her scythe or we cycle into a field where there are men making mud bricks - who step aside and let us make a brick that then sets in a kiln on site.

On a dirt road, we cycle to a cow bank where animals are kept communally and hear about how life in rural Indonesia has changed little in the past century.

As a tourist I have never been greeted with such warmth and friendliness by local people. It is - I imagine - how Bali was in the 1970s, before mass tourism took hold.

But will it last? Yogyakarta is experiencing a hotel building boom. There are a handful of five-star hotels being constructed, a big Hilton golf course hotel not far out of town, the boutique Phoenix and a good range of budget hotels.

My first seven nights in Yogyakarta are at the Novotel, right in the middle of town. It has an excellent swimming pool and fantastic day spa. And with the warm days and the temperature not dropping much at night, the hotel has an almost tropical resort feeling. Yet this vaguely hedonistic vibe is undercut by the mosque next door and the call to prayer that I can hear clearly from my room. I like this. It reminds me where I am, which is one of the most populous Muslim countries in the world.

However, in Yogyakarta I meet an equal number of Christians (including a few Catholics) and Muslims who make a point of saying - first up, as it is rightly a thing of pride - how well they all get along. On the farming bicycle tour we are shown a cemetery where Muslims and Christians are buried alongside each other.

In Yogyakarta, religious groups aren't segregated by neighbourhood - so a Christian and Muslim are likely to be neighbours and will wish each other a Happy Eid or a Merry Christmas depending on the time of the year.

As all the Muslim drivers were celebrating Eid at the time of my visit, it is a Catholic local who drives me to my next stop in Central Java. Sam, like many Indonesians, knows about what's happening in Australia and can talk Schappelle and John Howard a mile a minute (they are still getting their heads around Gillard and Abbott).

Sam is driving me further into Central Java - into an area of fertile farmland, ringed by mountains and active volcanos. He points up at a rather menacing-looking mountain that is smoking. Then he waves a newspaper at me and translates. Apparently a Russian tourist decided to climb the volcano a couple of days ago and has now gone missing. A search party had been sent up but there was little hope of finding him alive.

There are around 127 active volcanoes in Indonesia. This region was devastated by the eruption of Mount Merapi in 1994. The area around it was evacuated in 2010 and even now, driving past it, it smoulders like a restless demon.

But we make it unharmed to Mesa Stila in Central Java. Part retreat, part luxury spa, it is a beautiful, otherworldly place, whose charm belongs to a place that no longer exists - Colonial Indonesia. An Italian former owner collected bits of the old regime. So check-in is in an old railway carriage and high tea is served in a parlour with slow-moving ceiling fans, a grand piano, amazing works of art of the wall and chaise lounges. The resort sits on 22 hectares of farm land.

The Indonesian president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, has stayed here on holidays. I am shown his suite; it is very presidential. There is a lovely, four-poster daybed, irises in a vase, wide marble floors. Outside his hut is an infinity pool. Beyond is a rainforest and the mountains; floating up from the valley comes the call to prayer.

The view from my suite at Mesa Stila (which translates as "tranquil mountain") is amazing. It is like a painting, except for the swallows that are thick in the air, ducking and diving outside my terrace.

Mesa Stila is a great place from which to explore the region's temples, but it also has an amazing pool, day spa and good restaurants - so I didn't feel the need to leave. I did take a coffee plantation tour where beans go from bush to brew.

I leave for Bali at 6am the next day. My wake-up call is 2am, an apt time for leaving the place that seems dream-like and other-worldy. Mesa Stila has prepared me a breakfast box and the yawning driver and I drive back down the mountain to get an early flight from Yogyakarta.

By the time it's daylight I'm in Bali. There are my countrymen in their boardshorts and thongs. Bali is like their second home. I feel like taking over the airport's loudspeaker. Get on another plane! Go to Indonesia! NO NOT THE BALI BIT - THE OTHER BIT! It's amazing over there! Just go!

The writer stayed courtesy of Novotel hotels and Mesa Stila.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

Garuda has a fare to Yogyakarta for about $840 return from Melbourne and Sydney including tax. Fly to Denpasar (about 6hr) and then to Yogyakarta (1hr 20min). This fare allows you to fly back via Jakarta. See garuda-indonesia.com.

GETTING AROUND

Rickshaw or taxis are plentiful and cheap in Yogyakarta. The taxis are metered and a 30 minute ride in a rickshaw is usually $3-$4.

STAYING THERE

Novotel Yogyakarta, at Jalan Jendral Sudirman 89, has rooms from $90 a night. See novotel.com.

Mesa Stila, located in Losari village Grabag in Magelang, is about two hours by car from Yogyakarta Airport. From $300 a night. See mesahotelsandresorts.com.

TOURING THERE

Tours with ViaVia Jogja start at around $13 for a half-day tour. See viaviajogja.com.

FIVE THINGS TO DO IN CENTRAL JAVA

ROYAL PALACE

Yogyakarta is one of the few regions in Indonesia that still has a Royal Family. The seat of Royalty - the Sultan's Palace, at Jalan Rotowijayan 1 - is a working palace and open to the public.

WATER CASTLE

At the nearby Water Castle there is a series of restored baths used by the sultans. Historically, concubines would bathe in the pools and the sultan would choose a lover. Jalan Taman, Kraton, Yogyakarta.

BIRD MARKET

It's very confronting seeing gorgeous, exotic species of birds in cages. The market also sells puppies, kittens, turtles, owls, bats and snakes. Bantul Street Km. 1, Dongkelan, Mantrijeron, Yogyakarta.

BOROBUDUR

No visit to Yogyakarta is complete without seeing the amazing temples within an hour's drive from town (depending on the traffic). For many visitors the temples are the reason to visit Yogyakarta. Borobudur, a ninth-century Buddhist temple, is located 40 kilometres north-west of Yogyakarta.

PRAMBANAN

The largest Hindu temple in Indonesia, Prambanan is 30 minutes' drive from Borobudur. Construction started on this incredible pointed structure in AD850.

MORE INFORMATION

indonesia.travel.

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