Temples, Selfies & Volcanoes: A Trip to Yogyakarta, Indonesia

As a Black expat going into my fourth year abroad, I now rest my head in the Southeast Asian island nation of Indonesia. Though I live in Jakarta, the capital city known for its horrific traffic, I recently had the opportunity to visit Yogyakarta during a long weekend. My second time exploring this city and surrounding areas, Yogyakarta reminds me of what I appreciate about Indonesia: religious plurality, rich cultural experiences, and volcanoes.

Borobudur and Prambanan

In my humble opinion, no other places better epitomize the multitude of religions present in Indonesia than the Borobudur and Prambanan temples. Although Borobudur is a Buddhist temple constructed during the 8th and 9th centuries and Prambanan is a Hindu temple built in the 10th century, both religious edifices are UNESCO World Heritage sites and awe inspiring. Sunrise at Borobudur is extremely popular, and I have experienced it once within the complex and once from a distant hill. Be forewarned, it is common for there to be it’s so misty I don’t even know where the sun is rising days. My second Borobudur sunrise fell into this category. As someone with an Indonesian work visa, the cost is 30,000 IDR to enter (roughly 2 USD). Foreigners/non-residents, however, are charged 400,000 IDR for sunrise at Borobudur, 250,000 IDR for a regular entry (without the sunrise), and about 230,000 IDR for Prambanan entrance fees. Though the many zeroes can throw anyone off, bills are color-coded and 1 USD is roughly equivalent to 13,000 IDR. In other words, US currency is like a marathon runner in a 100 meter race…it goes ridiculously far for no good reason (well, there are reasons). 

Though park entrance fare for me is almost free, I learned the hard way when strolling through Borobudur that my dark skin was as much of an attraction as the intricately carved stonework. When I first arrived in Indonesia, I hated the open stares and comments. Still do, actually. But, as multiple Black expats have told me, “Get used to it and pretend they’re [Indonesians wanting to take pictures] paparazzi.” 

When school trips are at the temples, be prepared to stop every few minutes for a photo op. As a teacher myself, I rarely turn down children. My rule is if you want a picture with me I get a picture with you. I accept all requests if I’m not running late and I refuse photos when I catch people trying to sneak one of me. I still have emblazoned in my mind when a group of pre-teens with white hijabs ran up to me, requested a picture, took a group photo and then darted after their teacher with a “Thank you, Ms!” before I could even think to ask for one in return. Being surrounded by heads cloaked in white still remains one of my most visually beautiful moments abroad. During my second trip to the temples, I was as ready as Hillary Clinton is for a presidential debate to get bombarded with photo requests. Sunday (the day I visited) was a day with no school groups, so the requests were significantly less.

Regardless of the photos being asked of me, I absolutely adore photographing Borobudur. It’s hard to not be enchanted when bell shaped structures ring the upper levels, Buddhas are overlooking the perimeter, and a tourist group is chanting.

Prambanan, on the other hand, is a series of multiple temples. Walking around, inside and outside of the variously sized structures is an exercise in disbelief. How could people fashion such buildings without the technology we have today? The beauty humanity creates in the name of a higher power is humbling.

Once outside the temples, I was quickly reminded of Indonesia’s religious plurality. Goats were tied to trees and posts and many trucks rumbled by carting bulls as cargo. Why? The Muslim holy day of Eid Al-Adha is a day that necessitates animal sacrifice and community gathering. The goats and bulls would be no more in a matter of hours. Along with Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, Protestantism, Catholicism, and Confucianism are official state religions. The religious tolerance I find in Indonesia pushes against narratives that portray Muslim countries in a negative light. 

The Kraton

Though it’s clear Borobudur is my favorite site in Yogya, other popular destinations are the Kraton (the Sultan’s Palace), the Water Castle, and Merapi volcano.  Entrance to the Kraton is 12,500 IDR for two and about 1,000 IDR for permission to take photos. The Water Castle was even cheaper. A guide around Kraton helped me understand what I completely missed during my first visit. Depending on the day, a segment of the Hindu Ramayana ballet may be performed or a shadow puppet show highlighting the famous literary text will be taking place. The gamelan music, native to Indonesia, playing in the background is soothing and meditative. 

Merapi Volcano

    Located about two hours from Yogya’s airport, Merapi is an active volcano that I choose not to hike. I don’t know if taking a Jeep tour around its vicinity is any better, but the ride and cool air were wonderful. I laughed to myself as I bumped across the midnight black rocky terrain with my Belgian friend and the guide. I never would’ve thought that I would one day be living in an Asian country and willingly paying 450,000 IDR to rent a Jeep (a cost that can be split amongst the group). 

Yet there I was and there was Yogyakarta.

Side Notes

If a lover of silver, Kota Gede is an area to explore. Known as the silver district, one can find actual jewelry makers at work and a warehouse full of pieces. With my most recent purchase, the woman gave me some lara fruit, a natural way to clean silver. 

Though it sounds ridiculously fancy, I find it best to hire a driver to take me around the city. I get tired of haggling with taxi drivers who don’t want to turn on the meter but do want to quote triple the fare. Indonesia has the largest service sector I’ve ever experienced, so I was able to hire an extremely professional and kind driver for 500,000 IDR a day. He had a solid command of English too.  

Indonesia is a predominantly Muslim country.  Though people (mainly foreigners) will be walking around in short shorts and tanks, I would suggest packing shirts with sleeves and more modest attire. I hate the double standard of warning women more than men about how to dress, but I find it remiss to not mention it. I’ll be the first to admit I parade around in dresses above the knee and sleeveless shirts, but I try to have a light jacket or sweater with me at all times and/or wear airy, loose pants. 

Have you ever considered traveling to a destination other than Bali when thinking about Indonesia? What has your experience been like being Black in Asia?