Most people know of Indonesia through their exotic holidays to the beautiful island of Bali, where tourism has caused a cultural and economic boom in the area. Java, however, hasn’t yet seen a western invasion and is much less used to white tourists walking its cities’ streets. We quickly found this out on our first day in Jakarta – everywhere we walked, people stared at us, openly pointed to us and laughed with each other, and either “sneakily” took photos of us as we passed or approached us and asked for selfies. This is not an environment for the faint hearted, and I have to admit that as a naturally shy and sometimes insecure person I quickly became upset and a bit paranoid. Had I offended the majoritively Muslim population by wearing a vest and shorts in 35 degree heat? Did I have something on my face other than the obvious waterfall of sweat? No, is the answer we eventually came to. It was just that, with Blake standing literally head and shoulders above all the locals, and me being the only white-skinned, blonde-haired woman as far as the eye could see, we were an unusual and exciting presence to people who had only seen a handful of Westerners in their lives. It took a serious internal struggle for me not to run back to the hostel and hide, as not all looks were friendly and the constant harassment begins to strain your nerves after a while – but we had dealt with harassment in every other country, and as soon as I was convinced I wasn’t offending local customs with my outfit choice I chose to ignore the stares as much as possible, with Blake advising us to say no to all photos to avoid being constantly stopped.
The actual city of Jakarta is bustling and vibrant, though perhaps with not as much to offer tourist-wise as other destinations we have visited. We visited MONAS, a monumental column built 50 years ago to commemorate the struggle for Indonesian Independence. Apparently there is a great viewing platform at the top that looks out on the whole city, but we briefly walked around the square surrounding the obelisk and I was feeling very uncomfortable with the amount of attention we were garnering, so instead we headed next door to the National Museum, and some much appreciated air conditioning. It was a fascinating but brief insight into Indonesian culture and heritage, which we hadn’t seen much of elsewhere in the city so far. We had lunch in a local food market where we had no idea what we ordered from the menu but it looked like noodles and was delicious, then headed to the old town.
This area is characterised by the remnants of Dutch colonial architecture and we enjoyed walking through the streets, eventually coming to a huge open square full of locals hanging out in the late afternoon sun. You could hire neon-painted bikes to cycle round the town hall, or do as we did and head to Cafe Batavia for a cocktail, a famous ex-colonial building that looks out over the square and is very very expensive and designed for tourists.
This was pretty much the sum of our one day in Jakarta and neither of us felt we needed to stay longer. It may have been an uncomfortable visit for someone who prefers to merge into the crowd, but it was also fascinating to see a different, unexposed part of SE Asia and to experience a day as an exhibit, a position usually forced upon locals by visiting, camera-wielding tourists.
The next day we caught a train to Yogyarkarta, a characterful town eight hours away. Jogja, as it is known in Indonesia, is a delightful mix of the island’s traditional customs with the town’s more modern persona as art hub of Java.
We had two days to spend in Jogja, but our first day we crashed in the cool hostel we had found, Sae Sae, and only ventured out to sample a few of the excellent coffee shops and retaurants the town boasts.
Our second day we headed to the top of the town to purchase onward train tickets from the station for the following day, as we have found it impossible to buy tickets online since coming to Indonesia (which makes planning much more difficult for anyone thinking of visiting, so bewarned). Then we walked down the famous shopping road, Jalan Marlioboro, and got lured into an art gallery by a very excitable local, who introduced us to his artmaster, who in turn offered us tea and showed us the process of creating traditional Batik paintings on cotton and silk canvas. We were close to buying a piece but couldn’t justify spending so much, so the master gave us a look of a disappointed headmaster towards a naughty student and sent us on our way. We continued downtown to the Sultan’s Palace, the best-known tourist spot in town, where we were told we had got the opening hours wrong and they were closed for the day. I heard it was really great to walk around though, so go for it if you get the chance. I don’t think we missed out on too much though, as it is so interesting just to walk around town, photographing the street art that covers almost every wall and absorbing the laid-back atmosphere that characterises the place.