Water Castle, bird market and surrounds (Yogyakarta, Indonesia)

I wake early on my first morning in Indonesia. The grey light of dawn has not yet broken through the darkness but a nearby mosque is already making the day’s first call for prayers. I get up to experience the morning.

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It’s strangely quiet outside. When I went to sleep last night the streets were alive with the vrooming of scooters and the hum of voices talking. But this morning the only sound are birds twittering, an occasional scooter and kaki limas (food stands) being wheeled along the road. I haven’t experienced this quiet side of Indonesia before. In the quiet my eyes can take in more without the sensory overload that otherwise takes over my brain.

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I take a jog along the quietened roads, making my way to the nearby Alun Alun Kidul (Kidul Park). The dawn breaks while I am out. It’s even faster than the dawn at home and, before long, daylight surrounds me. The Alun Alun seems to be the place for people to take their morning exercise. A few locals are shuffling along in old shoes or bare feet jogging laps of the park. Others are walking in small groups, rather like mall walkers in movies, chattering away as they go. Basic calisthenics seem to be popular among the older Chinese-Indonesian set. At the same time there are some people sleeping on the ground as though they just closed their eyes where they were sitting at the end of the night.

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I return to the hostel, shower, take breakfast, work until mid-morning and then set off again with Paul to explore the city some more. The noise and traffic have built up again so there’s plenty for us to see and experience.

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Even just walking around the city’s streets there is so much that catches my eyes. From petrol sellers with their golden liquid of questionable quality to dusty old tea pots sitting on the ground, it’s never boring being in a new place. And all the while people say “hello” as they go about their daily grind of guiding cars into parking places, sweeping their footpaths, selling food and all the other tasks that make this city run.

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We head towards the Keraton (Sultan’s Palace). I know from my last visit that this place is run down and pretty much not worth the entrance fee. But I figure that Paul’s never been here and might enjoy the experience of how a “museum” or “heritage site” can look in this country that couldn’t be further removed from home if it tried. We never do make it to the Keraton but we do pass lots of ladies making batic fabrics. There’s no need to take a costly tour to see this process taking place; you can just watch from the entrance to their shops as you walk past.

We never quite make it to the Keraton. Somehow we miss the entry, which I remember was quite obvious. I think it’s because we are being tailed by a guy who is pretending to be friendly who is really just trying to be our tour guide. He’s not pushy but I know this game and it’s our first morning in the city so we just want to stop and take lots of photos of seemingly insignificant things. In the process of boring him with our photo taking (he starts talking with a friend as we take photos and then we just walk on by) I think we had our backs turned to the entrance of the Keraton. Mind you, like I said, it’s not worth the effort anyway. Why did we not just tell him we didn’t want his services? Because he was smart – he never offered any so the only way we could ask him to leave us alone would be to risk offending him (according to our Australian cultural norms). So instead we partook quietly in the dance that occurs here every day.

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What we do find though is the Taman Sari (Water Castle). I had read about this place online but my parents told me that it wasn’t worth going to. What they probably didn’t know is that the Taman Sari has undergone a massive restoration over the past decade, thanks to some UNESCO funding.

An older man (a guide) starts talking to us outside the Taman Sari. At this stage we don’t even know what the attraction holds. I had read some blog posts online while planning this trip where the posters mentioned being taken into tunnels and back alleys by this type of guide and that the local knowledge was worth the relatively small cost. Besides, unlike the other guy on the street, this guy is calmer and less pushy. He has the old school softly spoken Javanese way about his weathered and wrinkled face. I can tell we’re not being taken advantage of and that he will give us his best effort in the hope of a tip at the end of our “tour”.

The old man doesn’t let us down. He takes us up into the old castle and starts to quietly tell us stories about the castle. We traipse through the area where restoration works and archaeological work is being conducted. He tells us about the Javanese legends of the sea coming all the way to this place before Yogyakarta became a land-based city and of the Sultan being rowed in a boat to arrive at the castle.

He leads us into the underground mosque where it is said the Sultan prayed. It’s a pretty cool space with special double-walled caverns where the Imam could stand and speak, the cavern structure projecting his voice. You can visit these caves for free if you want to … but it would take quite a dance to avoid a tour guide latching onto you. Besides, there’s no interpretive signs down here so the stories of the guide are what brings this place to life.

After the caves we head back around the castle until we reach the official entrance to Taman Sari. We buy our tickets then the guide takes us into what was the Sultan’s bathing complex. The old man is incredibly patient as we take photos of the things he has seen a thousand times in his lifetime. Things that he watches strange tourists take photos of a thousand times every year. We learn the stories of the Sultan’s bathing rituals, including the way he chose which of his many wives to take to his private swimming pool behind closed doors. The funniest moment, though is when he tells us about the “Romantic Room”. He giggles shyly like a school girl and says cheekily, “I don’t know what happen in here”.

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It’s about 4km from Taman Sari to the Pasty (bird market). I came here last year too so know what to expect. Paul and I walk around looking at the animals and birds. I wrote last year about my views on travelers not judging other cultures’ practices and will reiterate them again. In the West we keep many animals as pets, including birds and reptiles and monkeys. We just sell them in indoor pet stores or internet sites, not open air markets.

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After a hectic morning of walking many kilometers we are both exhausted and in need of some time out from the chaos that is Java. We find a restaurant near our hostel that has a cool breeze, comfortable chairs, English language menu and wifi.

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Batteries recharged we wander a few hundred meters down the road to a massage shop that Paul noticed yesterday. We settle in for a foot and hand reflexology massage. It’s absolutely wonderful and we both find ourselves falling asleep to the rhythm of the music and the masseurs’ hand kneading sore muscles.

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One our way back to the hotel (the long and circuitous route that we follows) we pass the Grand Palace Hotel. It is seriously impressive and like a palace in its own right with huge colonnades, statue soldiers and cavernous foyer. We pretend for a moment that we are rich enough to stay in a place like this. Then we ask the reception for a price list and realise that this is Indonesia – we can afford to stay in a place like this because the peak season rate for a Deluxe room is just 75,000 rupiah ($AU75). You can’t even get a cabin at a caravan park or private room with shared bathroom in a hostel for that price in Australia. So a plan is hatched … when we return to Yogyakarta before flying home (on my birthday mind you), we are going to stay in a swanky hotel for a couple of nights just because we might as well.

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After a few hours rest at our hotel we wander out under a darkened night sky to find dinner. My cousins have recommended nasi gudeg (rice with jackfruit) at one of the restaurants on Jl. Wijilan (Wijilan Street). It’s about 2km away so we walk there to taste this dish. I like the pickled egg and fried chicken but the jackfruit is a little bit too sweet for me. It is good mixed in with everything and I am glad we found it. But again I discover that the Asian and my taste buds prefer slightly different flavour profiles (I think I am more used to sweetness coming from cane sugar than from tropical fruits). But I would eat this dish again if offered because I could probably become used to the taste.

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On our walk back to the hostel we stop at Alun Alun Kidul to take in the festive atmosphere. There are pedal cars with bright lights competing for space on the road with normal cars, scooters, becaks and pedestrians. It’s bedlam with disco music. See, every pedal car has a portable DVD player on the dashboard with disco music blaring from the speakers. Every car has a different song and it’s totally nuts. But so festive. Whereas this morning people were exercising around the alun alun, tonight they are eating at small tables, playing with small lit up toys that they bought from vendors and watching the pedal cars go round. It’s a fun way to end what has been a fantastic day.

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