For some strange reason local travel is often overlooked as the pulls of far and exotic locations lure holiday-goers with flashy tourism campaigns and a promise of new experiences. On a recent, eye-opening road trip to central Java however, I discovered that actually, we don’t have to look too far to find beauty, adventure, culture and history.
My first stop was Semarang. Like Jakarta, Semarang is a port city on Java’s north coast but the ambience of these two cities couldn’t be more different. The city is low and sparse, its age can instantly be felt as old buildings dot the urban area; Semarang’s history is well-represented by its architecture. In the old quarter, the Dutch still linger. Lawang Sewu, an ex-headquarters of the Dutch East Indies Railway Company, is a main attraction here. Javanese for ‘a thousand doors’, the building really lives up to its name. The other side of Semarang’s history comes from the Chinese. Sam Poo Kong is the most notable landmark of this history. Otherwise known as Gedung Batu Temple, this gorgeous Chinese temple commemorates Zheng He, a Chinese Muslim explorer who had prayed in the same spot. Today it is used by people of different religious denominations.
Semarang’s past remains its biggest asset and it’s clear to see that they have an appreciation of their own history, be it Dutch or Chinese. Whilst it certainly ‘ages’ the city, it also adds a unique charm that makes Semarang different.
Next, it was time to travel southwards. We piled into cars dressed for adventure as we were headed to the Dieng Volcanic Complex, a plateau that sits 2000m above sea level, covered in marsh and breathing sulfur into the cool, highland air. The area is home to 8 small Hindu temples (or Candi), some of the oldest known temples in Java, scattered up a green hillside. There is a lot to do and see in the plateau, including a sunrise trek up Gunung Sikunir and gorgeous view points of Telaga Warna, the multi-coloured lake. The tiny Dieng potatoes, cooked with gula jawa, are a welcome snack whilst discovering the area.
Dieng lies between Semarang and Jogjakarta, around a three-hour drive between the two, making it an ideal stop as you travel north to south. The drive from Dieng to Jogja takes you south of Magelang to the Borobudur Temple, yet another worthy pitstop for cultural discovery.
After a full day on the road, we finally reached south-central Java, to the Special Region of Yogyakarta. The city of Jogja itself has a renowned reputation as being a hub for Javanese heritage. From the Kraton of Jogjakarta and the Taman Sari Water Palace, to the numerous museums, art centres, batik shops, puppet theatres, silversmiths and more, the city itself is filled with cultural discoveries. The city has also developed into a thriving student city and a destination for lovers of Indonesian food, being home to the popular gudeg rice dish and other Javanese delicacies. The Prambanan Temple still remains a must visit site as well.
However, in recent years, people have begun to travel further afield to the outskirts of the region, discovering that in fact a wealth of adventure awaits. Gunung Kidul, an hours drive southwest from Jogja, has become the ‘it’ spot for those after outdoor excitement. Limestone caves like those at Goa Pindul, formed by underground rivers, have become spots for tubing! Rows of tubers float down the river, through the dark caves, with only a sliver of light shining through cracks in the rocks. A recent discovery is Goa Baru, or the crystal cave. It was found by pure accident, when a bulldozer hit a cliff wall and released a huge gush of trapped air, revealing a cave of sparkling, strangely shaped stalagmites and stalactites deep inside.
Rarely does one visit the beach on a trip to Jogja, but an hour and half drive to the south coast is well rewarded with a view of Java’s gorgeous coastline. Still part of the Gunung Kidul Regency you’ll find numerous bays: quiet stretches like Pantai Sepanjang are great for relaxation, but a truly unique spot is Pantai Baron. This large cove is caught between two headlands upon which a lighthouse towers above the eastern side. Large waves swell through the centre onto the beach, met by the cool waters of the Baron lagoon, filled daily by rivers that flow from underground. Fishing merchants and fishing boats line the beach and local life takes over the area, foreign visitors are rarely spotted here.
This trip from north to south of central Java was a pleasant surprise, and really what I saw barely touched the surface on what the region has to offer. History (ancient and modern), heritage, culture and some of the best views and natural landscapes you could hope for came together into one truly wholesome experience. It was everything those flashy tourism videos from other countries promised, and more. Yet, in true Javanese style, these destinations that offer so much remain quiet and humble, awaiting to be discovered and enjoyed.