[top photo: Hindu devotees dance near the 9th century Prambanan temple to celebrate Silence Day, also called "Nyepi" in Sleman province]
By Deepika Shetty
IN YOGYAKARTA WITH...
Yeo Chong Nim, a volunteer Chinese language teacher who is teaching in Yogyakarta, Indonesia.
Yeo Chong Nim
Occupation: Volunteer Chinese language teacher
Length of stay: One year
The ancient royal Indonesian capital of Yogyakarta, also called Jogja, is one of the country's top cultural destinations. It is a centre of fine Javanese arts and famous for its classical gamelan music, dance, theatre, poetry, silver work and leather shadow puppets.
Bearing witness to its rich ethnic and religious history are its temples, the most iconic of which is the Borobudur, which was built in the 9th century.
Located at the foot of the active Merapi volcano, Yogyakarta was the seat of the mighty Javanese empire of Mataram in the 16th and 17th centuries. It is the only Indonesian province still ruled formally by a pre-colonial sultanate.
History notwithstanding, it is a very lively place, says Mr Yeo Chong Nim, who has been based here for a year as a Chinese language teacher.
The best way to get around the place is.....
On motorcycles or tuk-tuks. For a unique experience, go around the city in an "andong" (horse cart) or "becak" (a three-wheel rickshaw).
The best time to visit the place is...
During the dry season, from April to October.
What's the weather like?
A lot like Singapore's - hot, humid and when it rains, it is very wet.
Which places do you really like?
The padi fields, the kampungs and the relaxed pace of life.
Must one know the language to get around?
Basic knowledge of Bahasa Indonesia or Bahasa Melayu helps. But you can always get a local guide who speaks the language.
The entire city has so much to offer, where does one start?
Stay in a "losmen" or budget hotel in the centre of the city. You can walk to most of the tourist spots from there.
Visit the Tourist Office in Jalan Malioboro and get a free copy of the city map.
Jalan Malioboro is also known as Jogja's Orchard Road. Many attractions such as the Sultan's Palace, Taman Sari, the Water Castle, Pasar Ngasem and the Bird Market are all located at the southern end of Jalan Malioboro. If you start early, you can cover these in a day.
Your favourite cultural stop is...
Kasongan which is home to the backend production houses of handicrafts and ceramics. Located south of the city, up in the hills, this quiet spot looks like an artists' village. Huge vases are displayed at shop fronts and intricate handicrafts can be found inside dark display rooms.
One cannot leave without visiting...
The Unesco World Heritage Site of Borobudur, located about 42km west of Yogyakarta.
Overlooking the lush green countryside and the imposing Mount Merapi, this is a top tourist spot in Indonesia. It was built in three tiers: a pyramidal base with five concentric square terraces, the trunk of a cone with three circular platforms and, at the top, a monumental bell-shaped chamber called a stupa. The walls and balustrades are decorated with fine low reliefs. Around the stunning circular platforms are 72 open-work stupas, each containing a statue of Buddha. The Buddhist temple was restored in the 1970s with Unesco's help.
Another equally impressive temple is the 9th century Prambanan Hindu temple. It was originally a massive complex of more than 250 temples of varying sizes. I also recommend a visit to Mt Merapi, one of the most active volcanoes in the world. It is situated 30km north of Jogja.
The best bargains and the richest variety of products can be found at...
Pasar Beringharjo, a huge traditional market, which opens from 6am to 4pm. It is located at the southern end of Jalan Malioboro. You must bargain here.
The range and variety of goods in the famous Pasar will amaze you. From the most basic household items, fruits, meats and vegetables and spices to beautiful, locally made handicrafts like batiks - you will find it all at Pasar Beringharjo. The market also has cool souvenir items such as exotic sandalwood-scented cushion covers.
Residential houses are dwarfed by the imposing Mount Merapi in the background. It is the most active volcano in Indonesia and has erupted regularly since 1548.
Do not leave without trying....
Gudeg, which is jackfruit cooked in sugar, is super-sweet and gives you an idea of how sweet people like their food there.
The best breakfast is...
Sweet potatoes bought at the traditional market for less than a dollar and eaten piping hot.
The best lunch is at...
Empek-Empek Kamto in Jalan Beskalan, a side road off Jalan Malioboro. Order the delectable deep-fried fish cake with soy sauce, which cost less than $2.
The best dinner is at...
Sapi Bali (Jalan Umbul Permai, Mudal, Sariharjo, Ngaglik, Sleman, tel: +62-274-785-8938). Go for their Balinese- style ribs. They are hot and spicy and cost 25,000 rupiah (S$3.50).
What is the one must-try drink in town?
An avocado drink served with swirled chocolate milk. It is easily available at roadside stalls and costs only 3,000 rupiah each.
What is the coolest place to chill out?
Via-Via, a cafe at Jalan Prawirotaman. You get to meet tourists from all parts of the world here. Cane chairs, open space and great company make this the best place to make new friends.
The one place you always take your friends to is...
The Sunday morning market, held at the field in front of Universitas Gaja Madah at Jalan Kaliurang. This is a roadside market that operates only on Sunday morning. It has all kinds of snacks and drinks. Locals love to have breakfast.
Is there a Clarke Quay equivalent?
No. But you can find pubs selling different types of beer in Jalan Sosrowijayan and Jalan Prawirotaman.
What is there to explore?
Dieng Plateau, west of Jogja, is where one can see a bubbling crater, the oldest Hindu temple in Java and paddy terraces neatly spread on the hillside.
Mt Bromo in Tengger, East Java, is another place with excellent mountain views. If you drive, the trip to this area takes about two days.
If you have time, plan a tour of eastern Java. Start at Jogja, visit Mt Bromo and proceed to Bali or even Lombok, and fly home from there.
Any other sites that would appeal to Singaporeans?
Anyone with a sense of adventure will enjoy exploring Gua Cerme. The entrance is high in the hills of Imogiri and the exit is in Gunung Kidul. It is a cave with water seeping through its walls. It is pitch dark, so you will need to take along a torch and use a guide. You will wade through waist-high, and in some parts, even chest-high waters during the hour-long trek through the cave from one end to the other.
This article was first published in The Straits Times.