A love song to Yogya and its urban dynamism

(Dustin Volz/Indonesiaful)

Eclectic graffiti murals adorn many of Yogyakarta’s main roads and side streets. (Dustin Volz/Indonesiaful)

What did I learn this holiday season?

There are Indonesian cities, and then there’s Yogyakarta.

After Bali, Yogyakarta – which is typically shortened to “Yogya” (or “Jogja”) and pronounced “JOGH-jah” – is Indonesia’s top tourism destination, thanks in no small part to the awe-inspiring temples of Borobudur and Prambanan that are a short jaunt away. Yogya also boasts a bevy of historic and cultural attractions within its city limits, nearby beaches and an eclectic dining scene that rivals some of the best culinary offerings found in cities back in the states (at a much cheaper price).

But what really set Yogya apart for me during my week-long holiday siesta there was its sense of place. Unlike many other urban centers in Indonesia, Yogya, located in the south-central region of Indonesia’s main island of Java, seems to have been designed with purpose. This is in no small part, locals will confide, due to its unique status as a “special administrative region” that allows it to retain Indonesia’s only monarchy and, with it, a good amount of autonomy. Residents insist this special status — thanks to a benevolent Sultan Hamengkubuwono X — allows Yogya to insulate itself from some of the more nefarious effects of Indonesia’s infamous struggles with corruption and nepotism.

Walking around Yogya, though, I couldn’t shake the feeling that living here – long-term – could not only be tolerable but fun. My age may have had something to do with those impressions, as Yogya is known to many as the “kota pelajar,” or “city of students.” Like strong and vibrant American cities (Boston, New York, San Francisco), Yogya is bustling with thousands of energetic university students sporting college-pride sweatshirts. Some of Indonesia’s best universities reside here, including Gadjah Mada University, where a number of foreigners also teach and study.

Speaking of foreigners, Yogya is home and host to many. Most are short-stay tourists as the city’s active tourism market accommodates many varied tourist interests. Bars, museums, streetside shopping – Yogya has it all, including a section of town endearingly referred to as “bule village” where most visitors sack up, hang out and dine (for an inflated price, of course). In other parts of Indonesia, even in some larger cities, the chances someone has seen a “bule” or caucasian might be rather slim. This is not the case in Yogya. The robust tourism economy adds a flavor of diversity — tasted easily at an Italian Nanamia Pizzeria or Indian Sangam House — that doesn’t appear to detract from local custom and culture.

Malioboro Street in Yogyakarta is bustling at all hours of day and night. Shops and street vendors draw in crowds, but street performers, public art and nearby restaurants and museums keep them coming back. (Dustin Volz/Indonesiaful)

Malioboro Street in Yogyakarta is bustling at all hours of day and night. Shops and street vendors draw in crowds, but street performers, public art and nearby restaurants and museums keep them coming back. (Dustin Volz/Indonesiaful)

Perhaps most importantly, the city also succeeds in its basic urban infrastructure. Transportation is accessible (though an adventure on the city buses, while cheap, was sweaty and a huge time killer, and the horses pulling carriages around Malioboro Street have certainly seen healthier days). There is strong population density, accessible public art and a vibrant arts & culture scene. Street art is everywhere, but graffiti tags are noticeably absent. Sidewalks abound (in many Indonesian cities, they do not), and are sometimes quite wide and pedestrian friendly. I heard from almost every Yogyan I spoke with about how bad traffic in the city was because it was the holiday season and tourists were flooding homestays and hotels. But the traffic paled in comparison to what I experience on a daily basis in Palembang. Friends stationed in other large cities across Indonesia confirmed the Yogya traffic was most certainly lebih baik. Much better.

As Indonesia struggles to educate its people, Yogya offers a student-friendly college town. In a country where infrastructure is perhaps the biggest obstacle to further economic expansion, Yogya provides orderly traffic and walkability. And in a nation failing to break free of almost daily corruption scandals, starry-eyed Yogyans lavish praise upon their sultan and special provincial status, and promise that things are just different here. 

About the author: Dustin Volz is a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant based in Palembang, South Sumatra. He is editor in chief of Indonesiaful and a publisher of Downtown Devil, a hyper-local news publication covering the downtown Phoenix community. Volz graduated from Arizona State University in 2012 with bachelor’s degrees in journalism and history and a master’s degree in mass communication. Contact him at dnvolz@gmail.com.

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