The heat of the morning rays was beating against my brows, but all it took was a cursory glance at my surroundings to know I was witness to one of the most stunning views Mother Nature can offer.
I was looking down at the clearest of waters tinged with a turquoise hue. In front of me was the cave I've just exited from, Goa Pindul, with a rubber tube as my mode of transportation.
Here, in the city of Yogyakarta (affectionately called Jogja for short), I quickly discover that its beauty is down-to-earth and real, emanating from every pore of its ash-covered land.
Why ash-covered, you may ask? Well, the Javanese city is also home to one of the most violent volcanic eruptions on planet Earth. Looming in the north of Yogyakarta lies one of the most active stratovolcanoes in the whole of Indonesia, Mount Merapi.
Its people then are no strangers to adversities. Instead, they embrace it as a reminder that their lives are in the hands of a supreme ruler more powerful than that appointed by mankind.
Their religious reverence stands firmly today in the form of its world-renowned temples like the 9th century Candi Borobudur, known also as one of the ancient wonders of the world.
From the cultural to the more exciting, Yogyakarta presents a balanced mix of activities that is bound to appeal to your adrenaline junkie side, as well the art aficionado in you.
So, if you're still undecided on your next travel destination, have only a couple of days to spare for a holiday and on top of that, relish a location that is not only rich in history and heritage, but adventure and picture-perfect landscapes, Yogyakarta would fit the bill to a tee.
Here are the top 7 things to do when in Yogyakarta:
1. Exploring the Prambanan plain on a bicycle
With the wind in your hair and the sun on your back, explore the untouched beauty of the vast plantations and paddy fields spread out across the Prambanan plain, with the hills and slopes of the volcano as backdrop.
The Prambanan plain is essentially one of the most fertile volcanic regions in Java, having been nourished by the detritus of Mount Merapi for centuries. It was also once an important hub for religion and politics in the 8th and 9th centuries and proof of this in the present day lies in the many archaeological remnants left behind.
Chiefly, Candi Prambanan, the largest temple compound in Indonesia dedicated to the Hindu deity Shiva stands immaculately preserved in the centre of the plain. Built in the 9th century, it is one of the many ancient temples found in the area.
Others, located a close distance away, include the ruins of Bubrah temple, Lumbung temple, Plaosan temple and Sewu temple.
The allure of the Prambanan plain is precisely in these sophisticated-looking relics, painstakingly carved out of volcanic rock by artisans many centuries ago, as well as its natural beauty, glimmering across the land like a never-ending carpet of green.
If you're lucky, you might just catch a glimpse of the magnificent sunset in Prambanan as its rays cast a pinkish-orange hue on the fields at about six in the evening.
As you traverse through the off-beaten tracks on your bicycle and see farmers harvesting their crops, don't be shy to greet them and they, in exchange, will tell you stories behind mystical Yogyakarta and life in the village as it is today.
2. Cavetubing in Goa Pindul
If you're up for a one-of-a-kind experience a little up the adventurous alley, cave tubing is something you must try when in Yogyakarta.
For about Rp75,000 (approximately S$7.80), you will be whisked into the depths of Goa Pindul, while drifting along the Pindul River on a rubber tube shaped like a tyre. Don't worry about getting lost in the dark confines of the limestone cave, the whole experience is a guided one.
Be prepared, however, for the spectacle that will greet you inside. Expect gorgeous rock formations, massive clusters of shimmery stalactites and stalagmites - and if you look closely enough, you'll see bats hanging from above your head, in numerous little holes they have created and call home.
All this is juxtaposed with the peaceful calm of the still waters, up to 12 metres in depth but said to be safe enough even for toddlers.
To up the ante on your exciting cave tour, you can even opt to dive into the river from one the rock formations located a little higher up than the rest. Your guide will signal where and when it's safe to do so.
One of the best parts of the Goa Pindul cave tour awaits you at the exit, where you have access to the clearest of waters, amidst the most picturesque of sceneries.
Take your time here, lie back and swim around while you soak up the glorious views of the stunning outdoors.
Goa Pindul is located within Bejiharjo Village in Karangmojo and you will need about an hour and a half to get there by car from Yogyakarta's city centre, bearing in mind that the best time to visit the cave is in the morning.
Life jackets and rubber shoes will be provided at the ticketing counter.
3. Visiting Mount Merapi
The destruction left behind in the aftermath of Mount Merapi's major eruption in October 2010 can still be seen clearly today. Abandoned houses, wrecked structures and animal carcasses line the trail up to the peak and a thick layer of ash envelopes the villages situated on the flanks of the volcano, almost like a scene from a black and white horror film.
Eruptions like this are not uncommon as the country lies precariously in an area known as 'The Ring of Fire', but Mount Merapi has gained a reputation of its own for being the most active volcano in Indonesia.
Its deadly outbursts have intrigued and attracted tourists far and wide to the site located on the border between Central Java and Yogyakarta.
There are two popular ways of exploring the stratovolcano: Hiking up on foot or navigating the terrains on a 4×4 jeep.
I would recommend the latter if you have second thoughts about hiking up the relatively steep trail to the summit that will take you about seven hours in total. However, don't expect the journey to be all smooth sailing during the jeep tour - it will be a little bumpy, very dusty, but altogether, make for an unforgettable experience.
Therefore, take heed: Arm yourself with sunglasses or even goggles if you have sensitive eyes and a scarf for extra protection against the dust. Face masks will be provided at the start of the tour.
The jeep tour will get you to Kaliadem, a chilly area on the Mount Merapi slope that is 1,100 metres above sea level. Here, you will be able to capture some of the best shots of the magnificent volcano feared by all for its violent explosions.
Its mysterious aura is further accentuated by the ashen remains surrounding the area, the vestiges of a bustling village now completely destroyed by lava and lahars from the 2010 eruption.
For the daring few, the arduous hike to the top of Mount Merapi is worth pursuing simply for the stunning views on the summit, especially at sunrise. Be sure to start your journey at 1am to arrive at the peak at about 5.30am.
4. Paying a visit to the Borobudur and Prambanan temples
What is the number one thing to do in Yogyakarta? I posed this question to a hotel staff member who assuredly replied, "The temples. People come here to see the temples."
Yes, Yogyakarta's temples are quite the sight. Making up some of the most impressive temples in the world, these proofs of ancient civilisation boast some of the most sophisticated-looking religious architecture laid out on vast plots of land.
Take for instance the world's largest Buddhist temple, Borobudur. Built in 800AD, it consists of two million blocks of lava rock, reaches 115ft at its highest point and features nearly 1,500 carved story panels and 504 statues of the Buddha.
When viewed from the top, its imposing structure resembles that of a lotus flower.
A designated UNESCO World Heritage Site today, it was abandoned sometime in the 14th century, re-discovered by Sir Stamford Raffles in 1814 (it was covered under layers of tropical foliage and volcanic ash by then) and underwent extensive restoration works.
The next most significant temple is another UNESCO World Heritage Site, the 10th century Hindu complex of Prambanan.
Apart from its impressive height and intricate design, the sheer number of temples in this compound is extraordinary. Its primary yard contains a total of 11 temples, with its principal temples dedicated to the deities Vishnu, Shiva and Brahma.
Surrounding these are 224 smaller temples of identical design, known as perwara temples, meaning guardian or complementary in English.
The entrance fee to Prambanan temple and Borobudur is US$17 (approximately S$21.60) and US$20 (approximately S$25.40) respectively. Prior arrangements must be made if you wish to view the sunrise at the temples.
5. Shopping at Malioboro Street
If you're on the hunt for cheap shopping, the main street in the heart of Yogyakarta is the place to be. Buy local delicacies at a good price from the many small shops that line the road.
If you visit the street at night, however, you'll see that the whole area is transformed into a hip hangout for locals and tourists alike.
Many vendors will have put out an assortment of goods for sale on their plastic mats and the younger ones will be busking while wearing a myriad of costumes from that of a zombie to even Hello Kitty.
Don't forget to try out the street food at a warung lesehan for supper when at Malioboro Street.
You might get a culture shock at first as this involves sitting by the roadside on rattan mats, but the scrumptious dishes of ayam goreng, nasi gudeg and wedang ronde more than make up for it.
Malioboro is within walking distance from Tugu Railway Station. You can get there on foot, ride a becak (a trishaw that offers you an unobstructed view of the city) or sit on a horse-drawn cart called the andong.
6. Learning about Yogyakarta's history at the Keraton
The royal palace is known in Yogyakarta as the Keraton.
It is the living quarters of the current king, Sultan Hamengkubuwono, and his family.
Certain parts of the palace are open to the public and used as a museum to showcase Javanese culture through an extensive collection of artworks, sculptures and paraphernalia from the past.
Another place worth visiting within the grounds of the Keraton is the Taman Sari Water Castle, a 10-minute walk away from the palace.
The former royal garden of the Sultanate of Yogyakarta, its enchanting beauty is still apparent today in the gorgeous awnings of the well-preserved central bathing complex.
The Taman Sari was once used as a place for kings to rest, meditate and hide from enemies.
Interestingly, word has it that kings in the past would also toss flowers into one of the large pools as a way of selecting concubines. The fair maiden who catches the bundle of flowers would then spend the night with the king in one of the rooms in the garden.
The entrance fee to the palace is Rp12,500 (approximately S$1.30) and there is a small charge of Rp1,000 (approximately S$0.10) for each camera you bring in.
7. Eating the gudeg
When in Yogyakarta, eat as its people do. And a traditional meal here isn't complete without the gudeg, a sweet curry made of young jackfruit that is cooked for several hours in fresh coconut milk and palm sugar.
Typically served with steamed rice, chicken, tempeh and sambal krechek (a spicy stew made of beef skin), each bite of this melt-in-your-mouth dish is guaranteed to be packed with a burst of flavour.
Getting there and getting around
Air Asia operates direct flights from Singapore to Yogyakarta daily.
For a travel time of slightly over two hours and awesome perks like the Xpress baggage delivery, premium seats with extra legroom, as well as a wide selection of delicious in-flight meals, your travel experience to the paradise city in Central Java will be a hassle-free one.
For more convenience and greater flexibility during your flight, Air Asia's Premium Flex fare is the way to go. Perks like the Xpress baggage delivery, Xpress check-in and Xpress boarding are all complimentary when you select the Premium Flex option during your next online booking.
For more information on Air Asia flights, visit their website here. 'Like' their Facebook page as well for instant updates on travel promotions.
If you're looking for a hotel in the heart of Yogyakarta, look no further than The 101 Yogyakarta Tugu Hotel. Stylish and conveniently located, it's a picture of top-notch modernity amidst the traditional.
The hotel is a walking distance away from the famous Malioboro Street and Tugu train station, 2km from the Sultan of Yogyakarta's Palace and 10km from the Adisucipto International Airport.
For ease of getting around and exploring Yogyakarta without all the fuss, it's best to book a driver or arrange for a tour of the city. Panorama tours, a leading travel agency in Indonesia, offers various tour packages in Yogyakarta for an experience you will never forget. Check out their website at www.panorama-tours.com for more information on these tour packages.
Yogyakarta is known as a university town as students from all over Indonesia flock to the city to pursue their higher education.
Therefore, you shouldn't have a problem conversing in English with any of the youths you see on the streets should you need help with directions. Its locals, however, speak predominantly in the Javanese language.
The dress code in the city is pretty relaxed as well.
Before entering religious places like the Borobudur and Prambanan temples, you will be given a sarong to wear around your waist.
Bargaining is expected at places like Malioboro Street. A tip to smart bargaining? In the words of a wise tour guide, offer half the asking price and work your way from there.