Old way of life co-exists with modernity at Jogja

Old way of life co-exists with modernity at Jogja

Who: Tan Siuli, in her 30s, co-curatorial head of Singapore Art Museum and co-curator of Singapore Biennale 2016

Favourite destination: Yogyakarta, Indonesia

Why: There is a special charm to Yogyakarta, also known as Jogja, as it is the centre of Javanese culture and where old ways of life exist side by side with bustling modernity.

For instance, Jogja is still governed as a sultanate and, right in the heart of the city, enclosed by walled squares, one can find the Keraton, the sultan's palace.

On the streets of Jogja, motorbikes jostle for space alongside andong (horse-drawn carriages) and becak (pedicabs). Becak are nice for a leisurely ride in the evenings when it is cooler and less congested, especially along the little lanes around the Keraton.

My work takes me to Jogja at least once a year. While many tourists visiting Jogja are usually there to see the ancient monuments of Borobudur and Prambanan, Jogja has so much more to offer.

For one, it is home to a vibrant community of creatives, among them Papermoon Puppet Theatre (who presented a new work at the Singapore Art Museum for the Imaginarium exhibition this year), as well as well- known Indonesian contemporary artists, among them Titarubi, Agan Harahap and Eddy Susanto, who are presenting works at the upcoming edition of the Singapore Biennale, which opens on Thursday.

There are many galleries and art spaces in Jogja - a number of which have played pivotal roles in Indonesian art history. All these, combined with the annual Art Jog, an art fair "for artists by artists", and the Jogja Biennial, make Jogja a must-visit for art lovers.

It has also become a popular weekend getaway for Jakarta-ites, especially after the runaway success of the 2016 movie Ada Apa Dengan Cinta 2, a romance starring Nicholas Saputra and Dian Sastrowardoyo.

The movie has done for Jogja what Eat, Pray, Love (2010) did for Bali. On my most recent trip, I saw groups of young (mostly female) tourists visiting every cafe, art space and beauty spot filmed in the hit movie.

Favourite hotel

The Phoenix Hotel Yogyakata MGallery by Sofitel (www.accorhotels.com/gb/hotel-5451-the-phoenix-hot el-yogyakarta-mgallery-by-sofitel/index.shtml).

It is housed in a beautiful heritage building - the "Raffles Hotel" of Jogja, but at a fraction of the price.

Favourite restaurant

Located in the backpacker district of Prawirotaman and also near a cluster of art spaces in Jogja, Via Via (www.viaviajogja.com) serves local favourites alongside an international menu.

The vibe here is relaxed and bohemian, with live music in the evenings.

Located along Jalan Tirtodipuran, Warung Bu Ageng (www.warungbuageng.com) is owned by Indonesian actor Butet Kartaredjasa and serves Indonesian fare.

You can't go wrong with its rice sets (I like the nasi lidah - rice with beef tongue) and durian lovers must try the bubur duren (durian porridge).


The speciality of Jogja is nasi gudeg - rice with jackfruit curry which is more sweet than spicy and often served with accompaniments such as boiled egg, chicken, tauhu and tempeh, pickled vegetables and krecek (crispy cow skin).

If you want everything, ask for nasi gudeg komplit. If you're looking for some of the best nasi gudeg, Jalan Wijilan, near the Keraton, is known as "gudeg street" because of its many gudeg stalls, including the famous Bu Yu Djum (gudegyudjum167.com).

Event to bookmark

Jogja Art Week (JAW artweeks.artjog.co.id) which usually takes place in June. The main event is the Art Jog art fair (www.artjog.co.id). This is usually accompanied by dozens of other art events across Jogja, including exhibition openings and performances.

Best shopping

Whenever time permits, I stop by designer Lulu Lutfi Labibi's atelier (bit.ly/2duG5E2). Mas Lulu works with Indonesia's rich textile heritage, shaping fabrics such as batik and lurik into garments that reference and reinterpret traditional Asian silhouettes.

In his beautifully draped skirts, I see a homage to both the sarong and the sari; his elegant blouses are a cross between the kimono and kebaya.

If you are looking for a variety of batik, go to Mirota Batik (mirotabatikjogja.wordpress.com) along the main shopping stretch of Jalan Malioboro or Batik Margaria (65 Jalan Malioboro).

Best hidden find

Sumur Gumuling is a series of underground tunnels connected to the 18th-century Taman Sari (Water Palace) complex, which culminates in five flights of stairs and a dais under an oculus.

I have been told that it was once an underground well and a mosque, with the acoustics of the space being such that the voice of the preacher, seated or standing on the dais, would resonate effortlessly.

Others have said that these were once secret passageways connected to the Royal Palace.

Take time to explore Kampong Cyber (rt36kampoengcyber.com) in the vicinity. It is a peaceful meander through the kampung and many of its walls are adorned with Instagram-worthy murals.

Best side trips

Art lovers should make a trip to Magelang, about 1 1/2 hours by car from Jogja, to visit the OHD Museum (ohdmuseum.com/homepage).

This private museum was set up by Indonesian art collector Oei Hong Djien, whose collection spans the modern masters to contemporary art.

His museum is pretty much a mandatory stopover for international curators, art critics and researchers who are interested in Indonesian art.

For batik lovers, I recommend a side trip to Solo, about an hour's drive from Jogja, to visit the Danar Hadi batik museum (museumbatik danarhadi.blogspot.sg/2008/01/pt- batik-danar-hadi.html).

While you are there, try the Solo version of nasi gudeg, which is more savoury than sweet.

A friend and I once drove 10 hours, there and back, to Pekalongan to visit the batik ateliers. The batik produced here is probably closest to the Peranakan style that most Singaporeans are accustomed to, with their brighter colours and motifs of birds, butterflies and flowers.

Ideal length of stay

Three to four days work well for me.

You can fit in a day visiting Borobudur and Prambanan, a day exploring the art galleries and cafes in the backpacker district and one more day to chill or to wander around the Keraton and Taman Sari or Kota Gede.

Favourite guides

The Jogja Contemporary Art Map is useful as there are new spaces popping up or old ones moving. Pick up a copy at one of the many art spaces around the Prawirotaman area, such as Cemeti Art House or Kedai Kebun.

Traveller's advice

Not everyone is able to speak English, so it's best to memorise essential phrases in Bahasa Indonesia.

Jogja is a chilled-out city, so if the service is a little slower than what you're used to, accept that you're in a different "time zone".

This article was first published on October 23, 2016.
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