A few weeks ago I received a message in my Instagram inbox asking if I could fly to Indonesia for five days. The destination: Yogyakarta, a place I’d never heard of. The catch: I’d need to leave in two days.

But off I went, after hesitating just a bit because it would be my first solo trip since my daughter was born. The deciding factors in my decision to drop everything: I’d never been invited on a “FAM” or “familiarization” trip sponsored by a tourism bureau. And I’d never been to Indonesia. No destination weddings in Bali. No soul-searching, yoga-filled trips either.

Who knows if this chance would ever come up again?

My three-day stay in Yogyakarta turned out to be an eye-opening introduction. I left wishing I had more time to explore local neighborhoods and learn about the history and culture at my own pace. (I share some thoughts about the FAM trip itself near the end.) And since I’m not a fan of the beach, it was perfect that my first time in Indonesia would include exactly zero beaches.

The bible for the trip to Yogyakarta.

So where is Yogyakarta and why is this place worth visiting?

It’s described as the cultural capital of Indonesia, and it’s located in Central Java, a couple of hours by plane from Jakarta and close to two active volcanoes. Yogyakarta is a mouthful to say, so the locals simply call it Jog-ja. The city itself isn’t overrun with tourists, and there are incredible things to see if you figure out how to get around to make the most of your time.

We were there for the May 18 religious festival of Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and death, known as Vesak. The occasion is celebrated by Indonesia’s Buddhists at Borobudur, an ancient Buddhist temple built in the 9th century and buried in volcanic ash until it was fully unearthed in 1835. It’s the world’s largest Buddhist temple and Indonesia’s most visited tourist attraction. That’s a lot of superlatives, I know.

Without giving away the ending, I’ll just say that experiencing Borobudur made the entire trip worthwhile, and being there during the Vesak festival specifically made it wonderfully rare and random. But even if you can’t make it there for Vesak, Jogja is a fascinating place to see and learn about Indonesian culture and see some breathtaking views.

Our day celebrating Vesak began at Mendut, a temple even older than Borobodur. It was discovered in ruins in 1836 and finally restored in 1925.

Mendut Temple, where the Vesak festival celebrations begin.
Buddhists gathered in the decorated performance area for Vesak.
Gardens outside of Mendut Temple.

We joined local Buddhist groups of different sizes and ages to listen to monks chant and pray, and watched young musicians and dancers perform. Then in the early afternoon, a huge procession of high school marching bands, locals delivering offerings, as well as monks and volunteers walked the distance from Mendut to Borobodur. It was a very local festival for the local Buddhist community with only a handful of outsiders present.

After touring Borobodur with our tour guide, we went back at night for an epic lantern release. Yes, releasing paper lanterns is terrible for the environment, but here, it only happens once a year during Vesak following a Buddhist meditation for worshippers (and tourists) sitting on the grass facing Borobodur. Does that make it okay? I don’t think so. Was it completely gorgeous and breathtaking? I feel a guilty saying this, but yes.

Massive Borobodur Temple behind an elaborate stage constructed for the Vesak festival. Photos don’t do it justice.
Up close, there are 72 bells or stupas on the top of Borobodur, each with a sitting Buddha inside.
Borobodur lit up in the distance while we took part in a Buddhist meditation.
Preparing lanterns in groups of four. It’s nerve wracking til the very end!

Despite Vesak being the purpose of our trip, it was hard to escape Ramadan, the month of fasting, since Indonesia is a majority Muslim country. When we visited the grounds of the Palace of Yogyakarta, the Sultan’s actual residence, dozens of guards sat under shade resting and we were told by our tour guide that traditional Indonesian music, called gamelan, wouldn’t be played during Ramadan.

If you’re interested in royal families, the Indonesian royals are facing a very interesting dilemma. The title of Sultan has traditionally only passed down to sons, however the current Sultan has four daughters and only one wife (!) and has decided to name his eldest daughter his successor. Male, royal relatives have already threatened to revolt and kick the Sultan’s wife and daughters out of the palace after he dies. This article from BBC covers all the drama. The title: “A feminist revolution in an ancient kingdom”.

Jogjakarta is also hometown of the Sultan, and you can visit the palace grounds.
Guards at the Sultan’s Palace with one of our organizers from Indonesia Tourism.
Our tour guide at the Palace of Yogyakarta.

A few other significant historical sights in Jogja:

The Water Castle, known as Tamansari, meaning “a beautiful garden”. It was built in 1758 as a bathhouse and retreat for the Sultan, his concubines and his kids. There are three pools: the Sultan’s private pool, the pool for his concubines and the pool for his kids.

If you’re curious why the current Sultan’s decision to make his eldest daughter his heir is such a big deal, just know that the pool for the Sultan’s concubines and the pool for the Sultan’s kids were built right next to each other.

The complex around the Water Castle also has a lot of hidden gems, like Sumur Gumuling, which was used as an underground mosque but is now a crazy popular place to take photos. (Of course!) While we were there on a 40 degree day, an Indonesian couple in full wedding outfits was patiently waiting for all the tourists to disperse before they could take their wedding photos. Respect.

One of the gates to the Water Castle gardens.
Looking into the Sultan’s private pool. Standing on the opposite side is the photographer on our FAM trip.

Also fascinating was Ratu Boko, an archeological site of ancient ruins first discovered in 1790 and a stunning spot to watch the sun set. Wild chickens ran around amongst the tourists who were themselves running around with their selfie sticks.

The gorgeous pre-sunset view from the outlook below Ratu Boko.

The only major sight we didn’t see up close in Jogja was Prambanan Temple, a 9th century Hindu temple that’s the largest in Indonesia. We simply didn’t have time to fit it in, and I so wish we did. (Who knew I would be so into 9th century temples in Indonesia?)

Instead, we did the next best thing. We ate at Ramayana Restaurant which faces Prambanan, then watched a performance of Ramayana Ballet afterwards.

Not a bad view to have during dinner.

Now a bit about the hotels and food. Typically when I travel I organize my trips around where I’ll stay and where I’ll eat. But this time it was all organized for us and out of my control. This drove me just a little bit crazy, to be honest, but Yogyakarta is not an easy city to navigate yourself. You’ll need to book a private car or a guided tour to get to the main sights and organize meals around those areas.

For instance, with such a tight schedule, we didn’t have time to walk the Malioboro market and sample any street food. And I didn’t have the chance to find a local cafe to grab a morning coffee, something I like to do in a new city. On the positive side, our FAM organizers took us to a few special places to eat and we didn’t have to worry about how to get there and back.

My favorite Indonesian meals were at:

My favorite meal in Yogyakarta!

We stayed at three hotels during the FAM trip:

We barely had any time at the hotels, but my favorite was the Amata for its local flavor and boutique atmosphere. One night when we had 10 or 15 minutes free, I took the opportunity to enjoy a bottle of local Bintang beer in the outdoor dining area and socialize with the bugs.

Traditional guesthouses at Amata Borobudur Resort.

It sounds silly, but the pace of being on a guided tour is no joke. There were only five Taiwanese on the FAM group and sometimes at least 20 local organizers, guides, assistants and transport people with us making sure our itinerary went smoothly.

Each day we had early morning meet-ups and arrived back late to the hotel. We had to pose for hundreds of group photos each day, standing in different formations and sometimes holding a “Wonderful Indonesia” banner made specifically for our FAM trip. So yeah, you can imagine how good that one beer I had must have tasted.

I got a bag of this dried snake fruit as a souvenir.
Local mangosteens our tour guide picked up from a street vendor.

I’m not sure if I’ll ever make it back to Yogyakarta ⁠— I’d certainly love to if I had the chance, just to tick off a few things I didn’t get to do this time around. Like go to Prambanan Temple and see Borobodur at sunrise. I’d book one or two local tours through Backstreet Academy and I’d probably stay at The Amartya, a casual boutique hotel with a rooftop bar in the city.

Now, where should I go next in Indonesia? And should I bring the baby?!

Our Tourism Indonesia organizers and guides. Thanks for all your hard work!

Note: This entire trip was organized and paid for by Tourism Indonesia.