The dancer tilted her head, slowly, almost imperceptibly, and started to slide one foot along the tiled floor towards the bank of eager photographers. They bristled, cameras raising eagerly. The dancer’s eye twitched, ever so slightly. A gong sounded mournfully.
How admirable, I thought to myself, as the dancer slowly descended a set of steps towards the awaiting tourists. She has a completely straight face. I wonder how she does that?
We had come to the Kraton, a palace in the centre of Yogyakarta, to get a hit of Indonesian culture. That was the whole point of our trip to Yogyakarta, after all.
And what better way to get some decent culture than to see some traditional Javanese dancing accompanied by a gamelan, an Indonesian orchestra made of all sorts of metal instruments? Javanese dance, as it turns out, is formed of incredibly slow, deliberate movements performed by extremely glamorous dancers. The end result is elegant and captivating but my goodness it takes a long time. This performance was slated to go on for approximately two hours; after five minutes spent vainly trying to find respite from the intense heat under the pavilion like building, I had given up hope of ever feeling cool ever again.
I snuck around the side to get an action glimpse of the gamelan. Having played one myself when I studied music at school, I was intrigued to see the setup. The orchestra is formed of a variety of big hanging gongs, smaller kettle-type gongs, and xylophone things. I’m sure they all have proper names but I shan’t insult anyone by attempting them. There were also four singers sat at the front of the orchestra.
From memory, the musicians semi-improvise: they have a framework of notes that progress throughout the piece, but are free to play whatever they like around that. The higher, xylophone type instruments play fast and change notes often, the lower big gongs play infrequently and usually only for one note. This makes a compelling, driven melody over which you have up to four singers singing a traditional song that tells a particular story. The dancers illustrate the story.
The dancers and the orchestra were really what we came for. I was keen to experience some traditional Javanese culture, and this was laid on for free – well, aside from the entrance fee to the Kraton which was about $1.50. Yes, you read that correctly.
Taking a short walk around the rest of the grounds, we didn’t uncover too much of interest. There were some pretty buildings but they were all fenced off.
The free gamelan and dance is only on on a Sunday, so if your trip falls over this day I would highly recommend a visit. Don’t bother too much about the rest of the palace – we were underwhelmed. However, for the entrance fee, it’s worth taking a quick sweep around if historical buildings are your thing.
After seeing a large group of boys all dressed in matching beige shorts and Hawaiian shirts, we decided it was time to call it a day. Is group matching dressing a thing in Indonesia? I have no idea.
Further cultural adventures were to be found in Taman Sari, an ancient complex dating from the mid 18th century. This was built by the sultan as a rest and relaxation spot. Most of it has been lost to time but the concubine bathing pools remain. They’re absolutely beautiful.
The site is small but in the heat, we were glad of that. You can see the pools where the sultan, his concubines and children bathed. The changing and rest rooms remain. There is no information whatsoever about the site as you’re walking around, so I’d have a read up on what on earth is going on before you visit.
It was pretty busy, but I still managed to get some good pictures. People were good at ducking out of your shot or taking turns at posing in prime spots (like this one):
Just look at the colour of the water. Beautiful. I can’t tell you how hot and sweaty it was that day, but looking at the pictures makes me feel instantly calmed and refreshed – what a treat this must have been for bathers.
But just to bring things back to reality, here is the sultan’s changing and resting quarters. The tower is where he would look out over all his bathing beauties and make his choice. Nice.
It was quite a nice tower before I knew that.
Are you into traditional dance and/or music? Would you visit bathing pools that had a dubious former use, even though they’re stunning to look at?
Top Tips: Kraton
> This is a confusing site! There are two entrances. The one with the gamelan and dancing (where my pictures are from, marked Kraton Ngayogyakarta Hadiningrat on Google maps) is accessed via a south-westerly entrance. There is also an entrance to the north, just off the big grassy square (marked The Palace of Yogyakarta Keraton Yogyakarta on Google maps). They’re separate entrances to separate things, so an entrance fee is payable at both. We ended up going to the wrong one first, the Palace of Yogyakarta, and essentially wasting money – but as it was so little I wasn’t too fussed. We just wanted to get to the gamelan.
> If you want to take pictures or videos you will have to buy a permit to do so. It’s under 10c extra so I would recommend going for it even if you’re not sure. I wouldn’t want to be caught out…
> A guide offered his services to us at the first entrance, but as we realised we’d come to the wrong place we declined his offer. The guides are free, however I expect they’d like a tip at the end.
> The only loos on site are basic squat loos with no frills. Someone may try and get you to pay. I’d recommend not availing yourself of these facilities if at all possible.
> The area around the palace is full of tourists, and wherever there are tourists, there are scammers. Be on high alert – the variety and inventiveness is quite impressive.
Top Tips: Taman Sari
> The area Taman Sari is based in isn’t hugely walkable. It looks like it’s just around the corner from the Kraton, but it’s not. And there aren’t really any pavements. Take a taxi and make sure the taxi waits for you to return – it won’t cost too much as you’ll get around the site quite quickly.
> The way out takes you a super long way and, as ever in Indonesia, past lots of stalls etc (exit via the gift shop) trying to entice you into a purchase
> I already mentioned it, but research the site before you go. Not always the easiest to do, but we missed parts of the site because I didn’t know they existed. There are no signs or anything so be sure to explore fully!
> You may well get accosted by a group of schoolchildren doing a survey/practicing their English speaking. We participated and nothing bad happened (ie it’s not a scam) so if you’re asked and you can spare the time, go ahead.
Pin me, all you culture vultures: