As a Southeast Asian, I’ve always had a keen interest in the rest of the region we call home. We share a common thread in terms of ethnic strain, heritage and history; evolving differently over the centuries. After deciding that Asean would be our first cycle touring destination of 2017, we set about choosing a country.
Bali, a common tourist pick worldwide.
Pros: Beautiful countryside away from the traffic jams, unique heritage and culture.
Cons: Everyone in our group has been there at least twice.
Lombok, Bali’s sister island.
Pros: Scenic views reminiscent of Hawaii’s breathtaking coastline.
Cons: Required more time for touring more akin to our journey through Noto, Japan.
Siem Reap, a well-known UNESCO heritage site.
Pros: Fairly flat, with an option for a longer ride to Phnom Kulen National Park.
Cons: USD oriented micro-economy with many tourist traps.
Pros: Cheap, good food, plenty of fellow cyclists to meet.
Cons: Would need extra days for rides out of town and compulsory Chatuchak visit.
Unfortunately, everyone in our group has traveled to each of these locations, with the exception of Siem Reap, which Maya has not been to. In the end, we all opted for Central Java instead, to explore a new place. Remnants of the Hindu and Buddhist kingdoms like Borobudur and Prambanan were a key focus, as well as the more developed Jogjakarta special region. I’ll be honest though. We knew that Central Java would be infinitely cheaper than other cities in Asean. Ultimately, the cost factor won the argument (also, you can have Indomie goreng 24/7 + Teh Botol/freshly brewed fragrant teh poci = WIN).
Indonesia is the largest Archipelago in the world, with five major islands and about 30 smaller groups. It is a volcanic country in general, and central Java itself is very hilly for this same reason. There are small strips of lowlands near the northern and southern coast, with mountain ranges in the centre. And because volcanic ash makes for fertile land, there are plenty of paddy fields and other crops grown in the agricultural region.
Pro tip: It’s a little cheaper if you arrange for a driver or supir direct from someone who has used their services in Jogja before.
We booked a driver beforehand via Discover Your Indonesia, and he was waiting for us upon touchdown at the Adisutjipto airport. Payment was pretty easy via Paypal. The site will give you the lowdown on the touristy stuff, but if you want anything more beyond that you’re pretty much on your own.
Our simple itinerary.
Day 1: Arrival, drop off luggage at Adhistana Hotel, drive with bikes to Tingal Laras Homestay in Magelang.
Day 2: Explore Borobudur, Bukit Setumbu and surrounding areas.
Day 3: Ride from Magelang to Jogjakarta, check in to Adhistana Hotel.
Day 4: Explore Kraton, Taman Sari, and the tombs of Mataram Kings in Kota Gede.
Day 5: Explore Prambanan and Ratu Boko.
Day 6: Fly home.
I think I can speak for the group in saying that cycling in Magelang was a very pleasant experience, since it was pretty much like our villages or kampungs in Malaysia, with the exception of the local architecture. There are no houses on stilts like back home, since the central Javanese have very distinct building practices. Their homes are built on ground level with heavy usage of teak, and intricate carvings on the doors and windows.
The roads were quiet with the occasional cars passing through but safe enough to cycle, even though Borobudur Temple is in the vicinity. Tingal Laras was a perfect base for exploring the temple and overall location due to the close proximity. However, if you want more direct access to Borobudur (and a fair bit of luxury), Manohara Resort gives you private sunrise and sunset visits, since it manages the park around it. Manohara was unfortunately fully booked for our travel dates, and even has a waiting list (no joke).
Pro tip: Pick up some basic Indonesian because similar to Bali, you can get local prices if the ticketing office doesn’t suspect you’re foreign (Those who can pass off as a local Javanese are more likely to get away with this, obviously). Try the local counter first, only head to the foreigner counter if they tell you to.
After Borobudur, there are obviously a lot of the lesser temples that you can explore nearby. We also decided to ride to Bukit Setumbu despite the forecast of rain, although Eka and I had to stop mid-way and buy cheap plastic ponchos at a local sundry shop.
These jas hujan ripped easily at the seams with any uncontrolled movements, but served their temporary purpose. They also kept us mostly dry during an evening ride in the downpour and flashfloods along the paddy fields, when we went hunting for dinner.
On day 3, we packed up and checked out to head to the Jogjakarta Special Region. We got some incredulous questions from the local artists and staff at Tingal Laras, who thought we were a bit mad to be cycling more than 40kms through challenging terrain instead of taking a car. Either way, we had already mapped out a journey heading south-east from Borobudur in the Magelang Regency, crossing through Sleman to end the trip in Jogja city itself.
This journey was the most physically challenging of our entire time in Central Java, but also the most enjoyable. It was pretty much going off the beaten path, literally at some points, as you will see from some of our pictures. It’s clear that the place is still very much underdeveloped, with roads that get fairly slippery when it rains. River crossings were the worst, since there would be a sudden plunge to the bridge, and a climb just as abrupt and steep on the other side. Besides that, the journey was a mix of uphills and flats, dirt trails through paddy fields, rocky trails, and concrete paths through small villages. The scenery was amazing, for want of a better word. But! For those with smaller bladders, take note: THERE ARE NO PUBLIC TOILETS ALONG THE WAY.
To sum it up, it was excellent terrain for adventurous cyclists who are more drawn to exploration on all terrain bikes, and don’t mind bumpy tarmac or having to double back now and then after taking the wrong turn. We got some curious stares and plenty of thumbs ups from the local population, some of them even pulled up next to us on the road to give us the universal “good job” gesture. I’d always assumed that there were a fair bit of crazy mat sallehs who had toured all of Java Island by bike, but traveling cyclists seem to be a bit of a novelty still.
For navigation, we used Apple maps for the duration of the trip, which somehow worked better than Google maps or Waze. If you’re traveling in a group, everyone should have their own navigation systems be it GPS devices or phones. As we got closer to Jogja, the roads obviously got busier, and we got split up a few times. Within Jogja itself there are cycling lanes, but these are shared with motorcyclists and even parked cars. The traffic is insane, to say the least. And because of the small roads, we were riding in pretty close proximity with a thousand other motorcyclists, which got a bit unnerving at times. One unintended bonus, was that having our own bikes were a pretty good deterrent against local beca chaps hoping to get hired for paid tours.
Jogja itself has the feel of a sprawling village, with kampung houses squished in a small area even in the city centre. Life is still very rural, and we even came across a woman in a towel carrying her toiletries heading to the local well or baths; we didn't stop to find out. Smaller pathways snake through these urban villages, and no one batts an eyelid when you cut through them to avoid the main roads. Even in the busier areas, there are no skyscrapers or grand condominiums due to a pre-existing ban on tall buildings. This could change in the not too distant future though.
When we got to Adhistana Hotel, our bags were waiting, and we checked in without any fuss. Our bikes were parked outside next to the motorbikes, with any sensitive parts covered in case of rain (which happened a fair bit!). There are other more authentic Javanese homes turned boutique hotels in Jogja, but Adhistana was cheap and had a really good cafe attached to it. After our more basic accommodation in Magelang, it was a nice change of scenery.
Adhistana was also nearby Kraton and Taman Sari, making it easy to quickly ride there for a bit of wandering around on Day 4. Kraton was somewhat underwhelming since we didn’t pay for guided tours and the exhibits were not really self-explanatory, but the royal bathhouse of Taman Sari was a fascinating place regardless.
We also spent a fair bit of the afternoon at a house/cafe in the kampung built around the baths, which had a resident civet named Lutfi. The animal apparently wandered in more than 10 years ago, and adopted the family in the same manner that cats do. The best part about this place isn’t petting an obese civet or the free coffee samples (very popular with cheapskate Malaysians), but getting to compare Luwak coffee from Java and Bali, which are worlds apart. The family only sells organic Luwak coffee harvested in the wild. They also serve some pretty decent local food, although the menu is limited. There seems to be no information online, but any of the local guides or beca drivers should be able to guide you to the luwak jinak and kopi gratis.
Afterwards, we had a bit of time left to cycle to Kota Gede, where the Mataram Kings were laid to rest. There are also public baths there, which the local population still utilises. It’s a bit out of the town area, and takes you back into kampung territory.
Pro tip: If you’ve had a bit too much free coffee, the local 7-Elevens have free public toilets.
On Day 5, the plan was to cycle 20kms to Prambanan and the nearby heritage sights, but Maya convinced us to give our legs a rest after three straight days of cycling. Our driver Arya had gone out of town after transporting us to Magelang, so Discover Your Indonesia helped arrange for another to take us around. Rusli took us for a local Gudek breakfast, and waited patiently while we wandered around the Prambanan Temple complex. Set aside several hours to rent a bike and ride around the entire park area (it’s awesomely cheap anyway), and whatever you do, don’t miss Sewu Temple, which was still being restored while we were there. Eka and I also discovered then, that tandem bikes are not the easiest to ride!
After exiting the Prambanan complex, and surviving the maze of souvenir stalls at the end, Ratu Boko was our next destination. Ratu Boko is an archeological site which requires the use of your imagination more than anything else, but it is still a nice vantage point for some sunset photography.
It is however full of tourists both local and foreign, even if it is raining. The night ended with some cheap but good local coffee at a warung patronized by broke local university students, and afterwards last minute purchases for the folks back home.
I'll be back.
Would I go to Java again? In a heartbeat. Central Java is obviously very different from the rest of the island, and would require more time to explore completely. Our next step is to switch out our tyres to the increasingly popular gravel variety before planning another Java excursion.
In the meantime, scroll down for more photos!
**Grab a copy of Cycling Plus Malaysia March-April 2017 issue for my full article on our Central Java trip (which has other information not included here)!