With its rich history and diverse cultures, Indonesia has much to offer as an attractive tourist destination. Especially, for those who look to have a unique and immersive experience in a different country. It is however a country that’s made up of over 17,500 islands, and for many travellers. The question that is asked is where do I begin? And if you ask us, Solo is the best place to start.
Solo, otherwise known as Surakarta, is known as the Central Java’s cradle of culture and mythology, and very much in its attitude and culture. It has maintained its position as a centre of Javanese culture and one of the best reasons to travel in Indonesia even till today. And this makes the former royal city a great place to dive into to get a taste, which is pretty much the tip of the iceberg, of Indonesia’s rich and diverse heritage.
Learn about Batik at Danar Hadi Batik Museum
Batik is somewhat known as the national dress of Indonesia. Alongwith leaders of the country often donning batik shirts at important international events, and men in general, wearing it for formal occasions. One of the key places that this art form – which involves using a pen-like, wax-applying instrument to create a wax resist that is dyed to create beautiful patterns, continues to be practised and preserved is in Solo, as it is intrinsically tied with Javanese culture.
Batik isn’t just beautiful for the sake of being beautiful; the patterns and motifs on it are highly philosophical and symbolic. They are sacred too, as certain motifs should only be found on the clothing of members of the royal court in the past.
Given the city’s unofficial title as the place to find some of the finest batik workmanship, it is unsurprising that it is also home to Indonesia’s largest batik collection at Museum Batik Danar Hadi. Though it has an inventory of nearly 10,000 pieces of batik, over 1,000 are on display at this museum set up by the Danar Hadi family, who also happens to be one of Indonesia’s largest batik makers.
When you first enter, it would seem like just another ordinary upmarket batik shop. But venture deeper and you’ll uncover this treasure trove of gorgeous batik pieces. “No cameras, please,” you’ll be told by the English speaking guide who will accompany you throughout your entire journey in the museum. This is to help maintain the integrity of the pieces on display, some of which are decades old. Other than not being allowed to touch the pieces of batik, there is little else in the way of taking a closer look at the fine handiwork of skilled craftsmen.Walking through the museum is like literally going through a history lesson in batik, as pieces are displayed in chronological order. Patterns start off in shades of brown black and yellow, with geometrical shapes and slowly evolve to include more hues of red, pink and green and more intricate patterns, and Chinese influences. The Dutch colonial times sees the introduction of westerns motifs into the mix. Including childhood story figures and it makes for a fascinating introduction into the history not just of the art, but also to travel in Indonesia as a whole as it transitioned from ancient rule to present day.
Before you exit, there’s a chance to look at the masters in action. We were allowed into a workshop of quick and nimble craftswomen who were hard at work and with steady hands, they were drawing out wax resist patterns painstakingly. For each colour of dye, a new layer of wax has to be peeled off and redrawn laboriously and this is why the art is renowned for its patterns, technique and finesse.
A must visit place for those who are deeply intrigued by this UNESCO-recognised art form. http://danarhadibatik.com/en/danar-hadi-world
Eat your way through Pasar Gede Harjonagoro
Markets are a great place to soak in the culture, especially in Asia. Through the items up for sale, and of course the wide variety of food available, you can clearly get an idea of what the local culture is like. And the meeting place for the locals in Solo to go about their daily business is Pasar Gede Harjonagoro.
Built in 1927, it is the oldest market and one of the landmarks of the city to travel in Indonesia. Surrounded by what seems to be an endless stream of becaks (rickshaws), it can be said to be the centre of local living. Like any good market, weaving in and out of narrow paths and trying to get out of the way or the locals is par for course. Stalls are stacked up sky high with goods and there is a dizzying array of food.
Our local friend grabs our hand and guides us through the maze of shops to emerge at a canteen-like area where hawkers sell their bowls of treats that are cooked and served up on the spot. “You must try the Es Dawat here,” she proclaims and proceeds to order up one each for us. A colourful serving of green noodle-looking jelly, brown palm sugar and white coconut milk is served to us and it’s perfect to combat the heat outside, and before we need to navigate our way out again.
Imagine life as a royal at the Surakarta Hadiningrat Royal Palace
This is where the kings used to live. That should be more than enough reason to pay a visit to these grounds. That and the fact that it is still the residence of the sunan (sultan) and the unique architecture and colours used in the building of this kraton (palace).
The palace captures your attention for afar as it consists of a three-storey building that towers over all the other buildings in the area. This is a Panggung Songgo Buwono, a tower that dates back to 1782 and more importantly is the sultan’s meditation sanctum where he communes with the Queen of the South Seas.
In front of this tower is the main entrance that is uniquely painted in shades of blue and a dais that is topped off with regal-looking wooden carvings that are worth a closer look. Guards decked in green and yellow guard the entrance to the home of sultan (you can liken it to the guards at Buckingham palace), and like the Western world, you can play witness to the changing of the guard ceremony (when you travel in Indonesia) that we were lucky enough to witness.
As the palace is still inhabited much of it is understandably off limits to public, but on its grounds is the Swaka Budaya museum where there are four long halls of exhibitions of historical objects used in everyday living in ancient Java.
Take a train ride through the city
Trains are par for course in a country as big as Indonesia, but certainly very few run right through the city and make stops right in the middle at important landmarks such as the Mayor of Solo’s office. And the Jaladara steam locomotive is one of them.Train enthusiasts will certainly not want to miss out as the train itself was manufactured in 1896 in Germany and was taken out of the museum for this express purpose. The carriages that hold up to 70 pax are lined with wood, from the walls all the way down to the benches that you can sit on.The train takes scenic route at a slow pace that gives you ample time to take in the atmosphere of the city and makes scheduled stops at popular tourist destinations. It starts from Purwosari station and takes a 6km journey across the city to end at Solo Balapan Station. The schedule can be erratic, so enquiring ahead about the availability of seats on this journey is a must.
Watch a Wayang Orang performance
Literally translated as man puppet, Wayang Orang is a Javanese dance theatrical performance that used to be performed exclusively in the royal courts before it was popularised and spread through the Javanese kingdom. Today, it is traditional art that is still preserved amongst practitioners and recognised as a prized cultural asset.
What is interesting to note about the art form is the commonalities that it shares with wayang kulit or shadow puppetry and like its two-dimensional counterparts, the actors on stage move primarily left and right, with their movements mirroring their paper counterparts.
Special access to the backstage of an ongoing performance reveals the many costumes and elaborate makeup that goes into every character that you see on stage. The most elaborate get-up involves make up that accentuates the features and is topped off with a heavy looking piece of headgear and embellished costume as the necessary props are grabbed in a rush to get ready for the cue to start the next scene.
The audience in the theatre are mainly locals, which shows that it is still an art form that remains much appreciated. The theatre is pretty much packed and the show is well-paced with serious scenes that are interspersed with moments of comic relief. Even though it is all in Javanese, the comedic slapstick humour transcends the language barriers and everyone young and old breaks out in laughter.
Shows in Solo are performed daily, except on Sundays, at 8pm at the Sriwedari Wayang Orang Building. Fair warning that shows do last longer than your typical movie, so get comfy in your seats.
Find a keris you fancy at the Keris museum
The unique asymmetrical double-edged dagger takes the spotlight at the city’s newest gem, the Keris Museum. The museum is home to hundreds of ancient keris that originate from Java, with the oldest one dating back to the Majahapit Kingdom era (1293 – 1500). Lots of love has been put into this exhibit that spans over several floors. They have been grouped according to time period and the age, production and materials have been painstakingly recorded to provide a clear picture of the origins of each and every single keris. As such the range of keris span simple makes with wooden handles to lavishly ornate handles that have been jewelled encrusted.
Those new to the keris making process can learn how they are produced through life-size dioramas that detail out each step. Even non-keris lovers will learn a thing or two given the enthusiastic guides who are at hand to answer all keris related questions. They even demonstrated the different ways in which you can carry a keris, each one linked to a different social stratum of the past.
Explore the peculiar reliefs and carvings at Sukh temple
It’s a trek to reach Sukh temple, not just because outside Solo city. Once there, you can to scale three terraces before you reach the piece de resistance, the main pyramid at the top. But first, you have to cover up with the given pieces of cloth that you tie around your waist, after all, this was a holy site when we came to travel in Indonesia
It is well-worth the effort to explore this one of a kind kandi (temple) – the interesting reliefs that you find carved into the side of the pyramid. As well as the phallic looking statues that dot the temple grounds. One feature that will definitely catch your attention, the three turtle like statues in front of the pyramid-like structure that you will miss if you don’t look out for. As they are frequently used this day as a seat to rest the tired legs of tourists who come by when people travel in Indonesia. The temple’s less than common sights can be attributed to its Hindu roots. And Sukh temple is said to be one of the last few Hindu temples built in Java travel in Indonesia.
As it is located on the hilltop, the temple also affords beautiful views of the surrounding tea plantations and the valley below. Its position on Mount Lawu is approximately 900m above sea levels. Making it a cooling place to take a break in if you need a respite from the sweltering city.
With so much to do in Solo, there’s no reason not to make a trip over to dive into the rich Javanese culture while you travel in Indonesia.