People are often drawn to Indonesia for a number of reasons. Tourists flock to the island of Bali, which is famous for its breathtaking beaches, ancient temples, luxury hotels, and exotic landscapes and wildlife. There’s also the country’s economic and political center in Jakarta, where people can enjoy high-end shopping and a number of diverse, international restaurants.
But during my two years of stay in Indonesia, I most fondly remember my trip to Surakarta, a hidden gem for tourists looking for Java’s more cultural beauty. If you have a few days to spare, here’s four things to check out on your journey.
Sangiran Archaeological Excavation Site
For anyone who loves history, the Sangiran Museum and Early Man Site is 15 km north of Surakarta and accessible by a bus from Tirtonadi Bus Station (Rp. 5,000) or by motorcycle. Since 1995, Sangiran has been recognized by UNESCO as a key site for studying fossil men and human evolution. The display rooms, full of the models and bones of Meganthropus palaeo and Pithecanthropus erectus, are available for viewing for Rp. 11,500.
While visiting the actual excavation sites isn’t an option available for the typical tourist, if you are lucky enough to get the chance, you can learn a lot about the precise excavation process and give digging a try as well.
Surakarta Hadiningrat Royal Palace
For a very different look at regional history, check out the Surakarta Hadiningrat Royal Palace, which is rich in colonial legacy.
Indonesia had faced around 450 years of colonization by Europeans, which you can see in the French chandeliers and Greek statuary adorning the quiet palace grounds or the Dutch and Chinese artifacts inside the palace museum.
The entrance fee is a small Rp. 10,000 which is less than a dollar, but please consider leaving donations on your way out, as the palace grounds are only maintained by volunteers.
Batik Museum of Danar Hadi
Only fifteen minutes away from the palace is the Batik Museum of Danar Hadi. You can see over 1000 batik from different eras and regional origins for Rp. 30,000. The wax-resist dyed cloth are displayed neatly with information about the batik and the religious, racial and cultural significance behind each pattern.
The museum also shows you the creative process — in separate outside rooms, there are women working tirelessly without air conditioning, as the room temperature needs to be warm enough to make the wax usable. The work is so exquisitely done that it’s impossible for the untrained eye to distinguish between a manually-made or stamp-printed batik!
Local life, rituals, and food
Checking out the local villages can also be a valuable cultural experience. A good host might offer you dinner and entertainment, and also explain the different celebrations and rituals of the villagers.
Here’s a tip: never completely empty your plate during a meal, because your host will immediately rush to refill it! Chicken, prepared in various ways, is a staple at the dinner table and often accompanied by fragrant vegetables, tofu, soups and more. Tall glasses of cold water and coconut chunks serve as a sweet and refreshing dessert.
The performing arts are a highly respected part of Javanese culture, as evident in the different dances, instruments, costumes, and stories behind each performance. Guests are also often encouraged to join in the dancing, allowing them to share in the culture intimately.
Before you leave a village, be sure to drop by the local keris maker’s place. Keris makers enjoy explaining the symbolism behind the cultural blade and will even demonstrate how to forge the intricate designs by folding different metals dozens or even hundreds of times carefully. If you have several hundreds or even thousands of dollars to spend, be sure to purchase your own!
Surakarta is a 1 hour and 15 minute flight away from the capital of Jakarta with flights daily on many local airlines.