For the people of Yogyakarta, the Kraton, or Sultan’s Palace, has been the cultural (and mystical) heart and soul of the city since the mid-1700s.
For the casual tourist, however, it can seem a little unimpressive. The treasures are poorly displayed and little information is forthcoming, which is a pity as it truly is a fascinating place if you delve deeper. To avoid feeing disenchanted, it’s worthwhile employing the services of a guide for some interesting explanations of the symbolism here as well as the history. Your admission includes this service (you may have to ask), however it’s customary to tip (an additional 25,000 to 50,000 rupiah would be fair).
The Kraton is a physical representation of the Javanese Cosmos, charged with the divine forces of the universe. Every detail, tree and pavilion has mystical meaning, and if you take a moment you can just, perhaps, feel a little spark in the air. Built on a north-south axis, the Kraton faces sacred Mount Merapi, and backs the ocean, home of the Sultan’s mystical consort Kanjeng Ratu Loro Kidul (the Queen of the Southern Seas).
As the Kraton is the current home for Yogyakarta’s Sultan, Hamengkubuwono X, many areas are off-limits. However, open to the public are several splendid and elaborately decorated open-air pavilions where you may catch a puppet performance or a dance show on some mornings. You'll also find galleries filled with beautiful historical batik fabrics and treasures gifted to the royal family. Portrait galleries and detailed hand-drawn family trees are on display, with one gallery dedicated to Hamengkubuwono IX (HBIX), the current Sultan’s father, who was influential in Indonesia’s fight for independence and also the second vice president of Indonesia. He was involved in the Indonesian Scout movement and was a fine cook; memorabilia includes the royal woggle and the royal cheesegrater. Look for the two large dvarapala statues, replicas of those at the enchanting Sewu temple near Prambanan.
The Kraton is secured by dignified (and numerous) Kraton guards attired in traditional garb, who will happily pose for a snap. Interestingly, not only is the royal linage inherited, so too is that of these custodians, and their families have lived within the walled city for generations. It’s interesting to wander around the shady streets within the Kraton walls to see slices of everyday Yogyakarta life.
A visit to the Kraton will take no more than an hour, but within the greater walled royal city Taman Sari and the fascinating Sumur Gumuling are worth combining to fill half a day. Two sacred banyan trees grow in the southern square of the Kraton (Alun-alun Kidul) and a traditional game is to try and walk blindfolded between them to prove the purity of your heart. The area comes alive in the evenings and is worth a visit at that time.
Outside the Kraton near the rear exit, Bale Raos Restaurant serves “royal cuisine"—the menu indicates which Sultan the dishes have been prepared for. Prices are reasonable, and it’s worth popping in for the atmosphere and to try one of the special traditional drinks such as Beer Djawa, a “magic drink” served to Sri Sultan HB VII (17,500 rupiah).
Respectful dress is required to enter the Kraton, shoulders must be covered and no hats.
If you’d like to catch one of the cultural performances, the schedule is: Monday and Tuesday (10:00-12:00) gamelan music, Wednesday (10:00-12:00) wayang golek (wooden puppets,) Thursday and Sunday (10:00-12:00) classical dance, Friday (09:00-11:00) macapat (Javanese traditional poetry), and Saturday (10:00-12:00) wayang kulit (shadow puppets).
Scam alert: When visiting the Kraton make sure you are at the official entrance. Many becak drivers will drop you at the “wrong” entrance. It may look official and is indeed part of the palace. You will pay an entry fee (about 7,000 rupiah) and a “guide” will accompany you, show you around the two dusty and uninteresting exhibitions, then lead you to the “Sultan’s batik workshop”, their ulterior motive. To recognise the official entrance, you’ll see a large clock in the small square outside, and when you buy your ticket (price is slightly higher), you’ll be issued a sticker with the Sultan’s coat-of-arms. Embarrassingly, this happened to us a few years ago, and we’d been to the correct place before that too, so it’s not just novice travellers who can get caught out.
By Sally Arnold
Last updated on 6th December, 2016.