We have just returned from a 2-week vacation in Indonesia. We did a bit of island hopping, beginning with Yogyakarta in Java, continuing on to Tana Toraja and Sengkang in Sulawesi, and ending in Ubud and Padangbai in Bali. (Reviews of the rest of our tour will follow.)
Our two full days in Yogya on December 23rd and 24th were spent with Frans Henry of De Jong Asia Holidays, whom we booked as our driver a few weeks prior to our departure. Frans started this company just a few months ago and is eager to establish himself as someone who goes above and beyond the usual routine tourism.
When I originally emailed Frans, I advised him that my husband and adult daughter and I wanted to see the traditional Yogya-area sites but that we also wanted to veer off of the usual beaten (read “touristy”) track, both in sightseeing and in experiencing the culinary delights of Yogya and environs. As a trained chef, cookbook author and, currently, food-magazine publisher and editor, I have a keen interest in truly savouring the local cuisine and foods of a country I’m visiting, and have no interest in dining in dumbed-down, overly priced tourist spots. I also mentioned that I intend to write a story about Indonesian food in my magazine, hoping to tie it in with Toronto’s Indonesian community. Frans was delighted to hear this. (It turns out that he grew up around food; his parents owned, and his mother was the cook in, a restaurant in East Timor while he was growing up.) And, incredibly, although we only booked his services for the second day of our stay in Yogya, he was so excited to officially introduce these obviously food-obsessed people to Indonesian cuisine that he offered to drive us around and restaurant-hop on our first day, as well, at no charge.
Frans is a true professional with the primary aim of pleasing his clients. He went out of his way to ensure our comfort and cater to our needs (and our whims). His car (a fully equipped Nissan Evalia, which he owns) is roomy and comfortable, with air conditioning, complimentary water bottles, portable Wi-Fi, and, I found out when I accidentally forgot to charge my camera battery one night, a portable camera- and mobile phone-charging unit. (Imagine what a godsend this was when it dawned on me that I’d be heading to Borobodur with a dead camera!)
Although it was not included in our agreement/itinerary, Frans picked us up at the airport in Yogya on the evening of December 23rd (after a 30-hour trip from Canada) and took us to a wonderful restaurant for dinner. His choice was perfect: BUMBU DESA, a Sundanese restaurant that featured an elaborate buffet of dozens of prepared dishes. Choosing was very difficult, but Frans’s translations and my trusty “Eating Smart in Indonesia” book saved the day. We enjoyed a truly delicious meal and were shocked at the low price when we received the bill. (And continued to be amazed at the low cost of restaurant meals until we got to Bali, where they escalated quite a bit but were still low relative to Canadian prices.) Frans then dropped us off at our hotel (the wonderful DUSUN JOGJA VILLAGE INN: www.jvidusun.co.id; review to follow), which I’d booked on my own. But he didn’t leave us empty-handed: he gifted us a box of delightful savoury pastries from a local bakery.
Over the next two days, we toured, ate, ate, toured, toured and ate. You get the picture. The wet market in Yogya, a food shop that features bakpia pathok, a filled (mung beans/cheese/chocolate, etc.) pastry that is a specialty of Yogya (we bought them while they were still warm!), the Kraton, Jl. Malioboro (at my insistence; Frans had warned me that the shops had little to offer us, and he was right),
Borobodur, Prambanan. In the wet market, Frans cautioned us a number of times to avoid buying certain foods from vendors he thought were using lower sanitary standards/methods of preparation than our unaccustomed tummies would be able to tolerate.
We also visited Karang, a village near Borobodur that I’d read about and asked to visit, where there is cottage-industry tofu-making, and another village, the name of which escapes me, where there was home-industry ceramics. I bought the most beautiful clay pot there – an 8-inch vegetable pot with handles and a cover – for the insanely low price of Rp 45,000 (about $5.00).
Over these two days, every restaurant we ate in was remarkable. Aside from the restaurants Frans took us to while touring, he provided us with a list of twenty recommended restaurants for when we were on our own. (Frans is Christian and, although our touring day on December 24th technically ended after dinner, we sent him home at the end of the afternoon so he could spend Christmas Eve with his family.) From that list, we chose TIGA NYONYA, a Peranakan/Nyonya restaurant that we enjoyed a great deal. The highlights of our Indonesian taste tour were probably our visits to GUDEG BU SRI (Kuncen), where we enjoyed our first taste of the Indonesian dish of gudeg, and LOTEK GADO-GADO COLOMBO (www.lotekgadogadocolombo.com), where we had the best-ever gado-gado and lotek, the chile-peanut sambals for both of which were hand-ground with a mortar and pestle, and the vegetables hand cut, for each individual order. The flavours and textures of each of these dishes were exciting and truly memorable and we never experienced gado-gado like this again during our eating extravaganza through Indonesia. (And we never again encountered lotek on a menu.)
In summary, we feel that we really lucked out when we hired Frans Henry of De Jong Asia Holidays. His English is impeccable and he is an intelligent, educated, warm and overall wonderful person who went out of his way to ensure that we experienced Yogyakarta and environs in exactly the way we requested: combining sightseeing while providing us with a true taste of the remarkable flavours of Indonesian cuisine, way off the beaten (tourist) track.
The range of culinary delights we experienced while restaurant-hopping was extraordinary (and there's so much more food we would have enjoyed if we'd had more time in Yogya with Frans; these two days with him provided us with the best food we ate during our two weeks in the country). Frans is the only driver we've ever hired who completely devoted himself to customizing our itinerary to suit our requests and whims. (All too often it's the other way around.) We only spent two days together but wish we could have spent many more time with him. He even chose to pick us up at 3:45 a.m. on the 25th to take us to the airport to catch our 06:00 flight to Makassar. AND brought us a wonderful layer cake to enjoy, as well.
NOTE: Over the previous three Christmas vacations, we travelled to Costa Rica, Peru and Morocco, where we’d hired guides who were highly recommended on Trip Advisor. In each case we were extremely disappointed with certain aspects of our tours. Following our tour of Morocco last year, I was continually harassed by our tour operator and a hotel in Merzouga that we stayed in after I gave them very bad reviews, and so I subsequently asked Trip Advisor to cancel my account. (I might have handled this differently if the Moroccan tour operator had not had my contact information in Canada.) I have started up fresh, using a different member name, which is why I now only have Indonesia under my TA "belt.”
If you’d like more information about Frans and De Jong Asia Holidays, please do not hesitate to send me a direct message.