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SOLO/YOGYAKARTA – As Mayor of Solo, Indonesian President-elect Joko “Jokowi” Widodo cleared hawkers from the town’s main street and made Sunday a ‘car free day.’
Freeing up the avenue for garishly-kitted joggers and ambling families foreshadowed Jokowi’s later work as Governor of Jakarta, earning him a billing as a practical problem-solver with a nose for attention-grabbing gambits.
Joko’s precocious political rise, elided with some effective marketing, have lifted Solo’s prominence as a destination for tourists.
But an hour’s train ride away, Yogyakarta, or Jogja – a gateway to the spectacular Borobudur palace- is better-known than Solo, and is likely to remain so.
But even if Solo cannot match Jogja’s array of whitewashed colonial-forts and Javanese palaces, it cat least now can vie for some of Jogja’s tourism traffic. After all, the morning trains running between the two towns are packed with commuters living in one and working in the other – all getting in a last pre-shift nap or thumbing smartphones as the train chugs through flat rice country.
Better still, both towns have their quirks. The keratons (palaces) in both were closed when I visited – in Jogja’s case at 2pm, in Solo at 4.30pm-ish.
“Open later Pak,” said the chap manning the gate in Solo.
In Jogja, a few freelance guides hung around the entrance to the 17th century complex – claiming they could fix up impromptu after-hours tour. Ordinarily I’d be up for hopping a wall and poking illicitly around someone’s house, but opted instead to check out the museum inside the old Vredeburg Fort, a five minute walk away.
Jogja and Solo are usually sweltering, so visitors might want to take a becak – one of the lollipop-hued pedal carts that supplement the public transport in both towns.
The Vredeberg was worth a look for the collection of vintage photos – and for the detailed dioramas outlining Indonesia’s fight for independence from Dutch colonisers and Japanese invaders. Some of the English language captions seem to have been done using Google Translate, however – but that only adds to the charm. “The struggle of the Indonesian people against the Dutch by guerrila warfare often made the Dutch confused,” reads one.
No confusion, however, about the TV-sized touchscreen videogame down the hall. Kids lined up to take out Dutch soldiers in late 1940’s Jogja – all rendered in 1990’s Nintendo-vintage graphics. Jilbab-wearing students tapping furiously on the screen, avenging colonial wrongs in a sort of a digitised bowdlerisation of Franz Fanon.
Back in Solo, behind the counter in Cafe Seven, the town’s hipster hangout, a series of black and white sketches of the likes of Abraham Lincoln and Steve Jobs added a bit of gravitas.
At the apex of course, is a bashfully-smiling Joko Widodo – who you could imagine talking guitar riffs with some of the skinny jeans crowd who show up at the cafe late on.
But just as the Jogja palace closes too early, this place opens too late. 4pm. Don’t hipsters want coffee first thing in the morning? At least there’s a Starbucks across the road in the Solo Paragon mall. Not open til 10am, however, though that’s still a bit early for hipsters. Who wouldn’t be seen dead in Starbucks, of course.
Both towns play up their batik industries, but if Jogka has better palaces and artifacts, as well as Malioboro, the buzzing main thoroughfare, then Solo at least has the Danar Hadi museum – a batik shrine containing around 10,000 pieces of the traditional Javanese cloth.
“When Jokowi was mayor he always brought famous people here,”said Asti Suryo, a lawyer who works as assistant manager at Danar Hadi. ‘He wanted to show the history, the preservation, the tradition,” said Asti, who estimated that the musuem’s business grew by 100 per cent since Joko became Mayor.
Jogja might lose out if Joko’s fame grows internationally – during what could be a ten year Presidency – and if there’s a spin-off for Solo.
What do they make of the once-demure but now-noisy neighbour in Jogja? Is there room for two tourist draw towns in central Java?
“We are not rivals, we are friends, but for me you have to go to Jogja first,” said Yogyakarta mayor H. Haryadi Suyuti, smiling.
“But if you come here, Solo is just a 45 minute drive away,” Haryadi told The Edge Review.Show