Led by a 66-year-old tour guide, one of Yogyakarta's few Mandarin speakers, Chen Liang explores this centuries-old Indonesian city
While a host of factors contribute to the success of a sightseeing trip - an attractive destination, good planning and convenient transportation - there was one big surprise that went into making my recent visit to Yogyakarta, Indonesia, a pleasant one.
And that was our tour guide's age.
We were in Yogyakarta as invitees of Garuda Indonesia, the national airline carrier of Indonesia.
We landed in Yogyakarta, also known as Yogya, in the evening, and are greeted by our guide, 66-year-old Nana Liem.
"Few fourth-generation Chinese Indonesians can speak decent Mandarin here," Liem, who prefers to be called Nana, explains. "That's why I, a third-generation Chinese, am still in this business."
She is the oldest guide I have had in all the many organized tours I have been on. Her easy-going and unhurried manner makes this one really special.
In Yogya, the cultural heart of Java, we first visit Borobudur. Located about 42 km northwest of Yogya, this massive Buddhist temple, built between AD 750 and 850, is Indonesia's most-visited tourist site.
The entrance area is packed with numerous handicrafts shops and crowded with peddlers and tourists. Nana manages to guide us through the crowd and lets us enjoy hot tea and coffee in the air-conditioned ticketing room, before our visit to the World Heritage site.
She asks us to follow her saying "the exit is in a different direction". Most of those in our group comply, but I decide to take advantage of her slow pace to do some exploration of my own.
Moving away, I soon find myself standing in front of the pyramid-like Buddhist monument built in the shape of a massive symmetrical stupa.
An old Chinese saying goes, saving a life is better than building a seven-tier stupa. Facing Borobudur, a nine-tier stupa, I finally understood its meaning. After all, it was people who built this magnificent stupa.
The structure, built on a square foundation, approximately 118 meters on each side, has nine platforms, of which the lower six are square and the upper three are circular. All the levels are connected by a system of stairways and corridors decorated with thousands of relief panels and hundreds of Buddha statues.
The intricacy of these reliefs and statues is amazing. Their vivid detailing unfolds a story that takes you back centuries to an era of opulence and grandeur.
Ascending to the top, I find myself among 72 seated Buddha statues, overlooking palm trees, fields of rice and sugarcane and villages stretching out as far as the eye can see.
On my way to the exit, a hawker approaches and tries to sell me a handicraft. I refuse, but this does not upset him. Instead, he tells me to rush back and find Nana.
When I rejoin the group, I ask Nana how he knew that I was one of her guests. "Almost everyone knows me in Borobudur," she says. "I have been coming here almost everyday for the past 20 years."
We arrive at our next destination, the Museum of Merapi Volcano, in the afternoon, as a tropical rain falls. The summits of Merapi and a neighboring volcano are hidden in clouds.
Nana suggests we watch a documentary about Merapi, one of the most active volcanoes in the world, in the museum. But I choose to stay outside.
The view of paddy fields, villages, mosques and forests nestled at the foot of the smoky mountain fail to move me given the overcast sky; but watching the locals enjoying life is truly interesting.
Sitting on straw mattresses in their thatched houses on stilts, overlooking the volcanic slopes, they chat while drinking coffee and eating grilled corn on the cob. Just watching them, seemingly without a care in the world, is utterly relaxing.
The next morning, we visit Keraton, the Sultan's Palace. According to Nana, Yogya is the only province in Indonesia that is still governed by a pre-colonial monarchy and the sultan serves as the elected governor of the province.
Since the Sultan's family has been kind to the local Chinese community, Nana can't help telling us the family's stories, such as how the late sultan married off his three daughters, during our visit to the 200-year-old palace complex situated right in the heart of the city.
The stories are interesting, but the tropical sunshine is too strong and Nana's pace too slow. I decide to sit in an inner pavilion and watch dozens of musicians in traditional Javanese dress, playing gamelan. The music is so melodious that I don't see our group leaving. I take a while to locate them. Hence, Nana decides to give us a time limit - two hours - for our visit to Prambanan, another World Heritage site near Yogya, that afternoon.
Prambanan is the largest Hindu temple in Indonesia and one of the largest in Southeast Asia. It is actually a huge relics site with dozens of temple complexes built between the 8th and 10th centuries AD. The main attraction is the Shiva Mahadeva Temple.
You can see the tall and pointed spires of the temple dominating the skyline of Prambanan from a distance. The largest one soars to a height of 47 meters.
Two hours are far from enough to explore the whole site, but sufficient to get a closer look at the Shiva temple and admire the lavishly carved stone statues and reliefs.
This time, I manage to join the group on time.