Officially, 10 million of Java’s inhabitants live in the nation’s capital Jakarta, on the north-west coast. Unofficially, the number is closer to 30 million if you include the urban sprawl. It’s the biggest city in the world without a metro rail system; a nightmarish proposition for anyone using the city roads between 4-9pm.
The central highlands city of Bandung lies 150km to the south-east. With its cool, crisp mountain air, pretty plantation scenery, colonial buildings, abundant restaurants and hotels, it’s easy to see why it’s a popular weekend getaway destination for Jakartans.
Central Java is the islands cultural and historical heartland, with a concentration of ancient Buddhist and Hindu temples scattered throughout the highlands and lowland plains. The most famous of them, Borobudur and Prambanan are within a stone’s throw of Yogyakarta, an artsy, cosmopolitan city that is fiercely proud of being everything Jakarta isn’t. Yogya sits in one of the most seismically active regions in the world and through the centuries has suffered repeated devastating natural disasters. An earthquake in 2006 destroyed 300,000 homes and killed 6,000 people. Four years later, the eruption of Mount Merapi spewed ash and lava over nearby villages and Borobudur and left 353 people dead. Needless to say, the people of Yogya are resilient.
Nearby, Solo has some lesser known but equally ancient temples on its doorstep and with its narrow alleyways, local markets and craft workshops it easily claims the title of Java’s most traditional city.
Across the highlands to the north, lies the busy port city of Semarang. As well as some of the best Dutch colonial architecture to be found in Java, it retains a heavy Chinese influence with a 15th century Chinese temple and bustling Chinatown.
Indonesia’s third biggest city Surabaya, is located on the central northeast coast of Java. It was once the biggest city in the Dutch East Indies colony, competing with the likes of Singapore and Hong Kong. It is known locally as the “City of Freedom” because it was here on the city streets that the bloody Battle of Surabaya was fought between Indonesian pro-independence fighters and British troops in November 1945. The battle marked the turning point for Indonesia’s fight for independence. Surabaya is still an important port city, but these days, it is proudly and distinctly Indonesian with an abundance of fading Dutch colonial buildings, a bustling Chinatown and an old Arab Quarter serving as reminders of its colourful past.
Madura Island lies directly opposite Surabaya and forms part of the East Java region. The cable-stayed Suramadu Bridge connecting Madura to the mainland is arguably Indonesia’s single most impressive piece of infrastructure.