5 Shoestring Travel Tips For Exploring A New City


Exploring a new city is the closest thing to life’s reset button. Being immersed in a sea of different languages and tasting food items you’ve never had before — in short, going out of your comfort zone — is similar, I believe, to pressing one’s CTRL+ALT+DEL buttons.

So when you feel like you’re getting off track and want to break the monotony, go to a new city. When you feel like you’re stuck in a rut and want to take a look at life in a new perspective, travel. Some people might describe these as typical symptoms of the proverbial quarter-life crisis. But I refuse to call it a crisis*.

Two weeks ago, I traveled to the city of Yogyakarta in Indonesia to take a breather and — (insert Homer Simpson’s voice over) d’oh! — to celebrate my birthday, which was a first in several years, since I often find celebrating birthdays a tad too excessive. #killjoy

Nestled amid Central Java’s volcanic peaks and rice paddies is the bustling city of Yogyakarta. More popularly known as Jogja, the city remains to be one of Indonesia’s largest cultural hubs due to its strong Javanese heritage. In fact, one of the last reigning royal families in Indonesia is based in Jogja.

Located north of the city are some of the world’s finest temple complexes, the Borobudur and Prambanan. Visiting the Borobudur has always been in my bucket list as I have a very deep fascination with old, royal, and/or religious structures. The best I’ve seen (so far) are Myanmar’s Bagan and Kyaiktiyo, India’s Taj Mahal and Humayun’s Tomb, and Thailand’s Ayutthaya. #humblebrag

1. Sleep while you’re in transit.

One of the best ways to save money is to schedule your sleeping time while you’re on the road or in transit. Since there are no direct flights from Manila to Jogja, I first took a midnight flight to Kuala Lumpur before taking another flight to Jogja the next morning.

There’s a very big difference between being a tourist and being a traveler. That is, travelers are no stranger to sleeping in flights, midnight bus/train rides, 24/7 cafés and airports. However, sleeping in airports is not an easy task (unless, you’ve collected enough frequent flyer miles to stay in airport lounges). Finding that perfect spot requires adept knowledge and experience. Among the key things to consider: areas with the least activities (preferably away — but not too far — from check-in counters, immigration desks, duty free shops), nearest power sockets for charging, and the nearest toilet. Sleeping in airports is one of those special skills that should be included in one’s CV.

2. Try Couchsurfing.

When I arrived in Jogja, I was welcomed by my Couchsurfing host Zaki Fajri at the airport. Zaki is a geophysical engineering sophomore based in Jogja and he hosted me for three nights while I was in the city. My trip to Yogyakarta wouldn’t be as memorable without Zaki’s generosity.

Couchsurfing is not just about getting free accommodations. It is a great and fun way to meet people and learn about cultures, places, and travel tips/secrets that no other travel books can offer. I’ve been with Couchsurfing for almost three years and I’ve had great experiences since.

Zaki had an exam that afternoon, so he first took me to his apartment to settle in and to take a rest for the meantime.

After his exam, our first order of business was to look for the city’s best soto bakso. The best place to have bakso in Jogja, according to Zaki, is in Bakso Pak Narto, about a 20-minute drive from his place. Zaki borrowed his housemate’s motorbike and asked me to drive it. And of course I said yes, just because. #YOLO

Driving a motorbike without a license and helmet on the busy left-hand-drive streets of Jogja has to be one of the best (and most dangerous) things I’ve done in my life. After having my first authentic bowl of bakso that night, I knew it was all worth the risks.

3. The best way to get to know a city is to visit its public market.

The next day, Zaki and I went around Jalan Malioboro, a major shopping street in Jogja where you’d find cheap batik and some of city’s best street food treats.

Every city has a public market — be it a farmers’ market, a seafood bazaar, or roadside fly-by-night bargain stores. A public market is a city’s lifeblood. This is where you’d usually find the best place to have breakfast or where you can buy the cheapest souvenirs. Case in point, you’ll find the best shawarma shop in Islamabad in the F10 markaz and the cheapest laver sheets in Busan’s Jagalchi Fish Market. It’s also the best place to people-watch, one of my favorite activities whenever I’m in a new city.

4. Learn basic conversational sentences.

When traveling, it pays to know how to start a conversation in the local language. Based on experience, here are some essential conversation-starters:

How are you? What is your name?

Have you eaten?

How much?

Where is the toilet?

The weather is (too) hot/cold.

Make sure that you also know how to say ‘yes’, ‘no’, and ‘help’. If you’ve memorized these, then you’re good to go. If you’re into languages, the easiest way to master a language is to identify the sentence pattern, especially the placement of the verbs. It would be much easier to learn a language, once you’ve grasped verb placements and conjugations.

On my third day in Jogja (also my birthday), I decided to catch the sunrise over the Borobudur. Taking the local bus (or any other local transpo) during the early morning rush is also a fun experience. You get travel with mothers on their way to the market, fathers on their way to work, and the little kids on their way to school. If you’re lucky, you’ll also get to travel with the fresh produce and live chickens.

The majestic temples of Borobudur are located in Magelang, about one-and-a-half hours north of Jogja. I left Jogja around 5 am and arrived in Borobudur shortly after sunrise.

At the entrance gate, there were two busloads of local visitors queuing. Not knowing where the entrance for foreigners was, I decided to join to line and paid the entrance fee at the gate. Owing to birthday luck and my rusty Bahasa skills, I only paid USD 2 instead of USD 20. Pretending to be a local, however, is not always advisable.

Once inside, I immediately went around the main temple, starting from the lowest platform until I reached the main stupa. Another tip: when visiting a Buddhist temple, always go around it clockwise for good luck. When I reached the highest platform, I saw what the Japanese describe as a komorebi: the moment “when sunlight filters through the trees” or “the interplay between the light and the leaves”. I couldn’t ask for a better way to start the day.

After that, I searched for a spot where I could take a rest and enjoy the picturesque view. For about an hour, I sat down under a tree at the foot of Borobudur. It was what my favorite travel mates Anna and Joseph would describe as the spa for the soul aka bubble bath for the being.

5. When in doubt, look smart.

It’s always easy to spot wide-eyed travelers in the crowd and they’re usually the ones easily preyed upon by tourist scammers. Whenever in a new city, act as if you’re a local. When in doubt, walk. Walk as if you’re going somewhere important.

On my last day, I went to visit the Prambanan temples, one of the biggest Hindu temples in Southeast Asia. The entrance gate to Prambanan is about a 45-minute walk from the nearest bus station and, along the way, hordes of tourist guides will lure you to come with them to visit ‘secret gates’ and ‘hidden temples’. Be wary of these unscrupulous schemes.

A recent Medium article describes the act of traveling as overrated and “certainly not an accomplishment”. The author has no idea how completely wrong he is. Visiting Jogja that weekend gave me that orgasmic warm fuzzy feeling. It’s like my whole body heaved a huge sigh of relief. And it doesn’t hurt that minus the airfare, I spent less than USD 100 the whole weekend.

*It is just a state of mind. If you choose to be happy, then you’ll be happy. It’s all about tapping your cognitive to work with what you believe in and then with what you feel (or vice versa). They describe this in social psychology as learning the ABCs of attitude (affect, behavior, and cognition).