Go for bespoke: Why travel experiences should include local communities, sights, flavours


Amanjiwo's magnificent Dalem Jiwo suite has its own private rotunda with amazing views of the surrounding hills and padi fields. — T'roka

Flying into the Yogyakarta International Airport in Indonesia, you get a view of the sea on one side, and patches of padi fields and farm land on another. For many South-East Asians, that view is a very familiar one, and perhaps not entirely exciting for a “healing” holiday post on social media.

The airport is fairly new, officially opened in the thick of the pandemic in 2020. It isn’t a busy airport, but flights do tend to come in at the same time, which may cause a bit of a lag at immigration. There are only two international flights at the moment – from Malaysia (Kuala Lumpur) and Singapore – and chartered flights to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia during the haj and umrah pilgrimage season.

Local authorities are keen to promote Central Java as a top tourist attraction in the country, and to steer international holidaymakers away from Indonesia’s top-selling destination, Bali. This is a smart move, since overtourism – the result of which include “badly behaved” tourists, and visitors flouting local rules and regulations – is becoming a big issue on the island.

But what about Central Java that “sells”? Well, to a weekend tourist, it’s a great place to learn about the history of the land – the Nusantara or Malay Archipelago, that is. This is where you will find the Borobudur and Prambanan temples, ancient structures from centuries ago that are amazingly still standing to this day.

Apart from the temples, and the Ratu Buko palace ruins, there is not much else that tourists can do or see in Central Java.

Or so you think.

Borobudur Temple is the largest ancient Buddhist temple in the world. — MELODY L. GOH/The StarBorobudur Temple is the largest ancient Buddhist temple in the world. — MELODY L. GOH/The Star

Just under two hours from the airport is Amanjiwo, a resort by the Aman Resorts brand that was founded by Indonesian businessman Adrian Zecha in the 1980s. Over the years, the company went through several ownership changes, with the latest chairman and chief executive officer being Vladislav Doronin, who has held the position since 2015. However, the hotel brand’s ethos remains the same since its foundation: A luxury boutique resort that prioritises excellent service, top quality products and unique experiences.

Amanjiwo is located near Menoreh Hill in Magelang, a popular trekking spot for local tourists. Supposedly, there are legends to be told of this particular hill and its surrounding areas, but it’s not easy to find a local willing to tell the stories to a foreigner.

“Why?” I asked one of the resort staff. “Maybe because it is difficult to explain to foreigners about the legends. There are ‘monsters’ and other strange creatures in the stories, which foreigners may think are silly,” he answered, shyly.

I’m led to believe that the “monsters” he mentioned are mythical beings which, to a Malaysian, are really not that silly as we do share similar cultural and historical backgrounds. Some of these mythical beings do appear in our legends too, I said, still hoping to get a story out of him. “Come back again next time and maybe we can arrange for a hike up the hill!” he said instead.

Bespoke experiences

During our short stay at Amanjiwo – which can be translated as “calm or peaceful soul” – we were treated to numerous unique experiences curated by the resort and T’roka, a new luxury consumer travel brand that’s launching today (Sept 4). T’roka is part of the Holiday Tours & Travel, one of Malaysia’s top travel management companies that has been around for five decades.

Foo’s personal experiences inspired the foundation of T’roka.Foo’s personal experiences inspired the foundation of T’roka.

What T’roka does is provide personalised service and extraordinary experiences to travellers through a network of hospitality and tourism partners. Think of it as your personal travel butler.

According to Ben Foo, president of Holiday Tours & Travel, T’roka (stylised as T’ROKA in its promotional materials), comes from the Bahasa Malaysia word “teroka” which means to explore. “I suppose for branding purposes we wanted to put a little spin to the word, to make it more unique. The apostrophe is meant to give it that bit of flair,” he shared in an interview one evening at Amanjiwo.

T’roka is also a way for the company to tap into the increasing demand for bespoke luxury travel experiences. Despite the continuing rise in living costs around the world, the global luxury travel market is expected to reach an estimated US$2.76bil (RM12.81bil) in 2032. It isn’t surprising then for some travel companies to target this specific group of travellers as the rewards can be significant.

For Holiday Tours, Foo, who is in his 40s, said that the decision to launch T’roka came from the realisation that the company did not have its “own product”, unlike international companies like The Travel Corporation (TTC), which has brands like Trafalgar, Uniworld, Royal Caribbean and Club Med. All these are established brands that cater mainly to the mass market. Holiday Tours is one of the exclusive partners of TTC.

“During Covid-19 when everything was under lockdown, everyone suffered. For us, it was the frustration that we did not own our own product, our own brand. We’re very strong as a company that carries other people’s brands but we didn’t have one that we could control, so we couldn’t price products the way we wanted to or deliver them in our own way.

“At the same time, we also realised that what was coming up was the affluent traveller. Affluent travellers were the ones who had the means, therefore they were the quickest respond the moment the markets opened. They were willing to spend, and spared no expenses,” Foo explained.

He added that the company took into account the “resilience of the luxury traveller” and started working on offering a new product that targetted this particular segment.

“We’ve been a very strong corporate player. We’ve been serving discerning business travellers who have very high expectations, and we know how to meet those expectations. With that experience, we felt that we were also able to meet the needs of the luxury traveller. So, putting two and two together, we came up with the idea of developing T’roka,” he said.

Decades of experience certainly does play a big part in the forming of the new brand as the company has partnerships with numerous hotels and airlines that can offer T’roka good rates. “We are such a big volume player that we can pass on these benefits, which are usually reserved for our corporate travellers, to T’roka members too.”

Yes, you can already sign up to be a T’roka VIP (troka.co), and check out its partner hotels and airlines. Foo said that Marriott International, the biggest hotel group in the world, is the brand’s strongest partner, alongside Anantara Hotels, Resorts & Spas, Accor Group, IHG Hotels & Resorts and Langham Hospitality Group.

T’roka also has access to smaller boutique brands like Aman Resorts, Kempinski Hotel Group, Six Senses and One&Only Resorts. “Marriott is so huge that they’ve acquired so many other brands like the Bulgari hotels. Another one is the Ritz Carlton yacht which they launched last year. We want to offer these in our collection as well,” said Foo.

Enjoy a Ramayana show while feasting on authentic Javanese dishes at the resort. – Photos: T’rokaEnjoy a Ramayana show while feasting on authentic Javanese dishes at the resort. – Photos: T’roka

T’roka works on a “hotel-first” approach, which means that holidays are curated based on your accommodation of choice. Travel advisors will help research and plan for unique experiences, and work with your hotel or resort to make those plans happen. These curated itineraries will take into account all your preferences and needs and make sure that you are able to immerse yourself in the local sights, sounds and flavours.

For example, at Amanjiwo, our group sat down to a private dinner by the pool one night, and watched a special Ramayana performance by local dancers and musicians. This was something that was prepared for us by both the hotel and T’roka.

As we feasted on our lovely Javanese delights, someone spotted something fiery in the dark hilly distance. It seemed like Mount Merapi was overflowing, non-stop, with lava. It was mesmerising to see. Obviously, this was not something that was pre-planned but it did add some extra pizazz to the night.

Cultural experiences

During the day, guests can also see the Borobudur Temple from the hotel’s lobby lounge. Of course, you can set out to visit the temple yourself, which was what we did early one morning. While this is something that many hotels in Central Java will organise for guests, Amanjiwo takes it a step further by giving their guests fast-track passes, free water and buggy rides from the temple to the restaurant at the end of the tour. This may not seem like much, but in the middle of a heatwave, that 15-minute walk can prove to be quite a feat for most of us, so the buggy ride was much appreciated.

The temple itself was a marvel to visit, thanks to our guide, an engaging storyteller. As part of new regulations, all visitors to both Borobudur and Prambanan would need to follow at least one local guide to enter the temples. These guides are assigned to you once you pay the entrance tickets.

Learn how to write ancient Javanese script by joining an Aksara Jawa class.Learn how to write ancient Javanese script by joining an Aksara Jawa class.

Borobudur is the largest Buddhist monument in the world that was built between the 8th and 9th century, during the reign of the Sailendra Dynasty. “It was abandoned for many, many, many centuries, until it was almost completely covered by trees and plants. It was hidden,” said our guide. Standing on one of the platforms at the temple and looking at the stupas and carvings, it was hard to imagine that scene.

During one of his travels, Thomas Stamford Raffles – the British colonial officer who is also known as the founder of Singapore – discovered a part of the temple in 1814 and started working on uncovering the whole complex. This exercise was only completed in 1835.

The monument has since been restored a few times after that, with Unesco stepping in to help in the 1970s. Currently, some restoration works are still ongoing. “Some of the stones and carvings need to be replaced because otherwise there will be bigger damage to the structure. It’s an ancient monument and we have to continue to preserve it for the future,” said the guide.

To learn more about Borobudur as well as Prambanan, you can go on a private tour of the temples with Amanjiwo’s resident anthropologist, Patrick Vanhoebrouck, who has been living in Java since 2010 and is passionate about the history and culture of the place. He also holds lectures for guests on some evenings.

Borobudur is just a short ride away from the hotel and along the way, you will pass by the town and some villages. If you’re keen to visit, you could ask the driver to stop at the town to check out some local food or craft. A stall with a large “Bakso Goyang Lidah” sign certainly piqued my interest.

When we got back to the hotel, a few weird-looking cars were waiting to take some of us on a “village tour”. The cars were Volkswagen Type 181, nicknamed “Thing”, which were said to be made in 1968 for military use in Europe, and reproduced in 1971 for recreational use in North America. You can hardly find the car being utilised anywhere in world today, but apparently, the Thing is alive and well in parts of Indonesia (they are out and about in Bali, too).

Other bespoke experiences and excursions that the hotel and T’roka can arrange for guests includes private picnics by the Progo River, a “Tolak Balak” session (a Javanese cleansing ritual) and an Aksara Jawa writing class, in which you learn about and how to write ancient Javanese script from local scholars.

T’roka can also arrange for you to get in the VIP lane or fast-track immigration/customs processing at certain airports, which is perfect during peak holiday seasons.

Good partnerships

For Foo, it was a personal experience at one of the most beautiful resorts in Oman, the Anantara Al Jabal Al Akhdar Resort, that sparked the inspiration for T’roka. A self-confessed former “Airbnb kind-of-guy”, Foo stayed at the resort with his wife a few years back. It’s a beautiful and amazing resort, and was featured in the Netflix show, Amazing Hotels: Life Beyond The Lobby.

Foo recalled: “This was the hotel that really ‘spoiled’ us. It had amazing 360° views of the canyon, an infinity pool and a glass bridge that goes all the way to the edge. My wife and I celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary here.

“Right across the canyon was a palace that a Qatari prince had built but never lived in. Along the side of the canyon were three villages which I visited one day with a local guide from the hotel. While walking through the cobblestone pathways, I realised that the villages were abandoned, although there was some farmland that looked like they were still worked on.

“I asked the guide, ‘Where is everybody?’ He told me that everyone was forced to move to a housing area opposite the hotel because the natural spring that supplied water for the villages had dried out. But each morning, the older folks would walk back to the villages to clean their homes, and tend to the farms with whatever water they could find.”

The rotunda and pool at Amanjiwo's Dalem Jiwo Suite. The rotunda and pool at Amanjiwo's Dalem Jiwo Suite.

By this time, Foo found himself intrigued by the story and kept pressing for more. The guide was born in the third village and grew up there. He told Foo that his dream was to bring everyone back to the village, through tourism.

“He said, ‘I work hard in Anantara so that I can build a pipe and bring water to the village. One day I will bring all my friends I grew up with back here, and they want to come back too because they want to see the space prosper.’ He was growing a vineyard in his farm and he had some olive trees too,” said Foo.

He continued by saying that he wanted to do something for the guide’s community, by incorporating a holiday twist to it. “I asked if I could bring tourists to see him and if he would be able to look after them. He said yes. I asked if he could repeat the same story he told me to the tourists, and he said yes.

“So, when we talk about T’roka it’s not about discovering a place as it is. For me it is much more personal than that. It is about making real connections with people. When I look back at that memory, I realised that the trip was money well spent. In fact, it was priceless. And so I bring this experience, emotion and memory with me into this brand, as I want other people to have similar experiences too,” he concluded.


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