Luxury Is Local: A Review of Amanjiwo in Indonesia
Borobudur, Indonesia, has been high on my list of sites to visit for some years — and so has the Amanjiwo hotel.
Even if you haven't heard of the Aman brand, you've probably seen it on social media, as everyone from the Kardashians to Diane Kruger has stayed at their properties and raved about it. Aman is a high-end hotel chain focused on understated luxury and socially conscious experiences in unique locations. It has 34 properties around the world in places like Paro, Bhutan; Siem Reap, Cambodia; Marrakech, Morocco; and even Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
The Indonesian properties are some of the oldest and most iconic hotels in the Aman collection. They do cost a small fortune to stay at, and with the 4th Night Free benefit significantly devaluing in September (Aman properties will probably not be eligible), I decided to bite the bullet on a four-night stay.
Aman does not sell its rooms through online travel agencies, but they are part of the Virtuoso program, which includes a host of benefits like free breakfast, late checkout and $100 hotel credit when you book through eligible travel agents. They are also part of Amex's Fine Hotels & Resorts program, where you can get additional benefits.
I leveraged Citi Prestige's benefit for a fourth night free on this stay with a rate called "Undiscovered Indonesia" that came out to $580 a night for a garden suite. It did include breakfast and airport transfers, although Aman doesn't have any sort of loyalty program, so I didn't earn anything besides 6,681 ThankYou points on this stay (thanks to 3x points from Citi Prestige for hotel spending). The property was by no means a value option.
The resort is about 30 miles outside Yogyakarta on the fringes of Borobudur, a UNESCO World Heritage Site on the island of Java. The landscape around the hotel was nothing short of stunning, and the hotel was fully integrated with the village around it, Magelang. Mount Merapi loomed in the distance, with lush, rolling hills and terraced rice paddies coming up all the way to the pool. At breakfast poolside one morning, we watched local roosters peck their way around the property gardens, likely having escaped from the nearby village.
Borobudur itself was under 2 miles away and could be seen in the distance from the lobby of the hotel. The village catered more to Indonesian tourists than foreigners, so there was a host of street food and local digs outside the park. That being said, the remoteness was part of the allure of Amanjiwo.
Immediately after we hopped off our flight in Yogyakarta International Airport (JOG), an Aman contractor was waiting in a van on the tarmac, ready for our arrival. We descended the plane to find him waiting with our names on a board.
He escorted us to the Concordia Lounge, where another attendant grabbed our bag tags and told us to wait and enjoy any refreshments. He retrieved our bags, loaded them in the car and collected us when it was all good to go. Talk about VIP service!
The Aman van was stocked with chilled still water, sparkling water and snacks for the 90-minute ride to Amanjiwo. We had initially planned to visit Prambanan, a ninth-century Hindu site closer to the airport, though our flight was delayed, and with the sun rapidly setting, our driver suggested postponing our visit for another day.
Upon arrival at the hotel around 7pm, we were showered with flowers from some of the hotel staff and directed to take a seat in the lobby, where we were offered absolutely delicious home-brewed ginger beer and chilled watermelon.
The team reviewed our itinerary for our stay, and the manager swung by to welcome us. The rooms usually don't have TVs, but I'd asked for one in our room to watch a soccer match that night, which he mentioned was all set up. He also stuck around to banter about Liverpool FC with me. The staff also mentioned some of the free amenities, like daily tea and yoga, gave us literature on the resort and escorted us to Room 7, one of the best garden suites of the 36 rooms on site, with direct views of Borobudur in the distance.
Heading down the majestic staircase from the lobby, we found our room to be the first to the left of the main walkway. It sat on the highest level, affording breathtaking views of both the valley and the Borobudur skyline.
The hotel is arranged in two concentric semicircles around the main rotunda.
Each suite has its own entrance (with doorbell) that opened up to the terrace.
I feel I can't overemphasize how spectacular the views of the surrounding hills and Borobudur itself were from our terrace.
The room was elegantly appointed and spacious and felt very Asian its design, thanks to the art on the walls, the wood accents and the Japanese-inspired lighting. The king bed was low to the ground and surrounded by pillars that accentuated the royal aesthetic of the property.
The linens felt luxurious, and the bed was really comfy. There was only one international outlet on the right side of the bed, though, and another one really needed to be added to the other side.
There was a small chaise lounge at one side of the room, which was the perfect place to escape the blazing Javanese sunshine. Local artwork and pottery dotted different areas.
The refrigerator was stocked with some drinks, all of which cost additional money (besides the water and sparkling water), along with a small counter that had an ice bucket that was always full of fresh ice and a lime. There was no tea kettle or coffeemaker in the room, which was disappointing -- the additional cost and wait for a morning cup of tea seemed unnecessary.
At the other end of the room was a built-in desk with hotel details, a map and even watercolors, which was something I'd never seen stocked in a hotel room.
At the back of the room were two identical closets on both sides.
The hotel offered two free hats and a bag, which was useful when hitting the pool or nearby temples.
The little touches were what set the room apart, though. Wherever you could ever want a water bottle, lotion, a bathrobe or cotton swab, it was available.
At the very back of the room was an outdoor bathtub, always stocked with a fresh candle, and a serene setting to wind down the day.
The shower was the one low point. It had a frankly terrible shower head for a hotel of this caliber, didn't have good pressure and didn't have any middle-ground temperature -- the water would either stay cool or burning hot. The Aman toiletries were nonetheless amazing.
The room overall was an oasis. It was really nice have tons of both indoor and outdoor lounge space, beautiful toiletries and views for days. The Wi-Fi only worked about 50% of the time in our room, and was fast enough to stream content. It always worked in the lobby if you needed it, but it felt good to unplug while it was down.
Walking around the property made you feel like you were visiting a Javanese temple. Ed Tuttle, the architect of Amanjiwo, wanted the property to be a nod to the nearby Borobudur complex, and he did an incredible job. The corridors and common areas of the hotel always framed incredible vistas.
The pool was at the lowest level of the hotel and blended almost seamlessly into the rice paddies of the valley, where farmers tilled their fields daily just yards away.
You could even see Mount Merbabu in the distance from the pool!
Pictures don't really do the area justice, but I can assure you it was phenomenal. Whenever you grabbed a lounger, the pool attendant came by to sweep any leaves off, lay down towels and bring over ice water. You never felt obligated to buy anything.
Yoga was held on the side of the pool closer to the rice paddies and was never more than four people. The pool also always had many loungers open, which was one of the benefits of staying at a smaller resort. The pool club was just on the other side of the pool and was open for breakfast and lunch, serving a more health-conscious menu than the main restaurant.
The gym was in a similar space to our villa, which was frankly awkward and disappointing for a health-focused resort. The space was tiny, and you would think management would at least remove the bedposts, or better yet renovate the space sometime in the property's 20-plus-year history.
In addition, there was no actual spa, and treatments took place in your room. There was a library at the very front of the hotel, which was full of historical books about the area and was a nice refuge from the heat.
A visit to Amanjiwo is inevitably coupled with visits to Borobudur and Prambanan, both UNESCO sites from ninth-century Buddhist and Hindu civilizations, respectively. Amanjiwo also prides itself on offering unique cultural experiences that are a perk of staying at its hotels.
Borobudur was 2 miles away from the hotel, and management suggested a sunset visit rather than the generally more popular sunrise visit. The site was nowhere near as crowded as Angkor Wat, and the sunset tour from Amanjiwo let guests stay at the site one hour past the closing time at 5pm, which meant you can watch the sun descend behind Borobudur almost completely alone. The views were out of this world, and the site became incredibly peaceful. During our visit, there were probably fewer than 10 visitors still at the temple at that point.
The guide employed by the hotel was mediocre and didn't seem to offer more than the official guides at other sites we'd visited around Asia. We also really had to pry information out of him, which was disappointing considering the price. The perk of staying after hours, though, was surreal.
The last excursion that we took was a tour of Prambanan on our way to the airport at the tail end of our stay. The hotel arranged a driver and hired an official guide directly from the park's office. The benefit of going through the hotel was twofold: peace of mind, and they claimed to hire the most experienced guides. I actually ended up liking our guide for this tour much better than the hotel's own guide at Borobudur. Prambanan itself was beautiful and, again, surprisingly empty.
Food and Beverage
One of the other experiences that Amanjiwo had been offering for years was dinner at Pak Bilal's. The Bilal family are coconut sugar farmers, and it's now Pak's son who cooks for guests in a traditional Javanese home near the hotel. They work closely with the hotel to cater a menu for you based on your dietary preferences and tastes.
The experience was incredible, from the atmospheric, candlelit setting to the live Javanese gamelan music to the food cooked fresh in front of us over open flames and served on banana leaves. We could hear the clock in the next room and the baby wailing in the next hut, which brought village life a little closer to us as we sat in a traditional hut eating food traditionally served for feasts for special occasions. It struck that perfect balance between being culturally authentic and luxurious.
Afternoon tea at the hotel was served between 4pm and 5pm. A local auntie made gingery, lemongrass-lime tea and also served pastries. I was feeling under the weather one day, and the tea went a long way to making me feel better.
At the same time, local girls danced to traditional Javanese music, which was done in a tasteful setting that felt much more authentic than, say, a Hawaiian hula show.
Considering the remote nature of the hotel, there were not tons of dining options around the hotel, so most guests ended up eating most of their meals on site. Breakfast was included in our rate and served in the main restaurant near the lobby or the pool club. The pool club had a more health-conscious menu, with a wide variety of vegan and vegetarian options -- think egg-white omelets, tofu scrambles and chia puddings, whereas the main restaurant had more traditional western and Indonesian options.
Guests could also have breakfast in their rooms or on their terraces at no extra charge. If breakfast was included in your rate, then they essentially allowed you to order as much as you liked from the menu, which sure beat a breakfast buffet. The tofu noodle soup and dragonfruit smoothie bowl were my favorites from the pool-club menu.
At the main restaurant, the ricotta pancakes were decadent, the perfect dessert-for-breakfast.
Enjoying breakfast in the comfort of our own terrace was also a nice way to ease into the day.
There were a few flops. The hash browns tasted like boiled potatoes, the avocado toast was extremely bland and not served with all of the garnishes listed on the menu, and all of the bread was underwhelming. Nonetheless, breakfast was always extremely relaxing -- we easily spent two hours chatting, nibbling on food, sipping fresh juice and breathing in the tropical breeze daily.
After a large breakfast, we usually skipped lunch, but we did enjoy dinner at the lobby restaurant a few times. One night, locals from the village came by to perform a beautiful traditional Javanese dance. We had the grilled snapper and satay, which was the perfect accompaniment to the entertainment.
Food prices were relatively reasonable for a luxury hotel -- generally within the $20 to $40 for a main and $15 to $20 for cocktails and midrange wines. This might seem pricey, but duties on alcohol in Indonesia are over 100%.
The other thing I liked was that there was no additional charge to dine in your room. Overall, I found the Indonesian food to be sublime, while the western food was hit or miss.
I'm sure the Aman group could recruit top hospitality talent from around the world, but they have made a decision to embrace the local community, which is admirable. Many of the employees we encountered had been working at the hotel for 10 to 20 years and were proud of it. They seem to genuinely care about their guests and go out of their way to take care of them. The hotel also had tons of little touches to make our stay memorable. Every night, there was a new turndown gift on our bed, which made it fun to come home at night.
Housekeeping was absolutely incredible. When you visited a restaurant or head out for an excursion, the staff called housekeeping to go into your room. Basically every time you left your room, it got serviced -- yet you never actually saw any staff. It was like magic.
On the other hand, there were communication issues with the phone operators at the hotel whenever we called in from our rooms, which resulted in issues with food orders and tour requests. Similarly, not all of the servers in the restaurants spoke fluent English, so communicating food requests or asking questions about menu items was difficult in some instances. In addition, our tour guide for Borobudur was knowledgeable but only shared information when we asked him rather than proactively giving us a tour, which was disappointing because that was the main attraction of the entire property.
The other quirk of Aman properties is that you never sign for anything at the hotels. Staff know the exact room you are staying in, and it's supposed to contribute to the experience of feeling like you are at home rather than a hotel, though I can imagine this might be irritating for some. When checking out, our bill was perfect and did not have any errors on it, although it would have been good to know the markups on a few items beforehand.
We really enjoyed our visit to Amanjiwo, but four nights was probably too much for us. The grounds of the property are stunning, and it is the perfect place to completely zone out of the world and see some beautiful sites. But there aren't too many restaurants, shops or areas to even go for a walk in the evening, which made us a little stir-crazy by our last night.
We did love the Aman experience -- the attention to detail, the infusion of local culture and the general warmth created by the staff, which is much different than other luxury brands like the Ritz or Four Seasons. That being said, management does need to make a few improvements to the aging property: The showerheads need to be replaced, and a property like this should really have a standalone spa, a better gym and stronger multilingual skills at some positions.
I doubt we will return to Borobudur, but if you're making the trip and looking for an ultraluxe property to treat yourself at for a few days, look no further.
All photos by the author.
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