First-time travellers to Indonesia usually head straight for Bali. It is Indonesia’s doe-eyed beauty and the undoubted star, a real boon for tourism. But, Indonesia is an incredibly diverse archipelago, with no less than 17,000-odd islands, each with their own identity.
Here, we offer you a nifty little overview of this expansive and beautiful country, giving you an insight into the popular travel hotspots, and reveal one or two incredibly valuable travel tips (it’s our speciality in case you didn’t know).
This is an adventure that’s affordable and increasingly accessible – although half the fun is in travelling in tiny fragile planes, rusty boats and back-firing buses. It’s worth noting that if you only have a few days or a couple of weeks, you’ll have a better time if you restrict yourself to exploring a small area; don’t try to island hop over 3,000km to see your top 10 sights. It’ll be a nightmare!
IN 2-3 DAYS If you have limited time, it’s best to head straight to Bali, which most tourists will do. Hotels are a dime a dozen, from five-star luxury out fits to budget $2-a-night rooms without a fan or fly screen (goodbye sleep). Spend your time surfing the reef breaks, feasting on cheap seafood, sampling the unique nightlife, shopping ‘til you drop and exploring mystical Hindu temples.
IN A WEEK With a week up your sleeve, there is a bit more time for you to get to know Bali a little better. Explore the Bukit peninsula and head into the misty mountains at Ubud. In your last few days, catch a ferry across to Nusa Lembongan or Lombok (see page 85 for more), or consider flying to the island of Sumbawa. These places are slightly off the radar, offering a more traditional experience and an insight into the simpler Indonesia, away from the neon tourist districts of Bali.
IN TWO WEEKS+ After exploring Bali and stopping in at Lombok or Sumbawa, head west to the islands of Java or Sumatra . Java has the capital, Jakarta, along with the peaceful mountain hideaway of Yogjakarta. Meanwhile, Sumatra is home to verdant rainforests chocklfull of birdlife and orang-utans. Alternatively, head east from Bali and explore the oft-overlooked islands of Roti and Timor.
Bali is the complete tropical island; lush, culturally unique and exotic, yet has all forms of creature comforts. It’s also a surfing mecca, the epic reef breaks of Uluwatu, Padang Padang and Bingin luring surfers from all corners of the globe since the 1970s. Back then, Bali was largely untouched by tourism. These days, with an international airport within a ‘coo-ee’ of the waves, the most popular breaks are always packed with a small army of Australian, Brazilian, American and local surfers. Still, with warm water and perfect coral-reef barrels, it remains a surfer’s paradise.The Island is chock-full of natural attractions, with miles of sandy beaches from Legian to Kuta and Nusa Dua, picturesque rice terraces, towering active volcanoes, pristine crater lakes, sacred caves, and lush tropical forests full of exotic wildlife. It’s also a scuba diver’s paradise – the best Bali diving sites are along the east cost near Candi Dasa, Amed, Tulamben and Nusa Penida.
Bali’s rich cultural heritage is visible pretty much everywhere, with more than 20,000 temples – the best of the bunch are Tanah Lot, Uluwatu and the Besakih Temple on the slopes of holy Mount Agung – plus palaces and dozens of colourful festivals and ceremonies including the Hiindu ritual of tooth filing and cremations with drama, music and dance.
The tourist strip from Kuta to Legian and Seminyak is a hedonist’s dream, with plenty of clubs, bars and pubs that are packed with revellers from all corners of the globe in the dry, warm winter months from May to September. Hit the Bounty Hotel if you’re up for a big night, or cruise the bars along the beachfront and Poppies Lane.
The tranquil town of Ubud is a great escape into the cool, mountainous interior of Bali, away from the hectic pace of Kuta if you’re craving some peace and quiet. It also has a colourful daily market, famed for carvings and sculptures.
You could while away a lengthy holiday just in Bali, but the island is also the perfect launching pad for cruises of the Indonesian archipelago. There are literally hundreds of cruises from Bali through to Lombok, Sumbawa, Sulawesi and the Moluccas. You can choose from modern cruise liners, luxurious private yachts, and traditional Balinese schooners.
At first glance, the Indonesian capital of Jakarta can seem like a smog-choked concrete jungle, but spend a little time here and you’ll fast come to recognise its charms. A wild array of restaurants offer the best of Indonesia’s varied cuisine. There’s also a fascinating dock district that is well worth exploring, and markets that rival those of the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. This, remember, is one of South-East Asia’s largest cities, so there is plenty here for the independent traveller.
A large chunk of Jakarta’s populace are immigrants from the other parts of the island of Java and the rest of Indonesia, so the capital is a vibrant mix of Javanese and Sundanese languages, culture, customs and traditional foods, making it an interesting city to get to know.
Kuningan and Jalan Sudirman make up Jakarta’s main CBD, and this is where you’ll find the gleaming skyscrapers,clean streets, Western malls and restaurants, and a huge variety of entertainment.
The endless gridlock and haze of smog might take a little getting used to. It’s no coincidence foreign residents nickname Jakarta ‘The big durian’ – the tropical fruit that has both a strong odour and is an acquired taste. However, there’s no denying the city is a bustling urban metropolis that never sleeps.
Jakarta’s Chinatown (Glodok) is a landmark neighbourhood full of tantalising restaurants, markets and a wealth of interesting shops to explore that is well worth a visit. Getting there is fairly easy because it isn’t far from Jakarta Kota Station and, when you’re finished, wander around Fatahillah Square in the town centre or explore the beautiful Orchid Garden at Slipi.
The Jakarta History Museum, housed in the old Batavia Town Hall, is an interesting look at Indonesia’s past and one of the city’s solid reminders of Dutch rule.
Jakarta is also home to plenty of rather odd monumentsand giant statues – a legacy of former President Soekarno’s socialist ideals. One of the most impressive is the 132m flame topped National Monument.
A 10-minute walk from Taman Fatahillah, the old port of Sunda Kelapa is home to a flotilla of magnificent Makassar schooners. The bright-painted ships are a key transport and freight delivery link between Jakarta and the outer islands.They’re also one of the capital’s main tourist attractions.
While it’s not oozing late-night discos and clubs, Jakarta nevertheless has a thriving after-dark entertainment scene, particularly in Kemang, where there are a number of good pubs. Kemang’s main rival is Jalan Jaksa, which as well as being home to good pubs and clubs, is also a good place to find cheap hostels and accommodation.
Jakarta is of course on Java, and while there may not be any great beaches to speak of on the island, it does lay the bold, yet justifiable, claim to having the most mesmerising temple in South-East Asia and many fantastic volcanoes to hike. Rise with the morning adhan (call to prayer) for a dawn viewing of the 8th-century Buddhist temple Borobudur, a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of Indonesia’s biggest draws, and you can explore the intricate lattice stupas while the morning mist unveils the surrounding paddy fields.
Once abandoned, Borobudur is one of the largest Buddhist monuments in the world, containing around 500 statues of Buddha. The monument was built between 840AD and 780AD to resemble a mandala – a wheel-shaped symbol of the cosmos. Walking up the monument is said to replicate the path to enlightenment, beginning at the base in the realm of desire and ending with the realm of formlessness at the top.
When you’ve scaled that, you can hike (or take a 4×4) up Mount Bromo for lunar-like, cloud-carpeted views of Java’s nobbled volcanic spine of craters and smoke-spewing peaks. Yoschi’s Guest House is located at Ngadisari, which lies about five kilometers from the crater rim, or you can choose Cafe Lava Hostel or the Cemara Indah Hotel at Cemoro Lawang, which are even closer.
Lombok and the Gili Islands
Lombok is a low-key island situated east of Bali that remains a sleepy, peaceful getaway from the chaos of its western neighbour. Rice paddies line the roads and farmers still plough the land. The hardest decisions a visitor has to make are whether to have banana pancakes or fresh fruit salad for breakfast, and which beach to take a dip at to cool off from the ever-present equatorial sunshine.
Lombok is the most popular destination in Nusa Tenggaraas it is home to the fabled Gili Islands – the perfect spot for a Robinson Crusoe adventure. The Gilis dot along Lombok’s north-eastern fringe, a strip of tiny jungle-and-sand islands, haloed by kaleidoscopic coral reef, all without cars, crowds or complexity. We wouldn’t recommend staying there, as lovely as the Gilis are, because they have little in the way of comforts, so it is best to visit for the day and stay back on Lombok – on the Gili-facing side, of course.
The island of Nias, off northern Sumatra, was home to head hunting tribes as recently as the 1980s. While lopping off skulls is discouraged now, the island remains a treasure trove for intrepid travellers keen to check out this ancient culture, while exploring the island’s verdant rainforests, surfing the world-class waves or diving on brilliant coral reefs.
Sumatra is the home of Krakatoa – actually it is between Sumatra and Java on the Sunda Strait – the famous volcanic island whose eruption in August 1883 was one of the most deadly of modern history. It is estimated more than 36,000 people died. The island is about three miles wide and 5.5 miles long and, before the historic eruption, it had three linked volcanic peaks: Perboewatan, the northernmost and most active; Danan in the middle; and the largest, Rakata, forming the southern end of the island. Krakatau and the two nearby islands, Lang and Verlatan, are remnants of a previous large eruption that left an undersea caldera between them (see krakatau-tour.com).
Sumatra is also, and rather significantly, one of the few places left in the world where elephants, rhinos and tigers live together in the wild. Critically endangered wild tigers are fighting to survive in the face of widespread poaching and forest-clearing. Across Sumatra, there are fewer than 400 tigers left, and they are extinct on the nearby islands of Java and Bali (see sumatratigertours.com).
The untamed island of Borneo (of which Kalimantan makesup around two thirds) has enchanted adventurers since the days of the great Victorian explorers – and today little has diluted that raw experience.
Home to an amazingly beautiful rainforest, bone through-the-nose tribes (the sorts of which you expect to see in a King Kong movie) and the largest population of orangutans in the world (cute huh?), this is just the spot to find the last corners of wilderness, untouched by human hand.
River boating into the ‘heart of darkness’ through the Tanjung National Park is one of the most popular ways to see this place – and marvel as the kind-eyed orang-utans loop through the trees before meeting the Dayak Tribes.
Kalimantan Tours (kalimantantours.com), offers a range of jungle trips throughout the region, including Derawan, a fishing island about three hours by speedboat from Berau that has developed as a dive resort, attracting divers from around the world.
GETTING AROUND An ambitious travel itinerary could turn a relaxing holiday into a frantic race when visiting Indonesia. Buses and trains can be slow and crowded and many travellers opt to hire a car or moped. Off the beaten track, especially on remote islands, travelling can be pretty unpredictable and, occasionally, downright impossible.
Like most Asian countries, the local bus is the mainstay when it comes to transport. Buses link virtually every city in Indonesia with every other city and they are dirt cheap as well – just expect to share your seat with chickens and maybe a goat or two. Otherwise, a high speed train links Bali with Jakarta and ferries also ply the deep water channels between the islands, though high-speed vessels are a rarity.
In Jakarta, tuk-tuks are a substitute for taxi cabs.Make sure you haggle with the driver for a decent price. Otherwise, taxis are common in Bali and, while they have meters, it’s also better to agree on a price with the driver before you set off.
GETTING THERE Garuda is the national airline, flying directly into Bali’s Denpasar airport as well as into the capital, Jakarta, on the island of Java – in total it services 33 domestic cities. Medan is the major hub on Sumatra, with flights linking it to many major cities within Asia.
You can also enter Indonesia via ferry from Singapore and Malaysia – the trip from Kuala Lumpur to Medan takes just a few hours, and has been a major route for surfers and travel junkies needing to renew their Indonesian tourist visas (the type of visa you need depends on your nationality, the purpose of your stay and how long you intend to visit. See indo.com/tplan/visa).
Image credit: Getty