If you haven’t already dedicated your life to it, chances are you can write off visiting every Indonesian island in your lifetime. The maths works out that the task would take 48 years or so, assuming you’d like to spend a day on each of them. In an archipelago with a plethora of idyllic beaches, wild rainforests filled with life, and plenty of volcanoes to ready to blow up in your face, how could you possibly choose where to visit?
Java isn’t the largest island of the country, but it is home to the capital city, which is one of your options when thinking about flying in. Jakarta sometimes gets a bit of a bad rep with tourists; It’s crowded, has a huge traffic problem, it’s smoggy, often uncomfortably humid, and it’s pretty smelly. This is what people who nip in for a flying visit say about the megalopolis at least, and all of these things can be true about the place. With other tourist destinations such as Bali and Yogyakarta on people’s bucket list, Jakarta is often overlooked. But recently, and with increasing intensity, the government is trying to draw people over to mark it out on the tourist map. They are organising more and more conventions, for example, and it hosts one of the largest jazz festivals in the world, held every March. Furthermore, if you’re someone who likes to pick up a few things while you’re over in Asia, there are loads of shopping malls. Absolutely loads. It’s a bit crazy.
Getting around is rather horrific. The taxis are less painful than the public transport, but you’ll get caught up in gridlock unless you manage to catch the hour or so of the day that isn’t rush hour. They have air conditioning, which can be a nice break from the heat and humidity, but I’m pretty sure every Indonesian taxi’s air conditioning is stuck on the ‘Siberian winter’ setting, which quickly turns unpleasant in your shorts and t-shirt. If you care less about the longevity of your life you can hop onto the back of an ojek (motorbike taxi) and get around for a fraction of the price and time.
When you find yourself walking through a crowded street which sees people casually but rapidly making their way to shelter, don’t panic. Well, panic slightly, you’re about to get rained on. None of the poxy regular rain we get over here in Europe; it’s the type of downfall that occurs every few years when everybody thinks the world is going to end. These waterfalls might only last a few minutes, so hop under a footbridge with just enough time to update your Facebook status before heading off on your way again.
Be sure to visit the national monument, Monas: a 137 metre monument in Freedom Square constructed to commemorate Indonesian independence. You can go into the basement to learn about the struggles of the independence movement before heading up to the observation deck for a view of the city. Nearby is the Istiqlal Mosque, also built to commemorate independence and capable of accommodating 120,000 souls. Stop by for a free English speaking tour. The old town sees a clash of modern Jakarta and Dutch colonialism in the form of a town square. The buildings look slightly dilapidated, but the night market is pretty decent and there are three museums to visit. You can also choose from an array of colourful or vintage bikes to hire that the mayor of Amsterdam himself would be proud of.
The big name on the island of Java is Yogyakarta, otherwise written as Jogyakarta, but most commonly referred to a ‘Jogja’. Every year tourists spill into the historic city because of its proximity to nearby landmarks, notably the world’s largest Buddhist temple. Surrounded by mountains and complete with twin volcanos, Borobudur was built in the 9th century: nine stacked platforms with a dome on the top and more Buddha statues than you can shake a stick at (don’t shake a stick at them). One day, about a thousand years ago, a volcano exploded, covering Borobudur in ash from which grew vegetation. There the massive monument lay for centuries, lost in tales of folklore until the 1800’s, when it was dug out and slowly restored. It’s had a few more rocky moments over the years: another volcanic eruption, an earthquake, and a bombing attack… but it’s still well worth a visit.
Down the road is another famous temple, Hindu this time, which was also built in the 9th century and also lost in time only to be rediscovered. Originally there were 240 temples within the compound, unfortunately only 10 remain today, 8 of which make up the recognisable pointed structures in the in the centre of the complex. Start in the east and work your way round clockwise to encounter the ancient Hindu story of the Ramayana in the form of reliefs cut into the stone.
Allow yourself a day or two to wonder around the city of Jogja itself. You’ll find famous landmarks such as the sultans palace (or Ngayogyakarta if you want to practice your Javanese), the Tugu Monument, which should be visited when lit up at night, and a range of colonial era buildings. Being a centre for culture, you won’t be short of art galleries and museums to visit, along with a smattering of language schools for you to get a taste of local language. There is, of course, numerous pleasant little markets for you to explore at your leisure and purchase souvenirs for your loved ones.
A trip to Indonesia wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the paradisiacal island of Bali. Constantly winning awards as a travel destination, once arriving on the island of volcanoes and luscious greenery hemmed with beaches, it’s easy to see why. Of course, everybody wants bit of paradise, so parts of Bali, notably the south, have become a concrete mass of accommodation and bars, where you’ll be bombarded with touts trying overcharge you.
Unlike most of Indonesia, Bali is a small pouch of Hindu culture. The local law requires each village to have at least three temples, with some adopting for more than the mandatory amount, which results in a lot of attractions for tourists. One of the more visited is Uluwatu temple, where monkeys roam free and often snatch belongings from visitors. Sound familiar? These little guys have learnt the art of trade, so if you bring some fruit with you they’ll often opt for the swap – after some haggling. For your postcard picture, visit Tanah Lot at sunset, a 16th century temple sitting atop a large offshore rock.
There are many spas dotted around the island, if you’d like to escape to the south for a bit, head up to Lovina for a few days where you’ll find Banjar Hot Springs. It can be a little tricky to get to, which is why it’s usually less crowded and has managed to retain its sense of serenity, with natural hot springs falling over stone mouths into this tranquil garden setting. The area also has several options for diving and snorkelling, as well as locals offering dolphin tours every few paces… it’s a home away from home!
Bali attracts surfers from all over the world. The smaller but still reliable waves around Kuta are best for beginners and backpackers, who tend to hit the bars of Kuta afterwards. More serious surfers tend to head down to the southern peninsula of Bukit, where there are larger waves from a couple of reef breaks. Even if you are no expert, you can watch the pros from the clifftops above, then head up the coast to Jimbaran for some freshly caught fish and a good old fashioned sunset.
A boat ride away will find you on the next Island of Lombok, with the most visited sites here being the three Gili Islands. Gili Trawangan (Gili T) is known for its party atmosphere, Gili Meno for its honeymooners, and Gili Air for relaxation. There are no cars and no police on these islands, instead you can ride in a small in a small horse and cart, or simply walk. And don’t think about stealing anything due to lack of policing, the villagers will force you to do the humiliation ‘walk of shame’ around their island complete with a sign around your neck a la Game of Thrones, before telling you to get on the next boat out.
Over on the mainland, you can get a taste for what Bali was like before mass tourism took over. There are several options, including multi-day trips, for climbing Mount Rinjani (an active volcano) and to the south you’ll find the familiarly named Kuta. Like Kuta Bali, Kuta Lombok has decent surf but a completely different vibe. It’s a fairly new tourist destination so at the moment it’s pretty quiet and incredibly chilled out. Things are developing quickly here year on year, so visit soon to avoid being in a place like its namesake across the water.
From Lombok you can secure a vessel to Komodo Island. No prizes for guessing what you’ll find here. This trip can be a little pricey, but it’s likely to be your one and only chance to see real life dragons in their natural habitat. Don’t traverse the island without a guide, you will get eaten. Boats also leave from the beautiful island of Flores, which is yet another island with even less touristy beaches. If you find yourself here, be sure to visit the crater lakes of Mount Kelimutu, which spectacularly change colour due to chemical reactions caused by gas from the volcano.
The westernmost (main) island of Sumatra, slightly to the north of the island, you’ll find Lake Toba. During the tourist season you’ll be able to get out onto the lake and enjoy a variety of boat trips and water sports. During the off season, due to the size of the lake, you can pitch up at one of the lakeside huts and enjoy the silent, scenic surroundings for a ridiculously cheap price. That’s not the only thing about this lake though. It was formed after the area’s supermassive volcano exploded about 75,000 years ago causing a worldwide volcanic winter, which lowered the temperature of the entire planet by up to 5 °C. Generally the lake is considered the main event of Sumatra, but people also have a notably different culture and will be more than happy to showcase their art and music.
Of course, on an archipelago so vast and eclectic, it’s impossible to mention everything in just one article, some may have noticed some big name omissions, Borneo for one. But everything mentioned here can be handled in a leisurely one month or so trip, to give you a taste of what’s on offer in this nation of islands. For those of you with more time on your hands, report back with a more detailed article for the Gibraltar Magazine in 48 years.