Mention Indonesia to anyone you know and it’s highly probable the only scenes they envisage is that of cheap-and-cheerful seaside vacations, tourists overcrowding and drunken backpackers wearing matching Bintang-singlets on Kuta beach. But Indonesia, as a whole, and as the world’s largest archipelago-country, is so much more than that. Because while it’s true that Bali is Indonesia, it is also true that Indonesia is not Bali. Not all of it, anyway.
Some of it, in fact, is about as far removed from Bali as one can possibly get.
Indonesia is remote and unspoiled islands framed by coral reefs and inhabited by a cosmos of marine life. Indonesia is a maze of enigmatic tribes whose lives have not changed for hundreds if not thousands of years. Indonesia is almost two million square kilometres of primitive rainforests, of hundreds of volcanoes and arresting mountains, of red-earth roads and endless array of streetside stalls.
Indonesia is thousands of years of exotic spirituality and culture, of agrarian livelihood and tradition.
So fight the urge to paint the whole country with one stroke of your brush, as colourful and familiar as it may well be, and see Indonesia for the enigmatic, adventurous and off-the-beaten path destination it truly is.
If you’re up for the challenge and itching to explore somewhere new and unknown, then open your mind and your heart to a side of Indonesia not many are privy to.
Indonesia. Beautiful one day. Out-of-this-world the next.
Indonesia off the beaten path – Overview
Indonesia is made up of over 17,500 islands, only a third of which are home to the country’s 230 million-strong population. Over 50% of the population lives on Java, the main island west of Bali and the one which boasts the country’s capital, Jakarta, among many eminent cultural, natural and historical sights. Aside from Bali – which can easily be considered a separate entity altogether – Java is the one island which boasts good infrastructure and decent roads. Hop aboard a ferry or catch a flight anywhere else from here, however, and the whole Indonesian world changes dramatically.
Indonesia off-th- beaten-path is a world away from the modernity and the chaos of the country’s most popular tourist hub. The country actually is, for the most part, undeveloped. Towns are no more than collections of huts, roads are no more than cleared paths. The wilderness here is raw and although commercialization is coming it isn’t here yet. Not fully. Travelling through Indonesia can be a logistical challenge but with some help on the sidelines, with ground handlers, guides and organized transport, the whole adventure becomes a lot more manageable and immensely enjoyable.
The biggest problems in Indonesia are domestic in nature. Palm oil plantations are widespread and while it’s obvious that environmental issues are (or should be) a big concern, it is also obvious that corners of paradise are still found everywhere, on every island. And all the beauty found is not staged, not choreographed. The most breathtaking highlights of Indonesia are organic, almost to a fault. Sometimes, you just wish there was a seaside bar offering cold cocktails and tapas. But alas, not here. Although if you flash a bright smile at a local drinks stall, the vendor will chop off the top of a freshly-plucked coconut and serve it to you with a straw and a drop of Grenadine.
And tell us…how much more idyllic can a Southeast Asian adventure get?
To do Indonesia justice, you’ll need time and patience. And it would help if you left your comfort zone behind. In this wild, rugged and undiscovered paradise, comfort is the last thing you’ll care about.
Indonesia’s Best Highlights
Flores & the Komodos – For the wilderness and wildlife lover
Renowned primarily for the gigantic dragons that inhabit its shores, the Komodo Islands are undoubtedly one of Indonesia’s ‘next big thing’ which, in Indo-speak, means you ought to tick them off your bucket-list sooner rather than later. Flores is the base-island from which all trips to the Komodo Marine Reserve are launched and is a wonderfully eclectic mix of modern and traditional. The compact village of Labuan Bajo is a mess of dust, stray dogs, boat-0trip agencies, scooters and adventurous tourists, with just enough luxuries – like traditional wood-oven pizzas compliments of the new Italian chef in town – to make it enticing. But once here, you’ll definitely want to explore out of town. Traditional villages, inland sparkling lakes, volcanoes and rice terraces make for amazing overland adventures in Flores. A one-way weeklong trip from Labuan Bajo (in the far east of Flores) to Maumere (in the west) is a great option, linking the island’s two airports and meandering through a kaleidoscope of landscapes. A smattering of villages provide basic but good accommodation and such a trip offers a glimpse of the other side of Indonesia, the one nobody knowns exists.
When people speak of a fabled Indonesian paradise…these are the places they mean.
Sumatra – For the adventure-seeker
Sumatra is the island for the adventure seeker, the one with pepper in his or her pants, the one who can’t sit still for very long and the one for whom a full day lounging on a beach represents more of a torture rather than a blissful pleasure. The ultimate thrill-seeking destination, Sumatra offers all sorts of adventures, from orangutan spotting to active volcano chasing, superb snorkelling and diving and culture-infused village visits: Sumatra offers something for everyone, as long as everyone is happier doing rather than seeing.
Sumatra stretches for almost 2000km north to south and just over 500km east to west. Considering it boasts some hair-raising pothole-ridden roads, getting around is slow and tedious. Which is just as well, considering there are infinite things to do here. Hike up semi-active volcanoes in Berastagi, go orangutan-spotting in the Gunung Leusur National Park, get Padi-certified on idyllic Pulau Weh and enjoy the most blissful ‘half way point’ rest on magnificent Lake Toba.
Further south – the part of the island that doesn’t get mentioned in any guide book – is one continuous stretch of perfect barrel waves. The pro-surfer’s hideout, the southwestern coastline of Sumatra is home to only a few villages and even fewer surf camps. Some of them are all-inclusive and gorgeous. Perfect for the avid surfer.
Java – For the culture aficionado & avid hiker
The cultural heart and soul of Indonesia is home to its capital city, Jakarta, and its most celebrated temple complex, Bordobudur. Boasting infinitely more modern infrastructure than Sumatra, Java is wild Indonesia done the easier way.
Considering the fact that almost 140 million people live on Java it’s a wonder there’s any room left to move and explore. But once you realise that the great majority of people live in just a few cities (190 million in Jakarta alone) then it all starts to make sense. Bustling cities and outstanding wilderness…Java is a cacophony of contrasts! The eastern half of the island is home to a flurry of volcanoes and peaks, from popular and scenic Mt Bromo to Semeru and Penanjakan offering plenty of options for active tours. On the flanks of the mountains are endless farming terraces, impossibly picturesque and totally authentic.
PHOTO Stunning landscapes of central Java
Every city in Java is home to collections of gorgeous temples and museums, showcasing the multi-ethnic nature that has created the modern nation. Seeing the different ethnic communities with their respective religions live in symbiosis is a wonderful experience. Visit the Batik Museum in Surakarta, one of the least visited but most charming of Javanese cities, enjoy cultural performances in Bandung and don’t miss Borobudur, the largest Buddhist temple in the world. The spectacle is worth the crowds, we assure you. From exceptional street food to authentic homestays, and from hikes to souvenir shopping…Java offers it all.
Indonesian Borneo – For the curious Indiana Jones in us all
Borneo is not as remote and inaccessible as it once was, having reached the kind of fever-pitch popularity that should soon rate it as one of Southeast Asia’s most ‘mainstream’ destinations. But there’s a catch. The great majority of those who do visit Borneo only stick to the more developed and gentrified Malaysian side, leaving the much larger Indonesian side still blissfully devoid of Western tourists….and any major infrastructure. Most itineraries presented (including our one-week highlights of Borneo tour) concentrate on the northern wedge of the island, from Kota Kinabalu to Kuching. Yes, this is a marvelous side of Borneo, with easier access to wilderness and a lot to see in a relatively small and compact region.
But there’s something about the wild Indonesian side, Kalimantan, that just can’t be ignored. Home to some of the world’s oldest and most biodiverse forests, Kalimantan boasts hundreds of species of endemic wildlife, including orangutans, Asian rhinos, Asian elephants and cloud leopards, living in reclusive national parks that are difficult to reach and impossible to forget.
Exploring Indonesian Borneo can be grueling but, in return, it can also be astounding. Most tourists head to the Malaysia side because it offers better food, wider choice of accommodation and an overall greater level of tourism services. But for those who explore the Indonesian side, the sacrifices are immensely worthwhile.
Offering the kind of exploratory hiking and island-hopping that’s all but disappeared everywhere else in Southeast Asia, Kalimantan is the ultimate adventure-seeker’s playground. A place where an orangutan-chasing adventure on your own to the spectacular Kutai National Park necessitates taking a flight, two buses, one taxi and one rather long and arduous boat trip in a part of Indonesia where English is barely spoken. Worth it? You bet! Easier done on a bespoke tour with an experienced guide by your side from start to end?
Best Time to Visit Indonesia off the beaten path
The most visited and developed parts of Indonesia can be visited at any time of year yet when it comes to off-the-beaten-path destinations, then you’ll want to steer clear of monsoon season, which occurs between November and March. Heavy rains play havoc with unsealed roads and tracks, leaving towns flooded and cut off and many national parks simply inaccessible.
Java is the least affected by heavy rains due to its good road system, but if you’re planning adventures on any of the other island – especially Sumatra and Borneo – then plan your trip for the months between April and October.
Best Way to Reach Indonesia
Airports abound in Indonesia and getting a foot in the country from abroad can easily be done through Denpasar and Jakarta. Once in the country, local domestic flights are numerous and inexpensive. Daily services run to and from all the above-mentioned islands and often even within one island if you wish to save on driving time.
Top Tips for Indonesia travel
Culture & customs – If you’ve been to Bali and are expecting to find similarities with all other islands in Indonesia, you may be in for a surprise. Indonesians are inherently traditional and conservative, and comprise a fantastical concoction of ethnic and religious diversity. You won’t find local women swimming in bikinis on beaches in Java and Sumatra so bring T-shirts and shorts for swimming at local hot-spots. Over a 6-month west to east overlanding jaunt, I didn’t feel comfortable wearing a singlet, or skirt that went above my knees, until I reached Bali.
Locals are friendly and hospitable and always curious of foreigners, especially in areas not frequented by tourists. It’s important to note, however, that just because Western tourists don’t go there, it doesn’t mean you won’t find crowds. Indonesians are some of the most travelled people you’ll meet in Asia, with many flying back to their hometowns and islands during special holidays. Nevertheless, delightful guesthouses are strategically placed all over, so finding a beautiful spot minus crowds is super easy.
Climate – The average temperature, anywhere in Indonesia, is a balmy 30 degrees Celsius, with humidity varying between high and stifling. The closer you are to rain season – at either end of the seasons – the stronger the humidity factor.
If you’re looking for an adventure beyond your wildest dreams then do yourself a favour: go wild in Indonesia. At GetAboutAsia, we are proud to offer bespoke tours to some of the most remote, challenging yet breathtaking destinations in Indonesia – off the beaten path. So come discover a side of this incredible country you won’t find in brochures, shiny pamphlets and guide books. Come see the real Indonesia with us.