The Indonesian archipelago spreads over 5200km between the Asian mainland and Australia, all of it within the tropics, and comprises 17,000 islands. Its ethnic, cultural and linguistic diversity is correspondingly great – more than 500 languages and dialects are spoken by its 246 million people, whose fascinating customs and lifestyles are a major attraction.
The largely volcanic nature of the islands has created tall cloud-swept mountains swathed in the green of rice terraces or rainforest, dropping to blindingly bright beaches and vivid blue seas, the backdrop for Southeast Asia’s biggest wilderness areas and wildlife sanctuaries. All of this provides an endless resource for adventurous trekking, surfing, scuba diving, or just lounging by a pool in a five-star resort. Here are the best places to visit in Indonesia.
Java: One of the most populous places in all of Asia, Java is also characterized by great natural beauty. Its central spine is dominated by hundreds of volcanoes, many of which are still very evidently active, their fertile slopes supporting a landscape of glimmering rice fields spotted with countless small villages. To the south of this mountainous backbone is the homeland of the ethnic Javanese and the epicentre of their arts, culture and language, epitomized by the royal courts of Yogyakarta and Solo.
Still steeped in traditional dance, music and art, these two cities are the mainstay of Java’s tourist industry. A great attraction is the giant ninth-century Buddhist temple Borobudur, and the equally fascinating Prambanan complex, a contemporary Hindu site. To the east, the volcanic massif of Gunung Bromo promises a relaxing sunrise walk to its summit. The other volcanic landscapes to sightsee include the colored lakes of the windswept Dieng Plateau, and the world’s most famous – and destructive – volcano, Krakatau, off the west coast of Java.
Flores: A fertile, mountainous barrier between the Savu and Flores seas, the volcanic spine of the island soars to 2500m, and torrential wet seasons result in a beautiful lushness. The most spectacular sight in Flores is magnificent Kelimutu, near Moni, northeast of Ende.
The three craters of this extinct volcano each contain a lake of different, vibrant and gradually changing colors. In the east of Flores, high-quality ikat weaving still thrives. At the extreme west end of the island, Labuanbajo has some fine coral gardens and is also the port for ferries to and from Sumbawa.
Kalimantan: Dense tropical jungle, murky village-lined rivers teeming with wildlife so abundant it becomes the norm, Kalimantan is a jungle-cloaked landmass that appeals to those looking to venture into undiscovered territory. Occupying the southern two-thirds of the island of Borneo, Kalimantan remains largely untouched by tourism. With few roads, the interior’s great rivers are its highways and a trip up one of them will give you a taste of traditional Dayak life and introduce you to lush areas of dense jungle.
More intrepid explorers can spend weeks on end navigating their way through seldom-ventured parts, and a visit to one of the national parks could bring you face-to-face with wild orangutans. The provincial capitals of Pontianak, Palangkaraya and Samarinda are sprawling, dusty towns which offer little aside from their services. However, once out of the crowded, populated areas Kalimantan’s character starts to unfold.
Sumatra: Sumatra offers a breath of fresh air for those travellers looking to escape the chaos of Java. An explorer’s paradise, the vast majority of the island remains undiscovered. Most of the highlights are in the north at places like Bukit Lawang, a jungle-shrouded river offering the best chance in Indonesia to see orangutans in the wild; Danau Toba, Southeast Asia’s largest lake and a magical place to lose a few days and relax in one of the numerous waterside resorts on the island of Samosir; and the stunning crater lake of Danau Maninjau.
On the west coast lies Padang, and set within easy reach of dozens of idyllic islands including the remote Mentawai, filled with adventure potential. Near Sumatra’s southern tip and just a short ferry hop from Java sits Bandar Lampung, within striking distance of Krakatau and the surfing hub of Krui.
Jakarta: Bounded to the north by the Java Sea and the south by the low Bogor Hills, Jakarta is emblematic of the nation’s most striking attractions, with glamorous shopping malls, colonial-era relics, and upscale neighborhoods spread beneath a soaring skyline. There is no better place to glimpse the modern face of Indonesia. Among the city’s highlights are Kota in the north, the former heart of the old Dutch city, and the neighboring Sunda Kelapa, Jakarta’s bustling old port. Both districts are dotted with historic buildings, including a few of the country’s finest museums, among them the Maritime Museum, the Wayang Museum and the National Museum.
Sulawesi: One of the country’s most compelling regions where a unique blend of cultures and habitats developed. The south is split between the highland Torajans and the lowland Bugis, there are various isolated tribes in the central highlands, and the Filipino-descended Minahasans reside in the far north.
The most settled part of the island, the south, is home to most of Sulawesi’s fifteen million inhabitants. This is also where you will find the capital, the busy port of Makassar. The southern plains rise to the mountains of Tanah Toraja, whose beautiful scenery, unusual architecture and vibrant festivals are the island’s chief tourist attractions. Those after a more languid experience can soak up tropical sunshine on the Togian Islands, and there is fabulous diving at Pulau Bunaken, out from the northern city of Manado.