Narrowing down the top experiences in an archipelago with more than 17,000 diverse islands is challenging, to put it mildly. You’d have to quit your job and commit full time to traveling here to even scratch the surface of all there is to do in this fascinating land of dense jungles, coral reefs and still-smoking volcanoes.
The good news is that Indonesia’s main islands are connected by frequent flights and ferries, so even during a vacation of a week or two you can still cover some serious ground. Imagine yourself snorkeling a shipwreck in Bali, kayaking the limestone islands of Raja Ampat, spotting orangutans in Kalimantan and witnessing ancient funeral rites in Sulawesi.
Discover the Undersea World
The waters of Indonesia lie within the Coral Triangle, the planet’s bull’s-eye of marine diversity, home to more than 2,200 fish species and 76 percent of the world’s coral species. And you don’t need to be scuba certified for a window on all there is to see underwater here.
Among the seemingly endless snorkeling spots in the archipelago, one of our favorites is the USAT Liberty Wreck, just offshore from Tulamben on the east coast of Bali. It was torpedoed by the Japanese during WWII and sits in 100 feet of water, where it was pushed from the shore by lava during a volcanic eruption. The shallowest parts of the wreck lie just 10 feet below the surface and are easily accessed via a short swim from shore. More than 400 species of fish can be seen in the waters here. Rent snorkel gear from Amed Diving Center, Tauch Terminal Tulamben, Matahari Tulamben Resort or one of the many other shops nearby.
Another top snorkeling spot is the tiny island of Pulau Weh off the northern tip of Sumatra, where you can fin over walls of swaying sea fans shimmering with fish.
Explore the Temples of Java
The temples of Borobudur and Prambanan, located in Yogyakarta in Central Java, date back to the 8th to 10th centuries. They’re loaded with stupas and Buddha statues and are considered among the most awe-inspiring Buddhist monuments in the world. It’s worth it to drag yourself out of bed to see the temples in the stunning light of dawn.
ViaVia Jogja is a great little company offering “hidden temple” tours that put you on the back of a motorbike (as a passenger, not driving!) to visit Prambanan as well as some outlying temples you’d likely never find on your own, such as Candi Plaosan and the Hindu temple of Candi Sambisari. You can visit the area on your own too; hire a driver to help, or rent a car or scooter (don’t forget a good GPS system). Seeing the small villages and back roads around Yogyakarta along the way adds joy to the journey.
Meet an Orangutan
There’s something surreal and entirely unforgettable about looking into the eyes of an orangutan. Want to try it? Make the trek to Central Kalimantan (on the Indonesian side of the island of Borneo) for a day visit to Camp Leakey, named after the famed paleo-anthropologist Louis Leakey. The center is located in the utterly wild surrounds of Tanjung Puting National Park, which sprawls across some 1,600 square miles and is considered the best place in the world to see orangutans in their native environment.
You can learn about ongoing research projects focused not only on orangutans but also on proboscis monkeys, gibbons and leaf-eating monkeys.
Dry season (May through September) is the most pleasant time to visit, but you can tour the area year-round. A boat ride is required to reach the park, and you must have a guide and permits to visit. Borneo Orangutan Tours can you help you arrange those logistics.
Have a Sunrise Breakfast on Mt. Batur
The hardest thing about the two-hour hike to the top of Mount Batur (5,633 feet), one of Bali’s beautiful volcanic cones, will be your 2 a.m. wakeup call. But it’s worth it when you arrive at the summit in time to enjoy magnificent sunrise views followed by a light breakfast of coffee, tea and pastries from your own personal butler.
Klook Travel and Bali Trekking Tour are among several tour companies offering this experience. They can arrange pickup from your hotel and a transfer to the walking trail, as well as a local English-speaking guide who can point out areas of interest as you walk. You’ll forget just how tired you are when you see the sun crest over the horizon and wash the volcano’s crater lake in a golden glow.
See Unique Funeral Rites
Before about 1960, few tourists ventured to Sulawesi — but this starfish-shaped island to the east of Kalimantan/Borneo is now a major tourism lure thanks to the elaborate funeral ceremonies held in Tana Toraja, in the central part of the island, which put amazing traditions on display. At a standard funeral, at least eight buffalo and 50 pigs are slaughtered as offerings (buffalo are believed to guide the dead person to the afterlife), and there is much dancing and feasting before the body is brought to cave-style hanging graves to be “buried.”
While July and August are the prime months to visit if you want to witness the funeral processions, the area is appealing to visit year-round thanks to sights like the fascinating boat-shaped traditional homes, eerily beautiful cemeteries and spectacular mountain landscapes. Audley Travel arranges custom tours to the area that can get you as close to the culture as you’d like.
Have an Eco-Adventure
Labuhanbajo, on the island of Flores, is the jumping-off point for tours into the legendary Komodo National Park, in the waters just to the west. But before you head there, check out some other highlights. Single- or multi-day tours with Flores Ecotourism make for some fabulous sightseeing and include things like bird watching trips to Sano Nggoang Crater Lake in Flores, visits to natural hot springs, and village tours to see handicrafts being made and watch traditional dances.
Named among the New Seven Wonders of Nature in 2011, Komodo National Park is full of empty beaches, fishing villages and reefs for snorkeling. At the gate of the park, Kanawa Beach Bungalows is a great base for tours to see the famous Komodo dragons and the park’s best snorkeling sites too.
Cook Like a Local
Take your pick between two of the popular tourist islands off Lombok — Gili Trawangan and Gili Air — and settle in for a decadent introduction to Indonesian cuisine with Gili Cooking Classes. Classes on Gili Trawangan are held at the night market, while on Gili Air your classroom is near the harbor. You have a choice of three different menus at either, depending on how deeply you want to dive into traditional Indonesian cuisine.
Among the classic dishes you might learn to cook are gado gado (greens with peanut sauce), mie goreng ayam (fried noodles with chicken) and the beloved Lombok specialty chicken taliwang, spiced with palm sugar, shrimp paste and abundant chilies. We love that instructors give ingredient substitutions so you can recreate the dishes in your home country too. After you’ve finished your duties in the kitchen, of course, your reward comes in the form of a bountiful, authentic feast.
Go Sea Kayaking
Famous with scuba divers the world over for its spectacular underwater vistas, Raja Ampat, in West Papua, is a maze-like area of more than 1,500 islands that are a kayaker’s dream too. The nonprofit organization Kayak4conservation works with local Papuan guides and can help you arrange three- to 14-day kayaking trips through the islands.
You’ll paddle everywhere from shallow reefs where you may spot manta rays and lush mangrove islands to the Fam Islands and Kaboei Bay, where sheer limestone cliffs plunge into crystal-clear water. Along the way you’ll stay in locally owned guesthouses where you can interact with the native people.
Explore Sasak Culture
Lombok sees just a sliver of the tourists that descend on neighboring Bali, but there’s much to love here, from waters teeming with sea turtles to famous surf breaks and — our favorite — explorations into the island’s interesting Sasak culture. Some 85 percent of Lombok’s population is composed of the indigenous Sasak people, who are predominantly Muslim (compared to largely Hindu Bali) and have their own language, music and dance traditions.
Perama Tour & Travel offers tours to countryside Sasak villages such as Pringgasela, where you can watch Sasak women weaving their traditional songket cloths, beautiful fabric embroidered with gold and silver thread. Audley Travel can also customize Sasak tours with visits to Loyok village, famous for its bamboo handicrafts, and Lenek village, a center of traditional Sasak dance.
Learn to Brew Coffee
No visit to Bali is complete without some time spent soaking up the leisurely ambience and creative attitude of Ubud, famous for its traditional dancing, handicrafts and spectacular rice paddies. You can make your cafe time here productive with a coffee brewing class at Seniman Coffee Studio, which considers the experience of brewing coffee an art form.
The informal classes (held upon request) take place right in the cafe, where you’ll discover the differences between single-origin beans from Indonesia’s most celebrated coffee regions including Sumatra, Sulawesi, Java, Bali and Papua. Then you’ll learn about the roasting process and try different methods of brewing before settling in to sip the fruits of your new knowledge.
Best Time to Go to Indonesia
Since Indonesia is located right under the equator, travelers can expect a hot climate year-round. However, keep in mind that there are wet and dry seasons in the region. Expect somewhat rainy weather between October and April, and a dryer climate between May and September. Indonesia’s dry season is its high season, but travelers visiting the region during wetter months will still likely find desirable weather.
Indonesia on a Budget
Indonesia is, for the most part, a budget-friendly destination. You can find plenty of reasonably priced handmade crafts, affordable accommodations and cheap meals in the country. But if you’re headed to local luxury hotels and spas, expect high rates on par with any big tourist destination. Your airfare will probably be one of your biggest expenditures. Use a travel agent or an airline consolidator to seek out a good deal, or search for fare sales offered by airlines that fly to Indonesia.
–written by Terry Ward