9 Things to Do in Indonesia
Featured destinations: Indonesia, Jakarta, Bali, Gili Trawangan
Published 17 May 2016
The 17,500-odd islands that make up Indonesia contain a wealth of treasures for travellers. Perhaps best known for the beaches of Bali and the lush tropical jungles of its wildlife-rich interior, the country also boasts 17% of the world’s coral reefs, eight World Heritage sites and 167 active volcanoes, more than any other nation.
Although no one is quite sure exactly how many islands make up Indonesia, the ones you’re most likely to come across include Java (home to the sprawling capital, Jakarta), Sumatra, Kalimantan (Borneo), Bali and Lombok. Many travellers stick solely to Bali, which is no bad thing – contrary to popular belief it isn’t all backpackers and bronzed surfers, although there are a fair few of them. Some of the outlying islands can be more of a trek to get to but the rewards are great, and you’ll share them with far fewer people.
With that in mind, here’s our list of the top nine sights in Indonesia:
Made famous by the life-affirming novel Eat, Pray Love, which was later made into a popular movie starring Julia Roberts, Ubud is Bali’s spiritual heart. For it is here, among the lush green rice terraces and traditional architecture, that you’ll find pockets of peace and quiet, far removed from the freneticism of the rest of the archipelago. Arts and crafts shops abound, as do spas and sunrise yoga classes. It’s not all rest and relaxation though, as just outside town is the Ayung River, a popular white water rafting spot, as well as numerous biking trails linking the palaces, temples and caves that dot the countryside.
Just a short boat hop from Lombok, the three car-free Gili Islands together make up one of Indonesia’s top crowd-pullers, their soft sandy beaches and laid-back lifestyle attracting sun-seekers and dive enthusiasts alike. Teeny-tiny Gili Meno is a desert island delight, while Gili Air is the most off the beaten track of the three and Gili Trawangan, or Gili T as it is better known, is packed with cool bars and funky beachside restaurants. Active types can circumnavigate the islands on foot in a couple of hours or wander through the horse-and-cart interiors, but the real attractions lie beneath the waves. After all, there’s a reason the islands declare themselves the ‘Turtle Capital of the World’.
Resembling a small(ish) dinosaur, the rare but intimidating Komodo dragon is the world’s largest living lizard, growing to lengths of up to three metres. As the name suggests, in order to see one in its natural habitat, you’re best off going to Komodo, although you can spot them on the lesser-known islands of Rinca and Flores too. For a nature-filled day trip, take a boat to Komodo National Park, home to over 4,000 dragons, and venture out to find them on foot, listening for the tell-tale rustle in the undergrowth.
A World Heritage site in central Java, Borobodur is the largest Buddhist structure in the world. Built in 825, this vast collection of monuments is the most popular tourist attraction in Indonesia, and rightly so. Its six terraces, each dotted with Buddha statues seated inside stone stupas, step up to a central stupa that looks out across pretty countryside. Almost 3,000 reliefs tell the life story of Buddha; it’s worth hiring a guide to explain these intricate carvings in more detail.
With the world’s second longest coastline (after Canada), it’s no surprise that Indonesia’s oceans are stuffed full with world-class diving sites. Over 3,000 fish and 600 coral species call these islands home, and the best way to see them is to grab your mask and snorkel and head beneath the waves. There are reefs, walls, trenches, wrecks and even underwater volcanoes to explore, with the drops-offs around Bali and the hammerhead shark-infested waters of Lombok particular highlights. But for a real treat head to the pristine reefs of the lesser-known islands and World War II wrecks of Sulawesi and Papua, where a world record 284 species were once spotted on just one dive.
More sophisticated than neighbouring Kuta (which for some reason steals all the attention!), Seminyak is one of Bali’s most popular resort towns. Glamourous hotels, sumptuous spas and glitzy international restaurants battle it out for the best seafront setting; while further from the shoreline you’ll find a shopaholic’s paradise: a collection of boutiques, upmarket art galleries and designer shops brought to Bali by its European expats. After all that retail therapy, pull up a poolside sun lounger and grab a fruity cocktail while watching the sun sink slowly into the waves.
On the paradise island of Lombok, Senggigi is actually a chain of sweeping bays and coves lined with white sand and backed by lush jungle-carpeted mountains and a fringe of coconut trees. Apart from the obvious beach lounging, there’s plenty to keep you occupied, including sailing, surfing and sea kayaking on the warm waters. Inland too, forest treks, cookery classes and traditional massages are popular choices. Culture vultures should head to Pura Batu Bolong (pictured), which translates as ‘rock with a hole’, a delightful Hindu temple and perfect sunset-watching spot located on a rugged cliff arch overlooking the breaking waves below.
Pretty Lovina stands out from Bali’s crowd of beach towns due to its unusual sweep of black sand, caused by thousands of years of volcanic activity. Stroll along the shore but don’t forget your shoes – black absorbs the sun’s heat very effectively. Lovina’s seas are frequented by large pods of dolphins, while slightly inland the totally tropical Gitgit Waterfall, surrounded by huge, brightly coloured flowers and lush vegetation, is the perfect place to flick your hair back and recreate your favourite shampoo ad.
Mount (Gunung) Bromo
Found inside the 6-mile-wide Tengger Crater, the 2,329m peak of Mount Bromo is instantly recognisable as it is now a crater itself, its top completely blown off and continually emitting white smoke. Hiking to the crater rim is the thing to do here – from Cemoro Lawang it takes about 40 minutes to walk down into the Tengger Crater, across the Sea of Sand and up the steep sides of Gunung Bromo. This moderate trek is best attempted at sunrise when you can peer down into the steaming belly of Bromo volcano, smell the sulphur and watch the sun rise above the ethereal mists of Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park.
If you’d like to explore the beaches and jungles of Indonesia, take a look at our Indonesian Hills & Beaches Journey, which stops in Ubud, Seminyak, Gili T and Senggigi, and includes a tour of Lombok and a white water rafting trip in Ubud.