Exploring Indonesia’s enchanting islands

March 10th, 2020

Each of Indonesia’s 17,000-plus islands has something for everyone — whether you’re a thrill-seeker gearing up for your next adventure, an escapist needing to chill out and recharge, or a pilgrim seeking inner peace. No matter what type of traveller you are, you’re sure to have an amazing experience exploring these seven enchanting Indonesian islands.

Komodo: Land of dragons

Well, lizards, to be accurate. The largest lizards in the world, but still, just lizards. Komodo dragons can grow up to 10 feet and weigh more than 300 pounds, making them much smaller than the dragons of lore. They’re also less dangerous than their mythical counterparts — but just how less dangerous is all pretty relative. While Komodo dragons don’t breathe fire and smoke, they do have powerful jaws that can rip out their prey’s neck easily. They also secrete a venom that can paralyse and kill their victim quickly. And though attacks on humans are rare, they have been known to happen from time to time.

Knowing this, you may be thinking who in their right mind would want to go to an island inhabited by such vicious creatures. But on Komodo Island, there are several designated areas from which tourists can observe Komodo dragons safely. Wandering out of these areas can put you at risk of being bitten, which is exactly what happened to a tourist in 2017.

Despite the dangers posed by Komodo dragons, seeing them in their natural habitat is one of the highlights of any trip to Komodo Island. The island is one of 29 that make up Komodo National Park, a protected area established in 1980 to conserve and protect Komodo dragons, which thrive in the region’s hot and dry climate. Aside from the giant lizards, Timor wild deer, Asian palm civets, crab-eating macaques, green imperial pigeons, whale sharks, clown frogfish, and several species of coral are found within the park.

The high diversity of marine life, in particular, attracts divers from all over the world to Komodo and the surrounding islands. Sun worshippers also flock to the island’s famous Pink Beach. Komodo National Park is so popular among tourists that in 2019, Indonesian authorities considered closing it for a year amid rising concerns over the ecological impacts of overtourism. Although this plan was ultimately scrapped, there is now a proposal to charge an entry fee of up to US$1,000 to control the number of tourists and mitigate the damage to the islands’ flora and fauna.

Bali: Island of peace

Of Indonesia’s thousands of islands, none has captured the imagination of travellers more than Bali. Millions of tourists visit the island every year, each hoping to find serenity in Bali’s terraced rice fields, verdant mountains, ancient temples, and immaculate beaches.

And they do find it — some of them almost as soon as they set foot on the island. Hindu temples such as Pura Jagatnatha and Pura Maospahit serve as sanctuaries in the bustling capital of Denpasar. As travellers move from the city to the countryside, they’ll see even more places of worship dedicated to the thousands of gods and deities that make up the Hindu pantheon. In particular, Pura Besakih is dedicated to the dragon deity Naga Besukian, who is said to live in Mount Agung, an active volcano that is the highest point on Bali. Pura Besakih is the most important Hindu temple in Bali, and it is also the largest, comprised of 23 different temples built on the slopes of Mount Agung.

Old oriental temple Mother Besakih from Bali, Indonesia.

Old oriental temple Mother Besakih from Bali, Indonesia.

It goes without saying that Bali’s beaches are renowned throughout the world for their blindingly white sands and crystal clear waters. A stone’s throw away from Denpasar is Kuta Beach, but its proximity to the city means it’s often crowded. For more privacy, head south to Padang Padang Beach. Though you’ll likely come across surfers and Julia Roberts fans (scenes from the film Eat, Pray, Love were shot there in 2009), the cliffs surrounding the beach create a nook to which you can retreat and relax.

Other beaches off the beaten path are Balangan, Pasir Putih, and Pemuteran. Balangan is just a short ride out of Denpasar, and its caramel-coloured sands are perfect for lounging around, ice-cold beer in hand. Also known as Virgin Beach and Hidden Beach, Pasir Putih is ideal for diving and swimming. Pemuteran is located in oft-overlooked Western Bali, making it a great spot for those seeking a peaceful respite. Further west is West Bali National Park, a protected area of wild beaches and offshore coral reefs that is popular among divers.

Lombok: An unspoiled paradise

Lombok has been dubbed “the next Bali,” having everything its next-door neighbour has to offer: white sand beaches, exceptional diving sites, and tubular waves. There are also mountains and an active volcano to scale, hot springs to soak in, and nearby islands and beaches to explore. But Lombok’s true appeal lies in its relative obscurity and the peace it offers those who want to get away from the crowds.

Kuta Beach, Lombok, Indonesia.

Kuta Beach, Lombok, Indonesia.

The main city of Mataram is the jumping-off point for trips to the Gili Islands. Gili Trawangan, the largest of these three islands, is a known party destination, but Gili Meno and Gili Air are more laidback. Rent a bike and hop from beach to beach on Gili Air, or take a walk among the coconut trees inland. On Gili Meno, explore the mangrove forest and saltwater lake, or swim with schools of colourful tropical fish and baby sea turtles.

The sleepy seaside town of Kuta is a favourite among visitors to Lombok. Snorkel in the blue-green waters of Pantai Lancing, surf at Pantai Selong Belanak, and watch the sunset at Bukit Merese. Take the short trip north to Sade Village, where you can buy ikat and songket (fabric made by resist dyeing sections of yarn prior to weaving and by weaving gold or silver threads in silk or cotton, respectively) as well as watch performances of traditional Sasak dances.

Java: The heart of Indonesia

In 2018, Java was voted the best island in the world, and for good reason. It’s the centre of Indonesian arts and culture, it’s where you’ll find the most gorgeous beaches, and it’s home to the friendliest and most welcoming people you’ll ever meet.

The very heart of Java is Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital and largest city. As a cultural centre, Jakarta is home to many important museums and cultural institutions, including the National Museum of Indonesia, the National Library, and Merdeka Palace. These buildings are all clustered around the sprawling Merdeka Square, at the centre of which stands the National Monument (Monas), erected in 1961 to commemorate the country’s independence. At the southern end of the square is Lenggang Jakarta, a hawker centre where you can enjoy the local cuisine, from noodle dishes to kerak telor (spicy omelette) to gado-gado (salad in peanut sauce).

Outside the hustle and bustle of Jakarta are other important cultural sites, the most famous of which is Borobudur. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is the largest Buddhist temple in the world and remains a popular destination for pilgrims — it’s also the single most visited tourist attraction in all of Indonesia. A fine example of Javanese Buddhist architecture, the temple is a single large stupa (mound-like structure) built around a hill; viewed from above, it resembles a giant mandala, a symbol of Buddhist cosmology. Steep stairways lead up a series of nine platforms, each decorated with intricate panels that depict the life and teachings of the Buddha. Over 500 Buddha statues, most of them damaged, riddle the walkways; on the top level known as arupadhatu, bell-shaped stupas contain statues of the Buddha sitting in the lotus position.

Southeast of Borobudur is the former capital of Yogyakarta, now the seat of the Yogyakarta Sultanate. An important centre for Javanese arts and culture, the city is home to various traditional industries, including batik fabric production (go on a factory tour to see how it’s made) and silverworks. Traditional dances are frequently performed in theatres across the city, as well as in the inner pavilion of the Kraton Ngayogyakarta Hadiningrat (Royal Palace Complex), wherein several museums have artefacts and artworks on display. Also, Yogyakarta has the best-known traditions of wayang kulit, a form of puppet shadow play found throughout Java.

Sumatra: Wild beauty

If you’re up for a wilderness trek, then Sumatra is the place for you. The largest island in the Indonesian archipelago, Sumatra has everything you’d expect from a tropical island: jungles slowly taking over cities built by a long-lost civilization; orangutans lounging lazily in trees; volcanoes and caldera lakes quietly simmering; and miles and miles of deserted beach.

Gunung Leuser National Park in Western Sumatra shelters endangered animals from all over Asia, including orangutans, elephants, tigers, and rhinoceroses. Covering almost 8,000 square kilometres of dense rainforest, the park offers the chance to see these animals in the wild.
At the orangutan viewing centre in the village of Bukit Lawang, you’ll also get the chance to get up close with these red-haired primates. The feeding platform has long been closed, but you can still spot orangutans as you trek through the jungle or go tubing down the Bohorok River.

More adventures await at Kerinci Seblat National Park (Taman Nasional Kerinci Seblat, or TNKS). This large swath of jungle shelters the critically endangered harimau, the fearsome Sumatran tiger. About 200 tigers — the largest population in all of Sumatra — roam wild and free throughout the park’s forested valleys and deep gorges, which other species such as Sumatran elephants, clouded leopards, gibbons, and Sumatran ground cuckoos (rediscovered in 2002) also call home. Complete your TNKS experience by camping out on the banks of Lake Gunung Tujuh.

The unspoilt beauty of Sumatra’s islands is something you’ll definitely want to see on your visit to Indonesia. The Mentawai Islands are a surfer’s paradise, while Weh Island in Aceh province is beloved by divers. You can also swim with dolphins in the Riau Islands. And in the heart of Sumatra is Samosir Island in Lake Toba, the largest crater lake in the world, where you can relax in the hot springs or lunch on Batak delicacies by the Sipiso Piso Waterfall.

Kalimantan: Life on the equator

Borneo is an island shared by three countries: Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei. The island, as well as its Indonesian portion, is known in Indonesia as Kalimantan, which literally means “burning weather island” — a reference to the scorching temperatures on this island through which the equator runs.

The harsh weather may be just the thing preventing tourism from taking over sleepy Kalimantan, but visitors who want an authentic Indonesian experience probably wouldn't mind it. In Banjarmasin, start your day early at the Lok Baintan floating market, where you can buy fresh produce, including a wide selection of exotic fruits, and traditional breakfast dishes and snacks from obliging tea ladies. Meanwhile, in the remote highland village of Merabu, you can explore rubber plantations, vegetable gardens, and caves proudly sporting the paintings and handprints of prehistoric people.

The Lok Baintan Floating Market in Banjarmasin, Indonesia.

The Lok Baintan Floating Market in Banjarmasin, Indonesia.

If it’s wildlife you’re looking for, head to Tanjung Puting National Park. See orangutans in the lush rainforest and get the chance to feed them at three camps spread across the park. Orangutans, along with proboscis monkeys, crocodiles, storks, and pheasants, can also be spotted at Danau Sentarum National Park.

And as in all of Indonesia, there is no lack of great beaches in Kalimantan. The Derawan Islands offer spectacular diving and swimming spots. They’re also where you’ll find the largest nesting site of endangered giant green turtles and hawksbill turtles. Bunyu Island in North Kalimantan is known for pretty Nibung Beach, where you can try salak or snake fruit, a citrusy sweet fruit native to Indonesia.

Sulawesi: Traditional yet modern

From its lovely coasts to its mountainous interior, Sulawesi is home to groups of people who have kept their traditions alive and largely unchanged. The seafaring Bugis, for instance, still speak a language distinct from other Indonesian languages and live in stilt houses with plank walls and floors. The Torajans of the South Sulawesi mountains practise elaborate funeral rites that can last from weeks to years — as long as it takes, really, to raise enough funds to give their deceased loved ones the ultimate sendoff. In the north, the Minahasans welcome visitors with traditional dishes heavy on spices and unusual sources of protein (forest rat, anyone?).

To say that Sulawesi has not changed since ancient times would be inaccurate, however. Makassar, capital of South Sulawesi province, is Indonesia’s fifth-largest urban centre, a major international sea port with a thriving hotel and restaurant industry. Also, the city is the site of the Trans Studio Makassar, the third-largest indoor theme park in the world, and the Karebosi Link, Indonesia’s first underground shopping centre.

Sulawesi also has a number of breathtaking natural wonders such as Lore Lindu National Park and Tangkoko National Park. Within the former are two archaeological sites famous for their collection of megalithic objects, while the latter teems with animals found only on this side of the world, such as the tarsier, the world’s smallest primate. Near Poso Lake in Central Sulawesi is Saluopa Waterfall, where you can splash about in the pool beneath the cascades. The Selayar Islands are the gateway to the Taka Bonerate National Park, a marine protected area that has a rich diversity of marine and bird life.

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