A huge tropical archipelago sitting on the ring of fire, Indonesia promises a complete adventure, and exploring the country in your own vehicle will give you that full-on memorable experience. You will possess all the freedom to grasp the country’s charm, from the magical volcanos and lush rainforests, to the pristine beaches and remote traditional villages.
The emergence of new highways in Java and Sumatra makes driving much easier, but quality roads are considerably limited in a country as vast as Indonesia. Nonetheless, this too could be an advantage, as you will be rewarded with countless unexplored destinations. Make sure you have a sturdy vehicle and sufficient backup fuel when exploring the off-the-beaten tracks.
So, fasten your seat belt, and get ready for the 8 best road trips in Indonesia.
The grand Trans-Sumatra voyage
Best for family adventure
Bandar Lampung – Sabang; 1677 miles (2700km); allow 12 days
Start from Sumatra’s southernmost city of Bandar Lampung and visit the nearby Way Kambas National Park to witness the endangered Sumatran rhinos and elephants. Drive along the East Shore Trans-Sumatra Highway to the bustling river city of Palembang, then explore the ancient Hindu-Buddhist temples scattered around Muaro Jambi.
Leave the highway and take a slow drive westward along the winding scenic Batanghari River to reach Padang at the western shore. This region is the birthplace of the nationally renowned Padang food, so don’t forget to sample the delicious rendang. Roll northward through the tranquilizing Bukittinggi, along the West Shore Trans-Sumatra Highway, to the mythical ocean-blue Lake Toba, where you can hang loose in the laid-back Samosir Island.
Continue northward to the booming metropolitan city of Medan, where you can stock up on your resources and enjoy the colorful street foods. Drive north on the same highway until you reach Banda Aceh, and visit the ornately adorned Baiturrahman Grand Mosque and the hallowed Tsunami Museum. Cross over on a ferry to Sabang in Weh Island to visit Indonesia’s westernmost tip of land, marked with the Kilometer 0 Monument. Blessed with dazzling beaches and over 20 gorgeous diving spots, Sabang is the perfect place to conclude your grand voyage.
The ancient Central Java pilgrimage
Best for history buffs
Yogyakarta – Dieng Plateau; 201 miles (324km); allow 5 days
Being the cradle of Javanese civilization, Yogyakarta would be the ideal place to begin your pilgrimage. Explore the Royal Palace, Water Castle, and the ancient Mataram capital in Kota Gede, then proceed to the towering 9th-century Prambanan temple at the city outskirt. The road will take you to nearby Solo, a contender to the title of Javanese cultural axis. Immerse yourself in the legendary traditional dance performances held regularly at Sriwedari Theatre, visit the site of one of Asia’s oldest human fossils in Sangiran, and don’t miss the pyramid-shaped 15th-century Sukuh temple portraying sexually themed ornaments.
From Solo, take the winding scenic mountain road westward sandwiched in two volcanos – Merbabu and Merapi. If you could allocate an extra day for hiking, stop by the village of Selo to climb up Merapi’s summit. It’s the most active volcano in Java, considered sacred and elemental in traditional Javanese rituals.
Keep driving westward, and you will arrive at the colossally marvelous Buddhist temple of Borobudur. It’s easy to spend one full day exploring the area as notable historical sites are abundant, including the elegant temples of Mendut and Pawon. Rolling northward passing Wonosobo, keep driving to the misty picturesque Dieng Plateau. Be prepared to be taken back in time among the numerous Hindu temples, remnants of glorious Javanese empires controlling the area over a millennium ago.
The East Java volcano and jungle drive
Best for thrill seekers and nature lovers
Surabaya – Banyuwangi; 341 miles (550km); allow 7 days
This adventure route demands a sturdy vehicle to go through the rough terrains. Depart from the regional capital of Surabaya by following the highway towards the chilly hilly city of Malang before embarking on to the Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park. Here you can feel the spirit of Indonesia’s ring of fire as the park is packed with mountains and puffing cone-shaped volcanos scattered over a sea of sand. If you can spare two or three extra days, you can consider climbing Mount Semeru, the highest in Java. Beware that this is a serious trek, and prior preparation is necessary.
Drive through the southern route of Semeru and take a daring trek to the spectacular Tumpak Sewu waterfalls. As the name means “a thousand waterfalls”, this is a collection of a dizzying number of terraced waterfalls pouring together from all directions. Rolling to the east, sticking to the southern coastal route, you will discover dozens of serene Indian Ocean beaches. If you have to pick only one, it should be the charming Papuma beach.
From Jember, drive north through Bondowoso and then east to visit the extraordinary Mount Ijen, with a boiling turquoise sulfur lake on its crater. Drive south to Banyuwangi, where you can proceed for an adventure to the Alas Purwo National Park, located at the Blambangan Peninsula, the southeasternmost tip of Java. The vast park is a mythical jungle with spiritual value for the locals, but it’s also the best place to spot the endangered Javanese banteng bulls traversing the savanna.
The spirit of Bali
Best leisure trip
Kuta – Mt Agung; 155 miles (214km); 3 days
Departing from the din of touristy Kuta, drive through the Bypass Road northward to the idyllic town of Ubud, the heart of the Balinese spiritual, cultural and artistic life. Visit the traditional village of Nyuh Kuning to experience the authentic Balinese way of life. A short drive up north to Tegallalang is worthy of its picturesque rice terraces.
From Ubud, drive east on stunning mountain roads to Lake Bedugul, famous for its iconic floating lakeside temple depicted on the 50,000 rupiah banknote. Veer north to the bustling city of Singaraja, where Bali’s folkways mix with the Dutch colonial history, as well as Chinese and Islamic influences. The best place to stay is Lovina Beach, where you could hop in on a traditional boat to watch the dolphins frolic in the open sea at sunrise.
Proceed east, then turn south again to Kintamani, where you could bask in the stunning vista of Lake Batur from a high vantage point. The mountain road gets narrower and twisting, but the view is spectacular on your drive to Pura Besakih, the most sacred Balinese Hindu temple at the foot of the holy Mt. Agung. From here, you could take the 6-hour climb to watch the sunrise at 3031m on the mountain summit.
The Lombok circuit
Best for honeymoon
Mataram – Mataram; 220 miles (350km); 7-10 days
The island of Lombok packs itself with romantic beaches, a mythical volcano, history, and vibrant culture. Starting from its capital Mataram, follow the west coast path along countless beautiful beaches, including Senggigi, where you can marvel at Bali’s Mt. Agung’s conical silhouette. For a side trip to the turquoise-colored waters of Gili islands, stop at Pamenang, where you can take a motorboat across.
Continuing to the northern coast, don't miss the ethereal Tebing Beach with its vertical cliffs, a testament of the powerful might of Mt. Rinjani’s eruption. Trudge on to the traditional village of Bayan, and see an ancient way of life preserved scrupulously as it was centuries ago. Proceed to Senaru to its vibrantly green coffee plantations and mesmerizing waterfalls. From here, climb the magical Mt. Rinjani. Allow three additional days if you want to make a trek to the summit.
Even if you are a non-climber, the road trip across the mountainous region at the foot of the volcano is none but great. Drive up to the 2000m altitude Sembalun Lawang and gape at the checkered Lombok paddies from up high. Keep driving south to Pink Beach, bury your toes in its glistening pink sands. Continue on to the southern town of Mandalika, where you can find more otherworldly beaches like Tanjung Aan and Semeti (nicknamed Kryptonian Beach due to its extraterrestrial terrain). On the way back to Mataram, drop by some traditional Sasak villages.
The Wild Wild East Flores
Best for wanderers
Labuan Bajo – Maumere; 366 miles (589km); 7 days
At the western tip of the island of Flores is Labuan Bajo, the portal to the world of the Komodo dragons in the Komodo National Park. Komodo aside, Flores itself is an island worth exploring. Infrastructures may not be the best, but the breathtaking nature makes up for a worthy adventurous escapade.
From Labuan Bajo, start driving to Ruteng to see cobweb-shaped rice fields unique to the region. For a dash of archaeological experience, visit the Liang Bua Cave, the excavation site of the fossilized remains of an ancient hominin dubbed as The Hobbits. Don’t miss the traditional villages around the hilly town of Bajawa that’s worth some days to explore.
Keep driving east through the scenic mountain roads to Moni, the entrance to the Kelimutu Lake. An early morning hike is a must to witness the magical tri-colored lakes in the crater. Finish your road trip at the beach town of Maumere, where warm weather will welcome you after the chilly days in the mountains.
The Toraja highland drive
Best for mountain offroad adventures
Around Toraja; 136 miles (220km); 4 days
In the heart of the strangely-shaped Sulawesi Island, Toraja is enigmatically beautiful due to its unique, elaborate funeral traditions and the natural beauties of its mountain regions. Making the sleepy town of Rantepao your Toraja base, you could easily spend one to two days exploring the numerous historical tombs around.
For a spectacular sunrise view, drive through the narrow and winding road to Lolai, the “Country Above the Clouds”, where you can see the entire valley enveloped in mist and fog creating a surreal feeling. Then drive to Bittuang, and veer off-road into vast and refreshing Dutch colonial-era coffee plantations of the world-famous Toraja coffee.
The more challenging drive will take you to the remote Ollon valley southwest of Toraja. Traverse the treacherously beautiful muddy road along Sadan River to wind up at the Masuppu River. Only 4x4 vehicles and trail motorbikes are hardy enough to reach this destination due to its steep terrain; 5 hours of rubber burning for a 40km distance, and nearly impassable after rains. But you will be rewarded spectacularly with oddly shaped, green-carpeted hills dubbed the “Teletubbies Hills”. You can also pitch your tent and camp here to adore the amazing starry night sky.
Around the Spice Island
Best for leisure seaside drive
Around Ambon; 142 miles (230km); 2-3 days
The island of Ambon, the capital of the Spice Islands of Maluku, may not be big. Still, it has a magnetic historical charm and a relaxed vibe to it and is also famous for its fresh spicy seafood culinary delights. Ambon was recognized by UNESCO as a City of Music, so don’t forget to bring your guitar and sing along with locals in your rides around the island.
From the main city, drive along the seaside road to go around the Leitimur peninsula in the southern part of the island. There are numerous beaches along the way, but don’t miss the fantastic rock formation at Pintu Kota Beach. Back to the island’s isthmus, drive along the main provincial road 25 km to the east until reaching the Tulehu Hotspring. From here, you can start an easy hike to the top of Mt. Salahutu and gawk at the crystal-blue sea around the island from the summit.
Keep driving along the north coast until you reach the historical Fort Amsterdam, a blockhouse built by the Dutch East Indies Company in 1637 used then to store looted spices. Driving back to Ambon city, don’t miss the charming Fort Victoria, the oldest fort in the Spice Islands built by the Portuguese in 1575 before the archipelago fell into the hands of the Dutch.
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