This beguiling nation of over 17,000 islands is home to a huge diversity of adventures to choose from. It's hard to beat Indonesia for the sheer range of experiences on offer.
The world’s fourth most populous country is like 100 countries melded into one: a kaleidoscope of a nation that sprawls along the equator for 5000km. Indonesia is a land of so many cultures, peoples, animals, customs, plants, sights, art and foods that it defies homogenization.
The people are as radically different from each other as the variety of landscapes you'll see. Over time, deep and rich cultures have evolved, from the spiritual Balinese to the animist belief system of the Asmat people of Papua.
Beaches & Volcanoes
Venturing across Indonesia you’ll see a wonderfully dramatic landscape as diverse as anywhere on the planet. Sulawesi's wildly multi-limbed coastline embraces white-sand beaches and diving haunts, while Sumatra is contoured by a legion of nearly 100 volcanoes marching off into the distance, several capable of erupting at any time.
Bali's beaches are the stuff of legend, but you don't have to travel far to find even more beautiful and less touristed stretches of sand in Nusa Tenggara. The Banda islands in Maluku, Derawan in Kalimantan and Pulau Weh off Sumatra all offer superb beaches too.
Dramatic sights are the norm. There’s the sublime: an orangutan lounging in a tree. The artful: a Balinese dancer executing precise moves that would make a robot seem ungainly. The idyllic: a deserted stretch of blinding white sand on Sumbawa. The astonishing: crowds in a glitzy Jakarta mall. The intriguing: tales of the beautiful Banda Islands' twisted history. The heart-stopping: the ominous menace of a Komodo dragon. The delicious: a south Bali restaurant. The solemn: Borobudur's serene magnificence.
This intoxicating land offers some of the last great adventures on earth. Sitting in the open door of a train whizzing across Java, gazing out at an empty sea while on a ship bound for the Kei Islands, hanging on to the back of a scooter on Flores, rounding the corner of an ancient West Timor village or simply trekking through the lush wilderness.
The great thing about adventure in Indonesia is that it happens when you least expect it. An orangutan swinging through the trees? Surfing breaks on remote islands? Yes and yes.
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Comprising the remains of some 244 temples, World Heritage–listed Prambanan is Indonesia's largest Hindu site and one of Southeast Asia's major attractions. The highlight is the central compound, where eight main and eight minor temples are assembled on a raised platform – an architectural crescendo of carved masonry and staircases, the high note of which is Candi Shiva Mahadeva. Prambanan sits within a large park dotted with lesser temples – a day is needed to do the site justice. Extended over two centuries, building at Prambanan commenced in the middle of the 9th century – around 50 years after Borobudur. Little else is known about the early history of this temple complex, although it’s thought that it may have been built by Rakai Pikatan to commemorate the return of a Hindu dynasty to sole power in Java. The whole Prambanan Plain was abandoned when the Hindu-Javanese kings moved to East Java and, in the middle of the 16th century, a great earthquake toppled many of the temples. Prambanan remained in ruins for years, its demise accelerated by treasure hunters and locals searching for building materials. While efforts were made in 1885 to clear the site, it was not until 1937 that reconstruction was first attempted. Most temples have now been restored to some extent, and, like Borobudur, Prambanan was listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1991. Prambanan suffered extensive damage in the 2006 earthquake. Although the main temples survived, hundreds of stone blocks collapsed or were cracked (479 blocks in the Shiva temple alone). Today the main structures have been restored, but a lot of work remains to be done and parts of the complex are still off limits. In the main courtyard, Candi Shiva Mahadeva, dedicated to Shiva, is not only the largest of the temples but also the finest. The main spire soars 47m high and the temple is lavishly carved. The ‘medallions’ that decorate its base have a characteristic Prambanan motif – small lions in niches flanked by kalpatura (trees of heaven) and a menagerie of stylised half-human, half-bird kinnara (heavenly beings). The vibrant scenes carved onto the inner wall of the gallery encircling the temple are from the Ramayana – they tell how Lord Rama’s wife, Sita, is abducted and how Hanuman, the monkey god, and Sugriwa, the white-monkey general, eventually find and release her. The temple’s interior comprises a main chamber at the top of the eastern stairway with a four-armed statue of Shiva the Destroyer. The statue is notable for the fact that this mightiest of Hindu gods stands on a huge lotus pedestal, a symbol of Buddhism. In the southern cell is the potbellied and bearded Agastya, an incarnation of Shiva as divine teacher; in the western cell is a superb image of the elephant-headed Ganesha, Shiva’s son and the god of knowledge. Ganesha's right hand, usually holding his ivory tusk, was broken off in the earthquake. In the northern cell, Durga, Shiva’s consort, can be seen killing the demon buffalo. Some people believe that the Durga image is actually an image of the Slender Virgin, who, legend has it, was turned to stone by a man she refused to marry. She is still an object of pilgrimage and her name is often used for the temple group. Candi Vishnu touches 33m and sits just north of Candi Shiva Mahadeva. The temple's impressive reliefs tell the story of Lord Krishna, a hero of the Mahabharata epic, while a four-armed image of Vishnu the Preserver crowns the inner sanctum. Candi Brahma is Candi Vishnu’s twin temple. South of Candi Shiva Mahadeva, it is carved with the final scenes of the Ramayana. The spectacular mouth doorway is noteworthy and the inner chamber contains a four-headed statue of Brahma, the god of creation. The park surrounding Prambanan contains a number of lesser-known temples, including the Buddhist temple Candi Sewu. Dating from around AD 850, it comprises dozens of outer shrines, decorated with stupas. Originally it was surrounded by four rings of 240 smaller ‘guard’ temples, leading to its name 'Thousand Temples'. Outside the compound stood four sanctuaries at the points of the compass, of which Candi Bubrah, now reduced to its stone foundation, is the most southern. The renovated main temple has finely carved niches around the inner gallery, which would once have held bronze statues. To reach Candi Sewu, hire a bike (20,000Rp) or take the toy train or golf cart (20,000Rp) that shuttle visitors back and forth from the exit of Prambanan's main temple site; failing that, it's a pleasant 20-minute walk from the main complex through semi-shaded parkland. Tickets for Prambanan can be purchased online. Options include a combined Prambanan–Kraton Ratu Boko package and a Prambanan–Borobudur discount ticket. Note that the latter is only valid for two days and doesn't cover the extra surcharge to visit at sunrise or sunset.
Dating from the 8th and 9th centuries, and built from two million blocks of stone, Borobudur is the world's largest Buddhist temple and one of Indonesia's most important cultural sites. The temple takes the form of a symmetrical stone stupa, wrapped around a hill and nestled in a compound of trimmed lawns fringed with tropical hardwoods. Remarkable for the detail of the stone carving, this beautiful monument looks particularly enigmatic at dawn and dusk – a sight worth the extra entry fee. Borobudur was conceived as a Buddhist vision of the cosmos. Rising from a square base, it comprises a series of square terraces topped by three circular platforms, linked by four stairways that thread through carved gateways to the summit. Viewed from the air, the structure resembles a 3Dl tantric mandala (symbolic circular figure) through which Buddhist pilgrims could thread a path from the everyday, represented in stone relief, towards a contemplation of nirvana at the monument's crowning stupa. Paralleling the spiritual journey towards enlightenment, the 2.5km of narrow corridors lead past rich sequences of stone reliefs that can be read as a textbook of early Javanese culture and Buddhist doctrine. The main entry point is via the eastern gateway; from here a clockwise rotation around the lower terraces reveals a carnal world of passion and desire; some friezes here are deliberately hidden by an outer covering of stone, but they are partly visible on the southern side of the monument. Bad deeds are punished through lowly reincarnation, while good deeds are rewarded by reincarnation as a higher form of life. Nearly 1460 narrative panels and 1212 decorative panels grace the monument's six terraces and a guide can help bring this pageant – the ships and elephants, musicians and dancing girls, warriors and kings – to life. Some sequences are played out over several panels. On the third terrace, for example, the dream of Queen Maya, involving a vision of white elephants with six tusks, is represented as a premonition that her son would become a Buddha, and the sequence crescendos in the birth of Prince Siddhartha and his attainment of enlightenment. Many other panels are related to Buddhist concepts of cause and effect or karma. Little guidance is needed to feel the impact of the upper platforms with their multiple images of the Buddha. A total of 432 seated statues and 72 further images (many now headless) adorn the latticed stupas on the top three terraces. The very top platform is circular, signifying the eternal. Whatever one's beliefs, the view from the monument's summit, especially on a humid day when mist rises from the surrounding paddy fields, is sublime – and made all the more spectacular if anticipated by slowly ascending through each of the terraces in turn. Admission to the temple includes entrance to the Karmawibhangga Museum, featuring 4000 original stones and carvings from the temple, and the Borobudur Museum, with more relics, interesting photographs and gamelan performances at 9am and 3pm. The Museum Kapal Samurrarska houses a full-size replica of an 8th-century spiceship, which was remarkably designed and built based on an image depicted in one of the panels that adorn Borobudur Temple. Tickets for the temple, which include a free audio guide, can be purchased online. A combined Borobudur–Prambanan ticket is only valid for two days and does not include the sunrise or sunset surcharge. Families take note that even high school children need to show a student ID card (or a letter from the school) to get the student discount rate.
These small, uninhabited and incredibly picturesque islands, 30km beyond Waigeo, feature heavily in Raja Ampat promotional material. It’s mainly liveaboards that dive here, but Wayag also attracts nondivers for its scenery, snorkelling and the challenge of scaling its highest peak, Pindito, also known as Wayag I. A second, slightly lower peak (referred to as Wayag II) offers equally breathtaking views. The most popular dive site in Wayag is Eagle Rock, an advanced endeavor with considerable current and frequent sightings of wobbegong sharks, sweetlips, barracudas, reef sharks and manta rays. Wayag's Gate, a less challenging site with little to no current, features awe-inspiring coral and the occasional manta ray. An all-day speedboat round-trip from Waisai for six to 10 people usually costs between 15,000,000Rp and 20,000,000Rp.
Newly developed as a tourist attraction in early 2018, the falls here are among the best on Bali. It’s about a 20-minute walk from the car park; a 500m trail, which is paved only with concrete stones and logs, winds through a village and coffee plantation. You'll eventually arrive at a large sign, where the path diverges to four separate cascades. Touches like colourful shrubs, bamboo huts and bridges make them especially Insta-worthy. Get here before the crowds catch on. The entrance to Banyu Wana Amertha is on a small road 3km north of Lake Buyan. It's easy enough to get to by motorbike if you're already in the area, but if coming from elsewhere on Bali, hiring a private driver to get you there is best. Bayu Sunrise can pick you up from anywhere on the island and will accompany you on the trails down to the falls; Bayu is related to many locals in the the village, so you'll be in good hands (700,000Rp for a car of up to six passengers from Ubud or Lovina).
Seemingly scattered haphazardly around the hills near Lore Lindu National Park are some 400 ancient stone megaliths of unknown origin that might be over 5000 years old. A fine assortment of these can be found – with a guide – in Bada Valley, 60km west of Tentena, including the 4m tall, anatomically correct, leaning Palindo. While you can see many of the statues in one long day from Tentena, several villages do have homestays or guesthouses including Bomba, Gintu and Tuare. To add even more adventure to your visit, consider a two-day trek over the mountains through the national park to Behoa enclave, where even more megaliths are found (as well as onward transport to Palu or Poso).
Togean Islands National Park was gazetted in 2004, and in 2017 was declared a tourism area of national significance. The park encompasses 3400 sq km of ocean and 250 sq km of land, and contains several of Indonesia's endemic and endangered plants and animals. The islands are home to 596 species of reef fish, 315 species of coral and even a few primates including the Togean macaque and Togean tarsier.
The Ijen plateau's most extraordinary sight is the magnificent turquoise sulphur lake of Kawah Ijen. A night hike to the crater in which the lake boils will introduce you to blue fire, spectacular scenery and a group of men with what must be one of the world's most unusual jobs. Pay entry fees at the PHKA post.
This scattering of ruined and partially restored temples is the most important Hindu-Buddhist site in Sumatra. The temples are believed to mark the location of the ancient city of Jambi, capital of the kingdom of Malayu 1000 years ago. Most of the candi (temples) date from the 9th to the 13th centuries, when Jambi’s power was at its peak. Grab a bicycle (per day 10,000Rp) at the entrance to explore the immensely peaceful forested site, marvelling at the temple stonework The forested site covers 12 sq km along the northern bank of the Batang Hari. The entrance is through an ornate archway in the village of Muara Jambi and most places of interest are within a few minutes’ walk. While you can wander to most of the temples on foot, to get to some of the more outlying western ruins it's best to get a bike. Much of the site still needs excavating and there is some debate as to whether visitors should be allowed to clamber all over the ruins and the restored temples. Eight temples have been identified so far, each at the centre of its own low-walled compound. Some are accompanied by perwara candi (smaller side temples) and three have been restored to something close to their original form. The site is dotted with numerous menapo (smaller brick mounds), thought to be the ruins of other buildings – possibly dwellings for priests and other high officials. The restored temple Candi Gumpung, straight ahead from the donation office, has a fiendish makara (demon head) guarding its steps. Excavation work here has yielded some important finds, including a peripih (stone box) containing sheets of gold inscribed with old Javanese characters, dating the temple back to the 9th century. A statue of Prajnyaparamita found here, and other stone carvings and ceramics, are among the highlights at the small site museum nearby. However, the best artefacts have been taken to Jakarta. Candi Tinggi, 200m southeast of Candi Gumpung, is the finest of the temples uncovered so far. It dates from the 9th century but is built around another, older temple. A path leads east from Candi Tinggi to Candi Astano, 1.5km away, passing the attractive Candi Kembar Batu, surrounded by palm trees, and lots of menapo along the way. The temples on the western side of the site are yet to be restored. They remain pretty much as they were found – minus the jungle, which was cleared in the 1980s. The western sites are signposted from Candi Gumpung. First stop, after 900m, is Candi Gedong I, followed 150m further on by Candi Gedong II. They are independent temples despite what their names may suggest. The path continues west for another 1.5km to Candi Kedaton, the largest of the temples, which, apart from a staircase guarded by deity statuettes, comprises just the base foundation; it's a peaceful and evocative site. A further 900m northwest is Candi Koto Mahligai. For centuries the site lay abandoned and overgrown in the jungle on the banks of the Batang Hari. It was ‘rediscovered’ in 1920 by a British army expedition sent to explore the region. The dwellings of the ordinary Malayu people have been replaced by contemporary stilt houses of the Muara Jambi village residents. According to Chinese records, Malayu people once lived along the river in stilted houses or in raft huts moored to the bank. There is no public transport from Jambi (26km away) to Muara Jambi. You can charter a speedboat (400,000Rp) from Jambi’s river pier to the site. A Grab taxi will cost around 120,000Rp one way, or you can hire an ojek (50,000Rp).
Beside the southern alun-alun (main square), Yogya's enormous kraton (palace) is the cultural and political heart of this fascinating city. Effectively a walled city, this complex of pavilions and residences is home to around 25,000 people and encompasses a market, shops, cottage industries, schools and mosques. Around 1000 of the inhabitants are employed by the resident sultan. Although it's technically part of the kraton, there's a separate entrance (and ticket) for the Pagelaran Pavilion, overlooking the northern alun-alun. The kraton comprises a series of luxurious halls, spacious courtyards and pavilions built between 1755 and 1756, with European flourishes, such as Dutch-influenced stained glass, added in the 1920s. There were originally separate entrances to the kraton for men and women, marked by giant male and female dragons (although it's hard to determine which are which!). Although this segregation is no longer practised, an appreciation of history runs deep here, and the palace is attended by dignified elderly retainers, who wear traditional Javanese dress. The innermost complex is off limits as the current sultan still resides here, but visitors can enter some of the surrounding courtyards. Alas, the treasures of the palace are poorly displayed, but it remains a fascinating place to wander. At the centre of the kraton is the reception hall, the Bangsal Kencana (Golden Pavilion). With a fine marble floor, intricately decorated roof, stained-glass windows and columns of carved teak, it makes a suitably imposing statement for the reception of foreign dignitaries. The gifts from some of these illustrious visitors, including European monarchy, are housed within two little museums in the same courtyard complex. Interesting exhibits here also include gilt copies of the sacred pusaka (heirlooms of the royal family) and gamelan instruments, the royal family tree, old photographs of grand mass weddings and portraits of the former sultans of Yogya. A modern memorial building dedicated to the beloved Sultan Hamengkubuwono IX, with photographs and some of his personal effects, occupies some side rooms. Outside the kraton, in the centre of the northern square, there are two sacred waringin (banyan trees). In the days of feudal Java, white-robed petitioners would patiently sit here, hoping to catch the eye of the king. In the alun-alun kidul (southern square), two similar banyan trees are said to bring great fortune to those who can walk blindfolded between them without mishap; on Friday and Saturday nights the youth of Yogya attempt this feat to a chorus of laughter from friends. Daily performances in the kraton's inner pavilion are included in the price of the entrance ticket. Currently, there’s gamelan on Monday and Tuesday (10am to noon), wayang golek (puppetry) on Wednesday (9am to noon), classical dance on Thursday (10am to noon), Javanese poetry readings on Friday (10am to 11.30am), leather puppetry on Saturday (9am to 1pm) and Javanese dance on Sunday (11am to noon).
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