Indonesia: An Oft Overlooked Gem of Southeast Asia
Just below the southeast Asian tourism hot spots of Thailand, the Philippines, and Vietnam is a country with stunning landscapes, deliciously spicy food, and unforgettable experiences.
It’s perilously close to Australia, although the majority of my countrymen never venture far from the overcrowded beaches of Kuta, Bali when they do make the journey across.
I speak, of course, about Indonesia – a criminally underrated and oft-overlooked destination whose thousands of islands offer up something for everybody.
A Growing Obsession with Indonesia
In the past two years, I’ve been lucky enough to visit Indonesia twice.
My first visit saw me searching for dragons in the parched Komodo Islands and hiking to gorgeous waterfalls in Lombok, while my return journey in early 2017 had me trekking for orangutans, kayaking the world’s largest volcanic crater lake, and scuba diving the stunning waters of Pulau Weh.
Oh, and I broke my arm without travel insurance. Whoops!
Even with this somewhat painful mishap, Indonesia remains one of my favourite countries to explore.
This nation of islands is one of stunning natural beauty, ever ready smiles, amazing food, and unique experiences.
10 Reasons Why You Should Visit Indonesia ASAP
#10 – The Amazing Food
Indonesian food doesn’t get the same level of fanatical devotion as Thai curries or Vietnamese pho, and it’s a crying shame.
To me, Indonesian food is one of the most criminally underappreciated cuisines in the world, with a fusion of ingredients from across Southeast Asia coming together to create some truly amazing flavours.
While exploring Sumatra earlier this year, Adventures Around Asia and I ate some truly mouth-watering $2 roadside meals of fragrant satay, spicy BBQ fish, simple nasi goreng, and fiery rendang curry that had us re-evaluating our life choices. Had we been living in the wrong country for the better part of four years?
Indonesia’s signature dish, the rendang ‘dry curry’, regularly tops lists of the world’s favourite foods with good reason, but give me a flavourful mie goreng and I’m a happy camper.
Check out Migrationology’s impressive list of the 50 best Indonesian foods for more culinary inspiration.
#9 – The Mountains and Beaches of Lombok
Often overshadowed by nearby Bali, Lombok is an untamed wilderness of dense rain forests, towering waterfalls, and soaring mountains mingling with quaint farms, white sand beaches, and the ominous presence of Indonesia’s second highest volcano, Gunung Rinjani.
Often seen as little more than the gateway to the nearby Gili Islands, Lombok has a lot to offer those who are willing to surrender their creature comforts and get off the beaten track.
Hikers are going to be especially enamoured of the island’s many hiking trails, with the trek to the top of Gunung Rinjani something of a bucket list goal for ambitious climbers. With a crater lake and hot springs waiting as the reward at the summit, it’s something to aspire to.
Surfers and beach fanatics will find cerulean waters and world-class breaks aplenty along the island’s southern coast, and it’s the perfect appetizer before heading to the more popular Gili beaches.
#8 – Historic Sites
With so much natural beauty to be found scattered about the Andaman Sea like jewels, it’s easy to forget that Indonesia has a rich history every bit as fascinating as that that spawned historic sites such as Angkor Wat in Cambodia and Ayutthaya in Thailand.
Borobudur is a breathtaking Buddhist temple that has become emblematic of Indonesia and is one of the nation’s most popular tourist attractions with good reason, but you’ve also got towering Prambanan Temple, the impressive Great Mosque of Demak, and the Yogyakarta Palace to amaze and humble.
If colonial history is of interest to you, you’ll find plenty of Dutch influence in the architecture of cities such as Jakarta. Once known as the Dutch East Indies, Indonesia still possesses some of this colonial influence, and it makes for some startling contrasts against the modern architecture that now dominates Indonesia.
#7 – Bali
It wouldn’t be an Indonesia countdown without including the nation’s most famous island. Bali is so famous that, in all seriousness, I’ve met people who honestly thought it was a country all of its own.
Australia’s most beloved beach playground, the beaches of Kuta have become infamously associated with Bintang singlet wearing, Southern Cross tattoo having bogans looking for a fight. With flights to Bali being very affordable from most Australian cities, it’s no surprise that we Aussies flock there in droves. Many a first-time traveler has graced the hostels in Bali and ‘discovered themselves’ after three too many cocktails.
It’s a real shame too, as there is far more to Bali than just the tourist strip. As Justine from The Travel Lush says, there’s more than just Kuta in Bali.
From the hipster heaven of Ubud to emerging spots like Canggu, there’s something for all walks of life on Indonesia’s most beloved island.
With Richelle and I looking for a base for 2018, you’d best believe we’ve been reading Little Grey Box’s detailed guide to living in Bali.
#6 – Scuba Diving
Indonesia possesses some truly world class scuba diving sites, and diving enthusiasts are sure to find something here that they’ve found nowhere else in the world.
While scuba diving in Pulau Weh earlier this year, I was diving alongside people with so many dives to their name that they’d lost count, but you’d best believe we all emerged from the water with the same looks of wide-eyed wonder on our faces.
20% of the world’s coral reefs can be found in Indonesia, and that is further complemented by ancient wrecks, underwater volcanoes, and a whole swathe of other attractions.
If you do make it to Pulau Weh, be sure to go diving with Rubiah Tirta Dive Center, who took amazing care of me both during my dives and after I broke my arm falling off their boat like an idiot.
#5 – Explore the Gili Islands
For those wanting the prototypical desert island experience, the white sands, turquoise waters, and coconut palms of the Gili Islands might be just what you’re looking for.
While the islands (especially Gili Trawangan aka Gili T) have experienced a huge upswing in popularity in recent years, they’re still considerably less developed and less crowded than the Kuta tourist strip in nearby Bali.
The three islands each boast something a little different: a vibrant backpacker scene on Gili T, a laid-back local vibe on Gili Air, and an upmarket charm on Gili Meno.
Whichever island you choose, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more gorgeous corner of the world.
#4 – East Java
For those wanting to get well and truly off the beaten path and experience unspoiled natural beauty, East Java might be the tonic for what ails you.
A lost world of volcanic peaks, jungle valleys, and unspoiled wilderness, East Java is Indonesia’s least populated province and one of its most endearing.
The Bromo-Tengger-Semeru National Park is home to the towering twin volcanic peaks of Mount Bromo and Mount Semeru, and the land surrounding the volcanoes is one of fertile forest, serene crater lakes, and rugged mountains. It’s truly spectacular.
The Ijen Plateau is a volcanically active region that draws adventurers and hikers from all around the world. Ijen Crater, with its brilliant blue waters, is a highlight of the arduous hike into the mountains.
For pure natural beauty, it’s hard to rival East Java’s rugged interior. While many think of Indonesia’s beaches when they plan their trip, it’s worth remembering the nation’s truly stunning mountains as well.
#3 – Raja Ampat
For those wanting to get away from it all, there are few places on earth farther away from ‘it all’ than gorgeous Raja Ampat.
Home to some of the world’s best scuba diving, the four islands of Raja Ampat are located in the Western Papua province – a long way from the more well-touristed areas of Indonesia.
Its location makes it difficult to reach and its lack of tourism development means you’re going to be off the grid while you’re there, but if being away from your emails for a few blissful weeks sounds good to you – there are few places on earth better than Raja Ampat.
Pristine, unspoiled, and utterly unforgettable.
#2 – Komodo National Park
You don’t need HBO to see dragons. Indonesia’s Komodo National Park is home to the impressive Komodo Dragons, gigantic members of the monitor family famed for their aggression and their fearsome predatory instincts.
Confined to just two islands in the park, the Komodo Dragons are one of Indonesia’s best-known inhabitants, and the chance to walk alongside these 3+ metre reptiles is a real thrill, even if they’re content to just lie in the sun and wait for somebody to throw scraps from the kitchen window.
While the Komodo Dragons may be the real drawcard for the region, I myself loved the experience of overnighting on a houseboat out among the islands and swimming in the crystal clear waters. After a long, hot day of trekking in search of Komodo Dragons, it’s a real treat to slip into the water and wash away the day’s dust.
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Good morning, Bukit Lawang! Nestled on the fringes of Gunung Leuser National Park, this riverside village is resplendent with laid back charm. Ahead of tomorrow's orangutan trekking adventures, we've spent today eating delicious local food, wandering the winding alleys and swaying bridges, and taking a wee nap to escape the day's heat. Tomorrow, we venture into the jungle property for an overnight trekking experience. Wish us luck!
#1 – Sumatra
Indonesia’s largest island is one of its most breathtakingly beautiful, and you could easily use up the entirety of your 30-day visa exploring just a fraction of Sumatra’s sprawling charm.
My ten-day visit to Indonesia in February only managed to scratch the surface of northern Sumatra, where we were able to trek into the jungle looking for orangutans, scuba dive Pulau Weh, and spend a few blessedly serene days on Lake Toba.
The island’s rugged interior is home to all manner of wildlife, including Sumatran tigers and orangutans. While the endandered tigers are a rare sight indeed, ambitious explorers can embark on week-long (or longer) treks into the jungle in search of them.
Surfers, scuba divers, and beach lovers will find plenty to love on the small islands that lie off Sumatra’s coast, while Lake Toba makes for one of the most relaxing escapes you’re likely to find – it’s all idyllic farms and quiet beaches.
Put simply, Sumatra is reason enough to visit Indonesia even if the rest of this list hasn’t won you over.
As you can see, Indonesia is far more than “just Bali”. Whether you’re a scuba diver, a hiking enthusiast, a wildlife lover, a culture junkie, or an amateur historian, there’s a little something for everyone!
Mix that in with amazing food, cheap prices, and friendly people, and you’ve got a recipe for an unforgettable vacation.
Interested in making it happen? Check out Momondo for the best prices on flights and accommodation.
Have your travels taken you to Indonesia yet?
What has been your favourite Indonesian experience?
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