First Impressions of Indonesia
Like most Aussies, I grew up with one image of Indonesia standing out above all others.
The image of singlet wearing, fake tanned, drunk Aussie blokes and shielas drinking, fucking, and generally carrying on like the assholes they are someplace that would have been beautiful if not for their presence.
Bali, like Cancun to Americans or Ibiza to the British, became synonymous with everything wrong with travel: hedonism, ethnocentrism, disrespect for local culture, and disregard for the lasting impact their two week escape from otherwise drab lives left behind.
In tourism studies, Bali had reached what is described as oversaturation, a precursor to what the Butler Sequence refers to as ‘decline’.
In less wanky terms – due to having too many assholes, Bali had been covered in shit.
Of course, this isn’t to say Bali is an unmitigated shitstorm or even a lost cause.
Those who get away from the main tourist drag still have great things to say about the island, and my own (brief) time there was far from the scenes from Bangla Road in Phuket that more closely resembled the last days of fabled Sodom.
I don’t want to give the impression that I think Bali is awful (it isn’t) or that everybody going there is an unforgiveable asshole (they aren’t).
Instead, I thought I’d instead highlight places in Indonesia that I think are more deserving of your time, money, and – most importantly – respect & admiration.
8 Beautiful Places to Visit in Indonesia (That Aren’t Bali)
#8 – East Java
A sparsely populated volcanic playground, the sweeping landscapes and isolation of East Java are at odds with Indonesia’s reputation as a bustling, often overcrowded nation.
It’s a region of towering peaks, brooding volcanoes, and sweeps of isolated jungle perfect for the adventurous.
Highlights include Mt. Bromo (an active volcano), crater lakes such as Kawah Ijen, and gaping craters such as Ijen; but the cities of the region are no less developed and charming than their larger counterparts.
It’s definitely an adventurer’s playground, but there’s a little something for everybody.
#7 – Raja Ampat
Located close to Papua New Guinea, Raja Ampat (Four Kings) is like something out of a travel postcard. Islands of rock and tropical green cut dramatic figures as they jut out of turquoise waters to stab at cerulean skies, boats skim across the calm waters like water bugs, and locals mix warm smiles with looks of mistrust that come with being a bit off the beaten path.
A long trek from the more popular tourist spots, Raja Ampat’s isolation acts as both a deterrent to the less adventurous and a lure to those of us who could use a break from fellow travelers.
Even its individual islands aren’t clustered close together like in ‘other’ tropical paradises, and it’s the kind of place where western mod-cons aren’t going to be found in abundance (if at all).
This isn’t a place for clubbing or catching up on your work, but if you like the beach, diving, and being off the grid for a while, it might just be what you’re looking for.
Interested? A Travellers’ Journey has a pretty brilliant guide to Raja Ampat.
#6 – Jakarta
The Indonesian capital often gets a bad wrap due to its sprawling size, ball-sweaty heat, and persistent chaos. It is the prototypical South-East Asian city – a noisy, dirty mish-mash of western and eastern idealogies crashing into one another with all the subtlety of a head-on collision.
It’s sometimes described as being like Bangkok, albeit a diluted version of that charming city that terrifies at first glance but ultimately wins you over.
It might not have the natural beauty of other Indonesian spots or the cultural draw of some other Southeast Asian cities, but for those who have not experienced this kind of chaos before – it’s an experience.
Titillated? Travel Lush highlights here nine things to do in Jakarta.
#5 – The Gili Islands
They’re technically part of Lombok, but the Gili Islands are something of a ‘new Bali’. They’re the laid back Koh Tao to Koh Phangan’s more debauched, hedonism.
Gili Air, Gili Meno, and Gili Trawangan (known to backpackers as Gili Tralala) have the white sand and crystal clear waters that come to mind when imagining paradise, but without the level of development that has spoiled places like Bali and Thailand’s Koh Phi Phi.
Gili Trawangan is hardly a secret, with many backpackers already big fans of the island’s beauty and nightlife, so if you’re looking for the Bali experience without the potential Bali hepatitis, consider the Gili Islands.
Curious? Read Jones Around the World’s very good Backpacker’s Guide to Gili.
#4 – Sumatra
If you’re looking for a walk on the wilder side of Indonesia, the archipelago’s largest island is the place for you.
Sumatra is not only the place to go in Indonesia to see orangutans in the wild, but it’s also one of the last places on earth where you’ll find the Sumatran tiger in the wild. While you’re unlikely to spot tigers in your travels, orangutan hikes in Bukit Lawang all but guarantee you’ll see these orange primates in their natural habitat.
Scuba divers are spoiled for choice in the islands and atolls that surround Sumatra, with Pulau Weh in the region’s north considered one of the absolute best places on earth for scuba diving.
Wanting to relax? Lake Toba is the world’s largest caldera lake and the island of Samosir at its heart has become synonymous with peaceful escapes. While the serene island paradise experienced its heyday in the 80s, it’s still every bit as peaceful and charming as it once was. Perhaps even more so.
#3 – Yogyakarta
The gateway to famous historic sites and architectural wonders like Borobudur and Prambanan, Yogyakarta is one of Indonesia’s most popular tourist destinations.
They certainly aren’t the only sites of religious or historic significance, and it can prove overwhelming trying to figure out just what to see and experience while in the city.
A place where Indonesia’s rich history and culture can be explored in a more intimate and sedate way, Yogyakarta also benefits from its history as both a sultanate and a former Dutch colony, creating an intriguing fusion that you don’t see everywhere in Indonesia.
Keen? Robert from Leave Your Daily Hell explains how best to spend three days in Yogyakarta.
#2 – Lombok
The next island over from more crowded and well-known Bali, Lombok is a slightly drier but no less impressive island of beaches, tropical forests, and cultural adventures.
My favourite element of Lombok was undoubtedly its waterfalls and mountains, which were a nice break from the crowds in Bali and the inevitable presence of enterprising kids that line the beaches trying to sell you bananas, coconuts, and scarves.
While tourism is big business here, and Sengiggi certainly reflects this, it still feels like you’re in another country with its own unique personality and customs. Close to Bali in proximity, but not in tackiness.
Intrigued? Read about my time exploring Lombok’s waterfalls.
#1 – Komodo Islands
My overnight live-aboard and day spent alternating between potentially man-eating dinosaurs and amazingly warm, clear waters for snorkeling above colourful reefs remains one of my favourite travel memories.
We packed a fridge full of beers (although not nearly enough, as we’d learn at 10pm), leaped off the crow’s nest into the water, snapped photos of the sunset, chased after exotic fish, fretted over the affects of menstruation on a Komodo Dragon’s appetite, played stupid drinking games, gasped at skies filled with bats and lightning, and finally fell asleep to the distant rumble of thunder.
It was the kind of night that comes to epitomise why it is I love travel, and it was made possible by this chain of fascinating, largely uninhabited islands that look barren but foster some of the most unusual life you’ll ever see.
If somebody were to ask me, “Why should I go to Indonesia”, the Komodo Islands would be my single, emphatic answer. They’re something every traveler should aspire to seeing.
Interest piqued? Read The Freedom Travellers’ tale about our time sailing Komodo National Park.
What are your favourite spots in Indonesia?