For whatever inscrutable reason, in the mind of a common tourist, Indonesia is often equated to Bali: beach resorts, surfing, parties, a large volcano that serves as a good background for selfies, a few meditation retreats, some rice fields, and all of it can be covered in a few days. This is very much like assuming that the USA is essentially Miami with some insignificant infrastructure hanging off the sides. In reality, Indonesia is one the largest countries in the world, so long as you count the territorial waters - and you should, because you will be crossing them more than once. Think of over 17000 islands in two oceans, many of them supporting their own ethnic groups, languages, localized economy, endemic species of plants and animals, traditional customs, folk beliefs and magic rituals. This ensures extreme cultural diversity so that hopping between major Indonesian archipelagoes feels a lot like swapping countries. Add mild equatorial climate and some of the nicest people in the world, and you will see why for a traveller every island feels like a shard of paradise.
Diversity is the keyword. One lifetime won’t be enough to see, experience and learn everything Indonesia has to offer. And since few tourists have a couple of years to spare, choosing the right islands to visit is important. Budget airlines now form a network covering the entire country, and for the smallest populated islands with no airports, sea ferries save the day, but playing leapfrog over the ocean means you’ll spend the bulk of your trip staring at clouds or waves out of flying and floating metal boxes. Hence, a few hints to help you choose.
For cultural attractions, Java is the best. It has a long history of warring empires, centuries’ worth of legends, unique customs, magic rituals, Borobudur, Prambanan and hundreds of other ancient temples, traditional dances and craft villages. Sumatra comes close second, and it’s near (but huge – it takes three full days to cover its length on a bus). If, however, you prefer tribal cultures, your destination should be East Nusa Tenggara. Wae Rebo village with its whip duels, the warriors and shamans of Sumba, the traditional whalers of Lamalera, is what you need to explore.
Wildlife is abundant everywhere, but for the most interesting species, there are specific spots. For instance, Gunung Leuser in Sumatra for orangutans, Tangkoko in Sulawesi for tarsiers and black macaques, Togean Islands for stingless jellyfish, and of course, Komodo for the endemic giant lizards. Volcanoes are just as ubiquitous, but some are more unusual than others. Kawah Ijen in Java has that famous blue fire, a flow of burning molten sulfur, while Kelimutu in Flores harbours three crater lakes of different colours, and Bromo-Tengger caldera (in Java again) is just plain beautiful. For the most idyllic beaches, aim for any small island sheltered by a larger landmass – unless you’re a surfer, in which case the Andaman (west) side of Sumatra is believed to be perfect. Lombok boasts a beach with pink sand, made of tiny coral shards, not yet really discovered by tourists. North Sulawesi and Maluku have the best coral gardens underwater. Otherwise, each of the 17000 islands is a typical equatorial paradise: transparent ocean, magic sunsets, greenery and lovely people.
Cover photo © istock/Yarygin
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