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Beyond Bali: Beautiful Places to Visit in Indonesia
When tourists visiting Indonesia are asked where exactly they're going, they usually respond: "Bali." (Amusingly, a small percentage of tourists don't know that Bali is part of Indonesia!) While Bali is certainly a beautiful place with lots of natural and cultural attractions, the Island of the Gods is not the only place Indonesia can offer to the world. Here I list some of the more interesting places to visit while in Indonesia. I've had the good fortune to visit some of these places, which do not receive as much tourist footfall as Bali for various reasons. If you're looking to visit Indonesia, be sure to consider some of these places!
Raja Ampat Islands
Far in Indonesia’s eastern territory lies many exotic locations and wonders still awaiting to be discovered. One such location is the Raja Ampat islands, located off the coast of Papua’s Bird’s Head Peninsula. It received its name, which means ‘four kings’, from a local folklore in which four kings emerged from eggs. These kings probably refer to the four main islands within the area. The islands boast beautiful coastlines and pristine tropical seas, home to various types of coral and fish. In fact, it is located at the heart of the Coral Triangle, and as such it’s a prime spot for divers. As part of the Cendrawasih Bay, Indonesia’s largest marine park, it is frequently cited as one of the top ten diving sites in the world.
Reaching Raja Ampat takes time – you will need to take a six-hour flight from Jakarta to Sorong, and then a ferry ride to the Raja Ampat islands. Accommodation and amenities tend to be more expensive in the area as well, partly due to the fact that most resources have to be imported from Indonesia’s western regions. Still, if you can afford it, you should try going to Raja Ampat and experience beautiful landscapes the likes of which cannot be found anywhere else.
Bromo - Tengger - Semeru National Park
This national park, located in East Java province, features two major volcanoes, Mount Bromo and Mount Semeru. The region around Mount Bromo is the more popular of the two mountains due to its easy access and breathtaking sceneries, while Mount Semeru is better known as a hiking destination. Mount Bromo is actually located inside a caldera of a large, ancient volcano, and the caldera itself is very unique: it features a wide grassy plain and a vast expanse of volcanic sand known locally as ‘lautan pasir’ (sea of sand).
You can camp on the area surrounding Mount Bromo and enjoy a night under the stars – as there are little to no artificial lighting in the area, you will get a very nice view of the night sky when the weather is clear. Just be sure to pack some warm clothes, since the temperature on the sea of sand can get below 10 degrees Celsius at night. You should also ask the park rangers about how to camp around the mountain – they’ll check your gear and tell you what you need to know.
Located in North Sumatra, Lake Toba is a volcanic lake with an interesting history: it is actually the caldera of a supervolcano. Supervolcanoes, as the name suggests, are souped-up versions of volcanoes, which can erupt at intensities at least a thousand times larger than the average volcano. In the case of Lake Toba, the volcano erupted in prehistoric times and is said to have triggered a volcanic winter that killed the majority of humans living at the time. The eruption was an explosive one and destroyed the volcano, leaving a crater which was eventually filled with water and became the lake we see today. It is the largest lake in Indonesia as well as the largest volcanic lake in the world.
Lake Toba is quite unique in that it has a large volcanic island, Samosir, sitting in the middle of it. The island, as well as the area around the lake, is the ancestral homeland of many tribes of the Batak ethnic group. Keep an eye out for the unique Batak houses, and maybe sample some of their cuisine: I am told that their roast pork is to die for!
Borobudur and Prambanan
The arrival of Hinduism and Buddhism to the Indonesian archipelago, around the 4th century AD, marked the beginning of recorded history in Indonesia, and ushered in an age of rivalling kingdoms. Many of these kingdoms created great works of written lore and architecture. One such kingdom, the Mataram Kingdom, had great influence in Java. Within their territory, many ancient temples, known as candi (read as ‘chan-dee’, not ‘candy’), were constructed. The most famous of Indonesia’s many candi are Borobudur and Prambanan.
Borobudur is a large Buddhist structure in Magelang, Central Java, that consists of many stupa, with a very large one at the peak. The temple contains the largest and most complete ensemble of Buddhist reliefs, according to UNESCO. Once buried underground due to a series of volcanic eruptions, it was uncovered during the Dutch colonial era. Major restoration works were done over the years, and it is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The complex also features a museum that houses some artifacts related to Buddhism in Java and the history of the temple. The temple is used for Vesak Day celebrations every year, and therefore remains as sacred ground – please exercise the proper respect in the temple. Tourists who are showing too much skin may be asked to wear sarong (a piece of cloth for the lower body) that is provided at the entrance.
Prambanan is a Hindu temple, situated near the border between Yogyakarta and Central Java provinces. The complex is thought to originally have about 240 temples, but the majority of them have been destroyed by volcanic eruptions. Fortunately, the ones that are still standing have been restored. A popular folktale tells the story of a prince who wanted to impress a princess by building a thousand temples in one night. He enlisted the help of magical spirits, who did the work with such speed, but the princess tricked the spirits into thinking that the sun was rising and forced the spirits to flee before finishing the last temple. The prince, furious, cursed the princess to turn into stone. Today, the temple complex is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it hosts regularly scheduled performances of the Ramayana, a Hindu epic. The complex is also used during major Hindu celebrations.
Baluran National Park
Baluran National Park is located in East Java province, close to Banyuwangi (from which you can take a ferry to go to Bali). This national park is something of a hidden gem, even to Indonesians – I never knew this park existed until last year, when I went on a trip around Java with friends. The national park’s main feature is its savanna. While not as vast as those seen in Africa, the savanna remains an incredible sight to behold, especially in the dry season when the grass is dry and turns golden-brown. The park also features a beach, and is home to many animals, such as monkeys, water buffaloes and peafowl. If you’re lucky, you might be able to spot the Javanese bull, which are not as common as they used to be but roam freely in this national park.
The park has several rooms that you can rent to stay the night, in case you want to enjoy the clear night sky over the park. (The only lights in the park are the ones in the park rangers’ office and tourist lodgings.) However, amenities are very limited: there are no hot showers and no food or drinks are provided. As a reminder, tap water in Indonesia is NOT safe to drink. If you choose to stay a night in the park, remember to buy some instant food and enough bottled water before you enter the park.
While Komodo Island is a beautiful island in its own right, it is best known as the home of Komodo dragons – ancient, gigantic monitor lizards with a fearsome bite. These lizards can bring down cows and buffalos easily with their strong jaws, and their saliva contains highly toxic bacteria that can kill humans. Despite all that, though, tourists still go to this small island in the Nusa Tenggara Timur (‘Southeastern Islands’) province to see the dragons for themselves. The lizards typically do not attack humans unless threatened, but obviously you shouldn’t try to approach them too closely. Do take heed of the warnings regarding how you should approach Komodo dragons.
Apart from the lizards, take your time to enjoy the unique landscape of the island, with its savannas and rolling hills. It’s a unique landscape that’s not typical of tropical regions, and seems to be the trademark of the drier regions in the southeastern islands.
There are many other places of interest in Indonesia, and I hope to be able to visit many more of them in the coming years. Which of these places have you visited? If there are other places that you'd like to share about or you'd like to find out more about, just drop a comment!