The world’s largest island nation, Indonesia, comprises about 17,000 islands sprawling over almost two million square kilometers on either side of the equator. It includes half of the world’s second-largest island, New Guinea, and most of the world’s third-largest, Borneo, as well as rugged Sumatra and busy Java. Its distinctive wildlife includes pygmy elephants, tree kangaroos, and the Komodo dragon; its dramatic landscape embraces ancient rice terraces, untamed jungle, and islands with pristine coral-fringed by white sands lava-spewing volcanoes. And now that national carrier Garuda has launched the first direct flights from the UK to Jakarta, the nation’s capital and transport hub, Britons are just two flights away from pretty much anywhere in the archipelago.
Indonesia’s cultures are as diverse as its geography. Home to the world’s largest Muslim population, it’s also studded with ancient Hindu temples, and its quarter of a billion inhabitants practice six officially recognized religions, as well as a range of animist rituals.
Swept by the Indian and Pacific Oceans, it’s one of the best diving destinations globally – many would argue the best. Year-round breaks in warm, tropical waters bring surfers flocking to Bali and nearby Sumbawa and the westerly Mentawai islands.
Like any developing nation, Indonesia presents its travel challenges. Litter, particularly plastic, is an issue, while traffic, grime, and massive inequality can make cities grim places at first glance. While cheap air travel has opened up great swathes of the nation, it can still take huge amounts of time to get from A to B. Java has a working rail network. Sumatra has a handful of lines, but many journeys will involve internal flights, jolting bus journeys, ferries of various shapes, sizes, and safety standards, or, quite often, all of these. Travelfish.org is a great Indonesia travel planning resource.
You could spend years exploring Indonesia and barely scratch the surface. We focus on the most-visited areas – Bali, Java, Lombok, and up-and-coming Flores – with some suggestions for adventures further afield.
BALI Sidemen Valley, Bali
While parts of lush, approachable Bali are textbook examples of the impact of mass tourism, it remains, in essence, the island that enchanted western artists in the 1930s. A well-rounded trip will include a bit of beach and time in Ubud and a few days elsewhere inland Eftcrop.
Bali, in general, is less about the beaches themselves than the water. Pemuteran on the north coast and Amed on the east coast offer outstanding diving and snorkeling: don’t miss the remains of the USS Liberty near Amed, one of the very few substantial wrecks to lie in relatively shallow and calm waters close to shore. Euro Dive offers two dives for £40. Hipster Canggu on the west coast and the peaceful Bukit peninsula in the far south are surfing destinations. Uluwatu and Padang-Padang on the Bukit peninsula have waves to challenge experts. In Canggu, Old Man’s Beach is kind to beginners (expect to pay under £20 for a two-hour lesson with board hire from any guys with board stands on the beach), while Echo Beach is better for intermediates above.
Ubud is Bali’s spiritual center.
Inland, Ubud, the island’s cultural and spiritual capital, maybe touristy but still offers top-notch food, ancient temples, colorful ritual, handicrafts, and self-improvement activities from silver-smithing to every kind of yoga on the planet. The annual Ubud Readers and Writers Festival runs from 28 October-1 November this year.
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The real Bali can be found deep inland. Besakih, with its Hindu Mother Temple, the sacred volcano, Mount Agung, and popular Sidemen for rice field walks and staggering views to the east. Munduk has waterfalls and highland hikes to the north and west, Bedugul is cool enough for strawberries to grow, and there’s nothing quite like easing sore muscles in lakeside hot springs after a sunrise climb the Mount Batur volcano.
And today, thanks to metered taxis, Uber, and a host of shuttle services, including the new Kura Kura bus with its mobile app, Bali is easy to get around without braving the hectic traffic or the bemo minibus network. The rainy season peaks between December and February, bringing high humidity and grey days: the weather is at its best between April and August. However, traffic is terrible over the August peak.