Ampersand's mini-guide to Indonesia
Indonesia… A colourful fusion of cultures, religions, ancient tribes, 200+ languages, exotic wildlife, traditions crafted by ancestors-passed, and all spread across the world’s largest archipelago of a.17,000 islands. With such diversity it may be hard to decide where to start, so here are a few pointers for the confused traveller…
WHERE TO VISIT
For volcanoes and historic sites, you will not be disappointed with Java. Home to the biggest Buddhist temple in the world, Borobudur, and no less than 45 active volcanoes, this island has plenty to offer travellers and budding explorers.
Javanese landscape is truly breath-taking, and this in part is due to the volcanoes, not simply because of the rugged skyline and rocky plains, but because the volcanic soil is extremely fertile, and so the land here is the brightest shades of green. It is a patchwork quilt of rice paddies, tea plantations and palm sugar fields. As you drive through villages and up to the mountain tops you’ll also pass endless pastures of cloves, nutmeg and tobacco – all of which give the warm air an exotic sweet fragrance.
What visitors to Java must also sample is the coffee, this being the largest exporter of coffee of any single country in the world.
A must-see of Java is Mount Ijen, the lesser known of the active volcanoes on the far eastern coast. Rise in the early hours to hike to the top of the Ijen plateau, which is surrounded by three volcanoes. You’ll be standing on the edge of an abyss, the ground tumbling away in a long dramatic sweep before you, into the mouth of the crater, and billowing clouds of yellow sulphuric gases surging from the depths below.
Emerging out of the rising dawn are the sulphur mine workers who climb down into the crater multiple times every day from 3 am. This is an impressive feat as they collect huge chunks of ore in wicker baskets, tied to either end of a bamboo shoot, and which are then precariously balanced on their shoulders. Their impossible strength and balance will leave you astonished. For those daring souls who want to follow their lead, climb down into the active volcano to see the “Blue Fire”, when the sulphuric rocks glow blue in the dark. And as the sun rises witness the vast crater lake appear out of the darkness, 1 km across and bright turquoise in colour. Don’t be fooled by the translucent water though, it is an acid lake – a deadly case of look, but don’t touch!
Standing at the centre of this ancient, active volcano, how can one describe this strange environment…? It feels otherworldly, like walking on the moon.
Bali is Indonesia’s most famous island, despite being tiny in comparison to neighbouring Java. It is a bustling hub of Hindu culture and spiritual traditions, nicknamed the “island of a thousand temples” and home to the majority of Indonesia’s Hindu population.
This island is full of character and colour, customs and culture, and what fascinates me about this tiny island is how the people’s history is still very much a part of their daily life, with age-old traditions respected and observed to this day. The jovial and laid back nature of the locals is infectious too – this whole island has a peaceful influence on all who venture forth.
The spirituality here is hard to miss with countless customs performed daily, Hindu offerings on every corner and the smell of jasmine and frangipani incense lingering in the breeze. The myriad temples to be explored here is impressive too with Ubud playing host to some of the most beautiful; Tirta Empul Temple, the “Water temple” and Pura Gunung Kawi “Valley of the Kings” in particular.
For those looking for adventure in the great outdoors, Bali will not disappoint. Whether you prefer leisurely cycling tours through terraced rice paddies, hitting the surf in the Indian Ocean or diving a 60-year old submerged WW2 shipwreck at Tulamben, you can really immerse yourself in the natural and diverse ecosystem Bali has to offer. This is an island that offers far more than sun, sea and sand – although they’re pretty good too.
Lombok is the smaller neighbour of Bali and sitting only a short boat ride away, it would be a shame not to hop over for a visit at least. The west coast of the Lombok is sheltered from the harsh waves of the Indian ocean and so offers calmer seas and quiet sandy beaches for those days where a sun lounger is all you need.
The Gili Islands, popular with backpackers and honeymooners are situated on the north-west coast of Lombok and provide idyllic beaches and fantastic scuba-diving. The luxury hotels in this area have private boats and are perfect for a day trip to this picture-perfect paradise, to do as much or a little as you wish.
In the heart of the North Regency of Lombok is Mount Rinjani, the second biggest volcano in Indonesia, reaching dizzy heights of over 3,500 metres. Active travellers can challenge themselves with trekking excursions from 1-2 nights. But for those not so height hungry, explore the lower ground, where cascading waterfalls and natural springs roll off the top of Mount Rinjani. Sendang Gile and Tiu Kelep waterfalls are particularly special, and a short trek through the jungle and a wade through icy cold rivers will take you to the momentous point of their expulsion from the mountain.
Lombok is often described by local guides as “Bali 20 years ago”, being far more relaxed and a slower pace, not yet as popular with tourists. I sincerely hope it stays this way, but for all the natural beauty you can find here, I think it won’t be long until it is thrown into the spotlight.
Komodo National Park
I was lucky enough on my trip to travel to Komodo National Park to see the Komodo Dragons. This location is the only place in the world to see these fierce creatures, and is also considered to be the best dive spots in the world. There are some lovely luxury boats available for private charter in these waters, with their own PADI diving instructors, ideal for first time divers wanting one-to-one tuition or for more experienced divers looking to delve into deeper waters. If world class diving is on the agenda for your holiday, you may want to consider stretching a little further east and heading to Raja Ampat in West Papua; another world of ancient tribes, untracked rainforests and rich underwater marine life.
One of the most precious characteristics I saw in Indonesia was the harmonious co-existence of the people; a myriad of belief systems and customs living alongside one another, in respect and friendship. So no matter which island you visit, you’ll find warmth in the people and be met with the same laid-back approach to life, and value in home and heritage. The sense-of-self that is indigenous to the Indonesian population, no matter which island they’re born on to, just adds to this country’s captivating charm.
WHERE TO STAY
Java: Ijen Resort
A resort nestled into the foothills of the Ijen Plateau, on a spectacular backdrop of rainforest, rice terraces and volcanoes. A relaxing and welcoming resort perfectly placed to immerse the traveller in the beautiful and dramatic wilderness of Java.
Overlooking Borobudur, the world’s largest Buddhist sanctuary, in the rural heartland of Central Java, Amanjiwo is located in one of the most scenic parts of Indonesia. The 31-suite resort offers a magnificent swimming pool surrounded by rice paddies, with views across the Kedu Plain to four volcanoes on the horizon.
Luxury amongst the tree tops in these elegant stilted bungalows looking out to sea. A stunning setting, with Mount Agung behind and Padang Bai waters stretching out in front, it is ideally situated to access the best Bali has to offer. The resort is grand yet intimate, and the service second to none.
Bali: Mandapa by Ritz-Carlton
A true masterpiece achieving the balance between modern luxury and traditional Balinese character. This hotel celebrates all that is Balinese, with rice terraces running through the grounds, Balinese architecture in the spacious private villas, and colourful paintings in every room, depicting Bali village life.
Bali: Bambu Indah
A unique resort that takes you back to basics in 100-year old Java Joglo houses, you’ll be staying in a real piece of history. The main buildings are made entirely out of bamboo which gives this resort much charm and character. Set in a small quiet rice terrace overlooking a lush valley, and sunsets to die for, you can’t fail to relax and slowdown in these little haven, situated just outside bustling Ubud.
Lombok: Lombok Lodge
Chic, modern villas looking out to the blue Bali Sea with all the modern amenities you could possibly need for a comfortable stay. The staff are cheery and attentive, instantly making you feel at home. The restaurant serves a delicious fusion of Asian and European cuisine and you’ll not want to miss the 5-course tasting menu on offer here!
Lombok: Tugu Lombok
A fantastic and eye-catching hotel full of Indonesian artefacts, original features and colourful art collections. This hotel is located directly on the North Regency coast of Lombok giving guests direct access to a 500m long white sandy beach that is simply stunning. Along with an opulent spa used by local royalty, this hotel is truly impressive.
Island Hopping: Silolona Sojourns
Climb aboard these traditional Phinisi boats for a voyage of discovery amongst Indonesia’s most diverse wildlife. This boat is full of Indonesian artefacts and history books so this is a real education as well as a luxury private charter. It comes with a friendly crew and all the amenities you could need to explore the archipelago, both above and below the waves. An Ampersand favourite for travel to Komodo and Raja Ampat.
Sumba Island: Nihiwatu
This resort is something very special. A village of luxury pool villas winding round the remote cliff top of Sumba, “The Forgotten Island”. It is not hard to see where this name comes from as you’ll feel like you’ve travelled to a land yet to be found by the rest of the world. Here you can surf, fish, paddle board local village rivers and hike through fields of water buffalo. Or simply sit back and relax in your private paradise.
WHEN TO GO
All year around you can find warm breezes, long sunny days and the occasional tropical downpour. Many travel guides may tell you to only travel during dry season (April-October), when you’ll have opal blue skies and hours of endless sunshine. And to some degree, they’d be right – this time of year is perfect for exploring or soaking up the Vitamin D.
In contrast, the term “wet season” is fitting, with impressive burst of monsoon showers most afternoons, and higher levels of humidity making it feel warmer than dry season. However, the weather here is becoming harder to predict and therefore I’d encourage travellers not to limit themselves to just one half of the year. Indonesia stretches all the way from Malaysia to northern Australia, and so the weather varies depending on your destination.
It is generally considered that the further east you travel, the drier the weather will be, so in the wet season (November-March), you’ll still be able to find summer in the far east region of West Papua. For sun-seekers and those searching for failsafe perfect days, travel from April onwards – you might still get the odd shower or two, but this is what makes Indonesia such a fruitful, fertile land of rolling jade hills and deep mysterious rainforests.
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