A vast archipelago of stunning diversity, there’s no shortage of things to do in Indonesia. Here are a few truly unique experiences to get you started.
Two metres long and weighing 100kg, with a tail strong enough to knock a buffalo off its feet and a mouth of bacteria fetid enough to kill one, the Komodo Dragon is the world’s largest lizards. Coming face to face with one is an unforgettable experience.
Komodo dragons live on just five islands in the centre of the Indonesian archipelago, with over 1,000 living on Komodo and Rinca, the islands that form form Komodo National Park. The whole dragon-hunting experience is delightfully (or concerningly) casual, with just a ranger and a stick between you and the dragons; you’re sure to see several.
Komodo Dragon (Mattyboy876)
Tours to the islands operate out of Bali and Lombok. You can also organise a boat in the port of Labuanbajo on Flores. To beat the crowds, stay overnight on Rinca. This enables you to take an extended tour around the island, plus you’ll have the place all to yourself – bar the odd ranger – once the tourist boats have departed. Rise early the next morning and you’re more likely to see dragons before they retreat into the shade at midday.
It’s not hard to understand the appeal of the Gili Islands. Just a stone’s through from Bali, you’ll find white sands, turquoise sea, coral reefs and no motorised transport to disturb the peace. It’s prime scuba and snorkelling territory, with a clutch of professional dive schools and seas bustling with turtles.
Snorkeling in the Gili Islands (Shutterstock)
Head to Padangbai, where fast boats connect Bali to the Gili Islands. Get here quick before hip hotels totally replace bamboo huts. These idyllic islets are sure to transform from backpacker budget to boutique chic in no time.
Flores is famous for Kelimutu, an extraordinary volcano with three crater lakes of wildly different hues, presently ink-black, chocolate brown and jade green, but for the intrepid travel it offers so much more
Kelimutu volcano (Shutterstock)
The hills around Bajawa are dotted with Ngada tribal villages – Bena has a wonderful collection of thatched houses and megalithic tombs – and gorgeous hot springs. Ruteng offers good hiking trails and the scruffy port of Labuanbajo is the jumping off point for the exquisite offshore islands of Kanawa and Serayu, each offering simple bungalows if you want to play Robinson Crusoe.
At just 2,393 metres, Java's Mount Bromo is one of Indonesia's smallest mountains, but a hike to its summit is no less impressive because of it. Walk, drive or horse ride through the Ash Desert to reach the base of Mount Bromo, situated in Bromo-Tengger-Semeru National Park. As one of the world's most active volcanoes, it is essential that you ensure the volcano is safe to hike.
Mount Bromo (Shutterstock)
The hike takes just 1-2 hours depending on your fitness level, so it is easily accessible to climbers of all abilities. It is a treacherous climb so you should hike with a guide. If you want to beat the crowds, try to reach the summit in time for sunrise.
There is no denying Bali’s beauty. It’s as though the Gods took extra care creating it, using more vibrant colours and more daring combinations. But at times it can feel as though half the population of Australia have decamped there. For a taste of what Bali used to be like – and the best wildlife on the island – you need to head to its isolated south west.
Bali rice field (Dreamstime)
You’ll probably need to hire a jeep to get there. You’ll pass Bali’s largest and most spectacular expanse of rice terraces, deserted black sand beaches and tiny villages where traditional ceremonies still take place on a daily basis. After a delicious nasi goring from a ramshackle roadside stall, you’ll find yourself in the little-known West Bali National Park, the only place you can still see the elusive Balinese black monkey.
Deep in the Sumatran jungle, not far from the island’s main city of Medan, you’ll find Bukit Lawang, home to an orang-utan rehabilitation centre. Several thousand of the ginger apes swing through the nearby forest; you’re sure to encounter them at the feeding station, or on a jungle hike into neighbouring Gunung Leuser National Park.
Orang-utan in Sumatra (Shutterstock)
You’ll need a permit to visit the jungle and a local guide to accompany you. The guides have to pass stringent tests and are adept at spotting the elusive orangutan, as well as signs of the tigers, snakes, rhinos, leopards and bears that also call the Gunung Leuser National Park home.
Don’t expect the orang-utans to be happy to see you. Chances are they’ll throw branches at you, or if you are really unlucky, relieve themselves in your general direction. But that is a small price to pay to see these magnificent creatures in their natural environment.
Indonesia is home to over 300 different ethnic groups and in many of them passing over to the ancestors is a cause for celebration. In Toraja, in the highlands of Sulawesi, whole villages are built just for the funeral. And in the south-eastern island of Sumba, the dead person sits in a specially-built bamboo chair in their own house and hosts the guests from there.
Funeral in Sumba (Elizabeth Pisani)
Should you be passing through at the time, you will be invited along as an honoured guest. There is pork, rice and endless cups of tea and coffee every day for at least a week; on the final day horses and buffaloes are killed and skinned in the village centre. When the feasting is done, the host is bundled into a megalithic tomb along with the other ancestors.
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Main image: Ritual Bathing at Puru Tirtha Empul, Bali (Dreamstime)