A vast nation – one of the most populous on the planet – that covers a whopping 17,000 individual islands and rocks as they emerge from the sparkling waters where the Indian Ocean meets the South China Sea, Indonesia is a land of impossibly-beautiful wonders and fascinating cultural traditions. In its cities, great mosque minarets rise to the clouds, while other places burst with the scents of twisting incense and the earthy mystery of Hindu temples.
Elsewhere, the roaring surf swells of Bali and Lombok draw long-haired board riders from afar; the shimmering coral gardens of the Nusa Tenggara are a mecca for SCUBA sorts and free divers; cold Bintang beers flow in the scorching tropical sun of the gorgeous Gilis, and swinging orangutans inhabit the primeval forests of Borneo. Yep, Indonesia is a cocktail of sprawling megalopolises and smoke-belching volcanos like nowhere else on earth.
Lets explore the best places to visit in Indonesia:
1. Gili Islands
A trio of picture-perfect islands that string their way out between Lombok and Bali in the middle of the Nusa Tenggara archipelago, the Gilis are oft hailed as the most quintessential tropical spots on the planet.
The two smaller islands, Gili Air and Gili Meno, are secluded and laid-back; places where the occasional bamboo ecolodge hides in the mangroves and stretches of shell-spotted sand eke down to a sea of aquamarine blue.
The largest island, Gili Trawangan, is a livelier affair.
Its ramshackle bars are built of driftwood, and pulse with the energy of backpackers from all over the globe.
By day, these guys sizzle off their hangovers on the pearly beaches, or hit the seas in search of rare turtles.
By night, they guzzle beers and buckets and party till dawn.
A place that really needs no introduction, Bali has long been a mecca for travelers eager to sample the mysterious east.
And while the influx of Aussies and Brits has taken its toll on spots like Kuta in the south, there do remain pockets of the earthy, aga (ancient) Bali here too.
Check out the jungle-shrouded town of Ubud in the heart of the regency; a place of cascading rice paddies and crumbling Hindu shrines now taken over by crab-eating macaques.
Or, go north to the great volcanos of Kintamani, to watch the sunrise over Lombok isle in the east.
Alternatively, you could just surf and party your days away on the beaches of Bukit and Nusa Dua – it’s all good!
Lombok has risen and risen out of obscurity in the last couple of decades to become something of the thinking man’s alternative to Bali.
With less of the gaudy bars and super clubs of Kuta, this one retains the rustic, ramshackle feel of old Indonesia.
Make a beeline for salt-washed Senggigi on the western shore.
Here, traditional warung (homey local taverns) serve up spicy noodle fries and peanut-packed sate dishes close to the shore.
There are surfing opportunities aplenty too, from Kuta Lombok in the south to the pretty coves that fringe the coconut groves all along the west coast.
Yogyakarta sits in a well-deserved fourth place here, thanks largely to its artsy character and cultural richness.
Nestled between the great Buddhist rises of Borobudur – perhaps Indo’s best-known UNESCO site – and the rising volcanic domes of Central Java, it’s a place steeped in heritage.
Check out the sprawling Kraton, which was once the stomping ground of Java’s sultans of old.
This huge palace come museum is now packed with opulent carriages and pleasure gardens where the king’s harems once resided.
Yogya is also known for its traditional craft markets, which erupt on Pasar Beringharjo and Kranggan each day – just try not to stay up drinking in the backpacker bars if you want to catch the best bargains!
Sprawling, seething Jakarta is home to more than nine million people (and there are a whopping 30 million people in the greater metro area besides!), making it a heady and frenetic place to get to grips with Indonesia.
But between the shimmering skyscrapers and raucous food courts of this massive megalopolis, it’s quite easy to discover some genuine charm and interest.
Take the colossal Monas monument, which can’t be missed at 137-meters high, or the enchanting Kota Tua old town, where Dutch colonial mansions mix with the twisting fumes of purring scooters.
At night, the traveler bars of Jalan Jaksa are the best place to be.
Colossal stupas carved from graphite-hued stone tower overhead; mysterious reliefs depicting old Buddhist tales mark the rocks in front.
And on the horizon, the belching smoke trails of Central Java’s mighty volcanos issue steam and sulfur into the mountain chains.
Welcome to Borobudur: perhaps the single most famous UNESCO World Heritage Site in all of Indonesia.
Yep, this awesome 8th-century wonder still reigns as the largest Buddhist site on the globe.
It actually fuses motifs from Hinduism into its architecture, and today travelers are invited to gawp at the multitude of massive pagodas, the intricate murals, and the sheer ambition of the ancient undertaking.
7. Raja Ampat
Raja Ampat is the patchwork of turquoise seas and kaleidoscopic coral reefs that every SCUBA diver dreams of.
Located way off-the-beaten-track, it fragments from the side of Papua on the extreme eastern – and unexplored – edge of the Indonesian archipelago.
Hardly visited at all, the place is wild and rugged, comprised of more than 1,000 individual rocks that rise dramatically from the shimmering ocean as mangroves and primeval jungles encrust their bases.
The large islands of Waigeo and Batanta are two of the top spots, and are now laden with dive organizers offering trips into the crystal-clear waters.
Sun-baked Komodo is a wild and inhospitable place.
Isolated out between the cobalt seas and corals of the Lesser Sunda chain, it’s famed primarily as the home of the world’s largest living lizard: the aptly-named Komodo dragon.
However, that great stalking beast is just one of the attractions, and today travelers come to witness the rugged hills and dust-caked backcountry as it tumbles down to pink-hued beaches and shore waters laden with rays, sea turtles, pygmy seahorses and rainbowfish.
Aside from that, sea kayaking around the rocky headlands is also becoming popular – expect wild, empty coves that few have ever explored before you!
The second-largest city in the nation is a charmer compared to the capital.
Dotted with swaying palm trees and enfolded by the misty peaks of wild Western Java, it’s got an enviable location in the cool highlands of the country.
Add to that a rich tradition of batik fabric making, along with a smorgasbord of local food delights (the steamed bakso tahu in tofu and peanut sauce is simply to die for!), and it’s easy to see why this one’s such a hit on the traveler circuit.
Oh, and there are oodles of flowing tea plantations just on the outskirts of town – go to Ciwidey or Pangalengan if you fancy a fresh cuppa!
10. Bukit Lawang
Bukit Lawang is the gateway to the domain of the orangutan.
Located deep in the jungles of northern Sumatra, the place is a rustic affair; made up of just a few bamboo-built longhouses and riverside teahouses.
It’s typically laden to the brim with ecotourists and backpackers, who flit between the palm-shaded gardens of the town and the wild reaches of the Gunung Leuser National Park, where safari walks promise encounters with baboons and Thomas leaf monkeys, not to mention chances to follow the tracks of the elusive (and critically endangered) Sumatran tiger to boot!
11. Labuan Bajo
Labuan Bajo has traditionally been seen as just a convenient stepping stone between the popular haunts of the Nusa Tenggara and the untrodden volcanic ranges and forests of Flores in the east.
However, thanks to its clutch of picture-perfect tropical islands (located just a short boat ride from the harbor), the golden sands of beaches like Pede and Binongko, and excellent connections to Indonesia’s other great cities and sights (think Komodo Island), it’s now a fully-fledged destination in its own right.
You can fill your time with trekking to crater lakes or diving in the crystalline seas, explore the gushing Cunca Wulang Waterfall or boat across to beautiful Seraya Kecil isle.
The eastern gem of Samarinda straddles two worlds.
On the one side of town there are throbbing bazaars, awash with carved wooden trinkets from the tribal world of Kalimantan and beset by stacks of intricate handmade batik.
That all exists below the soaring spires of the city mosque, and is ringed by dusty streets of chattering locals.
And on the flip side comes the industry, which, for Samarinda, means coal.
The town’s array of smoke-belching mines has caused numerous problems on the environmental front, and even spawned some unsavory-looking shopping centers.
Still though, Samarinda remains a great riverside stop-off in the midst of wild Borneo.
Don’t expect to be wowed into submission by sprawling Surabaya straight away.
Trust us: It takes time to get to know this megalopolis of nearly nine million people on the edge of East Java.
First, you’ll need to get past the incessant stream of tooting traffic and the fumes of industry and business.
And when you do, only then can you go in search of treasures like the elegant Dutch mansions that pepper the Chinatown district (one of the biggest Chinatowns in the world no less). There’s also the artsy rooms and coffee shops of the House of Sampoerna to explore, not to mention the bustling markets and spice-scented food courts of G-Walk after dark.
14. Tana Toraja
Delve into the earthy tribal cultures of South Sulawesi with a trip to the enthralling town of Tana Toraja.
One of the strongholds of the indigenous Toraja peoples of the jungle-dressed mountain ranges here, the place is imbued with the striking Tongkonan houses of the locals.
These ship-like buildings are formed from elegant arches of woods and inlayed reeds, and are one of the most significant aspects of the Toraja traditions.
Tana also comes fringed with mysterious burial sites, peppered with monolithic stones and carved rock effigies representing animist spirits.
In short: it’s a glimpse into the deep, folksy and ancient traditions of this aged island nation.
15. Lake Toba
If you were to have visited Lake Toba around 77,000 years ago, you would have been able to witness one of the most climatic events in the history of global geology.
This is when the colossal crater lake last exploded in a volcanic eruption of epic proportions, changing temperatures across the world and altering the weather patterns of the whole planet.
Today, Toba is a much more serene place, and the old caldera is now totally filled with water.
It’s known as the largest volcanic lake on the planet in fact, and draws swimmers, boaters and ecotourists alike to its shores.