A collection of over 17,000 islands, hundreds of languages and diverse cultures, Indonesia is a land of wondrous variety.
From mountains to jungles, beaches to metropolitan cities; the country has it all.
Bursting with artistic traditions and carrying age-old customs through the generations, one thing all visitors can agree on is the warmth they receive when they arrive. Indonesians are famed for their hospitality, humour and laid-back approach to life.
Travelling from Bali, through North Sumatra, Java and Sulawesi – I was on a pit stop tour of Indonesia’s highlights. Here’s my take on the region.
Bali, the land of a thousand temples.
Greeted at the airport by the friendly faces of the country’s leading tour operator, Panorama Destination, after a nineteen-hour journey, I was ready to start the adventure.
Think less of the romance that etched the pages of Eat Pray Love and more of a rustic island with tourism at its heart.
Hotels fill every corner, with more rooms than flights you’ll always find somewhere to stay. You can’t say you’ve been to the island without a visit to one of the temples. Taman Ayun was quiet and peaceful, with the breathtaking structures it was a great introduction to Buddhist culture.
Tanah Lot was a little less quiet, but worth wading through the crowds for a peek. Sat with the ocean’s waves crashing against the steps and a man in a cave with a holy snake, it’s a beautiful place to experience. Bonus points if you stroke the snake.
Warung Made was my favourite food spot in Indonesia, situated in the heart of Kuta. Yummy food, happy to make me something veggie, and the vibe was incredible. A beautiful table under the stars, with some Balinese music in the background and friendly waiting staff – I wish I could have dinner here every day.
For wildlife-fans, the Monkey Forest lets you get up close and personal with an extremely large troop. I wouldn’t say they’re the friendliest bunch, but they definitely know the hand that feeds them, so if you stick with the guide you’ll come out with all fingers and toes (you may lose a shoe).
Bali is a beautiful Island and I can see why so many people visit every year, but this trip has opened my eyes to the wonders across the water.
The Grand Mirage
Classic and modern, this sleek hotel has no windows in the lobby, leaving you at one with nature as you head for your room. The newly refurbished family wing next door (formerly a different hotel) means you get twice as much buck for your money, with access to both hotel’s facilities. Next door is kid’s paradise, with games rooms, play-pits, outdoor cinemas and a water slide that, sadly, I didn’t have enough time to try out (for review purposes). ALL-inclusive really does mean ‘all’ here: with food, drinks, activities and yoga classes provided at no extra cost.
If you’re seeking off the beaten track adventure, with less postcard shops and more locals, North Sumatra is the place for you. Located on the west of Indonesia, the island takes the prize for my favourite destination.
Medan, capital of North Sumatra province and the fourth biggest city, holds a rustic, untouched atmosphere and is a far cry from its neighbour Bali.
My arrival at Medan airport was like something out of a Hollywood movie. I was presented with a hand-crafted tablecloth, greeted by schoolchildren who wanted to interview me (they were practising their English) and provided with a neck-pillow and snacks for my twenty-minute journey to the hotel.
As the economic hub, there’s lots to see and do. The Great Mosque of Medan was built in 1906 and is still in use today. It was lovely to be the only tourist in a place of worship, making me feel like I was really seeing the place at work.
Tgong A Fie’s Mansion is worth a visit, to explore the rich history of Chinese merchants in Medan and the Maimoon Palace is smaller than I imagined and filled with locals, who use the beautiful grounds to hang out in the afternoon.
Moving from the city to the jungle, what peaked my interest in North Sumatra was undoubtedly the wildlife. Trekking through the rainforest of Gunung Leuser National Park, starting from the village of Bukit Lawang, is something I managed to tick off my bucket list. The trek isn’t for the faint-hearted, it’s a hefty climb through dense rainforest in the sweltering heat. But the area is filled with wildlife from Thomas’ leaf monkeys to cobras. The best part: watching an orangutan with her baby, swinging along the branches above.
Next stop, the mountains. Berastagi, famous for its fruits and flowers, is home to the perfect spot on the hill. It’s a little colder as you’re higher above sea level, but waking up to the sun rising above the volcano in front of you makes it worth needing a sweater. It’s also the perfect stop-off point to break up the journey to one of North Sumatra’s most visited tourist destinations.
Lake Toba in one word: breathtaking. Created by the natural disaster of a volcano, the lake is the largest in Southeast Asia, with the island in the middle larger than Singapore. Cruising along provides an unequal sense of tranquillity and on a warm sunny day in January, I was convinced I was the only person on the lake.
North Sumatra is also the ancestral home of the Batak tribes. Toba Batak are known traditionally for their weaving, wood carving and especially ornate stone tombs. You can spend the day roaming the many villages scattered around the lake, the setting for performances of dance and theatre, which may lead to you dressing in traditional clothing and dancing around a water buffalo.
Driving from Lake Toba back to Medan, we stopped off at Vihara Avalokitsvara – Statue of Dewi Kwan Im. I visited a great deal of temples and this was my favourite. Located either side of a local school, you can light an incense stick, marvel at the Goddess and then join the kids outside for a game of football.
Hotel Mercure, Medan
Sleek, modern and business-like. The Mercure is the perfect crash-pad for a night in the city. The location is perfect as long as you jump in a taxi, but pavements aren’t really part of Indonesian life so walking around the hotel isn’t as easy.
Rindu Alam Hotel, Bukit Lawang
Think basic. Stripping back the luxury you’ll find in the cities and providing you with a clean, simple room to rest your head before a morning filled with adventure. It’s the type of accommodation you would expect next to the rainforest, no hot water, but extremely friendly staff and breathtaking surroundings - the lodge overlooks the river, with the bridge crossing to the National Park.
Toledo Inn Hotel, Samosir Island
Basic accommodation, but waking up to the lake outside your window is incredible. Surrounding scenery can’t be missed and the service, like most hotels in Indonesia, is faultless.
Land of fire, stone and spices.
Java - also spelled Jawa - is the fifth largest island in Indonesia, yet the most densely populated.
Surmounted by 121 volcanoes, the most active on the island are Kelud and Merapi. Several temples continue to serve as places of worship and pilgrimage.
Yogyakarta, which I’m told by the locals was ‘Bali 10 years ago’, was my starting point. With a mostly expat population, a result of more than 80 universities in the city, the first couple of days were filled with temple visits.
I wouldn’t recommend visiting them all, being temple-tired can really dull your senses. If you hate crowds avoid Borobudur, I went out of season and still felt like the hoards of people were going to participate in my fall down the stairs. Head for Prambanan, my temple-highlight. Beautiful structure, peaceful atmosphere and wonderful grounds.
Another must is visiting a batik processing workshop. Batik is the distinctive, intricately patterned fabric that ties so many of Indonesia’s cultures together. You’ll see it everywhere in the archipelago and each island tribe has its own style.
Moving to Mojokerto, you can take the train through the countryside. It’s a long journey, but with seats that go back and beautiful scenery, you won’t have any complaints.
Then came the grand adventure, Java’s most popular tourist destination, Mt. Bromo. It began with a 3am wake up call on a Saturday, where I jumped in the back of a 4x4 jeep and climbed to the top. After some serious concerns over whether the jeep would make it, followed by a standstill traffic jam of other jeeps heading for the same destination, we finally made it to the drop off - before walking the final part. The climb was more treacherous than I had anticipated, with the never ending steps finally reaching the crater. It was a windy day and I dread to think how my poor guide (who suffered from vertigo) felt clinging the one wooden bar along the top. Even on a cloudy day, the view was extraordinary, and stroking all the horses on the way down only added to the adventure.
Mount Bromo is a special sight for travellers; a black molten moonscape in the middle of the Javan jungle, rising up through a silken halo of morning mist, though I’m told there are a number of volcanoes throughout Indonesia that are even more magical to climb.
Takes the prize as my favourite hotel room. Utmost luxury, which was welcomed after a long day of travelling. The staff were lovely, I stood chatting to them for a while during check-in and their warmth made me feel like I was a returning customer. Breakfast has a selection of everything you could imagine and in the afternoon they knock on your door with snacks, who doesn’t love afternoon snacks?
Located in the middle of the north slope of Mt. Bromo, it’s a selection of little cottages overlooking the mountains. The rooms are basic but cosy and cottage-like, it was a really beautiful destination to rest up before my morning hike up to the crater.
Sulawesi, or Celebes, is the world’s eleventh largest island and is situated between Borneo and the Maluku islands (the Moluccas).
Famous for its endemic mammals, a sea rich in biodiversity, pristine beaches and lush rainforest, it’s the perfect destination for avid divers and nature lovers.
Southern Sulawesi, in particular, was made famous by the Torajan ethnic group. Residing in a remote area up on a mountainous region in Tana Toraja regency, the indigenous group has preserved ancient funerary customs known to be the most complex in the world.
Perfect for the adventurous who seek an enriching cultural experience, I flew into Makassar, before a nine-hour road trip to Toraja. Driving along the coastal road, overlooking the ocean, then heading through the countryside and up the mountains, meant there were constant opportunities to stop and take photographs.
The allure of Toraja’s vibrant tribal culture begins the moment you arrive. It’s possibly the only place I have visited where a funeral is considered the highlight of one’s visit. I began at the Hanging Graves of Toraja, and thirty minutes later I was eating something that looked like cake, in a village down the road, while a family mourned the loss of a loved one. In a ritual that at home is usually kept private, in Toraja they spend years saving for a funeral ceremony, and so the more people attend, the more good fortune they believe their loved one will have in the after life. The ceremony involves sacrificing animals, which they believe will serve their loved one after death, and then distributing the meat to feed the village. It really was a beautiful occasion and unlike anything I have ever witnessed.
On the way to the airport, stop off at Tinimbayo, SeSean mountain, for a coffee with the most beautiful views of the valley.
Think Ibis, but in a beautiful city in Sulawesi. It’s chic, modern and filled with business-travellers, meaning check-in and check-out is smooth and efficient (plus super speedy Wi-Fi).
Staying in one of Toraja’s traditional houses, shaped like a boat, the beautiful apartments overlook half the town with their position on top of the hill. They also have fantastic desserts, and who wouldn’t pick an accommodation based on how good the sorbet is?
Indonesia is full of variety, so whether you’re seeking adventure or looking to relax and unwind, there’s something for everyone. We recommend flying direct to Singapore for a few days, then jumping on the 30 minute flight to Medan and starting the journey there – finishing up with a week of luxury on the beautiful island of Bali.
For more information, or to put together a tailor-made itinerary, get in touch.