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What are the top things to do in Indonesia?

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The Republic of Indonesia is a country in SouthEast Asia and is made up of more than 17000 islands, but only around 6000 are inhabited. The most popular island is Bali, which attracts many tourists and digital nomads, but there’s so much more to Indonesia than Bali. We’ve collected a list of the best places to visit and top things to do in Indonesia, based on our own trip there, with tips on how to make your trip sustainable. 

Top things to do in Indonesia: Sumatra

Sumatra: Medan

Medan is a large city in the North of Sumatra, and used to be a swamp land. Around the late 1800s, Medan was the largest tobacco plantation in the Dutch East Indies, and many cruise ships carrying European tourists came to visit. There were many planters from Western Europe who lived in Medan at that time, leading wealthy lifestyles, and thus Medan became known as the “Paris of Sumatra”.

Maimun Palace

The Maimun Palace was the royal palace of the Sultanate, and is unique in its interior design as it combines Malay, Islamic, Indian, Spanish, and Italian designs and furniture.

Great Mosque of Medan

Part of the Maimun Palace complex, the Great Mosque of Medan combines building materials from Italy, Germany, China, and France, with design and style elements of Morocco, Europe and the Middle East.

Lake Toba

lake toba things to do in indonesia
Lake Toba, Sumatra

Medan is located close to the Barisan Mountains, a mountain range consisting of many volcanoes (35 active) surrounded by dense tropical forests. The largest volcano is supervolcano Toba, which is located within Lake Toba, the largest volcanic lake in the world.

Lake Toba is about 100 km long (about 62 miles), 30 km wide (18.6 miles), and 505 meters (1666 ft) deep. The eruption occurred about 70, 000 years ago, and according to the Toba catastrophe theory, had global consequences. 

These include a population bottleneck in central east Africa and India, and means that a sharp reduction in the size of a population reduces the variety in the gene pool, leading to smaller genetic diversity. The eruption also led to a volcanic winter, with a global drop in temperatures, between 3 to 15°C (5.4 to 27°F). Studies in Lake Malawi in East Africa indicate that large amounts of ash from Toba was deposited there, which gives an idea of how enormous the eruption was.

Local tip: when we went there, there was no transport to get to the lake, though we did see some tourists who came by boat from somewhere. We had to ask a local man to take us on his motorbike and wait for us there. There were one or two restaurants and not much else, which made the place nice and relaxing, and not crowded, though there was a bit of plastic and waste pollution in some parts.

Volcanoes: Mount Sibayak and Mount Sinabung.

Indonesia lies on three tectonic plates (Pacific, Eurasian, and Australian), which tend to cause seismic activities when one plate moves. Seismic volcanic eruptions led to the creation of some of the small islands of Indonesia, and their volcanic ash contributes to the rich soil and natural resources. This is also why there are plenty of volcanoes to hike and other natural beauty to explore all over Indonesia.

Mount Sibayak is a common type of volcano, being a small stratovolcano (also known as composite volcano), built up by many layers or hardened lava, ash, and other things. Its last eruption was more than a century ago, but geothermal activity such as hot springs and sulphur still occur. It is relatively easy to climb, and is a popular tourist attraction. But beware, the sulphur smells like rotten eggs. 

Mount Sinabung is a stratovolcano with four volcanic craters, one of which is active and can be seen erupting in the picture below. Residents around the volcano have been asked to evacuate previously, and as many as 17500 people left their home after the September 2010 eruptions. A deadly eruption occurred in May 2016, leaving 7 people dead. 

Top things to do in Indonesia: Java

Java is well known for batik, a traditional type of cloth that has been dyed using the batik method. It’s a method of producing designs by applying wax to parts of the cloth that are left to be undyed, and then dyeing the cloth. 

“Batik” is a Javanese word, and although batik is also produced in other countries, the art of batik is most popular in Java, and is known for its designs, technique, and quality. Batik patterns can be symbolic to Indonesians, and can even play a role in ceremonial rituals.

Java: Jakarta

jakarta
Jakarta (photo by Achmad Al Fadhli)

Jakarta Known as Batavia under Dutch rule, Jakarta was established in the 4th century and was an important trading port for the Hindu Kingdom of Sunda. Now officially listed as an alpha-global city, Jakarta attracts domestic migrants and business investors, and is a melting pot of many cultures, but with the majority of the population being Muslim.

Jakarta is densely populated and it is a very busy, traffic-packed city. Many tourists prefer to skip Jakarta, as it does not provide much in terms of nature or landscapes. 

The Indonesian government has decided to make Nusantara in East Kalimantan the new capital of Indonesia, due to the fact that Jakarta is heavily polluted, sinking, and vulnerable to flooding and earthquakes.

It’s worth a visit if you want to see the business centre of Indonesia and life in the city. However, you can also easily skip it without any regret. It can get very busy, messy, and chaotic.

Java: Yogyakarta (“Jogja”)

Yogyakarta is most commonly known as Jogja among locals. It is said to be the cultural hub of Indonesia, as it is known for classical ballet, batik, drama, poetry, music, and puppet shows. While a large majority of the population is Javanese, the city has attracted a number of domestic immigrants and students, due to its universities and relative low cost of living compared to other Indonesian cities. 

Jogja is home to the famous temples Borobudur and Prambanan (known locally as Borobudur Candi and Prambanan Candi, “candi” meaning ancient temple).

Borobudur

borobudur indonesia
Borobudur (photo by Eugenia Clara)
  • UNESCO World Heritage Site.
  • Mahayana Buddhist temple from the 9th century.
  • World’s largest Buddhist temple.
  • It has 504 Buddha statues, and consists of 9 stacked platforms, with a central dome on top.
  • The temple is unique as it is a blend of indigenous Indonesian culture (ancestor worship), Buddhist beliefs (Nirvana), and the ancient Gupta Indian empire.
  • The monument is a holy place and shrine to Buddha, and pilgrimage is still performed there by Buddhists. The pilgrimage journey usually begins at the bottom of the monument, and follows the path to the top by going through the three levels of Buddhist cosmology: the world of desire (Kamadhatu), the world of forms (Rupadhatu), and the world of formlessness (Arupadhatu).
  • The Buddha statues at Borobudur have 6 different hand positions, all having a different symbolic meaning, which include Earth calling, benevolence, meditation, courage, virtue and reasoning, and dharma (law).
  • Built on a natural hill, with a design similar to the shape of a pyramid.
  • Some reliefs on Borobudur depict scenes of daily life in Java at that time, from the royalty to village commoners, as well as mythical Buddhist beings. There are also narrative reliefs depicting the law of karma, and the life story of Buddha.

Prambanan

Prambanan Indonesia
Performance at Prambanan
  • UNESCO World Heritage Site.
  • 9th century Hindu temple.
  • Largest Hindu site in Indonesia.
  • Typical Hindu temple design (tall and pointed), with a 47-meter high (154 ft) main temple among a complex of smaller temples.
  • Still used as a religious center for ceremonies and rituals for Hindus.
  • There are three main zones, and the central main temple is the tallest and most important temple, and is dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva (the Destroyer).
  • The others are dedicated to Hindu gods Brahma (the Creator) and Vishnu (the Keeper).
  • The reliefs along the Shiva temple tell the story of Ramayana, a classical Indian story about love, courage, and loyalty.
  • In the north cell of the Shiva temple, the statue is known as “Slender Virgin”, and represents a Javanese Princess (daughter of King Boko) who was forced into marrying a Prince, and her condition was for him to build her 1000 temples in one night. However, she tricked him into believing that morning had come when in fact it was still night, and since he had only finished 999 temples, she refused to marry him. Angry, he then cursed her and she became the 1000th temple, known as Sewu temple, a large Buddhist temple 800 meters north of Prambanan.

Ratu Boko

A few kilometers south of Prambanan is the archaeological site known as Ratu Boko (circa 9th century), named after the legendary King Boko, from Indonesian folklore. Ratu Boko is not a temple; rather, it shows signs of occupation and settlement, possibly a palace complex. This site contained both Hindu and Buddhist artefacts and statues, indicating that these two religious groups were tolerant of each other, or were somewhat syncretised.

Taman Sari Water Castle

Another cultural site in Jogja is Taman Sari Water Castle, a royal garden belonging to the Sultanate of Jogja. The Sultan wanted a place to relax after the wars he experienced. Built in the 18th century, it has served multiple purposes: resting area, meditation, hiding place, defense area, and workshop. The complex consists of 4 areas: 2 artificial lakes, one on the east and one on the west, a central bathing area, and pools in the south.

Top things to do in Indonesia: the lesser Sunda Islands

The Lesser Sunda Islands include Bali, East Nusa Tenggara, and West Nusa Tenggara, on the eastern section of Indonesia. 

Bali

Bali is both an island and a province. The province includes Bali island, and smaller islands nearby such as Nusa Penida, Nusa Lembongan, and Nusa Ceningan.

Quick facts about Bali

  • Bali lies on two tectonic plates.
  • Has fertile soil due to volcanic nature of the island.
  • Has high rainfall due to tall mountain range.
  • Surrounded by coral reefs.
  • White sandy beaches can be found in the southern part of the island, and black sand in the north and west.
  • Kuta is in the south, and known for beach resorts.
  • Ubud is the cultural center of Bali, and is surrounded by rice paddies, farms and forest.
  • Bali is known for its art (sculpture, painting, woodcarving, handcrafts and performing arts).

Things to do in Bali

Hike volcanoes, visit natural landscapes, and meet some monkeys

Mount Batur (also called “Gunung Batur”) is an active volcano located in Kintamani District, and is a popular adventure among hikers. The hike takes about 3 hours and is relatively easy. You can also opt for a guided hike which usually includes eggs cooked by the steam of the volcano. The best way to do this hike for an amazing view is to start before sunrise, arriving at the top when the sun is rising, and then spend the afternoon with a trip to the popular Pura Ulun Danu Batur temple nearby. Wear layers for early morning hikes, as it gets cool at the top.

Aside from volcanoes, Bali is full of other natural landscapes and opportunities for fun activities. The Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary is not to be missed if you want to meet some cheeky monkeys that will most definitely try to steal anything they can grab on you. It’s located in Ubud and is also home to rare plants and temples.

Rice terraces are another popular Balinese destination, the most famous ones being Tegallalang and Jatiluwih Rice Terraces. You can enjoy some food and drinks at the restaurants overlooking the rice terraces. However you might encounter a lot of tourists there, and it might ruin the experience. If you’re travelling through other Asian countries that have larger rice terraces, skip these ones in Bali.

Tegallalang rice terraces
Tegallalang Rice Terraces (photo by Jared Lisack)

Local tip: these rice terraces tend to get overcrowded, but are beautiful nonetheless. The best time to go is early morning or late afternoon when crowds are sparse. If you plan on travelling to other parts of Indonesia (Lombok, Flores, West Sumatra) or other Asian countries such as Vietnam, Philippines, Nepal, you can skip the ones in Bali.

Beach and surf

Bali is popular for its waves, and many surfers come for the swells and warm water. You will find surfable beaches at Canggu, Bingin, Padang Padang, Ulawutu, Medewi, Green Bowl, Keramas, Balangan, Suluban, and Nusa Dua.

lovina Bali
Lovina, Bali

However if you don’t want to surf and prefer to just enjoy a nice beach, head to Nyang Nyang Beach, or go up north towards Lovina. You can snorkel and even take boats out to see dolphins, although the motor boats seem a bit aggressive in chasing the dolphins. Kayaking is always the best option.

Art and culture in Bali

There are many museums to visit in Bali, such as Agung Rai Museum of Art (ARMA) and the Neka Art Museum located in the Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary. You can also buy local art and souvenirs markets such as the Ubud Art Market. Sukawati Art Market is an alternative to the touristy Ubud Art Market. Make sure to bargain, but not too much as a few dollars or euros might be insignificant to you but mean a whole lot to a Balinese person. Also make sure to check whether the art is actually locally made and whether they will benefit the artists.

ulunbatun
Pura Ulun Danu Batur (photo by Guillaume Marques)

There are also several beautiful Hindu temples in Bali. The most popular ones are the Pura Ulun Danu Batur temple which rests on a lake, and the Uluwatu Temple (Pura Luhur Uluwatu) where you can catch a performance of the Kecak dance. Another interesting temple to visit is Lempuyang Temple, known as “gateway to Heaven” because of its majestic view of Mount Agung.

Komodo National Park

The Komodo National Park is located between East Nusa Tenggara and West Nusa Tenggara, and  includes the islands of Komodo, Rinca, and Padar, as well as 26 smaller islands. The islands are all of volcanic origin, and contain one of the world’s richest marine biodiversity.

Komodo Island 

Komodo Island contains the largest number of komodo dragons, and has a human population of about 2000, most of them descendants of former convicts who were exiled there and mixed with the Buginese people of Sulawesi. Aside from the dragons, the island of Komodo attracts many visitors because of its pink beach (there are only 7 in the world). The sand is pink due to the white sand mixing with red sand which has been formed from seashells and other organisms. Snorkeling and diving are also popular activities.

Rinca island

Rinca island is populated with a few komodo dragons, wild pigs, birds, monkeys, and buffalos. The island is inhabited, but living conditions are quite limited, and the inhabitants have to take care to avoid getting too close to the dragons. Rinca is ideal for hiking, with spectacular views.

Komodo dragons
komodo dragon
Komodo dragon (photo by David Clode)
  • World’s largest lizard
  • Mating season: May-August, and about 20 eggs are laid in September in nesting holes
  • Eggs hatch in April
  • Take 8-9 years to mature
  • Live up to 30 years
  • Solitary reptiles; they hang out only to eat and breed, but can be monogamous
  • Hunt invertebrates, birds, mammals
  • Feed mostly on deer and carrion (dead decaying animals)
  • Have venomous-like proteins in their mouths
  • Not a flame-throwing dragon, unfortunately
  • Occasionally attack people so don’t get too close for that selfie

How to be a sustainable tourist in Indonesia

  1. Avoid big travel agencies and instead use local guides or local tourist agencies.
  2. Check your purchases and avoid things made with palm oil. Palm oil pollutes less than petroleum and coal when burned, but it also contributes to cutting down of rainforests and the destruction of natural habitats for the wildlife.
  3. Choose your accommodation wisely and stay at places that employ locals, or are locally owned.
  4. Don’t visit places that abuse or exploit animals.

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