Indonesia, the largest archipelago country in the world with over 17,000 islands – approximately 6000 of them still uninhabited – is also a melting pot of culture. The amazing fact that the entire population of Bali, one of the most visited Indonesian islands, comprises just two percent of Balinese people does nothing to justify the strong influence of Balinese culture prevalent in the entire island. Despite being well exploited tourist destinations, somehow Bali and Sumatra have managed to keep their heritage intact. The picture perfect sunsets and sun-kissed beaches of Bali have been tugging the hearts of honeymooners since the turn of the century, but backpackers have an entirely different vista awaiting them in this cultural island. Sumatra’s sprawling 2.5 million hectare tropical rainforest is a UNESCO World Heritage site, home to some of the world’s endangered species like Sumatran tigers, orangutans, pygmy elephants and Sumatran rhinos. Forested volcanic mountains, lungful of fresh air, iconic rice paddies, sunset cruises, beaches and coral reefs – you will find them all in this wonderful country.
For the backpackers, Indonesia is relatively budget-friendly and safe, if you don’t count Jakarta, the Indonesian capital located in Java island. Like any other capital, Jakarta has its usual fare of crowded city life, but it is also a heady mix of Javanese, Malay, Chinese, Indian, Arab and European cultures. This can be really exciting if you have a little extra budget to experience a day of revelry, drowning in the delicious local Sundanese food and beverages besides stomping the historical sites around the city.
As mentioned earlier, Indonesia comprises over 17000 islands, obviously not all of them are open to tourists. The major islands frequented by backpackers, based on their uniqueness, are Java (Jakarta is part of this island), Sumatra, Bali, Lombok, Nusa Tenggara (Flores), Komodo, Maluku and Papua, Kalimantan (Borneo) and Sulawesi. While Java, Bali, Lombok and Sumatra offer their share of wildlife, ancient temples, volcanoes and pristine beaches, Komodo National park is famous for its population of komodo dragon (or komodo monitor), an ancient species of reptile with ancestors that date back more than 100 million years. Flores or Nusa Tenggara is located in Eastern Indonesia. Though tourists usually pass through Flores to get to Komodo National Park, there is a lot to experience on this island such as the mysterious three-coloured crater lakes atop Kelimutu (volcano).
Since Maluku and Papua lack tourist infrastructure, only the most adventurous backpackers get to explore the virgin beaches in these parts. Sulawesi is mostly haven for scuba divers on a budget, besides being known for the traditional Indonesian ceremonies that are held there. Borneo has acres and acres of untouched rainforest that can only be ventured through poorly maintained roads. Usually tourists prefer to enter the forest from the Malaysian side that offers more organised tours. Borneo, therefore, will be covered extensively at a later date.
It is relatively easy to get an Indonesian tourist visa on arrival at all the major international airports and seaports for USD 35. In case you wish to know all the points of entry where you can obtain a tourist visa on arrival, check out this link.
If you have about three weeks (19 days, to be precise) to spare in Indonesia, here’s a route map I would recommend. I enjoyed every bit of my time following this adventure-packed itinerary that took me through the most amazing sites in Bali, Lombok, Java and Sumatra. For budget accommodations in these places, you could take a look at this link.
As you can see in the above route map, the places I covered during my 19-day Indonesia trip were Medan and Padang in Sumatra, Surabaya (Mount Bromo and Ijen crater) in Java, Bali, Lombok and Gili in West Nusa Tenggara. I set a course from Medan and ended my exploration in Bali since this route gave me cheapest and fastest flight options from India.
This is what I covered within a span of 19 days.
An overnight flight (cheapest I could get for that month) brought me to a relatively new Medan Kualanamu international airport early in the morning. I completed my immigration formalities (including visa on arrival), the official equivalent of a welcome to this country. My primary reason for visiting Medan was to get a glimpse of the magical Lake Toba that fills up the volcanic crater (caldera) of a super volcano. While I was at it, I also explored the Brastagi highland and Medan city (on Day 2 and 3). Since transportation and connectivity can be a major hurdle in these parts, hiring local tour operators online in advance could save time, money and a lot of unnecessary encumbrance. You need to bargain with them before you settle for a price. Needless to say, I took the help of one such operator who did a fairly good job in taking me around Medan for three whole days, starting right from the time I landed here. The driver took me to Parapat, my stopover for tonight on the shores of Lake Toba. It took about four hours to reach my destination, but boy what a journey that was! Acres and acres of forest, rice fields, rubber, cocoa, palm oil, tobacco and tea plantations welcomed my tired eyes, setting the mood for a wonderful time ahead.
A perfect morning greeted me with a pleasant ferry trip across the crystal clear waters of Lake Toba to Samosir Island. Although Samosir island brings a good number of tourists, the pristine beauty of this volcanic island, the center of the Batak Toba culture in the midst of Lake Toba, never ceases to awe an unsuspecting tourist. Lines of traditional roofed houses of the Batak Tobanese tribe looked amazingly vibrant in the backdrop of the vast lake. Taking the ferry back to Parapat, my group headed for Brastagi Highland. Enroute we took a short break to enjoy the spectacular Sipiso Piso Water Falls in Karo Highlands.
Today’s itinerary included trips to two active volcanoes, namely, Mount Sinabung and Mount Sibayak and a city tour of Medan. However, due to recent eruptions, Mt. Sinabung was considered too dangerous to visit. We went to Mt. Sibayak though, a relatively safer location at the moment. It was definitely worth the risk. On reaching Medan, my stopover for the night, I soaked in the mixed culture of the city as I walked down Kesawan Street, brimming with original Dutch, English, Chinese and Malay architecture.
The fourth day of my trip began before dawn as I rushed to Kualanamu airport (took about an hour from my hotel) to catch the 6 am flight to Padang, my next point of interest in Sumatra. After an hour’s uneventful flight, the tiny Padang airport welcomed me with its traditional architecture and smiling people. Here, I took the assistance of an adventure tour operator for a no-frill tour of the famous Kerinci Seblat National park along with a glimpse of the life of the nomadic Kubu tribe. On the first day of this 5-day tour, I was picked up from the airport and taken to my hotel in Padang. After depositing my baggage, I was given a tour of the area around Kerinci Seblat National park. Unspoilt lakes (Lake Diatas and Lake Dibawah), tea plantations, a typical Sumatran village (MinangKabau village) and a beautiful waterfall (Telun Berasap Waterfall) just made my day!
While I have encountered countless lakes during my backpacking trips around the world, it is not often that I get completely bowled over by the beauty of such a spectacle. I must admit Lake Danau Gunung Tujuh (also known as seven mountain lake), perched 1.99 metres above sea level in the middle of a lush green rainforest surrounded by seven hills, offered one of those rare sights that remain special and evergreen in the mind till the last breath. Trekking in this forest for about three hours was an unforgettable experience.
Another day of tryst with nature. The cold air of Mount Kerinci revealed a warm wonder, a natural hot spring, known as Semurup Hot Spring, created by the earth’s volcanic activity. Believed to carry medicinal benefits, these boiling sulphuric waters can only be accessed through the bathing rooms built for those who wish to try out their rejuvenating powers. I gave it a miss though. Lake Kerinci, second largest in Sumatra after Lake Toba, lived up to its reputation. Serene! My Stop-off for the night was Bangko city, a small administrative hub of the Jambi province.
Visiting a tribal village always gives me a different kind of thrill – the kind that you may experience if you are able to go back to another era in history and live it. The province of Jambi is home to the nomadic Kubu clan. They are believed to be the descendants of a pygmy race of wandering Negrito people. Although many of them now have rubber and other agricultural land, the Kubu tribe fulfills all dietary needs through hunting and food gathering. A walk into the jungle to witness the day-to-day activities of the nomadic Kubu people, exploring their tradition and culture, left me humbled by their simple and unpretentious lifestyle.
After breakfast, my tour driver set out for a long drive to Padang via Trans Sumatra highway. The journey got interesting as we got to stop at several scenic locations. We visited Muara Bungo, capital of Bungo Regency in Jambi province. I came to know that Benit river, that ran through Muara Bungo, yielded around 1500 kilograms of gold deposits in 2005! Singkarak Lake, too, was an interesting stopover along the way. On reaching Padang, I hit the sack soon as I had an early flight to catch the next morning.
It was time to say goodbye to Padang as I sped away in a cab towards the airport way before sunrise to catch the earliest flight to Surabaya in Java island. Surabaya airport was the starting point of my journey to these stunning parts. A local tour operator drove me to my hotel in Cemoro Lawang Village in the vicinity of Mount Bromo, an active volcano in East Java. Enroute, I was fascinated by the spectacular Madakaripura waterfall in Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park, cascading down from the dense forest above.
I had a hard time pulling myself out of bed before dawn for a second consecutive day, but I sure wasn’t going to lose an opportunity of a lifetime to watch the sunrise in the backdrop of Mount Bromo, an active volcano! So, there I was, tucked with few other tourists in a 4×4 slicing through the night air at 3.30 am, headed for Mount Penanjakan Bromo. The rim of the Tengger caldera at Mount Penanjakan is believed to be the best vantage point to view the sunrise. After the day brightened a little, we took a walk to the summit of Mt. Bromo across the sea of sand, or Laut Pasir, consisting of volcanic sand. Simply breathtaking! Morning’s exploits soon came to an end as we headed for the hotel, had breakfast, packed up and set out for the next destination – Banyuwangi. This is a town close to the starting point of the trek to Ijen crater, my activity beginning at midnight.
An 11.30 pm wake-up call (on Day 10) charged me up for my much-awaited activity that began at midnight today – hiking up the Ijen crater. At about 1 am, my guide brought me to Paltuding – the starting point of the trek. It was exhilarating! Once I reached the peak, I could see a turquoise sulphur lake shooting up blue flames – Ijen blue fire – from the crater. There were no words to express my feelings as I stood there watching this amazing feat of nature, safety mask covering my mouth and nose (to avoid inhalation of harmful volcanic smoke)! As the sun came out and changed the landscape a bit, I could see the largest acid lake in Java island more clearly. At about 7.30 am, I headed back to the hotel for breakfast and a brief stopover before starting for Surabaya airport for my onward journey to Bali.
An afternoon flight took me to Denpasar International airport. I headed straight for my pre-booked accommodation in Kuta and settled down for a lazy evening.
My first object of interest in this cultural hot spot was the picturesque Tanah Lot temple, perched on a unique rock formation jutting out of the sea. I took off after an early breakfast to avoid the heat and crowd setting in later in the day that eventually spoil the beauty of this tranquil place. After the visit, I returned to my lodgings to enjoy the beach close by.
I checked out from the hotel at noon, and had a sumptuous and relaxed Balinese lunch at a cozy little beachfront restaurant. After lunch, I set out for Denpasar airport to catch my early evening flight to Lombok.
My lovely beach-side accommodation in Lombok was quite a treat for the soul. The evening air rejuvenated every cell of my body as I geared up for a couple of idyllic days on this island.
Time for some island hopping. Gili islands, here I come! It was a one of those fun-filled days of snorkelling, swimming, boating and relaxing by the beach. Watching sunset from Nipah and Malimbu hill was a perfect way to conclude the day. Later in the evening, I parked myself in a deck chair outside my lodgings and enjoyed the salty breeze caressing my face.
An early morning swim was followed by a leisurely breakfast. Soon it was time for my flight back to Denpasar, Bali. This time I checked into a hotel in Jimbaran to experience another part of Bali. At around 4 pm, a local tour operator took me for a visit to Uluwatu temple, an ancient Balinese Hindu temple standing on the edge of a cliff. It was just the perfect setting for one of the most striking sunsets I have ever seen in my lifetime. This was followed by another cultural treat – Kecak and Fire Dance, a unique rendition of the sacred Hindu epic Ramayana. A hearty local dinner ended this wonderful tour.
It was a mixed bag of nature and culture treats today. After breakfast, I checked out of my accommodation in Jimbaran and employed a local tour operator for a trip to Kintamani and Ubud regions. The day offered its first dollop of cultural experience in the form of traditional Barong and Keris Dance performances in Batubulan Village.
After visiting a few more villages that enriched my knowledge of Balinese lifestyle, I finally began my tryst with nature in Bali. Tegenungan Waterfall and Batur Volcano, overlooking the breathtaking Lake Batur, were just the kind of nature’s delights I was looking forward to exploring in Bali. After a wonderful lunch in the lap of nature, I was taken to Ubud, Bali’s cultural heart, where a beautiful palace and arts market captivated by interest.
One of most pleasurable trips in Bali is that to its eastern region. Replete with rice terraces and meandering country roads, time seems to stand still in these parts. Today the roads in East Bali took me past coffee plantations, Balinese villages, Besakih Mother Temple and other cultural delights with brief stopovers before dropping me to a perfect little beach in Candidasa. I rented a boat to go to Gili Tepekong island. The east side of this island has a lagoon that is ideal for some snorkeling. Soon the setting sun (and my day tour operator) reminded that it was time to head back to my hotel in Kuta. Another dreamy day spent well on this romantic island.
After a rewarding day in East Bali, I headed for North Bali today in a private car. Finally an entire day spent mostly by the water! While Tamblingan and Buyan lakes provided some picture-perfect photo opportunities, Git Git waterfall and Lovina beach imprinted some everlasting memories in my soul. Banjar hot water spring is worth mentioning too. Incidentally, hot water from Mount Batukaru flows to this public bath place and attracts the locals and the tourists alike.
A trip to Bali is incomplete without a day of fun and frolic by the beach. Not to break this tradition, I lazed the entire day away at a beach club on Lembongan Island with a picnic lunch to satiate my hunger pangs. Need I say anything more?
One final swim in the sea by my beach-side hotel and I was ready for my last breakfast in Bali. It was time to catch my flight back home with a bagful of sandy clothes and heart full of memories!
Have any questions or suggestions related to backpacking in Indonesia? Feel free to post your comments below. Let’s help other travellers make the best of this interesting destination!