What to do in Indonesia: Our Selected Highlights

The 18,000 islands that constitute Indonesia's archipelago are spread out across a few million square kilometers of land between Asia and Australia. 

The spotlight is clearly on Bali, and this itinerary includes my favorite less-visited beaches there. It also explores the culture, history, and geography of Indonesia, a country much farther away.

Observing wildlife such as orangutans and Komodo dragons is a common occurrence. Mounts Bromo and Merapi, among others, are rumbling evidence of Indonesia's good fortune in being situated on the Ring of Fire. In addition, it's a place with beautiful islands and shores, all waiting to be explored with the help of your trusty Indonesia travel guide.

Explore Bali's quieter coasts

Bali Barat National Park, Indonesia

Where are the most excellent beaches in Bali? Is the $64,000 question in Indonesia?

White sand beaches, meanwhile, may be found in the southern resorts. But if you want to see the more peaceful, local side of coastal life in Bali, I recommend visiting Pemuteran in the island's northeastern corner.

Instead of walking on sand, visitors to Pemuteran use pontoons to traverse hard coral before leaping into the water to snorkel. Bali Barat National Park is the scene, and it has beautiful coral gardens and excellent jungle hiking inland.

Nearby Menjangan Island is a local boat runaway and, with fantastic drop-offs on the south side and great reefs to the north, one of the most excellent dive places I've seen in Bali.

Candidasa, located in eastern Bali, has an unrivaled beach. Black basalt particles that make up the volcanic sand here sparkle in the sun.

Visit Lombok's quiet beaches

Gili Meno, Lombok

Lombok Island's beaches are far less crowded than those of nearby Bali. In contrast to the pounding surf of southern Bali, there are no beach hawkers here, and swimming is permitted straight off the shore. There are still pubs and nightlife to enjoy, but there is far less development and fewer people.

The beaches and coral in Senggigi's main town are whiter and more pristine than those in southern Bali. You may spend a pleasant half-day snorkeling the reefs and swimming with the odd turtle in the nearby Gili Islands, just seven minutes away by boat.

Climb Lombok's volcano

A look of Segara Anak from the lip of Mt.Rinjani's crater

Climbing Mount Rinjani is challenging, but the rewards are well worth it for experienced hikers. It takes around six or seven hours to reach the crater rim, with about three hours spent in the shade of the rainforest canopy and the remaining time spent traversing exposed rocky ground.

I recommend a two-night hike, including an ascent to the volcano's 3,726-meter peak on the second day. The volcano is still erupting, but now a surprisingly green lake fills its crater. If you camp near the crater rim and get up early enough, you can see the lake and the mountains around you.

Encounter dragons in Komodo National Park

Komodo dragon

This protected area is a smattering of islands east of Lombok where the Komodo dragons are free to wander. Since there is nowhere to stay inside the national park, I recommend renting a live-aboard vessel. The dragons are nearby, and the turquoise water beckons you to swim in it before morning.

The wild nature of the dragons makes for an exciting hiking experience. Two rangers with sticks are with each party to poke any overly curious lizards in the snout. On my most recent trip, I got within two meters of the dragons.

The most oversized island, Komodo, may have more enormous dragons than the second largest island, Rinca. While dragon sightings are common at ranger stations due to the allure of freshly cooked meals, the best sightings occur when a dragon emerges from the woods to surprise you during a walk.

To reach this cluster of islands, you must first travel from Bali to Flores, located a short distance to the east. From this dock, visitors may set sail into the national park.

Watch the sunrise at the world's largest temple

Borobudur, Yogyakarta, Indonesia

Borobudur Temple on Java is a fascinating experience at any time of day, but the calm and silence of the morning brings out the most incredible sense of anticipation.

Select a seat atop one of the bell-shaped stupas and prepare for a breathtaking dawn. Clouds flush in vivid reds and oranges, and stone-carved small stupas and Buddha statues around you gain form in the increasing light. You may even make out the outline of Mount Merapi's conical shape as it slowly smokes in the distance.

The 9th-century Buddhist pyramid Borobudur is exquisitely carved and encircled by much vegetation. 

The neighboring Prambanan temple complex, with its sharply pointed stone towers covered in relief sculptures, is a massive effort to outdo the previous Hindu civilization, and the two go together well.

Booking a performance of the Ramayana Ballet (a combination of dance and music without words) or a kecak dance (rhythmic chanting) in Prambanan in advance is a great way to immerse yourself in Javanese culture.

Hike Java's volcano, Mount Bromo

Mount Bromo

Mount Bromo volcano in eastern Java, is widely regarded as one of the most breathtaking natural attractions in all of Indonesia, making it well worth waking up early to see the sunrise from its summit. It would help if you got to the lookout as early as possible. The tremendous orange light will spread across the horizon, rewarding you like it did for me. Smoke wisps sometimes rise from Bromo's crater, while clouds trapped in the volcanic basin seem like a lake in the foreground.

From the lookout, you'll ride in four-wheel-drive cars down to the desert landscape known as the Sea of Sands, where you'll make a pit break before continuing on foot to the edge of Bromo's crater. The trip up the manufactured staircase takes around 15 minutes and has resting spaces on the side. You may see into the enormous, still-smoking cone-shaped pit from the edge.

Play with orangutans in Borneo

Female orangutan with baby

One of the two remaining natural populations of orangutans in the world may be found in Indonesia, which shares Borneo with Malaysia. Those interested in seeing these animals should fly into Pangkalan Bun airport on the south coast of Indonesian Borneo and then drive for half an hour to Kumai, where they will meet their crew and board a klotok, a long wooden riverboat with a shallow draft, to explore the region's rivers and canals. Passengers have the choice of sleeping in a climate-controlled cabin or on a mattress under a mosquito net on the deck, and the boats are available for private charter. 

When there isn't much artificial light around, you're almost sure to see a shooting star or a firefly constellation. The first night, you'll be able to hear the orangutans calling from afar, and the following day, you'll get to see them up close at the Camp Leakey rescue facility. One of the only areas you can reliably expect to see a large number of them is in an unfenced area, where they will stroll or swing by at close quarters on their way to the meal.

Experience funeral ceremonies in Sulawesi and Sumba

South Sulawesi, burial attire worn by Tarojan women

It's simple to go to Sulawesi from either Bali or Java. The Toraja are an animist tribe that lives in the south of Indonesia. Their homes have high, sweeping roofs to ward off evil spirits, and they hold elaborate burial rites. The Taroja may keep a corpse in storage for a decade while they gather funds for the burial.

The family hosts a three-day party and prepares elaborate accommodations for guests. Participants are, however, obliged to provide a present for the family patriarch or matriarch (I brought a bag of sugar, which seems to be the item everyone wishes).

The ritual murder of animals at these gravesites is not for the faint of heart. Despite this stark contrast, the parade is bright and joyful, with many villages donning elaborate costumes and face paint.

From the island's Makassar airport, the journey to the region takes around 10 hours.

Sumba, an island off the coast of eastern Indonesia, is also home to funeral processions. The island is known for its verdant hills and rice terraces. Like in Sulawesi, July and August are the peak of the funeral season.

Go muck diving

Nudibranch of the purple Chromodoris species, at Lembeh, Indonesia

In the north of Sulawesi, in Manado, you may find many aquatic life, including the fascinating specimens you'll find when'muck diving', or diving to the bottom of the ocean with your face in the sand.

Some of the world's most extraordinary muck diving may be found on Lembeh Island, only a short distance from Manado. The animals' vivid colors make them stand out against the volcanic sand's muted tones. There's the mimic octopus (that changes form to appear like other species), the grandly titled orangutan crab and mantis shrimp, and sea snails in neon-vivid hues.

Bunaken Island, located west of Manado, is a relaxing destination with beautiful coral and bigger marine life like barracuda. Atop the island sits Tangkoko National Park, a rainforest teeming with rare and fascinating species, including the indigenous maleo bird and the world's smallest monkey, the tarsier (16 cm long).

However, there are direct flights from Singapore and across Indonesia to get you to Manado, which is best for the more adventurous visitor.

Enjoy remote island cruising

Tropical fish, Raja Ampat archipelago

The Raja Ampat archipelago in West Papua is the most exclusive of Indonesia's islands for a luxury boat tour.

Travel from Bali to Sorong by plane and sail through a diving hotspot. While at sea during the day and at anchor for the night, you may see tropical birds of paradise, learn about the region's role in the spice trade, and even have the opportunity to interact with members of indigenous communities.

Unlike the rest of Indonesia, December through February are ideal for traveling in Raja Ampat.

Start planning your trip to Indonesia

Start thinking about your experience. These itineraries are simply suggestions for how you could enjoy some of the same experiences as our specialists. They’re just for inspiration, because your trip will be created around your particular tastes.

Start thinking about your experience. These itineraries are simply suggestions for how you could enjoy some of the same experiences as our specialists. They’re just for inspiration, because your trip will be created around your particular tastes.