Many people arrive in Indonesia with limited time to travel through this sprawling archipelago of more than 17,000 islands; typically they pick just a couple of islands to focus on, with Java being high on the list of choices. Many times during our travels through Java we’ve been asked about which places should not be missed. This is really something that can only be answered once the issue of time is thrown into the equation, but having an idea of what Java’s highlights are can help in determining which places to visit and which to skip.
Located just outside the vibrant university city of Yogyakarta, Borobudur is the name of the legendary 1,200 year old Buddhist temple which is famed for being the largest of its kind in the world. Locals and foreigners alike flock here throughout the year to witness the sun rising above the bell-shaped stupas of the temple — a truly breathtaking experience.
Located a mere 120 kilometres from Yogyakarta is the mist-shrouded plateau of Dieng. At an altitude of 2,100 metres, this fertile vegetable-growing region can be chilly during the day and downright freezing at night. But the frigid temperatures quickly drift to the back of your mind as you witness the stunning geothermal features across the countryside such as bubbling Kawah Sikidang and turquoise coloured Telaga Warna. Dieng is also home to an abundance of eighth century Buddhist temples. Sadly — or perhaps happily for a traveller in the know — this area only receives a fraction of the tourist numbers that nearby Yogyakarta does.
Gunung Bromo and the Tengger Caldera
The Tengger Caldera perched high in the hills between Malang and Probolinggo in East Java is home to one of Java’s most popular attractions. Thousands of people visit every year to experience the sun rising across the vast collapsed crater (Tengger Caldera) and to later hike up the side of Gunung Bromo and stare down into its vast void. The experience is truly one of the best in Java.
Kawah Ijen is a volcanic crater located at the very eastern end of Java which receives a steady stream of visitors, but nowhere near as many as Gunung Bromo. The main attraction here is to hike to the crater edge and peer down towards the lake below where miners hack sulphur from man-made funnels. These men then carry their heavy loads up the side of the crater wall and down the other side receiving a meagre salary for their trouble. Witnessing this extraordinary feat is one part of the Ijen experience — the other part is taking in the stunning views.
Ujung Genteng is well and truly off the tourist trail, making getting here an adventure in itself. Located on the south coast of West Java, Ujung Genteng is famed for is reliable surf break and turtle conservation programme. Foreigners come here very infrequently, but a construction boom is underway meaning there is no shortage of reasonable accommodation to choose from. Activities in the area include seeing stunning waterfalls, snorkelling the reefs in front of most of the guesthouses and participating in the release of turtle hatchings. This is paradise.
A different kind of paradise to that of Ujung Genteng plays out on the small cluster of islands about 120 kilometres north of Semarang in Central Java. These islands are your typical laid-back, run of the mill tropical paradise. The pace of island life in Karimunjawa is very slow due to the oppressive heat and many visitors choose to while away the hottest hours of the day under a palm tree or snorkelling one of the reefs that surround the main island. For a true adventure, hire a motorbike for 75,000 rupiah and make the 20 kilometre journey to the other side of the island, where life is even more sleepy and the locals even more friendly. Again, Karimunjawa is one of those places that receives hardly any tourists and you’re left wondering why. We still can’t figure it out; but it seems the crowds could be on the way.
Pangandaran & Batu Karas
For a less off-the-beaten track beach experience, Pangandaran and nearby Batu Karas are wonderful getaways. Used primarily by holidaying locals, these beach locations are virtually deserted during the week and you will have the glorious beach and many of the hotels to yourself. Visit on the weekend and mix with cheerful locals letting off steam on the beach playing football or flying a frisbee. This beach here rivals those of Bali, but with none of the drunken louts you may need to suffer in Kuta.
Java truly is a diverse island with many fantastic attractions. Of course, most people are going to have to skip some of the wonderful things that the island has to offer, but with these highlights in mind, you should be able to see some of the best of Java.
Where to go, how long to stay there, where to go next, east or west, north or south? How long have you got? How long do you need? Itinerary planning can be almost as maddening as it is fun and here are some outlines to help you get started. Remember, don't over plan!
Burma lends itself to a short fast trip with frequent flights thrown in or a longer, slower trip where you don't leave the ground. There isn't much of a middle ground. Ground transport remains relatively slow, so be wary about trying to fit too much in.
Roughly apple-shaped, you'd think Cambodia would be ideal for circular routes, but the road network isn't really laid out that way. This means you'll most likely find yourself through some towns more than once, so work them into your plans.
How long have you got? That's not long enough. Really. You'd need a few lifetimes to do this sprawling archipelago justice. Be wary of trying to cover too much ground - the going in Indonesia can be slow.
North or south or both? Laos is relatively small and transport is getting better and better. Those visiting multiple countries can pass through here a few times making for some interesting trips.
The peninsula is easy, with affordable buses, trains and planes and relatively short distances. Sabah and Sarawak are also relatively easy to get around.The vast majority of visitors stick to the peninsula but Borneo is well worth the time and money to reach.
So much to see, so much to do. Thailand boasts some of the better public transport in the region so getting around can be fast and affordable. If time is limited, stick to one part of the country.
Long and thin, Vietnam looks straightforward, but the going is slow and the distances getting from A to B can really bite into a tight trip plan. If you're not on an open-ended trip, plan carefully.
This is where itinerary planning really becomes fun. Be sure to check up on our visa, border crossing and visa sections to make sure you're not trying to do the impossible. Also, remember you're planning a holiday -- not a military expedition.