17,000 islands to choose from
The sprawling archipelago of Indonesia is a highly undertouristed destination with an amazing array of attractions to offer independent through to luxury travellers. Aside from the popular island of Bali, Indonesia is one of Southeast Asia's least explored countries in terms of backpacker hordes and mass tourism.
While in much of Southeast Asia the general rule is to follow the backpackers to find the beautiful places to stay, in Indonesia you do well chasing the heels of scuba divers and surfers. These are the travellers who have for decades caught dodgy planes, crowded ferries, creaking trains and rusty buses to get to the most stunning, out-of-the-way places in search of the perfect tube or to glimpse a rare underwater species.
Indonesia can be hard work to travel through properly — and the limiting 60-day tourist visa does not help those really wanting to explore the 17,000-island-strong archipelago fully, given how infrequently some ferries travel. But with a little good planning, a lot of energy and bundles of enthusiasm, Indonesia more than rewards those who make the effort to discover its secrets.
Surfing and scuba diving aside, Indonesia offers excellent outdoor activities to enjoy, from trekking to the peaks of smouldering volcanoes on remote islands and hikes through lush rainforests or terraced rice paddies, through to banana-boat riding or parasailing off the tourist-packed beaches of Bali — to each their own.
Culturally, Indonesia is highly diverse, as is recognised in the national slogan of "Unity in Diversity"; travelling across the nation is really like experiencing a romp through a few dozen countries, each with their own language, traditions, cuisine and atmosphere.
In Aceh, at the northwestern point of Sumatra island, the population is comprised mostly of conservative Muslims, unlike the rest of the country where Islam is slightly more freewheeling or co-exists with Christianity and animism. In the provincial capital of Banda Aceh, rebuilt after the devastating 2004 Asian tsunami roared through parts of it, cafes buzz with young and fashionable Acehnese, but men in traditional attire still sip their thick coffees in smoke-filled wooden coffee houses.
Strike out further afield to sightsee through the stunning mountains where GAM once staged its deadly war of independence; these days the former fighters may be cultivating fair-trade coffee. Offshore, Nias and Simeulue islands have long drawn surfers to their excellent breaks. The rest of Sumatra boasts plenty of natural attractions, such as Lake Toba, the largest and deepest volcanic crater lake in the world, or the surf breaks off the Mentawai islands.
Anak Krakatoa, the volcano left behind after the massive eruption of Krakatoa in 1883, lies just off south Sumatra on the way to Java, and intermittently threatens to again erupt, though it would not be with the force of the 19th century eruption, which was heard in Australia.
Indonesian's main island, Java, is the world's most densely populated island but still offers deserted landscapes for those seeking solitude, as well as the crowded, chaotic and polluted national capital of Jakarta. Most tend to either love or hate the mega-city, with its traffic snarls and rubbish-clogged rivers contrasting the gleaming malls and fashionably attired, designer-clad rich. Java is also home to the ancient Buddhist Borobudur temple complex, a stone's throw from the interesting university city of Yogyakarta.
The southern portion of Borneo, Kalimantan, is Indonesian territory (Brunei and the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak lie to the north) and home to the longhouse-dwelling Dayaks. Sadly the forests here are quickly disappearing, making way for palm oil plantations and other development. This means native orangutans, among other species, are threatened, though sanctuaries seek to save and rehabilitate those injured in logging and other accidents.
Further east of Borneo lies Sulawesi, an octopus-shaped island with another entire set of attractions, including the cities of Makassar and Manado, spectacular diving, numerous volcanoes, gorgeous deserted white sand beaches and interesting historical sites. The people in the Tana Toraja area stage elaborate funerals which are definitely worth trying to see.
Further east again are the Moluccas -- or Maluku Islands — or Spice Islands, where nutmeg, mace and cloves are among the fabled spices the group is famed for producing. National parks offer trekking opportunities, there's a sprinkling of volcanoes, more beautiful beaches and some World War II historical sites to see as well.
Back down south and to the east of Java lies the tourist magnet of Bali. The travel path is well trodden in this Hindu enclave, but for good reason: the island is rich in culture and possesses spectacular geography. These days Westerners can also enjoy sophisticated restaurants, bars and luxury resorts, from the beaches of Kuta and Seminyak through to the artistic centre of Ubud.
As one heads further east from Bali, poverty generally increases as infrastructure deteriorates and land gets less fertile. This is definitely an area of the world intrepid travellers will love.
Between Bali and Lombok lies the Wallace Line, the mysterious boundary where flora and fauna quite dramatically switch from being "Asian" — think jungle, elephants and tigers — to "Australasian" — think scrubby, Komodo dragons and cockatoos.
While Lombok itself offers rugged, fascinating travel, the nearby Gili Islands is a spot as popular for its parties as much as its breathtaking beaches. Heading east, if you're ambitious you could island hop from Lombok to Sumbawa, Komodo, Rinca, Sumba, Flores and West Timor, with plenty of smaller islands, many uninhabited, in between.
Highlights of the region include seeing the Komodo dragon, the world's largest lizard, in its natural habitat; the fascinating tribal culture of Sumba — where horses are also bred; and the crater lakes and amazing natural beauty of Flores.
Finally, there Indonesia's remote Papua, with its tribes, Christian missionaries and untamed scenery. As with pretty much all of eastern Indonesia, Papua is well off the beaten path and travellers looking for an experience to remember will no doubt find it here.
Dawn at Borobudur. Climb a volcano -- any one will do. Savour Javanese food and scenery. Experience the wealth of culture in Bali matched only by the island's jaw-dropping beauty. Climb another volcano on Lombok. Check out the dragons on Komodo. Chill at Sumatra's Lake Toba.
April through to November is the dry season. Bali sees its peak tourism across European summer (July and August) and Australian Christmas holidays. Bali gets the bulk of Indonesia's tourism, other spots are deserted in comparison.