East Java is most often travelled through very quickly, with travellers racing out of Yogyakarta and heading west for Bali, just slowing down for two of the region’s most spectacular volcanoes. There is however, plenty more worthy of your attention. What follows is a straightforward route to let you take in more of East Java at a relaxed pace.
Indonesia’s East Java province is home to some of the country’s most breathtaking volcanic scenery (sometimes literally), the star attractions being the awesome Bromo-Tengger massif and Kawah Ijen spewing out its blue fire and molten sulphur for a daily show. But it’s not just nature’s bounties, humans have had their hand on this land for eons and ancient temples pepper the rich landscape too. More recently colonial endeavours have added to the architectural environment and relics from these times can be visited in the port city of Surabaya and cool hill retreat of Malang as well as fascinating legacies in the still-working factory and plantation at Glenmore near Kalaibaru.
As most first time visitors to Java fail to allow enough time to have much of a look around, travellers often end up doing much of the following on arranged tours, especially out of Yogyakarta. These trips, generally travelling west to Bali, are a good way of knocking a few of the top shelf destinations off the list, but they are invariably rushed with little time to really appreciate what you are doing and seeing. Our advice? Avail yourself of Java’s solid rail network, along with a solid two weeks (rather than two days) and have a proper poke around.
The Dutch did well in East Java building rail lines criss-crossing many of the areas of interest to travellers today, and making getting from A to B relatively straightforward. When there is no railtrack—such as up the volcanos—a train-like convoy of jeeps takes over the job. Occasionally during the rainy season, heavy falls cause landslides and disruption even to the most punctual of rail services, and volcanoes, they can be finicky too, blowing off poisonous gasses and ash occasionally closing them (and airports) to visitors.
Java’s wet season runs roughly late October to late February, but has been known to extend a month or more in either direction. During this time, road travel is fine on the major roads, but landslides do happen and there can by trip disruptions. Heavy rain can also cause delays on the rail network. If you’ve got a date with a long haul international flight, be sure to allow enough wiggle room to make sure you don’t miss it. If you’re planning on climbing volcanoes, bring protective cold weather gear—even in dry season, and consider packing a filtered ventilator for times when the gasses pump. If your trip plans coincide with Ramadan book rail travel as far in advance as possible or consider changing your trip and pick another island in Indonesia, as at this time the entire population of Java is on the move, and if you think the railways are congested, you should see the roads!
Day 1: Surabaya
Surabaya, East Java’s provincial capital and Indonesia’s second largest city after Jakarta doesn't see a huge number of foreign tourists, and those that do pass by, well they most often just pass by. Our advice though, is to take a day or two and add this gritty but fascinating historical port city to your itinerary.
Whether you choose the renowned five star Majapahit Hotel or its lesser cousin Hotel Paviljoen or any other option, sling your bags in the room and head out to explore, but head out hungry as there’s plenty of grazing of the city’s gastronomical delights to be done as you wander about.
Check out the House of Sampoerna cigarette museum or perhaps the Monumen Kapal Selam, a museum within a submarine. Seek out a hidden Buddhist sculpture or just soak up the vibe of this multicultural city in the different ethnic enclaves—visit the Chinese-style Zheng He Mosque or the atmospheric old Dutch graveyard, wander the souk-like Arab quarter and discover the city’s other colourful markets.
Day 2: Surabaya: Trowulan
If for no other reason, Surabaya is worth adding to your itinerary to visit one of the most significant historical sites in the whole of Southeast Asia, Trowulan. Wait, what? you’ve never heard of it? A day trip from Surabaya, Trowulan was the seat of the influential 13th–15th century Hindu-Buddhist Majapahit Empire whose interests stretched as far as mainland Southeast Asia.
Trowulan is pretty much in ruins, but is a major areological site with a handful of small restored temples, admittedly not as impressive as Borobudur but anyone interested in history will most likely be blown away. The trip can be done by private car, but if you like an adventure, is possible by public transport too, just leave very early.
Day 3: Malang
Moving on, jump on the Mutiara Selatan train to Malang—the two-and-a-half-hour trip is an early start around 07:20 but you’ll have the whole day to discover the delights of Malang, one of our favourite cities in Java.
If you are a lover of the arts and culture, do yourself a favour, cash in a splurge credit and check into the Hotel Tugu Malang, if it’s beyond your means just go for a drink or a bite. Venture out to explore the city with the mob from A Day to Walk pay-as-you-wish tours and soak up the delights of the colonial Dutch business district, a hidden traditional kampung and the vibrant street scenes in Chinatown. Don’t worry if you didn't have time for breakfast, you certainly won’t starve on this tour. If military history appeals, you may have time in the afternoon to fit in a visit to Museum Brawijaya. And if you have room for dinner after your day of grazing, delightful Inggil’s museum-like setting is only surpassed by their moorish selection of sambals, be sure to try a few.
Day 4: Malang
Malang has temples to explore in every direction, and it is an easy day tip to circumnavigate them all. Head West to eight-century Candi Badut, the oldest in East Java, but sadly badly vandalised. The later 13th century group of Singosari temples are small, but the carvings are both detailed and exquisite and while some seem plonked in the suburbs, others are enhanced by their picturesque settings. As you cruise around, be sure to take a break for some refreshing es teller. Once you’ve returned and freshened up, hit the bars for a pre-dinner beverage or linger and enjoy some live music too.
From Malang we head to one of Java’s highlights, the spectacular active volcano Gunung Bromo, but if you wish to add a few days around Malang, take an excursion to Panataran near Blitar another group of temples from the Singosari dynasty, head to the hills of Batu for hot springs and waterfalls or the beaches to the south.
Day 5: Bromo
The majority of travellers visit Bromo from Probolingo, and while this is the marginally easier option, by going from (or to) Malang you can witness some amazing savannah-like landscape in the volcanic crater, the only catch is you’ll need to hire a private Jeep (or motorbike) to Bromo. Joining a tour is also a possibility, but these mostly leave Malang early in the morning when it’s pitch black and you won’t see anything. They then return to Malang after the sunrise although you could feasibly continue from Bromo with public transport (you’ll still miss the savannah). With a private jeep you can leave later in the day and enjoy Bromo in the afternoon with very few tourists, stopping at Teletubbies Hill on the way. Once at Bromo, walk some of the trails around the crater rim or jump on a motorbike down into the sea-of-sand on the crater floor.
Day 6: Bromo sunrise; Probolinggo
Rise early to join the eleventy million others and their selfie sticks watch the sunrise over Bromo. Many travellers sign up to the Jeep convoy to the lookout points, but an early morning hike is not too strenuous and you may even be alone for a minute or two. Once you’ve viewed the volcano from every possible angle, return for breakfast then jump on the bus to Probolinggo and wait until it’s full to depart or try your luck with an online taxi. The winding downhill journey is spectacular, passing almost vertical farmlands, so have you camera handy and the hour-long trip will be over in no time. You are probably tired from your early rise, but once you’ve settled into your accommodation in Probolinggo you could take a walk around the city and rock on over to to the popular BeeJay Bakau Resort with mangrove boardwalks and a giant Trojan horse! If nothing else, it will add colour to your Instagram feed.
Day 7: Probolinggo
Spend the day exploring the road less travelled (once you get out of the city traffic that is). If you enjoyed seeing the Majapahit temples near Surabaya, Candi Jabung is the furthest easterly temple still surviving and like those at Trowulan is made of red brick. Venture inland to the Tiris region where dedicated Candi chasers will get a thrill from Candi Kedaton, others may think it’s too far to travel to see a pile of rocks, however the surrounding lakes, waterfall and hot springs make this a good day out, not to mention the magnificent scenery along the way.
Day 8: Kalibaru
Back on the rails again today and head to Kalibaru, but there’s a little time before the Mutiara Timur Siang train at around 11:00 to take a quick squiz at Probolinggo’s fascinating Museum Dr. Mohamad Saleh and Museum Probolinggo. The three-hour train journey will have you in Kalibaru with time to enjoy an afternoon splash in the pool.
Day 9: Glenmore; Banyuwangi
It’s just a quick overnighter in Kalibaru, but time to explore the museum-like rubber factory and plantation at Glenmore and perhaps a nearby sugar “factory”—captivating. Pack up and once again on the Mutiara Timur Siang departing around 14:00 to Banyuwangi where you’ll be in less than an hour-and-a half if all goes to plan. You’ll want an early night as it is a very early start tomorrow, but you still have time to explore Banyuwangi’s city beaches and watch the waves lap the shore as they roll over from nearby Bali.
Day 10: Ijen
Banyuwangi is the most popular launching point for Kawah Ijen, a stupendous active volcano, famous for its hardworking sulphur miners toiling under dangerous and difficult conditions. Amid clouds of the gas you may see the “blue fire” of the sulphuric gas igniting. This unforgiving landscape ranks alongside Bromo as a highlight for many visitors to Java.
You can easily arrange a trip with your accommodation, usually departing when it’s barely a new day (and we don’t mean dawn). For one or two travellers these all inclusive deals are usually better value than hiring your own driver, car, guide etc, but you will be sharing with others and stuck to a fairly rigid itinerary. We’d try to convince them to make a detour for a stop at Ijen Shelter on the way back for lunch to try their speciality dish nasi lodhog cooked in bamboo. Not only is the food delicious the valley views are gobsmacking.
Although you could feasibly continue travelling across the Bali Strait, you’ll have a few hours on the road before you’ll arrive at any popular destinations once the ferry docks, and added to this you’ll lose an hour too as Bali is a different time zone, so rest up and hit the road (well the sea) tomorrow. Alternatively, a short flight from Banyuwangi’s cute little airport will have you back in Surabaya in an hour and Jakarta in under two.
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!
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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.