Let’s make this clear right from the start. Indonesia is big. Very big. You just won't believe how vastly, enormously, brain—meltingly big it is. You may have heard that it's a long way to Tipperary, but that’s just peanuts compared to the almost two million square kilometres it takes to travel this archipelago nation.
So, how big is big? Some seventeen and a half thousand islands (at the last count), two hundred and fifty million people, around three hundred and sixty ethnic groups, and more than seven hundred languages that’s how big. In fact, it’s a land of so many races, flora, fauna, traditions, sights, arts and produce that it’s more like a kaleidoscope of countries fused into one.
Venturing across Indonesia you’ll see a multitude of astonishing landscapes, as diverse as those living on them, studded with ancient rice terraces and untamed jungle, home to pygmy elephants, tree kangaroos and the Komodo dragon. Sulawesi's jagged coastline embraces powdered platinum beaches and pockets of coral-fringed,diving paradise, while Sumatra’s spectacular contours have been formed over the millennia by nearly 100 lava-spewing volcanoes, some still capable of erupting at any moment.
In fact, dramatic sights are part of the everyday here: an orangutan reposing in a tree; a Balinese dancer’s exquisitely precise moves; a deserted stretch of dazzling white sand set off by azure sea; the primeval menace of a Komodo dragon.
To sum up, this ever-intriguing, ever-intoxicating land offers some of the last great adventures on earth. Sitting in the open door of a train steaming across North Borneo, clinging on to the back of a scooter in Jakarta, exploring South Sulawesi and stumbling upon an ancient village, unchanged for centuries, or simply hiking through hinterland you’re sure no one has ever set foot in before – you’ll find experiences waiting round every corner.

People

Indonesia’s cultures are as widely diverse as its geography, with every island a particular blend of the people who live on it. Home to the world’s largest Muslim population, it’s also studded with ancient Hindu temples, and its quarter of a billion inhabitants practice six officially recognised religions (as well as many unrecognised ones), in addition to a range of animist rituals. Perhaps it’s because of this rich diversity that Indonesians are, by and large, very tolerant of differences and welcome every newcomer with wide smiles and immense generosity of spirit. They are fiercely proud of their history, culture, wildlife, food and more, and are passionate about sharing it with others.

Places

OK, so it was mentioned that Indonesia’s big. Well, it’s so big that you could spend years exploring the place and barely scratch the surface. So here are some suggestions for must-see destinations for your first trip…

Bali
Beautiful beaches? Yes. Outstanding diving and snorkelling? Yes. Thriving night life? Yes to the max. However, despite the undeniable claims of the beaches, the real Bali is to be found inland. Ubud, the island’s cultural capital, offers excellent food, historic temples, handicrafts and activities from silver-smithing to every type of yoga to be found. To the east, Besakih, offers up its Hindu Mother Temple, the sacred volcano, Mount Agung, and rice field walks with stunning views. To the northwest, Munduk has waterfalls and highland hikes, the climate of Bedugul is cool enough to grow strawberries and there’s nothing quite like relaxing in lakeside hot springs after a dawn climb of Mount Batur volcano.

Java
Java makes up 7% of the country's landmass, yet is home to 60% of the country's 260 million inhabitants. This is the heartland that is Indonesia in essence: shadow puppets, elegant ritual, elaborate dances, smoking volcanoes and unchanging ancient landscapes. West of the island, Mount Bromo sits in a black sand desert: the horse-riding Tenggerese people still make live offerings to the volcano at June’s Yadnya Kasada festival. Banyunwangi in the east is an hour-long ferry hop to hot springs, coffee plantations and spice gardens. On the south coast, Plengkung beach has an iconic surf break, whilst inland, the eighth-century Buddhist temple of Borobudur in the volcanic highlands, is one of the world’s great religious monuments and the cultured university city of Yogyakarta, is much more than just a base for exploring.

Lombok and the Gilis
Almost as big as Bali, Lombok is the largely unknown, poor relation of an island next door. But if you’re looking for something different from Bali, it’s the place to go. From its volcanic centre to unspoilt idyllic beaches such as Mawun, Lombok is perfect for intrepid travellers who like to explore. Many are drawn to Gunung Rinjani, the country’s second-highest volcano. Swollen streams cascade down its jagged slopes, while its summit – complete with hot springs and a breathtaking crater lake – is the ultimate explorer’s prize. The stunning Gili Islands are a trio of tiny white sand desert islands, sprinkled with coconut palms and surrounded by turquoise sea, coral reefs teeming and, on Gili Trawangan, hip new hotels and legendary nightlife.

Flores
Another long overlooked neighbour of the more famous Bali, the island of Flores is finally emerging as a desirable destination in its own right.  So, after visiting the dragons at Komodo National Park, take time to marvel at the wonders of Flores. Here you can swim in crystal lakes and waterfalls, dive at one of the 50 spectacular dive sites, go kayaking among craggy coasts and mangrove shores and explore mysterious underwater caves. Inland, Bajawa and Ruteng are gateways to age-old tribal cultures in the island’s fertile valleys.

Sumatra
Further afield, the fierce land of Sumatra, the the world’s sixth-largest island, has much to tempt the venturesome traveller. Literally bubbling with the power of nature, this extraordinarily beautiful place is home to orangutans, tigers and rhinos, whilst down at sea-level, perfect pristine beaches lie unvisited except by the bombardment of crystal clear surf. As eclectic as the land itself, the Sumatran people are the result of a melting pot of cultures, from devout Muslims in Aceh to Batak Christians around Danau Toba and the matrilineal Minangkabau of Padang. All are unified by respect and love of their wild and wonderful country.
 

Pleasures

If you’re a shopper, Indonesia will be heaven. In terms of souvenirs and trinkets, the  markets here can’t be beaten. Some of the best buys are batik cloth, ikat fabrics (textile made using a type of tie-dye technique), woodcarvings and sculpture, silver work, woven baskets and hats, bamboo articles, krises (small daggers), paintings and woven cloth. If you’re shopping at stalls and small shops within the pasar (market), bartering might well be called for, but do keep it light-hearted and playful. In terms of nightlife, Jakarta has the biggest party and club scene, often with featured international singers and bands. The beach town of Kuta on Bali is also a good spot for nightlife. Throughout the year, many local moonlight festivals occur (just check locally to see if a festival coincides with your visit).
Renowned travel writer Deborah Cater once wrote, “You have to taste a culture to understand it.” In which case, given the thousands of dishes waiting to be sampled, Indonesian culture will remain forever a mystery. In fact, there’s so much to Indonesian cuisine that giving you a list of Must Eats is almost impossible, but here’s our 5 Stars tasting menu:

Beef Rendang. Originally from Padang, Sumatra, this insanely delicious dish is nothing short of divine. Padang food is famous for its spiciness and richness in flavour and Beef Rendang has both in glorious abundance. The secret lies in the gravy which simmers round the beef for hours until the meat is meltingly tender.

Siomay. Most Indonesian street food has something to do with peanut sauce. And Siomay - Indonesia’s version of dim sum - is no exception. Containing steamed fish dumplings, the dish is also served with steamed potato, cabbage, egg and, of course, that peanut sauce. If you want to go totally local, the best way to enjoy Siomay is to buy it from a bicycle vendor, who carries his large steamer behind him.

Nasi Goreng. Widely considered Indonesia’s national dish, Nasi Goreng (fried rice) can be mixed with vegetables, chicken, beef, seafood, or any ingredient that may be close at hand. What makes this dish different from other regional variations is the use of sweet, thick soy sauce called keycap and garnishes of acar, pickled cucumber and carrots.

Gudeg. A traditional food hailing from Yogayakarta in Central Java, Gudeg is a stew made from nangka (young jack fruit) with palm sugar, coconut milk, meat, garlic, and lots of spices. The result is intense flavour, melding taste and texture to perfection.

Sweet Martabak. A favourite Indonesian dessert which is only sold in the evenings, Sweet Martabak is an Indonesian version of a pancake with a choice of fillings from chocolate, cheese and peanuts or fruit. The sign of a good Martabak stall is that once you order, the vendor will make it under your very nose.
 

Do

Wear a top that covers your shoulders, like a blouse or t-shirt, and if you’re female, a bra underneath
Make sure you travel with a friend or a group if you’re female
Remove your shoes when entering a place of worship or a private home
Use your right hand - never your left - when eating or giving something
Learn to say “thank you” in Bahasa Indonesia. Terima kasih!
 

Don’t

Cross the road and assume vehicles will stop for you. They won’t
Put your feet up on a chair and show the bottom of your feet. It is is one of the most disrespectful things you could do anywhere in the country
Drive a motorbike or scooter without a helmet. It is a legal requirement
Accept free alcoholic drinks from strangers. They very possibly could be spiked Honk if you’re stuck in traffic behind a religious procession
 

Best time to go

The whole archipelago is tropical, with temperatures at sea level always between 21˚C and 33˚C, although cooler in the mountains. In theory, the year divides into a wet and dry season, though it’s often hard to tell the difference. In general, November to April are the wet months (Jan and Feb the wettest) and May through to October are dry. However, in northern Sumatra, this pattern is effectively reversed.
 

Best way to go

With water, water, and islands, islands, everywhere, it stands to reason that one of the best ways to travel Indonesia is by boat. Choose your island, choose your port of entry and then spend some time getting to know a small part of this vast nation - because chances are, your next island destination will offer a completely different experience. Wherever you choose, your boat can pick you up anywhere along the coast and drop you off wherever you decide, meaning your trip is completely customisable.
Your boat’s customisable too…just choose from any of the beautifully equipped vessels.
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Indonesia