Originally published in the October/November/December 2011 Andrew Harper Traveler
Indonesia seems to do things in superlatives. With more than 17,000 islands, the country is the world’s largest archipelago. More than 300 ethnic groups call Indonesia home, and the country boasts the greatest biodiversity on the planet after Brazil. Indonesia also is the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation. Yet, despite this diversity and almost overwhelming size, the heart and soul of Indonesia can be exemplified by two islands – Java and Bali – including Indonesia’s capital city of Jakarta.
With more than 138 million inhabitants, Java – one of Indonesia’s largest islands – is the most populated island in the world and home to more than half of Indonesia’s population. As the country’s most developed island, Java serves as Indonesia’s economic and political heart as well. Yet, with influences ranging from Hindu-Buddhist to Dutch colonialism, the island also claims some of the region’s most striking cultural sites. In fact, all of Indonesia’s cultural properties on the World Heritage List are found on Java. With a chain of volcanic mountains jutting into the skyline, Java’s natural setting is another enticement for visitors.
Jakarta, located on the northwestern coast of Java, is a pulsating metropolis. Home to almost 10 million people, the city has an energy all its own. Although the mix of crowds, smog and noise can overwhelm travelers initially, the colorful markets, vibrant streets and widespread friendliness make a visit to this eclectic city worthwhile.
In contrast to Java and Jakarta is Bali, Indonesia’s best-known and most-visited island, located just off Java’s southeastern coast. Bali is small – about 100 miles wide and 70 miles north to south. And, unlike the rest of Indonesia, its 3.9 million residents are mostly Hindu, not Muslim. Bali’s topography and size afford mornings perfect for climbing mist-covered volcanic peaks – such as the 10,300-foot Mount Agung, an active volcano – followed by afternoons lounging seaside on one of the island’s renowned white-sand beaches.
From relaxing retreats to bustling streets to standing amid volcanoes and Buddhist temples, Bali, Java and Jakarta capture the essence of Indonesia. Explore these destinations here, with exclusive insight provided by Mr. Harper himself, the Andrew Harper Travel Office, area Andrew Harper Alliance hotel partners and Andrew Harper members.
What about the area do you think most often surprises first-time visitors?
Mr. Harper: “It is hard to generalize, as Bali is very different from the rest of Indonesia owing to its Hindu—as opposed to Islamic—cultural heritage. Although parts of southern Bali are now very built up, and mass tourism has come to the famous Kuta Beach, I think visitors are still surprised by the natural hospitality of the Balinese. They really are the most exquisitely polite people on earth. There is a charm and gentleness about the Balinese character that is unique. And, it is why the service in the top Balinese resorts is the best in the world.”
Andrew Harper Travel Office: The mountainous interior of Bali and the interior of Java around Yogyakarta, the cultural center of Java, can be surprising, says Betty Brauer. “I don’t think most people think of mountains when they think of Bali,” she adds.
Andrew Harper Alliance Hotel Partners: According to John Halpin, general manager at Bali’s COMO Shambhala Estate, the rich diversity in the cultures of each island amazes first-timers. “The variety of experiences in Bali alone— from a beach vacation in the south; to a cultural trip in the heartland of temples; to rich, green rice fields in typical Balinese terraced style; to arid areas and volcanoes, not to forget shopping for antiques, visiting artisans and local stone masons, and excellent cuisine”—is surprising, Halpin says.
Andrew Harper Members: F.W., an Andrew Harper member since February 2000, cites Java’s “brilliant green landscape, the ‘Call to Prayer’ that can be heard throughout a village and the crazy scooter riding” as astonishing on one’s first visit.
What do you consider the can’t-miss sites and hidden gems in the region?
Mr. Harper: “The region’s can’t-miss site is Borobudur in Central Java, a vast eighth-century Buddhist temple complex built in the form of a mandala, or sacred diagram. This is now a World Heritage site and it is astonishingly impressive. On Bali, there are still many exquisite small temples that the tourist buses do not visit. Visitors are rewarded by a little research and patient exploration.”
Andrew Harper Alliance Partners: “Make sure you visit Borobudur early in the morning to catch the magnificent sunrise,” says The Dharmawangsa Jakarta’s Director of Sales Fiskarani Sugandi. She also recommends the temples of Prambanan, another World Heritage site in Central Java. Another spectacular sunrise view is of Gunung Agung (Mount Agung), Bali’s volcanic peak, says Halpin. He says travelers should not miss visiting the Mother Temple of Besakih, eating freshly caught fish in Candi Dasa and seeing a kecak dance performance in Ubud, all on Bali.
If you had only one day to spend in each of Bali, Jakarta and Java, what would your three-day agenda include?
Mr. Harper: “I would spend them all in one place, almost certainly Bali. The distances are too great to hop around. (The flight time from Jakarta to Denpasar, Bali, is nearly two hours.) During three days in Bali, I would visit the spectacular Ayung River Gorge and then spend some time in the idyllic countryside in the north and west of the island. There, temples, villages and paddy fields are overlooked by 10,000-foot volcanoes. During three days in Java, I would head for the city of Yogyakarta, which is generally regarded as the cultural capital of Indonesia, famous for its dance, drama and music, as well as for fine batik. The nearby resort of Amanjiwo is one of my favorites anywhere in the world.”
Andrew Harper Alliance Hotel Partners: For a day on Bali, The Dharmawangsa’s Fiskarani as well as Lista Tampubolon from the hotel’s reservations department, suggest yoga, a spa and cultural shows in Ubud, while in Jakarta they advise visiting the “Kota Tua” (Batavia old town). On Java, they recommend a day of seeing the temples, followed by a local dining experience. Halpin’s three-day agenda would include dinner overlooking the Ubud landscape of terraced rice fields, dawn at Borobudur in Java and eating noodles at a Jakarta food stall.
Andrew Harper Members: Member F.W. would spend a day on Java hiking the Menoreh Hills and visiting Selogriyo, an eighth-century Hindu temple. While on Bali, her day would include a guided walk through the rice fields around Ubud, hiking the hills of East Bali and visiting some of the traditional villages and unparalleled temples.
Indonesia is known for its incredible biodiversity. What nature-oriented activities do you recommend in the area?
Mr. Harper: Indonesia does indeed have extraordinary biodiversity, though its rain forests are being rapidly cleared by illegal logging. Few areas of the country are set up for wildlife or nature tourism, however. There are no equivalents to the upscale African safari companies. There may be orangutans, but no one can take you to see them in the degree of comfort that Harper members expect. One exception is provided by the Komodo National Park, home to the famous Komodo dragon, the world’s largest lizard, which occasionally grows to nine feet in length. Komodo, one of Indonesia’s 17,508 islands, can be reached from Amanwana on the neighboring island of Moyo. Guests at Amanwana also can experience some of the world’s most spectacular scuba diving, in seawater of astonishing clarity.
Andrew Harper Alliance Hotel Partners: COMO Shambhala’s Halpin recommends a bike ride down Mount Batur to Ubud. Fiskarani and Tampubolon say that while on Bali, diving or snorkeling is a must. They also recommend the national underwater park Wakatobi at Southeast Sulawesi, and Raja Ampat at Papua for their rich, underwater biodiversity. Andrew Harper Travel Office While on Bali, Brauer suggests, take a whitewater rafting trip on the Ayung River.
Andrew Harper Travel Office: While on Bali, Brauer suggests, take a whitewater rafting trip on Ayung River.
Andrew Harper Members: Similarly, F.W. says, “Moyo Island is a nature reserve and absolutely worth visiting. The water is extremely clean and clear; consequently the sea life and coral is extraordinarily healthy and beautiful.”
How would you describe the culinary experiences in the region? Are there any local dishes you recommend?
Mr. Harper: “Indonesian food is delicious, if you like spiced Asian cuisine. (The Indonesian archipelago was once known as the “Spice Islands,” and it was from here that Portuguese and Dutch traders brought pepper, cloves and nutmeg to the West.) Sumatran food tends to display an Indian or Middle Eastern influence. The food of Java is renowned for its sweetness, especially the celebrated dish of gudeg, a curry made from jackfruit. The city of Yogyakarta is famous for its ayam goreng (fried chicken) and kelepon (green rice-flour balls with palm sugar filling). Other Javanese specialties include opor ayam (braised chicken in coconut sauce) and rawon (dark beef stew). In Bali, look for dishes such as lawar (chopped coconut, garlic and chili, with pork or chicken meat) and bebek betutu (duck stuffed with spices, wrapped in banana leaves and coconut husks, cooked in a pit of embers). Balinese sate is made from spiced, minced meat pressed onto skewers, which are often lemongrass sticks. Babi guling is a spit-roasted pig stuffed with chili, turmeric, garlic and ginger. Halpin recommends babi guling, as well as fresh, grilled fish in Candi Dasa, bakso (Indonesian meatball soup) nasi padang or “a freshly plucked coconut cracked open on a beach with a straw in it.”
Andrew Harper Alliance Hotel Partners: Fiskarani and Tampubolon recommend traditional rice dishes such as nasi liwet (coconut rice served with chicken, gizzard, liver, bean curd, soy-braised eggs and spicy braised cherimoya vegetable) and nasi bogana (special rice steamed with banana leaf and accompanied by marinated fried chicken, sautéed chicken liver and long bean with chili, beef stew, crispy beef, braised egg and fried king prawn). They also suggest traditional soup dishes such as soto betawi and soto kudus.
Andrew Harper Members: For F.W., “satays and sambals are a must. Also try the rice dishes— nasi goreng, in particular. The curries are also very good.”
What about the region inspires you to make a return visit?
Andrew Harper Travel Office: For Brauer, the beaches and mountains serve as inspiration for a return visit.
Andrew Harper Alliance Hotel Partners: Halpin notes that the welcoming spirit of the local residents keeps people coming back. “I have never experienced more genuine smiles in my life,” he says. Adds Fiskarani and Tampubolon, “One visit will not be enough to enjoy it all. A return visit is unavoidable.”
Mr. Harper: “It is the charm of the Balinese, as well as their grace and physical beauty, that always makes me long to return. The Balinese in traditional dress are some of the more attractive members of the human race. I also love the landscape of central and northern Bali, with its acid-green rice terraces and huge volcanoes. And the resorts of the dramatic Ayung River Gorge— Amandari, COMO Shambhala Estate and the Four Seasons Sayan– are some of the most distinctive and refined in the world.”
Travel warnings have been issued for Indonesia in recent years. What advice do you have for visitors about safety?
Mr. Harper: “American visitors must continue to exercise caution. I would not hesitate to visit the Balinese countryside, but I would certainly avoid nightclubs and bars frequented by young, scantily dressed Westerners. In general, Indonesian Islam is moderate, the authorities are determined to crack down on the militants and an overwhelming majority of the country’s inhabitants is friendly and polite to foreigners.”
Andrew Harper Alliance Hotel Partners: “Make a copy of your travel documents and keep the original in your hotel’s safety deposit box; have the hotel acknowledge your daily agenda; and always opt for an authorized travel provider (such as a reputable taxi company) and do some research before you visit certain areas,” say Fiskarani and Tampubolon. Halpin notes that travel warnings “are not a fair assessment of a place that is so diverse. These warnings tend to paint the entire population of Indonesia with the same brush, which is just not a realistic view.”
Andrew Harper Members: F.W. advises travelers to travel light and downplay status symbols— “the most expensive thing I carried was my camera,” she says. Further, she adds, “be respectful of the cultural differences. Don’t wear skimpy clothing or make a fuss if it’s necessary to take shoes off to enter a temple.”