These Underrated Destinations in Indonesia Will Put You Ahead of the Travel Pack
When Indonesian tour guides ask me how many times I’ve been to Bali, I try to give them a conservative answer. More than to avoid sounding braggy, it’s really to keep my age a mystery.
See, usually, people come to Bali at key points in their lives: First, with a group of friends, when they are young and single and ready for the world. Second, with a partner, someone to share the experience with. Third, alone, when they are lost and having a moment. And fourth, as a full-fledged adult who will settle for nothing less than a suite at a Como Shambala, fluffy robes, and breakfast by an infinity pool overlooking the jungle. Every trip would reveal a different side of the province, and they would fall in love with it every time.
In recent years, however, tourists, travelers, soul-searchers, or whatever you wish to call them have begun yearning for destinations more exotic and less traveled to than Indonesia’s most popular destination. These days, it’s all about “discovering” the next big thing in travel, or at least beating your followers to it. Luckily for us, our ASEAN neighbor, which is also the largest archipelago in the world, is visa-free and holds quite a number of worthwhile attractions for travelers of all persuasions. Feel free to visit them for the ‘gram, the food, the culture, or just to be a more enlightened human being overall.
Yogyakarta, also known as Jogjakarta (Jogja for short), is the capital city of the Special Region of Yogyakarta in Indonesia and is the only royal city that is still ruled by a king. Located on the island of Java, it’s accessible via local flights through major airports such as Jakarta and Bali. In many ways, it is a city that has preserved and incorporated elements of classical Javanese culture into modern life, which makes it an ideal destination for anyone who wants to experience Indonesia in a different light.
While many tourists come to Jogja to make it a home base for visiting nearby archeological and geoheritage sites, the city itself has a lot to offer in terms of activities and nightlife. As host to the largest student population in the country, Jogja intersperses hip cafés and bars nestled with traditional angkringans, where you can enjoy street food literally sitting on the street. Don’t forget to try Kopi Joss, local coffee served with a slab of hot charcoal.
Street Food at Angkringans
Visit Taman Sari Water Castle, the former royal garden and bathing place of the Sultan of Yogyakarta and a display of mid-18th-century opulence. Tourists are welcome to explore the well-preserved bathing complex, as well as the Sumur Gumuling prayer area, which can be accessed through an underwater tunnel. It would be best to get a tour guide as the complex can be crowded—not only do you get inside info, you are also more likely to get better photos since a tour guide tends to tell loiterers to “move along.”
Taman Sari Water Castle
The area around Taman Sari, called Cyber Village, is a colorful area that is home to artists and local artisans in batik and other arts and crafts. If you’re feeling especially crafty, head over to Batik Plentong to paint your own batik hanky and Harto Suhardjo Silver to design silver filigree jewelry to bring home. You may join classes, which include a tour, step-by-step demonstrations, hands-on instruction, and about 20 to 30 minutes of hard work. Don’t worry, the exit is through the gift shop—indulge in some retail therapy before you go.
No trip to Jogja is complete without spending a day along Malioboro, a major shopping street that sells locally made food, fashion, handicrafts, and souvenirs. It’s best visited in the afternoon through the evening, when it comes alive with the lights, colors, smells, and sounds of a city that’s both ancient and new.
Thirty-nine kilometers or an hour-and-a-half drive from Jogja, the Borobudur Temple Compound may be located in Central Java, but because of its proximity to the city, Jogja has embraced it as its own. Homestays are available around the area of Magelang, but if you prefer the convenience of a hotel or if you’re traveling with a big group, it’s best to make Jogja your accommodation base.
A ninth-century Buddhist monument as ancient as they come, Borobodur has been attracting more visitors since its renovation, facilitated by UNESCO, after nine bombs were detonated at the temple site in 1985. This was the monument’s second restoration, which included dismantling all the stones and adding concrete foundations and drainage systems. While it looks as old as it is, Borobudur is a modern site that’s safe for the over 3.9 million tourists that visit it every year. Twenty-six countries contributed to the monument’s restoration, the top three being Japan, Thailand, and the Philippines.
Take either the sunset or sunrise tour for the full experience. The sunset tour starts with a brief lesson from a guide, then a 100-step climb up the pyramid. Fair warning: It’s a quick ascent but the steps are tall (almost a foot), so it can be a challenge for some. However, the view makes it worth the hike. A fiery sunset is a bonus. It is believed that if you walk around the top of the temple clockwise three times, you get to make a wish and it will be granted.
Accessible via local flights from Jakarta and Bali, the Toba Samosir Regency located in North Sumatra is home to Lake Toba, a natural lake so large it looks like the sea. It has an interesting history: Lake Toba was the site of a supervolcanic eruption that triggered a “volcanic winter” over 70,000 years ago. Samosir Island, which is right in the middle of the lake, was formed with the rising of the lake floor.
View of Lake Toba from Huta Ginjang
A single day at Lake Toba, however, will tell you that what’s most special about it is its people. The ethnic group of North Sumatra, the Batak people, claim to be very different from others, from the way they speak—emphatic and fast—to what they eat. There is a rumor that some Batak people are cannibals, but for the record, that’s all in the past (more on that later).
They do like their food spicy, perhaps spicier than anywhere in the country. A must-try, just for the experience, is andaliman, a local spice that looks like black pepper and tastes like ginger mixed with very, very strong toothpaste. Try the andaliman tea at Kaldera Toba Geopark. It’s supposed to be good for digestion.
My visit to Lake Toba was just in time for Karnaval Pesona Danau Toba, a gathering of all of the province’s colorful people, donning colorful costumes, dancing on the streets. Now on its fourth year, the festival celebrates Batak culture and attracts visitors from all over the country. Don’t forget to cheer, “Horas!” a traditional greeting that can mean “good health, “goodbye,” or, it seems, anything really.
Rent a ferry and enjoy the cool breeze on Lake Toba going to Samosir Island. The ferry ride from Simalungun Harbor takes about 45 minutes and costs 15,000 RPH or $1. Shop for traditional handmade fabrics, bags, and souvenirs at Tomok Village, and then get to know more about Batak culture, including the legend of the Batak Cannibal, at Huta Siallagan, an ancient but still functional village that features traditional Batak homes.
Here, you can enjoy local cuisine and participate in traditional dancing, led by the settlement’s chief and descendant of the King. He’s also the tour guide and, not to spoil anything, he will tell you that they’re not cannibals—anymore. You’ll have to come to Samosir Island to hear the whole story for yourself.
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