Multi-colored volcanic lakes. Haunted resorts. The world's largest mud volcano. The world's most elaborate funerals. An abandoned chicken church and other abandoned structures. Yes, this is Indonesia Off The Beaten Path.
When I arrived in Indonesia for the first time ever, I assumed one month would be long enough to see all there was worth seeing. HA! How wrong I was. Here it is many years later and I'm still finding new places to travel in Indonesia.
Indonesia is one of those countries where for every one place you visit, you learn of two more places that you have to visit. You're never done. There is always more.
Unfortunately most visitors stick to the same overcrowded sights and miss out on all the amazing, offbeat and unique sights and activities just around the corner from popular tourist destinations. My job is to keep you from doing just that. So save this list! The next time you find yourself in Indonesia, make sure to visit at least a couple of this unique, offbeat destinations:
In May of 2006 a drilling accident in Sidoarjo resulted in the formation of a mud volcano. Mud has been flowing out ever since, swallowing up everything nearby. Ten years later and the mud is still flowing, the victims have only been compensated a fraction of what they were promised, and the drilling company has weaseled its way out of all responsibility. What remains has turned into a one-of-a-kind off the beaten path attraction.
More photos can be found on Inside Other Places
You won't find any signs or entrance lines, but you may find locals who will charge you a few rupiah to see the sights or to be your motorcycle tour guide. As long as they don't ask for something completely unreasonable, just go for it -- they need it more than you in this case.
Sidoarjo is located 25km south of Suarabya and the mud volcano is located on the south side of town near the river. It's pretty hard to miss. This is what it looks like from above:
Although mud flow has dropped from 100,000 cubic metres per day to less than 10,000m3/day, scientists estimate that it could continue erupting for another 20-30 years.
Move over Borobodur, you've got some competition! Another place of worship has risen up past the jungle treetops just 2 kilometres away. The story begins in 1989 when an elderly man visiting his wife's family in Magelang was struck with a "vision from God" that told him to build a church atop this particular hill. So he bought 3,000 square metres of land on Rhema Hill and built this omnistic (open to all religions) church shaped like a chicken. (Or as he called it, a Dove.) The church finally opened its doors for a few years in the mid-1990s but it wasn't long before money dried up and the property was abandoned. Designed to look like a dove, the church so much resembles a chicken that it is known to the locals as Gereja Ayam ("Chicken Church").
Given the Chicken Church's prominent location atop a hill just a couple kilometres further down Jalan Raya Borobordur past Borobordur, it's not too hard to find. However if you get lost, just ask any local, "Dimana Geraja Ayam?" ("Where is the Chicken Church?") Oh and dress accordingly as it does require a short hike through the brush and up the hill.
Kelimutu Volcano has a good reputation with tourists of Indonesia who make it as far East as Flores and Komodo National Park. However few outside of this niche group have ever heard of Kelimutu Volcano, also known as the Tri-Colored Lakes. The mountaintop is home to three crater lakes of three different colors! The westernmost lake, Tiwu Ata Bupu (Lake of Old People), is blue, Tiwu Ko'o Fai Nuwa Muri (Lake of Young Men and Maidens) in the middle is green, and Tiwu Ata Polo (Bewitched or Enchanted Lake) is red. Of course their colors have been known to vary slightly, which researchers assume is from fluctuations in the gases from the volcano.
Aerial view of the tri-colored lakes of Kelimutu via Michael Day
The Tri-Colored lakes of Kelimutu were not discovered until 1915 and the last official eruption was in 1968. However water in the lakes was boiling for several days back in 2005 and again 2013. As geologists worry that the next eruption could destroy the tri-colored lakes, research there is ongoing.
Given everything, I recommend visiting sooner rather than later. And staying one night nearby so that you can catch the sunrise from Kelimutu.
Like what you're reading? More Offbeat Travel Guides
via Arian Zwegers
The funeral ceremonies of the Toraja people are certainly not off the beaten path anymore -- they've been covered by journalists, photographers, researchers, bloggers and cultural preservationists before. Many, many times before. However no list of unique and offbeat activities in Indonesia would be complete without mentioning them.
In Toraja culture, a funeral is more a celebration of life than a mourning of death. The most extravagent event in their entire lives is, ironically, their funeral. They are elaborate affairs that can last for weeks and cost a fortune. People in Tana Toraja work and save their entire life not for their future, but for their funeral. Sometimes funerals are even delayed for years after the deceased has passed in order to give the family time to raise the remainder of the money necessary for these grand events. During this time in limbo the body will wait patiently inside the family home, waiting for its burial....up on a cliffside.
via Arian Zwegers
Yes, rather than bury their deceased in the ground, Torajans place them inside of a wooden coffin and hang it up on a cliffside. Sometimes these are just propped on the side of the rock wall. Occasionally childrens' coffins are just suspended by rope. However if the family is wealthy enough, they will carve out a miniature cave in the rockface with enough room for several family members. A handcarved wooden effigy is then placed outside and facing away, to watch out over the land and protect the deceased.
In between Bali and Lombok lies a small little island known as Nusa Penida. It is a pristine paradise, home to several small villages, plenty of deserted beaches, and only one hotel and one bungalow complex. Nusa Pendia is Bali's Hidden Paradise. Thanks to minimal tourim the traditional way of life still exists here. It's like Bali was 40 years ago.
Come here for a few days to escape the tourists and the touts. Rent a motorcycle and explore the island. It actually takes several days to cover every road, village and beach. Up north you'll find countless seaweed farms that are a photographer's dream. There is even a Buddhist temple inside of a cave! Even as I type this, I'm still wearing the bracelet I got from the priest during my blessing there back in 2014.
Don't miss Tanglad, the mountaintop village of Nusa Penida. It is known throughout Indonesia for its colorful tenun fabric, which is still handmade to this day. Learn more here.
via Stefan Krasowski
While most of the Indonesian archipelago lies south of the equator, this invisible line cuts Kalimantan in half. Just a few kilometres north of the town of Pontianak lies a monument that is supposedly on top of the equator. Or was. Much like the fake equator monument in Ecuador, GPS has since revealed that this location of this monument is not on the real equator. Another small marking has been erected a slight distance away that is supposed to signify where the equator has "moved" too, but this too is debated. Regardless, the monument still stands and is definitely worth stopping by for a photo opportunity if you find yourself in the neighborhood.
As a result of the terrorist bombings in Bali in 2002, international tourism temporarily stopped and the Beach Bounty Club Bungalows never officially opened. These 26 luxury bungalows and their grounds have ever since remained quietly stuck in time as nature gradually takes back over. Located on the southwest coast of Gili Meno, they are not hard to find. Most likely you will have the entire place yourself. Ferries are available from Lombok or fast boats from Bali -- at both Sanur Beach and Padangbai.
There is another abandoned resort located on Bali that suffered a similar fate in 2002 before it could ever open its doors. Located on the mountainside near Bedugal Lake lies the Taman Rekreasi Bedugul, also known as the Ghost Palace Hotel, this place is far creepier than the Beach Bounty Bungalows.
Of course these are but a fraction of all the amazing things to do in Indonesia. Take my advice and definitely book the longest trip possible. And no matter where you decide to visit, check out Traveloka.com for cheap hotels throughout Indonesia.
Indonesia is a vast and diverse archipelago that continues to impress and surprise longtime expats and even locals. To think that because you've seen Jakarta and done Bali then you "know" Indonesia is to be sorely mistaken. As one expat told me: "Just when you think you're starting to understand Indonesia, that's when you realize you don't understand it at all."
From amazing cultures and regional customs to a seemingly neverending variety of local cuisines, Indonesia is home to more diversity in some of it's larger islands than other nations have in their entirety. Especially when it comes to langauges and dialects, of which the country has over 700 -- and don't think that Indonesian (Bahasa Indonesia) is even remotely similar to Javanese (Bahasa Jawa) or Balinese (Bahasa Bali) because its not. After all the slogan of the country is Bhinneka Tunggal Ika, which is Javanese for "Unity In Diversity."
Indonesia is home to some of the friendliest and most hospitable people I have even met. During six months motorcycling around the country and making local friends, even doing a tourism film on Sumatra, I had nothing but good experiences with the best of people. All except for while I was in Bali -- but I'll get to that in a second. For now the most important things to know are:
Both in terms of taste and authenticity, street food kicks all other food's ass. Oh yeah and of course price. Depending where you are in the country you can get a decent meal for around 11,000IDR ($1USD), a little more if you want to splurge and really fill up. Don't worry about getting sick, just go with the street vendor or warung has the most local customers. After all they must be doing something right!
Expect a lot of variety in dishes and sweetness/spiciness depending upon where in the country you travel. However no matter where you visit there will be lots of fried dishes, such as nasi goreng, mie goreng and ayam goreng (rice, noodles, and chicken respectively -- and of course as you probably guessed goreng is Indonesian for fried). Beyond that the variety begins. For every city you visit make sure to ask the locals what their speciality is.
Indonesia has no shortage of spectular views, virgin beaches, challenging mountains, and off the beaten path exploring. When I first arrived there I thought one or two months would be enough. Six months later and I still didn't want to leave. Yet during my travels I had met so many other backpackers, all of which were visiting Yogyakarta, Mount Bromo, and Bali. "Oh plus Gili T and Komodo if we have time" I heard more often than I can count. Hardly any stopped by Sumatra. And none had even thought about Kalimantan or Sulawesi, let alone Papua.
Trust the locals. Ask them where to visit, what to eat, how to have fun. The friends I've made along my journeys through Indonesia have shown me a world of things not covered in any tourist guide book, from traditional pastimes and 5am fishing trips to lesser-known things like panjat pinang and stick-fighting. And of course more virgin beaches than I can keep track of!
My friend Trinity is author of the famous Indonesian book series The Naked Traveler. Last week her newest book went on sale, Across The Indonesian Archipelago. If you are looking for ideas on where to travel in Indonesia then this is both a great resource and an enjoyable read. (And yes, it is in English.)
Especially on the main island of Java, which has a reliable train network and plenty of regular routes. Outside of Java you will have to rely on buses and ferries, the latter of which can have a bit more of an irregular schedule depending on how remote your intended destination may be. However in places like Sulawesi short flights might be a better, albeit more expensive, option.
Renting a motorcycle is also another option. Of course I would only recommend this option for experienced riders, preferably ones already used to driving in the chaotic streets of southeast Asia. For 50,000IDR/day ($5USD) or 650,000-1,000,000IDR/month ($60-90USD) a scooter or motorcycle can be rented, allowing you to go where you want when you want. This has fantastic way to visit small villages and other off the beaten path destinations. It is the only way I ever made it to places like Banyusumurup, the traditional village that makes all of the kris, small Indonesian daggers with mystical powers. Plus despite horror stories of bus thieves and midnight muggings in Sumatra I have yet to encounter any difficulties along the road.
For more read my newest blog post: How To Travel Indonesia By Motorcycle
If you only have one month or less in the country then I would say skip Bali entirely. It is an over-priced, Westernized version of Indonesia where the bulk of the individuals working in the tourism industry are not even Balinese but rather Sudanese or Javanese and have come solely to take your foreign money. As a caucasin here you essentially have dollar signs tattooed across your pale forehead. Plus as with any place that attracts massive notoriety as a tourist hotspot so too come the touts, beggars, scam artists, foreign food (so you can "feel at home") and of course the inflated prices. At the risk of upsetting some of my Balinese friends I'll say it: if you get pickpocketed or robbed anywhere in the country, it most likely will happen here. It is a predators' paradise because the prey keep flying in 365 days a year.
I love #Bangkok but *hate* Khao San Road. I love Indonesia but despise Bali. Spot the trend? Be a traveler, not a tourist. Go for culture!— ⌠ Derek4Real ⌡ (@the_HoliDaze) November 17, 2013
Don't get me wrong, Bali is not all bad -- just the southern part is. Kuta, Denpasar, Sanur, Uluwatu, etc. In fact Googling "kuta is hell on earth" or some near varient will produce several interesting articles by other bloggers on why Bali is only for couples or families looking for all-inclusive four- and five-star resorts and not for backpackers. The eastern and northern parts, most specifically Padangbai and Ubud, weren't nearly as bad as the Kuta area but neither were they that good.
Talon of 1Dad1Kid.com and I crossed paths in real life one day in Sanur. Turns out he and I had the same feelings about this island. If you are unsure about visiting Bali then his post will help you decide if the island is right for you.
I basically can’t encourage people to come to the island. Indonesia has some truly amazing areas, and I think a person’s time and money are better spent exploring other parts of the country.
Indonesia ranks third in the world for total number of cigarette smokers according to the WHO. Almost all of the men smoke, far too many kids, and yes, even the orangutans. The tobacco industry is big business here and as the Western world keeps placing more restrictions on cigarette advertising and marketing the tobacco giants keep pumping more money into southeast Asia. Despite 'No Smoking' signs in places like malls you can often find someone less than a meter away, using the floor as an ashtray.
To make matters worse cigarettes are around 10-14,000IDR ($1-1.25USD) and sold at every family-owned market, corner store and restaurant. Although I quit smoking after moving out of Tokyo in 2009 I have found myself occasionally smoking a kretek cigarette when drinking. Although this is entirely social, if you tried hard to quit cigarettes and do not want to see and smell the temptation everywhere you go, you might best avoid Indonesia. Even as I type this I am sitting in a smoke-filled office in Jakarta.
All in all Indonesia is one country that does not disappoint. There is a reason why so many travelers over the years have come here and then never left. Between the warm, inviting culture, vastness of the country and extensive list of places worthy of exporing, beautiful scenery and delicious food, Indonesia truly has something for everyone. You just have to know what you are looking for.