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. Welcome to the quirky and offbeat Indonesia few people discover. And the best part? Most of these places are near popular tourist destinations, meaning that you don’t need to go far to get off the beaten path in Indonesia. Get ready for some unique adventures!
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. Over 17,500 islands just begging to be explored.
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. Bookmark/save this list before you forget!
It’s time to explore some unique, offbeat Indonesia destinations:
The World’s Largest Mud Volcano
Not far from Surabaya
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.
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 Surabaya 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 more than 90% — down 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.
The Abandoned Chicken Church
Not far from Yogyakarta
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.
The Tri-Colored Lakes
Not far from Komodo National Park
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.
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 the above information, I recommend visiting sooner rather than later. And staying at least one night nearby so that you can catch the sunrise from Kelimutu.
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Witness A Tana Toraja Funeral Ceremony
Far from everything, in Sulawesi
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 extravagant 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.
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 children’s coffins are just suspended by rope. However if the family is wealthy enough, they will carve out a miniature cave in the rock face with enough room for several family members. A hand-carved wooden effigy is then placed outside and facing away, to watch out over the land and protect the deceased.
Nusa Penida Island: Like Bali Was 40 Years Ago
Not far from Bali
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 tourism 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 in my blog post on Tanglad village on Nusa Penida.
The Controversial Equator Monument
Not far from Pontianak, Kalimantan
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.
The Abandoned Beach Resort
Not far from Denpasar, Bali
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.