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Many visitors to Indonesia simply fly in and out of Bali and spend their entire trip there. For my first trip to the country a few years ago, we did just that. It was a short holiday, we had a friend studying there, and we just wanted to enjoy a nice vacation – Bali was an easy choice. While the Island of the Gods certainly deserves all the hype it gets as a travel destination, there is so much more to Indonesia than just the beaches of Bali. While sitting on the small island of Nusa Lembongan (still technically a part of Bali) and watching a special Hindu ceremony for the full moon, I made it my mission to return to Indonesia for a much longer trip. Fast forward two years and I’m fresh off a 45-day backpacking adventure through Java, Bali, and the Gili Islands. Traveling by land and sea allowed us to stop in many places and really get a feel for the various islands. It also allowed us to better understand just how diverse and fascinating of a place Indonesia truly is. As we had already been to Bali, we spent nearly half of our time on Java, traversing the world’s most populous island from Jakarta in the west to Banyuwangi in the east. For those interested in doing a similar trip, I’d highly recommend it. Planning a route can be a bit tricky, so here are some ideas based on our recent trip:
Don’t let the traffic jams and chaos of Jakarta scare you – jump right in and start your trip off with at least one full day in the capital. If you’re backpacking, there’s a great hostel called Six Degrees that makes a great home base for your stay. With a communal living room stocked with couches, computers, a projector, and a pool table, plus a chilled out rooftop garden, you’ll have a nice place to return to after a busy day. For a whirlwind tour of the Indonesian capital, focus on some of the city’s famous landmarks, pig out on street food, wander around the old city, hit at least one mega-mall, and tear up the dance floor if you’ve got any energy left. Places of interest here include: Monas (the National Monument), Kota Tua (the old city), the Istiqlal Mosque, and the Jakarta Cathedral.
For a break from the hustle and bustle of the big city, a short trip to Bogor is just what you need. While Bogor itself is just another big, crowded city, it features an impressive botanical garden that will make you forget you’re still in a huge metropolis with millions of people around. The gardens were founded in 1811 by Sir Stamford Raffles, and they’re a great place to stop and smell the flowers.
A 3-hour train from Jakarta brings you to the capital of West Java and the country’s third largest city, Bandung. A visit here is all about the surrounding area, not the city itself. If your time is short, focus on one natural attraction for a day trip. We chose to visit Tangkuban Parahu, an active volcano and a popular tourist attraction. Whatever you do in Bandung, make sure you catch a traditional angklung performance at Saung Angklung Udjo.
The train from Jakarta/Bandung through Java to Yogyakarta is a highlight in its own right, and watching the stunning landscapes of this island pass you beats flying any day. The city of Yogyakarta (or Jogja as many like to call it) is rich in history and culture, so you can fill up plenty of days by visiting museums, workshops, and important sights such as the Kraton or the Water Palace. This is a great place to stay for a while and pick up some of the language, as it’s home to many language centers such as the excellent Puri Bahasa Indonesia. Jogjya is also a great home base for some of the country’s most famous temples, which can easily be visited as day trips.
One such temple is Prambanan, a 9th century Hindu temple located less than 20 km from Yogyakarta. Explore the temples for a few hours, take a short rest, and then check out the incredible Ramayana Ballet. Based on the Hindu epic of the same name, this performance takes place in an open-air theater and is the perfect way to spend an evening.
A stark contrast from Prambanan, Borobudur is the world’s largest Buddhist temple. Walking around the temple, you can follow the entire story of Buddha through the intricate carvings. During the holiday of Vesak, a huge ceremony is performed here and thousands of people make a pilgrimage to take part.
If you feel like a bit of adventure, jump on a motorbike and cruise north to the Dieng Plateau. At an elevation of over 2,000 meters, Dieng is a great place to beat the heat – just make sure you bring some warm clothes. It’s a very scenic area, and you can easily spend a few days exploring the temples, lakes, hot springs, and more.
Perhaps the most famous postcard image in all of Indonesia is sunrise over Mt. Bromo. As you may expect, it’s also one of the most popular places to visit and you don’t have to look hard to find a tour that’s going there. If you prefer to DIY, you can take an interesting journey that will have you staying in a village and flying across the “Sea of Sand” on the back of a motorbike.
After doing the sunrise Bromo hike and making another long trip via bus or train, you’ll probably be exhausted. At this point in the trip, though, it’s best to power on and make another difficult trek in the middle of the night into a crater. If it sounds tiring, it is; but it’s worth it to see the blue flames that burn only in wee hours of the morning. Once this madness is finished, you can finally look forward to some R&R on Bali. But how do you get over there from Java?
You’ve reached the easternmost part of Java when you arrive in Banyuwangi. From here, it’s a short and cheap ferry ride over to the west side of Bali. If you’ve just finished the arduous Yogyakarta-Bromo-Kawah Ijen trip, however, you may want to stay and relax for a day. There are quite a few hotels on the coast that have great views of Bali, so it’s not a bad place to recover. The folks at the Watu Dodol hotel were incredibly accommodating and friendly, and I can highly recommend staying here for a night to enjoy the pool and the delicious Chinese food. The ferry over to Bali runs 24 hours a day, so whenever you’re ready it’s time to say goodbye to Java.
For an interactive map that shows this trip across Java, click here. Each of these places will be highlighted on the blog in the months to come, so subscribe to the posts and that way you won’t miss any of them!