Beyond Bali, Indonesia's cultural diversity is undeniable

There is so much more to discover in this archipelago, from Java to Komodo and everything in between

Padar, one of the Indonesian islands that are home to the Komodo National Park. Getty Images
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Many Indonesians who hear you have ventured beyond Bali to explore islands such as Java, Sumatra, Sumba or Komodo will light up.

That’s because most of the millions of annual tourists from around the globe don’t go beyond the beach bars of Seminyak, the cafes of Canggu or the lush, art-filled forests of Ubud.

While there’s an abundance of culture to be found on the Island of the Gods, its paths are well-trodden, and Indonesia is made up of more than 18,000 islands, so there is plenty more to discover.

Opening up the islands

Explore Raja Ampat's aquatic splendour, Lombok's rugged terrain and Jakarta's urban hustle, where scooters zip past skyscrapers – just remember to skip taxis to avoid the capital’s infamous gridlock.

There’s something for everyone, no matter your travel style, from dense jungles to golden beaches and ancient tribes.

And more visitors are venturing beyond the country’s resort towns as Indonesia's government invests heavily to shift its focus away from Bali and reduce its dependence on revenues from the tourist island.

The goal is to point visitors towards a wider range of experiences that benefit smaller local economies and spread out the burden of mass tourism, all while highlighting the diverse culture that Indonesia offers.

Sandiaga Uno, the country’s Minister of Tourism and Creative Economy, says several "super priority" destinations are planned for development, including Likupang with its active volcanoes, Mandalika's idyllic beaches and the vast Lake Toba.

Discovering Java

Central Java is only a one-hour flight from Bali and here Amanjiwo is a cornerstone of Indonesian luxury.

Although the property, the name of which translates to "peaceful soul", first opened its doors 30 years ago, the airport in Yogyakarta is new – and thanks to infrastructure upgrades, the one-hour car journey to the hotel is smooth along freshly tarmacked roads.

It is well known among locals and revered for its location opposite the Unesco-designated Borobudur Temple, the largest Buddhist temple in the world, offering a gateway to Indonesia's cultural and spiritual heart that is far from the familiar trails.

The hotel’s limestone colonnades sit under a giant bell-shaped rotunda mirroring the temple’s stupas, which can be glimpsed in the distance from the lobby terrace as the call to prayer echoes out each evening.

Amanjiwo also offers a range of activities that combine spiritual enrichment with exploration, from wellness journeys to helicopter tours and treks.

This includes a luxury train voyage through Java on selected dates throughout this year.

It begins in Jakarta Gambir station, taking guests on a seven-hour tour through Central Java, as the hotel's resident anthropologist shares the region's history and cultural highlights.

The package includes breakfast, lunch and afternoon tea, with drinks, alongside a three-night stay at the hotel with perks.

The hotel’s private tour of the ninth-century Borobudur Temple, where visitor numbers are capped, is also a must, as local guides explain its significance.

The temple’s design reflects the Gupta architecture of India, yet it remains uniquely Javanese, with more than 500 Buddha statues (many with their heads broken off due to theft) and more than 2,672 relief panels that offer an illustrative narrative of the religion’s teachings and tales.

The dragons of Komodo

To see a totally different side of Indonesia, hop on a flight to Komodo and head on a boat tour around the National Park, a place where legend meets reality between the islands of Rinca, Komodo and Pandar in Indonesia’s east.

The famed Komodo dragons, which grow up to three metres and walk with a prehistoric grace despite their grizzly faces and razor-sharp teeth, are a sight to behold among surroundings that display Indonesia’s diverse natural landscape.

Trek through the National Park to come face-to-face with thousands of these creatures.

Expert local guides, are armed with Y-shaped sticks to gently push them back on to a more suitable path if they stray towards tourists.

Although the venomous dragons can run at speeds of up to 19kph and there have been 24 attacks on humans at the park in the past 40 years – largely on those venturing without a guide and getting too close – most visits are safe.

Entry is $91 and so comparatively more expensive than many of Indonesia’s other tourist attractions, but this includes fees for snorkelling and trekking, and contributions to the local economy and wildlife conservation.

Komodo is also home to one of the world’s only seven beaches with pink sand, right next to the boundaries of the National Park.

The surrounding landscapes feature rugged, rich landscapes ranging from dry savannahs to thorny green forests and volcanic hills.

The island is also part of the Coral Triangle and a dream for divers due to its resplendent reefs.

Bali and beyond

Meandering through the forest trails alongside Komodo dragons and snorkelling among the colour and life just off the pink-sand beach, you couldn’t feel further from the packed streets of Bali.

Bali’s allure is undeniable – it brims with world-class venues, vibrant clubs and opulent hotels, not to mention the spiritual and cultural lifestyle it offers.

But limiting your Indonesia trip solely to here barely scratches the surface of the archipelago’s diversity.

The spiritual serenity of ancient temples in Java. The raw, prehistoric beauty of the Komodo dragons. The lush, untamed jungles of Sumatra. The urban chaos of Jakarta’s concrete jungle.

Indonesia is a country that offers visitors the world.

Updated: January 30, 2024, 7:04 AM