Top 10 things to do in Indonesia

By: Lottie Nevin

You would need more than a lifetime to fully explore the length and breadth of Indonesia, this extraordinary country in S.E Asia that has been my home since leaving London in 2011.

When our plane touched down on the melting tarmac at Soekarno-Hatta Airport, I had no idea what life in Indonesia had in store for me. Nor had I any real clue what I was facing, or just how diverse and beautiful this country is. All I knew is what I had gleaned from guidebooks, or garnered from images on the Internet. Now, almost 18 months down the line following a steep trajectory of learning, I am more travelled and conversant with my new homeland. But, if I need another lifetime to explore it, I need yet another to fully learn and understand the complexity, diversity, language, history and culture of the 300 ethnic groups and the myriad islands of Indonesia.

Pura Ulun Danu Temple. Bali
Pura Ulun Danu Temple. Bali

This vast curving archipelago, a chain of 17,500 atolls and islands, straddles both sides of the Equator. It stretches 5,271 km from Sumatra in the northwest, down to Papua in the east, and 1,373km from Ache at the top of Sumatra down to East Nusa Tenggara in the south. To give you some idea of its enormity, if you were to superimpose a map of Indonesia over Europe it would stretch from Ireland to Iraq or in America, from California to Bermuda.

Sumatra, Sulawesi, Borneo, Papua and Java are the largest islands. Java, the most populous, is home to around 60% of the 238,000,000 population. Jakarta, a huge grey megalopolis, is where I live. It is the nation’s capital for government, business and industry and sits on the western end of Java. The city is home to over 12 million people.

88% of Indonesia’s inhabitants are Muslim, making Indonesia the largest Islamic nation in the world. Christians, Hindus and Buddhists comprise the remaining 12%. Although the country is now largely Muslim, before the 11th century, Hinduism and Buddhism were predominant. The presence of these religions is evidenced by the multitude of magnificent ancient temples dotting the archipelago.

Rice fields. Ubud, Bali
Rice fields. Ubud, Bali

The tides of religious change came in the 11th century when Gujarati traders, followers of Islam,landed on these bountiful shores. Over the next 300 years they practiced the teachings of Mohammed, spreading the word so that by the 16th century Islam had taken over as the chief religion. Hinduism, which until then had been widely practiced, (and which also came to these shores via traders from India) had to make do with second slot.

The largest concentration of Hindus now live on Bali, known as the Island of a thousand temples. Christianity (initially only Catholicism), came courtesy of the Portuguese spice traders in the 16th and 17th centuries. But it was the arrival of the Dutch in the 17th and 18th centuries, who brought Calvinist values and Protestant ways to the islands. Indonesia remained a Dutch colony for over 300 years.

Indonesians have an expression when referring to their homeland. They say, ‘Tanah Air Kita’ translated ‘Our Land and Water’. It is no wonder, with a landmass of 1,919,440 square km and a whopping 108,920 km of coastline, that they feel this way. Connected by the Indian Ocean to the West and the Pacific Ocean to the east, there are 5 (or is it 6) seas to navigate around Indonesia. And there are myriad straits and passages with exotic sounding names connecting them. The Karimeta Strait links the South China Sea with the Java Sea, and the Strait of Malacca runs between Sumatra and mainland Malaysia, finally connecting with the Bay of Bengal. Ironically it is these very straits, passages, seas and oceans with their alluring names that have caused so many difficulties and struggles for Indonesia in past centuries.

Bandstand. Royal Palace, Yogyakarta. Java
Bandstand. Royal Palace, Yogyakarta. Java

Since the Middle Ages, Indonesia has been well charted on the spice route and It is those tasty commodities that have caused so much friction. Who would have thought that wars have been fought over the humble peppercorn and trade routes established because of it? With peppercorns at one time more expensive than gold in Europe, trade from the west grew. Many merchants prospered and took advantage of the abundance of riches found growing in this distant land beyond the horizon.

Portuguese traders first dominated Indonesia. They were lured by the plethora of eastern herbs and spices which quite literally peppered the Maluku islands. Nutmeg, cinnamon, pepper and vanilla started to find their way via Venetian businessmen into the richest pantries and larders in Europe. Trade flourished, empires were built, and in the 17th century the Dutch arrived. Keen to be part of the action, the Dutch East Indies company took control, ousting the Portuguese and settling on Indonesian soil. Unwanted, and uninvited, they remained in Indonesia for the next 350 or so years with only a small five-year gap when the English muscled in on the act too.

The warm seas and mangrove fringed coastal waters around Indonesia have some of the richest and most diverse marine life in the world. The coral reefs (what remain of them after bomb-blasting by the fisherman) are considered the best diving spots on the planet. Indonesia’s islands are the 4th most heavily populated on earth, and second only to Brazil in their unique abundance of eco-diversity. Here the landscape is as varied as the people who live and work beneath the humid Equatorial sun.

Hindu Priest. Goa Lawah. Bali
Hindu Priest. Goa Lawah. Bali

Verdant rice terraces shimmer, carved into the sides of steep hills, or spread out like sap green patchworks between villages. Dense forest and jungle make way for flat lands where tobacco, pineapple, maize and sugar plantations anchor their roots down into the rich, fertile volcanic soil. In the hills coffee, and tea plantations thrive in the mists carried down from the sacred mountains. And deep, deep inside the earth, where the heart of Indonesia pumps, so do the machines extracting coal, tin, copper and nickel and the precious oil and gas reserves of the islands.

Indonesia is perched on the notorious Pacific Ring Of Fire where an incredible 90% of the World’s worst earthquakes occur. The country has not only its share of shifting Teutonic plates to worry about, but there are 500 volcanoes, 129 of which are active. On Java alone, there are 112. Mount Merapi, the most volatile of them all, which last erupted in 2010, caused the loss of 353 lives and 350,000 people were evacuated from their homes. For the moment at least, mighty Krakatau slumbers on its island in The Sunda Strait, but for how long is anyone’s guess.

You may well wonder, having just read the above, why I should want to live in a place like this. The truth is, Indonesia gets under your skin. I didn’t fall in love with Indonesia immediately. There were many things at first, which I found upsetting, ugly and incomprehensible to my western sensibilities. But, as the months passed I developed a better understanding. I’ve even grown to love Jakarta, and now find beauty in the least unexpected places and joy from the smallest things. Like a sponge, I’ve soaked up the culture, visiting museums, art galleries and shadow puppet shows. I’ve been invited to colorful Hindu ceremonies in Bali and visited Sultan’s palaces in Yogyakarta. I’ve swum in the sea with dolphins and picked up shells on the beaches. Many weekends I’ve travelled to Bali, gazing out of the small airplane window watching the undulating Javanese landscape unfold beneath me. The swollen, chocolate brown rivers snaking swiftly to their deltas, the peaks of volcanoes bursting through the clouds, dotted the center of Java like the giant vertebrae of some pre- historic monster.

Labuan Bajo. Flores
Labuan Bajo. Flores

Living in Indonesia has taught me many things and I am still learning. Slowly picking up the language, meeting people, making friends, has helped to make it feel like home. Every day here is an adventure, and every day I am inspired by the culture and people that I meet. Here is a list of my Top 10 things to do when you are here!
  1. Visit the Komodo dragons on Rinca or Komodo Island

  2. Go to Yogyakarta, visit the Kraton and take a trip out to Borobodur - the largest Buddhist temple in the world!

  3. Watch the sunset at Tanah Lot on Bali

  4. Be entertained by a Wayang shadow puppet show in Ubud, Also, try to watch the Kecak, Legong and Barong dances – visit the Sacred Monkey Forest. Take a trip to the market.

  5. Hire a driver and drive up through Bali to Lovina. Catch a boat at dawn and watch the dolphins feeding in the bay.

  6. If you are living in Jakarta, catch a boat to the Pulua Seribu and spend a weekend snorkeling or diving in the coral reefs off the 1,000 islands.

  7. Climb Mount Bromo in the early hours of the morning (Eastern Java) and be rewarded by the breathtaking views and a beautiful sunrise when you reach the top!

  8. Go diving! Bali, Java, Kalimantan, Papua and Sulawesi all have great sites.

  9. Visit Pura Besakih (The Mother Temple) on Bali. Stunning Hindu temple on the side of Mount Agung.

  10. Fly to Flores. Visit Kelimutu and it’s extraordinary coloured, deep volcanic lakes. Explore also the traditional villages at Bajawa in their gorgeous countryside.

About the author

Expat Blog ListingLottie Nevin is a British expat living in Indonesia. Blog description: An account of my life in Indonesia (by Lottie Nevin)
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Contest Comments » There are 22 comments

Steve Gingold wrote 11 years ago:

I have only just discovered Lottie's blog a short time ago but she has already climbed to the top with my favorite bloggers. I am always checking my notifications for her latest post. This particular entry has created a desire to see her Island where none existed. Her writing and images are so very captivating which, I am sure, is a mirror image reflection of her personality. I look forward to her wit and humor with each entry. In my humble opinion, Lottie's selection would certainly do this contest proud.

Lottie Nevin wrote 11 years ago:

Thank you all for your lovely comments. I never expected to receive so many wonderful words and I'm bowled over by what you have all said. I love writing about my time here in Indonesia and I feel blessed to have this chance to live somewhere so different. Having read your kind words this evening, it has inspired and given me confidence to continue writing. I hope one day you can all visit this amazing country and see it for yourselves; It is truly amazing! Lottie X

Rachel Murdoch wrote 11 years ago:

I follow very few blogs. Lottie Nevin's is my firm favorite. Not only does she take gorgeous photos of this exotic land (as well as all the other wonderful and even not-so-wonderful places she visits), she also writes posts that are humorous, poignant, exciting, and always teach us something. My criteria to follow a blog is that blog informs, amuses, entertains, and touches my heart. Lottie Nevin's writing and amazing photography always accomplishes all four of my criteria.

Andrew Hardacre wrote 11 years ago:

Lottie writes with a great combination of insight, humour and downright fun. Indonesia comes to life through Lottie\'s eyes with gorgeous vibrant pictures to match her writing. She\'s the empress of blogging.

Martha Reynolds wrote 11 years ago:

I'll likely never go to Indonesia, but Lottie Nevin brings me along with her every time she posts about her life there!

Sarah Baird wrote 11 years ago:

Lottie's blog is always a wonderful read, humorous, witty, informative, highlighted by some amazing photos. A ray of sunshine in gloomy blighty.

Eamon O'Connor wrote 11 years ago:

Lottie will probably not need the prize as she is destined to become an author globally recognised on a level with JK Rowling. But she deserves it! Her blogs are funny, insightful, informative and most importantly, sympathetic to the populace and the culture of the country where she now resides. If that wasn't enough reason to award Lottie a prize, her blogs are always populated with explosions of relevant and colourful photos supporting her tales and experiences of living in Indonesia. Give Lottie a prize NOW,

Pete Nevin wrote 11 years ago:

Hi lovely Lottie everyone at Artholl Germany sends their best. John Stephens tried on this phone and forgot to leave a comment. I am bias of course but as an artist and a writer I can be objective. I know that you are a loving and caring person with a big heart. I am blessed to share my life with you, I am do very proud of you. You write in the spirit of the humanity you radiate. Much Love The Irisman xxx

Pete Nevin wrote 11 years ago:

Hi lovely Lottie everyone at Artholl Germany sends their best. John Stephens tried on this phone and forgot to leave a comment. I am bias of course but as an artist and a writer I can be objective. I know that you are a loving and caring person with a big heart. I am blessed to share my life with you, I am do very proud of you. You write in the spirit of the humanity you radiate. Much Love \r\nThe Irisman xxx

Annabel Cornelia Estelle wrote 11 years ago:

It's easy to get lost in one of Lottie's blog posts, her warmth and humour really shines through in every one. The accompanying photos and drawings are fantastic, showcasing her immense talent not just for writing, but for photography and drawing/painting too. I love seeing her blog pop up in my inbox as I know that I’m not only about to enjoy a great read, but that for a few minutes of that day I’ll be able escape to her hilarious/beautiful/informative and very wonderful world.

Sam Buckley wrote 11 years ago:

Lottie' blog is a very welcome distraction - always full of humour, insight and optimism. I've never been to Indonesia but she brings it alive for me. I also LOVE her photographs!

Garry Doherty wrote 11 years ago:

Lotty's eloquent writing explores the highs and lows of living in a forign land. She develops insightful, thoughtful prose accompanied by brilliant drawings and supported by visual articulate photographs which help to unfold the narrative of life, love and the 'toilet.' A writer with such wit and charm, anyone would think she was Irish!

Sian Mooney wrote 11 years ago:

Hello Honey, The blog is looking fab, great images and hilarious text! xx

Travel Junkie Indonesia wrote 11 years ago:

wow super nice post Lottie. I am do very proud of you. You write in the spirit of tourism ambassador. Like I said, “Indonesia is paradise. It’s pleasant climate and low cost of living -- everything green, blue, tropical, exotic. it's like a dream.” Much Love, kisses! -Travel Junkie Indonesia

Camilla Rodwell wrote 11 years ago:

We have never read any blogs before we read Lottie's and now we so look forward to reading about her amazing life in Indonesia. My husband hasn't yet met her but he really loves Lottie's blog. We both think it should be published in a book. We have just spent a few days in Singapore and nearly died laughing when we came across a "Lottie Loo"! Well done Lottie and we're looking forward to you keeping us entertained for years to come! Love Milla

Emma wrote 11 years ago:

An important thing about any adventure is being able to laugh about the cultural differences. Lottie's fresh and somewhat hysterical blog on her life in Indonesia is refreshing, honest and informative. Keep it up! I look forward to reading more!

Emma Thaw wrote 11 years ago:

An important thing about any adventure is being able to laugh about the cultural differences. Lottie's fresh and somewhat hysterical blog on her life in Indonesia is refreshing, honest and informative. Keep it up! I look forward to reading more!

Arjan wrote 11 years ago:

Allways surprising and never dull........ Lottie has the guts to go beyond the facade...!

Jill Bronson wrote 11 years ago:

I love this blog!! Interesting, entertaining and a great little escape from the cold weather. Makes me want to visit Indonesia!

Sharon Reynolds wrote 11 years ago:

I really enjoy reading this blog. Gives such a great understanding of Indonesia. I have never visited and would really like to now. Lovely photos too - they really give me a sense of being there. I really enjoy how it's always varied and a new adventure each posting. Great job!!!

Sarah Howard wrote 11 years ago:

I may never get to visit the beautiful island of Bali, but Lottie's well written, informative and highly amusing blog is the next best thing.

Oliver Tempest-Radford wrote 11 years ago:

You write from the heart which really comes over in your descriptions and makes it a great read. Lottie Nevin deserves the prize,

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