I planned my round the world trip around spending at least 6 weeks in certain countries rather than trying to rush around and do too much. Out of all the countries in South East Asia, Indonesia was the obvious choice to spend that amount of time in.
But apparently it was just the obvious choice for me. Out of all the places I’ve been so far on my trip, Indonesia was by far the least touristy (apart from one bit that I’ll come onto in a minute). And I find it completely baffling.
Indonesia is the biggest country in South East Asia, and has the fourth biggest population in the world. It has more volcanoes than any other country in the world, many of which are safe to climb. It’s home to the biggest lizard in the world, it’s one of only two places to see Orang Utans in the wild, and the forests of Sumatra also have the world’s largest flower. It has the best diving and surfing in Asia, and countless perfect beaches. Java has the world’s biggest (and possibly finest) Buddhist temple, as well as many beautiful Hindu shrines. The people are friendly, the food is good, and everything is pretty cheap. And yet most of the country is almost empty of tourists, other than Bali, Lombok & the Gili Islands. It’s as weird as if 95% of the foreign tourists coming to Europe skipped everything apart from Mallorca and Ibiza.
I’m guessing that people are put off by a combination of the natural disasters that have hit, lingering fears over terrorism (although that doesn’t stop them going to Bali) or maybe even the fact that with a country so big, it seems pointless when you only get a rather stingy thirty day visa on arrival.
Still, it’s their loss, because I absolutely loved the country, in fact I ended up spending even longer than planned, with my eventual time there being nearly two months. There really were so many highlights, but I’d have to say that two stand out for me. First is the fact that Indonesia has the best sunsets I have ever seen. I’d never been a big connoisseur of sunsets before this trip, but some of the ones I saw in the Andes converted me. And they were nothing compared to the stunning shows the setting sun put on night after night.
Best of all though for me was the wildlife. I’ve never been all that obsessed with plants and animals – historic cities, great beaches, and beautiful scenery normally impress me more – but Indonesia changed all that. I was utterly gobsmacked by what I’ve seen the last two months, including Komodo Dragons, Orang Utans, Manta Rays, huge Turtles and dozens of Reef Sharks, as well as various species of cheekly little monkeys. It’s given me a new-found appreciation of nature and it’s made me rethink some of my future travel plans to do more of that sort of travel in future.
It’s been a bit of a constant theme of these country round-ups that the locals are very friendly, but I have to say that I think the Indonesians have been the best yet. On several occasions I found myself wandering down the street only to find a local strike up a conversation – now this kind of behaviour instantly gets my traveller guard up in case they’re trying to sell me something, but more often than not they just start chatting because they want to talk to you and are interested in where you come from and what you think of their country. My only regret is that I didn’t make more of an effort to learn more Bahasa Indonesia (especially as it’s probably the easiest language to learn in Asia, with its simple grammar and lack of tones), as it really would have enriched the experience even more.
I just wish I’d had even more time there – Sumatra and Flores in particular were beautiful, and I only had a few days in each, due to having to rush before my visas expired, and I’d love to return to see more of them. I had planned to go to Sumba too, but Christmas got in the way, and so I never got to see one of the best-preserved traditional cultures in the country. And I didn’t even get to touch the northern chain of islands – Borneo, Sulawesi, Malaku & Papua – all of which sound fascinating and which I definitely want to return to some day.
So if you’re reading this and planning a trip to Bali – please think about seeing a bit more of the country. Bali is nice enough, but there’s really not much you can see or do there that you can’t see even better, even more cheaply, and without the crowds elsewhere in the country. Plus there’s so much more besides that you could never get to see in Bali alone.
Next stop is the Philippines, which I’m pleased to hear is also pretty uncrowded compared to the rest of South East Asia. I fear that Thailand & Cambodia, my probable final stops, will come as a bit of a shock to the system after this.