More than 18,000 islands and 50 species of primates make up the archipelago of Indonesia. It's a country full of natural beauty, rare animals and warm, hospitable people. Over the course of two and a half weeks, I visited ten islands, got attacked by two monkeys and was urinated on by one orangutan. What an adventure!
Read on for my recommendations, broken out by location and peppered with monkey tales.
1.2 Nusa Dua
5.1 Flores Island
5.2 Padar Island
5.3 Komodo Island
5.5 Manta Point
5.6 Kanawa Island
In anticipation of my Indo trip, Bali was the bit that I was most excited about visiting, but it ended up being the most disappointing. I can see why influencers, looking to promote their picture-perfect lifestyles, are drawn to Bali's beauty, but overtourism is tainting the island. The infrastructure is not robust enough to cope with the traffic nor waste management, there is incessant construction to keep pace with the demand, peaceful atmospheres have been ruined by badly behaved tourists, and, most upsetting of all, is the sorrowful amount of litter. That all said, with realistic expectations, research and a bit of patience, you can still find moments of tranquility in Bali.
Located in the uplands of Bali, Ubud is famous for its 'Eat, Pray, Love' vibes, wood carvings, Hindu temples, lush jungles, terraced rice fields, waterfalls and a whole lot of monkey business. Central Ubud is abuzz with motorbikes and young visitors searching for balance and harmony.
Whilst in Ubud, I would recommend hiring a driver or booking a series of tours that include the following sights:
Tanah Lot: This ancient Hindu shrine is famed for its unique offshore setting, perched on top of an outcrop amidst crashing waves.
Ulan Danu Temple: A temple floating along the banks of Lake Bratan, devoted to the Hindu gods Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva.
Tirta Empul Temple: One of the busiest and oldest (it's been around more than 1,000 years) sacred water temples in Indonesia. You'll find shrines, gates, courtyards and purification pools where hordes of people 'baptize' themselves underneath a succession of waterspouts.
Jatiluwih Rice Terraces: Over 600 hectares of lush green paddy fields cascade in tiers from the mountains down to the valleys. In recognition of the ancient rice-growing culture, these fields became listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in June 2012.
Wanagiri Hidden Hill: Also known as 'selfie peak', panoramic views from up here are very popular amongst Instagrammers. We were planning to give it a miss as visibility was restricted by a foggy mist, but we ended up getting suckered into feeding some monkeys a bowl of bananas and peanuts (for about $1.30). At first, I wasn't that keen on getting so close to the Macaques, but it ended up being a hoot.
Monkey Forest: Home to over 1,000 long-tailed monkeys, this sanctuary is one of the most well-known and visited places in Ubud. For a fee, the staff will take photos of you with a monkey on your lap. Be careful though, the monkeys are known to steal mobile phones, jewellery and sunglasses. They also can attack, if they feel threatened. Don't make eye contact nor smile with your teeth showing, as these are signs of aggression in the non-human world.
Kemenuh Butterfly Park: Over 500 butterfly specimens flutter around you as you meander on paved pathways through a garden enclosure – all covered by netted canopies. It's very beautiful and serene, and not overrun with tourists...yet.
Banyumala Twin Waterfalls: This is another place that, so far, hasn't been discovered by the masses. From the car park it's about a 20-minute walk, down steep steps to get to the waterfall. There are a few sketchy bamboo stairs, and it can be tough on the way back up!
Tegenungan Waterfall: Opposite to Banyumala, this waterfall is heaving with tourists. It's one of the busiest and most famous falls in Bali.
Swing Heaven: Swing parks, around Bali, allowing people to soar high above magnificent vistas, have become one of the most popular attractions on the island as a result of the Instagram craze. I was curious, so I decided to check one out. Swing Heaven was recommended, so off I went. There are various packages offered, at different price points. They will even rent you a flowy dress, if that is your desire. I found it all a bit silly, but I must admit that I had fun.
After you've got your fill of sightseeing, fill your belly at the following Ubud restaurants:
Swept Away: Upon arrival at the Samaya Hotel, a golf cart will shuttle you down to the restaurant, which is situated along bank of the Ayung River. You'll be treated a romantic setting, the peaceful sound of babbling water and delicious food.
Sayan House: The cuisine is an interesting mix of Balinese, Japanese and Mexican (think sashimi tacos and guacamole rolls). It sounds weird, but it works. Book in advance and arrive in time to enjoy the sunset.
Hujan Locale: This is one of Will Meyrick's creations (a Scottish celebrity chef, born in Portugal, based in Bali). The main dining room is on the second floor, surrounded by large windows, overlooking a Balinese temple. I liked its family-style grazing menu concept. Be sure to order the scallop ceviche, tuna betel leaf and braised beef rawon.
Cafe Lotus: This restaurant overlooks a beautiful lotus pond and the iconic Pura Taman Kemuda Saraswati (Water Palace). If you go for dinner on a Wednesday, you'll get a free traditional dance show along with your meal (show starts at 7:30pm).
This area of Bali is perfect for families, honeymooners and travelers who want to enjoy the perks of large luxurious resorts. It is a gated area, developed in the 1970’s, and is known for its fancy hotels, serenity, manicured gardens, golf and spas.
If you're into lavish 5-star beachfront accommodations, with meticulously landscaped grounds, set against white sands bordering the Indian Ocean, then you might want to consider staying at the Sofitel. What I found most unique about the hotel was the swim-out rooms, which I had never seen before. Many of their ground-level rooms allow you to literally roll of out of bed and slide into a lagoon-like plunge waterway system. It's only 3.5' deep, so you can walk, float or swim directly to the main pool.
Whilst in Nusa Dua, make sure you go to the Kecak Fire Dance Show at Uluwatu temple. You must pay an admission fee to enter the temple (40,000 IDR), separate to the fee for the show (100,000 IDR). The temple doesn’t accept plastic so make sure to bring enough cash. I recommend buying the ticket for the show in advance though, as it sells out very quickly, every night. Sarongs are provided at entry to the temple, for everyone to wear - men and women. Watch out for the monkeys walking around the complex. The primates are EVERYWHERE and WILL steal your snacks. They have acquired a taste for human food and can get aggressive if they don’t get what they want. One cheeky fella disrobed me in an attempt to get at my grocery bag. Luckily, he only got away with my sarong and some Pringles in the end.
From Nusa Dua, we went on a one-day tour around Nusa Penida. We took a fast boat from Sanur, which took about 45-mins. Once we arrived, we had a private driver take us around to the following places:
Kelingking Beach: The unique rock formation on this beach resembles the backbone of a dinosaur. It’s even nicknamed 'T-Rex Bay' on Google Maps.
Broken Beach AKA Pasih Uug Beach: This horseshoe-shaped cove's limestone archway has been carved out by the water over the years. You cannot swim here; you can only admire it from the viewing area above.
Angel's Billabong: Located right next to Broken Beach, this beautiful rockpool is a natural infinity pool that sits between rocky cliffs and the Indian Ocean. Many holidaymakers have perished trying to swim in it, so I recommend you keep your feet firmly planted on sturdy ground.
Virgin Beach Club: We ended the tour relaxing at this beachfront restaurant, where we enjoyed swinging, sunning, shell searching and strawberry daiquiris.
If you were to fly the 55-minutes from Bali to Surabaya you'd land five minutes before you took off, as a result of a one-hour time difference. After a short layover and a slight delay, we took another flight to Indonesian Borneo -- *Fun fact: Borneo is not a country; it is an island that is politically divided amongst three nations: Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei. Of the three, Brunei is the only sovereign state situated entirely on the island.
I spent the second flight, from Surabaya to Pangkalan Bun, reflecting on a time, 23 years ago, when the first ever series of Survivor aired. I remembered being intrigued by the remoteness of Borneo and mentally adding it to my bucket list. Whilst I was pleased not to be stranded in an isolated location, battling other contestants for food, shelter and fire, I certainly felt like I was going on quite an adventure!
Pangakalan Bun was the jumping off point for our orangutan tour. We stayed at the Grand Kecubung Hotel, for one night, before the tour began. It was nicer than I expected it to be, but I was surprised to find out that there was no alcohol served onsite. I was even more surprised to learn that you cannot buy alcohol anywhere in Pangkalan Bun, because of Muslim customs.
The next morning, we were collected around 10am to begin our dry three-day/two-night private tour aboard a klotok (a traditional river houseboat). We booked through a company called Be Borneo, but there were many tour operators to choose from (which all seem pretty similar). We had a staff of four onboard with us (a guide, a chef, a captain and a deckhand/wildlife spotter). Our tour guide, TeeTee, was awesome, but I would consider booking a boat with air conditioning if I had to do it all over again.
The day light hours were spent relaxing to sounds of the jungle as we wound down the lazy Sekonyer River, into Tanjung Puting National Park. All our meals were prepared for us onboard and were abundant and delicious. We made the mistake of leaving a box of cookies out on the table one afternoon, which were never to be seen again, as a result of thieving monkeys.
A couple of times a day, we would disembark for jungle walks and to observe orangutan feedings. The comedic apes swung effortlessly through the trees, like Tarzan, whilst consuming a mixture of sweet potatoes, mangos and sugar cane.
Some of these primates were more generous than others with sharing their food.
In Malay, orangutan means ‘man of the forest’. Albert, a particularly large male orangutan, verified the namesake when he walked directly at me, climbed a tree about three feet away (staring at me the whole time), made himself comfortable on a branch directly above me and then relieved his bladder.
At night we played cards by candlelight, watched fireflies light up trees like twinkle lights, stargazed, doused ourselves in bug repellent and tried our best to sleep in the heat (on mats laid out on the deck of the boat, surrounded by mosquito netting).
After three days of bug repellent build-up, sweating and not showering, we were pleased to arrive at the luxurious Shangri-La. We didn't do much, other than shower and bask in the joy of our newfound cleanliness.
Komodo National Park is made up of 29 islands including Rinca, Padar and Komodo. It has been UNESCO protected since 1991.
The gateway to Komodo National Park is via Labuan Bajo, on Flores Island. It's often hidden in the shadows of its more famous neighbor, Bali, but is a lot more fascinating and charming.
We stayed at the boutiquey and lovely Komodo Sudamala Resort, which I highly recommend.
The 16-person speedboat excursion we went on, from Labuan Bajo, was my favorite! We saw so much and every stop was incredible.
This first stop on this daytrip was Padar, for an early morning hike up about 700 steps. There was no shade and it was sweaty work, but we were rewarded with spectacular views of what looked like Jurassic Park. It took about 30-minutes to climb and another 30 to descend.
Next up was Pink Beach, on the north side of the island, reached by a short boat ride. The pink hue comes from tiny single-celled red organisms (foraminifera) that grow beneath the coral reefs. When these organisms die, they fall to the ocean floor and mix with bits of coral and crushed shell. The sand turns pink when this mixture washes onto the beach.
Stop number three was the volcanic island that is home to the beastly and prehistoric Komodo dragons. They exist nowhere else in the world. We were lucky enough to see four adults and one baby. The babies are a particularly rare sight because as soon as they hatch, they climb up trees to avoid being eaten by their mother (savage, right?!). They don't usually come back until they are four years old and about four feet long.
TAKA MAKASSAR ISLAND
Also known as the ‘Maldives of Indonesia’, this island is smaller than a football field. The crescent-shaped sandbar is surrounded by shallow turquoise waters that look unreal!
This isn't technically an island, but, as the name implies, Manta Point is where manta rays can be spotted. It's a popular location to meet these gentle marine giants.
Our final stop was the quiet and pristine Kanawa Beach. Its turquoise water was exceptionally calm and clear. Swimming and snorkeling are the most popular activities here.
Indo has a bit of everything - beautiful beaches, deep seas, volcanoes, tropical rainforests, mountains, unique creatures, culture, good food, temples, world-class diving, friendly people and the most expensive coffee in the world (Google Kopi Luwak). What more could a tourist want?! I know that many people would feel short-changed going all the way to Indonesia and not visiting Bali, but please remember there is a lot more to this far-flung archipelago than just Bali. I recommend squeezing in as much variety and exoticism as possible.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO:
Arrival: 96 nationalities may now enter Indonesia for up to 30-days, using a single entry Visa on Arrival (VoA). It can be attained at the airport and you can pay using cash or card, in various currencies. You will also need to complete an online customs form, which will generate a QR code that needs to be scanned before you can leave the airport.
Getting Around: The Grab ride-hailing app can be used to get around Bali quick, cheap and easy. On other islands you'll need to arrange taxis through your hotel or just hail them the old-fashioned way.
Driving: Indonesia drive on the left. There is a lot of traffic and motorbikes are everywhere. It is very chaotic on the roads, especially in Bali. You'll hear a lot of horn honking, but it's used more for safety and as a precaution, as opposed to aggressive rage.
Electrical: EU on most islands (two round prongs), but I saw UK plugs (with three square prongs) in Surabaya. I'd recommend bringing both.
Weather: There are typically two seasons - wet and dry - with warm tropical temperatures averaging 28°C during the day, throughout the year. In most regions, the dry season spans from May to September, with the rains falling between October and April.
Tipping: Generally, this is not mandatory, but there is a government tax of 10% added to the bill in most restaurants and hotels. Since base salaries are low and service workers seek tips to provide extra income, it's best to tip if you're happy with your service.
Drinking Water: Tap water isn't drinkable. You should always opt for bottled, filtered or boiled water, for drinking and brushing your teeth.
Eating: I was surprised to learn that Indonesians do not eat with chopsticks. Instead they push food onto a spoon, using a fork. Food was mostly fried and could be very spicy.
Mosquitos: Bring repellent and after bite care.
Language: Indonesian is the official language of Indonesia, but there are 700-800 languages spoken in Indonesia according to the 2010 census. Most islands have their own language as well.
Religion: The Indonesian government recognizes six religions: Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism. Bali was predominantly Hindu, Flores is mostly Catholic, but most other islands I visited were Muslim.
Currency: The Indonesian Rupiah. Notes come in 1000, 2000, 5000, 10.000, 20.000, 50.000 and 100.000. You will need cash more than you think (there are admission fees, donations and lots of small tips). ATMs limit how much you can withdraw, so get cash whenever you have an opportunity.
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