Why you should explore beyond Bali and experience the REAL Indonesia

When the world isn’t being crushed by pandemics, millions of people from all over visit Bali each year. They usually have a wonderful holiday. But they are missing out, BIG TIME. And they don’t even know it!

Quick Access

YOU WON’T GET TO SEE an Orangutan in the wild in Bali. Nor will you get to wash an elephant’s back in a beautiful jungle stream.

Or get to watch a magnificent sunrise or sunset from the top of the world ‘s biggest Buddhist temple – built more than a thousand years ago and hidden for centuries under jungle and the detritus of a massive volcanic eruption.

Nor will you experience a sense of awe when you first view the world’s largest and most beautiful volcanic lake – created by a blast that literally rocked the world 74,000 years ago.

Or be welcomed into a huge and extraordinary traditional Batak longhouse where families lived together with their domestic animals housed beneath.

Or get to peer over the edge of a roaring volcano into the bowels of the earth …

Perhaps more importantly,  you will not get to see and meet the warm and welcoming but remarkably different peoples of one of the most ethnically diverse nations on earth.

But if you WIDEN YOUR HORIZONS and step out to explore beyond Bali to Sumatra, Java, Borneo, Sulawesi, and the thousands of other islands of the archipelago you can do ALL this. And a whole lot more.

You will love it!

Indonesia is famous for its terraced rice paddies. A great way to see them is to take a train journey from Jakarta to Bandung or Yogyakarta.
Indonesia is famous for its terraced rice paddies. A great way to see them is to take a train journey from Jakarta to Bandung or Yogyakarta.

Indonesia is a land of differences and diversity beyond imagining

Indonesia is striking for its diversity of cultures, cuisines, religions, languages, costumes, landscapes, history, arts and crafts, music, ceremony, and heritage icons.

Its thousands of islands are stunningly beautiful with breath-taking landscapes – from sandy beaches to lush green jungles, sculpted rice terraces, rushing rivers, imperious mountains, and smoldering volcanoes.

What’s more, many of its most interesting places are still being discovered by mainstream travelers.

That means you often don’t need to compete with tourist hordes and that it is easier for you to meet the locals and experience their culture.

FUN FACT – There are 147 of those volcanoes in Indonesia. Seventy-six of them are active. But no need to  let that scare you – if you need reassurance click HERE. Scroll down to the heading ‘Facts about earthquakes and rim of fire volcanoes ‘

Near the city of Bandung, you can drive to a rim parking area at one impressive volcano.

In East Java at Mt Bromo you can climb a 250-step staircase  for an awe-inspiring glimpse into the roaring, smoking cauldron. It’s part of a cluster of five volcanoes within a famous national park.

At some of these places you might even find vendors waiting there to sell you a cold Coca Cola, or items to throw into the depths of the crater as an offering to the Gods.

That’s Indonesia – surprises and contrasts at every turn with much to learn, understand, appreciate, and savor. The adventures are limited only by how much time you have and the openness of your mind.

Tea gardens near the city of Bandung in the Java Highlands
Tea gardens near the city of Bandung in the Java Highlands

Indonesia is a destination that's widely misunderstood and under-appreciated

Sadly, too few Western people have seen the REAL Indonesia and most  know little about it. All too often what they think they know is hugely incomplete, ill-informed, out of date or just plain wrong.

As a result Indonesia and its people are under appreciated, widely misunderstood and, compared with other Asian destinations, labelled as uninteresting or difficult.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Here are three quotations that together spell out key reasons why Indonesia should be high on your bucket list:

‘Indonesia is more than a place. It’s a mood, it’s magical. It’s a tropical state of mind.’

 – Unknown

‘Our language is different, our religion is different, our culture is different, isn’t that beautiful?’ 

Fiersa Besari (Indonesian novelist, musician, and YouTuber)

‘You can spend five months in Bali [Indonesia] for what you’d spend in one month in Europe.’ 

– Rita Gelman (Author and world traveler)

Three reflections are together saying Indonesia is stimulating, refreshing, intriguingly different … and, best of all, it is readily within your reach – easily affordable, and comfortably accessible.

I know they sound like a slice of hype from a glossy travel brochure. But they also happen to be true.

The REAL Indonesia is where your money WILL go further

Rita Gelman is perhaps a little over-enthusiastic in the quotation above. But you will be pleasantly surprised, even amazed, at how far your dollars, euros or pounds will go in Indonesia.

FUN FACT – As of the end of 2021 economists were estimating that when adjusted for exchange rates, your US dollar would buy around 240% more in Indonesia than you could buy with it at home.

Now that’s a deal!

It means you will find hotels, transport, food, pharmaceuticals, and much more are way cheaper than what you would pay at home or in other popular visitor destinations (often including Bali).

Food is amazingly cheap if you are happy to eat local – and why wouldn’t you, because Indonesian food is diverse and delicious.

Indonesia's thousands of 'desert islands'

If you are looking for somewhere to fulfil a tropical desert island fantasy then Indonesian is probably a great place to start.

According to Government figures Indonesia consists of 17,508 islands with between 6,000 and 7,000 inhabited.

But the official total includes pocket handkerchief islets and atolls that go under water at high tide. Genuine dry land islands number around 13,500.

But thirteen and half thousand is still an awful LOT!

Do the math. If you deduct around 7,000 as inhabited, it means Indonesia has more than 6,000 UNINHABITED tropical islands surrounded by beaches, mangroves and often a fringe of coconut palms.

Ponder that for a moment … that’s 6,000 of those empty, exotic tropical islands that we all fantasize about. Often they come with a necklace of abundant and colorful coral.

Some have laid-back resorts for surfers, sailors and divers. a few have been developed as super exclusive getaways for the super rich.

However, you can visit many of them to explore and go snorkeling, diving, or beachcombing.

But as a foreigner don’t bother trying to buy one. I tried once in my early Indonesian days, but the hassles were too great, so I gave up.

Spectacular coves on Padar Island in East Nusa Tanggara


Spectacular coves on Padar Island in East Nusa Tanggara – Pic

Islands, islands everywhere …

But picture all those islands for a moment – all that water between and surrounding them. All those beaches, some of mud and mangroves (and fish and crustaceans), but also so many of gleaming white sands.

As I travel, I sometimes find myself wondering just how many beaches there must be around so many islands. I wonder whether anyone has ever counted them? Maybe getting silly in my dotage

Indonesia is a cultural and ehtnic smnorgasbord

Indonesia’s occupied islands are home to more than 1,000 recognized ethnic groups who between them speak around 700 living languages.

These stunning numbers translate into a cultural smorgasbord. It’s a challenge, a magnet, and a delight for curious travelers. Differences in customs, lifestyles and expectations can be profound, and fascinating.

Indonesian citizenship is one of the few things held in common between a Batak or a Minangkabau man from North Sumatra, a Betawi from Jakarta, a Malayu from the Riau Islands, a Bugis from South Sulawesi, or a Melanesian from East Nusa Tenggara.

They will all speak Bahasa Indonesia, the national language – along with their own ethnic language and probably a couple of others from nearby regions.

But they will each have customs, rituals and beliefs that may seem impossible to reconcile.

Yet they have come together in a cohesive society that broadly is most notable for its mutual acceptance and respect with remarkably few episodes of inter-ethnic strife.

Colorful Festival Procession

Spectacular festival procession Java – Pic Agus Santoso

Dayak people from Kalimantan
Batak People of North Sumatra

Dayak people from Kalimantan (ABOVE) – Pic – and Batak (RIGHT) from North Sumatra – Pic

Ngada people from the South Coast of Flores – Pic

Though Indonesia is going through a remarkable process of modernization, social change, and inevitable creeping conformity, many of the traditional ways and values remain intact across most of the archipelago.

Visitors can still spend months and years discovering new and fascinating places and lifestyles. Some, like author Elizabeth Pisani, write eloquently of their experiences.

See for yourself in her wonderful book Indonesia Etc – The Improbable Nation’ (Granta Publications).

A big country and many people, yet cruising below the radar

Indonesia’s islands hug the Equator between 5 degrees north and 10 degrees south (a distance of around 890 km) and extends West to East for 5,150 km.

That’s around 1,000km more than the distance from New York to Los Angeles, and around double the distance from London to Istanbul.

And it has the fourth largest population in the world – some 278 million as of 2022.

And yet, Elizabeth Pisani quotes Indonesian entrepreneur John Riady as saying: “Indonesia is probably the most invisible country in the world.”

The big question begged by John Riady’s telling comment is WHY?

Why does the vast bulk of the Indonesian nation, with so many people and growing economic clout, somehow remain below the radar?

In part it has to do with Indonesian values.

With a culture of calm and consensus Indonesians rarely blow their own trumpet or boast, even when they are entitled to. And they largely avoid picking fights with international neighbors.

Bali is the exception that proves the awareness rule.

Its success and visibility as a major international tourist destination is the result of policies and promotional programs initiated by local authorities as long ago as the 1970s.

Bali backpacker descends stairs to beach

Sixty years on backpackers and surfers have been overtaken by mainstream visitors but are still important to Bali. Pic-

Those early Bali promotors were aided and abetted by waves of young 1960s backpackers and surfers.

Back in the free and easy Sixties this surge of young visitors was discovering the warm weather, the laid-back tropical culture, the warm hospitality, the rolling Indian Ocean surf breaks, super cheap and delicious local food, and low-cost accommodations – all served with a dash of otherworld spirituality.

This coincidence of interests and events turned out to be a remarkably successful formula.

Rolling out the welcome mat for Indonesia beyond Bali

For Indonesia beyond Bali a change came with the election of President Joko Widodo (Jokowi), in 2014. He recognized the power and economic importance of tourism.

He encouraged foreign investment in the tourism sector, sought foreign investor help for upgrading infrastructure, and implemented national government initiatives to promote and support tourism across ALL of Indonesia.

He set an ambitious goal of  attracting 20 million international tourists by 2020 from a base of only 8.8 million in 2013.

He also encouraged reform of restrictive Visa regulations, better industry training, more hotel and resort development, upgraded airports, and further development of regions and attractions considered to have tourism potential.

And he boosted international marketing…

Indonesia Tourist Promotion Logo - wonderful Indonesia

The slogan and logo developed for Indonesia’s international tourism marketing drive and (BELOW) a section of the departure lounge in the new Yogyakarta International Airport opened in 2020. It is designed for up to 20 million passenger movements a year. Indonesia has 29 international airport, many built or upgraded over the past two decades – Pic Jakarta Post

Modern departure lounge at new Yogyakarta Airport

The campaign made Indonesia an easier and more welcoming place to visit. And it brought results – visitor numbers almost doubled by the end of 2018.

Then in 2020 the onset of COVID-19 forced the closure of Indonesia’s borders, a massive hit to the rising tourist industry.

But the impressive new infrastructure and other benefits of the Jokowi initiatives remain. Transport systems and tourism facilities are better and becoming more so. 

As the world learns to live with the pandemic, borders reopen fully and we all start to travel again, Indonesia is ‘VISITOR READY’ as never before.


With the notable exception of Bali. Indonesia has historically performed poorly in attracting international tourists – which is hard to explain.

Here is a country of almost unimaginable beauty and color, an unrivalled diversity of cultures and lifestyles, plus warmth and sunshine, superb beaches and surf breaks, and delicious and different foods.

To complete the package a rich and fascinating history, with smiling and generous peoples most notable for the warmth of their welcome.

It also happens to be one of the cheapest destinations in the world for anyone arriving with a strong international currency like the dollars of the US and Australasia, the Euro and the British pound.

Yet for decades it has remained an also-ran in the tourism stakes. Pre-pandemic Hong Kong was attracting 60 million international visitors a year, Thailand 39 million, Malaysia 26 million, Vietnam 18 million, and the city state of Singapore 19 million.

As recently as 2013 the annual international visitor total, including Bali, stood at only 8.8 million.

Due to the efforts of the Jokowi administration, by 2019 Indonesia had boosted this to a total of just over 16 million but with almost 40% of them visiting Bali. 

Pandemic border closures had a tragic impact on Indonesia’s tourism sector just as it was emerging from the torpor of the previous decades.

But the Government and the remaining leaner industry seem to be chomping at the bit to get back to business, fill empty hotel rooms and show off uniquely Indonesian attractions, culture, and places.

The borders are gradually reopening, and the restrictions are being reduced (See details HERE), but changes so far fall far short of straight forward and easy system in force before the pandemic.

It is to be hoped the system, which proved so successful from 2014 to 2019, can be restored as we head into 2023 ( See Pre-pandemic Visa Rules).

Indonesia has far too much to offer to continue being ignored by the bulk of international travelers. Some day soon it will be “discovered” and become one of the region’s most fashionable, yet affordable, destinations. 

The articles in these pages provide a taste of what you can expect. And if you would like to know of some of the excellent facilities patiently awaiting you then check out some of my favorite interesting, historic and affordable hotels.

If a dash of lazing in resort luxury is your thing, then you might want to take a look at this tempting round-up of just some of the places you can find out there beyond Bali