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INDONESIA: THIRTEEN-THOUSAND ISLAND DRESSING

By John Borthwick

With a choice of 13,466 islands, where does a visitor begin in Indonesia?

Sticking a pin in the map is one option. “Indo” has more fascinating places to visit than a dozen lifetimes might allow, yet most of us fixate on only one, Bali. Once lauded as the Morning of the Earth, southern Bali is now more like the Morning (to Midnight) of the Traffic Jam. Instead, use Bali as your springboard to explore this vast archipelago. Here’s a starter menu.

Kalimantan. Borneo, the world’s third largest island has chunks ruled by Malaysia and Brunei but Indonesia’s sector, Kalimantan is by far the biggest. In its southern jungles near the town of Pangkalan Bun are two heroic wildlife havens, Tanjung Puting National Park and Camp Leakey Orangutan Orphanage, which survive amid ever increasing land clearances for the palm oil industry. Cruise up the Sekonyer River to Camp Leakey to see the work done by the Orangutan Foundation in rescuing infant orangutans whose mothers have been killed or captured during jungle clearing. One visitor here summarised her delight: “I mightn’t have seen Paris, but I have cuddled an orangutan!” 

Komodo Island. Forget Daenerys Targaryen’s trio of aerial Zippo lighters in Game of Thrones. Komodo Island’s “dragons” are earthbound, actual and their bite burns worse than wildfire. Varanus komodoensis, the world’s largest lizard, inhabits two islands off the western tip of Flores Island. One bite from this three metre, 90 kilo creature and … well, the end is messy. As my guide says, “The dragons hunt alone but dine together.” After you’ve marveled at these ominous skinks-on-steroids and the beaches of their World Heritage national park island you can return to Flores as your base for plenty of excellent diving and snorkeling. 

Java. With a population of 140 million, Java is too crowded for its own good. But it’s worth ploughing through the island’s formidable traffic to reach the grand temples of Borobudur and Prambanan near Yogyakarta. To see their wonders is to imagine two competing kingdoms, with different religions, vying to build the world’s best stairway to heaven. The great stone dome of Borobudur, the largest Buddhist temple in the world, looms above the central Java plain and is populated by some 500 Buddha statues. The equally massive Hindu complex of Prambanan was built around the same time eighth—ninth century AD) and both are now World Heritage sites. 

Lombok. Some travellers might tell you that their favourite place in Bali is next door — Lombok. Think of this large island as "Bali unplugged.” Beside the beauty of its mountains and uncluttered coast, Lombok lacks the frantic aspects of contemporary tourist culture. Senggigi Beach sits on its west coast looking across to Bali’s sacred volcano, Gunung Agung. If you can’t get romantic at sunset here, then best get thee to an ice cave. Take a trip to the craft villages of Penujak to buy earthenware pottery and nearby Sukarara for traditional ikat and songkat weavings. Then chill out for a few days in the little Gili Islands just off Lombok’s northwest tip. Diving, reading and sleeping, dining, dreaming and cocktails are the agenda here. 

West Papua. “Yes, our people ate Mr Rockefeller,” some villagers in southwestern Papua cheekily like to tell shocked visitors. They’re referring to American millionaire Michael C. Rockefeller who disappeared without trace off their Asmat coast in 1961. Indonesian Papua, at the western end of New Guinea Island, is still frontier country for tourism and development. Its wild, indented coastline is home to upriver villages of traditional Melanesian (as opposed to Asiatic) culture. Reach here — which is not that easy — and you’ll be richly rewarded, and not eaten.

Sulawesi. Formerly known as the Celebes, Sulawesi Island’s four peninsulas sprawl across the map like a starfish in pyjamas. In its mountainous north the Tanah Toraja area, known the "Land of the Heavenly Kings", is home to a sophisticated culture best known for its spectacular “boat roof” houses. See also the stone monoliths, cliff-face effigies, “hanging coffins” and lengthy funeral ceremonies that make this culture unique in Indonesia. While Torajans are nominally Christian (rather than Muslim), their roots run deep with ancestor worship and animism.

Sumba. Sumba (not to be confused with neighbouring Sumbawa Island) is sometimes known as the “cowboy island of the South Seas” because of its mounted warriors and their celebrated annual Pasola festival — a mock but hazardous battle involving hundreds of horsemen. Add to this the island’s massive stone tombs and Sumba is, according to anthropologist Lawrence Blair, “a time capsule of our earliest beginnings.” Arid, undeveloped Sumba makes Bali seem like Manhattan, but opulent Nihiwatu Resort on its southwest coast offers five-star creature comforts and perfect, uncrowded reef surf.

INFO: An Indonesian Visa On Arrival is free for many countries but check before arrival — the rules change often.