When I travel, I fall in love easily – new horizons and cultural surprises never fail to delight. But Indonesia cast its spell on me in ways few other places have – its fiery origins and exotic landscapes, magnificent monuments and mystical temples, and not least the creative energy that informs every aspect of its eclectic culture. With this in mind, I hope this post can inspire you to explore this enchanting land just as the country inspired me.
Born from seismic cataclysm, Indonesia is a land of geological marvels, mystical monuments and exotic culture. A jigsaw of 17,000 islands spread across the equator, the country offers travellers a unique blend of cultural experiences, natural wonders and wildlife encounters; from active volcanoes, traditional fire dancing and enchanting temples to unspoilt beaches, komodo dragons and orang-utans.
With so many islands to explore and so much to see and do, the country can be difficult to navigate for first-time visitors. But from Indonesia's main international gateway and capital city Jakarta, on the island of Java, a plethora of cultural attractions and ancient religious monuments are within easy reach.
Having extensively explored the islands of Java and Bali on a whirlwind tour, here's my selection of the five best sights to get you started.
Buddhist Behemoth – Borobudur, Java
Top of the list for culture vultures visiting Indonesia, Borobudur is a mystical man-made marvel that was hidden deep in the Javanese jungle for almost a thousand years. Unearthed by Dutch colonial explorers, this astonishing Buddhist monument is actually the largest of its kind in south-east Asia and could easily rival Cambodia's Angkor Wat for majesty and magic. Visiting the site to see the dawn is a spiritual experience to make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck.
Rising in tiers above the jungle canopy with the shadow of smoking Mount Merapi looming large, this mandala-shaped monument is covered in Buddha-encased stupas and fascinating stone reliefs that are slowly illuminated as the sun slips above the horizon. A short drive from the island's cultural hub of Yogyakarta, the UNESCO-listed site is a fantastic spot to kick off some classic cultural sightseeing.
Catching Fire – Kecak Dance, Bali
As mesmerising as it is dramatic, Bali's traditional Kecak fire dance brings you closer to the hybrid culture of this beautiful island, combining elements of Hinduism, ritual animism and western influences.
Based on the Hindu epic tale of Ramayana, a choir of 70 sarong-clad men begin by sitting in a circle chanting beneath the fiery centrepiece, inducing a trance-like state before elaborately costumed performers take to the stage. Performed in a small theatre perched above limestone coastal cliffs at the Hindu temple of Uluwatu, in the very south of the island, the scene is all the more enchanting as the sun begins to set. As the fire dance becomes more frenetic so the sky appears ablaze, finally turning to indigo as the performance reaches its explosive climax.
If you are attending the performance, you can also visit the fascinating 11th-century stone-built sea temple of Uluwatu next door and meet its resident grey monkeys. But beware, these creatures are prone to stealing tourists' possessions – sunglasses are a particular favourite.
Creative Centre – Ubud, Bali
Recently re-established as an island of pure romance and beauty, thanks to the popular movie "Eat, Pray, Love", Bali is so much more than a beach destination. And Ubud, the island's cultural heartland, proves it. Producing arts and crafts is in the Balinese blood, and the creative output in this region is astonishing. Separated by a countryside of swirling rice paddies, the region is brimful of artisan villages specialising in various crafts – ceramics, stonework, wood carving – while the centre of Ubud has a collection of boutiques and shops selling their products.
In the exotic blossom-draped courtyard of the King of Ubud's Palace, Puri Saren Agung, there is a daily showcase of the region's distinctive dance and music. The King's diminutive granddaughters dressed in local finery and ornate headdresses perform an exquisite Pendet dance accompanied by the enchanting tinkling of gamelan music. It's the perfect place to get a feel for the exotic, colourful culture that the island is famous for.
Hindu Heart – Prambanan, Java
Approaching Prambanan, the pointed tiers of countless Hindu temples fill the horizon. This sacred site, protected by UNESCO, is the largest Hindu temple site in south-east Asia. Ornate stone structures of all sizes, some crumbling from seismic activity, date back to the 9th century and are surrounded by lush green pastures and tropical foliage. Decorated in intricate bas reliefs, each temple is dedicated to a different deity and many of them still house ancient statues dedicated to Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva – the creator, preserver and destroyer.
Visitors can dip in and out of the intact temples, exploring fascinating stone carvings, while entry to some is restricted due to reconstruction work. The site is easily reached from Java's cultural centre, Yogyakarta, which makes an excellent base for exploring the island's best bits.
Mystic Marvel – Tanah Lot temple, Bali
Known as the land of a thousand temples, the Indonesian island of Bali has a religious dedication for every occasion. Each village has at least three temples, each family has a private shrine, and small origami-like offerings of rice and petals can be found on every corner. It's little surprise, then, that this island boasts some of the most picturesque temples in the world.
Among them, Tanah Lot is blessed with one of the most spectacular settings. Perched on a rocky outcrop on Bali's southern tip, it is one of seven sacred sea temples dotted around the island and has been entrenched in Balinese mythology for centuries. At high tide, the temple is cut off from the mainland by the pounding waves of the Indian Ocean and onlookers can watch as pilgrims attempt to reach it across the surf-washed rocks. At sunset, tourists gather to photograph its exotic thatched and curved tiers framed against the ocean and sky.
More on Indonesia's highlights
This is simply a selection of some of the best sights in Java and Bali, but fascinating and exotic cultural experiences are to be found around every corner in Indonesia. Travellers interested in local crafts and entertainment can visit traditional Batik fabric-making workshops, for example, watch a Wayang shadow puppetry show, or enjoy the atmospheric sounds of gamelan music, which is omnipresent throughout the islands. Fans of temples and cultural sights are absolutely spoilt for choice in this part of the world. Pura Ulun Danu Bratan, for instance, rising beside Bali's second largest fresh water lake Danu Bratan, high in the Balinese hills, is another stunning must-see temple, among countless others in Java and Bali.
Already intrigued by Indonesia? Then check out my upcoming blog on Indonesia's most worthy natural wonders and wildlife experiences for more trip-planning ideas to this amazing destination.