Happily, the archipelago is so large and so diverse that it proves simple to slip off the tourist trail. And try as they might, the visitors will struggle to see everywhere: one visitor in his 80s, a regular visitor to Indonesia for 40 years, calculated that he had seen only a fraction of what the country had to offer. Here are five such examples of less-heralded places worthy of anybody’s time.
As an island, jagged Madura feels slightly shunned by the rest of the archipelago. It juts out of Java as though trying to escape its moorings and bears all the hallmarks of some ancient predator’s incisors. Symbolic, perhaps, of its historic enmity with the surrounding region(s).
Dig beneath the surface, though, and a wealth of charm awaits. Sumenep is an open, windswept town, its calm pace of life and rugged surroundings provide a distinctly Mediterranean feel. More often than not, the trundle of a passing becak rickshaw comprises the day’s traffic jam.
A leisurely walk from the beautiful and striking Masjid Jamik Sumenep – Madura’s most iconic mosque – to the Royal Tombs should take no more than a few hours. Factor in a stop at the Stadion Karapan Sapi, home of the annual bull races, for a complete sweep of the town’s landmarks. Further afield, Gili Labak is the perfect setting for snorkelling and diving uninterrupted by the crowds of nearby Bali.
However, the real attraction will always be the warm, if slightly incredulous, welcome. Be prepared to learn a few Madurese phrases. With a friendly smile and inquisitive nature, locals will happily draw any visitors into the fold.
This lesser-known city, central Java’s provincial capital, is a curious blend of the old and the new. Dutch colonial architecture and a bustling Chinatown rub shoulders with myriad mid-rises. The initial impression is of a scattershot, aimless sprawl lacking the eye-opening heritage of close(ish) Yogyakarta.
As is the way of these things, though, a little digging will uncover a great source of treasure. History buffs should enjoy the beautiful Sam Po Kong temple (Gedung Batu), built in honour of the Chinese commander Cheng Ho of the Ming Dynasty. Meanwhile, perhaps the most famous colonial building is the Lewang Sawu. Also known as A Thousand Doors, this opulent former railway headquarters served as the Japanese Army headquarters in the Second World War.
But to get a real taste of Semarang’s unexpected charm, head for Kampung Pelangai. This so-called Rainbow Village is exactly that: a multi-hued hamlet oozing with colour. Pieces of art adorn every wall in this small bubble of calm amidst the surrounding hubbub. The city is home to many vibrant examples of street art, and this is the boldest statement of them all.
Heading to Borneo, here is a riverfront city possessing great ramshackle allure. Like the majority of Indonesian towns and cities, the primary sensation is auditory: the constant drone of traffic permeates the atmosphere.
This morass is never a problem, however, thanks to the sheer grandeur of the city’s Islamic Centre. Ornate and colourful, to say it dominates the skyline is an understatement. Most tourists will first see it as they approach the Mahakam River from the south. All of a sudden, the canopy of trees opens up, Samarinda hoves into view, and the giant mosque shines as its centrepiece. It is one of Indonesia’s most jaw-dropping spectacles and enjoyed by relatively few visitors.
Don’t forget to enjoy a coffee at Stadion Gor Segiri, home of Pusamania Borneo FC. For a savoury sensation, head to Warung Padang UPIK on Jalan Danau Toba No.38 and sample Kalimantan’s finest sambal.
Sprawling and chaotic, Denpasar is at first glance a hard city to love. Bali’s capital is loud and frenetic and intimidating, a big shock to the system with 800,000 occupants. Indeed, visitors can be forgiven for swerving it in favour of the bucolic beaches and bars in nearby Sanur or Canggu.
This is a pity. Beneath Denpasar’s chaotic gloss is a destination of real warmth whose residents are always happy to chat. Furthermore, here lies a hub of Balinese culture where temples and palaces line the streets. The Bali Museum offers a fascinating insight into the island’s history – via dance, ritual, textile and more – while the Bajra Sandhi monument in Puputan Park is a sufficiently grand monument to the Balinese struggle with the Dutch colonists. Lucky visitors may even be able to catch a baseball game in the nearby park,
Banda Neira, Maluku
Without question, Indonesia’s finest destination, hidden or otherwise. The remote Bandas represent something of an unknown quantity and often fly under the radar. With all the classic idyllic getaway tropes in place – deserted beaches, a warm welcome, clear water ripe for exploration and, in Gunung Api, a resident volcano – this obscure corner of southern Maluku caters perfectly for the passer-through with no real agenda.
Dilapidated villas and museums rub shoulders in a nod to the area’s colonial past when the island was a global trade centre of mace and nutmeg. Today, however, life seems to be more laissez-faire. Transport is sporadic is best. Visitors should not be surprised to find themselves wooed into a soporific daze as the flower-filled streets and easy-going pace work their woozy charms. Soon enough, locals will be treating newcomers like old friends.
Indeed, the warm welcome and total lack of cynicism make it impossible to be stressed as explorations reveal the daily comings-and-goings of a genuine Indonesian outpost.