One of the lesser-heralded joys of visiting Indonesia is that of exploring without purpose.
Simply turning up somewhere new on the archipelago and heading into the sprawl with no set plan represents a rare kind of excitement, one rewarded by a treasure trove of unexpected delights showcasing their uniquely complex charms. Indonesia is littered with such places: on the off-chance that visitors find themselves with some time to spare, they will encounter sleepy towns, raging bulls, gloriously beautiful mosques, vibrant festivals and plenty more besides.
Tomohon, a rich tapestry of culture and natural wonders, forms the heartland of Sulawesi’s Minahasan tribal traditions.
It is a town defined by a highlands climate and two volcanic peaks. The first, active Mt Lokon-Empung, rises over the Tondano Plain and offers views stretching to Manado in the north. Meanwhile, elongated Mt Mahawu overlooks the Tintingon Hills, where Cap Tikus, the alcoholic beverage processed from sugar palm, is made.
Closer to ground level, Lake Linow exudes a pleasing calmness wherein sunlight and sulphur cause an elemental shift that sees the water bleed through shades of green, blue and amber.
Jayapura, West Papua
Jayapura, the capital of Indonesia’s easternmost province, West Papua, heralds where the archipelago comes to an end and Papua New Guinea begins. The city’s distance from the remainder of the country affords it a veil of semi-obscurity, although it nevertheless exhibits similar characteristics to many of its brethren: heavy traffic and downtown hubbub offset by the surrounding verdancy of hills, forests and, in nearby Lake Sentani, a body of water as majestic as great Toba to the east.
The city is a place of some historical significance, as denoted by the monument honouring General MacArthur’s warding off of Japanese forces in the Second World War.
Nestling in the Minangkabau highlands lies Bukit Tinggi, the high hill of western Sumatra. This market town counts a triumvirate of volcanoes–Merapi, Singgaling and Sago–as near-neighbours and is a place of some historical importance: the underground bunkers and tunnels of Ngarai Sianok and Lubang Jepang were built by the Japanese during the Second World War, while Fort de Kock signifies Dutch colonial rule.
But it is the Clock Tower that draws the most attention. Acting as the town centrepiece, it symbolises Indonesia’s independence: the tower was gifted by the Dutch, with a peak reshaped to resemble traditional minang roofs after the national revolution.
Sumba, similar to Madura and Wests Timor and Papua, retains a last frontier-style ambience that fascinates visitors whilst simultaneously rejecting the very notion of tourism. As such, the island is a difficult place to travel, albeit a rewarding one, and it is Tambolaka that affords entry to the western peninsula.
The famous Weekuri lake and traditional Ratenggaro village are close at hand, provided transport can be found, but it is walking Tambolaka’s long thin Jl. Timotius Tako Geli, culminating in Lapangan Galatama, where visitors will most likely encounter a city of noise and chaos that remains unbound to the prism of tourism.
According to Indonesian and Malay folklore, a ‘pontianak’ is the vampiric spirit of a woman who died in childbirth. Folklore further dictates that these spirits overran an uninhabited province of West Kalimantan until the city’s founder–a sultan–did away with them and replaced their nest with a mosque and a palace. Thus was the sultanate of Pontianak forged. Soon it would become one of Indonesia’s busiest trading ports.
Pontianak straddles the equator, one of the few cities in the world to do so. All points converge on the equatorial obelisk, a symbolic representation of where trade, folklore and history merge.
Of all Indonesia’s lesser-visited cities, Kota Ambon occupies a place of some distinction. It homes a handsome World Peace monument, the characterful Merdeka Field, tree-lined streets and many markets. The Al-Fatah Grand Mosque is accounted one of the prettiest in Maluku, and the city’s harbour-side setting marks it as the gateway to the spice islands of the Banda Sea.
Ambon is at its most rousing at times of celebration. The incessant snap of crackers and fireworks coats the city in a dense fog while countless swarms of bikes race around the streets, as of a thundering juggernaut revelling in chaotic abandon.
Banda Neira, Maluku
As lost as lost can be, the Banda Islands lie dormant in the ocean bearing their name. In this obscure corner of southern Maluku, life moves a half-pace out of sync with everywhere else in Indonesia.
Sleepy Banda Neira, famed as a source of spices in colonial times and set within the shadow of volcanic Gunung Api, typifies this unique atmosphere, where nothing works as it should. With transport often cancelled due to unpredictable weather, Banda is free to work its gentle magic, where a warm welcome, flower-filled streets, jungles, ancient forts and isolated beaches etch themselves onto visitors’ hearts.
Bogor’s almost daily inclement weather and thunderstorms has seen it acquire an apt sobriquet: ‘Rain City’.
But despite the romantic nickname, visitors will initially struggle to cross the road, let alone go for a leisurely stroll, as they navigate constant tailbacks of traffic that, pound-for-pound, rival those of Jakarta to the north.
Eventually, however, the visitors will chance upon Kebun Raya, the botanical gardens at Bogor’s heart. This unexpected pocket of greenery homes nearly 14,000 tropical trees and plants and, like a giant pulmonary system, pumps out swathes of preternatural calm that confer serenity even upon Rain City’s noisiest corners.
Loud and sprawling, Denpasar is a difficult city to love. However, looking beneath the chaotic gloss of Bali’s capital will reveal a crucible of Balinese culture. Temples and palaces line the streets, while the Bali Museum offers a fascinating insight into the island’s history via dance, ritual, textile and more. Of even grander standing is the Bajra Sandhi monument in Puputan Park: a sufficiently striking symbol of the Balinese struggle against the Dutch colonists.
Sumenep is an open, windswept town with a calm pace of life and rugged surroundings that 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 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. Don’t forget to swing by the Keraton royal palace, for it was here where the seeds of the Majapahit kingdom, one of Asia’s most enduring empires, were sown.
However, the real attraction will always be the warm, if slightly incredulous, welcome. With a friendly smile and inquisitive nature, locals will happily draw any visitors into the fold.
Head to central Madura, where awaits understated Pamekesan, home to the Monumen Arek Lancor, the island’s most enduring image. Standing proud in the city’s Alun (square), the monument writhes in an attitude of prayer and devotion, as though inspired by the ornate Masjid Agung Asy-Syuhada behind it. Coupled with rousing Uldaul festivities, comprising floats, costumes, music and traditional songs, the town offers a kinetic celebration of Madurese culture.
Further afield, Jumiang Beach is a popular hang-out spot where myriad cafes and warungs make for a communal atmosphere; there’s no better place to watch the nearby salt ponds stretch into the distance.
Heading to Borneo, here is a riverfront city possessing great ramshackle allure. Like many 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 grandeur of Samarinda’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. Suddenly, 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.
Lesser-known Semarang, 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; for those of a spookier disposition, the former railway headquarters of Lewang Sawu is allegedly haunted and should provide an enigmatic treat.
But to get a real taste of Semarang’s unexpected charm, head for Kampung Pelangai. This so-called Rainbow Village is precisely that: a multi-hued hamlet oozing with colour where artwork adorns every wall in a small bubble of calm amidst the surrounding hubbub.