Exploring the Islands of Indonesia

This is subscriber only post.
Get one year of online-only access — only $15!
Below is a sample of the article.
Please login or subscribe to ITN to read the entire post.

by Seth Sherman, Thomasville, GA

Five weeks off from work and four weeks to plan a trip — but where to go? As there was a conference in Taiwan that I wanted to attend, both Asia and the Pacific Rim seemed logical. How about Indonesia?

Planning a visit

Reviewing my Lonely Planet guidebook, I decided that I wanted to sample Sumatra, Kalimantan, Sulawesi, Maluku, Papua (formerly Irian Jaya), Java, Bali and the islands of Flores, Rinca, Komodo and West Timor in Nusa Tenggara. And, being so close, I could not resist a stopover in East Timor (Timor-Leste). But how to accomplish all of this, including the coordinating internal flights with at least six domestic carriers, in what was starting to seem like a shrinking vacation?

I contacted several of the travel companies advertising in ITN that specialize in Asia, but none felt that they could help me with my ambitious plans. A Google search of Indonesian travel agents yielded at least 135 websites and e-mail addresses. 

Dispatching my proposed itinerary, I received some 30-odd responses. Finally, after further review and correspondence, I selected Mars Tours & Travel (Samudera Indonesia Building, 5th Floor, Jl. Letjen S. Parman, kav 35, Jakarta 11480, Indonesia; phone +62 21 5307578, fax 530757 or e-mail marstour@indo.net.id) — a decision that I was never to regret. 

Richard and his assistant Vernantin put together an incredible program, but they accurately warned me that I would be in perpetual motion for 28 days of action-packed adventure. 

But what about the State Department warnings, terrorist attacks and anti-American sentiment? Family and friends all expressed concerns, but these all would seem unfounded by the trip’s end.

Round-trip, economy-class airfare from Atlanta to Jakarta was priced just under $1,000 (mine was a bit more as I had an extended layover in Taipei). Facilitating the trip was Indonesia’s policy of “visa on arrival,” which costs $25 for 30 days or $10 for 10 days. 

Setting up

My first night was spent at a comfortable 4-star hotel in Jakarta, on the island of Java, primarily to pick up my itinerary, vouchers and internal flight tickets and to pay for the trip. 

While other agencies had requested a bank-to-bank transfer of funds, Mars Tours & Travel had agreed to accept payment by credit card or personal check. I was reluctant to pay for the trip by check, not knowing Richard or the Mars agency, so we agreed on a credit card payment, Richard’s agency paying their surcharge. I paid the fee levied by my bank for foreign exchanges. Were I to go again, I wouldn’t hesitate to pay by check and avoid this surcharge. 

Early the next morning I was off to Padang, on the west coast of Sumatra. After a brief city tour, I was driven to Bukittinggi, home of the Minang-kabau people. 

In this matriarchal and matrilineal society, both wealth and family lines are linked from mother to daughter. Their buildings are designed to resemble the horns of a bull, which is held in particularly high esteem. 

The countryside was lush and verdant, with many beautiful rice paddies, mountains and waterfalls. 

Much to see and learn

My next stop was Balikpapan, a bustling city on the east coast of Kalimantan province, which occupies the southern two-thirds of Borneo. After being met at the airport by my guide and driver, I was immediately driven to Loajanan, a smaller town on the Mahakam River, from where I boarded the houseboat which was to be my hotel for the next two nights. 

Borneo is home to the famous Dayak people, a term applied to many separate indigenous tribes — including the Kayans and Kenyahs, who are famous for their long ears. Life in this part of Borneo very much revolves around the river, and there is no better way to see it than by houseboat. 

Manado, in the northeastern segment of the unusually shaped island of Sulawesi, was my next destination. Here, my time was split between the world-class diving off Bunaken Island and the Tangkoko Nature Reserve, home to the tarsier (one of the world’s smallest primates), the black macaque and the beautiful hornbill. 

From there, I was off to Ternate and Tidore, among the original “Spice Islands,” located in the northern part of Maluku. Five hundred years ago, these islands were the only source of cloves. Renowned for their ability to both preserve and flavor nonrefrigerated meat, cloves were worth their weight in gold. 

Maluku was the intended destination of the great Iberian explorers, who were looking for a route shorter and safer than the established overland road. These islands were the treasures of the Dutch East India Company until the British, briefly occupying the islands during the Napoleonic campaigns, transplanted cloves to what is now Malaysia and Sri Lanka, collapsing the monopoly. 

Here, I was fortunate enough to be invited for tea with the sister of the Sultan at their palace.

Makassar, in southern Sulawesi, was next. An extremely important port city, Makassar is the location of Fort Rotterdam, one of the best preserved of the colonial Dutch fortresses. It was also the starting point for my drive to Rantepao, home of the Toraja people. 

Extremely hospitable and friendly, the Toraja are famous for their elaborate funerals, which are festive celebrations for those on their way to a better place. Tribe members of the highest standing each have a small effigy of themselves displayed in front of their burial cave.

Biak and Bali

My next stop was Biak, a small island off the coast of Papua, for some more diving. From the airport on Biak, I was taken to a small boat for transfer to Undi Atoll, a charming place with friendly people but one that is extremely rustic — without electricity or running water. 

For those without an interest in diving, an alternative would be to fly to Jayapura and on to Wamena to meet the Dani people in the Baliem River Valley.

Bali was next — an island on almost everyone’s list of most desirable destinations. Physically and spiritually beautiful, the island has warm and friendly people and unlimited possibilities for exploration. 

Richard placed me in a 5-star resort near Kuta, the busy capital of tourism on Bali. It was close to the airport and conveniently located to many of the island’s highlights, including Ubud, the cultural center of art, jewelry and dance.

Having just arrived from Biak, I decided to skip the diving and split my time between touring the island in a rented car and surfing. I do think the next time I visit I would head for Lovina, a quieter, less touristy town in the north. One “must see” is the Hindu temple of Tanah Lot, built on a small peninsula.

Nusa Tenggara and Java

From Bali, I took a flight to Labuan Bajo to explore the islands of Nusa Tenggara (the group of islands east of Bali), traveling from Lombok to Timor. My first destination was a live-aboard boat, from which I visited the islands of Komodo and Rinca, both home to the famous ora, or Komodo dragon. 

With a guide and driver, I then went overland across the long island of Flores to view the beautiful tricolored lakes of Kelimutu. We continued with a drive to Maumere, where I embarked for Kupang, the capital of West Timor.

I was met by another guide and driver and we immediately began our overland trip to Dili, the nascent capital of East Timor. Along the way we stopped at busy markets, saw incredible panoramas, including the traditional beehive-shaped homes, and visited a family that makes and plays the traditional musical instruments of this region. 

The border crossing was unrushed, to say the least, with the Indonesians being much more thorough here than they were at the airports of my other entry and exit points. From the border, it was just a few hours to Dili, with stops at beautiful vistas and an old Portuguese fort. 

With many Europeans living there, Dili and East Timor are more cosmopolitan than Kupang and West Timor. The relationship between Indonesia and East Timor is now a friendly one, and, for those who want to spend more than 30 days in Indonesia, Dili would be a logical choice for which to obtain a second visa.

My final destination in Indonesia was Yogyakarta (Jogjakarta), on the island of Java, to visit the Buddhist temple Borobudur and the equally magnificent Hindu temple of Prambanan. Both built around the eighth century, these structures are legacies of the empires that existed prior to the arrival of Islam. 

From Yogyakarta, I caught an early morning flight to Jakarta for my connecting flights back to the U.S. 

Warm welcome and no worries

From beginning to end, the staff at Mars Tours & Travel was in continuous contact with their agents on the various islands to track my progress and to confirm my flights. When the flight from Maumere to Kupang was canceled, Vernantin automatically rerouted me on a later flight and coordinated transfer between my guides on the islands of Flores and Timor. 

For their part, the domestic airlines in Indonesia are more user-friendly than those I’ve seen elsewhere around the world. Flying from Ternate to Makassar, I and several others had a tight connection through Manado (30 minutes). The airlines opened up a special gate for us and the departure was delayed about 10 minutes until all passengers and baggage were aboard. Would that have happened in the U.S. or Europe? I don’t think so. 

Without exception, I found the Indonesian people to be friendly, politely curious and eager to make friends. I never felt unsafe or experienced a hint of anti-American sentiment. Rather, those whom I met were extremely curious about our country, and all wanted to visit the U.S. in the future 

If it’s at all possible, the Indonesians I met seemed to hate the terrorists more than we do. Bali, with 95% of its economy derived from tourism, was devastated after the bombings. It is only now beginning its slow recovery back to where it once was. 

Traveler enticements

With an excellent exchange rate (over 9,000 rupiahs to the dollar), Indonesia can also be a bargain destination. Meals in some restaurants can be had for as little as $1 to $3 and unrated hotel rooms for $3 to $5. 

With the drop in tourism, hand-crafted souvenirs can be negotiated for a song. I would get to the point where I would stop the bargaining process more out of guilt than for reaching the end point of the seller. Sometimes the spread between the asking and bidding prices amounted to the equivalent of a dime for me but what might be a meal for the seller. 

The islanders varied in their familiarity with visitors (read infrastructure). There are still many tourists in Bali and, to a lesser extent, Java and Bunaken. Ternate and Tidore, on the other hand, seemed as though they hadn’t seen a Caucasian (orang putih) since Charles Veley came through several years ago on his travels. 

I found it very useful to learn between 50 and 100 words of Bahasa Indonesia (sort of a national Esperanto) in order to get by and interact without the presence of a guide. 

Although I visited Indonesia during the beginning of their rainy season (November through May), I was inconvenienced only once by the weather during my 4-week visit. It might have been convenient in some ways to have gone during the dry season — for instance, to see the Ramayana ballet at Prambanan — but there probably would have been many more tourists. 

Looking back on the trip, it is one of the best that I have had. The sheer diversity of geography, habitats, languages and cultures was astounding. I wouldn’t hesitate to go again.

The price of this Mars Tours & Travel trip is about $6,000 per person, based on double occupancy, or $8,000 for a single, including all domestic flights, local transportation with guides, hotel rooms and most meals. Personal items, airport departure taxes and visas are extra. 

Please login or subscribe to ITN to read the entire post.

by Seth Sherman, Thomasville, GA

Five weeks off from work and four weeks to plan a trip — but where to go? As there was a conference in Taiwan that I wanted to attend, both Asia and the Pacific Rim seemed logical. How about Indonesia?

Planning a visit

Reviewing my Lonely Planet guidebook, I decided that I wanted to sample Sumatra, Kalimantan, Sulawesi, Maluku, Papua (formerly Irian Jaya), Java, Bali and the islands of Flores, Rinca, Komodo and West Timor in Nusa Tenggara. And, being so close, I could not resist a stopover in East Timor (Timor-Leste). But how to accomplish all of this, including the coordinating internal flights with at least six domestic carriers, in what was starting to seem like a shrinking vacation?

I contacted several of the travel companies advertising in ITN that specialize in Asia, but none felt that they could help me with my ambitious plans. A Google search of Indonesian travel agents yielded at least 135 websites and e-mail addresses. 

Dispatching my proposed itinerary, I received some 30-odd responses. Finally, after further review and correspondence, I selected Mars Tours & Travel (Samudera Indonesia Building, 5th Floor, Jl. Letjen S. Parman, kav 35, Jakarta 11480, Indonesia; phone +62 21 5307578, fax 530757 or e-mail marstour@indo.net.id) — a decision that I was never to regret. 

Richard and his assistant Vernantin put together an incredible program, but they accurately warned me that I would be in perpetual motion for 28 days of action-packed adventure. 

But what about the State Department warnings, terrorist attacks and anti-American sentiment? Family and friends all expressed concerns, but these all would seem unfounded by the trip’s end.

Round-trip, economy-class airfare from Atlanta to Jakarta was priced just under $1,000 (mine was a bit more as I had an extended layover in Taipei). Facilitating the trip was Indonesia’s policy of “visa on arrival,” which costs $25 for 30 days or $10 for 10 days. 

Setting up

My first night was spent at a comfortable 4-star hotel in Jakarta, on the island of Java, primarily to pick up my itinerary, vouchers and internal flight tickets and to pay for the trip. 

While other agencies had requested a bank-to-bank transfer of funds, Mars Tours & Travel had agreed to accept payment by credit card or personal check. I was reluctant to pay for the trip by check, not knowing Richard or the Mars agency, so we agreed on a credit card payment, Richard’s agency paying their surcharge. I paid the fee levied by my bank for foreign exchanges. Were I to go again, I wouldn’t hesitate to pay by check and avoid this surcharge. 

Early the next morning I was off to Padang, on the west coast of Sumatra. After a brief city tour, I was driven to Bukittinggi, home of the Minang-kabau people. 

In this matriarchal and matrilineal society, both wealth and family lines are linked from mother to daughter. Their buildings are designed to resemble the horns of a bull, which is held in particularly high esteem. 

The countryside was lush and verdant, with many beautiful rice paddies, mountains and waterfalls. 

Much to see and learn

My next stop was Balikpapan, a bustling city on the east coast of Kalimantan province, which occupies the southern two-thirds of Borneo. After being met at the airport by my guide and driver, I was immediately driven to Loajanan, a smaller town on the Mahakam River, from where I boarded the houseboat which was to be my hotel for the next two nights. 

Borneo is home to the famous Dayak people, a term applied to many separate indigenous tribes — including the Kayans and Kenyahs, who are famous for their long ears. Life in this part of Borneo very much revolves around the river, and there is no better way to see it than by houseboat. 

Manado, in the northeastern segment of the unusually shaped island of Sulawesi, was my next destination. Here, my time was split between the world-class diving off Bunaken Island and the Tangkoko Nature Reserve, home to the tarsier (one of the world’s smallest primates), the black macaque and the beautiful hornbill. 

From there, I was off to Ternate and Tidore, among the original “Spice Islands,” located in the northern part of Maluku. Five hundred years ago, these islands were the only source of cloves. Renowned for their ability to both preserve and flavor nonrefrigerated meat, cloves were worth their weight in gold. 

Maluku was the intended destination of the great Iberian explorers, who were looking for a route shorter and safer than the established overland road. These islands were the treasures of the Dutch East India Company until the British, briefly occupying the islands during the Napoleonic campaigns, transplanted cloves to what is now Malaysia and Sri Lanka, collapsing the monopoly. 

Here, I was fortunate enough to be invited for tea with the sister of the Sultan at their palace.

Makassar, in southern Sulawesi, was next. An extremely important port city, Makassar is the location of Fort Rotterdam, one of the best preserved of the colonial Dutch fortresses. It was also the starting point for my drive to Rantepao, home of the Toraja people. 

Extremely hospitable and friendly, the Toraja are famous for their elaborate funerals, which are festive celebrations for those on their way to a better place. Tribe members of the highest standing each have a small effigy of themselves displayed in front of their burial cave.

Biak and Bali

My next stop was Biak, a small island off the coast of Papua, for some more diving. From the airport on Biak, I was taken to a small boat for transfer to Undi Atoll, a charming place with friendly people but one that is extremely rustic — without electricity or running water. 

For those without an interest in diving, an alternative would be to fly to Jayapura and on to Wamena to meet the Dani people in the Baliem River Valley.

Bali was next — an island on almost everyone’s list of most desirable destinations. Physically and spiritually beautiful, the island has warm and friendly people and unlimited possibilities for exploration. 

Richard placed me in a 5-star resort near Kuta, the busy capital of tourism on Bali. It was close to the airport and conveniently located to many of the island’s highlights, including Ubud, the cultural center of art, jewelry and dance.

Having just arrived from Biak, I decided to skip the diving and split my time between touring the island in a rented car and surfing. I do think the next time I visit I would head for Lovina, a quieter, less touristy town in the north. One “must see” is the Hindu temple of Tanah Lot, built on a small peninsula.

Nusa Tenggara and Java

From Bali, I took a flight to Labuan Bajo to explore the islands of Nusa Tenggara (the group of islands east of Bali), traveling from Lombok to Timor. My first destination was a live-aboard boat, from which I visited the islands of Komodo and Rinca, both home to the famous ora, or Komodo dragon. 

With a guide and driver, I then went overland across the long island of Flores to view the beautiful tricolored lakes of Kelimutu. We continued with a drive to Maumere, where I embarked for Kupang, the capital of West Timor.

I was met by another guide and driver and we immediately began our overland trip to Dili, the nascent capital of East Timor. Along the way we stopped at busy markets, saw incredible panoramas, including the traditional beehive-shaped homes, and visited a family that makes and plays the traditional musical instruments of this region. 

The border crossing was unrushed, to say the least, with the Indonesians being much more thorough here than they were at the airports of my other entry and exit points. From the border, it was just a few hours to Dili, with stops at beautiful vistas and an old Portuguese fort. 

With many Europeans living there, Dili and East Timor are more cosmopolitan than Kupang and West Timor. The relationship between Indonesia and East Timor is now a friendly one, and, for those who want to spend more than 30 days in Indonesia, Dili would be a logical choice for which to obtain a second visa.

My final destination in Indonesia was Yogyakarta (Jogjakarta), on the island of Java, to visit the Buddhist temple Borobudur and the equally magnificent Hindu temple of Prambanan. Both built around the eighth century, these structures are legacies of the empires that existed prior to the arrival of Islam. 

From Yogyakarta, I caught an early morning flight to Jakarta for my connecting flights back to the U.S. 

Warm welcome and no worries

From beginning to end, the staff at Mars Tours & Travel was in continuous contact with their agents on the various islands to track my progress and to confirm my flights. When the flight from Maumere to Kupang was canceled, Vernantin automatically rerouted me on a later flight and coordinated transfer between my guides on the islands of Flores and Timor. 

For their part, the domestic airlines in Indonesia are more user-friendly than those I’ve seen elsewhere around the world. Flying from Ternate to Makassar, I and several others had a tight connection through Manado (30 minutes). The airlines opened up a special gate for us and the departure was delayed about 10 minutes until all passengers and baggage were aboard. Would that have happened in the U.S. or Europe? I don’t think so. 

Without exception, I found the Indonesian people to be friendly, politely curious and eager to make friends. I never felt unsafe or experienced a hint of anti-American sentiment. Rather, those whom I met were extremely curious about our country, and all wanted to visit the U.S. in the future 

If it’s at all possible, the Indonesians I met seemed to hate the terrorists more than we do. Bali, with 95% of its economy derived from tourism, was devastated after the bombings. It is only now beginning its slow recovery back to where it once was. 

Traveler enticements

With an excellent exchange rate (over 9,000 rupiahs to the dollar), Indonesia can also be a bargain destination. Meals in some restaurants can be had for as little as $1 to $3 and unrated hotel rooms for $3 to $5. 

With the drop in tourism, hand-crafted souvenirs can be negotiated for a song. I would get to the point where I would stop the bargaining process more out of guilt than for reaching the end point of the seller. Sometimes the spread between the asking and bidding prices amounted to the equivalent of a dime for me but what might be a meal for the seller. 

The islanders varied in their familiarity with visitors (read infrastructure). There are still many tourists in Bali and, to a lesser extent, Java and Bunaken. Ternate and Tidore, on the other hand, seemed as though they hadn’t seen a Caucasian (orang putih) since Charles Veley came through several years ago on his travels. 

I found it very useful to learn between 50 and 100 words of Bahasa Indonesia (sort of a national Esperanto) in order to get by and interact without the presence of a guide. 

Although I visited Indonesia during the beginning of their rainy season (November through May), I was inconvenienced only once by the weather during my 4-week visit. It might have been convenient in some ways to have gone during the dry season — for instance, to see the Ramayana ballet at Prambanan — but there probably would have been many more tourists. 

Looking back on the trip, it is one of the best that I have had. The sheer diversity of geography, habitats, languages and cultures was astounding. I wouldn’t hesitate to go again.

The price of this Mars Tours & Travel trip is about $6,000 per person, based on double occupancy, or $8,000 for a single, including all domestic flights, local transportation with guides, hotel rooms and most meals. Personal items, airport departure taxes and visas are extra.