Indonesia's largest and least developed province, Sumatra rests along the equator, heavily forested and rich in rare wildlife. The island's slow development has made it ideal for eco-tourism, and numerous large reserves and preservation areas have been set aside. Its most famous park, Mount Leuser National Park, is one of the last refuges of the Sumatra Orang-Utan.
Another distinguished park is the Berbak Wildlife Reserve, which has one of Indonesia's largest tiger populations. In the far north of the island is Lake Toba, an enormous and extraordinarily beautiful crater lake.
A particularly enthralling adventure experience in Sumatra takes place on the Alas River, which winds its across North Sumatra through jungle, limestone gorges, and native villages. The voyage begins in the Karo Highlands and culminates with the Indian Ocean: a descent ten times that of the Grand Canyon's Colorado River.
Bali is an island where art and religion mingle in the daily lives of people in a way unlike anywhere else on earth. Its culture overflows from its temples and into the streets, where artisans of every kind continue traditional methods of handicraft that have been passed down for generations.
This cultural concentration in Bali can be traced back to the 14th century, when Islam expanded in force across the nearby island of Java, pushing the Hindu Majapahit court across the water to Bali and effectively making it an isolated haven for Indonesian Hinduism. The most famous of the many Balinese cultural traditions are its poetic and ornate dances, which employ a graceful and highly-sophisticated gestural language to narrate traditional stories and legends.
Bali's natural beauty is as startling as its cultural riches. Bali Barat National Park, which dominates the entire west end of the island, is home to one of the world's rarest and most beautiful birds. The beaches of Bali are world famous. Many are ideal for surfing, and plenty of offshore reefs create good scuba diving environments.
With four huge peninsulas stretching out haphazardly into the South Pacific, Sulawesi's infamous shape has often been compared to that of a spider or an amoeba. The island lies just east of Kalimantan and north of Bali.
The island is divided into two regions, north and south, with its key city, Unjung Padang, situated on the island's southwestern leg. North Sulawesi and its [link]Bunaken Marine Park[link] is best known as Indonesia's mecca for divers and snorklers, while South Sulawesi harbors two of the country's most interesting cultures. In the far south, in and around Ujang Padang, are the Bugi people, long reknowned for their seafaring skills. Evidence of their influence has been found as far as Australia, where they had contact with the Aborigines. When the Portugeuse, British, Spanish, and Dutch came, the daring Bugis would often attack the huge colonial vessels on the open sea.
South Sulawesi is also home to the Toraja people, who live in a picturesque, mountainous region called Tana Toraja, or Toraja Land. At the center of Toraja culture is a fascinating and complex belief system surrounding death and the afterlife. Death is an elaborate affair, and the prolonged funerals are a major interest to visitors, who can attend the ceremonies but should show the same respect that they would for their own. The funerals typically involve feasting, buffalo sacrifice, dancing and martial arts, culminating with a procession that carries the coffin to its final resting place in one of the many caves on the surrounding cliffs, which are guarded by rock statues.
The Toraja's are equally famous for their houses, which are called Tongkonan, or Family Houses. The houses are built on stilts, and each end rises like the horns of a buffalo, with the points always facing north and south.
The central link in the archepelagic chain that begins with Sumatra and ends with the scattering of small islands east of Bali, Java is often referred to as the heart of Indonesia. It is the historical center of Bhuddhist and Hindu culture and home to the nation's sprawling capital city, [link]Jakarta[link].
Java's three main regions are simply East, Central, and West Java, and the island's many roads and public transports make it easy to navigate. Though Jakarta is the most visited destination in the west, there are also major natural attractions, such as [link]Mount Gede-Pangrango National Park[link]. In Central Java, the seat of major dynasties throughout Indonesian history, are the cultural wonders of the [link]Prambanan temple complex[link] and the magnificent [link]Borobudur Temple[link]. Central Java is also the home of Indonesia's famous shadow puppet dances, or wayang kulit, and the craftwork center of [link]Yogyakarta[link]Finally, there is East Java, where travellers encounter some of the Indonesia's most extraordinary national parks, including the wildly spectacular [link]Bromo-Tengger[link].
When scholars and historians speak of the world's great Buddhist temples, no conversation is complete without the word Borobudur. This monumental structure, constructed in 9th century A.D., dominates an entire hill in Central Java, and it is one Bali's national treasures.
The temple is most famous for its many stone-carved panels depicting the life and teachings of Buddha. The narratives, over a thousand in all, are part of the temple itself, helping to form the terraces that support the temple's chambers.
Interestingly, Borobudur was lost to the world for many years. The temple was ultimately abandoned with the rise of Islam, and the halls that once echoed with the pilgrim footsteps of scholars, artists, and priests were silently overun by nature. In 1814, the temple was rediscovered, and later it was comepletely restored with the help of the United States.
The Indonesian province of Kalimantan occupies the greater part of the exotic island of Borneo, where the world's most dense and remote rainforests can be found. The island is famous for its rich concentration of wildlife, and it is equally notorious for its legendary headhunters. Indonesia's second largest province, Kalimantan has become a source of substantial natural wealth for the country. Its extensive oil reserves are now a key part of Indonesia's economy, and diamonds, rare woods, rattan, and resin are also harvested here.
There are parts of Kalimantan that to this day remain unexplored. Eighty percent of Central Kalimantan (the largest sub-region) is thick jungle that often clings to treacherous mountain slopes, hiding valleys that remain utterly inaccessible. Although only the most hardcore and experienced adventurers should consider a foray into these regions, Kalimantan has plenty of less formidable forests open to visitors.
Kalimantan is also home to one of Indonesia's most interesting indigenous cultures--the Dyak. Although they no longer practice headhunting, the Dyak continue to live much as they have for the last millenium, occupying enormous communal longhouses which serve as the residence for large family groups. An ideal way to tour Kalimantan is by riverboat on the Mahakam River, where one can also spot the world's only species of freshwater dolphin. Orang-utan live in the surrounding jungles, and special tours for the purpose of viewing the animals up close are available.
Komodo National Park
The main attraction of this park is the legendary Komodo Dragon, a gigantic reptile found nowhere else. The oldest, largest, and one of the rarest reptiles, the Komodo is a gigantic Monitor lizard that grows to lengths of more than three meters. It scavenges and hunts, using its powerful club of a tail to tackle large prey.
The island of Komodo, along with those surrounding it, is dry and barren, with rainfall occurring only between November and March. It lies about 500 km east of Bali, a location that places it between the Asian and Australian bio-geographical zones and makes the island an interesting crossroads for species. Birds from both zones can be found on the island, such as the Noisy Friar Birds of Australia and the Monarch Flycatchers of Asia.
Bromo-Tengger National Park
Long before there was a nation called Indonesia, there was Bromo-Tengger. This mystic, volcanic region was set aside by Hindus as a sacred place, and to this day thousands make a yearly pilgrimage to the park to honor Mount Semeru, which they consider to be a god.
The landscape of Bromo-Tengger is indeed heavenly. The park is situated around a group of forest encrusted volcanoes that rise up thousands of feet like gigantic, terrestrial limpets. At 3,676 meters, Semeru is Java's highest mountain, and it is still active, erupting once every eight minutes. Though Semeru is the highest mountain, no less astounding is Bromo.
Mount Bromo rests in what is known as the sand sea, a vast, empty expanse of sand 10 kilometers wide that is surrounded by interior slopes of another volcano that became extinct long ago. Bromo is also active, but visitors can trek to the mountain on foot or horseback and climb to the edge of its caldera and experience the spacial wonder of the sand sea below.
Bunaken Marine Park
The reefs of Bunaken Marine Park have been compared in richness to that of Australia's Great Barrier Reef, which is visible from outer space and is the largest concentration of life on the planet. At Bunaken, nearly 900 square kilometers of prime marine habitat have been set aside solely for the enjoyment of the diver, the snorkeler, and the researcher.
On a single dive in Bunaken, the visitor is sometimes greeted by a dazzling palette of nearly 50 species of coral. Barrier reefs, mangrove reefs, and wall dives are all found here, and the visibility in Bunaken's gentle currents generally exceeds 10 meters. In addition to coral life, an abundance of fish and mammal species thrive here as well: seahorses, three species of turtle, rays, and sea snails. Also found here are the enormous, bottom-grazing Dugongs, marine mammals that are closely related to the manatee (and distantly related, like the manatee, to elephants). The whale shark, the world's largest (and completely harmless) fish, occasionally makes his royal appearance. The island of Manado Tua provides a particularly vivid dive locale: a crater lake within an extinct volcano.
Bali Barat National Park
Occupying much of the western extremity of Bali, the Bali Barat National Park is one of Indonesia's best bird watching locales. The park's rarest bird is the gorgeous Bali Starling, with its brilliant silver-white feathers and striking lapis eye markings. A victim of rampant poaching since the turn of the century, the starling now clings to the threads of existence in the wild. In 1989, about 30 individuals were tallied in the park, compared to over 700 in captivity across the globe.
Despite the starling's rarity, the Bali Barat is rich in over 160 other species. Yellow-vented Bulbul's are everywhere, as well as White-bellied Swiftlets, Sacred and Javan Kingfishers, and Drongos. On the north coast is a colony of Silvered Leaf Monkeys, and Pulua Menjangan, or Deer Island, offers a rich variety of marine life for snorkelers and divers. Dolphin watching is also a highlight of Bali, as large, playful schools thrive off the north coast.
There are a number of good guided treks through Bali Barat's jungles, though because of the starling's fragile existence no trekking is permitted on the Prapat peninsula and Menjangan island.
Mount Leuser National Park
Mount Leuser National Park is most distinguished as the home of the Orang-utan, a highly endangered and extremely intelligent primate. The park has two distinct Orang-utan reserves within its boundaries, Bohorok and Ketambe, both of which serve to rehabilitate animals back into the wild after they have lived in captivity.
Orang-utans are not the only interesting mammals to grace Mount Leuser National Park. Its whopping 10,000 square kilometers also provide protected habitat for the Sumatran Rhino, along with elephant and tiger. Overall, one can see 320 species of bird, 176 kinds of mammals, 194 reptile species, and 52 species of amphibian. Plant life is even more diverse: over one half all plant species on Sumatra can be found in the forests of Mount Leuser.
Berbak Wildlife Reserve
Dominating one-fifth of Sumatra's east coast is the Berbak Wildlife Reserve, a dense, swampy refuge on the edge of the Melaka strait. The reserve contains Indonesia's largest peat forest, a unique environment caused by an excess accumulation of organic matter on the forest floor. Due to acidic soil, trees here rarely grow past 40 meters, allowing a substantial amount of light to pierce the canopy.
When heavy rains flood vast areas of Berbak, its animals will often concentrate at higher elevations, often in inaccessible areas. The best time to come, therefore, is during the dry season from June to October. The reserve's most famous and common resident is the tiger, whose deep, thick roars are often heard in the distance. There are also a good amount of birds here ---over 240 species, as well as crocodile's and turtles.
Huge, international, and a cultural hub, Jakarta has long been a meeting place of cultures. At various times throughout history, it has been ruled by Hindus, Muslims, Portugeuse, Dutch and Japanese. It is the gateway to Indonesia and holds the special status of a provice, similar to Mexico City or Washington, D.C.
So many cultures have passed through Jakarta, that it is no surprise that some of them would leave a few things behind, especially the Dutch. Consequently, no place in the world has a finer collection of old sailing ships. The ships can be found in an area known as Sunda Kelapa, the old Dutch port. In addition to a variety of well-preserved colonial vessels, there are also splendid examples of native Buginese ships.
Lake Toba is the largest crater lake in the world. Its surface area measures 1707 square kilometers, so large that the island sitting in its center, Samosir, has numerous towns and villages and even a lake of its own. Surrounding the lake, which sits at an altitude of 800 meters, is a ethereal ring of bright, rust-colored mountains.
The central island of Samosir is home to the Batak people, a unique society known for its graceful hospitality. The Batak love music, especially love songs, and singing plays an unusually large role in the culture. The island offers many fine walking trails and three peaks of over 1000 meters that look out over the emerald waters of Lake Toba.