Unique experiences are at the heart of great travel. Many travellers are looking for a combination of luxury, relaxation, escape, adventure and authenticity. Happily, these elements all converge in Indonesia. Here are some of the best man-made sights and cultural experiences to be found throughout Indonesia.
Prambanan Temple and Yogyakarta, Central Java
Yogyakarta is a region located in the heart of Indonesia’s most populous island, Java. It was once the political and cultural centre of the island, although that focus has since shifted to the capital, Jakarta, on the island’s northwest coast. Today, the Yogyakarta region is best known to tourists for its proximity to two important temple complexes: Prambanan and Borobudur.
Yogyakarta City is steeped in history and well worth exploring in its own right, thanks to dozens of museums, art galleries and the impressive architecture of the Sultan’s palace. Flights from Bali to Yogyakarta take about an hour and 20 minutes. From the airport it’s only a 20-minute drive to Prambanan.
Dating back to the 9th century, the temple compounds of Prambanan Archaeological Park have unquestionably earned their place on the UNESCO World Heritage List. These extraordinary compounds include the 240 Hindu temples of Prambanan, plus the neighbouring Buddhist compounds of Sewu Temple, Bubrah Temple and Lumbung Temple. Regardless of your interest in religious architecture, seeing these ancient structures rising out of the lush landscape is a humbling experience.
Borobudur Temple, Central Java
Still on Java, about an hour-and-a-half’s drive northwest from Prambanan is the Buddhist temple of Borobudur – one of Indonesia’s most famous landmarks. Built across the 8th and 9th centuries, this magnificent tiered building looks like an intricate pyramid. It is instantly recognisable by its 72 stupas (which look like giant stone bells), each containing its own sculpture of Buddha.
Uluwatu Temple, Bukit Peninsula, Bali
While you’re beach hopping around Bali’s heavenly Bukit Peninsula, take some time to explore Uluwatu Temple. Perched on a clifftop and dedicated to the spirits of the sea, Uluwatu provides some pretty magical photo opportunities. Entry is reserved for Hindu worshippers only, but the views from the temple against a dramatic ocean backdrop should be incentive enough for visitors.
A word of warning: keep an eye out for resident monkeys. Their notoriously sticky fingers are likely to target anything within reach, including sunglasses, phones and jewellery.
Tegalalang Rice Terrace, Ubud, Bali
It may be more agriculture than architecture, but the breathtaking serenity of Telalalang Rice Terrace is something to behold. Balinese Hindus consider rice a gift of God – its growth and maintenance a manifestation of their central philosophy, ‘Tri Hita Karana’. Simply put, this is the idea that there are three interconnected causes of well-being: harmony among people, harmony with nature, and harmony with God.
Just walking through the tiered green paddies, you can grasp Tegalalang’s importance to Balinese culture. It’s a unique and powerful experience.
Goa Gajah (Elephant Cave), Bali
In a village near Ubud, with its intricately carved rock face, this cave looks like something from an Indiana Jones film set. Actually, it’s an ancient sacred site thought to date back to the 11th century. The doorway doubles as the gaping mouth of a carved demonic creature. Once you enter, the Goa Gajah is dotted with alcoves containing religious offerings.
The courtyard in front of the cave features stately fountains and bathing pools, which were only unearthed by Dutch archaeologists as recently as the 1950s.
Tanah Lot Temple, Bali
One of the most iconic temples in Bali has to be Tanah Lot. A rocky outcrop crowded with trees and small thatched hut roofs, it becomes surrounded by sea during high tide. This part-time island is situated just off the southwest coast of Bali.
Tanah Lot is one of Bali’s seven sea temples, which are thought to have been sequentially built to form a kind of chain of spiritual protection along the Balinese coastline. The walk to the Tanah Lot temple is something of a commercial gauntlet these days – less a contemplative pilgrimage than a bustling path of souvenir stalls and hawkers.
Visit during high tide to see the temple completely encircled by waves; or in low tide (around early evening) to get up close to the temple on foot.
There are thousands of other temples to tempt tourists in Bali. In fact, you can barely step outside your hotel without finding something Instagram worthy. In the heart of Seminyak, there’s the distinctly orange Pura Petitenget, another of the aforementioned ‘sea temples’. Hiking fans may prefer the setting of Pura Besakih, a temple nestled on the volcanic slopes of Mount Agung in central Bali.
For something completely different, how about taking a dive to see the USS Liberty Shipwreck? It’s located on the northeastern coast of Bali, about a two-and-half-hour drive from Mount Agung. The wreck is only 30 metres offshore at Tulamben Beach, making it a relatively easy dive site with the opportunity to see incredible marine life in amongst the wreckage.
Much of the wreck’s appeal is in its story. The American ship was destroyed by a Japanese torpedo in World War II and left stranded on the beach at Tulamben. In 1963, Mount Agung erupted, pushing the ship into the water where it remains today.
Directly south of Tulamben, about an hour’s drive away on Bali’s eastern coast, is another architectural wonder – the Ujung Water Palace. This serene complex incorporates three large ponds, connected with bridges and dotted with pavilions and sculptures all surrounding the central building.
Unlike Bali’s many ancient temples, this palace only dates back to 1919. Even then it was largely destroyed by the Agung eruption of 1963 and has since been restored. Today, the elegant palace and gardens are a heady reminder of the royal family of Karangasem and the era of Bali’s ruling kingdoms.