A Nomad’s Guide to Exploring Java, Indonesia

Most travelers skim Java, seeing the usual temples and volcanoes, instead of discovering the beauty and distinctive culture of the island. Nomad Kirsten shares her tips for exploring Java beyond the tourist track.

Photo © iStock.com/Atid Kiattisaksiri

Stray from the beaten track in Java by immersing yourself in authentic cultural sites, enjoying lesser-known adventure hotspots and swimming in secluded swimming spots. Who knows, you may even end up in the middle of a wedding.

Local Cultural Encounters

Village Life 

Escape the busy streets and mayhem of Jakarta, and head west to the quiet region of Banten, Java's westernmost province, to experience a different type of local encounter. 

In the small village of Balimbing in Baduy, the local traditional Bantenese community llive almost completely isolated from the outside world, without electricity or transport.

Here, you can spend the night at a homestay and experience the locals harvesting crops, weaving clothes, making banana leaf rooftops, and playing local instruments.

Kampung Naga village in Java. Photo Credit: iStock.com/LP7

As English isn't spoken in the Baduy villages, you can only visit with a guide or on a sustainable tour; traveling with a local also shows the villagers that you're visiting with the utmost respect. 

Keep in mind that photos should only be taken once permission has been granted, dress conservatively, and always leave shoes outside homes.

The locals don't usually ask for money, but a donation is appreciated to cover the cost of meals, and to support the local community.

Idul Fitri 

The festive season of Idul Fitri is the largest and longest Muslim celebration and holiday, held every June, and can put some travelers off visiting Java at that time. But rather than avoiding the island because of the festival – embrace it; despite bigger crowds and slightly higher prices, it's a great time to make friends with welcoming locals, and perhaps score invitiations to their homes to take part in the celebration.

Busy Fatahillah Square in Jakarta. Photo Credit: iStock.com/Nikada

After the fasting of Idul Fitri, most weddings take place in the following six weeks, and if you're lucky, you could be invited to a typical Javanese, multi-day wedding.

Indonesians are very friendly, earning your friendship in no time. If you're invited along to a celebration, enjoy the full immersion in the local culture,  and join in with the chatting and singing. 

Adventure Hotspots

Bandung

In West Java, you can enjoy the fresh air that the rice and tea plantations have to offer, explore the sulphuric volcanic crater of Kawah Putih, take a rowing boat out on Lake Patenggang, and be mesmerized by the 430ft (130m) waterfall known as Curug Citambur. But be warned, you may never want to leave.

Lake Patenggang. Photo Credit: Kirsten Brincat

Pangandaran

On the southern coast of Java, Pangandaran offers night markets, beach restaurants and an easy-paced nightlife.

Thrill seekers can spend the day canyoning in the Green Canyon and the Green Valley.  Drive past sugarcane farms, donate at the Turtle Sanctuary, or request a private puppet show from the local Javanese puppeteers. 

Malang

Malang is the hotspot for adventurers who want to ride a trail bike to tour the infamous Mount Bromo, an active volcano at 7,641ft (2,329m). Just an hour's drive to the west of Malang, is the town of Batu. Often ignored by travelers, it's popular for paragliding, and offers stunning views from the launch site at the top of Mount Banyak.

Unexplored Townships

Dieng Plateau

Right in the center of Java, this volcanic complex is 6,500ft (2,000m) above sea level, and offers countless homestays.

You'll find many ancient Hindu temples to explore, a multi-colored lake, superb scenery, and light trekking routes.

Dieng Plateau. Photo Credit: Kirsten Brincat

Surabaya

The second largest city in Indonesia, Surabaya is on the north coast of Java.

With fewer visitors than Jakarta, Surabaya still offers plenty for travelers passing through. Take a walk along the promenade, to see the illuminated bridge to the neighboring island of Madura.

Shop at Tunjungan Plaza (the largest shopping mall in East Indonesia), pay your respects at Tugu Pahlawan (The Heroes Monument), and indulge in the great local food the city offers. 

Javanese Food

Known for its simplicity, compared to the rest of Indonesia, Javanese food varies from one town to the next.

Famous dishes include: 

Bakso – a simple meatball soup served with noodles, bean sprouts, and eggs. Best eaten in Bandung.

Nasi Rawon – a traditional beef black soup made from fermented black nuts and served with rice. Best eaten in Surabaya and Malang.

Ketoprak – popular with vegetarians, this dish consists of tofu, noodles, vegetables and rice crackers topped with peanut sauce.  Best eaten in Yogyakarta.

Krengsengan – diced mutton served with rice, seasoned with spices and sweet soy sauce. Best eaten in Surabaya.

Dawet – a sweet drink made from rice flour and brown sugar, served with coconut milk. Best eaten in Bandung and Semarang.

Want to know more about Indonesia? Listen to the World Nomads podcast. With around 17,000 islands to choose from, where are the must visits, and if you have your surfboard, best surf breaks? Hear the tale of a man chased by headhunters, and tips for traveling the world solo.

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2 Comments

  • Melissa said

    Awesome article, was a little bit anxious as will be visiting Java during idul fitri but this article has made me realize it's not always a bad thing if it's going to be busy with the locals.

    Also you mentioned some places which i've never heard of, so added them on my list! :)

  • Randy said

    Do you have a comprehensive trip to Indonesia?

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