15 Highlights of Indonesia: Destinations and Experiences I Enjoyed Most

Amed sunset

I’d love to share my ‘top 5′ destinations or highlights of my 8-week stay in Indonesia, but…it’s hard to narrow it down so much. So, I’ll instead share 15 in one post, including 30 photos…and hope you get a sense of what my experience there was. Enjoy!

Payakumbuh nature, Sumatra

Payakumbuh landscape, Sumatra

Payakumbuh, West Sumatra

1. Living in a Minangkabau Village

I spent three weeks living with a friend/English teacher Eti and her family, and while there, I got to experience a fascinating culture firsthand—one that still follows its ethnic traditions (derived from animist beliefs), is matrilineal (property and land are passed down from mother to daughter) and happens to be Muslim, too, and is thus, unique.

Eti's family (minus her son)

Minangkabau house

While there, I attended weddings, a funeral and participated in everyday life. I got to know plenty of people and became part of the family and community. This was a special experience, the memories of which I will always cherish. Many of the people I met were real characters, too, including Mr. Tommy (seen below), who’s 86 and been married 7—yes, 7—times. He spent most of his life in Singapore (and that’s part of the reason for all the divorces), however, and recently returned to the community.

Mr. Tommy

'Mr. Tommy'--an 86-year-old who's been married 7 times!

2. Volunteer Teaching

One of the main reasons for going to Payakumbuh was to volunteer teach. Once there, I realized I needed to focus on the teachers more than the students since their needs were greater in some ways (they need exposure to native speakers). It was hard work, but extremely rewarding. As a result of that experience, I’ve decided to start a small volunteer program for English teachers, as well as native speakers. I feel good about this.

Payakumbuh students2

3. Nature Walks/Hikes

There was nothing quite like my first walk among the rice paddies. They were truly gorgeous and I felt mesmerized by them. Each time I walked near them, I felt calm. There were the mountains in the area, too, that were also lovely. I was fortunate that some of my new friends took me hiking, so I got to see the village from up high. Loved it!

Payakumbuh rice and palms

Mountain View, Payakumbuh--West Sumatra

Mountain View, Payakumbuh--West Sumatra

4. The Food

West Sumatra is known for its spicy/delicious food—often referred to as “Padang food.” It’s well-respected and extremely popular throughout the entire country. I was lucky because my friend Eti really knew how to cook it, so I got to eat it every day. One dish I especially loved was beef rending, which is slow-cooked meat in a spicy coconut sauce. Served over white rice, there’s nothing quite like it. I now want to make it. Let’s see if I can make Eti’s recipe work here in NJ!

Viona, Miningkabau woman, making chicken rendang

Viona, Eti's daughter, making chicken rendang

Chicken rendang

Chicken rendang, West Sumatra (not quite done yet)

Lake Toba, Sumatra

5. The Lake

Lake Toba is lovely—no doubt about it—and sort of unique. Samosir Island (well, sort of an island since there’s a small isthmus that connects it to land), which sits in the middle of Lake Toba, is approximately the same size as Singapore (100 kilometres long and 30 kilometres wide) and the result of the eruptions of a ‘super volcano’.  It is known as an ‘island in an island.’

This is a place where most people come for a few days and stay longer, totally chilling out. That was my experience. Unfortunately, part of sticking around as long as I did (8 days or so, I think) had to do with getting sick there (cough and GI issues), and that slowed me down even more. In any case, this was where I got the most reading done.

Samosir Island/Lake Toba, Sumatra, Indonesia

View from my balcony on Samosir Island/Lake Toba, Sumatra

6. Batak Culture

I found the people who inhabit this region–the Bataks–fascinating and just slightly shocking. The reason? I’d been in a Muslim area for 3 weeks and seen numerous mosques and heard the call to prayer several times a day…I then found myself among Christians—mostly Protestants. And all over Samosir, you see churches with crosses and large and sometimes elaborate grave stones, at times, nicer than the owner’s house.


Batak Grave, Lake Toba

7. Quirky Adventure with the Locals

Quite a few of the Bataks, the ones I met, drank and smoked and yeah, had a lot of fun. These folks are known for being a little more direct, slightly aggressive and more expressive emotionally than other cultures found in Indonesia. I read somewhere that many of the lawyers in the Indonesian government come from here.

As in West Sumatra, I got to attend some very colorful weddings. The Batak ones were significantly different. Here’s a photo…

Batak wedding, Lake Toba

Many Bataks are musicians and play guitar and/or sing. Some play drums, as well. Most of the time, when I hung out with then ones I’d met, there was music that came about spontaneously. Since I’m also a musician (percussionist), I found this really enjoyable. At one point, I was shown how to play the Batak drums. What fun!

Batak drums, Lake Toba

Batak drums, Lake Toba

Hendrik, Batak musician, playing guitar and singing

Hendrik, Batak musician, playing guitar and singing

PS: the man in the photo above is one I felt compelled to photograph repeatedly. He was that photogenic! Click here to see a complete photo essay on just Hendrik.

There was one day that I’ll never forget—one that began with a wedding invitation and ended with attendance at two unique and sort of different wedding and ended with drinking ‘tuak’—aka, ‘jungle juice.’ Lots of laughs and fun moments.

Jungle juice adventure, Lake Toba

'Jungle juice' adventure, Lake Toba


Yogyakarta/Central Java

8. The Temples

I’d always wanted to see Borobudur and Prambanan and I finally got to see them. Although they were super crowded with tourists, they were still pretty damn amazing. I liked both temples for different reasons and was happy to visit a third temple, Candi Mendut, a small one that many people bypass.


Prambanan Hindu Temple

Borobudur, Central Java

Borobudur Buddhist Temple

Interior of Candi Mendut Temple

Candi Mendut Buddhist Temple

9. New Friendships

What made Central Java so cool for me was the fact that I was there with a new friend Sysilia (Chinese-Javan) and her two Javan friends. Spending time with them made my stay there even more enjoyable. I learned more about the culture and the food and had lots of laughs with them. PS: Shopping with them was fun because they, especially Sysilia, know how to haggle/bargain well!

PS: these girls got me hooked on ‘kecap manis,’ a sweet soy sauce that makes great food taste better and blah food taste quite good.

Javan friends

Linda (left), Estrin and Sysilia (right)--three girls who made my Javan experience extra special

10. Festivals/Parades

Yogyakarta was super busy because of a major festival. While this made the streets even more crowded and chaotic, it was worth it. There were some really cool parades and events and thus, lots of stuff to see.

Yogyakarta festival/parade

Amed, Bali

11. Awesome Views

Amed is a not just one town, but an area with a number of fishing villages and a black sand beach known for its excellent snorkeling. It’s not super developed like South Bali and so, it’s more chilled out. When the sun sets, the sky turns all different colors and super dramatic. There’s something about it that’s super magical.

Amed sunset

Mt. Agung, as seen from Amed, Bali

Mt. Agung, as seen from Amed, Bali

12. A New Perspective on Bali

Because this area is not overrun with tourists, there aren’t too many touts (as I found in some places in South Bali). And that’s one reason why I’m happy to have visited Amed. I had certain ideas about Bali until I visited this area and made some friends there. I had some very positive experiences that I’m grateful for. Because of them, my perspective on Bali changed a bit.

Emma and Dillon

New friend Emma (British), an ex-pat, and her sweet little boy (half Balinese), Dillon, who's 7 months old

Balinese students

Students I met/taught after running into their teacher during my morning walk

Uluwatu, Bali

13. The Monkey Chant/Its Setting

One of several reasons I wanted to visit Indonesia was to see the ‘monkey chant–aka, ‘Kecak Dance’–live and in person. There are many places you can do this, many of which are in Ubud, but I decided to see it at Uluwatu. I knew it was a gorgeous setting and had been recommended by many.

Anyway, despite the fact that we were stuffed in to the performance area like sardines (they put in extra rows of chairs on the dance floor), I enjoyed the show. It’s mesmerizing to watch the men chanting like monkeys.

View from Uluwatu Cliff, Bali

View from Uluwatu Cliff, Bali

Monkey Chant (Kecak Dance), Uluwatu, Bali

Monkey Chant (Kecak Dance), Uluwatu, Bali

 Gili Meno Island, Lombok

14. The Beach

I’m so glad that I left Bali and headed over to this small island that’s part of Lombok. It was simply fantastic! The smallest and quietest of the Gili Islands, it was—for me—the real paradise. A true gem in Indonesa. Not only was it quiet (due to an absence of motorbikes), it was beyond gorgeous. The water was turquoise and the sand, white. It was lovely!

Gili Meno Island, Lombok, Indonesia

Gili Meno Island, Lombok, Indonesia

15. The People/Local Culture

What made Gili Meno even more special for me was the fact that the people—Sasak Muslims who happened to be fasting for Ramadan—were really nice. I stayed in a bungalow, owned by a local family whom I got to know.

The parents spoke some English (the dad a little more than the mom) and with help from Google Translator, we were able to communicate. I got to know them and felt right at home. Somehow this gave me the feeling of my trip coming full circle—meaning that I began with Eti’s family and ended with this one. This made me happier than you can imagine.

Emo and Topo, bungalow owners, Gili Meno Island, Lombok

Emo and Topo, bungalow owners, Gili Meno Island, Lombok


Have you been to Indonesia? If so, where did you go and what were some of the highlights for you? If not, would you like to? If so, what would you like to see?

By the way, there were some things that I wanted to do that I couldn’t get around to–such as seeing the orangutans in N. Sumatra (was sick at that point), visiting Sulawesi, etc. Perhaps next time. And yes, I do think I’ll be returning–maybe in 3 years.

Your Advice Needed

I have so much to share about this amazing country, but I’m not sure which posts to begin with. Could you, if you have a moment, look at the list below and tell me which 2 posts you’d be most interested in? Note: Some, but not all, would be the names of the posts; others are simply ideas.



  1. What It’s Like to Live in a Village
  2. 5 Ways Village Life Puts You in the Moment
  3. Indonesian Culture Shock–What It’s Like, How to Cope
  4. ‘Jungle Juice’ Adventure–Partying with the Bataks
  5. Eat, Pray, Run…from the Balinese Touts: 5 Tips for Dealing With Them
  6. 5 Reasons to Visit Somewhere Other than South Bali
  7. How Traveling to Indonesia Made Me a Happier Person
  8. 10 Ways the iPhone Enhanced My Trip
  9. The Role of Twitter and FB in Making My Trip Happen
  10. Starting a volunteer program for teachers and native speakers
  11. Profiles of locals I met (quirky never-married 56-year old living in a hut who loves C Eastwood…the 86-year-old who’s been married 7 times, etc.)
  12. Photo Essays (many of them)….temples, rice paddies, children, pretty grannies, etc.)
Me in Amed

Me in Amed, Bali, in the final week or so of my trip...


As always, I thank you for reading (and commenting if you choose to). It’s your ongoing readership that keeps me motivated. I truly appreciate your time!

28 Responses to 15 Highlights of Indonesia: Destinations and Experiences I Enjoyed Most
  1. Simon
    August 8, 2012 | 4:48 pm

    Awesome highlights, Lisa.
    I can easily imagine that your 8 weeks in Indonesia have been so intense that choosing topic moments/facts/places was a hard task.

    I never visited Borobudur which must be pretty amazing but I’ve always been reluctant due to the crowds. And since when I went to Bali I had limited time, I didn’t have the chance to spend a few days at Gili Meno as I would have liked. Looks like a paradise of tranquillity, like the places I cherish most.
    Simon recently posted..7 Things You Better Know Before Traveling to BurmaMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      August 8, 2012 | 9:03 pm

      Thanks, Simon! Yes, Borobudur was a bit too crowded…but fortunately, I knew about it (thanks to another travel blogger), so I tried to experience it as a tourist and not as a spiritual seeker. In an ideal world, I’d love to go there at 4 am, do some sort of meditations, etc. LOL.

      Re: Gili Meno….yeah, that was amazing. If you’re into peace and quiet, that is the place to go. I am sure I’ll return if/when I’m back in Indo.

  2. Helena Holmes
    August 8, 2012 | 8:36 pm

    The pictures are absolutely gorgeous! Leah and I were just looking at them going “Oooohhh…Ahhhh…” And loved reading the descriptions attached to each photo. Bravo!!! What a trip you had!!!

    From your list of ideas, I’d prefer to read more about numbers 3, 7, 11, and 12.

    • CB Driver
      August 8, 2012 | 9:01 pm

      Hi, Helena–and thanks for reading along! Leah, too,? Sweet! Glad you girls like the photos….it really is beautiful there.

      And thanks for the suggestions re: which posts to write next–appreciate it!

  3. Erik
    August 8, 2012 | 9:03 pm

    Love this post. I’m impressed you put it together so quickly. I’m going to do this for my NZ trip, but not until I’m done with the daily recaps (hopefully sometime before 2013…)

    As far as picking what posts you should write next, I’m no help there. I think they all sound fabulous. But, if I have to, I think the Life in a Village one sounds amazing. From what I read on Facebook, that experience seemed to touch you more than most.

    How about “How to avoid a nervous breakdown when an airline loses your luggage”…. Do it without profanity and I’ll be more impressed :-)
    Erik recently posted..Photo Essay- Views from Chicago’s Willis Tower in HDRMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      August 9, 2012 | 4:47 pm

      Hi, Erik–and thanks so much! It was a lot of effort putting this together, but…I’m glad I did it because now, my ideas re: what to post are clearer. I look forward to seeing yours re: NZ! Never been there, but I am v curious about it. So many people have so many good things to say about it..

      Life in a village? OK–cool. I think that several others would like to see that, too.

      Funny idea re: the luggage…ha, ha! Maybe it could be a list of tips…1. Drink heavily…2. Buy deodorant…3. Don’t go into a post office because you might ‘go postal’….

  4. Natasha von Geldern
    August 8, 2012 | 9:45 pm

    I’d love to hear more about village life, and teaching and about the locals you met.
    Natasha von Geldern recently posted..Destination Belgium: Battlefields of the Western FrontMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      August 9, 2012 | 4:44 pm

      Hi, Natasha. Thanks for the feedback re: which posts you’d like to see me do. I appreciate it very much!

  5. Mandy
    August 8, 2012 | 9:53 pm

    Great post with lot of lovely photos. I’m from Malaysia but have never been to Indonesia, so I get to learned a lot from your posts :)

    I would love to read about no. 2, 7 & 11 from your list.

    • CB Driver
      August 9, 2012 | 4:44 pm

      Hi, Mandy. Thanks for commenting! Glad you like the photos. You’re from Malaysia? Very cool. Sort of a neighbor, right? Thanks so much for letting me know which posts are of interest to you. Hope to write them soon!

  6. Sky
    August 8, 2012 | 10:05 pm

    Love this post and all of the pictures! Makes me want to run to Indonesia now. It’s so great that you got to interact with the locals so much – I think that always enriches travel experiences!

    I’d love to read any of the posts you mentioned but I’m particularly interested in hearing more about the volunteer program, how it made you a happier person, and the role of FB/Twitter!
    Sky recently posted..Market Day in JoyabajMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      August 9, 2012 | 4:43 pm

      Hola, Sky! Thanks for the positive feedback…cool that you feel inspired to go to Indo now! I hope to post some tips at a certain point because as great as it was, there were certain annoyances that I hope I can help others avoid or deal with better (eg, the touts in Bali). Re: the volunteer program…yeah, I need to get working on that. I think that it will be really cool since it won’t be just for teachers. If you’re a native speaker, that’s fine, too. There are plenty of tasks that anyone can handle.

      Thanks for letting me know which posts are of interest, too.

  7. Wends of Journeys and Travels
    August 9, 2012 | 3:46 am

    I would love to go to Bali and experience how life there is and witness weddings too. Also, I wanna go to Yogyakarta too.

    This post is indeed helpful.

    Wends of Journeys and Travels recently posted..Hong Kong’s Clock Tower sentry of the past in the presentMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      August 9, 2012 | 4:41 pm

      HI, Wends. Thanks for sharing… I wish I’d seen a wedding in Bali. But I suppose I’m lucky that I saw them on the other islands. Glad you found the post helpful!

  8. Waegook Tom
    August 9, 2012 | 12:25 pm

    OK so for the posts, 4, 5, 10 and 11 would be the ones I’d personally be most interested in reading :)

    The view from Uluwatu Cliff that you’ve captured in your photo is INSANE, and loving all the colours in the snap of the Yogyakarta festival – plus the temples. I effing LOVE temples. Although I gotta go with my stomach and declare the chicken rendang and west Sumatran food to be the thing I’m drawn to most on this (fabulous) list.
    Waegook Tom recently posted..Hot Springs & RomanceMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      August 9, 2012 | 4:40 pm

      Hey, Tom–thanks for letting me know which posts you’d like to read. Appreciate that! Really hard to decide…

      Meanwhile….glad you like those particular photos. Yeah, Uluwatu was visually remarkable and the festival was really cool. I should do a photo essay on that. I have video, too.

      Re: the rendang…yes, it’s a definite yum yum. I loved the chicken version, but I think I preferred beef. Once, my friend Eti made it with beef and soy beans. That was really good!

  9. Carlo Cretaro
    August 9, 2012 | 2:03 pm

    Great post Lisa. I spent a few weeks in Indonesia last June/July and I loved it there. Its a fascinating part of the world for sure and one that’s overlooked by a lot of people as a destination worth travelling to.

    Love your blog.

    Carlo Cretaro recently posted..Trip round up!My Profile

    • CB Driver
      August 9, 2012 | 4:38 pm

      Hi, Carlo. Thanks for stopping by! You were there, too? Very cool. And you’re so right–many people got to other countries in the region and skip Indo. Or they just go to Bali. It’s a shame because there’s a lot to see there!

      Thanks for the kind words re: my blog! :)

  10. Sysilia
    August 9, 2012 | 8:49 pm

    Hi Lisa,

    Great post. Thanks for making us a highlight of your trip. Lesson learned, never ever go to Yogyakarta when school holiday :D
    But we did have great time with you though :) And I think that you also learned how to bargain in Bali, no?
    Take care Lisa, see you again next time in Indonesia!!

    • CB Driver
      August 11, 2012 | 11:13 am

      Hi, Syslia. Sama sama! :) True re: our timing for Yogyakarta…it was SO crowded. I’m proud of myself for not losing my mind among all those people–he, he, he. Perhaps that’s the purpose of kecap mannis? It tastes so good that you forget about the school holiday crowds?

      Re: the bargaining…I did get better at it, thanks to watching you! I also found a department store in DPS, which was similar to Mirota Batik. Not quite the same, but the same idea–fixed priced. Gotta love that.

      I look forward to seeing you (and hopefully, Linda and Estrin) again in a few years–thanks again for everything!!

  11. Si
    August 10, 2012 | 5:02 pm

    Gili Meno is brilliant! Easily one of the highlights of my trip to Indonesia – but then that was the only time I strayed from Bali!
    Si recently posted..#BloggerRelay: My top 3 travel memoriesMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      August 11, 2012 | 11:10 am

      Hi, Si. So glad to hear that you loved Gili Meno, too. I think there was something really special there….and I look forward to the day I return. I’d bypass Bali entirely to spend more time there; that’s how much I loved it! :)

  12. Gray
    August 10, 2012 | 9:17 pm

    You got to see the monkey chant! Yay! I remember you saying that was one of your goals for the trip. It sounds like you had a year’s worth of experiences in just a couple of months. Wow. Indonesia is certainly beautiful. I guess the article I look forward to the most is the one on culture shock. I’m a sucker for useful tips. Welcome home!

    • CB Driver
      August 11, 2012 | 11:09 am

      Hi, Gray–yes, finally saw the monkey chant! It was quite cool, too (except for how they packed in way too many tourists). I admire those men for what they do. Seems like it’s an enormous amount of energy. Of course, it also seems like the ultimate meditation. Soon, I’ll do a photo essay on the show and include some video clips. Hope you like it!

      Re: culture shock…great to know. I’ll definitely write that post. I already have a nice list of things, such as ‘food not being refrigerated’ and ‘wet bathroom floors.’ Will be fun/interesting, I think–and hopefully, useful.

      Thanks for the ‘welcome home.’ Feels great to be back in my apartment and sleeping in my bed. Yay! :)

  13. Ryan Biddulph
    August 11, 2012 | 3:56 am

    Hi Lisa,

    Awesome pics! From a fellow NJer no less ;) My girlfriend and I have been traveling Southeast Asia for the past 16 months. Bali – outside Ubud, Sanur and Seminkyak for a total of 3 months…Phuket for 4 months, Chiang Mai for 5 months, Laos for 3 weeks, Cambodia for 2 months and now we are in Vietnam, in a nice little beach spot called Hoi An. And no, I did not miss the Central Jersey winters either ;)

    Bali was breath-taking. A bit much in the touristy areas, but we stayed in a house about 15 minutes outside of Ubud. Magical. We had Balinese neighbors along with about 20 specific of insects I’d never seen. We snapped pics of Mt Agung during our trips through the rice fields. Awesome stuff! Something about the energy in these off-the-beaten path areas of Bali, you know??

    Thanks for sharing!

    Ryan Biddulph recently posted..Cash Gifting Training – How to Generate 30 Retweets in a Split SecondMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      August 11, 2012 | 11:06 am

      Hi, Ryan. Thanks for sharing! Glad to hear that you stayed outside Bali’s tourist areas–smart move to be outside of Ubud. That sounds great, as does your overall trip! “A bit much in the touristy areas”…absolutely! Soon, I’ll be writing a humorous post called “Eat, Pray….Run–from the Balinese Touts!” :) I was in Ubud for a few days and didn’t care for it (‘taxi, taxi…sarong, sarong!,’) and told myself that if I ever returned, it would be somewhere near the city, but definitely not in it (or the other locations in South Bali–way too touristic for me).

      Actually, I was much happier when I moved to East Bali. Amed was fantastic and I highly recommend it!

      As far as the energy in the off-the-beaten path locations…I hear you. Definitely much nicer. PS: If you get the chance, I recommend Gili Meno, which is actually in Lombok. I preferred it to Bali, believe it or not. It looked and felt like paradise!

  14. Charu
    August 11, 2012 | 4:04 pm

    Great post and photos Lisa! I would really like to taste that jungle juice! sounds like teaching English and living with a local family is just the way to immerse yourself in that culture. bravo!
    Charu recently posted..Finding my Cultural DNA through the Festivals of IndiaMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      August 12, 2012 | 8:38 am

      Thanks, Charu! The jungle juice was good in its own unique way. It wasn’t sweet and it wasn’t bitter. Not too bad, but not the kind of thing to make a habit out of! :) Staying with the family was fantastic…a truly unique experience!

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