With over 10,000 islands to choose from, Indonesia offers an expansive canvas for adventure that not even three weeks can fully cover.
This suggested itinerary gives you the best of Java and Bali islands, with optional detours that can take you to islands like Lombok, Sulawesi, and Flores, stretching your trip way beyond the three weeks we've allotted here! (Good thing Indonesia's lenient visa policies let you extend your trip up to 90 days.)
Enter Indonesia via its crowded, rowdy capital, Jakarta. After riding to your Jakarta hotel and checking in, set off to explore the city and its history.
The pre-colonial part of Jakarta lives on in the old port, Sunda Kelapa, which is still served by exotic-looking phinisi (Buginese schooners) that line the wharf between trips.
The second-oldest part of the city, Kota Tua, was founded by the colonizing Dutch, and its surviving buildings retain the look and feel of Dutch cities (down to the canals, which backfired on the colonists by spreading mosquito-borne disease).
Central Jakarta is now the city's government and business nerve center and retains several key landmarks worth seeing, among them Monas (the National Monument), the massive Masjid Istiqlal (the biggest mosque in Southeast Asia) and the quaint antique shopping street Jalan Surabaya.
Time your visit just right, and you might just arrive during car-free Sundays: Letting you bike or walk leisurely down Central Jakarta's pedestrianized roads!
Where to stay: The district of Central Jakarta has plenty of hotels to choose from; this writer can certainly recommend (based from personal experience) staying at either the Ibis Mangga Dua, the Alila Jakarta, and the Ascott.
Optional detour 1: Make your way further west to the province of Banten, from which you can take a short ferry ride to the scenically dangerous Anak Krakatau volcano. +2 days.
A four-hour bus ride from Jakarta takes you to higher ground: The town of Bandung, founded as a cool getaway from Jakarta's oppressive heat and humidity by the Dutch, now fulfills the same function to Jakartans.
The latter come to camp amidst the local tame volcanoes (Kawah Putih stands amidst some of Java's most promising camping grounds); watch the rousing Indonesian cultural show produced by Saung Angklung Udjo, and go shopping amidst Bandung's many outlet clothing stores.
The outlet stores, in particular, are extremely popular in the region – the Bandung Airport does very brisk business with direct flights from Kuala Lumpur's KLIA Airport, filled up by Malaysians flying in to partake of the city's bargains!
Railway and airline connections between Bandung and Yogyakarta connect the cool mountain town with a storied royal enclave. The city of Yogyakarta claims the unique privilege of being Indonesia's last royal realm, ruled both in name and in reality by the Sultan of Yogyakarta, who lives in a grand palace at the very center of the city, the Kraton, next to the former Sultans' pleasure palace, the Taman Sari.
Yogyakarta's royal dynasty traces its origins to the ancient Sultanate of Mataram, which was preceded even further back in history by successive Hindu and Buddhist kingdoms that left their trace on present-day Central Java via temples like Borobudur and Prambanan.
(Borobudur is often reached by a day trip from Yogyakarta, but the Magelang district is worth an overnight stay; hotels near Borobudur stand ready for exactly that reason.)
With such a long history tied with Javanese royalty, Yogyakarta retains a reputation as a home for traditional Javanese crafts like batik making and silverworks, which visitors can try their hands at. If you simply want to take a piece of Javanese culture home, head out to Jalan Malioboro, where you can buy batiks, silverworks and other Javanese artifacts at wholesale prices.
Optional detour: Hop over to the island of Sulawesi further north, and take a few days getting to know its biggest city Makassar, its food scene, and its beaches; you can travel north to the funerary culture of Tana Toraja if you're so inclined! +4 days.
The desolate sea of sand around the scenic Bromo volcano is certainly worth the long jaunt from Yogyakarta. Getting from Y to B involves a train ride from Yogyakarta to Surabaya City; a bus ride from Surabaya to Probolinggo; and an angkot (minibus) ride to Cemoro Lawang, the closest town to Bromo.
The classic Bromo experience begins very, very early in the morning: at about 4 am, you'll make your way to one of the viewpoints on Gunung Penanjakan overlooking Bromo and the sea of sand surrounding it.
Once you've watched the sun rise over the smoldering crater, you can ride down to the sea of sand by 4x4 and then switch to a horse that takes you to a staircase that ascends right to the lip of the volcano, separated from the smoking maw by a railing that only extends partly around the crevasse.
You'll pass by a Hindu temple, Pura Luhur Poten, in the middle of the sea of sand: this is a reminder that the Tenggerese locals are descended from Javanese Hindus from the ancient Majapahit Empire.
From Bromo, it's only a short hop to another famous Indonesian volcano, Ijen – the trip from Probolinggo, then Bondowoso, then Sempol up to the Ijen base camp can be either arranged through a travel agent or undertaken solo, but you'll get there either way.
Kawah Ijen is a tougher nut to crack than Bromo – you begin earlier (just after midnight) to get to the Paltuding Base Camp before 2 am, then trek three or four hours up to the crater, just so you can see Ijen's famous “blue flames” before the sun creeps up over Java. It's risky, smelly business getting up to the crater: the smell of sulfur gets stronger as you ascend to the summit, and fatal suffocation has been known to happen during unexpected eruptions!
Upon your descent to sea level, make your way to the eastern Javanese city of Banyuwangi, your connection to Bali and a town worth exploring on its own for its batik, its African-style savanna and its gorgeous beaches.
A short ferry ride from Banyuwangi connects you with Bali, the island whose beaches and thousands of temples draw tourists from all around the world.
You could spend a month in Bali and still not get your fill of the place. Five days allows you barely enough time to explore Kuta and surrounding South Bali, then ascend to Ubud in Bali's interior to take in the cultural side of the island.
From Kuta, you can make short work of South Bali's attractions, among them the stuttering kecak performance at Uluwatu, followed by dinner on the beach at Jimbaran; seeing a gigantic statue of Vishnu at Garuda Wisnu Kencana; surfing on Kuta (or learning the art from one of the area's many surf instructors); watching the Devdan cultural performance at Nusa Dua; taking up a watersport of your choice at Tanjung Benoa; and going shopping in one of South Bali's many malls and shopping centers.
From Ubud, you can see the rich Balinese culture in full flower: from watching a gamelan performance at the palace to shopping in the Art Market to exploring its many museums to eating authentic babi guling (roast pork) to encountering the naughty monkeys of the Monkey Forest, Ubud certainly doesn't skimp on the fun!
Where to stay: You'll find plenty of Bali hotels and Bali budget hotels to choose from when you touch down. We've stayed at the Grand Mirage in Tanjung Benoa and the Alila Ubud in Ubud.
Optional Detour 1: Bali is Indonesia's travel hub for the country's eastern reaches. From Bali, you can easily take a ferry to the Gili Islands (with better beaches and a more laid-back atmosphere) and Lombok. +4 days.
Optional Detour 2: You can also ride an airplane to Labuanbajo on Flores Island, your jump-off point to see the Komodo National Park and its famous Komodo dragons! +3 days.