3 destinations off the beaten tracks in Java, Indonesia
Last summer, I travelled for 3 weeks in Indonesia by myself. I wanted to keep a low budget, and I found that the best solution for that was to minimize transports between islands. I thought I would try seeing less visited places within Java and Bali islands, and those off the beaten tracks destinations are where I got to see the real Indonesia, its people and its culture. In this post, I’ll give examples of those “under the radar” spots that I visited during my trip. I hope this will inspire some of you to have authentic travel experience and go explore hidden gems of this country!
1. Visit Java’s paddies field instead of Tegallalang and Jatiluwih
One of the most popular things to do in Indonesia is to visit a rice field. Tegallalang and Jatiluwih, in Bali, are to most visited ones. The problem is that they became victims of their own success. Tourism is taking over and it could slowly destroy the beautiful landscape. Instead, I discovered that Java also has a lot of rice field, they just aren’t as famous!
The art of wander
There is a village called Banyuwangi on the eastern side of Java island. It’s where the ferry between Bali and Java stops, so I had to go through it at some point on the trip. I decided to stay near the village for a couple of nights because it would break up my travel time between Bali and the next stop in Java. I wanted to find something to do and asked the owner of the homestay I was staying at. It was located a little bit outside the city, higher in the mountains. He told me about a trail that led to some waterfalls and a little road that would lead me to rice paddies that were higher in the mountain. It was possible to walk there without a guide (and also without any other tourists in sight!).
This little path was going through small villages before passing across the paddies. There were people working in the fields and birds flying around. It was very peaceful and quiet and I almost felt like I was disturbing the environment.
Engaging with local people
People were very welcoming. I think it was because they weren’t used to see strangers in their village. At some point, the path divided and I was trying to figure out which way to go when an old man came my way. He tried speaking in English to show me the right way, but he saw that my water bottle was almost empty. He insisted to invite me in is home and boiled some water for tea. At first, I was reluctant but in the end, I realized he was just being kind and generous and accepted his help. After that encounter, I was taking pictures in the street and a kid came to see me. He was speaking surprisingly good English and he wanted to show me a “secret” pool. How could I say no…
This ended up being the highlight of the morning. I followed him through the paddies. We walked for 10 minutes on a backroad before arriving in front of what I supposed was a public pool. It was such a beautiful place, tucked away in the shadow of the trees. I didn’t have my bathing suit with me. (Obviously, I didn’t think I would need it in the paddies!) But it still had the effect of an oasis in the desert!
All that to say that I keep a very special memory of my stroll into the Javanese rice field. I had no idea what to expect and the tourism hasn’t gotten there yet, meaning no lines of people waiting to take a selfie in the same spot, no one asking for money at the entrance, or no touristy restaurants and shops. I felt that I got to see a slice of the life of these people and that I had a real, genuine human experience.
2. Go to Surakarta (Solo) instead of Yogyakarta
Yogyakarta is a large city in Java and isn’t an off the beaten tracks destination of Indonesia. Whereas Jakarta is the capital of the country and the economical center, Yogyakarta is considered the art and culture center. I stayed for 3 days and there are a lot of things to do and see. I do recommend going there to have a feel of the bustling city and immerse yourself in the food and arts culture. Although, it can be a little tiring and intense, and it might not be for everyone!
That’s where Solo comes in! It’s a smaller city located 1 hour away by train. There are very few tourists and not everyone speaks good English. With that said, I was still able to find the cutest hotel with a nice interior garden and very comfy rooms!
Learn about traditional Batiks
Solo is the host of an annual Batik Carnival. It is an event where people from everywhere in Asia come to parade in the streets with colourful costumes inspired by Batiks and Indonesian heritage. It’s an impressive experience, even for adults! Many Indonesians go to assist the carnival, but very few foreigners actually know about this event. If you happen to be around at that time, it’s totally worth the detour.
Solo is also a good place to go if you’re interested in buying quality batiks. I suggest going to the Batik Museum before browsing through the stores. That way you’ll be able to understand the meaning of symbols and colours before making a choice! I also went to a gigantic fabrics market called Pasar Klewer. It is a 3 stories building filled with all sorts of clothing items and fabrics. You can make good deals here as well for all things batiks!
Explore nature and temples
If you’re looking for more outdoor activities, the surroundings of Solo are full of parks and trails. It is a good base to do a day trip or a longer trek. For example, you can do a hike and go see Ceto and Sukuh temples on Lawu volcano slopes. There are tours available, but for flexibility, you could do it by yourself with a scooter as well. If you are visiting Java and Bali as I did, note that the temples on the two islands will be very different since Java is Muslim and Bali is Hindu. Although Ceto and Sukuh temples are rare examples left from the Javanese Hindu period. This can be a good alternative to visiting Prambanan, which isn’t really off the beaten tracks but if fact, the most visited temple of java, Indonesia.
Prambanan Temple is very touristy, but this is one of those places I recommend to visit anyway, simply because it is so impressive. Fortunately, if you’re based in Solo, it’s not very far from there and you can either find a tour or private transport to the temple. It is also possible by bike or scooter. Keep in mind that the site is huge and it takes more than just an hour to visit.
3. Spend more time in Malang instead of just passing through
Malang is a quite large city with a lot of parks and trees. It is the meeting point of major railroads and there are many students living there because of the University. Although, for some reason, tourists just keep passing through without really stopping.
I wanted to include a trek to Bromo Volcano in my itinerary but there aren’t many ways to enter the park. You kind of “have” to stay in Cemoro Lawang, which is a very touristy area right at the base of the volcano. It gets booked up very quickly and it can be expensive. That’s when I started to look for alternative places to stay near that area. Malang ended up to be a very good choice for me. I discovered other awesome places and that’s what I wanted to share here.
Do some Agrotourism
Have you heard about the Wonosari Tea Plantation? Probably not… It’s a large field where you can get lost in the lush vegetation. It’s a really photogenic spot, with green rolling hills and mountains in the background. The plantation is located 45 min (in scooter time) away from the city center. You can go there by yourself or with a scooter taxi. To visit, you can even have a little tour with one of the employees. It was a good opportunity to understand how the plantation works on a day to day basis and what it’s like to be a worker here.
I ended up spending a couple of hours at the plantation. The place was very quiet and refreshing. I think there was only one other tourist there, so it was perfect to take all the time I wanted and take photos without being bothered. It ended with a cup of tea at the little shop in the entrance. If you want, you can buy tea directly there!
Help to embrace local communities
If you did research about Java tourism, you probably have seen drones images of colourful houses in a district of Malang. These neighbourhoods are called Kampung Jodipan (the multicolour one) and Kampung Tridi (the blue one). Just a few years ago, they were in very bad shape and considered slum areas. After an initiative from the student of the University to paint the whole neighbourhood in rainbow colours and to instore a fee for the tourist who wants to enter, the living conditions became to get better and it suddenly revitalized the area.
If you go there, you will be asked for a small donation to help the neighbourhood in both districts, but it is totally worth it. It doesn’t take very long to walk around the area but there are many beautiful viewpoints. The people living here are now used to seeing foreigners and the kids will probably ask for a photo with you!
In the end, I can’t emphasize enough on the fact that what I really appreciated about travelling in Indonesia (in this case in Java) are those moments when I was off the beaten tracks and exploring without any preconceived ideas of what I was about to see. Happy travels!