Indonesia, Thousand Islands: The sleepy pace of life on Palau Pramuka you won't find in Bali

At 5.30pm on a balmy Indonesian evening, Bali Hai beer in hand, I'm watching the sun set on the equatorial aquatic paradise that is Kepulauan Seribu. Or Jakarta's "Bay of a Thousand Islands" as it is known in English.

There aren't a thousand islands in the necklace of low-lying, tree-laden outlets of land in the bay. More like 300, stretching 45 kilometres north by fast ferry from Jakarta's Marina Ancol. Most are uninhabited and part of Jakarta's marine national park (who knew there was such a thing?).

Some are resort islands open to tourists and suit a range of budgets – a poor man's Maldives (especially those with over-water bungalows). Others, like Palau Pramuka, are delightful water-fronted village islands, abundant with Indonesian life you won't see in Bali.

With a couple of days to spare after my first visit to Jakarta, I booked a weekend visit, via the internet, to Pramuka (palau means island, I later discovered). After an early morning A$20 taxi ride to the marina and a A$40 return ferry ride, I found myself on Pramuka: not the largest, most glamorous, or most beautiful of the Thousand Islands. But it is the commercial and administrative centre of Kepulauan Seribu, and the closest thing the Thousand Islands has to a town.

A young man greets me at the wharf, puts my luggage into a trolley and escorts me the 100 metres to Seribu Resort. It's not what Australians would call a resort – more a friendly backpacker's retreat overlooking the harbour. But it does have its own PADI-accredited dive school, hammocks and bean bags, a leafy courtyard and snorkelling from the private jetty. Masks and fins are free to guests and the hard coral is amazingly healthy and colourful.

As I set off for an evening meal I hear the haunting sound of mullahs calling villagers to evening prayer echo over the bay.

I dine at Nusa Resto, the island's celebrated "floating restaurant". Cynics might note Nusa Resto doesn't float. It's built, firmly, on stilts but the sunset is superb, framing a variety of boats crossing the bay between islands as my first course is served. Two female Norwegian backpackers in a neighbouring cabin at Seribu Resort recommend Nusa Resto: "We've been there every day," they say. "The food's delicious …as long as you love seafood."

I order crab, sweetcorn and spring onion soup to start, followed by "spicy grilled milkfish" with steamed rice. To my initial frustration, the soup comes in a large communal bowl capable of feeding six. Two minutes later, the fish appeared.

Milkfish (ikan bandeng) is popular throughout south-east Asia. It's also the only living version of the Chanidae fish family plentiful during the Cretaceous period. This deboned version is Cajun-blackened and coated in a red, piquant sauce grilled to the meaty flesh.

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After two mouthfuls, my eyes are watering, my brow steaming, and I gulp down lashings of soup to cool my palette. It wasn't the milkfish's fault. I should never have gone for "spicy" in Indonesia.

Recovering the next morning, I decide to explore the island (though not with the same commitment the female German backpacker I shared breakfast with, travelling around Indonesia with her own gigantic paddle board). She's set off to paddle round Pramuka. It can't have taken her more than an hour because her paddle board was drying in the sun by the time I returned from my own little adventure.

Pramuka is best explored from the water or on foot. A street back from the waterfront, it reveals itself to be rows of neat, tidy, brightly coloured houses separated by schools, a soccer field and corner shops. Many of these houses offer "home stay", popular particularly among Indonesian visitors. On the other side of the island, the main attractions are a mangrove walk and the "turtle beach", a reserve set aside for loggerhead turtles. Six of the seven sea turtle species in the world are found in Indonesia (Kemp's Ridley is the one missing).

It's impressive just how many signs there are around Pramuka promoting the importance of looking after the turtles. Such a pity that the use of the plastic bag, so lethal to turtles, is ubiquitous.

TRIP NOTES

Steve Meacham travelled at his own expense.

MORE

traveller.com.au/indonesia

indonesia.travel

FLY

Qantas and Garuda Indonesia have direct flights to Jakarta. See qantas.com; garuda-indonesia.com

VISIT

You can take a ferry or a speedboat to Pramuka Island from Jakarta. See: thousandislands.indonesia-tourism.com

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