Beyond Bali: Indonesia's undiscovered islands

For dead people, they are surprisingly well dressed. Their formal outfits, in tropical shades of pink, yellow or white, look neatly pressed. The men all have a peci, the fez-like Indonesian hat, perched on their head. Most of them, men and women alike, have their arms raised; whether in celebration or supplication, it is hard to say.

Pay a visit to the cliff graves of Sulawesi's Toraja Highlands, and the dead will be keeping an eye on you. Not the actual corpses of course; they are tucked into deep holes dug into the cliff face, each one protected by a wooden door. No, these are tau-tau, life-size statues of the dead, carved out of jackfruit wood and arranged in galleries carved into the rock face next to the graves themselves, from where they can keep track of who comes to pay their respects.

There is no such thing as a quick burial among the Toraja people. Aside from the cumbersome business of digging a hole in the cliff – a feat that is even more impressive when you see the spindly ladders on which the labourers perch – and carving a statue, there is the funeral itself, a major event that lasts days. The Toraja are clearly comfortable taking their time.

Take their houses, distinctive wooden structures with extravagantly decorated exteriors and enormous curved roofs, neatly arrayed in long lines like horses in the starting gates. Each house – made of the local uru wood, except for the weight-bearing posts, which are made of teak – takes six months to build. The decorations take another two months. And then there are the rice barns. Miniature replicas of the houses, they are lined up neatly opposite the houses. Each of them takes two to three months to build, and another month to decorate.

Even in a country as rich with tribal cultures as Indonesia, the Toraja are fascinating. Despite their Christian faith, they have kept many of their traditions alive, from their ornate houses to the practice of holding massive funerals which involve dancing, singing, and buffalo sacrifices.

We find ourselves welcomed at a local funeral, where a tribal elder takes me under his wing. From the parading of the effigy of the deceased to the sacrifice of the buffalo to the delays caused by the family arguing over little details, he talks me through everything that unfolds. He is obviously amused by my interest. "You should go to West Papua," he advises. "Those people, they are really interesting."

With due respect to my host, the Toraja can hold their own in the colourful customs stakes. Take their obsession with buffalo, a mainstay of the economy. Buffalo are still considered a safer investment than money in the bank, and are such an important commodity that a buffalo market is held every six days. They are sacrificed in large numbers at funerals, their meat eaten and their horns nailed up on the exterior of the houses. Indeed, one theory for the origin of the distinctively-shaped Torajan roofs is that they mimic the horns of the buffalo.

Many tribes that cling to their traditions reject new-fangled notions such as education. Not the Toraja. They push their children towards higher education, encouraging them to become professionals or government officials. They often choose to work in remote provinces that are considered hardship postings, and therefore attract better pay. That means they have more money to send home to their families – who can then buy more buffalo.

Driving along one day, my guide, Ulla – who spends a lot of time guiding visitors to Tana Toraja, and therefore takes most Torajan customs in his stride – suddenly bursts out laughing. "Look!" he calls, pointing to a house with an unusual feature: a car port. Tucked under its shelter is a buffalo. I muse that a good buffalo might be considered the local equivalent of a BMW. Later that same day, when I spot another farmer proudly washing his buffalo, I realise the comparison is spot-on.

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There is more to the Toraja highlands than buffalo and burials, of course. The lovely landscape, alternating between dense forests of teak, palm and bamboo and verdant rice paddies, offers hikes to suit every level of enthusiasm. I particularly enjoy our early morning strolls through mist-wrapped villages, when the cumbersome silhouettes of the houses loom through the half-light like slow-moving dinosaurs.

What I find most remarkable, however, is how few other travellers I see. True, Tana Toraja is relatively remote. While there are frequent flights from across Indonesia to the southern Sulawesi city of Makassar, Tana Toraja is another eight hours drive from there. Nonetheless, when I reach my comfortable hotel, I'm surprised to find just a handful of other rooms occupied.

BEYOND BALI

So where is everybody? It is not as if Australians don't come to Indonesia. We are one of the country's main source of tourists; 1.1 million of us travelled there last year. More than 90 per cent, however, went straight to Bali and nowhere else. The Indonesian government would obviously like to change that. They have launched a new strategy that aims to double their total number of inbound tourists in the next four years, to reach a total of 20 million visitors.

One of the challenges facing Indonesia's tourism authorities is how to sell a destination that is so diverse. With 17,000 islands and more than 300 languages, Indonesia is a country that resists typecasting.

"It is a hard country to get your head around," says Maeve Nolan of bespoke Asia travel specialists, Backyard Travel.

"The culture and attractions vary whether you are visiting Sumatra or Java or Sulawesi, but there is a holiday to suit everyone from the luxury traveller to the cultural explorer."

This diversity is, of course, also Indonesia's biggest strength. Its natural attractions alone are astonishing. Besides the well-known orang-utans of Borneo and dragons of Komodo, Indonesia has rainforests that are home to Sumatran tigers, cloud leopards and sun bears; astonishing coral reefs; live volcanoes and crater lakes filled with red, green or white water. Then there are cultural experiences on offer among the country's distinctive tribes, not to mention some of Asia's most magnificent temples.

A bigger challenge is dealing with visitor concerns about safety, particularly the atrocious safety record of Indonesia's domestic airlines. "We get a lot of questions about Indonesian airlines," says Nolan. "Some of the airlines have very poor records, but we always book our clients on the best option available. Garuda in particular has greatly improved its performance, and is the only Indonesia airline allowed to fly in the EU."

The Jakarta bombing earlier this year also rekindled security concerns for some travellers. However, as the attacks in Paris and Brussels reminded us, terrorism is a threat that knows no borders.

VANISHED KINGDOMS

Perhaps the easiest place to start exploring Indonesia is the island of Java, the political and geographic hub of the country. A thousand years ago, Central Java was home to several powerful kingdoms, Hindu and Buddhist, that erected some of the most impressive temples in Asia.

The most famous one is Borobodur. The world's largest Buddhist temple is a vast structure covering 10 levels and made of more than 1 million blocks of stone, each one weighing 100 kilograms. Yet the defining characteristic of the temple is its simplicity. Built as a series of concentric terraces, it has no vaulted roofs, no chambers to step inside.

Although its walls are covered with decorative friezes, statuary is minimal – at least, the statuary you can see. There are actually 504 Buddha statues at Borobodur, but only one is out in the open. The others are hidden inside the temple's many stupas.

There is no written record of who built Borobodur, or why. The culture that produced it, the Mataram kingdom, remains largely mysterious. We don't even know when the monument was abandoned. The first written mention of it occurs in 1709 during a local rebellion, when the rebel leaders sought shelter in the ruins.

Borobodur emerged into the spotlight in 1814, when Sir Stamford Raffles heard rumours of a great ruined temple in the jungle and dispatched an expedition led by Dutch engineer HC Cornelius. It took his team of 200 men a month and a half to cut and burn the vegetation surrounding it and remove the layers of volcanic ash that had settled over the temple. What Cornelius' team uncovered changed European perceptions of Asia. Half a century before Angkor Wat was found in the jungles of Indochina, the discovery of Borobodur made Europeans aware that Asia's mighty civilisations had once not only matched but exceeded their European equivalents.

Centuries before Gothic cathedrals began bedecking European cities, Java was having its own temple building boom. The Hindu kingdoms that shared the plains of central Java also erected astonishing temples that date back as far as Borobodur; indeed, the same master craftsmen, imported from India, probably worked on both.

Take Borobodur's beautifully carved stone panels. There are 1460 of them, designed as teaching aids, just like the stained glass windows Europeans would later use in their cathedrals. Each frame is filled with detail, but in one panel, I spot a surprisingly familiar figure.

The character is a warrior armed with a bow and arrow. I saw his exact likeness a few days ago at the nearby, equally magnificent, Hindu temple of Prambanam. There, it was a depiction of the god Rama. Here, I imagine the craftsmen were asked to depict a warrior and thought to themselves, "I'm good at bows and arrows – I'll just do a Rama. They won't know the difference."

The Rama-like figure is not the only Borobodur image to draw on Hindu iconography. I also spy a depiction of the Buddha with a striking resemblance to traditional depictions of Shiva, brandishing his many arms and holding his favourite weapon, the chatra.

One of the delights of visiting Java's great temples is the lack of crowds. The contrast with, say, Angor Wat – where coachloads of tourists seem to arrive in endless relays – is astonishing. When I arrive in the pre-dawn darkness to watch the sun rise over Borobodur, there is just one other group of visitors, daytrippers from Yogyakarta. Not long after the sky lightens, they head off to their next stop, leaving my guide and I to explore the temple on our own.

UNDER THE VOLCANOES

We are in no rush. I am staying just 10 minutes away at Amanjiwo, a resort to rival Bali's most luxurious retreats. With fewer than 40 villas and a view over Borobodur itself, this is a place to slow down and inhale. Spend a few hours trying out the set of watercolour paints and paper included in every room: the landscape of misty-blue volcanoes silhouetted behind the foreground of verdant rice paddies is well worth capturing. Alternatively, sign up for the traditional Javanese massage, which gives the better-known Thai version a run for its money.

Tempting as it is to hole up inside the resort, it is worth taking part in a few of the private excursions on offer. As well as showing off the surrounding countryside, they are designed to slow you down to a less hurried pace, and absorb the rhythms of local life.

There is the utterly relaxing picnic breakfast I enjoy by the river – watercolours at hand, of course – where I sip watermelon juice and marvel at the beauty around me. There is a charming tour of the local villages on a horse-drawn cart, including stops at some of the many local galleries. What I love most, however, is the easy hikes through scenery that is almost unearthly in its beauty.

All that exercise works up an appetite, which is lucky, as the food is one of the highlights of Amanjiwo. Every meal is memorable. We enjoy a spectacular private dinner at which traditional dancers perform scenes from the Ramayana; however, my personal favourite is dinner at a local house where our host, Pak Bilal, cooks up traditional dishes over charcoal burners. In a simple room lit by flickering lanterns, I make myself a promise: I'll be back soon to see more of this seductive country.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

www.indonesia.travel

www.smartraveller.gov.au

GETTING THERE

Qantas Airbus A330 planes, with business class suites and improved economy seating, fly from Sydney to Jakarta five times weekly. Connections from all other Australian capitals are available. See www.qantas.com

TOURING THERE

Backyard Travel offers tailored tours of Indonesia, ranging from active adventures to family and honeymoon trips. See www.backyardtravel.com

STAYING THERE

With its luxurious villas set against a backdrop of towering volcanoes, Amanjiwo is one of Indonesia's most acclaimed resorts. Its superb range of private excursions is the best way to explore the area. From $1090. See www.aman.com/amanjiwo.

Tana Toraja may be remote, but there is no need to rough it; the comfortable Toraja Heritage Hotel dishes up tasty meals as well as comfortable accommodation. Rates from $155. See www.toraja-heritage.com .

Housed in a lovely colonial building, The Phoenix, part of the M Gallery collection, is the best hotel in town. From $145. www.accorhotels.com/yogyakarta.

With butler service in every room, not to mention a rooftop garden complete with jogging track, Raffles Jakarta's five-star style is surprising affordable. From $330. www.raffles.com/jakarta.

Ute Junker travelled courtesy of Backyard Travel, Aman Resorts, Accor and Qantas.

FIVE MORE MUST-SEE DESTINATIONS

YOGYAKARTA, JAVA

This former royal capital has a laid-back vibe and a penchant for tradition. Visit the studios of master craftsmen making batik or shadow puppets, as well as the old water palace and the 1000 year old temple of Prambanam, another of Indonesia's highlights.

KALIMANTAN, BORNEO

It is not just the orang-utans that make Kalimantan's rainforests worth discovering: you are also likely to encounter frisky gibbons, hornbills and wild orchids during your explorations.

JAKARTA, JAVA

There is more to Indonesia's capital than its famous malls. Stroll the city's old colonial heart, browse for antiques at the colourful Jalan Surabaya, visit the towering Istiklal Mosque, and spend some time exploring the city's vibrant restaurants and bars.

BROMO-TENGGER-SEMERU NATIONAL PARK, EAST JAVA

Indonesia is home to about 130 volcanoes, several of which are housed within this lovely national park. Take your camera to capture shots of smoking volcanoes rising out of a sea of volcanic sand.

KOMODO NATIONAL PARK, KOMODO

There is more to Komodo than its dragons: go hiking through the area's verdant savannah, chill out on its red and white sand beaches, or dive in to explore the area's lovely coral reefs.

BEYOND NASI GORENG: FIVE TASTES TO TRY

GUDEG

A jackfruit stew boiled with coconut milk and palm sugar and mixed with teak leaves, gudeg was traditionally a favourite of the sultans of Yogyakarta.

BABI PAMARASAN

A Christian minority in this Muslim nation, the Toraja are among the few Indonesians who eat pork. Babi pamarasan, or pork cooked in traditional black spices, is irresistibly more-ish.

GULAI

They love a good curry, or gulai, in northern Sumatra. You can find variants with beef, chicken, fish or vegetables, with flavours of galangal, garlic lemongrass and clove.

PERKADEL

When the good folk of Bandung need a snack on the run, they head straight for their favourite perkadel stall for a serving of tasty potato croquettes.

MARTABEK

Made to order while you watch, this fried pancake stuffed with spicy beef is the tasty local version of a roti.

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