Indonesia travel guide beyond Bali: The secret jewels of Java

Bali is a blip when you consider Indonesia boasts 17,508 tropical islands and some of the most pristine beaches and marine parks in the world. In the interior are landscapes even more diverse, including significant religious sites such as Borobudur in Central Java and the lush interior tea plantations and hot springs of Bandung in the west.

One island in this massive archipelago is Belitung, off  the east coast of Sumatra in the Java Sea. It is a 45-minute plane trip from Jakarta and has better beaches than Bali (in fact, some of the best beaches I've visited in south-east Asia) but with a fraction of Bali's 3 million tourists and 4 million residents.

Belitung is also mercifully free of touts. "No beggars, buskers fences or much traffic," says our guide Rachmad Syarif proudly as we pass through the clean, orderly main town of Tanjung Pandan. 

Belitung is home to 400,000 people – with an ethnic mix of Malays, Chinese, Balinese and Sudanese. Malay, English and Bahasa Indonesian are all spoken. 

Belitung (known in English as Billiton) was known primarily for its tin and pepper industries – which is where Australian mining giant BHP Billiton got part of its name. 

On the first day we zoom down the central highway to the beach, passing only the occasional car and multi-coloured flags that flap in the breeze celebrating the recent Indonesian Independence Day celebrations.

It's late August, the weather is warm and dry, and the long Melbourne winter seems a world away.

We are headed towards the Tanjung Kelayang.

Featuring in the 2008 movie Laskar Pelangi (the Rainbow Troops), the colossal boulders that frame the bay have become a pilgrimage site for young couples.  They pose by the granite rocks (many with selfie sticks) and swim in the very placid bay. 

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The scene has little significance for me. I haven't seen the movie or read the book describing struggles Belitung children faced in receiving an education. But it is still one of the most picturesque beaches I've visited. Corn is cooked from barbecues under the banyan trees and there are fresh coconuts for sale, tasting better than any of the juices that are available back home in a box.

I stay in the clear, warm and very salty water until dusk, the sun sinking behind one of the large rocks. 

This is not the place for surfing, there are plenty of other beaches around Sumatra that deliver great breaks, but the waters around Belitung are a hub for open-water diving. 

Garuda and local airline Sriwijaya Air fly here, with the Garuda flights leaving from Jakarta once a day. Our flight was full, mostly with Indonesian tourists and locals returning to their home laden with boxes of produce. Around 70 per cent of goods come from the mainland. 

Waking up to its tourism potential, the island is only just starting to get 4 star hotels. We are staying at one near the beach, the Grand Hatika Hotel, where the breakfast buffet is exotic enough to make me do several laps with an empty plate, pausing before steaming bain maries and wondering "just what the hell is that?" On offer is lime jelly with custard, salty porridge, rice and pempek (fish cakes in vinegar sauce).

I'm not game enough to try the Indonesian food – not this early in the morning – so somewhat shamefully stick with toast and jam.

Eating options on the island are plenty, with fresh fish, but also many Chinese restaurants on Belitung.

A typical meal at one of Belitung's Chinese restaurants would include peppered beef with onion, boiled rice, crab and baked red fish garnished with lemongrass, carrot, shallots and seasoned with chili.

Every now and again during our dinners in local restaurants the lights fail and the generator cranks up, leaving us for a short time marooned in the dark.  The island is still developing and there are long stretches of pitch-blackness where electricity is not yet in steady supply.

On our second day on Belitung we go on a boat to dive and snorkel around Gusong, Birong and Garuda Islands, a short distance from the mainland. These small islands are close together and form an easy half-day trip with one of the wooden fishing vessels you can hire from the shore. 

This was a very busy waterway, filled with shipwrecks from Chinese dynasty, and now it's (almost) crowded with day-trippers, including Chinese, Japanese and Indonesian tourists. 

Included in the constellation of islands in this stretch of water is Pasir Island, little more than a sandbar and submerged during high tide and Lengkuas Island – a little more substantial - home to a working Dutch colonial lighthouse built in 1882. You can climb the stairs to the top and get a great view of the surrounding islands. 

The area around the islands is perfect for snorkelling. The water is as clear as glass and filled with some fantastic tropical fish and pristine brain coral. After plonking in the water our captain sprinkles biscuits in the water, so the area where we swim is thick with feeding fish.  

With prune-like hands from having been in the water so long, we sail to another beach were there is a warung (casual restaurant) with some disco music playing and long tables facing the sea. 

From there we visit the nearby Kepayang Island's Conservation Centre. It's a dive lodge where you can stay on beachside bungalows, but doubles as a turtle sanctuary. Tiny turtle eggs found on the beach nearby are moved to incubators so they can hatch without being eaten by predators. 

Visitors can sponsor a turtle or assist staff in rescuing eggs.  

Next leg of the journey was Bandung, where we arrived at night after  a three-hour train trip from Jakarta. 

We drive down deserted streets with our guide claiming that Bandung is the Paris of Java.

With a population of 2.5 million, Bandung is the capital of West Java, 180 kilometres southeast of Jakarta and 768 metres above sea level.

Its high altitude and mountain air gives it a welcome cool change from the stickiness of Jakarta. 

In the morning I get to see why it is celebrated for its (fading) beauty. If you stick to the "good neighbourhoods" it is very picturesque, with many of the Dutch colonial buildings still standing, if slightly dusty looking.

Bandung has evolved into one of Indonesia's mega-cities, with an enormous sprawl and attendant traffic problems.

But you shouldn't dismiss it. Bandung, with its many hotels, makes a great base to explore the many natural attractions of West Java, including tea plantations and volcanoes. 

If you are spending time in the city itself, be sure to pay attention to the architecture. 

Bandung is one of the world's greatest sites of tropical art deco architecture. The Dutch embarked on a building boom here in the 1920s when they moved the colonial capital to Bandung. Some of the buildings are looking a bit faded, and you may have to search for them amid the shiny shopping malls and new towers, but there are still many distinctive gems dotted around the city that have been turned into hotels, administrative buildings or museums.

In our mini-bus we cruise down Jalan Citarum where our guide tells us locals gather at night for street food and socialising, before driving into the mountains. 

On the northern side of the city we pass one of the city's finest examples of art deco architecture – Villa Isola – built by a Dutchman in 1933 and now part of the University of Education Indonesia. 

Further up we climb into a forest area until at 2084 metres above sea level we hit a sight unlike any I have seen - or smelled- before. 

We are heading towards the lip of Tangkuban Prahu, an active volcano where hordes of visitors (and more than a few touts looking to sell tourists bracelets and beads) come to gawp at the sulphurous hole. 

It is a weird, very large grey crater than seethes and smokes and would certainly burn if you had the misfortune to fall into it. You can even buy eggs that were cooked on the hot surface of the volcano.  It last erupted in 1983.

The volcano – 30 kilometres north of the city - is a must-see if you are travelling to Bandung, as is the scenery around it. We stop for photos in the picturesque rice plantations,  terraced like they are in Bali,  and strawberry fields and end up lunching at the Ciater Spa Resort, which looks like a charming relic from the Soviet Bloc: old swimming pool with umbrellas, sulphur rich waters and a sanatorium attached where guests can have anything from "magneto therapy" to something called "underwater galvanisation."

Bali? I've already forgotten Bali.

The writer was a guest of the Indonesian Tourism Ministry. 

TRIP NOTES 

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GETTING THERE

Garuda has regular flights from Melbourne (starting at $820 return) and Sydney ($897) to Jakarta. See garuda-indonesia.com.

BELITUNG

Connecting flights from Jakarta to Belitung start at $50. On Belitung, a car  with a driver costs around $55 a day. Rooms at the Grand Hatika Hotel start at $42, see grandhatika.com. The best time to visit is April–October, during the dry season.

BANDUNG 

The train between Jakarta and Bandung  costs around $40 return for an executive ticket (with air conditioning). Rooms at the Ibis Bandung start at around $50 a night, see ibis.com.

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