Indonesia beyond Bali
Ever wanted to explore the authentic Indonesia? Read below to find out how.
If you ask an average person if they have ever visited Indonesia, they will say yes and tell you all about their holiday to Bali, where they stayed in a luxury and cheap villa in Ubud with an infinity pool.
Last year, I was lucky enough to discover that Indonesia is not represented only by Bali. The rest of the country is so different, diverse and incredibly cultural, that it makes you wonder why barely any tourists go there. Bali is beautiful and incredible, yes, but it lacks the rich and deeply cultural elements which characterise the rest of Indonesia. In fact, it has become a huge tourist hotspot and has lost the untouched natural beauty which I found define the more remote parts of Indonesia.
To understand what I mean, I am going to describe the itinerary that our cruise last year followed, and the incredible stories that I took back with me from the trip.
Darwin is where we started the cruise. There is not much to do in Darwin but we went on a nature walk to discover some wallabes and massive spiders (classic Australia), and watched the stunning sunrise before we set off for our voyage.
Our first stop as we reached Indonesia was a small island, unknown to most people and only easily accessible with a small boat.
Here we were greeted with the warm and friendly smiles of the local children. We were overwhelmed by the huge numbers of children on this island, which we later found out was due to the lack of access to protection.
Despite the poor conditions, and the island being so far away from any real civilization, we were struck by how happy every local seemed. The children were playing on the beach, playfully admiring us from a distance, and some even coming up to us to ask for a picture. Who could have known that was only the beginning...
They performed for us a beautifully choreographed traditional dance, after which we went to wander around the island and capture its sheer beauty. We watched the sunset as we realised that we had embarked on an unforgettable journey.
Next stop was Leti island. It would be an understatement to say that we did not know what to expect.
Let me try to describe it. Imagine being a rockstar and arriving to an island where all of your fans live. This is exactly how our arrival to Leti island felt.
When we stepped off the boat, we saw a massive group of people gathered on the beach. At first we thought there must have been something going on for all of them to gather there, but we realised later that they were all waiting for our arrival. The moment we stepped foot on the ground, every single single inhabitant would ask for a picture.
"Mister, mister, picture picture!"
We could not go anywhere without being asked for a selfie. Young men, old women, children, mothers with their young children, all of them wanting to take pictures with us for some strange reason. We were in such shock and our mouths hurt from smiling as we posed for our 500th picture.
We were once again greeted with the warm nature of the Indonesian people, as they invited us to try their local sweets and coconuts and performed another elaborate dance. We left with our hearts full and our smile wrinkles a lot more deep set than before.
Palau Kital & Palau Tellang
We made a stop at these tiny islands mainly to snorkel and to relax on the beach. It was a stunning island, uninhabited and untouched, visited only by a handful of cruising tourists every year. I will let the pictures speak for themselves.
This was another incredible island that left a huge impression on us.
When we arrived, we were greeted with yet another dance and a whole ceremony, with Indonesian girls dressed in fancy traditional dresses and wearing lots of makeup offering us traditional pastries.
We were each assigned to a local girl, who explained to us the origin of every dessert and chatted to us in impressive English. Most of the sweets (pictured above) were made from rice and bananas, as there is a huge market for production of bananas and rice farming in Indonesia.
It turned out that the majority of those girls were active Instagram users and asked us to exchange our usernames. Then they reposted the selfies they took with us on their pages. This was a bizarre experience for us as we did not expect to have about 100 more Indonesian girls following us on Instagram after leaving the island.
After that, a tour bus took us to the main village, where we had a tour guide show us around.
Here we saw how Indonesian women work hard to knit scarves in order to sell them. As this is a fishermen's village, most men living here are fishermen and are out in the seas throughout the duration of the day. Women then have to take over in looking after the kids, while also knitting many scarves every day to make some extra money.
We met many locals, who were keen to come out and say hi, also bringing out their children. We were once again impressed by the welcoming and open nature of the Indonesian people.
This trip would not be complete without a visit to Tanatoraja. This place left us shaken, struck by the contrast of the cultural elements that were so different to what we are used to.
When we were told on the cruise that we would be visiting a place where the dead are not buried, but their bodies kept for weeks and sometimes months, this was of course the place we were most curious to learn about. And it exceeded expectations, in strange but amazing way.
After getting off the ship, we had a long but very scenic 4 hour bus journey to get to Tanaroraja. It is not the easiest place to access which is part of the reason why it is not a popular tourist destination. We checked into our hotel as we were staying here for a night, and straight away went to for an excursion to check out the graves. As these were not the conventional graves that we are used to seeing.
The Torajan people built some very interesting graves for their loved ones. The one pictured above involved statues resembling the deceased person. The richer and more respected the person was, the bigger and more elaborate their statue was too. We were amazed by the detail that went into the creation of those statues, as if the aim was to impress their soul in the afterlife.
Another interesting element to note about Tanatoraja was the shape of the traditional Torajan houses, which you can see everywhere around the city. Here they are pictured below.
The reason behind this shape of the roof, according to a myth, is because when the Torajan ancestors came to live here, they came in boats. Those boats got so badly damaged in the storm that they had to use them as roof for their houses.
The Torajan people believe that when a person dies, their soul stays alive. This is why after a person has died, they will keep them in their houses, still bring them food and look after them. That is until their passage into heaven is guaranteed. One of our tour guides, a local, told us that when his grandmother died, she was not buried for two years. When his aunt also passed away, they held the ceremony for both both deceased together.
But the story gets weirder. The legend also states that the more livestock are sacrificed for the dead person, the more likely they are to go to heaven. That is why the Torajan people hold ceremonies which are very unlike the funerals that we are used to seeing. The family of the deceased will invite as many guests as possible, and all of them are expected to bring a gift, a sacrifice - such as a big, or a bull, to be slaughtered during the ceremony. The more expensive the bull is, the more valuable it is as it guarantees a safe passage to the other world. The ceremony lasts a couple days, and can be as long a week, until all the sacrificed animals have been slaughtered.
This is the sight that we came to witness in Tanatoraja, as we somehow found ourselves invited to one of those ceremonies. It was a sight that many of the guests couldn't handle, including the young girl which I managed to capture below.
As we took our seats next to the hosts, looking at the poor animals being killed right in front of us out of one eye, we could not help but think how incredibly fascinating and different from our world this culture was. Thousands of people, including children, casually watching animals being slaughtered is not something we are used to witnessing. But for Torajan people, as we learnt, this was a normal sight as this sacrificial ceremony takes place every time a person passes away. Children are taught this ingrained part of the culture from a very young age, which makes them grow up to see this as a norm, and not have the same reaction that we may have to such a sight.
Although many guests left and decided not to stay for the ceremony, I made the decision to stay despite it being very difficult to watch. This way I put myself right in the middle of the cultural event, to learn what it is really like for the local people to take part in the ceremony. I regretted it a little when a bull was killed right in front of me, but if I hadn't stayed I would not have had such a detailed understanding of it.
Camp Leaky/Orangutan sanctuary
Just as we thought our trip could not get any better, we found ourselves looking at and playing with baby orangutans.
Orangutans are incredible animals. They are able to interact with humans, and they are strikingly similar to us. It is one thing watching them on TV or from afar in a zoo, and another being able to touch them and physically interact with them.
One particular occasion really changed my perception of these animals, making me fall in love with them even more. As we were taken to their playground, and orangutans below 1 year old were brought out to us, we were excited but a little bit scared. They are animals after all, and they are capable of stealing your personal items. However, they were more gentle than we thought, as they extended their human-like hands towards us, and managed to suck us into their world. My boyfriend took the hand of an orangutan and was led away by him somewhere into the field, where they walked around holding hands. I was a little jealous but I decided to forgive the orangutan as it was just a baby and didn't know what it was doing.
As we gazed into their massive black eyes, we realised that these animals are a lot more than just animals, and they need to be protected at all costs.
However, we learnt that unfortunately thousands of orangutans are wiped out every year due to palm oil plantations. The numbers are rising so drastically that it is predicted they may go extinct in a couple years. Some people on the cruise came together to donate a sum of money towards the plantation of a new plot of land where orangutans are able to breed and survive. There are also thousands of organisations where you can help donate, such as www.orangutan.org/donate. These are incredible animals and we must do everything in our power to ensure that they survive!
Finally, we made it to Bali, the most famous paradise in Indonesia.
As we took a taxi to our villa, we thought about how much authentic culture of Indonesia we had seen, and how different every single place was from one another. We saw the most authentic, raw cultural elements. We spoke with the locals, we saw how they live on small islands, and what they have to do in order to survive.
Of course, all of this can be found in Bali too. But nobody came running to ask for a picture when we arrived there, because the tourists were already at an abundance. We were no longer special, treated with the same welcome that those people residing in small islands and villages had given us. As we ventured through Ubud, we thought how incredibly touristy everything was. There were not many remains of the authentic Indonesia that we had seen, the memories that we now held in our heads.
<p>Nevertheless, Bali is also a stunning destination, with incredible nature and many things to explore. We took a half day private tour to see as much as we could. We visited the rice fields, and tried the swing, but we also saw the traditional side when we came across a cock fight and stopped our tour in order to watch it. This was another tradition alien to us and we found it very fascinating.
Cock fighting is only legal in certain parts of Indonesia, and this was the first we saw of it. It amazed us how much of a sport this was to the local people, as they counted and waved their money, watching one cock ruthlessly bash another on the head. This show of violence drew a parallel in my mind with the Torajan sacrificial ceremony, and made me realise that the way I personally view violence in my culture is very different to Indonesia. As they grow up with these traditions from a very young age, violence with animals is no longer a shock but it is part of life, so it becomes a norm.
Overall, visiting Bali as the last stop made us understand the Indonesian culture much better. It gave us an overview of its different parts - both the beautiful and the ugly. We went away from it with a better knowledge of a small part of the world, and our minds enriched by its beauty.