Java Island is the biggest and most populated of Indonesia’s 30,000 islands, and it is simply awesome, to say the least.
When I drifted down to it in 2007, I expected to spend maybe 1 month there. Little did I know that 8 years later I’d still be there, living, exploring and absolutely loving it. Java gave me a true glimpse into what living in Asia is really like outside of the well-trodden tourist trail, and I learned much as a result.
In 2015 I made the decision to leave the place I’d come to call home. It’s only upon reflection, looking back at Java’s rich heritage, unique culture and spellbinding natural beauty that I can fully appreciate what an amazing place it truly is.
While I’ll be visiting as often as I can throughout my lifetime, I now relive my time on Java island by writing about it, sharing with others around the world what this largely overlooked island has to offer travelers, backpackers and nomads.
This is my ultimate guide to Java, Indonesia. Miss it at your peril.
Java Fast Facts
Java is Indonesia’s main island – the centre of trade, commerce, politics and pretty much everything that’s happening in Indonesia.
Java is also Indonesia’s most populated island. It has a whopping 141 million people, comprising over half the population of Indonesia on a single island, Java can seem overwhelming to the uninitiated. Stay a while, however, and you’ll find that this is precisely what makes it so exciting and interesting.
Java is 1,120km squared and several major cities are situated on it. Indonesia’s steaming capital, Jakarta, lies in the West. Bandung, dubbed the ‘Paris of Java’ lies in the hills to the South of Jakarta. Yogyakarta, Java’s cultural epicentre lies slap bang in the middle of the island, and Surabaya, a popular stopover on the road to Bali, lies in the very east of the island.
Java is home to several of Indonesia’s main ethnic groups and languages. Javanese, Sundanese, Badui, Batawi and many other groups of people live on the island, each with their own unique language, culture, clothing, music and ways of life.
Java is home to several natural wonders including some of the last remaining Javense Rhino, a UNESCO world heritage site which lay buried under volcanic ash and dense jungle until it was stumbled upon by explorers, and more imposing, smoldering volcanoes than you can shake a stick at.
Now, with a basic picture of this colossal, intense island in mind, let’s look at some of the things any traveler or visitor must do while visiting Java.
Java Travel Highlights
The truth is Java could be explored for a lifetime in and of itself. It has so many natural wonders and interesting places to visit that it would be impossible to quantify or even outline them in a single post.
That said, there are some things which pull away from the pack and glisten like diamonds in the sun. These are Java’s highlights, and any trip to Indonesia should include them.
1. Jakarta City
Full disclosure up front – Jakarta is NOT a pretty city.
It’s intense, it’s wild, the traffic is enough to make you pull your hair out, and it’s crowded to the point it’s bursting at the seams, but it’s also absolutely awesome and has to be seen and experienced to be believed.
Jakarta is home to everything you can image including fancy restaurants alongside roadside stalls selling nasi goreng (fried rice) and other traditional Indonesian dishes, some of Southeast Asia’s biggest and best nightclubs and bars, and malls the size of small towns in Europe.
Jakarta isn’t a place to visit to see beautiful tourist sites, because there are few to be seen. It’s a place to visit simply to experience. It’s the beating heart of everything in Indonesia, and is actually a microcosm of the entire nation itself.
Lot’s of visitors flee when they first encounter Jakarta’s overwhelming intensity and head East towards Bali. Don’t be one of them. Stay a little while, let the culture shock settle, and explore what Jakarta has to offer.
2. Ujung Kulon National Park
If you’re looking for a true wilderness experience and want to see what the first explorers would have encountered when their ships pulled up on Java’s pristine shores, Ujung Kulon is the place to see.
Home to several endangered species and with a heavy emphasis on sustainable, responsible travel, Ujung Kulon is a truly unique experience on Java, for the sole reason that you’ll have the place basically all to yourself.
Ujung Kulon is actually lots of little islands dotted across a marine park that’s protected and considered a UNESCO world heritage site. It’s staggering beautiful, extremely tranquil and a true ‘back to nature’ experience.
Tours can be arranged with local guides who can set up boats, supplies and everything you’ll need for as little as $100 per person for a 3 days/2 night adventure.
If I could recommend one place in Java above all other to nature lovers this would be it. Ujung Kulon is divine and is a rare sanctuary of peace and relaxation on this thriving, action-packed island. This is possibly THE highlight of Java travel, yet it is overlooked by almost everyone.
Another UNESCO World Heritage site, this one is a beautiful Buddhist monument which lay buried in the earth before explorers and archaeologists stumbled upon it back in the 19th century.
And wow, I for one am glad they found it! The intricate carvings in this huge stone complex tell stories from ancient Buddhist tales and as the sun rises (or sets) over it, visitors can’t help feeling that this place has a special power to it. It’s easy to see why the Buddhist disciplines who built it picked this particular spot.
Borobudur is a busy attraction and you’ll have to get there early to avoid the huge crowds that visit it every day. Sunrise tours can be arranged from Yogyakarta, a small city which serves as the main stopover for those wanting to see this architectural masterpiece and some of the other temples nearby.
Borobudur is not to be missed. As well as being physically stunning, it gives visitors a glimpse into Indonesia’s history. While it is no the most populated Muslim country on earth, it was once Hindu/Buddhist and kings, sultans and monks used to rule Java back then.
4. Mount Bromo
There are actually several volcanoes worth visiting on Java, but Mount Bromo is the most impressive of the lot.
Standing at 2,329 metres tall, smoldering and leaving a plume of volcanic smoke hanging in the air far above, Bromo offers those looking for a trek something special.
The most popular way to see it is to leave in the dead of morning on a guided sunrise tour which will have you at the peak just in time for the first rays of morning sun to burst through the clouds and put on a fantastic light show that sees the sky change from red to orange to purple to blue, with the landscape beneath it going through all the shades of green.
For those who don’t think they could make the physical trek up, don’t fret, there are plenty of local guides with mules willing to take you to the top for a small fee. They can be found at Bromo itself, and you’ll still need to arrange transport to the actual volcano itself.
If you want to see an awesome display of nature’s terrifyingly beautiful power, Bromo is not to be missed.
Java Travel Summary
Java is a place that’s difficult to put into words and is best experienced in order to be understood.
It’s both overwhelming and laid back, it’s simultaneously maddening and lovable, it’s host to some of the filthiest, most crowded towns and cities in the world, and some of the most beautiful natural wonders I have ever seen anywhere on this planet.
Java captivated me and kept me coming back for more in a way no place did before or has done since. It will forever remain a place I think of fondly and return to often.
I can’t recommend Java highly enough. If you miss it, you’re missing out on one of Asia’s most incredible destinations! Java travel has to be a part of your itinerary or you haven’t seen Indonesia at all.
As the Indonesian’s say…Sampai Jumpa – Have a nice trip!