Why now is the perfect time to visit Indonesia

With its explosive political (and geological) past, tourism in Indonesia has plummeted. All the more reason to visit these magical lands. Jessica Morris goes west of Java

Two hands slam down on my shoulders from behind and Udin, our guide, yells "Run!" We are in the rainforest of northern Sumatra, supposedly on the hunt for orang-utans, but the tables have turned: the orang-utans are on the hunt for us, and our dinner. I am not what you might call the sporty type, but I scarcely pause when the ground rises vertically in front of me. I hoist myself up a cliff face with the aid of liana vines while nearby, just above the sound of my heartbeat, I can hear our pursuers swinging effortlessly from tree to tree.

In Sumatra, if you want to meet an orang-utan, you head to the village of Bukit Lawang. Many of the apes here are only semi-wild, although they live in the forest. It doesn't take long for Udin to find Edith and introduce us to her. No wildlife documentary can convey the charm of seeing her reach lazily with her left foot to take a piece of fruit from the ground and then, stretching her right foot around behind her head up to an overhanging branch, swing off to enjoy her snack upside down. It's only when the more aggressive Mina and two wild males appear that things go banana-shaped. But at camp that evening the adventure has bonded trekkers and guides.

We overnight under a tarpaulin shelter by a wide stream. Despite the heat of the day, after dark it is extremely chilly. In my sleep I gradually creep towards, and then wedge myself under, a snoring fellow trekker for warmth. My beautiful pashmina, bought at great expense so I might feel chic on international flights, now resembles an old car blanket. At dawn I wake to the whooping cries of gibbons, and the cook's boy firing up the stove for coffee. Every joint in my body aches from the Great Ape Escape and the cold, but I wouldn't choose to be anywhere else on the planet.

However, I am in a minority. Tourism in Indonesia - this amazingly diverse collection of equatorial islands - has stopped virtually overnight, hit by political and natural disaster. Throughout my three-month journey I see only a handful of other Western travellers. Guides such as Udin, once unable to meet demand, are now forced to trawl for punters in bus stations. Even Bali has dropped off the tourist map. Until shortly before I set off, I didn't mean to come here either. As I dithered over destinations, a friend spun a globe, stopping it with his finger on Indonesia.

And so, first, to Bali... The island's scent is instantly recognisable: clove cigarettes mingled with incense, warm rainfall and jasmine. A narrow alleyway and, at the end of it, a tree and a beach: everything thrown into heavy chiaroscuro by the full moon. Anchored just offshore, three men sort their catch. It has been a lucky trip, and cheerful voices float over the water to the women who wait by the light of kerosene lamps. A shout from the boat and the women wade out, returning with baskets on their heads, brimming with silver in the moonlight. There were scenes such as this before independence, or the Dutch, or Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam. And such scenes, speaking of community and continuity, first drew travellers here from the jaded Western world at the beginning of the last century. The sun rises and the pale grey mackerel sky is gradually tinged with pink; the pale grey mackerel sea deepens to cobalt blue. Far offshore, a dolphin leaps twice above the swell before vanishing but I am the only traveller here to see him.

A half-hour ferry ride to the west lie Java and Mount Bromo, the only active volcano among several that stand in the vast, sandy plain of an ancient crater whose sides rise to more than 300m. I make the journey by public minibus carrying as many as 32 people through steeply sloping, densely packed hills. Schoolchildren hang off the roof rack.

My hotel overlooks the desolate moonscape of the crater. I book a dawn tour for the following morning, but the price depends on how many passengers the 4x4 owner can rustle up. Next morning I am surprised to see three others - a silent German and two friendly Irish girls. We head, on bumpy, vertiginous tracks, up to the viewpoint, eager to see the sunrise highlight the smoke rising from Bromo's caldera, but the weather is too cloudy for views.

East Java proves unwelcoming and confusing. I scribble words such as "sullen" and "hostile" in my notebook. We pass through low concrete towns dotted with loudspeakers blaring out lectures from the mosque. When we stop to collect two morose schoolgirls, an ancient woman spreading rice out to dry on a cloth beside the road pauses in her work to stare expressionlessly up at me. She is wearing nothing but a sarong tied around her waist, her breasts bare.

Under a blazing midday sun in a small market town a stallholder spots me. He yells "American!" with a broad grin on his face. Pumping my hand up and down through the window, he calls to his friends to come and look at me, bitterly disappointed I can't stay. His T-shirt is emblazoned with a large photo of Osama bin Laden.

I give money to the frequently untalented musicians who hitch a ride on the coach, plucking at the strings of their small guitars or kroncongs like an army of tone-deaf George Formbys. Even late at night, young children often perform alone. I think of it as music tax, a compulsory additional cost to the price of the journey, which rarely amounts to more than £5 even on the longest trips between cities.

In the ancient cities of Surakarta (known as Solo) and Yogyakarta (or Yogya, pronounced "Jodja") in central Java, the atmosphere feels more relaxed. Both are held to be havens of Javanese culture, famed for batik, gamelan music, dances, and shadow puppet shows of their kratons, or palaces, still inhabited by their respective royal families. Like nearly all the places of interest I visit in Indonesia, the wide dirt courtyards and heavily ornate verandas of the Yogya Kraton are partly dilapidated, partly over-restored, but adoration for the royal families flourishes. Only the current Sultan Hamengkubuwono (or He Who Holds the World in His Lap) can persuade villagers to leave the slopes of Mount Merapi each time it threatens to erupt. In the palace museum I find myself admiring a display of the late Sultan's green oven gloves, circa 1956.

Before I set off I didn't really grasp how huge Indonesia is or how long it would take to get anywhere. I write "Next Time" in my guide book alongside Bandung, described as the Paris of Java, and Ulung Kulon where there is a (slim) chance of sighting a rare Javan rhino, and head directly for Cerita on the far east coast. Out to sea lies Pulau Rakata, the remains of the world's most famous volcano, Krakatau, whose massive 1883 explosion coloured sunsets over the River Thames. Alongside it, Anak Krakatau (the Child of Krakatau) has been steadily, and ominously, growing since 1930. I arrive just before sunset and watch the sun go down behind the smoking cone of this true enfant terrible. The following morning, after a fruitless search, I realise that most tour companies have closed down through lack of business, and there is no one else there to share a charter boat. I write "Next Time" alongside Krakatau in my guidebook.

On the last evening ferry to Sumatra, four lads approach me. They point out their big silver SUV and offer me a lift to Bandar Lampung. Half an hour later one of them approaches again, his face a picture of concern. They don't think I should go on a coach alone late at night. The boy is wearing braces on his teeth and, in a country where he would have had to work hard to pay for this, it somehow suggests that he can't be dangerous. In any case, I am too exhausted to argue further. Sometime after midnight we stop at a stall so I can try my first durian, a large, spiky-skinned tropical fruit, infamous for its bad smell. One of the boys, Agus, chooses our durian carefully, tapping each fruit in turn, before he slices one open with a large knife. To me it has the taste and texture of cheap soap, but I am assured that it is delicious. The smell stays with me for three days.

Sumatra is as different from Java as Java is from Bali. The landscape of mountains, rice paddies and palm trees is a variation on the same theme, but each island is unmistakably a separate country. Transport in Bandar Lampung, as in Javan cities, is by angkot - freelancing doorless minibuses running along roughly predetermined routes. In Sumatra, however, they are a different species. Multicoloured "Formula One Disco Angkots" race the hills of the city, surfing towels pinned to their ceilings and huge woofers blaring out Indo-pop. In the old harbour children gather round me, and then run away giggling when I speak in Indonesian. I try to capture their energy with my camera before they spot what I'm doing and line up into a formal group for the lens.

For the overnight ride to Padang I treat myself to an "executif" bus. The on-board luxuries include a smoking room and a toilet. No one mentions the cockroaches.

I wake to a wide marshy landscape dotted with houses on stilts. The sign at the bus terminal reads "Palembang". During the night, a bridge on the Trans-Sumatran Highway fell down. The only way around is to cross the island to the far north-east before dropping back down again, a journey comparable to travelling from London to York via Land's End. This will, I am assured, add only 10 hours to the journey. It has started to rain. All Sumatra's traffic is now concentrated on this stretch of road, at times nothing more than a narrow, unsurfaced cart track. Huge overloaded lorries sway past us. It is still raining. The journey stretches through the day and into the following night. We are held up by trucks that have keeled over like migrating beasts felled by the rigours of the journey, unable to keep up with the herd. Just before dawn the road falls away completely and is replaced by an impromptu bridge made from two long planks. Each vehicle waits while several men judge how far apart to space the planks. The driver revs the engine and hits the accelerator. A crunch, a lurch to the left, and we have made it. The final 13 hours are plain sailing and we roll triumphantly into Padang precisely 48 hours after we set off.

North of the equator lies Lake Toba and, in the middle of the lake, Samosir Island. If you asked me to find a location for a film set in the Garden of Eden, this would be it, with its wide green meadows, banana palms, volcanic springs, grazing white buffalo and little churches with pointed steeples. This is the home of the Batak people, evangelised by German missionaries, and known for their music. I spend the evening at a mountain "shebeen" by a waterfall with, among others, the local chief of police, a couple of tourist guides, a fitted-bathrooms magnate, the local schoolteacher, and a very large jug of palm toddy. Someone asks me to choose a song and, somewhat feebly, I say "Yesterday". They sing it in six parts, beautifully, and follow it with Batak folk songs. When I fall asleep hours later to the sound of water lapping just below my veranda, I can still hear their voices.

I dread the final leg of my journey: Aceh was until recently on the Foreign Office blacklist. But in Medan the woman who runs my hostel looks at me as if I am mad when I express reservations. She organises my ticket and puts me on the bus herself to make sure I go.

Just after entering the province, the road turns into a modern, surfaced highway. I never find out whether this is from a post-tsunami aid project or a pre-tsunami military one. The mountainous landscape, always stunning, becomes even more so. When we stop for lunch everyone smiles and is friendly, and the headscarf I have now added to my wardrobe earns approving comments from other women.

I anticipate feeling uncomfortable in the most fundamentalist province of Indonesia, but the opposite happens. In Medan my every move excited comment from the men. In Aceh I am again treated with the same respect and friendliness as in Bali. I go through the usual questions with each passenger who joins the bus. "How old are you? Are you married? Do you have children? Where are you going?" But here everyone one replies that they have no family, husband, children, friends. They were all killed by the tsunami.

I'm still not sure how to talk about Bandar. I can tell you about the lad who drove me around all day on his new motorised becak (from an aid agency) and whose entire family was gone. I can tell you about the wide avenues, the elegant houses, that halfway down the street are suddenly replaced with mud and snapped wood and twisted metal. I can tell you about the view of a dirty brown tidemark halfway up the cliffs left behind when the waters receded. But I can also tell you about a road of fabulous cafés built on stilts over rice paddies where they serve the best coffee I had in Indonesia, and delicious seafood, and white sand beaches.

Before I started my journey I wrote a list of "Reasons to be Nervous" in my diary: attack by fundamentalists; bird flu; volcanic eruptions and earthquakes; food poisoning; bathrooms; malaria. At the end of my journey I wrote a new list: pavements (I stubbed my toes daily, fell flat on my face twice, walked into a ditch in the dark); falling coconuts. I am home again with a pair of disintegrating sandals I can't bear to throw away because they have waded through rivers, climbed the largest Buddhist stupa in the world, and waited for me on the veranda steps of countless small hotels.

I'll be back - I only hope it's before everyone else remembers what a fascinating place Indonesia is too.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

Indonesia no longer has direct flights from the UK. Instead, the usual approach is via Singapore, served from Heathrow by Singapore Airlines (0844 800 2380; www.singaporeair.co.uk), British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) and Qantas (0845 774 7767; www.qantas.co.uk). Garuda Indonesia (020-7467 8640; www.garuda-indonesia.com) and SilkAir (00 65 6223 8888; www.silkair.com) fly from Singapore to Denpasar (Bali) and Medan (Sumatra); Jetstar Asia (00 65 6822 2288; www.jetstar.com) flies from Singapore to Denpasar.

GETTING AROUND

Long and short-distance coaches ply every route across Indonesia, but rarely the precise one you want to follow. In Bali "tourist buses" run to sites of interest: Perama (00 62 361 751 551; www.peramatour.com) is one of the best companies. Jan's Tours ( www.janstours.com) covers Bali and beyond.

STAYING THERE

None of these options costs more than £5 for a double room, usually with breakfast included. Mandara Chico Homestay, Tukad Mungga, Lovina, Bali (00 62 362 541526).

Lava View Lodge, Cemoro Lawang, Mount Bromo, Java (00 62 335 541009).

Istana Griya Homestay, Jalan Dahlan 22, Surakarta, Java (00 62 271 632 667).

Bladok Hotel, Jalan Sosro 76, Yogyakarta, Java (00 62 274 560 452).

Hotel Purnama, Jalan Raden Intan, Bandar Lampung, Sumatra (00 62 721 251 447).

Samosir Cottages, Samosir Island, Lake Toba, Sumatra (00 62 625 41050).

RED TAPE

British passport-holders are required to purchase an entry visa on arrival, costing US$25 (£14) for a 30-day stay.

OFFICIAL ADVICE

Bali and other locations in Indonesia have been the targets of terrorist bombings, causing large losses of life. According to the Foreign Office (0845 850 2829; www.fco.gov.uk), a high threat from terrorism remains: "We continue to receive reports that terrorists in Indonesia are planning further attacks, including attacks against Westerners and Western interests. Foreigners, and locations and buildings frequented by foreigners, continue to remain attractive potential targets to terrorists"

The official advice urges "Caution when travelling to Aceh, which is emerging from a long-running internal conflict. You should exercise particular caution when travelling to remote areas."

MORE INFORMATION

Indonesia Tourism: www.indonesia-tourism.com

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