Tourists at Tangkuban Perahu, Bandung. Mike Aquino.
The islands of Java and Bali both share centuries of history and culture: it was on Java where the Majapahit empire arose in the late 13th century, growing to encompass Bali and much of present-day Indonesia. The Majapahit may be long gone, but you can still find its traces in an overland tour through its former haunts.
Start at Indonesia's capital Jakarta, where you can explore buildings that define Indonesia's identity – among them the National Museum and Monas (National Monument).
Ride a bus to the West Java capital Bandung: a former Dutch colonial garrison town that now boasts of culture and nature in equal measure. Watch a Sundanese cultural show at the Saung Angklung Udjo; explore two simmering volcanic craters, Tangkuban Perahu to the north and Kawah Putih to the south; and go shopping in Bandung's many factory outlets!
From Bandung, you'll ride down a newly-constructed highway to Borobudur, a massive Buddhist stupa built in the 9th century. Come early to watch the sunrise from atop Borobudur, then walk around the monument to admire the carved reliefs that adorn the walls.
The closest major city to Borobodur is also the cradle of Javanese civilization. At Yogyakarta, you can visit a number of sites that introduce you to the vibrant culture of the Javanese, among them the royal palace (Kraton) and a nearby Water Palace (Taman Sari); the Kota Gede silverworks and the shopping street of Malioboro for the local crafts; and the ancient Hindu temple of Prambanan, an ideal sunset viewing site.
A train or bus ride brings you to Surabaya, then on to Bromo, a smoldering volcano in the middle of a “Sea of Sand”. After watching the sun rise from nearby Mount Penenjakan, ride down to the Sea of Sand, where you can walk up a 250-step stair to the brim of Mount Bromo itself!
Ride on to Banyuwangi, Java's easternmost point, where the ferry at Ketapang makes the short sea crossing over to Bali. While Bali is worth its own long travelogue, beginners can explore its highlights at the tourist town of Kuta, the cultural town of Ubud, and the holy mountain Gunung Agung, where the “mother temple” Pura Besakih can be found.
Borobudur in the morning. Mike Aquino.
Silverworks at Kota Gede, Yogyakarta. Mike Aquino.
Bromo in the morning. Mike Aquino.
Similar Southeast Asia Experiences
Explore some of the region's other major cities for a unique look at the local culture: Brunei's Bandar Seri Begawan; Cambodia's Phnom Penh; Malaysia's Kuala Lumpur; Singapore; Thailand's Bangkok; and Vietnam's Hanoi.