Bali lies in the center of the chain of Indonesian islands and exploring other islands from Bali is easy. Java to the west is just 1.2 miles across the Bali Strait from Gilimanuk and Lombok to the west is a four hour ferry ride from Padangbai.
Java offers a more Indonesian experience than Bali. For some travelers it’s difficult to separate Indonesian culture from Balinese culture. For one thing the languages are very different and while the Balinese are predominantly Hindu the Javanese are mostly Muslim. You’ll notice the mosques and will be included in the 5am wake up call whether you like it or not. I remember once in Solo my guesthouse was located between two mosques that seemed to be competing to see who could make the most noise. Not that the people in Java are hard line religious fanatics, and there are many Javanese Christians and two of the largest Buddhists structures in the world, Prambanam and Borobudor, are in Java.
Travelling across Java from Bali is not that expensive and you have options. I’ve used local overnight buses that are crowded, sweaty but cheap. You’ll hit every pothole in the road and three other people touching you the whole time, but your wallet won’t feel a thing.
You can also ride an air-con bus. Bali to Jakarta will take about 24 hours by bus.
I think most travelers look at Java and plan to hit the cultural centers of Solo, Yogyakarta, check out a volcano or two, maybe hang out on the south coast for a while and spend as little time in Jakarta as possible.
When you hit the east coast of Java you’ll have the chance to check out Mt Bromo, which is spectacularly sited in a massive caldera and watching the dawn from the lip is incredible. I thought Bromo had a wonderfully unique atmosphere and as it is slightly at altitude is pleasantly cooler than other parts of Java. You can hike down in to the caldera and visit a little temple, before climbing Bromo itself (there is a staircase).
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Mt Merapi is another famous volcano in Central Java that is fun to visit.
The city of Surabaya is the second largest in Indonesia and the things I remember were the crazy traffic and the habit of locals crossing the road heading out into a stream of fast traffic with their hand up in the air. It almost defies logic and is nerve racking watching cars swerve around you in a haphazard way, but strangely this is how it’s done.
The streets of Surabaya are very busy with open air food stalls and shoppers. As soon as they see a white face other heads turn and there’s a ton of smiles, waves and “hello mister”‘s.
Surabaya has a run-down zoo with a couple of sad looking Komodo dragons. Let me tell you it isn’t the San Diego zoo by any means and I wondered whether the WWF might not complain about the low standards. Still, it’s the safest way to see a dragon.
North of Surabaya is the island of Madura where the locals have interesting version of bullfighting.
Solo (also known as Surakarta) is a cultural center that has connections to Buddhist, Muslim and Hindu religions. The kraton or palace and look out for celebrations, especially the Ramayana dances. Solo is also a batik center.
Yogyakarta is the main batik center and its thoroughfare, Jalan Malioboro, is a madhouse lined with stalls selling pants, shirts and all kinds of batik garments.