From modern megacities to ancient temples, steaming volcanoes to palm fringed beaches, amazing terraced farmlands to dense tropical jungle, Java is an island of contrasts and contradictions. It’s the kind of place that beguiles one minute and frustrates the next but never ceases to fascinate.
The administrative and economic hub of Indonesia, Java spans little more than 1,000km from east to west and 160km at its widest point, so it isn’t particularly big. Yet according to the 2015 census, it’s home to over 145 million people and 57% of Indonesia’s total population, earning it the dubious title of the most populated island on earth. It has all the chaotic madness you’d expect from that kind of population density yet it still has an abundance of quiet villages, gorgeous rural vistas, pristine tracts of jungle, remote national parks and secluded beaches.
Like many of Indonesia’s islands, it straddles the Sunda Volcanic Arc. The spine of the island contains no less than 120 volcanoes, many of which are extremely active. Whilst the locals seem to take the semi-regular eruptions in their stride, the volcano trekking market is flourishing with tourists coming from all over the world to climb Mount Bromo, Semeru or camp on a deserted beach to watch the Krakatao lava flows glowing in the darkness.
If it’s history and culture you’re into then Java has it in abundance. Based on the chance 1891 discovery of “Java man” the fossilized remains of Homo erectus, archeologists believe the island was inhabited as long ago as 1.5 million years. Indian traders arrived in 1st century, bringing Hinduism with them, and ancient Hindu temples scattered throughout the highlands, such as those found at Dieng Plateau, Gedung Songo and Prambanan, attest to the widespread adoption of this religion. During the 9th century, Buddhism also gained acceptance and the Javanese capacity for temple building entered a new phase of largess with the construction of the magnificent Borobudur, the world’s biggest Buddhist monument.
The two religions flourished quite peaceably together well into the 15th century, but came under increasing pressure from followers of Islam, mostly coastal dwellers who had been steadily converted by Muslim traders in the preceding centuries. When the Majapahit Empire fell in the early 16th century, it paved the way for the establishment of several Muslim kingdoms through central and western Java and the rapid conversion of the population.
It’s almost impossible to visit the ancient temple sites or volcanic complexes without crossing the vast lowland rice fields and venturing into the highlands where impossibly steep garden terraces cling to the hillsides between tracts of verdant jungle. Tea, coffee, tobacco, potato and cinchona (the source of quinine) thrive in the cool mountain mists.
Java’s flora and fauna is as exotic as everything else about the island. Monkeys, wild boar, crocodiles, snakes and over 400 species of birds are found all over the island and around the coast. Pulau Dua Nature Reserve in north-west Java is a great place for bird watching. Sadly, the Javan tiger is now extinct but the one-horned rhinoceros and banteng (wild ox) can still be found in the islands remote Ujung Kulon National Park on the island’s western tip, and gibbon and the rare Javan leaf monkey in Mount Halimun Salak National Park.
Few places in the world have such a wealth of attractions concentrated in such a small area. The hardest part for tourists who don’t have a spare year or two up their sleeve, is trying to decide what to see and what to leave out. So, we’ve pooled our knowledge and done our best to pull together a good cross section of some of Java’s best attractions and off-the-beaten-track locations for those travellers seeking something a little different from the norm.