Ancient Buddhist ruins framed by backdrops of luminous green rice terraces and conical volcanoes trailing plumes of smoke... Dancers decked in intricate, jewel-encrusted headdresses, tracing graceful arcs in the air with long, gold fingernails and lengths of canary-coloured silk... Shoals of kaleidoscopic fish streaming through coral reefs... Vast, unexplored swathes of rainforest where Orangutans lumber through the branches.

Indonesia offers the modern traveller a non-stop parade of arrestingly exotic experiences. The trick is knowing where to find them. Scattered like an emerald necklace across the South Pacific, the country is vast – a chain of 17,508 islands draped over 500km of ocean between Indochina and Australia.

As an introduction to Indonesia’s intensely beautiful landscapes and traditional lifestyles, you can’t do better than three islands in the so-called Sunda Shelf – Java, Bali, and Borneo.

Thanks to its fertile volcanic soil and plentiful rainfall, Java is the most populous in the archipelago. The nation’s sprawling capital, Jakarta, lies on its north coast, but the undisputed cultural hub is Yogyakarta, where visitors come to experience traditional Javanese music, dance, arts and crafts, as well as to visit the great archaeological sites of Borobudur and Prambanan nearby. Smouldering in the background, a phalanx of active volcanoes form an otherworldly hinterland, where you can climb in the pre-dawn gloom to gaze over the rim of giant craters for the sunrise view of a lifetime.

Bali, to the east of Java, is also dominated by volcanoes looming over coastlines of gorgeous white-sand beaches and transparent seas. Thanks to its spellbinding natural beauty, this is by far Indonesia’s most visited island. Busy, first-world resorts cluster along its south coast, but Bali’s unique, Hindu-dominated traditional culture still holds sway at the interior town of Ubu – crucible for a wealth of sumptuous art forms, from gamelan music to ikat weaving.

Nature rather than culture tends to be why most people travel north across the Java Sea to Kalimantan, Indonesia’s share of Borneo. The island’s vast jungles retain some of the greatest biodiversity on the planet, as well as indigenous minorities who until a generation ago remained entirely aloof from the modern world. Kalimantan’s star attraction, however, is the beguiling, copper-haired Orang-utan, which can be seen close up at several rescue centres.

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