Thinking of going to Indonesia? Indonesia expert Derek Freal tells us how adventures can lead to the unexpected, where to go besides Bali and how to go beyond the guidebook.
1. What has been your favorite misadventure traveling through Indonesia?
Well I’m not 100% sure this is a “misadventure,” but one morning while sitting at breakfast a lady came up to me and asked, “Hey, are you Derek?” After two photo shoots and a screen test I was cast to do this tourism film on Sumatra. The night before flying out to the set I was informed, “So you’ll be staring alongside Riyanni Djangkaru.” I didn’t know the name at that time, but turns out she is a famous Indonesian traveler and former TV star turned magazine founder and save sharks activist. She and I hit it off the minute we met and became instant friends, often so busy chatting and joking that we wouldn’t even hear the director yell “Action!”
After becoming friends with Riyanni and continuing to spend more time with her after filming wrapped I started meeting other influential Indonesians. These include travel writers, actors/actresses, even a few musicians.
As they started following and talking about me on Twitter my Indonesian following ballooned. Other things like my appearance on an Indonesian game show also helped. Meanwhile the production company that did the film is working on pitching a couple different ideas for travel TV shows to the networks back in Indonesia, so hopefully later this year something will come to fruition.
Screencapture of Derek dancing on national television
You originally only planned to stay in Indonesia for one month. What happened?
Well, I arrived at the beginning of June and as the end of my 30 days was approaching the fires in Sumatra were causing the Singapore Smog. With that country cloaked in smoke I decided that probably wouldn’t be the best time to visit, and instead extended my visa for another 30 days. By the end of that month I had done a great deal of exploring Indonesia, but more than anything else I realized that I still had a lot of exploring left to do. Six months later and all that was even more reinforced. With 17,508 islands you could visit one a day and it would take a whopping 49 years before you had been to all of them.
Now that I have gained an overwhelming number of followers/readers in Indonesia, started tweeting in Bahasa Indonesia, and even wrote my first post in the language a couple weeks ago, I’ll definitely be headed back there again soon. That post set new records of traffic to my blog over the next 48 hours and further reinforced the fact that I need to stick around that country and explore more. Although I’m currently taking a four-month break from Indonesia to re-visit the Philippines, Vietnam, and Cambodia, I fully intend on returning there in May for my newest adventure, the Tour de Horror.
2. Do you think Bali lives up to the hype it receives? Why or why not?
It depends on what you want to find in Bali. If you are looking for a budget-friendly backpacking location or a quiet, relaxing day at the beach, that is not the place for you — everything is over-priced and hawkers will harass you every ten seconds whether on the beach or walking around town.
But if you want to take the family to a nice resort, eat the same Western foods you are comfortable with, and pay inflated prices for everything, well then Bali is the island for you; however I much prefer the neighboring island of Lombok, which still receives a lot of tourism but is far less Westernized.
A local friend put it to me like this: “Everything you can find in Bali can also be found on Lombok, but the reverse is not true.” Now I’m not saying that there isn’t some culture to be found in Bali, just that much of it — especially in places like Kuta and Denpasar — has been buried underneath extensive westernization.
Panoramic of Lombok with Rinjani Mountain seen in the distance
3. For travelers going to Bali what’s one thing you recommend that they probably won’t see in their guidebook?
Nusa Penida. It is a small island just off the southeastern corner of Bali and is still a hidden destination. There the locals are happy to have visitors, not because you bring money, but because they want to share their culture with you and also learn about yours. There’s a saying there: “You come to Penida as strangers but go home as family.” It represents what Bali was 20-30 years ago, before the island started pandering to westerners.
4. What’s your favorite local Indonesian dish and why?
Lots of Indonesian dishes are fried and contain MSG — in other words they’re delicious! However, my personal favorite is soto ayam. Soto is a type of soup full of noodles, veggies, and chicken. It is served with rice and you can either add the rice into the soup (as I prefer) or spoon the soup over rice. Very delicious and surprisingly filling. Plus the ingredients vary in every city and region you visit, making it exciting and interesting to see all the different takes on the same dish.
Soto from Jogja (Yogyakarta)
5. What’s one underrated destination in Indonesia and why?
Jakarta is by far the most underrated city in Indonesia; however, I won’t try to justify my new-found appreciation for that city now — it will continue to suck for all travelers until they spend several weeks there and make friends, learn to see Jakarta from a different perspective. That won’t happen for most travelers, so instead I’ll suggest Sumatra. There is a wealth of stuff to do there, only a fraction of which is actually documented in guidebooks. Everyone knows of the orangutan sanctuary but few have ever heard of the Green Canyon in Bukittinggi, the elephant sanctuary in Riau or the dodol aceh of, well, Banda Aceh.
Riding elephants around the sanctuary in Riau
6. If a traveler had to choose one single thing to do in Indonesia, what would you recommend?
Rent a motorcycle for a month and transverse as much of the country on two wheels as possible, particularly the small villages you pass in between the bigger cities. The locals are very friendly while doing this I was invited to stay in so many peoples’ homes. Plus thanks to the extensive network of ferries it is possible to travel from island to island with relative ease — just don’t tell the rental company your plans!
Q&A with Derek Freal who broke one of his cardinal rules of never visiting a country multiple times after falling in love with Indonesia. After long four trips and motorcycling all over the country he is poised to become one of the prominent foreign Indonesian experts.