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Indonesia World Heritage

A rundown and photos of sites on UNESCO's 2020 World Heritage and Tentative lists for Indonesia (Java, Sumatra and Bali) plus, as usual, a couple of our personal suggestions

The vast Indonesian Archipelago is a continent-sized nation in its own right so we’re going to limit this post to areas at present covered in our scheduled tours, namely the islands of Sumatra. Java and Bali. Despite the country’s huge area, UNESCO’s Indonesia World Heritage sites list currently stands at a meagre 5 cultural and 4 natural sites. Furthermore, even by restricting our coverage to just 3 out of some 7,000 inhabited islands, we still manage to include all but 2 of the list’s entries.

Good news, however, is that UNESCO’s tentative list does include no less than 19 sites, widely spread throughout the islands. The Indonesia World Heritage list then; – clearly, very much a work in progress.

Indonesia World Heritage
Current Sites

Of the 5 cultural sites listed, Java lays claim to 3 with Bali and Sumatra both having a single entry. Java and Sumatra also possess 1 natural site each with the others being Komodo National Park and Lorenz National Park on the island of Irian Jaya (New Guinea.)

2 popular and obvious selections are Central Java’s Borobudur and Prambanan temples with the 3rd being the Sangiran Early Man Site. The latter, also located in Central Java, close to Solo, is a particularly rich archaeological site dating back over 2 million years and revealing evidence of both Homo Sapiens (or Sapiens, Sapiens if you prefer) and Homo Erectus; Although Sangiran doesn’t really warrant the casual tourist going out of their way for a visit the 2 former ancient temple sites, close to Yogyakarta, are certainly among the island’s biggest draws. Borobudur is an 8th-9th-century Buddhist site and Prambanan a 10th-century Hindu temple. Both are spectacular sites set in attractive parkland and – after much earthquake damage restoration – in relatively good condition.

Indonesia. Java Overland. UNESCO Prambanan Temple

Sumatra’s cultural entry – which we confess to not having visited – is the rather outside the box Ombilin Coal Mine. UNESCO added it to the list in 2019 describing it as the Coal Mining Heritage of Sawahlunto. The final entry goes by the catchy name of the Cultural Landscape of Bali Province: the Subak System as a Manifestation of the Tri Hita Karana Philosophy, which, as far as we can ascertain from the blurb, basically boils down to rice terraces. As with the Dutch period coal mine, we’re sure it’s a very worthy site, although we’d claim that, palm oil plantations aside, rice terracing on volcanic slopes is to some extent the default landscape setting throughout much of the inhabited parts of the archipelago. (Of course, in this case, picturesque, verdant rice terraces are often hyped as an antidote to Bali’s over-commercialised south coast beaches.)

Indonesia World Heritage
Bali landscape; rice terraces and volcano near Munduk

The 2 natural sites are the Tropical Rainforest Heritage of Sumatra and Java’s Ujung Kulon National Park. The former is a very impressive 25,000 square kilometre grouping of Gunung Leuser, Kerinci Seblat and Bukit Barisan Selatan National Parks although comes with the caveat that said protected areas, located in the north, central and southwestern parts of the large island, are, unfortunately, very widely separated. Between them, they shelter Sumatran rhinos, elephants and tigers as well as orangutans, sun bears and numerous other endangered and endemic species. The latter entry, an area of lowland rainforest, located in the far southwest corner of Java and including offshore islands such as Krakatoa, is conversely the last refuge of the Javan rhinoceros.

 Indonesia, Alas Purwo National Park
Since we don’t have pics of Ujong Kulon in the southwest corner of Java here’s Alas Purwo National Park in the far southeast corner instead.
Tentative List

As we mentioned UNESCO’s very busy tentative list for Indonesia World Heritage sites covers no less than 19 entries which you can check here as we’re not about to list them all individually. We’ve counted 4 national parks listed, perhaps most noticeably the huge Betung Kerihun in Kalimantan (Borneo), plus 3 island groups; Raja Ampat, Derawan and Banda, although 2 of the national parks – Bonerate and Wakatobi are also island/atoll chains. (Good to see some marine areas on the list.)

There are also cultural sites in Sulawesi, Nias, Riau and Sumatra, including the famous Tana Toraja at the former, as well as a couple more prehistoric cave and rock painting submissions. More recent heritage and architecture are represented by the old towns of Semarang, Jakarta and Yogyakarta (all Java) with the former having perhaps the strongest claim. The remaining tentative suggestions we’ll classify as miscellaneous.

Generic Borneo rainforest image
Generic Borneo rainforest image
Not on the List

Frankly, if UNESCO sees fit to confirm half of the above tentative sites list they’ll be doing very well and a cross-section, including Betung Kerihun, a couple of the most fragile island-atoll chains and most threatened old towns would be very welcome. With such a huge area in question – and our personal knowledge covering just a tiny fraction – we’d be at a loss to make any additional suggestions to the Indonesia World Heritage tentative list. However, it does strike us that, when you consider the sheer size of islands such as Sumatra, Borneo and New Guinea, the lack of natural nominations is very concerning. The battering these islands’ flora, fauna and landscapes are taking is very much ongoing and it’s tempting to say act now before it’s too late! If those rainforests aren’t part of world heritage we don’t know what is – even if it’s at the expense of a coal mine or botanical garden or two.

Indonesia World Heritage. Dutch period buildings in Yogyakarta
Dutch period buildings in Yogyakarta
On our Tours

We’re currently working on a Sumatra extension to our existing Java tour which would include a visit to Gunung Leuser National Park as well as Lake Toba  – which noticeably doesn’t even make it onto the tentative list. Jakarta’s old town is included in our 4-day add-on while dawn at Borobudur and sunset at Prambanan are 2 of the highlights of our Java Overland tour along with Yogyakarta’s old town. The tour does only skip through Bali rather rapidly but the island’s terraces and landscapes can be taken in at a more leisurely pace on an Ubud-based extension, available on demand. Although obviously not on our Java itinerary we have in the past organised tailor-made itineraries to such far-flung Indonesian destinations as Komodo and the Raja Ampat Islands so…just ask.