Clad in gas masks and headlamps, dozens of people wound their way through the darkness down the rocky path, their headlamps highlighting the sulfuric smoke that billowed out between yellow rocks. Below them, an eerie, blue glow could be seen emanating from the base of the crater, the product of a small flame emitted by constantly burning sulfur deposits.
While this may sound like a scene from a science fiction movie, it is actually a popular tourist attraction: the Ijen volcano, located in the east of Indonesia's most populous island, Java. Throughout the year, visitors depart in the middle of the night to make the roughly 3-mile hike to witness the blue flame and to catch a spectacular sunrise from the crater's edge.
I had come to Indonesia as a guest of the country's Tourism Ministry to hike Ijen, to explore Java and, of course, to check out the country's most popular destination, the island of Bali. While Bali's beaches, surfing and nightlife are everything they're cracked up to be, Indonesia contains roughly 17,000 islands offering travelers endless possibilities for exploration.
My trip started in Yogyakarta, a city of 400,000 located about 270 miles east of Java's capital, Jakarta.
Yogyakarta, or "Yogya" as it's known locally, makes a great base for exploring some of the largest and most extensive temples in Indonesia. My first stop was Borobudur, the world's largest Buddhist temple. You could easily spend hours wandering the grounds and appreciating this Unesco World Heritage site that dates from the ninth century. The central structure is a nine-story pyramid with incredibly detailed relief panels on each level that tell the life story of Buddha. At the top, visitors can take in the 72 stupas, each with a statue of Buddha inside of them, as well as spectacular views of the surrounding countryside.
From Borobudur I made the easy drive to the Prambanan, an equally impressive Hindu temple compound that also dates to the ninth century. Another World Heritage site, Prambanan is dominated by a towering, 150-foot-high temple surrounded by a number of smaller temples dedicated to the three main Hindu divinities.
My next destination was Banyuwangi, located on the eastern shore of Java, a short drive from the ferry that connects Java and Bali. Banyuwangi is a popular destination for those looking to hike the Ijen crater. It also makes a great base for exploring eastern Java, with its pristine beaches and beautiful waterfalls.
Tourism officials point to places like Banyuwangi as up-and-coming spots that visitors can check out in addition to their stays in Bali.
Ida Fahmiwati from the Ministry of Tourism said that they are working to promote new tourism attractions beyond Bali with their campaign, "10 New Balis."
"To experience Indonesia, it is inadequate to only visit one destination," said Fahmiwati via email. "The real Indonesia lays on the collection of experiencing all wonders from one location to another."
And while it's true there is no shortage of destinations to explore on Indonesia's other islands, Bali is the main draw for many visitors to Indonesia for good reason.
I spent the last two days of my trip based in Kuta, on the southwest shore of Bali. For those with an image of Bali consisting of remote beaches, Kuta might not be their destination of choice; there is constant and ubiquitous traffic, and throngs of tourists flock here year-round. But for those looking to surf in the morning, shop in the afternoon and hit the bars at night, this is a great place to do it.
After a week of exploring I felt that I had only scratched the surface of Indonesia, knowing that I had only visited two of its thousands of islands. As I boarded my plane to leave, I was already planning my return trip to see the dragons of Komodo Island and the wilderness of Borneo.