Introduction to Backpacking Indonesia!

Arriving here from the “Banana Pancake Trail”, travelling Indonesia is an entirely different challenge to the rest of Southeast Asia. Infrastructure is minimal, the roads woeful and the drivers seemingly suicidal! It is travelling at its most frustrating but, as you’ll find as you pass friendly faces saying hello to the strange “bule” (white person), also its most rewarding.

EAT! – Sambal. Indonesians would put chilli into milk if they could and some of these have to be experienced to be believed. You’ll cry, pour sweat from every inch and be rendered incapable of speech but it is all part of life here.

DRINK! – Kopi Luwak (Coffee Luwak). The world’s most expensive coffee is unique to Indonesia and is taken from the poo of the Luwak – a mongoose-like creature. Despite its popularity, this pricy brew has a dark background.

WEAR! – Batik. It might look like a Hawaiian shirt that your Dad used to embarrass you with at family barbecues but it’s an important part of Indonesian life.

BEWARE! – Arak. The local moonshine is popular among locals, but it is sometimes mixed with shampoo, and there have been reports of severe illness and traveller’s have even died after drinking it! Our advice? Stick to beer with a sealed top!

Indonesia Backpacking Guide

Check out our travel guides to the best places to visit in Indonesia below! Scroll further down and you’ll find an overview of each region.

Introduction to Indonesia: Where to start?

Stretching across more than 17,500 islands, only around 6,000 of which are inhabited, Indonesia is the world’s largest archipelago and fourth largest country.

Hardly surprisingly for such a large country, Indonesia has a great many contrasts. While it is the largest Muslim nation in the world – and the conservatism brought about by the religion is evident in many parts – the cities in particular play host to a lively party scene. It does have its problems also, terrorism appears to be a rising concern with religious tensions becoming more and more a part of daily life in Indonesia.

Volcanos erupt on a fairly regular occasion and the increasing threat of tsunamis has had a huge impact on the country, particularly on the western island of Sumatra. But the risks are far outweighed by the positives here, where you can enjoy some of the best food and scenery you will ever encounter as well as some of the friendliest and most hospitable people.

Ready for an adventure? Why not hire a campervan to explore Indonesia with your travel buddies!

Java: Indonesia’s Most Populated Island

Java is the most populated of Indonesia’s islands, with a population of 135 million packed onto an island smaller than the United Kingdom. The island is home to the capital city of Jakarta, a sprawling, messy place that is difficult to like, and even more difficult to get around!

Java really comes alive away from the cities… In the West are the relaxing beach towns of Anyer and Carita, where passing travellers will be met by that Indonesian gift to the world; stunning, smiling faces. The towns are also useful as bases for the remarkable Krakatoa Volcano, home to the world’s largest volcanic eruption way back in 1883.

To the South lie some of the world’s best surf beaches and the cities of Bogor, Bandung and Yogyakarta (pronounced Jogja) are terrific, bohemian cities to visit. In particular, Yogyakarta (Jogya), which is home to the world-famous Borobudur and Prambanan temples as well as Mount Merapi, erupting violently as recently as late 2010. There is more spectacular scenery further east in the form of Mount Bromo National Park.

Mighty Mount Bromo, Java, Indonesia.

Sumatra: Volcanic Crater Lakes, Paradise Islands and Unique Inhabitants

Indonesia’s largest island, Sumatra has heaps to offer. Covered in tropical rainforest, it has more than ten national parks which are home to an abundance of exotic and unique flora and fauna. From the largest volcanic crater lake in the world, Lake Toba, to trekking amongst the ancient Batak tribal villages, Sumatra truly is an island of wonders and friendly people. In the north, don’t miss the island of Pulau Weh which is an off the beaten track paradise, famous for its amazing diving. In the centre, many travellers visit the small town of Bukit Lawang which is famous for treks into the jungle to see orangutans in a semi-natural habitat.

Read article: Sumatra – “A forgotten land”.

Lake Toba, Sumatra, Indonesia.
Lake Toba, Sumatra, Indonesia.

Bali: Hippie Surf Hub and Party Paradise

Bali is Indonesia’s most famous destination. A Hindu enclave in an otherwise predominately Muslim nation, the island has an identity completely of its own and nowhere is this summed up more than in the cultural heart that is Ubud, home to meditation centres and all sorts of activities that are aimed at helping the traveller relax. The scene is completely different in the South, where surfers and beachgoers enjoy a lively party scene.

Kuta, scene of the terrorist attacks in 2002, is the most famous of these, but truth be told it has become a scruffy place and only worth a visit if you want a good night out. Travel north and the scene is different again, beach life is relaxing and has less of a party feel, while if you want to get off the beaten track here – quite difficult on such a well-trodden path as Bali – then head east to the town of Amed, where one or two small hotels occupy the otherwise desolate street and you will find Indonesian hospitality at its finest. Read our backpacking guide to Bali here.

Surfing at Sanur, Bali.
Surfing at Sanur, Bali.

Lesser Sunda Islands

Moving through the islands, the Gilli islands, just to the east of Bali, are popular amongst backpackers and are a haven for snorkelers and divers. (Gili Trawangan being the most lively island for backpackers.) Many backpackers spend some time on the island of Lombok, where it’s possible to climb the volcano, Mount Rinjani. Further along this chain of islands lie the breathtaking Flores, Sumba and Komodo islands. The last one being home to the beautiful and unique Komodo Dragon found nowhere else in the world.

Further east is the island of Timor. The eastern half of the island is one of the world’s newest nations East Timor, which gained independence from Indonesia, in a bloody manner, as recently as 2002, but the western half of the island is still part of Indonesia and is home to beautiful caves, beaches and scenery.

A Komodo Dragon
The Komodo Dragon, indigenous to East Indonesia.

Maluku Spice islands, Papua and Sulawesi – A Unique Culture

The famed Maluku Spice islands lie just north of here and sitting at Indonesia’s most eastern point is the huge island of Papua. A culture and people so distinct from the rest of Indonesia that is vying for independence of its own. Life here is generally very primitive and it is a remarkable insight into a life long-lost to western civilisations.

Sulawesi is Indonesia’s most distinctively-shaped island and is home to some of the world’s best diving, food and trekking. The Torajan people in the south-west of this island are an absolute must if you are passing through for their unique funeral ceremonies and distinct architecture.

Read more about travelling in Sulawesi here.

Tana Toraja, Sulawesi.
Tana Toraja, Sulawesi.

Kalimantan – Borneo

Indonesia’s largest island of Kalimantan (the Indonesian part of Borneo) is home to another distinctively Indonesian creature, the Orangutan, as is the large island of Sumatra, which also plays host to the hospitable Batak people, beautiful Lake Toba, Padang food and even more surf beaches. The city of Pontianak is the capital of Indonesian Borneo.

Read our latest articles about Indonesia…

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Written by: Oliver Slow has five years’ experience working as a journalist in Myanmar at Frontier Myanmar Magazine. He is Chief-of-Staff at Frontier and his work has appeared in publications including The Guardian, CNN and Nikkei Asian Review.

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