Indonesia Travel Guide

Arriving in Indonesia after backpacking the “Banana Pancake Trail” of Southeast Asia, you will encounter a completely different test! Infrastructure is minimal, the roads woeful and the drivers are seemingly suicidal! Indonesia is travelling at its most challenging 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 and we suggest that you boycott it.

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 Bintang beer with a sealed top!

What is the Best Time to Visit Indonesia?

Owing to its geographical location, the country sports a tropical climate throughout the year and has only two seasons to boast of – wet & dry. The dry season lasts from May to September and wet season is from October and April. 

Round the year you will get somewhat of a constant temperature of 28-30°C in all of its islands, especially in the plains. Higher altitudes will be a little bit cooler in comparison obviously, so if you are climbing volcanoes, be sure to pack in some layers!

It is advisable to check the island-specific weather conditions before you visit because patterns change depending on the region. For example, you will hardly feel the seasonal transition from dry to wet in Bali but in islands like Lombok (which is right next door to Bali) the seasonal impacts are much stronger in the form of floods during the monsoon season and droughts during the dry spell.

The next thing to keep in mind while visiting Indonesia is the sort of activity you want to indulge in. If you are diving off the coasts, then avoid the rough sea season of January and February at all cost especially if you are considering Bali, Lombok or Komodo National Park for diving.

Want to go explore the innards of the islands? Avoid rains. Opt for dry months so that you are not stuck in a mud-path with a broken road. For climbing volcanoes also, the dry month is considered the best.

The crater Mount Rinjani Lombok Indonesia
Hiking Mount Rinjani is one of the top must do things in Lombok, Indonesia!

Do you need a Visa for Indonesia?

For visiting Indonesia, there are two main visa types available:

  • Free Visit Visa
  • Regular Tourist Visa

Free Visit VISA can be availed by citizens of 169 countries as of now, a list of which you will get here in the Indonesia section. The list covers USA, UK, and most other EU nations. You just need a passport with six months’ validity and two empty pages.

This visa is only VALID for 30 DAYS and is NON-EXTENDABLE, unlike the regular tourist visa. Regular tourist VISA can be procured for USD 35 on arrival but is ALSO valid only for 30 days. But this one here is extendable for another 30 days although only ONCE. For more details on visas, check out our Southeast Asia Visa Guide.

Travel Guides to Places to Visit in Indonesia

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. (These links open in a new tab)

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.

Planning your Indonesia Itinerary – 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. So where do you begin to start planning a backpacking adventure? First off, let’s go through the main islands of Indonesia, then we’ll look at not to be missed destinations!

A good idea is to pick a starting point and taking into consideration the shape of the country try to travel from each place in a logical order. If you are flying to Bali or Jakarta, make your way northwest and if you fly to Medan make your way down south. Indonesia is huge and travel is slow, so it’s best not to try to cram too much into too short a period. 

The Main Islands of Indonesia

Java – Overview

Java is the most populated of Indonesia’s islands, and officially the most populated island in the world! There’s 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!

Check out the best hostels to stay in Jakarta here!

Where Java really comes alive is away from the cities…

In the West of Java, you will find 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, the site of the world’s largest-ever 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 are terrific, bohemian cities to visit, full of life, culture and personality.

In particular, Yogyakarta (nicknamed Jogya) is a must-visit destination in Java, Indonesia and home to the world-famous Borobudur and Prambanan Temples as well as the active volcano Mount Merapi, erupting violently as recently as late 2010. There is more spectacular scenery further east in the form of Mount Bromo National Park.

Read more about Java here.

Mount Bromo, Indonesia.
Mount Bromo, Indonesia.

Sumatra – Overview

Indonesia’s largest island, Sumatra has heaps to offer the adventurous traveller. 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 and snorkelling. If you’re planning to surf in Indonesia, you’ll want to head to nearby BandaAceh where perfect barrels await. Read more about surfing in Sumatra here. 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.

Orangutan in Sarawak Borneo
You can see orangutans in two places in SE Asia, Sarawak in Malaysian Borneo and Bukit Lawang in Sumatra, Indonesia.

Also read:

Bali – Overview

Bali is undoubtedly Indonesia’s most famous destination, famous with holidaymakers worldwide. A Hindu enclave in an otherwise predominately Muslim nation, the island has an identity completely of its own. Nowhere is this summed up more than in the Balinese area of 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 a little to Sanur and the scene is different again, beach life is relaxing and has less of a party feel.

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 and Tulamben, where one or two small hotels occupy the otherwise desolate street and you will find Indonesian hospitality at its finest. Amed is also home to one of Bali’s best beaches, we won’t tell if you don’t! ? Or, if you fancy getting off the island completely, get the boat over to Nusa Penida or Nusa Lembongan. Don’t forget, there is plenty of traditional culture in Bali, you just need to find it!

The cliffs of Uluwatu, Bali.
The cliffs of Uluwatu, Bali.

Read our backpacking guide to Bali here.

Lesser Sunda Islands – Overview

Moving through the islands, the Gili islands, just to the east of Bali, are popular amongst backpackers and are a haven for snorkelers and divers. Each island offers a different feel, with Gili Trawangan being the most lively island for backpackers.

Looking towards Lombok from Gili Air, Indonesia
Looking towards Lombok from Gili Air, Indonesia

Many backpackers also spend some time on the island of Lombok, where it’s possible to climb Lombok’s highest volcano, Mount Rinjani – be warned it’s a challenge!  Lombok is also a great spot from which to reach the ‘secret’ Gili islands.

These islands see far fewer visitors and offer the chance to swim with tropical fish and if you’re really lucky, sea turtles! For a really authentic experience, it is also possible to camp overnight at Gili Sudak! This two-day ‘Secret Gili’ island hopping trip is one you won’t want to miss. 

Further along this chain of islands lie the breathtaking Flores, Sumba and the Komodo Islands, home to the spectacular Komodo National Park. Here you will find the ferocious 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.

Maluku Spice islands, Papua and Sulawesi – Overview

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 – Overview

Indonesia’s largest island is shared with Malaysia and the southern Indonesian part is known as Kalimantan. Travel doesn’t get any wilder than this, with little infrastructure and hardly any backpacker hostels. The gateway to the island is the city of Pontianak, also the capital of Indonesian Borneo.

Check out this post for more incredible islands in Indonesia!

Top 10 Things to Do in Indonesia

1. Surf!

Indonesia has everything to rustle up that gorgeous wave! 17,000 islands with an approx 34,000 miles of coastline, consistent swells in the Indian Ocean created as a result of the storms fairing in the higher latitudes, trade winds during the dry season, thousands of miles of coral reefs and much more. The country is all about versatility, so whether you are a beginner or a pro, or whether you head here during the dry or the wet season, you will get plenty of spots to choose from and a variety of waves to catch a ride on!

Read 👉 Surfing in Bali – Best Breaks! 🏄

2. Dive!

Indonesia is a biodiverse-rich country where both land and ocean are equally blessed! Be ready to spot 3000+ species of marine life and 600 species of both hard and soft corals as you dive deep into the belly of the ocean.

Diving in Indonesia is super easy with numerous schools waiting to take you to try a variety of diving, whether muck or reef, night or day, wreck or drift. Though the dry season is preferred because of crystal clear visibility, let it be known… that monsoon is Manta season!!!

3. Hike a Volcano

Situated on the Pacific Ring Of Fire, Indonesia is expected to rock the volcano scene (no pun intended!). It is believed that there are about 150 volcanoes strewn across this archipelago nation and many of them are open for exploration.

Hike up to witness magical sunrises and colorful crater lakes or just to relish a volcano with a view from far. Famous volcanoes making to the hiking list are Mt. Agung and Mt. Batur in Bali, Mt. Bromo and Mt. Ijen in East Java, Mt. Rinjani in Lombok and Mt. Kerinci, Indonesia’s highest volcano!

4. Snorkel

If diving is not your cuppa tea, don’t let that stear you away from the underwater world! Instead, a simple snorkel will give you a window to incredible sub-aquatic scenery. Home to world’s one of the healthiest coral reefs, Indonesia is situated in the Pacific Ocean’s “Coral Triangle”.

Although the main snorkeling sites are around Bali, Lombok and the Gili Islands (see our guide to snorkelling in Gili T), if you want to go the extra mile or choose a remote location then there are exciting spots in Raja Ampat and Komodo Islands. So go and socialize with the sea turtles and swim with the Mantas, spot clownfish, monster clams or the local sunfish “mola mola”.

5. Visit Temples

Spiritualism picks up a new meaning here! Despite being a Muslim-majority country, many islands of Indonesia host a plethora of temples where Hindus and Buddhists can practice their faith.

In Bali alone there are over 20,000! The carvings (and architecture in general) of these temple complexes are a sight to behold. The UNESCO World Heritage Site of Borobudur and Prambanan, the ‘Mother Temple’ on the slopes of Gunung Agung, the ‘Water Temple’ of Pura Tirta Empul are important temples well worth a visit.

6. Do Yoga

There is nothing like a healthy session of yoga to cure your peace-starved soul. And why is Indonesia so good for that? Well, first of all, yoga traveled here naturally with the migrating Indians so you can be rest assured that its roots are deep and authentic.

Secondly – surroundings matter. Open green rice fields and white beaches bordered with an azure sea make for the perfect place to clear your head. Of course, everything is made all the more easy with beautiful yoga retreats holding daily and weekly classes for yoga enthusiasts of all levels. So whether you are a Hatha practitioner or just want to meditate, Indonesia provides!

7. Visit the Orangutans

If you are looking for a far more natural way of meeting the ‘old man of the forest’ (outside the rehabilitation centers and dubious sanctuaries), we suggest that you go for a wildlife trek in either the Indonesian part of Borneo or to Sumatra – the only two places where you can catch a sight of the creatures in their natural habitat.

Gunung Leuser National Park in Sumatra and Tanjung Puting National Park in Kalimantan, Borneo rank high in the sighting chances where you can catch orangutans in action! The most popular place to trek to see orangutans is Bukit Lawang in Sumatra.

8. Go Island Hopping

Want to feel like an explorer attempting a new adventure every day? There are no dearths of island chains in this archipelago, both popular and relatively unknown.

When you are done soaking up the sun in Bali and chasing culture in Java, partying at Gili Trawangan and witnessing incredible wildlife of Komodo Island, you can make way to lesser-known islands like that of Sumba and Flores. Every island here has its very own flavor that will leave you asking for more.

9. Attend a Festival

Ranking 4th in the list of most populous countries, Indonesia has hundreds of ethnic groups, each with their unique culture. Add to that the following of major religions like Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism and you will understand that why there is always a festival to attend in this country!

If tribal culture fascinates you, try attending a funeral ceremony of the Torajas called Rambu Solo or the mock battles of Baliem Valley tribes or jousting festival of Pasola of the Sumba people. To witness a religious festival, attend Vesak at Borobudur for Buddhism and Galungan for Hinduism and Eid-Ul-Fitr for Islam.

10. Find a Deserted Beach

As Bali, Lombok, Gili Islands, and Nusa Islands have gained popularity, it has become increasingly difficult to experience the serenity of sun, sand, and surf that is initially promised in all the glossy travel mags on Indonesia.

But if you choose to walk past the pages, you will find a little pocket of tranquillity tucked away in many known and unknown islands. So deserted beach spotting can easily become your full-time occupation in Indonesia.

Is Indonesia safe to travel?

Yes, absolutely! In fact, Indonesia made it into our list of safest Asian countries. However, the degree of safety depends a lot on the region that you are visiting. A quick search will throw up horrific news of the earthquake and tsunami that affected the island of Sulawesi and North Lombok in 2018. But as we are well aware, Indonesia is a vast archipelago where one regional devastation hardly means that the travel plans to other islands have to be cancelled.

Like any other developing nation, Indonesia gets a lot of bad press! So it is advisable that reliable news sources are consulted before you visit this country. To help you streamline your research, the following are the pain points or the safety concerns that are identified over the last decade:

  • Terrorist attacks
  • Natural disaster
  • Disease
  • Petty crime
  • Drug abuse
  • Road accidents

Local people are very friendly and they are always open to giving advice regarding the places you should visit and which to avoid. Many travelers would say that they feel a lot safer in Indonesia than they would in certain parts of their own country. To be affected by a terrorist attack or a natural disaster is to be caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.

It is advisable to investigate the state of political unrest, if any, in a place you plan to visit. If you are visiting a place in the aftermath of an earthquake, be doubly sure the building’s foundations that could have been weakened due to the impact.

A keen eye on the city council’s safety guidelines will be enough to keep your worries at bay. Drug intake is meted out with harsh punishment and local police often crack down on private gatherings. It is not advisable to score, possess or consume drugs in any form.

Regarding disease, it is advisable to get the Japanese Encephalitis vaccination if you are traveling to the country and anti-malarial pills if you are venturing into the remote recesses of the islands where mosquitoes exist in abundance.

Do NOT feed or pet any wild animal unless there is a guide or a naturalist who says that kind of behaviour is okay. Wrestling Komodo dragons is not likely to provide a lucrative future for anyone…

Considerations for Travel in a Majority Muslim Country

Indonesia has the largest Muslim population on earth. Whilst it is, in many ways, a lot more relaxed than other parts of the Muslim world, it is still necessary to take religion into consideration when choosing what to wear and how to behave. These simple guidelines will steer you in the right direction.

  • Dress sensitively – Women should avoid wearing skimpy clothing in and around religious places like Aceh. Both genders should consider covering their arms, legs and head while visiting religious buildings.
  • Etiquette – Men should refrain from shaking the hands of Muslim women unless the woman offers her hand first.
  • Respect traditions – Starting from the ‘Azan’ – the 5-times-a-day call to prayer starts early in the morning. Embrace this part of the culture, enjoy the sound of it, most importantly, don’t complain about having been woken up!
  • Consume Alcohol sensibly – According to a recent survey, Indonesia consumes the least alcohol amongst all Southeast Asian countries. Consumption of alcohol in the religious province of Aceh is forbidden. You are not allowed to drink around religious places or visit them just after drinking.

How Much Does Backpacking Indonesia Cost?

Landing in Indonesia (and converting your money to the local currency) will definitely make you feel like an instant millionaire! But that said and done, with tonnes of things to do and experience, your pocket will soon start feeling lighter.

Of course, there is no uniform cost across the many islands of Indonesia. A popular island like Bali or the capital city of Jakarta will have accommodation rates which will be comparatively higher than other non-touristy islands and smaller destinations.

The wet season is generally considered offseason and therefore you can get a pretty good deal if you know how to get one (depending on where are you visiting). All in all, for a budget backpacker, a day in Indonesia will cost you approx $25 a day.

The Cost of Hostels in Indonesia

Hostels can range from anything between $3 and $15 per night for a dorm bed. Needless to say, check with the hostel whether there is a breakfast included at that rate.

If you dig safety, cleanliness and air-con, go for a slightly higher cost. Also, keep in mind the locality and connectivity. Many hostels located on the beach will have daily shuttles to the city if they are far away. Don’t forget to make that inquiry before confirming your stay!

The Cost of Food & Drink in Indonesia

For local beer, you will be set back by Rp 15,000 to Rp 90,000 depending on whether you are procuring it from a cheap convenience store or having it in a nightclub or pub.

When it comes to food in Indonesia, a meal at an inexpensive restaurant will cost you Rp 25,000 whereas for a three-course meal at a mid-range restaurant it will cost you Rp 150,000 for two people. Obviously, we wouldn’t recommend visiting McDonald’s whilst traveling, but hey, if you do, we won’t judge. A McMeal will cost you anywhere around Rp 40,000. A bottle of water will cost around Rp 6,000.

Tap Water In Indonesia

Tap water in Indonesia isn’t safe for drinking. Stick to bottled or filtered water while travelling in the country.

Activities and Tours in Indonesia

For popular activities like a snorkeling trip you will have to shell around Rp 200,000 per person. For a cooking class, be ready to pay about Rp 450,000. Orangutan Trek for a full day at Bukit Lawang can cost around $ 95 per person. Both Borobudur and Prambanan Temple entrance fees are $25 per person. You can view trips and activities in Indonesia here.

Transport in Indonesia

Indonesia is quite a spread out country and hence to travel from one point to another, especially when you are going from one big island to the other, a domestic flight is favored. If booked 1-2 weeks in advance, a flight ticket might cost you less than $50. Ferries should cost less than $5 for a 4-5 hr long transfer from Bali to Lombok. For a motorbike rental, approx $7 per day is charged (confirm if this also includes full tank fuel for the day or not).

Staying Connected in Indonesia:

Travellers who want frequent access to the internet while they travel will need to invest in a local SIM card. We recommend the Telkomsel SIM. All SIM cards will need to be officially registered, even if they are bought on the street. If you can help it, avoid buying a SIM card in Bali as they are much more expensive than on the other islands. Read more about buying an Indonesian SIM card here.

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