Awesome archipelago: the ultimate guide to backpacking Indonesia

Awesome archipelago: the ultimate guide to backpacking Indonesia

Stretching across some 17,000 islands, Indonesia is one of the most fascinating and diverse countries on earth. From adorable orangutans to ancient temples, Komodo dragons to party hotspots, it’s no wonder that this country is an enduring favourite for many travellers. The scale of the country can make choosing which parts to visit a little overwhelming, so we’ve asked some of our expert backpackers for the lowdown on backpacking Indonesia.

  1. The best time to visit Indonesia
  2. Do I need a visa for Indonesia?
  3. Travelling around Indonesia
  4. Indonesia travel costs
  5. Where to stay in Indonesia
  6. Indonesia itinerary
  7. Indonesian food
  8. Indonesian culture and religion
  9. Indonesia travel advice

The best time to visit Indonesia

Recommended by Oriana Diplacido

With temperatures averaging around 28 degrees and humidity sitting somewhere between 70 and 90 percent, Indonesia’s year-round tropical climate can be especially appealing for travellers looking to escape those icy Canadian winters or cloudy London forecasts. The Indonesian islands can be a traveller’s paradise… if you go at the right time. The climate does come with periods of heavy rainfall, intense humidity, and little to no wind to cool you off from sky-high temperatures in certain regions.

Pianemo viewpoint, Raja Ampat Islands. 📷 @jackson.groves

Indonesian seasons

Indonesia’s seasons can be broken down into two distinct times throughout the year: the wet season and the dry season. In most areas of Indonesia, the wet season starts in September and lasts until March, while the dry season runs from April to August.

Although there isn’t necessarily a “bad time” to visit Indonesia, I’d say that overall the best time to visit Indonesia would be in May, June and September; you’ll avoid the busy high season plus the hot and sunny weather conditions are more suitable for spontaneous travel. Just don’t forget your water bottle as Indonesia’s heat in the dry season can be relentless! It’s also important to keep in mind that the start and end of the wet and dry seasons can vary a little across the Indonesian regions.

Indonesia’s rainy season brings choppy waters, intense tropical downpours and flooding. This can cause less than ideal conditions for travellers looking to dive, explore more remote locations or climb mountains such as Mt Bromo or Mt Rinjani. During the rainy season, rough seas can also make travel by boat between some islands unsafe, so it’s best to plan your visit during the dry season for these types of activities. The good news is that depending on your travel plans, you don’t need to let the rainy days dampen your mood and ruin your trip.

During the wet season, the rain typically starts in the afternoon and lasts for a few hours, so you can treat yourself to some delicious local dishes like gado-gado or nasi goreng at a local warung (small restaurant or café) for lunch while waiting out the rain. Occasionally, the rain will linger into the evening but with an umbrella or rain poncho (which are readily available for purchase at many local shops) you’ll be able to continue with your travel plans without a hitch.

National holidays: Eid al-Fitr

Lebaran, also known as Eid al-Fitr, is a two-day religious holiday observed by Muslims and is a major national holiday celebrated in Indonesia. Eid al-Fitr falls on different days according to the calendar year (usually between April and June) but can affect your travel plans for the entire month it falls in. During this time, flights and transportation prices drastically increase, accommodation sells out quickly, traffic becomes extremely heavy, and business opening hours can be affected.

Do I need a visa for Indonesia?

Recommended by Vicki Garside

American, British and Australian citizens (along with 100+ other countries) are eligible for a free 30-day visa on arrival. This visa is automatically granted when you enter the country and can be granted repeatedly. This means if you get to the end of your 30 days and want to stay a little longer, you can simply fly out to a neighbouring country on a cheap flight and then receive a new visa on your return.

For those who don’t want to have to leave the country after 30 days, there’s also the option of a $35USD visa available on arrival, which will allow you to extend your time in the country for a further 30 days.

If you’re attempting to organise this yourself it will require three visits to an immigration office in Indonesia, but there are also plenty of visa agents that can help you. Their service usually involves picking up your passport and doing all the legwork for you.

Swimming in IndonesiaRaja Ampat Islands. 📷 @jackson.groves

They then let you know when the visa is ready, so you can go to the visa hall – where they will be waiting to help – to have your picture taken, passport stamped and then you’re done. The fee for this service is around $50USD and can often be cheaper than catching a flight, but it does require you to be near an immigration hall in the last two weeks of your initial visa, so it may not be a good idea if you are intending to go off-grid.

This visa extension takes 7-10 working days to process so make sure you allow plenty of time. Once granted, the visa will start as soon as your initial visa finishes and cover 30 calendar days (rather than “a month”), including the date of grant. Be careful not to overstay your visa as there’s a cash penalty, which is currently 300,000IDR (about $21USD) per person per day but can increase at any time.

Travelling around Indonesia

Recommended by Oriana Diplacido

If you’re keen to explore the world’s largest archipelago you can take your pick from buses, planes, trains, boats, and all sorts of two or four-wheel transport, which makes it easy to discover all the cultural wonders that Indonesia’s islands have to offer. For the most part, travelling around Indonesia is an easy and interesting way to get to know the culture, but you should prepare yourself for inevitable schedule delays, heavy road traffic, and below average safety standards.

Backpacking Indonesia - Bike📷@jackson.groves

Intercity buses

A far cry from luxury, Indonesia’s intercity buses will get you from point A to point B without much else. There are usually two or three different classes to choose from, so pay attention when booking your ticket. The class you choose can mean the difference between spending hours on a bus with frequent stops, people smoking on board and no air-con or spending less time on a reasonably comfortable express bus with air-con and a toilet on board. You usually need to reserve your ticket ahead of time, either by calling to reserve it over the phone or visiting the bus terminal a day before. Keep in mind you should show up at least an hour before the scheduled departure time to collect your ticket and guarantee yourself a seat.

Ferries between islands

Whilst travelling around the world’s largest archipelago, it’s logical that you will need to catch ferry boats between islands. Pelni boats are the most reputable and reliable option in Indonesia. Their website has lots of route and pricing information, but it can be a little tricky to navigate as most of it is in Indonesian and you need to buy your ticket in advance at one of the Pelni offices. Ferries can be a cool (although sometimes nauseating) travel experience, so even if you’re not prone to motion sickness I would advise bringing along a few motion sickness pills and finding seating in the open-air top section of the boat.

At times, you may need to use a smaller or less reputable boat company between islands, so there are things to keep in mind regarding boat safety. Rough waters and storms at sea are something to be very aware of when planning to travel by boat. When in doubt about the weather or the condition of a boat, it’s best to delay or make other travel arrangements where possible. Safety first, friends!

Flying

Even though ferries do offer a multitude of connections between Indonesia’s main islands, flying is usually the faster option, with a fleet of domestic airline carriers ready and waiting to whisk you away to your next Indonesian destination. It’s worth noting that Indonesian airlines generally do have a less than stellar safety record. Being a semi-nervous flyer myself, I always try and book flights with either Garuda Indonesia (by far the most reputable – and pricey – of all the Indonesian airlines) or AirAsia.

I’ve had very pleasant experiences with both these airlines, although I’ve met other travellers who have flown with the smaller, less reputable airlines (like LionAir, Wings Air, Batik Air, and Citilink) who’ve said they had a decent experience with no major issues. If you do choose to fly with one of these smaller airlines, just be prepared for your experience to be matched by the budget prices, meaning tight seating arrangements, limited baggage allowance and frequent delays and/or flight cancellations.

Ojek

Ojek, also known as motorcycle taxi, is a great way for travellers to get around if you don’t want to test your own driving skills on hectic Indonesian roads. Ojek hire posts can be found scattered throughout towns and cities, but a much more convenient method of hiring one of these motorcycle taxis is through the Go-jek app.

Like Uber, Go-jek is a popular online motorcycle taxi service that allows you to request a motorcycle (go-ride) or a car (go-car) to pick you up and drop you at your desired destination for a predetermined amount. I used it exclusively while in Indonesia and it was a life-saver.

Amongst the dozens of motorcycle riders and small vehicles zipping by, you’ll probably be able to spot bicycle-style rickshaws called a becak. With enough room for two passengers, a becak is available for short-distance hire and is something you’ll commonly see locals use to transport their items home from the market. It’s rare to see tourists using a becak but it’s worth the fair price if you want an authentic Indonesian transportation experience.

Indonesia travel costs

Recommended by Vicki Garside

Indonesian currency

The currency in Indonesia is the Indonesian Rupiah (IDR)

Exchange rate and changing money

Over the past 18 months (2017-2018) the exchange rate for USD to IDR had remained steady between 13,500-14,000 IDR to $1 USD (0.72GBP or 1.33AUD). With such big numbers, it’s easier to use a higher round number as a baseline, for example $5USD = 70,000IDR ($5AUD=50,000IDR or £5GBP=100,000IDR)

The best place to exchange money in Indonesia is at the various money changers on the streets. They usually have the rates listed outside on a board and all offer around the same rate with no commission. These money changers are very common in Bali and other major tourist hubs around the country but not as much throughout the more ‘off the beaten path’ parts of the country. There are also ATMs throughout Indonesia that dispense Indonesian Rupiah, but these often come with a fee and a charge from your issuing bank.

The money changers will accept a variety of currencies but be vigilant when using them. A common scam (especially for first-time customers) is to perform the exchange in front of you, and then once you confirm they pick the cash back up to put it in an envelope and at this point remove some of the bottom notes. To avoid this, place the cash you want to exchange on the counter; allow the vendor to count the IDR out in front of you. Then re-count it yourself and if it is correct do not put it back on the counter.

Backpacking Indonesia @jackson.groves KOMODO LIVEABOARD 2 CROPPED📷@jackson.groves

Average costs

Indonesia is a very budget-friendly destination. If you’re content to eat local food, meals can cost as little as $1.50-3USD, and if you want to eat at any of the 5* restaurants (such as those in Seminyak) it typically costs 200,000-300,000IDR ($15-20USD) per person for dinner including a cocktail or beers.

Some average prices:

1L water: 10,000 – 15,000 IDR

Standard meal: 30,000 – 60,000 IDR

Large beer (from a shop): 40,000 – 50,000 IDR

Large beer (in a bar or on the beach): 60,000 – 90,000 IDR

Cocktail: 70,000 – 150,000 IDR

Glass of wine: 70,000 – 130,000 IDR

1-hour massage: 80,000 IDR

Manicure/pedicure: 35,000 – 45,000 IDR

Where to stay in Indonesia

Recommended by Hostelworld

With nearly 300 hostels across 43 cities in Indonesia, it’s easy to explore this country on a budget. In fact, Indonesia has some of the most gorgeous hostels in the world and with beds in dorm rooms as low as £5/$7USD/$9AUD, it’s a very affordable place to visit as a backpacker. Check out these handpicked hostels in key destinations around the country:

Bali

It’s incredibly hard to pick just one amazing hostel in Bali, when there are so many! The Farm in Canggu is a winner though, with pool, sun terrace, air con, plush mattresses and more.

Discover more hostels in Bali

Best hostels in Bali @emilyallison1994 The Farm HostelThe Farm Hostel 📷: @emilyallison1994

Jakarta

Soak up all the action of the Indonesian capital at Six Degrees. Enjoy sunrise yoga on the roof garden or sample some street food and coffee right on your doorstep.

Discover more hostels in Jakarta

West Java

Bandung

Buton Backpacker Lodge has pod beds, complimentary breakfast and a great kitchen.

Discover more hostels in Bandung

Central Java

Yogyakarta

Fresh and modern Pondok Sare hostel has a near perfect rating of 9.2! The stylish dorm rooms feature crisp white sheets plus a privacy curtain.

Discover more hostels in Yogyakarta

East Java

Kabupaten Jember

The swanky InnBox Capsule Hotel features pod-style beds with a comfy King Coil mattress plus free breakfast when you wake.

Discover more hostels in Kabupaten Jember

Malang

Pondok Backpacker provides free slippers for its guests along with other treats like hair straighteners and free wifi throughout the hostel.

Discover more hostels in Malang

Surabaya

Tab Capsule Hotel is a futuristic sleeping experience, with each self-contained pod featuring a TV and a comfy bed.

Discover more hostels in Surabaya.

Gili Islands

Gili Air

If you’re into Super Mario, then you won’t want to miss the mushroom shaped pool at Begadang. This dreamy hostel has loads of social spaces and is perfect for those looking to make new friends.

Discover more hostels on Gili Air

Gili Meno

Sleep under the stars at Gili Meno Eco Hostel in these incredible bamboo bungalows. Wake up to the sound of the ocean and then spend your day swimming with turtles.

Discover more hostels on Gili Meno

Backpacking Indonesia @josefiinebjork Gili Meno Eco HostelGili Meno Eco Hostel 📷: @josefiinebjork

Gili Trawangan

This party island has many hostels for enjoying the good times and Gili Mansion is one of the best. Don’t miss the recovery pool party and BBQ here on Sundays.

Discover more hostels on Gili Trawangan

Karimunjava Island

The colourful The Happinezz Karimunjawa hostel can help you arrange everything you need for your island adventure. Snorkelling, scootering, hiking, kayaking – even underwater cameras.

Discover more hostels on Karimunjava Island

West Nusa Tenggara

Lombok

Chill out at the new Surf Hostel Lombok in this traditional Indonesian Borneo longhouse. Try your hand at catching a gnarly wave or practise your sun salutations in the yoga shala.

Discover more hostels in Lombok

Kuta Lombok

Don’t forget your deck when you stay at Pipes Hostel so you can try their skate bowl. Plus, there’s an amazing pool and lush tropical garden.

Discover more hostels in Kuta Lombok

East Nusa Tenggara

Labuan Bajo

If you’re visiting Komodo National Park, then La Boheme Bajo is a magical place to base yourself. Sitting on the harbour, you can chill on the terrace and soak up the views of the park.

Discover more hostels in Labuan Bajo

Backpacking Indonesia @gililaboheme La Boheme BajoLa Boheme Bajo 📷:@gililaboheme

North Sumatra

Medan

The stylish and chic MM Capsule Hostel makes your trip to Medan a real treat. The beautiful cream kitchen, minimalist social spaces and cool capsule beds are not to be missed.

Discover more hostels in Medan

West Kalimantan

Pontianak

The Canopy Center Guesthouse puts a trip to Pontianak on your map. Meet up with local creatives, try some freshly roasted coffee and stay in the sunlight dorm rooms for a very authentic experience of the area.

Discover more hostels in Pontianak

Indonesia itinerary

Recommended by Cheeky Passports

Owing to the sheer size of the country and its many islands, planning a trip to Indonesia can be a tad overwhelming even to seasoned travellers. The country is divided into several regions each with its own diverse culture, climate and attractions. Travellers have the opportunity to climb active volcanoes, hike jungle and mountain trails, spot orangutans in the wild, visit traditional villages and tribes, lounge on deserted white-sand beaches and experience some of the best underwater life on the planet!

With so much going on in Indonesia, planning out an itinerary might sound difficult, and indeed, there’s no way of experiencing all that the country has to offer in just a couple of weeks. However, if you plan your route out properly, you will manage to fit in some exciting adrenaline-filled experiences along with chilled-out beach time.

If a couple of weeks is all you can afford, you will want to consider classic routes such as Java and Bali, or Bali, Lombok and Flores. Some travellers get right off the tourist trail, preferring to spend their time in Sumatra, Sulawesi or Raja Ampat. The sheer diversity of the country allows for several route options depending on time, budget and whatever you’re into. Indonesia pretty much has it all.

Java and Bali

If you’re planning on exploring Java and Bali, your best bet is to connect through Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital city which is located on the island of Java. I recommend taking a quick transfer to Yogyakarta via a short flight. You can also make the trip on one of the several trains running daily between the two cities, with a journey time of around eight hours.

Backpacking Indonesia @jackson.groves SEKUMPUL WATERFALL BALI CROPPEDSekumpul Waterfall, Bali 📷@jackson.groves

Days 1-3: Yogyakarta

A three-day stint in Yogyakarta will allow you to plan trips to the world-famous temples of Borobudur and Prambanan (consider purchasing the combined ticket option if you’d like to see both), visit the water castle and underground mosque in the Kraton district of the city, enjoy typical Javanese food on Malioboro street and perhaps even take a day trip out to the Merapi volcano.

Days 4-7: Karimunjawa

If you’re looking for idyllic island life, make your way to the Karimunjawa group of islands, where white-sand beaches fringed by coconut trees give way to crystal-clear turquoise waters. Hostels are primarily found on Karimunjawa Island, the main island in the archipelago, so basing yourself here will allow you to access the other islands via shared boat trips, often organised by the hostels for their guests.

Karimunjawa Island itself is home to a mangrove forest and some pretty beaches that come alive during sunset and are best explored by renting a scooter. Be sure to make your way to the night market in the square after sunset to sample some very affordable freshly-caught fish.

Days 8-10: Volcano trekking

For some spectacular views and moderately-hard trekking, head east towards Mount Bromo and Kawah Ijen, two of the most popular volcanoes on Java. Whilst tours covering both attractions can be arranged from many places in Java, it is very easy to independently travel using public transport over two to three days. Although this is by far the least comfortable option. The route is infamous for tourist scams and touts, so be sure to be careful and do your research. The sunrise over Mount Bromo, the blue flames and the blue-green acidic lake (sometimes hidden by thick sulphur fumes) of Kawah Ijen are not to be missed!

Days 11-14: Bali

Kawah Ijen is located close to a town called Banyuwangi, which is home to a ferry connection to the island of Bali. If you have chosen to visit Ijen on an organised tour, it is common to have onward transport to Bali included as well. An itinerary for Bali is covered in more depth below, but you should ideally spend at least four days exploring the island, possibly even including a side trip to one of the Gili Islands.

Bali, Lombok and Komodo

Another popular two-week itinerary in Indonesia covers the islands of Bali and Lombok, with a side trip to the Gili Islands, ending with a multi-day boat trip to the island of Flores. On the boat trip, you’ll stop at beaches and snorkelling spots, particularly around Komodo National Park where the famous Komodo dragons can be seen.

Days 1-4: Bali

Although a detailed itinerary for Bali can be found later in this article, I strongly encourage you to spend no less than four days exploring some of the main attractions on the island. The best way to cover as much ground as possible in a short time is either by renting your own scooter or hiring a private driver during your time there.

Days 5-9: Gili Islands and Lombok

Backpacking Indonesia - Sunset Gili IslandsSunset Gili Islands Trawangan 📷 @jackson.groves

Leaving Bali behind, you can go directly to the Gili Islands via fast boat. Or head to Lombok first via fast boat, public ferry or by taking a flight and then visit the Gili Islands.

Spend a couple of days chillaxing on the Gili islands’ beaches, snorkelling, surfing and swimming. There are night markets, yoga, horseback riding and bars to eat and drink at if you need to amp up the energy.

In contrast to the Gilis, Lombok is not a small island, having many attractions and places to explore, so on a two-week itinerary, you may only experience a small taste of what Lombok has to offer.

It’s very easy to lose track of time on Lombok, as you spend your days snorkelling and lazing away on the beaches or getting active with a hike to Mount Rinjani, the second-highest volcano in Indonesia.

With its steep trails, hiking up Mount Rinjani is not suitable for inexperienced trekkers and should only be attempted by those willing to take up a challenge to experience the spectacular sunrise at the summit. If you’re less than fantastically fit, you might want to take your time and approach the trek at a leisurely pace.

Days 10-14: Komodo National Park and Labuan Bajo

Backpacking Indonesia - Komodo

Backpacking Indonesia - Komodo dragonKomodo National Park 📷 @jackson.groves

If you’re up for more adventure during your time in Indonesia, fly directly to Labuan Bajo and visit Komodo Island, Rinca Island and the other attractions in Komodo National Park via day trips. If you’re a keen diver, Komodo National Park is home to some of the best dive spots and marine life in Indonesia!

Many people alternatively choose to visit these snorkelling destinations on a multi-day boat trip from Lombok to Labuan Bajo, stopping by Komodo National Park. A typical three-day trip often includes several snorkelling stops as well as the infamous Komodo Island, Padar Island and Pink Beach. It’s worth noting that conditions on board are often very basic, with people sleeping on deck and safety standards can be questionable.

You can fly directly to Bali from Labuan Bajo, from where you can connect to an international flight back home, but if you’ve been diving, be sure to follow suitable recommendations regarding safety intervals before getting onto your flight.

Two weeks in Bali

With so many different attractions and places to visit in Bali, you will want to make the most of your time on this very popular island which offers a spiritual insight into the country’s Hindu culture along with a beautiful coastline and lush, terraced rice fields. Its hugely developed tourism industry also ensures that some comforts are always close by, unlike the more remote spots.

Days 1-4: Kuta, Seminyak and Canggu

backpacking Indonesia - long jumpNusa Lembongan, Bali 📷 @jackson.groves

Kuta is one of the most popular tourist hotspots in Bali with several hostels and guesthouses, but the town has, in recent years, gained a bad reputation for sleazy entertainment and aggressive touts. Still, Kuta is home to some of Bali’s most affordable nightlife and accommodation options.

Seminyak is Kuta’s more classy, upmarket sister where several boutiques and fashion stores line the streets. Restaurants in Seminyak are more expensive than those in neighbouring Kuta but provide far better quality.

Further west is Canggu, the quieter and more laid-back of the three areas, with several cafes and a hipster vibe which made it my favourite place to stay. It’s also only a few kilometres away from Bali’s famous Tanah Lot temple.

If you rent a scooter you can easily cross over from one area to next and enjoy the beach in Seminyak whilst staying in Canggu. Indeed, the black-sand beaches in Canggu are more suited to surfers than swimmers or sun-worshippers.

Backpacking Indonesia @jackson.groves MANTA RAY NUSA PENIDA CROPPEDManta ratys Nusa Penisda Islands. 📷@jackson.groves

Days 5-7: Ubud

Ubud has easily become one of the most popular areas in Bali, and although it has seen a massive rise in development since its Eat, Pray, Love days, it is still worth visiting. Ubud is home to a wide range of accommodation, making it a great base from which to explore the surrounding rice paddies and waterfalls.

Besides visiting the attractions in Ubud, most popular of which are the Monkey Forest and the gorgeous rice terraces, be sure to include visits to Kanto Lampo waterfall and Tibumana waterfall. Unless you’re travelling further north, you can also take a trip from Ubud to Mount Batur for some sunrise trekking.

Days 8-10: Amed   

Head on to Amed, a stretch of fishing villages where you can truly unwind and go slow on the many beaches lining the coast. Amed can also be used as a base for visiting the water palace of Tirta Gangga and the sacred Besakih Temple.

Days 11-14: South Bali

I suggest ending your trip in Bali with a few days on the Bukit Peninsula to experience some of Bali’s best white-sand beaches and to visit the stunningly-located Uluwatu Temple, perched right at the top of a steep cliff.  Whilst you’re on this side of Bali, you may want to consider a day trip to Nusa Penida for more beaches and some very Instragrammable viewpoints over Broken Beach and Kelingking beach.

You will never leave Indonesia with the feeling of having seen it all – the territory is so vast, the culture so rich and diversity so deep. Two weeks in Bali and the neighbouring islands give but a mere taster of what Indonesia is all about, and you will want to go back to explore more of the country time and time again.

Indonesian food

Recommended by Cheeky Passports

The food in Indonesia is as rich as its history. Its distinctive character has been brought about by centuries of foreign influence which has left its mark on the indigenous cuisine.

Indonesian street food is cheap and widely available from hawkers. Street food can range from soups, such as soto ayam (chicken soup) and bakso (meatball soup), to variants of fried rice (nasi goreng) and fried noodles (mie goreng), to siomay (fish dumplings) and murtabak (an appetising cross between an omelette and a pancake).

Beef rendang

Beef rendang tops our list of delicious traditional Indonesian food with its strong, deeply-flavoured sauce of spices in coconut milk with hints of ginger and lemongrass, covering pieces of simmered beef. Not all rendang dishes are created equal though, and its flavour might depend on what region of the country you are in. We discovered that some versions of the popular dish were far too strong for our palate, especially when served for breakfast.

Breakfast

As you would expect in Southeast Asia, rice is eaten at almost every meal and a traditional Indonesian breakfast might include fried rice or plain rice with various accompaniments such as fried eggs, tempeh, fried banana, fried chicken and even cassava. Traditional dishes with rice, such as nasi uduk (rice in coconut milk), nasi pecel (rice with vegetables and peanut sauce) and nasi kuning (yellow rice) may also be eaten at this time of day, whilst chicken porridge (bubur ayam) is a very popular breakfast choice in some parts of the country.

Peanuts

Peanuts feature widely in traditional Indonesian food, and not just as toppings. Peanut sauce may be served with little skewers of barbequed meat (satay) or as an accompaniment to siomay. Peanuts can also be found in the traditional dish gado-gado (literally meaning “mix mix”), which combines raw and cooked vegetables with boiled eggs and a peanut dressing. Gulai is another popular dish with meat, which may sometimes include offal, in a thick curry sauce. Ayam goreng (fried chicken) is also found in many local eateries and is as popular in Indonesia as it is in the US. If you’re vegetarian, don’t despair, as you will find that Indonesians eat lots of vegetable, tofu and tempeh dishes.

Sambal

Wherever you go in Indonesia, you will notice jars (or bottles) filled with sauces, in various shades of red. This is sambal, probably Indonesia’s most popular condiment. Served at every meal, sambal is a hot paste, traditionally made using a pestle and mortar, incorporating chilli pepper, shrimp paste, lime and palm sugar, amongst other ingredients.

It’s not for the faint of heart! Most warungs take pride in serving their own freshly-made sambal, but at times only the commercial, less tasty kind is available. The spicy paste is often included as one of the ingredients in some traditional Indonesian dishes such as beef sambal.

Seafood

As you might expect from a country with a huge coastline made up of more than 17,000 islands, fish dishes are a staple in Indonesian cuisine. Fish is very often served grilled, along with rice, vegetables and sambal, but various types of fish curries, usually incorporating lots of coconut milk in the recipe, are also commonly found, with fish head curry being one of the most popular.  If you’re in one of Indonesia’s many port cities, be sure to try dining at the night markets where very affordable, freshly-caught fish is cooked to your liking.

Sweet treats

If you’ve got a sweet-tooth, Indonesia will not disappoint either. Pisang goreng (fried bananas) can be found in every part of the archipelago, with the sickly-sweet but delicious pisang epe, a dish of flattened, coal-grilled bananas and molten sugar, being a speciality in Makassar, Sulawesi. A variety of ice-based desserts are also popular. Es teler combines avocado, coconut flesh and other fruits with sweetened, condensed milk and coconut milk, whilst es doger consists of coconut milk, tapioca pearls, fruit, bread and condensed milk.

The basic martabak manis, also known as terang bulan, is a sweet pancake topped with nuts, but it also comes stuffed with any variety of sweet items, be it chocolate shavings, jam, cookies, chocolate bars and nuts, and even grated cheese. Terang bulan is always topped with copious amounts of the ubiquitous sweetened condensed milk before being neatly folded and sliced. The best ones are usually found at roadside stalls. Another curious delicacy is the green klepon, a sticky rice ball made with palm sugar, coconut and pandan paste, which imparts its characteristic green colour to the sweet.

As can be expected from one of the world’s most populous countries, the food in Indonesia is as diverse as its many islands, and you will love discovering its traditional cuisine almost as much as you will love exploring the country itself.

Indonesian culture and religion

Recommended by Alex Nissen

Indonesian people are some of the kindest you’ll find around the globe. A defining characteristic of the locals is friendliness. Just wandering down the street you’ll be sure to end up with a bunch of new mates. Once a man on a motorbike told a friend and I not to stand next to a particular tree as it had been dropping coconuts. Fast forward two hours and there we are sipping coffee with this gentleman in Ubud’s rice paddies chatting about life. Another time we started talking with a restaurant owner who we then spent the next few days playing music and white water rafting down Sumatra’s rivers with. My best tip is to interact with the locals as much as possible while you’re there.

backpacking indonesia - locals📷 @jackson.groves

Language

Bahasa Indonesian is the country’s official language, but there are over 700 indigenous languages spoken throughout the country, such as Javanese, Balinese and Sasak. As young children, Indonesians are usually taught their local language which is spoken at home. Then when they begin school they learn Bahasa Indonesian, often followed by English. Those living in cities or tourist destinations are usually fluent in English and sometimes even other languages like Dutch or Spanish. It’s always appreciated if as a tourist you try to use some Indonesian phrases. Make sure you’ve got your terima kasih (thank you) ready. You may also find that many school-aged children are eager to learn and improve their English and will try to engage you in conversation to learn more.

Religion

Indonesia is home to large Hindu, Buddhist, Islam and Catholic communities. You’ll find most people practice Hinduism in Bali, whilst over in Lombok you’ll find a larger Islamic population.

Indonesians, in general, are very spiritual people and include religious practice in their daily lives. You may see people in Bali placing leaves, flowers and food as an offering to their gods. You may see employees in Java stop work to engage in prayer. The religious diversity of the country is just one of its many appeals.

Indonesia travel advice

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Arak

If you drink, then you may be tempted to try Arak. While commercial bottles of Arak can be purchased in shops, it is also distilled by locals illegally. This means that Arak is like ‘moonshine’ in that it varies in toxicity and alcoholic strength and cause severe alcohol poisoning.

Due to the high price of imported alcohol in Indonesia and the increasing demand due to tourism, some businesses may replace drinks that would typically use vodka or gin with Arak. They may even put it in a branded bottle of imported alcohol, so even if you see it poured, be careful. How can you keep you and your mates safe on a night out?

Well, staying completely away from any spirit-based drinks is the only sure-fire way to make sure you don’t accidentally end up with methanol in your system. It might cost you a little more money but stick to bottled beer and wine. Yes, as tempting as it may be, stay away from those free/ridiculously cheap drink offers as they will most certainly contain Arak.

Drug use

Most countries have strict laws regarding drug use; however, Indonesia has a zero-tolerance policy and a reputation for having some of the harshest penalties. Carry a copy of your prescription letter from your doctor. Some prescribed medications are illegal in Indonesia.

The country divides its controlled substances into three categories. Group 3 drugs such as codeine can result in imprisonment for possession and trafficking. Group 2 drugs such as morphine also carry prison sentences and even the death penalty for trafficking. Group 1 drugs are considered the most serious, with possible life sentences for possession and the death penalty for convicted drug trafficking. Group 1 drugs include marijuana, heroin, MDMA and opium, among others. Therefore, as a blanket rule, it is best to stay away from all drugs in Indonesia.

Scams

Common scams to watch out for include fake tour guides who start telling you about a temple or attraction and at the end ask for a fee for their ‘guidance’. If you don’t want to have to cough up a few rupees, politely decline any offers or say you’d prefer to look around yourself.

As a rule of thumb, whatever people are offering, be it a guide, taxi ride, massage on the beach, always always always confirm the price beforehand. Otherwise, you may be stuck arguing about the costs afterwards.

Other scams to be aware of are dodgy looking ATMs that can record your information, being short-changed by money changers, hawkers overcharging for items, and being told that whatever bus/boat you are looking for has broken down and you need to buy tickets elsewhere rather than a licensed seller.

It’s best to also not give money to beggars as begging is illegal under Indonesian law.

It’s always a good idea to have a safe spot on your person to keep money and other valuables that’s not easy for pickpockets to get to. Bag snatching by people on motorcycles is also common so make sure to always have a firm grip on your belongings.

 

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About The Author

Bronwyn Griffiths (Hostelworld)

Part-time drag queen. Full-time travel content queen. Just a small town (Australian) girl, living in a lonely (London) world.

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