As a vast archipelago nation composed of over 17,000 islands, Indonesia is one of the most fascinating countries in the world.
Somehow they all come together across a vast distance to form one nation. (The country’s motto is Bhinneka Tunggal Ika, meaning “Unity in Diversity,” and there’s perhaps no better way to summarize Indonesia.)
With such unique cultures and landscapes, each island feels like its own country. Honestly, with so much to do and see in Indonesia, it’s difficult to narrow down an itinerary while backpacking Indonesia, which is why we’re here to help!
Backpacking Indonesia is an adventure like no other. For starters, you can climb active volcanoes, encounter orangutans in the jungle, visit ancient temples, and enjoy world-class diving. All along the way, you’ll be welcomed in by some of the most friendly people out there while you enjoy the varied and delicious cuisine. Best of all, you can easily backpack Indonesia on a budget.
While Bali has been attracting tourists en masse for decades, there’s so much more to Indonesia than this one most famous island. Bali is popular for a reason – and you should most definitely visit Bali – but backpacking Indonesia is all about getting out there and discovering the other islands.
You can’t see it all in one trip though, so it’s best to view your first trip to Indonesia as exactly that. Trust me, you’ll be planning your next one before it’s even over. After reading this in-depth Indonesia travel guide, you’ll be ready for the trip of a lifetime.
Table of Contents
- Where to go Backpacking in Indonesia
- Essential Information for Backpacking Indonesia
- Books to Read on Indonesia
- Best Time to Travel to Indonesia
- What to Pack for Indonesia
- Arriving into Indonesia
- Getting Around Indonesia
- Indonesia Backpacking Travel Costs
- Meet the People of Indonesia
- Food in Indonesia
- Travel Phrases for Backpacking Indonesia
- Internet in Indonesia
- Sex, Drugs, and Rock ‘n’ Roll in Indonesia
- Live in Indonesia
- Top Tips for Broke Backpackers
- Staying safe in Indonesia
- Being a Responsible Backpacker in Indonesia
- Indonesia Travel Resources
Where to go Backpacking in Indonesia
As I mentioned earlier, Indonesia is made up of 17,000 islands, so there’s no shortage of things to do in Indonesia. I’ve broken down some of Indonesia’s best and most popular places to visit below.
Accommodation Guide for Indonesia
As with so many things in Indonesia, accommodation really depends on the island. You’re obviously going to have far more choices on Bali than you will on Papua, for example. On Sumatra, Java, Bali, Lombok, and Flores, you have plenty of choices for hostels. In tourist hotspots such as Legian and Ubud, you can’t swing a dead cat and not hit a hostel.
A bed in a dorm typically goes for between $10-15 a night.
Just because you’re backpacking Indonesia doesn’t mean you have to cram into a room with ten strangers, though. There are tons of great locally run guesthouses and hotels if you’d like a little more comfort and privacy.
Airbnb is catching on in Indonesia and you can find some awesome apartments for cheap prices if you need some chill time. Follow this link for $35 free credit. If you’re traveling with a crew, you might even be able to find your own private villa for less than a 3-star hotel.
For the most part, you can just wing it and find accommodation on arrival. The only time you may want to book something in advance is if you’re visiting Bali over Christmas and New Year’s, as this is an incredibly busy time.
|Location:||Hostel:||Why We like it:|
|Bali||The Tipsy Gypsy||Good location and atmosphere; good for socializing and partying|
|Gili Islands||My Mate's Place||Social, and great for meeting people; good location.|
|Lombok||Pipes Hostel||Great vibe with pool and skate bowl.|
|Yogyakarta||The Patio Yogya||Central locatino, comfortable beds, and awesome breakfast included!|
|Flores||Ciao Hostel||All around great hostel with awesome views, and good food.|
Let’s start out with the crown jewel of tourism in Indonesia – Bali. The Island of the Gods has been drawing in tourists by the thousands for decades now, who flock here for waves, spirituality, beautiful scenery, and epic nightlife. This makes for an interesting mix of surfers, yogis, gap year travelers, honeymooners, retirees, and party animals.
Although it may look tiny on the map, Bali is actually quite a large island with many different environments. There’s much more to it than the beaches, including terraced rice fields, several lakes, and a couple of active volcanoes. Some choose to base in one town and take day trips to see more of the island, while others prefer to bounce around and stay in a few places. Whatever you do, make sure you get out of that beach chair to see more of the island than the super touristy areas.
You’ve got so many options for things to see and do that you could easily spend all 30 days of your visa-free stay exploring Bali and do something different on every one of them. Go surfing down on the Bukit peninsula, balance your chakras in Ubud, dive in Amed, party in Seminyak – the list goes on and on.
One of the best places to base yourself for your Bali stay is Canggu. This beach town just north of Seminyak has been gaining in popularity in recent years, especially amongst the surfer and digital nomad communities. Here you’ll find smaller crowds than the other beach towns, so you won’t have so much competition for the waves. There are countless options for accommodation, yoga, dining, and nightlife here as well.
You know I’ve got to recommend the Tipsy Gypsy Hostel in Canggu, but not just because I like the name. It’s walking distance to the beaches and some of Canggu’s best bars, and it’s even got a pool! Check out our epic list of the best hostels in Bali.
There are three smaller islands off the southeast coast that are a part of Bali. A short boat ride can bring you to the Nusa Islands – Lembongan, Ceningan, and Penida. Here you’ll find some absolutely stunning viewpoints, chilled out beaches, and some amazing snorkelling/diving opportunities. It’s the perfect place to wind down your Bali trip in style.
10 Day Itinerary for Bali
If you’ve got 10-12 days to spend in Bali, I’d recommend spending your first couple of nights in Seminyak or Canggu to enjoy the beach and nightlife. From there, head up to Ubud for a few nights and be sure to include some adventures, like climbing Mt. Batur for sunrise.
Perhaps add a couple nights in Amed for diving and snorkeling, and then loop back around to the south.
If there’s time, you can finish with a night or two on the Nusa Islands, or just chill out in the laid back town of Sanur.
Many a flight has been missed and many a visa extended by travelers visiting Bali. It’s the kind of place that just sucks you in and makes you never want to leave. I should know, as I ended up moving there for a year on my third visit since short trips just weren’t cutting it! For even more info on things to do in Bali check out the amazing Teacake’s in-depth guide.
While Bali really is an incredible place, you can’t visit a country of 17,000 islands and see just one of them. For those on a time crunch, the best bet is to add one of Bali’s neighbors to your backpacking Indonesia itinerary. Far and away, the most popular choice is Lombok. This is thanks mostly to the Gili Islands, three tiny specks of sand that are free of motorized vehicles and home to some of the best scuba diving in the world.
Of the Gilis, Gili Trawangan is known as the party island, Gili Meno as the honeymooner or family-friendly option, and Gili Air is a nice mixture of the two. Thanks to the boats that bounce between them, it’s totally feasible to visit all three in just a few days and see for yourself which one you like the best.
Gili T definitely has the most options for accommodation, dining, and nightlife, so you may want to just base there. A super fun place to crash is My Mate’s Place. It’s the biggest hostel on the island and there’s always something going on there.
While traveling on Lombok, you can also climb Indonesia’s 2nd tallest volcano. Trekking Mt. Rinjani is an incredible experience that should be high on your list when backpacking Indonesia. These treks can be done over 2-5 days depending on whether or not you want to get to the summit and how quickly you want to move.
Down south, you’ll find what I like to call the “good Kuta.” Kuta, Lombok is way better than its tourist trap of a cousin over on Bali, and it’s the perfect town to base yourself for a few days of beach hopping, surfing, and chilled out nights out.
An awesome place to stay here is the Pipes Hostel, which actually has a skate bowl you can use. Lombok is also home to several epic waterfalls, so ignore TLC’s advice and do go chasing waterfalls.
With over 140 million residents, Java is home to over half of Indonesia’s population. It’s also the most populous island in the world. Here you’ll find the chaotic capital Jakarta, which is often jokingly referred to as the Big Durian. Just like the infamous stinky fruit, it takes a bit of getting used to.
There’s enough to see and do on Jakarta to warrant a couple of days, but the real fun lies outside of the big city. The best place to call home in the Indonesian capital is Six Degrees Hostel. The best feature of this hostel is its rooftop garden, where you can do sunrise yoga and enjoy sunset cocktails.
Perhaps the most popular trip for backpackers on Java is visiting Mt. Bromo and Kawah Ijen. While all tour guides and travel agents in Indonesia can set this trip up for you, it’s much more fun and rewarding to do on your own. Try several modes of public transportation, fly across the Sea of Sand on the back of a local’s motorbike, and get up at 3 AM to take in the sunrise about Mt. Bromo.
From Mt. Bromo, a few more rides and another middle of the night hike brings you down into the crater at Kawah Ijen to see the amazing blue fire burn and the impressive sulfur miners hard at work. It truly is the adventure of a lifetime.
While traveling across Java, you’ll definitely want to spend a few days in Yogyakarta and the surrounding area. This city is considered the cultural and artistic heart of Java and is a fascinating place to visit. Here you can visit a palace and water castle, see a traditional wayang kulit shadow puppet shows, and shop for some fly batik shirts.
Within just an hour outside of town, you can visit the world’s largest Buddhist temple at Borobudur, as well as a 9th-century Hindu temple at Prambanan. Base yourself at the Patio Yoga in Yogyakarta which is set in a beautiful Dutch colonial house and even has a plunge pool.
Wild and rugged are two words that come to mind when describing the massive island of Sumatra. Here you’ll find one of the world’s richest ecosystems. If you’re backpacking Indonesia to get out in nature, you should travel in Sumatra.
Perhaps the most popular thing to do in Sumatra is visit the orangutan sanctuary in Bukit Lawang. (Did you know that their name is actually derived from Indonesian? It’s a combination of the words orang (person) and hutan (forest) – “person of the forest.”)
Also on tap here is world-class diving at Pulau Weh. Under the water, you’ll find tons of marine life, shipwrecks, and even underwater volcanoes.
This tiny island is located at either the beginning or end of Indonesia, depending on which way you’re looking at the map. You’ll have to pass through the town of Banda Aceh to reach here, which is the only place in Indonesia that has Sharia Law in place. This definitely isn’t the place to come party while backpacking Indonesia, but the juice is worth the squeeze if you get to Pulau Weh.
Another highlight of Sumatra is the stunning Lake Toba. This is the highest volcanic lake in the world, and it’s the perfect place to relax amongst beautiful surroundings for a few days. In Sumatra, make sure you sample the famous Masakan Padang (Padang cuisine). You could definitely dedicate an entire trip just to this fascinating island.
While there isn’t a hostel scene on Sumatra, there are plenty of guest houses and hotels where you can stay.
The name of this island means “flowers” in Portuguese, and it’s not the only influence remaining from the 16th-century colonists. It’s the one place in Indonesia where a majority of the people are Catholic, meaning you’ll see a church in most villages rather than temples or mosques. Most backpackers come here to chase dragons – Komodo dragons, that is.
The town of Labuan Bajo is the most touristy part of Flores, as it’s home to an airport and is the launching point for multi-day trips around Komodo National Park. In town, you’ll want to stay at the excellent Ciao Hostel. Thanks to its hilltop location, this place has amazing views from their terrace.
As far as the tours go, it’s easy to book a trip in town, which should include snorkeling, stops at several beaches, and of course a visit to the home of the famous Komodo dragons. While this trip may put a dent in your backpacker budget, it’s one worth splurging on. How much you pay depends on a lot of things, like whether or not you get a cabin on board or are just sleeping on the deck. Find out more about where to stay and what to see in the Komodo Island in this post.
Prices for a 3-day tour usually run around $150-175 at the lower end of the spectrum. It’s not necessary to book anything in advance. Just show up in town and pop into a few agencies to compare prices and quality.
Rather than simply flying right out of Labuan Bajo, you should stick around and see what else this gorgeous island has to offer. Near the town of Ruteng, you can explore the amazing spider-web rice fields and visit a real Hobbit Cave. Bajawa is a great place to begin trekking trips to isolated villages such as Wae Rebo.
Here, you’ll also find the three-colored lakes of Mt. Kelimutu, which are best viewed at sunrise. On the other side of the island, you can wind down with some fantastic snorkeling and diving in Maumere.
Off the Beaten Path Travel in Indonesia
As a majority of travelers only visit Bali, it’s not hard to get off the beaten path while backpacking Indonesia. As soon as you hop on that ferry to Java or Lombok, the numbers of tourists rapidly decrease, and your experience becomes far more local. Leave the tourist hubs on these islands (Yogyakarta and the Gilis, respectively), and you’ll barely see another bule (“foreigner” in Indonesian).
In fact, don’t be surprised if locals suddenly want to take your picture or greet you with a cheerful smile, and a “Hello, Mister!” Once you’re off Bali, you’re definitely somewhat of a novelty in Indonesia.
Even on Bali, it’s really not hard to escape the crowds. Most tourists tend to stick to the Kuta-Legian area or Ubud, leaving these places to feel a bit Disney-esque. With your trusty motorbike, you can be at a deserted beach or wander amongst the rice fields in no time.
Many like to bemoan Bali as being “too touristy,” yet never leave the tourist bubble. That means there’s still plenty of incredible places basically devoid of tourists here. You’ve just got to poke around!
Those really looking to get off the beaten path can travel to some of the lesser-known islands. Visit Sulawesi, Sumbawa, or Papua and you may go days without seeing another tourist.
Trekking in Indonesia
While backpacking Indonesia may be famous for its beaches and amazing diving, there are also plenty of opportunities for adventures on land. Located in the Ring of Fire, Indonesia is home to well over 100 volcanoes. Trekking to the summit of some of these volcanoes is one experience you won’t want to miss when backpacking Indonesia. In addition to the aforementioned Mt. Bromo and Mt. Rinjani, you can also scale Mt. Agung on Bali or Mt. Egon on Flores.
There are also plenty of choices for great multi-day trekking trips to isolated villages that don’t require you to climb all the way up a volcano. Some of the most popular options include a visit to Wae Rebo on Flores and the Baliem Valley in West Papua. These villages were completely cut off from the outside world until just a decade or so ago, meaning they’re incredibly unique.
Scuba Diving in Indonesia
Indonesia is one of the best places to go scuba diving in the world. If you’re not already certified, a great place to start is on the Gili Islands. There are several dive shops here, and open water courses are very reasonably priced. Once you’re finished, there are nearly 30 dive sites for you to start exploring. Around the Gilis, you’ll see black and white-tipped reef sharks, manta rays, and tons of turtles.
There are also several places to go diving on Bali. Off the island’s north coast, you can dive at Menjangan Island and a few other sites near the towns of Pemuteran and Lovina. On the east coast, you’ll find dive shops in Sanur, Padang Bai, Candidasa, and Amed. One of the island’s most popular dive sites is Tulamben, where you can explore the USAT Liberty wreck.
If you still need more diving, pop over to Nusa Lembongan or Nusa Penida for even more world-class sites.
We’re just getting started when it comes to scuba diving in Indonesia. Serious divers may want to consider doing a liveaboard trip from Lombok to Komodo National Park to experience some of the best diving the country has to offer.
If you’ve got the time and resources to make it all the way there, both Alor and Raja Ampat are famed to be absolutely epic diving locations.
Surfing in Indonesia
Bali has been drawing in surfers for many years now, and for good reason. Whether you’re a beginner or a pro, there’s a wave for you on the Island of the Gods. Newbs will want to start out in the popular beach towns of Kuta, Legian, or Seminyak where there are plenty of boards for rent and teachers for hire.
More seasoned surfers are better off heading up the coast a bit to Canggu or even further to Medewi. Down south on the Bukit peninsula, you’ll find some of the best waves at places like Uluwatu. Another great choice are the black sand beaches on the east coast just north of Sanur. You won’t find the crowds that come with some of the other places, but you will find some ridiculous waves.
Kuta, Lombok is another great surfing town to hit up while backpacking Indonesia. Rent a motorbike for a few days and bring your board along as you visit the numerous beaches up and down the coast.
Get even more off-the-beaten-path by heading east one island to Sumbawa. Here you’ll find super cheap accommodation, friendly locals, and some great surfing opportunities.
Essential Information for Backpacking Indonesia
Below we have provided everything you need to know before you go backpacking Indonesia, as well as detailed advice. This includes the best time to travel to Indonesia, how much to budget for Indonesia, and a guide to the food and drinks in Indonesia.
Books to Read on Indonesia
The Backpacker Bible – Learn how to ditch your desk and travel the world on just $10 a day whilst building an online income.
Indonesia Lonely Planet – If you’re into guidebooks, then LP’s newest version on Indonesia is a great thing to pick up before traveling here.
A Brief History of Indonesia – This book by Tim Hannigan takes an in-depth look at the fascinating history of Indonesia.
In the Time of Madness: Indonesia on the Edge of Chaos – Foreign correspondent Richard Lloyd Parry spent a few years in Indonesia when the country was transitioning out of 30 years under the authoritarian grip of Suharto.
Snowing in Bali – Kathryn Bonella got access to some of Bali’s kingpins and wrote this page-turner about the lucrative and dangerous drug trade.
Best Time to Travel to Indonesia
Generally speaking, there are two seasons in Indonesia – wet and dry. In most parts of the country, the dry season lasts from May to September. Of course, this is also the most popular time to visit. Consider visiting in either May or September if you want to try and avoid the massive summer crowd, especially on Bali.
Most of the rain in Indonesia falls from October to April, with some regional variations. Those looking to do some serious trekking or diving may want to try and plan a trip in the dry season. There’s no need to let a little rain spoil your trip, though. Rain usually comes in quick downpours and you’ll still enjoy several hours of sunlight.
What to Pack for Indonesia
On every adventure, there are five things I never go traveling without:
1. Security Belt with Hidden Pocket: I never hit the road without my security belt. This is a regular looking belt with a concealed pocket on the inside – you can hide up to twenty notes inside and wear it through airport scanners without it setting them off. This is hands down the best way to hide your cash.
2. Pocket Blanket: This lightweight, waterproof, super compact pocket blanket is a must for all adventures. Doubling up as an emergency poncho, this picnic blanket is worth it’s weight in gold when chilling, or camping, on the beach. It comes with a carabiner, a secret zipped pocket where you can hide stuff and pocket loops which you can weigh down using stones.
3. Microfibre Towel: It’s always worth packing a proper towel. Hostel towels are scummy and take forever to dry. Microfibre towels dry quickly, are compact, lightweight and can be used as a blanket or yoga mat if need be.
4. Headtorch: I would never travel without a headtorch. Even if you only end up using it once, a decent head torch could save your life. If you want to explore caves, unlit temples or simply find your way to the bathroom during a blackout, a headtorch is a must. Currently, I’m using the Petzl LED headlamp with red light (which insects can’t see).
5. Hammock: Taking a tent backpacking is not always practical but hammocks are lightweight, cheap, strong, sexy (chicks dig hammocks) and allow you to pitch up for the night pretty much anywhere. Right now, I’m rocking an Active Roots parachute hammock – it’s light, colourful and tough.
Arriving into Indonesia
Due to its vast size and sprawling nature, chances are you’ll be flying into Indonesia. Most travelers are in a hurry to get to Bali and book round-trip flights out of there.
One thing to be careful with is that the airport in Bali is actually called Denpasar after the island’s capital city. If you start typing “Bali” into a flight search you’ll end up with Balikpapan, a port city on Indonesian Borneo. Don’t make the same mistake that a buddy of mine once did by booking a flight to the wrong Indonesian city!
If you’ve got more time to spend in Indonesia, you may want to consider flying into one airport and out of another. Some of your best choices for international flights are Jakarta, Yogyakarta, and Surabaya on Java, Medan on Sumatra, and Lombok. Thanks to budget airlines such as AirAsia, you can often score super cheap one-way flights to and from Indonesia out of regional hubs such as Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, and Bangkok.
Arriving by Land and Sea
Those deadset on traveling by land and sea don’t have quite as many options. There are ferries from Singapore and Malaysia to Batam, where you have several options for connecting ferries to other points in Indonesia.
As far as land crossings go, there are only a few choices. You can go from the Malaysian side over to Indonesia on Borneo, cross from East Timor to West (which is part of Indonesia), or get from Papua New Guinea over to Papua at the border crossing near Wutung.
Unless you’ve got lots of time and patience, your best bet is to just fly into Indonesia. Chances are you’ll actually end up spending more on sea and land crossings, and visa matters are always more complicated if you’re not going by air, which brings us to our next point.
Entry Requirements for Indonesia
Citizens of 169 different countries can now visit Indonesia visa-free for 30 days. Go here to see the full list.
Your passport must have at least six months validity and at least one blank page for entry into Indonesia. This visa-free entry applies to most major airports, as well as some seaports and land crossings. Definitely check to make sure it’s an option before you depart.
One thing to keep in mind about this visa-free entry is that it cannot be converted or extended. Once your 30 days are up, you have to get out of Indonesia.
If you’d like to spend more than one month backpacking Indonesia, you’ve got a few options. The easiest is to ask for a visa-on-arrival rather than the visa-free entry. This costs $35 and can be extended once for another 30 days. Doing so will require a few trips to an immigration office or paying an agent to do it for you, but it’s really not that difficult.
Getting Around Indonesia
Indonesia covers nearly 2 million square kilometers and is composed of over 17,000 islands! As you can imagine, backpacking Indonesia can be a bit complicated. Getting around Indonesia all depends on how much time you’ve got, your budget, and how many islands you’re trying to visit.
A lot depends on the particular island, as some are far more developed than others. For example, taking the train is a great option on Java and a small part of Sumatra, but not anywhere else. There is beautiful scenery on the train journey across Java, so definitely consider this if you’ve got the time.
When traveling between neighboring islands, you can choose between the local ferry or short flights. For example, between Bali and Lombok you can choose to take a speedboat to the Gili Islands (2 hours), the local ferry (4 hours), or a flight (about 30 minutes).
The main company operating inter-island ferries is called Pelni. They even have an English language website you can use to search for times and prices of the ferries. If you’ve got a bit more Rupiah to burn, you can also take some epic multi-day live aboard trips. The most popular is to go from Lombok to the Komodo Islands with plenty of diving along the way. You’ve got tons of options for moving around when backpacking Indonesia.
On most of the islands, you can find plenty of local buses to get you in-between cities. Although it’s the most touristy island in the country, there isn’t a great bus system on Bali. Your best bet is the Kura Kura bus that travels between some of the most popular towns. It’s comfortable and much more affordable than taking a taxi. On most of the other islands, the bus will be your go-to for traveling between cities and towns.
Of course, there are several uniquely Indonesian methods of transport across the vast archipelago nation. There are angkot (shared minivans), ojek (motorbike taxi), cidomo (horse-drawn carriage), and so much more. While these are all well and good, the best way to explore Indonesia is with your own two wheels.
Few things in life beat the feeling of the wind on your face as you cruise a motorbike up to a postcard-worthy beach in Indonesia. While it’s not easy to find a proper motorcycle for rent, you can find scooters everywhere. This is especially true on Bali, where the image of a backpacker hauling a surfboard on a scooter is quite common. Other places where it’s possible to rent a scooter include Yogyakarta and Kuta, Lombok.
One of the most popular motorcycle adventures while backpacking Indonesia is to travel from Bali all the way to Flores. This requires you to take a couple of ferries with the bike, and you’ll want to make sure you get the necessary paperwork from the rental shop in order to do so.
You’ll need the originals of your license and the bike’s registration. It’s a good idea to make copies of each as well; just know that you need the originals to actually get on and off the ferry. This legendary trip takes you across four islands with a lot to see and do along the way, so it’s best done over a period of around two weeks.
Indonesia Backpacking Travel Costs
Backpacking Indonesia can certainly be done on a shoestring budget. Once again, it all depends on where you go and what your style is. If you’re trying to cram a lot into one trip by hopping around to several islands, your biggest expense will most definitely be transportation. All of those flights, local buses, ferries, motorbike rentals, and cab rides eventually add up.
You’ll want to do a bit of research into the potential costs for transportation before planning a trip that covers several islands.
Those spending a majority of their time on one or two islands with a rented bike will save a lot. It also helps if you can rent for longer periods of time. Most shops in Bali charge around $5 a day for a motorbike, but I was able to rent one for only about $50 a month! With a full tank of gas costing only around $1, you can cover a lot of ground without burning a hole in your wallet if you’ve got a long-term motorbike rental.
As previously mentioned, hostel beds typically go for between $10-15 a night. You can definitely find cheaper if you dig hard enough, especially further away from the really popular tourist areas. Couchsurfing isn’t really huge in Indonesia, but you can give it a shot and maybe find someone to crash with.
When it comes to eating, your money goes a long way in Indonesia. Stick to the local warungs and you can enjoy a delicious, filling meal for just a few bucks. There’s also plenty of mouth-watering street food for even less. Even in the popular Bali beach town of Sanur, you can get several dishes from the night market for less than $5.
One thing that can easily burn a hole in your budget in Indonesia is booze. In a Muslim-majority country that’s not exactly keen on drinking, there are large taxes levied on alcohol. You’ll pay over $10 for a cocktail or a glass of wine if you insist on drinking the imported stuff. Best to stick to the local Bintang beer, which can be had for just $2-3 a bottle.
If you visit just one or two islands, get around with a rented bike, stick to hostels, and eat local food, you can definitely pull off backpacking Indonesia on around $25-30 a day. Those looking to see and do a bit more, stay in private rooms, and add some big ticket items like diving or trekking may want to budget more like $75 a day.
Money in Indonesia
The official currency of Indonesia is the Rupiah (IDR). As of January 2018, the exchange rate is about 13,300 IDR for $1. It has been floating between 13,000-14,000 rupiah to the dollar for the last couple of years.
One obnoxious thing about money in Indonesia is that the largest Rupiah note is only 100,000, or about $7. When making big purchases, you’ll end up handing over a massive stack of bills!
ATMs are generally easy to find in Indonesia, especially in Bali where they want you to have plenty of money. You’ll also find plenty of currency exchange places here and in other tourist hot spots. A word of caution – avoid the money changers in Kuta like the plague. They’re notorious for scamming tourists, and there are plenty of legit money changers out there. No matter where you change your money, make sure that you’re the last one to count it.
When using ATMs, try to stick to ones that are actually attached to a bank. Random ATMs on the street or in convenience stores have been known to skim people’s information.
Thankfully, it’s quite easy to use a credit card in the big cities and popular tourist destinations in Indonesia. Just be sure to notify your bank before traveling and find out if there’s any fee associated with using your card abroad. That being said, if you’re really backpacking Indonesia and are going to more remote destinations, cash is very much king.
You should always have some emergency cash hidden on you and Will has written an entire post on the best places to hide your money. If you want to carry a fair bit of cash safely on your body, your best bet is to get hold of a backpacker belt with a hidden security pocket.
Meet the People of Indonesia
Indonesia is home to around 260 million people. This makes it the 4th most populous nation on Earth. Spread out across a vast distance and several thousand islands, it should come as no surprise that the people of Indonesia are quite diverse. Each island has its own unique customs, food, and even language.
While a majority of Indonesians are Muslim (about 87%), the Balinese are Hindu, and people on Flores are mostly Catholic.
Wherever you are in Indonesia, the people are extremely friendly. Respect the local culture and show some interest in it, and Indonesians will be very welcoming and hospitable.
Dating in Indonesia
A very common sight in Indonesia (especially Bali) is an old white guy with a young Indonesian woman. Say what you will about this, but it’s quite common and people are used to it. That’s not to say that younger people can’t or don’t hook up with locals because it definitely happens.
Just beware, guys. There’s a good chance that lady flashing looks your way is actually a lady of the night. For women traveling alone, don’t be surprised if the men in Bali try to hit on you. This is not so common elsewhere in Indonesia, where people are more conservative.
Chances are you won’t be picking up many chicks at the bar in places like Bandung or Makassar. It’s more likely you’ll end up having a fling with a fellow backpacker. If the bunk bed’s a rocking, don’t come a knocking!
Food in Indonesia
Nasi Goreng – Perhaps the most ubiquitous dish in Indonesia, nasi goreng (fried rice) can be found on just about every street corner. A big plate of seasoned rice usually topped with an egg. It’ll fill you up, and usually only cost you a buck.
Nasi Campur – If you need a little more variety, order up a plate of nasi campur (mixed rice). These places usually have a wide variety of dishes ready to go. Simply point and tell them what you want on top of your rice, Pay based on the items you choose.
Masakan Padang – This type of cooking comes from the city of Padang in West Sumatra, and it is famous all over Indonesia. Padang restaurants are typically nasi campur-style, where you pick and choose from ready-made dishes. Be sure to try the beef rendang, as it’s their specialty.
Gado-Gado – This classic Indonesia dish is a combination of boiled vegetables with a hard-boiled egg covered in a delicious peanut sauce. It often includes some fried tofu or tempeh and is typically eaten with some krupuk crackers.
Mie Bakso – Indonesia’s version of a meatball soup is beloved by people all across the country. Even Barack Obama has fond memories of eating bakso when he lived in Indonesia! Sure, it may seem a bit sketchy buying mysterious meatballs from a guy peddling a tricycle around the streets, but it’s awesome.
Sate – These little meat sticks are cooked up on street corners everywhere. They usually come in two varieties – chicken and goat – and are served with sambal chili sauce and the same peanut sauce you get on gado-gado.
Babi Guling – In a country that’s mostly Muslim, you don’t find a whole lot of pork in Indonesia. On Hindu Bali, however, their most famous dish is a roast suckling pig known as babi guling. It’s usually served up with some potatoes, rice, and a bit of the crackling skin and it’s fantastic.
Travel Phrases for Backpacking Indonesia
The national language is Bahasa Indonesia, or simply Indonesian. This is what you’ll hear on TV and read in the newspapers, and it’s the language of government, education, business, and just about everything else in Indonesia.
That being said, there are hundreds of indigenous languages across the country as well, such as Balinese and Sundanese. Here are some useful Indonesian phrases to get you going:
Hello – Halo
Good morning/afternoon/evening – Selamat pagi/sore/malam
How are you? – Apa kabar?
I’m fine – Baik-baik saja
Thank you – Terima kasih
You’re welcome – Sama-sama
Please – Silakan
Where is the bathroom? – Kamar kecil di mana?
What is this? – Ini apa?
Sorry – Maaf
I want a beer – Saya mau satu bir
See you later – Sampai jumpa lagi
What a pig dick you are! – Kontol babi lo!
If you’re interested in learning more Indonesian, you can follow the Indonesian Language & Culture Blog. There are tons of free lessons that will at least get you to a survival level if you put in some time studying them.
Internet in Indonesia
As with just about everything, the status of the internet in Indonesia all depends on where you are. You’ll find great WiFi in the big cities of Java and the tourist centers of Bali, but don’t expect to be able to watch Netflix from a village in Sulawesi.
Most hostels you’ll stay in should offer WiFi, and it’s never hard to find a cafe or a ‘net bar for other online needs. To stay connected, you can easily pick up a SIM card from Telkomsel for a few dollars and purchase a data package.
Bali is a digital nomad hotspot, and thus has great internet coverage. If you’re looking for a place to try out the remote work lifestyle, Canggu and Ubud are some of your best bets. There are several co-working spaces in both towns and more cafes than you can count, giving you tons of options for places to be productive.
Sex, Drugs, and Rock ‘n’ Roll in Indonesia
It’s no secret that Indonesia is not down with the drugs. The country has some of the strictest penalties, with life in prison for possession, and death by firing squad for convicted traffickers. Bali’s notorious Kerobokan Prison (often referred to as “Hotel K”) is full of foreigners busted for minor amounts of drugs. Even so, you’ll get plenty of offers for mind-altering substances while walking around Kuta/Legian. The chances that these guys are working with the police are high, though, so it’s best to just stick to booze in Indonesia.
One exception to the rule has long been the Gili Islands, where mushrooms and weed are readily available and for some reason not punished. It’s been a few years since my last trip to the Gilis, though, so I can’t confirm whether or not this is still true. Leave a comment and let us know if you can still get spun out and stoned in the Gilis without worrying about jail time! Check out Blazed Backpackers 101 for tips on how to stay safe, whilst getting fucked up!
In a predominantly Muslim country, drinking is a bit frowned upon as well. In fact, some hardliners in the government have been trying unsuccessfully in recent years to ban alcohol altogether. Let’s hope that their efforts continue to be shot down, as Bali would be a whole lot less fun without all the awesome bars and clubs. Speaking of those, some of the best places to party include Potato Head in Seminyak, Old Man’s in Canggu, and Single Fin down by Uluwatu.
Live in Indonesia
There are tens of thousands of expats currently calling Indonesia home. A majority of them can be found in the big cities of Java, such as Jakarta or Bandung, as well as in tourism centers, such as Bali and Labuan Bajo, Flores.
Many expats work in international companies or in the hospitality industry. Several have opened up restaurants, bars, and dive shops as well.
A great way to live in Indonesia is to work as an English teacher. Most of the jobs for teachers are in the cities, but you’ll have weekends and holidays off to go to the beach, visit temples, go trekking, and all the other amazing things Indonesia has to offer. TEFL courses open up a huge range of opportunities and you can find teaching work all over the world. To find out more about TEFL courses and how you can teach English around the world, read this in-depth report on teaching English abroad.
Top Tips for Broke Backpackers
To keep your spending to an absolute minimum whilst backpacking Indonesia I recommend sticking to the basic rules of budget adventuring:
Hitchhike: It’s not that hard to hitch a ride in Indonesia, although you’ll definitely want to pick up a bit of the language first. The thumb isn’t used to signal that you want a ride here. Rather, you should use your right hand to wave as if you want them to slow down. Don’t use your left hand, as it’s considered dirty and offensive. Hitchhiking is an ace way to keep your transport costs down.
Camp: Camping isn’t exactly huge in Indonesia, but if you’re adventurous and are getting off the beaten path, it can definitely be an option. Check out this post for a breakdown of the best tents to take backpacking. An easier option is to just bring a good camping hammock. Even if you can’t find a place to sleep, it’s great to string up for chilling out.
Eat local food: Why waste a bunch of money on mediocre versions of Western food when you can eat the local stuff for so cheap? In Indonesia, a big plate of nasi campur with some meat or seafood, plenty of veggies, and rice will only cost about $2-3. If you’re on a real tight budget; it’s worth taking a portable stove – check out this post for info on the best backpacking stoves.
Volunteer: If done properly, volunteering is an excellent way to cut down your costs on the road. I strongly recommend Workaway – you pay just $29 for the year and then have access to literally thousands of projects all around the world where you can help out in exchange for food and board.
To learn how to travel the world on $10 a day, check out the backpacker’s bible.
Staying safe in Indonesia
Check out Backpacker Safety 101 for tips and tricks to stay safe whilst backpacking.
Pick yourself up a backpacker security belt to keep your cash safe on the road.
Check out this post for plenty of ideas on ingenious ways to hide your money when travelling.
I strongly recommend travelling with a headlamp whilst in Indonesia (or anywhere really – every backpacker should have a good head torch!) – check out Will’s post for a breakdown of the best value headlamps to take backpacking.
Get insurance! Even if you are only going on a short trip, you should always travel with insurance. Have fun backpacking Indonesia, but take it from someone who has racked up tens of thousands of bucks on an insurance claim before, you need it.
As a wise man once said, if you can’t afford travel insurance, you shouldn’t be travelling – so be sure to get your backpacker insurance sorted before you head off on an adventure! Travelling without insurance would be fucking stupid. I highly recommend World Nomads.
Even if you don’t get insurance with World Nomads, Please do get some sort of insurance from somewhere, there are lots of decent options online.
Being a Responsible Backpacker in Indonesia
Generally speaking, the people of Indonesia are super friendly and welcoming. They’re also quite soft-spoken and won’t always tell you when you’re doing something offensive. The biggest thing you’ll want to be aware of is your dress and behavior in places of worship. You probably wouldn’t show up to church in a Bintang singlet, board shorts, and flip-flops, so why would you do that at a Hindu temple on Bali?
When visiting temples, you should at least have your shoulders covered and be wearing a sarong and sash. If you don’t have your own, most temples in Bali will rent them. The same goes for visiting mosques on other islands or the ancient Buddhist temples – cover up and dress respectfully.
Speaking of dressing respectfully, you may not like it, but you should dress conservatively on most of the islands in Indonesia. The Balinese are used to seeing half-naked foreigners – and a lot of them used to walk around naked, too – but people on Java and Lombok will likely be offended by women wearing booty shorts and spaghetti straps. Yes, it’s hot here, but you should still cover up.
When visiting these religious sites, it’s also important to be aware of the dos and don’ts. This should go without saying, but don’t climb on statues, take offensive pictures, or go into rooms that are off limits. You’d think most people would be able to figure that out on their own, but for some reason this remains a problem with travelers in Indonesia.
One of the biggest complaints with backpackers in Indonesia is that they drive motorbikes recklessly, oftentimes drunk, without helmets. This is just plain stupid and gives travelers who don’t drive like morons a bad name. Wear a helmet, use common sense, and take a taxi if you’re going to be crushing beers all night.
Indonesia Travel Resources
Brief History of Indonesia
The recent history of Indonesia is a turbulent one. The Portuguese were the first Europeans to arrive in Indonesia in 1512, seeking to dominate the spice trade and extend the influence of the Catholic church. While they had some success, their efforts paled in comparison to the Dutch. In 1602, they established the Dutch East India Company (VOC) and soon had a major foothold on Java. They established a capital in Batavia (now Jakarta), which became the center of their massive trading network.
Despite gaining a monopoly on several valuable spices and also introducing new cash crops like coffee, tea, sugar, and even opium, the VOC went bankrupt in 1800. Shortly thereafter, the Dutch government nationalized its holdings in Indonesia as the Dutch East Indies.
For the next century and a half, however, Dutch control over this area was tenuous at best. They were met with resistance several times, leading to bloody wars and crushed rebellions. A nationalist movement started to gain ground in the early 1900s, but the Dutch strongly oppressed any attempts at change.
Brief History of Japanese Occupation in Indonesia
Dutch rule finally came to an end, but only as a result of the Japanese occupation during World War II. They were welcomed as liberators at first, but this sentiment soon changed when the Japanese turned out to be far more oppressive than the Dutch. A UN report estimates that 4 million people died in Indonesia during the Japanese occupation.
Following the surrender of the Japanese in 1945, nationalist leaders Sukarno and Mohammad Hatta went on to declare Indonesian independence. Not surprisingly, the Dutch tried to reclaim their former colony, resulting in four years of struggle and bloodshed. Facing mounting international pressure, the Dutch finally recognized Indonesian independence in December 1949.
Indonesia after Independence
Sukarno became the first president of an independent Indonesia and quickly began moving the country towards authoritarian rule. A failed coup to overthrow him in 1965 was blamed on the Indonesian Communist Party, leading to an anti-communist purge. It’s estimated that between 500,000 and one million people were killed during this time. Sukarno was weakened as a result, and he eventually transferred power to General Suharto. He became the country’s 2nd president and began his New Order administration.
While Suharto’s new administration was supported by the US and attracted a lot of foreign investment in Indonesia, it was rife with corruption and the suppression of political opposition. Despite this, Suharto managed to hold onto power for 30 years.
It wasn’t until the financial crisis of 1997 – which hit Indonesia especially hard – that he was driven from office by massive protests. Following his ousting, East Timor declared its independence from Indonesia after 25 years of oppressive rule.
Recent History of Indonesia
Suharto’s replacement was his deputy Jusuf Habibie, but that wouldn’t last long. He failed to win enough support before elections took place, which Abdurrahman Wahid won in October of 1999. Although he was the first elected president of Indonesia, his days were numbered as well. Just a few years later, he was ousted amidst charges of corruption and incompetence.
Control was given to his VP Megawati Sukarnoputri, who attempted to keep the presidency in the country’s first direct presidential election of 2004. He lost to Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who would go on to win a 2nd term in the 2009 elections.
In the most recent presidential elections of 2014, Joko Widodo stunned high-ranking general Prabowo Subianto. As the governor of Jakarta, he became the first president of Indonesia without a top-level military or political background. Although his victory was celebrated, he has had a hard time establishing a coalition in the government and many of his policies have been criticized. He’s serving a 5-year term, and will most liekly seek re-election in 2019.
Apps to download before Backpacking Indonesia
Maps.Me – Prone to getting lost or taking that ‘shortcut’ that adds another few hours onto a simple walk? This app is definitely for you. My favourite offline maps app, download your map and route before you venture out to keep you on track while backpacking Indonesia.
XE Currency – I used this a lot when backpacking Indonesia. It is a great help while calculating expenses.
HIDE.ME – I always have a VPN ready to go on both my phone and laptop, I personally use Hide Me which is one of the fastest and most reliable options out there. This particular VPN allows for up to five connections which is handy for keeping all your devices connected without having to purchase multiple VPN packages.
Grab – Uber and Lyft aren’t common in Indonesia, so you’ll want to make sure you have Grab on your phone to hail a taxi without the need to haggle. Just be aware that you pay for your rides in cash when using this app.
GoJek – If you’re flying solo, the cheapest and easiest way to get around is with GoJek. Use this app to hail a ride on the back of a motorbike taxi. They can even deliver food, do your grocery shopping, or bring a masseuse right to your door! What a country!
Yay for transparency! Some of the links in this post are affiliate links. This means that if you book your accommodation, buy a book or sort your insurance, I’ll earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. I only link to stuff I’ve actually used and never endorse crap. Your support helps me keep the site going.
Need More Inspiration?
- The Best Hostels to Stay in Bali
- Girl’s Stylish Guide to Canggu
- The Ultimate Backpacking Packing List
- The Best Way to Hide Money While Traveling
Like this Post? PIN ME!!