The Ultimate Backpackers' Guide to Indonesia

Aching for an Indonesian adventure? There's a couple things you need to know before you go.

This island archipelago is like nowhere else on earth - its insane beauty isn't exactly like the postcards portray, it's so much more than that. If you're reading this, you've taken the first steps towards the trip of a lifetime - now you need some essential tips and tricks to get you around the country in the easiest way possible and most importantly, in one piece.

Don't be a 'clueless tourist' - you're better than that. We've searched far and wide for the essential pieces of knowledge you need - so you don't have to. Discover exactly what you need to know for your Indo odyssey with our go-to guide and prepare to experience a whole new world.

Conservative customs are a way of life

More than 80% of Indonesia's population are Muslim. Their worship may differ slightly from that in the Middle East, though many of the same rules still apply. Modesty in one's appearance is held in high regard, so it's best to dress accordingly in public areas. Away from the beach, the conservative nature of Indonesian culture encourages women and men to not show bare skin and to cover up especially in places of worship.

 

Simple etiquette and body language tells all

Body language speaks volumes of one's character in Indonesian culture. 'Saving face' is an important concept that makes Indonesians calm and collected. Loud, boisterous communication is frowned upon and everyone should tackle problems with poise, composure and overall low volume of voice and a respectful tone - even when conflict arises.

  • Never use your left hand for anything - the left is considered one’s ‘unclean’ hand. Always use your right and point at things with your right thumb.
  • Always take off your shoes when visiting an Indonesian home and greet the eldest family members first (if they’re present).
  • Greet people with a gentle handshake. “Selamat” (pronounced sell-a-mat) means “peace” and is a common greeting . Don’t shake hands with an Indonesian woman unless she herself initiates the handshake.
  • At the end of a meal, leave a small amount of food on your plate - an empty plate signifies you’ve had too little to eat and may trigger your host to pile on another plateful when you’re absolutely stuffed.

And most importantly, remember to smile!

Getting around is easy

Rickshaws are absolutely iconic to Indonesia. These three-wheeled motorised scooters with a rear compartment transport everyone from students and businessmen to tourists alike, all over Jakarta. For short rides, these motorised vehicles are a cheap and easy way to get around. An average rickshaw or ‘bajaj’ ride will cost anywhere between Rp5,000 and Rp20,000 For longer trips over 20 minutes, it’s best to take the bus.

Boats & waterways are a great way to hop around the islands in Indonesia. Sumatra, Java and Bali are all connected by car ferries. These ferries run daily or several times per week (even hourly in some areas) and are the perfect way to get around by sea. Pelni is Indonesia’s government-run passenger boat service. Be sure to check their schedules before going seaward and make sure you keep your belongings with you at all times when on board.

Taxis are a quick and easy way to get around in Indonesia. Cabs can be flagged down on the street and found at shopping malls and hotels. Taxis can be ordered by telephone too, so be sure to save some recognised ones’ numbers onto your mobile. Most importantly, make sure you’re getting into a reputable taxi that’s clearly marked. Blue Bird, Silver Bird, Eksekutif and Express are just a handful of reputable taxi companies in Indonesia. Never get into an unmarked taxi or one with a company name you can’t recognise. If in doubt, flag down another taxi or call for one instead.

Buses are a cheap way to get around and take longer journeys. Be wary though, as some buses lack air conditioning and get absolutely packed to full capacity. Taking large luggage on these buses can be problematic - even the isles can be full of passengers in busy times. If you’re going a long way like the 24-hour ride from Bali to Jakarta, be sure to book the appropriate ‘executive’ air-conditioned bus. Another option of course, is to take advantage of cheap prices from budget airlines.

Things to remember...

Indonesian society runs on something called 'jam karet' which translates to 'rubber time'. People usually arrive to meetings and arrangements at least 30 minutes later than the agreed time. This may apply for transport also, so be sure to practise some patience when waiting for the bus. Some modes of transport have a policy to ‘depart when full’, so be wary of some added wait times while people slowly get on board. Rubber time means you can relax and not take your schedule so seriously!

Where to stay

Hostels are a large part of backpacking culture in Indonesia and can be found all over the country. Hostels are usually a cheap alternative to hotels at even just 10 US Dollars per night, however living conditions may vary. If you’re looking for a super cheap place to stay for a day or two (and don’t mind sharing the halls with other travellers) a hostel could be best for you. Check out the best hostels in the region here.

Hotels are the usual go-to choice for tourists. With a whole range of hotels at varying price ranges, hotels are best when staying in an area for a while longer (1 week+) and can be more costly than other accommodation. Indonesia has its fair share of global chain hotels (Hilton, Marriott etc.) but if you’re travelling on a budget, a local holiday resort is the cheaper option. Check out a super comprehensive list of budget hotels in the region here.

Where to visit

Bali is an absolute must on your Indonesian adventure. For the most amazing diving and snorkelling, Pemuteran on the north coast and Amed in the east provide the most breathtaking underwater experiences. For the best surfing and beachy fun, check out Canggu in the west and the Bukit peninsula way down south. If you’re an expert surfer, Uluwatu and Padang-Padang rumble with some notorious breaks that challenge even the most senior riders. Venturing inland you’ll find Ubud, the spiritual and cultural center of the island. Here you’ll find amazing food, local crafts and every kind of Yoga under the sun.

Lombok is the perfect place to unwind and quiet down for a while. Just 20 minutes by air from Bali, this island is spoilt with open beaches and much, much less traffic. Just off the coast, the Gili Islands are an absolute must for some of the most breathtaking beaches and crystal blue water on earth. These small islands are motor-vehicle free and sparsely populated - the perfect place to unwind and see the relaxed side of Indonesia. Kuta beach is the most idyllic destination for a day by the sea. Here you can explore the coastal town on a rented motorbike and lounge on the gorgeous white sand beach.

Jakarta is Indonesia’s bustling capital city. This city is a destination in itself and the gateway to the rest of Indonesia. Here’s your chance to indulge with some of the most luxury bars and highrise views in the country. Check out the nightlife in Jakarta and bar hop in the city that never sleeps. At night, the city’s skyline transforms into a million lights that’ll give you a whole new kind of visual wonder. Jakarta is the best place to stock up on your travel essentials, get some rest in a luxury bed and prepare for the next leg of your adventure. From here, you can continue your journey by land, sea, air or rail. If this is your last stop, you can toast to an amazing trip and take in the ridiculous view from the SKYE bar and restaurant that’s guaranteed to blow you away.

Where to eat

Local cuisine changes with the landscape of Indonesia. Indonesian culture thrives on great food and sitting down for a meal is considered almost holy. Rendang is an impeccable curry usually made with duck, chicken or liver and takes skill and time. This spicy succulent dish hails from the Minangkabau people and is now served across the country. Widely considered the country’s national dish, Nasi Goreng is yet another favourite that’s made its way into the West, probably because it’s so damn good. This extraordinary take on fried rice is on another level - with sweet thick Kecap sauce and a sunny side up egg perched on top, this is no ordinary rice dish.

Food, food and more food

There are thousands of streetside restaurants and food carts all over Indonesia and many serve up great traditional dishes from Nasi Goreng to Siomay dumplings and more. If you’re looking for something more gourmet, check out some of the cities’ high-end restaurants that serve up a contemporary taste of Indonesia and more. For authentic Indonesian delights in a foodie-friendly setting, check out Palalada Restaurant in central Jakarta and Sangsaka in Bali.

Vegetarianism is well represented in Indonesia, so herbivores needn’t worry. Most restaurants will serve veggie dishes like Tempeh and other local favourites. When in doubt, simply tell your waiter “saya vegetarian” and they should get the gist. If they’re a little more traditional, you can simply say “tanpa daging” when ordering, which means “without meat”. If you’re invited to eat in someone’s home, be sure to let them know your dietary requirements beforehand. This will avoid any awkward situations at the table and will ensure you have enough wonderful food to eat.

Things to remember...

Eating in unfamiliar countries is always going to be risky. What we’re served on holiday can be drastically different to what our gut is used to back home, which can cause stomach pains and other problems that can bring down the holiday vibes. Be sure to practise caution and only drink bottled water, eat from hygienic vendors and avoid room-temperature food or items served raw or only slightly cooked.

Don't forget visas and jabs!

Be absolutely sure to check your visa requirements before jetting off. Depending where you’re from, you may need to apply for a special visa to visit Indonesia. Without this you may be refused entry, so it’s best to make sure you’re on the right track. Before taking off, ensure your vaccinations are up to date. Diphtheria, Hepatitis A, Tetanus and Typhoid are advised for vaccination. Others to consider are Cholera, Hepatitis B, Japanese Encephalitis and Rabies.