Indonesia has become famous for their diverse and dramatic landscape. Volcanoes, beaches, and jungles give this island country an astonishing beauty. But it isn’t just one island that makes up Indonesia and rather, the country is an archipelago of over 17,000 islands, so there are endless opportunities for adventures or explorations.
The five main islands of Indonesia are Sumatra, Java, Borneo, Sulawesi, and New Guinea. Other major islands in the area include the Nusa Tenggara and Maluku islands where you can reconnect with nature and transcend into its tranquility.
Selamat Datang – Welcome to Indonesia
But beauty goes beyond the epic landscape of this country and integrates itself into the people, culture, cuisine, and cities. With stunning islands, the cities are equally beautiful with a mix of modern architecture and ancient temples. While Indonesia’s popularity has skyrocketed with tourism, there are still plenty of hidden gems to discover in this ornate country.
Jakarta is the capital of Indonesia and it is located on the island of Java. Many travelers would call it a city of contrasts because of the disparity between economic classes, the loud streets, packed alleyways, food stalls, and traffic. The capital is not the image of peacefulness that most would associate with the country, but that doesn’t mean that it should be skipped. In Jakarta, you can experience exotic flavors, explore the arts, and chill in the bohemian vibes of coffee shops.
Culture and Language
Indonesia has a rich culture that starts all the way back with Pithecanthropus erectus or more commonly known as the Java Man. This fossil that was discovered in 1891 was our first knowledge of fossils of Homo erectus. For humanity, this discovery was important because it helped us map early human migration.
But while Indonesia started out as many countries do with a pre-human history, the country also developed its own unique country as the formations of kingdoms occurred during the 7th century AD. By the 1500s, the Portuguese landed in Indonesia and were soon followed by the Dutch, where they developed the East India Trading Company. Since the Dutch and Portuguese, the British, Japanese, and a President Soekarno held power over the region. Under Soekarno’s rule, the country struggled with corruption and nepotism but overcame their old President to rebuild into a democratic and constitutional republic.
With a difficult history, Indonesia has blossomed into a stunning country. The people have overcome hardship and are still kindhearted. It is important for travelers to understand that there isn’t one single culture that can be labeled as Indonesian. Every island has its own culture and the culture between people can vary because of its diversity. While diverse, there are still elements of Indonesian culture that are similar and customary for the region.
As with most Asian households, family always comes first and relationships to your kin are tightly knit. Multiple generations will often live in the same house or within the same neighborhood. Along with family, religion is an important part of the country’s identity. There are 6 major religions in Indonesia, including a large Muslim population, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and few branches of Christianity.
Indonesian people are also bound to traditions and spirituality. Legends often tell of how things like a mountain or temple, came into being. Celebrations are also integral to the culture and you’ll find that in Indonesia there is a celebration for everything. Whether it is family customs or communal, people will come together to celebrate life’s little victories and milestones.
Indonesian is the official language of Indonesia and is also known locally as Bahasa Indonesia. The language is central to the government, business, education, and media with about 43 million native speakers and a further 156 million people speaking it as a second language. In large cities, you find that Bahasa Indonesia is dominant but outside of the bustling crowds, regional languages dominate.
In the countryside, languages like Javanese and Sudanese are spoken and are listed as official regional languages. Both are spoken on the island of Java, though Sudanese is more common in West Java and Banten. But due to their proximity to other countries and even sharing borders with Papua New Guinea, East Timor, and Malaysia, other languages may be spoken as well.
With the rise of tourism and foreigners, Indonesia also have a fairly large English-speaking population with an estimate of 23 million speakers. While you may not find English is common outside the cities, it should be fairly easy to encounter in the streets of destination resorts and islands.
For US citizens who are interested in visiting Indonesia, you do not need a tourist visa if you are staying for less than 30 days in the country. In 2015, the country changed their law and allowed American tourists to enter and visit the country without having to be pre-approved for a visa. This saves travelers $35 US dollars, which was the old visa fee.
However, visa free entry is only available at major airports and ports. Some of the entry points that do accept visa free entry include Soekarno-Hatta Airport (Jakarta), Ngurah Rai Airport (Bali), Kualu Namu Airport (North Sumatra), and Juanda Airport (East Java). At other entry points you may need to apply for a visa and pay the $35 US dollar fee, prior to your arrival.
But you should keep in mind that there are still other requirements that you must meet to be stamped entry into the country. The most important other requirements are that you have a valid US passport with at least 6 months validity beyond your date of departure from Indonesia. You will need two blank passport pages – one for entry and exit, with a currency restriction of $7,500 US dollars for both entry and exit. It is also suggested that you are up to date on all vaccinations.
Travelers who do not have a valid visa or are overstaying their visa should expect to have heavy fines. Most Visa-on-Arrival visas are valid for a one-time extension, but beyond that you would have to find the appropriate solution. A Visa-Free traveler will not be able to extend their visa at all.
While a visa is crucial for legal entry into the country, it is also important for you to plan your trip and think about your spending budget while you are in Indonesia. But the good news is that Indonesia can be traveled on an affordable budget, which makes it a top destination for backpacker budgets. The most important parts of your budget will include the airfare, accommodation, food, drink, and transportation.
The only downside is that Asia is far away, which makes most plane tickets very expensive. Most flights leaving from the United States West Coast will take 17 hours to fly directly to Indonesia. If you live in other parts of the United States, travel time and cost will likely increase. A flight from Los Angeles to Indonesia about $700 US dollars one way, but there is a large range in prices from as low as $450 US dollars to over $1,000 US dollars.
Indonesia is unique because it’s a country that attracts travelers all year round. While May to September are the most popular months because it is the dry season, the wet season is also enjoyed by many because of the influx of waterfalls. From May to September, you should expect the ticket prices to be higher and even more so around holidays. In the off season, you may find that airlines tickets are slightly less expensive. Travelers can also save money by planning ahead and booking their plane tickets earlier.
While the plane tickets likely won’t budge much in price, you can save money by choosing more affordable accommodation options. Indonesia is a country where you will find a large contrast between prices and it attracts both backpackers and luxury tourists. The price of accommodation will also increase or decrease based on your location. Popular destinations like Bali will be the most expensive areas, while other islands may have accommodation for just over $2 US dollars.
Most accommodation throughout Indonesia is offered in the form of guest houses. Guest houses are normally set up with double beds and it is rare to find a single bed setup. Some will have communal bathrooms, and some may be private. You’ll find that guesthouses range in price from $4-$20 US dollars.
If staying in guesthouses isn’t your style and you would like to stay in a hostel, you should expect to pay more. Hostels are more expensive and will likely range in price from $8-$45 US dollars per night and depending on location. Many hostels will have dorm beds but be more spacious or have more amenities available than a guesthouse. As well, you can meet more travelers and be more social in a hostel.
For travelers who wish private accommodations in a hotel, you will have to raise your budget. Nice hotels will cost $20-$120 US dollars per night and based on your location. But with hotels, many will serve a complimentary breakfast and you will have a private bathroom, alongside other amenities.
Airbnb is another option for you to find amazing accommodation on the islands, but it can be rather pricey. Most Airbnbs in Indonesia are private homes located on the island, which means that you should expect to spend about anywhere from $60-$500 US dollars per night. But if you happen to be traveling in a group, Airbnb can be a great way to split the cost and made accommodation more affordable during your trip.
Finally, luxury accommodations are always available throughout the island of Indonesia. There are many popular resorts that have become increasingly popular as tourism continues to flourish. But resorts are also the most expensive places to stay, so you should expect to pay $500 US dollars per night for a nice location. Luxury locations can easily cost $1,000 US dollars or more per night, if not several thousand dollars.
Once you’ve decided on your flight and accommodation budget, you’ll have to also consider the cost of food and drink. Indonesian food is famous for being flavorful with spices, having wonderful colors, and exotic tastes. Steamed rice is a staple for many dishes, but the spicy zest livens it up and makes the dishes more unique. But spice is found everywhere, and many people will tell you that Sumatran food is much milder than the spicy Javan dishes. But similar in tune with individual island culture, you may find that food is served slightly different in each location that you visit.
A few of the most famous dishes included Indonesian satay, which are meat skewers served with a peanut sauce. Fried rice is widely popular due to the thicker soy sauce, seafood, egg, and garnishes. Sop buntut is a dish for more adventurous eaters and is called oxtail soup in English. The soup originated in London, but was brought to Indonesia in colonial days, where it remains massively popular. A sweet dish is martabak, which is like Indonesia’s version of a pancake and filled with chocolate, cheese, or peanuts. Finally, sambal is a condiment that is widespread throughout the country and can be served alongside a variety of dishes.
The best part about Indonesia’s food is that it comes at an affordable price. Many dishes can be bought for less than $3 US dollars, if you are eating at the street stalls. Larger portions in the street stalls will cost about $1 US dollar more. If eating at a restaurant is more your style, you should expect to spend about $6 US dollars at a non-touristy location. Tourist hotspots will see prices increase up to $15 US dollars for a meal. Fancier restaurants that are located in the resorts would likely have high prices similar to what you would see in the United States.
For the party going travelers, drinking is also important to consider in your budget and when compared to the price of food, drinks are expensive. Local drinks will be the most affordable options with a beer costing about $3 US dollars. But drinks out at the bars, restaurants, or clubs will be about $6 US dollars each. Many drinking locations will also charge tourists a cover fee to enter the establishment. Luxury bars or restaurants would sell drinks for about $8 US dollars or more.
Overall, Indonesia can be made extremely affordable or turned into a lavish memory. Backpackers can life off of as little as $10 US dollars per day if they have planned everything perfectly, but most people will spend about $20 US dollars per day. A more comfortable budget would be to spend about $30-$40 US dollars per day. For travelers who are spending hundreds per day, they would be staying in luxury accommodation and sticking to the touristy spots.
How to Get Around
Indonesia is a difficult place to travel domestically because there are so many islands that you can explore. For most inter island travel, your choice would be to take a domestic flight or ferry. For travelers who are tight on time and can’t waste it by traveling slowly, domestic flights are the best way to go. There are a variety of airlines, like Air Asia, that have domestic flights for about $50 US dollars between islands.
Ferries are more affordable ways to travel, but they can take longer to reach your destination. If you are willing to take a little more time to save money, most ferries will cost about $15 US dollars between the islands.
When you are traveling on one island or sticking to one area, the best ways to get around are by bus, train, tuk tuks, rickshaws, or renting a vehicle. On Java, trains are a great way to see the island and will cost about $8 US dollars or less for a ticket. Buses are also affordable but are the slowest way to travel. A bus ticket will cost about $12 US dollars but expect to spend up to 12 hours on the bus to reach your destination.
Finally, you can always pay a little money for tuk tuks or rickshaws if you are traveling around a city. These will likely cost less than $2 US dollars, depending on how far you are going. They are a great way to see the streets and can eliminate the stress of you having to navigate the streets yourself.
If you are up to the challenge of driving and sitting in traffic, you can rent your own motorcycle or car. On smaller islands, where traffic is almost non-existent, it can be great to rent your own vehicle. In busy cities like Jakarta or on Java, the stress of renting may not be worth it. However, for travelers who are looking to rent, you should expect to pay about $8 US dollars per day for a motorcycle (gas included) and $24 US dollars per day for a car (gas included).
As with any destination, walking is the best way to see the local life and travel for free. In many tourist areas, walking is perfectly safe, but you should always be aware of your surroundings and keep your belongings close.
Top Places to Visit: Cities
While most people don’t realize that Indonesia includes over 17,000 islands within its borders, there are plenty of cities that you can visit. Here, we will give a brief overview of the top city destinations in Indonesia.
As the capital, Jakarta is busy, noisy, and chaotic. It is fast paced and does not have the slow island feel like the rest of the islands. But with diversity and a constantly changing backdrop, the city is known for their cuisine and customs.
Mostly used as a transportation hub, the city does have stunning architecture with old colonial buildings still standing amongst the busy streets. Chinatown and the Old Arab Quarter are also top destinations if you are looking to stay longer and aren’t just passing through.
Bandung is uniquely placed because tourists can stay in the hustle and bustle of an energetic city but escape to nature just outside its boundaries. The nearby mountains provide plenty of locations where you can view volcanoes, relax in hot springs, or visit the tea plantations.
Medan is on the island of Sumatra and it is a modern city but manages to avoid being overrun with chaos like Jakarta. The city is filled with shopping, dining, and sightseeing but is mainly used as a transportation destination to other areas like Lake Toba or countries like Malaysia.
Located on the island of Java, Yogyakarta shines with art and culture. The Javanese heritage is on full display and there are plenty of historical sites to visit. But modernity has also come to the city so you can explore popular dining and shopping locations.
Ubud is nestled in the upper highlands of Bali and is known for being a place where tourists can experience Indonesian tradition and view their crafts. The landscape is surrounded by stunning rice paddies and features a few Hindu temples. Now, it is a popular tourist destination where people flock to see its beauty.
Also located on Bali, Kuta is a white beach resort that is known for having some of the best beaches on the island. You can catch a wave in the surf, or you can dive under and view the colorful coral reefs. With plenty of dining, shopping, and drinking options, Kuta is one of the most popular places in Bali.
Points of Interest
While cities are always the main attraction of a destination, you may find that there is a specific point of interest that excites your curiosity.
Raja Ampat is famous for being a paradise for divers who want to explore the coral reefs and aquatic wildlife. The islands are scattered throughout clear blue water and are an unforgettable destination.
As a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Borobudur is a 9th century Buddhist temple complex that is significant in Indonesia’s culture, history, and heritage. The large complex is in a beautiful location where you can look out onto the sprawling green landscape.
For travelers who want to experience Indonesia’s traditional ways, Tana Toraja in South Sulawesi is the place to go. The local people live amongst the mountains and are known for drawing in dark tourists who wish to see their tradition of walking the dead.
Tanjung Putting National Park
Located in Borneo, this is the place to go if you want to witness orangutans in their natural habitat. With a large spread, the park encompasses dry lands, forests, swamps, and coastal beach areas.
A hidden gem of Indonesia, Ora Beach is located on Maluku and has crystal clear water filled with coral reefs and tropical fish. There are dramatic mountains in the backdrop, and you can stay in on the water houses for an unforgettable experience.
Get Out and Go
Indonesia is an absolute gem with its gorgeous landscape and islands. With modern cities, ancient temples, and diverse natural landscape, this country will draw you in for adventure. The endless adventures offered throughout the islands makes Indonesia a must-see travel destination.