Photo: Everyone is a beginner at the start.

Indonesia for beginners

What would you like to know about Indonesia?


Currency

The Indonesian currency is the rupiah (IDR). The exchange rate as of late 2015 is around 13,000-14,000 to US$1. Coins are used for 100 up to around 1,000 rupiah, notes run from 1,000 rupiah up to 100,000 rupiah. You heard right: the largest note is worth just over US$7. This can make ATM transactions very expensive, as the maximum withdrawal is usually 1.5 million (for machines dispensing 50,000 rupiah notes) to 3 million rupiah (for those dispensing 100,000 rupiah notes, though sometimes their maximum is 2 million only).

Plan your finances accordingly and be aware of what your bank is charging you for each withdrawal. International ATMs can be easily found in larger cities and many smaller towns, but on smaller islands you’ll have to carry cash to keep you going. Small shops may often (illegally) offer candy instead of the smallest coins in change. Many larger shops will accept credit cards, but often charge a 3% fee.

Safety

By and large, Indonesia is a safe country to travel in. If you are a victim of a crime at all, it’s likely to be an opportunistic one, such as snatch and grab or petty theft, and even then probably only in tourist centres such as busier areas in Bali. Snatch and grab (where a motorcycle-riding thief rips a bag of your shoulder) however is a growing problem in Bali, especially in Sanur, Seminyak and Ubud, and people have been killed in such attacks. Always carry handbags and shoulder bags on the off-road shoulder when walking along the road or footpath.

Credit card skimming is a rising problem, so check your statements carefully and promptly. Where possible use an ATM within a bank branch rather than a streetside one. ATMs in minimarts are especially of concern.

Indonesia levies extremely high tariffs on imported liquor which has given birth to a substantial illegal bootleg industry. Home-brewed liquor is not distilled to professional standards and poisonings, blindness and, in some cases, death, have resulted from methanol poisoning. Homemade liquor is often sold in fake or refilled brand bottles (Absolut for example) and is often sold through retail outlets to the unsuspecting public.

The best indicator that the liquor is fake will be the low price, or, the next morning, the hangover (if you survive drinking it). A simple mixed drink made with real liquor should cost at least 50,000 rupiah, fancier cocktails 80,000 rupiah and up. If you're being offered $1 cocktails from a shack on the beach (or a fancy club for that matter), rest assured the spirits in these drinks will almost certainly be fake. Buyer beware.

The Gili Islands off the northwest coast of Lombok, Kuta and Legian are especially bad for this and there have been numerous deaths after drinking fake liquor -- and the bars are still operating. We cannot stress this strongly enough: drink cheap cocktails on the Gili Islands at your own risk. Stick to beer.

If you suspect methanol poisoning, seek medical assistance immediately -- do not try to sleep it off.

Police

Indonesian police may request payment for completing police reports (you’ll need one if making an insurance claim) or if you are busted violating a traffic rule (instead of taking and booking you at the police station). Standards and experiences vary widely, but in general don’t expect English to be spoken, or too much assistance. While officially illegal, paying a bribe on the spot for minor infractions is commonplace.

Healthcare

Healthcare is improving but remains mediocre by Western standards, particularly in remote areas — wealthy families head to Singapore for check ups and treatments. Jakarta, Bali and (to a lesser degree) Manado hospitals can offer close to an international standard of care, but for anything serious you’d do well to get to Singapore quickly too. Be sure to have adequate insurance before visiting Indonesia.

Transport

Indonesia is a sprawling country and getting around safely can be a challenge. Do you choose a dodgy local carrier to fly, risk an overcrowded ferry, jump on a speeding bus or ride on a rusting train?

Indonesia has dozens of domestic airlines, some of which fly only a handful of routes and in some cases you'll have no choice but to fly a local airline to reach where you are going. Local carriers may not operate to the same level of professionalism, safety and maintenance that you are familiar with in your home country. Indonesia's air safety record is very poor and the majority of local carriers are banned from flying to the EU (this is a bit of a symbolic ban as most have no plans on ever flying to the EU).

The ferry system isn't much better. Public ferries sink or have serious incidents regularly. Most speedboat services between Bali and the Gili Islands are run with scant regard for public safety (or comfort). We personally do not use these services.

Despite being a vast archipelago, the bus network is poorly developed and of a low standard. Prices at least are low. Bus routes are generally not designed with tourist routings in mind. Bus accidents are common.

It’s easy to hire a bike or a car to get yourself around, but make sure you are legally licensed -- and get used to the rhythms of the traffic as a passenger first. And always wear a helmet.

Visas

Indonesia's visa regime is a changeable feast. Generally speaking most nationalities are eligible for a sixty day tourist visa available at Indonesian consulates and embassies around the world. There are also a couple of flavours of visa on arrival which is valid for thirty days. This is free for some nationalities only. Those considering a free visa on arrival should acquaint themselves with the rules and regulations -- especially concerning entry and exit posts. See our dedicated Indonesia visa page for more information.

Indonesian language

Basic Indonesian is relatively simple and easy to pronounce. It’s definitely worth investing some time in learning the basics, particularly if you are travelling outside tourist centres. You’ll be well rewarded with friendliness and also get around a lot more easily with a little under your belt.

Weather

Indonesia's climate is monsoonal and is affected by a series of weather patterns depending on where you are in the archipelago. Broadly speaking, unless you're hiking the glacier in Papua the weather is hot and wet or hot and dry. At higher altitudes the temperature will drop, but you're essentially straddling the equator and it is warm to hot year round. As with other monsoonal climates, wet season is characterised by short, quick downpours rather than all-day, never-ending rain (though the latter does happen). Flooding in most cities in peak wet season is to be expected. Wet season brings with it rough seas and boat timetables (and safety) may be affected. See our detailed Indonesia climate page for more information.

Indonesia is a developing country

Things often don’t work here, particularly outside tourist areas, but also within them. Or they break (though blue string fixes a lot). Just go with reasonable expectations.

Indonesia is a wonderful country

Vast empty beaches, stunning snorkelling, brilliant sunsets, smoking volcanoes... Indonesia has so much to offer travellers that it makes the challenges absolutely worthwhile.

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Further reading


Festivals & events


Food & drink


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Highlights

How long have you got? Here are some of our favourites ...

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