17,000 islands to choose from
The sprawling archipelago of Indonesia is a highly under-touristed destination with an amazing array of attractions to offer independent through to luxury travellers. Aside from the popular island of Bali, Indonesia is one of Southeast Asia's least explored countries in terms of both backpacker hordes and mass tourism.
While in much of Southeast Asia the general rule is to follow the backpackers to find the beautiful places to stay, in Indonesia you do well chasing the heels of scuba divers and surfers. These are the travellers who have for decades caught dodgy planes, crowded ferries, creaking trains and rusty buses to get to the most stunning, out-of-the-way places in search of the perfect tube, or to glimpse a rare underwater species.
Our Indonesia travel guide is here to help you get the most out of each and every one of your trips to Indonesia, beginning with the guidelines below aimed at first-time travellers to the country.
The big questions every first-time traveller has:
Unlike the other countries we cover, in Indonesia's case most of our selections for absolute highlights are entire islands. We feel a major island is best viewed as the sum of its pieces rather than individual destinations within, though we'll cover some of the individual highlights further down the page.
Bali: Enigmatic Bali is the proverbial jewel in the crown of Indonesian tourism. The Hindu enclave has long entranced foreigners, from artists and writers in the 19th century through to surfers in the 20th century and these days, well, pretty much everyone from budget-conscious backpackers through to well-heeled luxury travellers from around the world come to Bali.
Yogyakarta: As ancient as the antiquities that surround it, and steeped in rich culture and tradition, Yogyakarta is Java’s heart and it pumps with youthful innovation and spirit. Shrouded in myth and folklore, this vibrant, fascinating centre is sure to capture your imagination.
Flores: Flores takes its name from the Portuguese for "flowers" and while it isn't particularly known for its flora, it is nevertheless a beautiful place. If you've got the time, it should absolutely be on your itinerary.
Sumbawa: Home to The Volcano That Changed The World, Sumbawa boasts world-class surf, tremendous wilderness and some fabulous islands and beaches—and almost no foreign travellers.
Sumba: Forgotten, lost, ignored. Perched near the bottom edge of the Indonesian archipelago, Sumba is the third island in the chain that stretches east of Bali and is just 700 kilometres from Australia. Sumba’s rich ancient culture and stunning landscapes will have you wondering why you’ve (till now!) never heard of it.
Ubud: The cultural heart of Bali, Ubud lures visitors from all around the world to its enchanting dances, art galleries, ceremonial processions, luxurious retreats and divine restaurants. There's also traffic. Lots of traffic.
Gili Trawangan: The largest of three islands scattered off Lombok's northwest coast, Gili Trawangan, or Gili T to its friends, attracts the party set. It is not our favourite island, but many love it.
Komodo National Park: Established in 1980, Komodo National Park was originally a terrestrial national park set up to protect the Komodo dragon, but over time it expanded to include what lies beneath. Now it comprises a massive terrestrial and marine national park of almost 2,000 square kilometres.
Seminyak: Immediately to the north of Legian with a reputation for all the pleasures in abundance to its south, but with a more upmarket vibe, in Seminyak the sunglasses are bigger, the dresses more designerly and the drink of choice champagne.
Bukit Lawang: Located three hours from the bustling North Sumatran capital of Medan, Bukit Lawang is a breath of fresh air located right on the edge of Gunung Leuser National Park.
Munduk: Friendly, mountainset Munduk sees village life go on in Bali as it has for generations. The hospitality remains warm and genuine at the good selection of guesthouses and homestays here; this is old Bali at its best.
Nusa Lembongan: Occupying a comfortable middle ground between well-trafficked Bali and relatively untouched Nusa Penida, Nusa Lembongan has a banquet of good places to stay, a friendly bunch of locals and makes for a comfortable lazy few days.
Togean Islands: An archipelago in the southeast region of the Tomini Sea in northern Sulawesi, the Togean Islands are famous for both their difficulty to reach and diving.
Amed: The place commonly referred to as Amed isn’t a single town but a string of quaint beachside fishing villages stretching about 15 kilometres along the dry and rugged northeastern coast of Bali. While long a retreat area, it’s a world away from the busy tourist centres in South Bali such as Kuta, Seminyak and Ubud.
Ketambe: While not as popular as Bukit Lawang, Ketambe provides a far more natural experience and leaves behind some of the gaudiness which has crept into its more popular neighbour over the past decade.
You'll never struggle for choice when if comes to islands in Indonesia.
Nusa Penida: Dwarfing nearby Nusa Lembongan and Nusa Ceningan, Nusa Penida is almost devoid of tourists. For all intents and purposes there are just a handful of places worth considering staying at, despite miles upon miles upon miles of beautiful coastline, an attractive hinterland and a generally old-school vibe.
Gili Layar: The latest of the "secret gilis" to begin to see some development, Gili Layar lies just to the west of considerably more developed Gili Gede and to the east of Gili Asahan, but offers far superior off-the-beach snorkelling and a decidedly laidback beachside feel. We liked it here. A lot.
Gili Air: Ringed by a very pretty beach with some quite respectable snorkelling offshore, Gili Air has a relaxed atmosphere and can be a good spot for spotting turtles.
Karimunjawa: Think white-sand beaches fringed by palm trees, turquoise water so bright it stings your eyes, warm weather all year round, hardly any tourists and just enough decent accommodation to ensure you don’t have to pitch a tent. This is the islands of Karimunjawa.
Pulau Weh: Looking for one of those beachside places that successfully treads the fine line between remote jungle-covered island paradise with no facilities and tourist hell filled with hundreds of beach resorts? Maybe add Pulau Weh to your short list.
Bromo: The main reason most people visit Bromo is to witness sunrise over the moon-like Tengger Caldera from a nearby mountain, Gunung Penanjakan. The views from this vantage point are absolutely breathtaking with Batok in the foreground, smaller Bromo behind it and the tallest mountain in Java, the ever-active Semeru, in the far distance, completing an astonishing scene.
Agung: This is the holiest mountain on Bali. Treat it with the respect it deserves—just about every house and building on the island has a shrine for daily offerings to magnificent Agung.
Rinjani: From all aspects Rinjani dominates Lombok’s landscape, and from the summit you can see west to Agung on Bali and east to Tambora on Sumbawa. The ascent, a popular activity for both foreign and domestic travellers, is nothing less than gruelling.
Tambora: The most destructive, and arguably the largest, volcanic eruption in recorded history was that of Gunung Tambora on Sumbawa. The eruption was ten times stronger (on a volcanic scale) than that of far-better known Sumatra’s Krakatau. Climb it!
Kawah Ijen: Lying deep in East Java is Kawah Ijen. You climb it not for the views but rather the lasting impression of the hardworking sulphur miners carting unbelievable amounts of raw material from the bowels of the earth.
Two weeks in Java: Many people arrive in Indonesia through the chaotic capital of Jakarta and immediately try and find a way of getting out of there. A preference for many is to get a train across the island to the first place they know anything about—Yogyakarta. Take a breath and slow down.
Two weeks in Bali: Bali is so rich in both sights and experiences that you could spend an entire lifetime on the island and barely scrape the surface, but if you don't have a lifetime to give the island, what could you do in two weeks?
Four weeks in Lombok: While you could skip through and touch upon the absolute highlights with a week or so in Lombok, set aside four weeks and you'll enjoy far more of a rewarding and under-visited island. Here's how.
Two weeks in Sumbawa: While some guidebooks suggest Sumbawa isn't worth slowing down for, we'd say two weeks is really the minimum amount of time you need to cover the peculiarly shaped island from end to end. This is especially the case if you're planning on allowing some time for laying on the beach and exploring the countryside.
18 days in Flores: If you have already seen Bali, we'd strongly suggest considering giving it a skip on your next visit and heading east to Nusa Tenggara to explore one of our favourite regions of Indonesia: Flores and Komodo. Here's why.
Two weeks in Sumba: Stunning Sumba is so easy to get to we don’t know why it’s not overrun with tourists, though we’re glad it’s not. We recommend easing yourself in gently by starting in the east. For a longer trip covering all the best bits, two weeks will see you visiting some traditional villages, gorgeous beaches and waterfalls, with perhaps time for some hiking.
Learn to dive: Indonesia offers arguably the best diving in Southeast Asia and there are no shortage of places to learn—or just dive. We learned in the Togean Islands, but Bali and Flores (among many, many others) are also very popular diving locations.
Cooking courses and food walks: Doing a cooking course at Bali Asli, Bumbu Bali or Hotel Tugu will be a great way to learn a bit more about Indonesian fare—and they're just a few of the culinary offerings on one island.
Surfing: Okay, first things first, learn to surf. Once you have that in the bag, we'd be pointing you towards Kuta in Lombok, and Maluk and Lakey in Sumbawa. As with the cooking courses, we're just scraping the surface here. Indonesia has a lot of waves.
Courses and personal improvement: Seen Eat Pray Love? Yoga mat packed? Destination Ubud.
Generally speaking, April through to November is the dry season. Bali sees its peak tourism across European summer (July and August) and Australian Christmas holidays (December and January). Bali and the Gilis see the bulk of Indonesia's arrivals, and other spots are deserted in comparison.
A side effect of monsoon in developed areas is very dirty oceans. The problem is especially acute in South Bali and South Lombok, where the heavy rains wash clogged-up drains out to sea—don't be surprised to discover you're sun baking next to, or swimming beside, a soiled discarded nappy. Some volcanoes are closed for climbing (with good reason) over peak wet season in December through January.
If your primary concern is avoiding lots of tourists, just skip Bali. In comparison to other Southeast Asian nations, in Indonesia it is very easy to dodge large numbers of tourists, as most of the archipelago sees very few tourists. Obviously the tourist infrastructure will be missing to a corresponding degree.
When you're talking about a nation of some 17,000 islands, you need to be realistic in what you are trying to achieve. Simply put, we'd say a reasonable timeline to travel from Pulau Weh in the west to Kupang in the east, with a few side trips here and there, would require a minimum of six months. Minimum.
Two weeks should be about your baseline for any one of the main islands—and while that will be sufficient for you to knock off some of the main attractions at a comfortable pace, a month is a better spread. A month in Sumatra, a month in Bali, a month in Lombok, a month in Sumbawa, a month in Flores ... You did put your leave form in right?
Trying to cover too much territory in too little time does not work in Indonesia. If you have limited time (say two weeks) make judicious use of domestic flights and be selective in where you go. Jakarta, Yogyakarta, Ubud and Gili T will work in two weeks assuming you're flying the longer legs—we wouldn't advise trying to fit in more.
If you are planning a longer stay, it pays to familiarise yourself with Indonesia’s visa rules. They change occasionally and some rules are enforced haphazardly, complicating what should be a simple process.
Outside of Bali, Indonesia is an affordable country and budget travellers comfortable in simple accommodation, eating street food, not drinking too much alcohol, travelling using cheap transport and steering clear of heavily touristed (and so more expensive) destinations, can get by on around US$20 a day. Alcohol is expensive by regional standards, so if you like four or five sundowners rather than one, you'll need to factor that into your budget.
Most independent travellers tend to spend a little more. That air-con room is tempting, as is the pool and WiFi, real latte and occasional VIP bus or short domestic flight. All these conspire to push daily budgets up to around a more comfortable US$30-40 per day.
If your tastes veer more towards the luxurious, then Indonesia does offer terrific value for accommodation in the US$100-$200 mark, especially in Bali. Food and entertainment costs can potentially increase accordingly.
In terms of international acclaim, Kurniawan picks up the mantle from Pramoedya Ananta Toer, the Southeast Asian writer probably the nearest to win a Nobel prize for literature. Pramoedya’s Buru Quartet cover Indonesian’s political awakening under Dutch colonial rule. At the least, read the first novel of the series of four, This Earth of Mankind, an unblinking examination of colonialism, racism and sexism, woven through a colourful coming-of-age tale.
Travellers will love Elizabeth Pisani's account of her extensive trips through the archipelago in Indonesia Etc: Exploring the Improbable Nation, while Ring of Fire: An Indonesian Odyssey covers the incredible adventures of Lawrence Blair and his brother in Indonesia in the 1960s. Those into Indonesia's modern history should pick up a copy of Richard Lloyd Parry's excellent In the Time of Madness—we reckon this is the best book written about Indonesia in the late 20th century.
Roll back the clock a little for a fictional account of Sukarno's downfall in the 1960s in The Year of Living Dangerously. The 1978-released novel hasn’t always aged so well when it comes to stereotyping but it's a finely crafted tale focusing on the political turmoil that engulfed the young nation in the 1960s, through a Westerner’s eye.
If you're heading to Bali, Under the Volcano is one of the better easy-reading histories and modern reportage books on the island. A House in Bali by Colin McPhee was published in 1947 but remains engaging today. The story of McPhee’s journey as a musician and composer learning about Balinese gamelan is simply, if perhaps unexpectedly, a page-turner. Finally, Louise Doughty's 2016-released Black Water is a fantastic literary thriller set on the island in 1965 and 1998, as well as in Jakarta and California in the 1960s, following the life of a Dutch-Indonesian man born in a Japanese internment camp.
While terrorism gets all the headlines, arguably the greatest dangers facing foreign tourists travelling in Indonesia today are having an accident while riding a scooter without a helmet, or being poisoned by badly distilled fake alcohol—which can kill you. Both are fairly easily addressed: Always wear a motorcycle helmet when riding a bike. And stick to beer when boozing at cheap beach bars. If your gin and tonic is the same price as a beer, it is almost certainly not real gin and fake booze kills tourists and Indonesians every year.
On Bali, especially in South Bali and Ubud, snatch and grab theft is a serious problem. When walking by the side of the road always keep shoulder bags on the off-road shoulder.
In eastern Indonesia, notably Lombok, Sumbawa and Sumba, motorcycling (and in some cases, driving) at night by yourself is unwise due to a heightened risk of robbery from what were described to us as "local scoundrels". Generally speaking, the more remote the area, the more unwise it is to be travelling alone.
Public boats are frequently overloaded and speed boats are often overloaded and driven erratically or dangerously (depending on your point of view). Public boats sink frequently, often with insufficient life jackets. If the boat looks overloaded to you, or the weather dangerous, do not get on board. We do not use the fast boat services from Bali to the Gili Islands—take the slow boat.
Don’t ride (or drive) stoned or drunk. Drug laws in Indonesia are extremely strict, but enforced haphazardly. Just because the guy on the street who sold you a bag of pot didn’t get arrested doesn’t mean you won’t be.
If you wouldn’t do it in your home country because it is stupid, why do it in Indonesia?
The Travelfish newsletter is sent out every Monday and is jammed full of free advice for travel in Southeast Asia. You can see past issues here.