Indonesia is a backpackers paradise, and is quickly becoming one of the most popular gap year destinations in the world. With over 17,000 islands and 246 million people with over 500 languages and countless cultures, customs and lifestyles, not to mention the diverse volcanic landscapes and the wildlife hotspots, travellers would be foolish to miss Indonesia off their gap year itinerary.
Indonesia truly is an enigmatic land of contradictions. On one hand you have heavy tourist meccas such as Bali, which package tour Australians have slowly reduced to a slightly more exotic Benidorm, and places like Yogyakarta where travel infrastructure is well set up to receive independent tourists with great accommodation and transport options, on the other you have places far off the beaten track that truly define the word adventure. Vast swathes of active volcanoes make up the infamous ring of fire, rugged landscapes, ancient temples and wildlife rich jungles are more than enough to keep any intrepid adventurer busy for months.
Indonesia is not a place where you can arrive with a tightly packed itinerary and a desire to rush through and see everything in a week. It just isn’t possible, not just because of its sheer size, but because Indonesia herself simply will not allow you to. Transport will not run to an itinerary, a simple photograph may lead to an hour long conversation and an invitation for a cup of tea, the promise of adventure will beckon you to stay longer, plans will change and your pace of life will slow.
Yet despite this, Indonesia is a surprisingly easy and effortless destination, where you can simply grab your backpack and passport and lose yourself for months in this sometimes baffling amalgamation of countries and cultures. There really is something for everyone here, from the luxury spa resorts of Bali to the sense pounding city of Jakarta and the untouched beauty of Java and Kalimantan. You can choose to live in the lap of luxury or head out into one of the last great adventure destinations where the only limits to what you can do are your own.
Indonesia is huge, there are up to 17,000 islands, hundreds of languages, dozens of religions both imported and indigenous and over 240 million people spread over a vast equatorial region, it is an impossibility to summarise the culture and beliefs of this vast place without dedicating half a book to it!
The best thing to do in terms of religion in Indonesia is resign yourself to the fact that you will never likely understand the complexities of the various religions, not without a doctoral thesis or two at least anyway, and just enjoy the feeling of bemused wonder as a Muslim call to prayer cuts across the air as you watch a Buddhist ceremony surrounded by animist and ancestor worship shrines. Acceptance, openness and learning are the bywords here.
Although Indonesia’s predominantly Muslim population is very moderate and used to Western style and customs, it is still polite and respectful to sensibly moderate your behaviour and clothing in what is still quite a conservative society, and it will save you a bit of hassle too. Simple comfortable clothing that covers shoulders and upper arms and legs are perfectly fine for both men and women.
In very general terms Indonesian’s are extremely friendly and very comfortable with Western tourists and visitors, and tourist centres and cities in particular are very Westernised in many ways. Be friendly is possibly the best advice I can give you in Indonesia. That is true for most countries, but particularly so here, sometimes to the extent that many Western visitors are often overwhelmed by it. Unlike in many countries across the world where a stranger striking up a conversation for no reason may be a prelude to a scam, here it is often more likely they just wanted to say hello. In fact in more rural areas, not saying hello or giving a quick greeting as you pass through may be considered rude. ‘Boleh?’ Roughly translated as ‘may I?’ Is a cure all phrase that establishes your friendliness and desire to be polite before doing pretty much anything.
As in most Asian societies, equanimity is an important skill to practice. This is the simple practice of being humble, calm and patient as is espoused in Buddhist religions, and saving face is as important as not losing your temper. Remembering this simple tenet in Indonesia, or in fact much of Asia, will get you very far.
Most Western countries including the UK, the US, Europe and Australia don’t need a visa to enter Indonesia for visits of up to 30 days, and you are entitled to a visa waiver on arrival. This however is not currently extendable.
If you want to stay more than 30 days, which is entirely advisable in such a huge country, citizens of the UK, US, Europe and Australia can get a visa for 30 days which can then be extended by another 30 days by applying to an immigration office whilst in Indonesia. This is available as a visa on arrival at around $35 USD (subject to change), or you can apply for an e-visa by submitting a visa application online.
There are also a bewildering array of bureaucratic visa options for students, journalists, longer stays and for entry via a non official gateway. They are obtainable but you will have to jump through a lot of hoops. Be patient.
Please note that the visa situation in Indonesia is constantly changing, and it is important to double check the latest information with the Indonesian embassy or your own countries foreign office advice.
Healthcare is slowly improving in Indonesia, but not at a rapid pace. Clinics and medical facilities are available in larger towns and cities such as Jakarta, Yogyakarta and Surabaya, and are available in tourist hotspots such as Bali, but are lacking or even non existent in more rural areas. If you need to seek serious medical attention outside of an emergency and if you are able to, you may be better advised to hop a flight over to Singapore, Kuala Lumpur or Bangkok.
Like much of South East Asia, all travellers are strongly recommended to be up to date on their routine vaccinations including MMR, polio, diptheria – pertusis – tetanus and varicella (chicken pox).
Hepatitis A, diptheria and Typhoid are also strongly recommended as there is a risk of these diseases here.
Hepatitis B, Japanese encephalitis, Cholera, Rabies and yellow fever are recommended on a individual level for at risk groups depending on specific risk factors. Discuss this with your physician, specialist nurse or travel clinic to see which vaccinations are suitable for you.
Proof of Yellow Fever Vaccination is required if you are coming from a country where the risk is present.
Most of Indonesia is low to no risk of Malaria and antimalarials are not advised for travel through the vast majority of the country. The exception to this is the islands east of Flores, West Timor and New Guinea where there is a high risk, so anti malarial prophylaxis is only advised for these areas.
There is also a risk of dengue fever throughout Indonesia, and as always, mosquito avoidance measures are always recommended.
Crime and Safety.
Indonesia is generally a very safe country and many visitors visit here every year without any problems at all. However, a slightly higher than normal level of vigilance about personal security is advised. Scams, con artists and touts are prevalent as they are in most developing countries, and tourists are a huge target, so read up on the common and latest scams before you go.
Theft can also be a problem with organised gangs and pickpockets on buses and train stations as well as major tourist centres who again target tourists specifically, but if you are mindful of your belongings and aware of your surroundings then the risk is lowered significantly.
Remember the above advice is not meant to scare you. The absolute majority of travellers visit Indonesia with absolutely no trouble at all, and with reasonable precautions, a little knowledge and good spatial awareness you will travel perfectly safely. Precaution is good, paranoia is not.
Costs and money.
The official currency of Indonesia is the Indonesian rupiah.
In general Indonesia is extremely cheap, you can still end up spending a lot of money here if you go down the luxury route, especially in Bali, but what you get for your money is unbelievable value. You can get by very easily on £10 a day or a lot less if you stay in cheap hostels, eat at food stalls and limit your activities, but you can live in real comfort and undertake a lot of organised tours and activities if you travel on a midrange budget of between £20 and £60 GBP a day. A higher daily budget will allow you to live in a level of luxury out of most peoples reach in countries like Australia, Singapore or the UK.
Accommodation costs will be one of the biggest parts of your budget, but are still in general quite reasonable. A basic hostel will set you back a few pounds a night, a private room in a fairly comfortable guesthouse or budget hotel about £10 to £20 a night, and just to show you how far your money can go here, at the other end of the spectrum a 3 room luxury suite in a grand heritage hotel can be yours for £60 – £70 a night (puts the UK’s crappy B&Bs to shame doesn’t it?) The more touristy the region is, such as Yogyakarta, the cheaper and better value places seem to be thanks to a lot of competition.
Food is very cheap in Indonesia, even the Western fare in more touristy areas is reasonable value. A pound or two will get you a good meal in a nice restaurant in most Indonesian regions.
Transportation is fairly reasonable within the cities and major tourist centres, but prices do increase the further ‘off the beaten track’ you get. Budget air travel is an option with the vast distances that need to be covered.
Activities, treks and courses will take up the absolute majority of your budget in Indonesia, especially with so much to see and do. There are so many museums, national parks and other attractions that are free or perhaps only £1 or £2 GBP to enter, but the permits, guides, tours and organised excursions will all add up very quickly. Prices for larger treks or tourist sites such as Borobudur or Mount Bromo can very quickly add up too, as these can be significantly more expensive, although still very cheap by Western standards.
When to go.
Like most countries in the region Indonesia benefits from the even climate afforded by its proximity to the equator. Basically to paraphrase, it’s hot, and its wet! There are two seasons, wet and dry, although the difference between the two is usually not that much. Either way, both seasons are perfectly acceptable to travel in, and if you do hit a tropical downpour they are generally heavy but over quickly.
This huge 9th Century Buddhist temple is a UNESCO world heritage site and one of the largest and oldest Buddhist temples in the world, and one of the most unique temples you will ever visit. It is quite simply a must see. Your journey at the temple will begin at the bottom and work clockwise around each level, supposedly gaining enlightenment as you study and learn from each relief along the way, until you reach the statues and reliefs at the top.
Borubudor is an easy trip from Yogyakarta if you don’t want to stay in the locality of the temple itself, and public transport is cheap and plentiful. There are also a plethora of agents selling tour packages to and from the temple in Yogyakarta and the prices are very reasonable too, considering the convenience.
This national park is not only a natural paradise that would be worth a visit on its aesthetic merits alone, but it is also home to the infamous Komodo dragon, and the only place in the world where you can see them up close and personal in the wild. Tourists are closely monitored and guided by expert rangers and are never allowed too close, and the whole park is a fantastic example of how tourism and conservation can work together.
More famously known as Krakatoa, this is the island where in 1883, the eponymous volcano erupted with the force of a thousand atomic bombs, decimating the local population. Today you can still view the devastated caldera, one half seemingly growing directly out of the sea itself. It makes for a fascinating day trip and is a sobering reminder of the sheer force that our planet can wield.
There are a lot of impressive volcanic landscapes to choose from in the ring of fire, but none are quite as awe inspiring or quite as other worldly as the view of Mount Ijen at sunrise.
Bali is one of the most heavily visited and tourist orientated islands in the region and is often overcrowded with package tourists. It does however cater to everyone, from the luxury tourists staying in spa resorts and the party lovers from Australia to the budget travellers staying in local home stays and even the yummy mummy Eat Pray Love crowd drinking wheatgrass smoothies in Ubud and gushing at how ‘one with the earth’ they are as they skype home on their brand new tablets, completely oblivious to the irony. The days of Bali being a beach destination are long gone thanks in large to mass tourism, but there is still plenty to bring visitors back here year after year. If you like that sort of thing.
Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park.
This is one of Java’s premier tourist attractions, and for good reason. Mount Bromo is an active volcano set amongst one of the most spectacular vistas in the region. The journey to see the volcano is not easy, or pleasant for that matter, but the rewards truly are spectacular. Just don’t ride the horses that are on offer at the crater unless you want to contribute to wildlife exploitation and abuse.
These magnificent 10th Century Hindu temples often come second place to the more famous and popular Borobudur, but that doesn’t make them any less of a must see. They are a protected UNESCO world heritage site and easily reached from Yogyakarta, either independently or on an easily organised and cheap day tour.
This is one of the primary backpacker and tourist centres of Java, and is a great place to visit not just because of its ease as a transport hub and the central location to many of the regions primary must see sites, but also because of the laid back ambience that soaks into your pores as you explore this old fashioned, relaxed city.
Hike up an active volcano.
You are literally spoilt for choice for dramatic scenery and striking landscapes in the ring of fire, and exploring the volcanic landscape is a reward in and of itself. I mean quite apart from the spectacular, dramatic landscapes or the wonder of staring into a crater of bubbling magma and molten rock, there’s just the simple cool fact that you’ve been to the top of a volcano!
Indonesia is well known to surfers around the world. With so many perfect tropical islands surfers are spoilt for choice when it comes to finding the perfect break and places like Bali, Lombok and the Gili islands are popular surfing hotspots, but there are also plenty of laid back villages such as Grajagan in south east Java that are perfect for losing yourself for a few weeks. Grajagan hosts professional surfers during international events, but have a whole host of surf schools and a laid back backpacker infrastructure the rest of the time.
Being part of the coral triangle and holding roughly 20% of the worlds coral reefs, Indonesia is already a world class diving spot, but once you add all the underwater volcanoes, shipwrecks and deep water trenches, no visit to Indonesia would be complete without doing some diving and snorkelling.
Spas are plentiful throughout Bali and Indonesia, and it would be a crime not to take advantage of them while you are here. Get a massage or a treatment or whatever takes your fancy, spoil yourself!