Looking to hang with Komodo dragons or watch the smoke curl from 139 simmering volcanoes? Indonesia wants you to come see it for yourself! The island nation is a magnet for those seeking inexpensive seafood, white sand beaches, and warm azure waters. So grab your binoculars, pack some sunscreen, and prepare yourself to be sufficiently wowed. Allow us to present our Insider’s Guide to Indonesia:
Formerly known as Dutch East Indies, Indonesia is an archipelago stretching from the Andaman Sea near Thailand to the Arafura Sea north of Australia. The nation comprises over 17,000 volcanic islands, 8,000 of which are inhabited. The majority of the population lives on the five largest islands of Sumatra, Java, Kalimantan (Borneo), Sulawesi, and West Irian. Indonesia shares borders with Malaysia and Papua New Guinea.
Indonesia is huge—three times the size of Texas—and it’s the fourth most populous country in the world. With 240 million people that speak more than 700 languages, Indonesia’s culture is rich and varied.
Money and Tipping
The rupiah (rp) is the national currency of Indonesia. Money exchanges and banks are common in cities. Credit cards are accepted at many shops and hotels, but you may pay a surcharge. It’s always a good idea to carry cash, especially if you’re heading to less touristy areas.
Haggling is very common in Indonesia, and you should expect to bargain for everyday goods. You can probably negotiate a hotel rate in the off season or if you’re staying multiple nights. Tipping is not expected, but 10% or so for good service is always appreciated. Hand the gratuity directly to the service provider. Mid-range or higher-end restaurants may add a 20% service charge called a “plus plus.”
Indonesian is the official language. It’s similar to Malay and used in media, official government communications, and commerce. However, the country is home to hundreds of Austronesian languages, with Javanese and Sundanese spoken by millions. You’re likely to encounter English speakers in larger cities, but you might think about using a translator app or phrasebook elsewhere.
Indonesia has a long history in the world’s spice trade, and the country’s cuisine features the bright, rich spices native to the region. Expect a lot of rice and krupuks—deep-fried crackers—with every meal. You’ll also find satay, bakso (meatball noodle soup), and nasi goreng—fried rice with thick, sweet soy sauce.
Weather and When to Go
Because Indonesia straddles the equator, its tropical climate brings two distinct seasons: wet and dry. The dry season lasts from April through August. It’s still quite warm, but the rainfall lessens significantly. However, hotel and resort rates also increase dramatically, especially in July and August. The wet season runs from October until April. Since the country is so expansive, the impact of monsoon season varies. Some areas experience extreme flooding while some see only brief afternoon downpours that dissipate quickly.
Indonesia fosters hundreds of cultural and religious groups, including Muslims and Buddhists. In general, it’s much more conservative than western countries. Because of this, there are some customs and courtesies that you should keep in mind. Firstly, be sure to dress modestly and avoid topless sunbathing on the beaches. Women shouldn’t touch a Buddhist monk or his clothing. Avoid conflict, don’t raise your voice, and refrain from intentionally embarrassing anyone. While locals in larger cities and resort areas are familiar with tourists, inhabitants of rural villages may see travelers as guests in their village. Try to conduct yourself as if you were company in their homes.
Adventure and Exploration
Indonesia comprises 34 provinces. To help bring you a holistic view of the country—and to make its myriad attractions more manageable!—we’ve divided the country into its largest island groups.
The most cosmopolitan of Indonesia’s islands, Java bursts with energy. With a population of 10 million people, the capital of Jakarta is fascinatingly hectic. It offers an ideal mix of cosmopolitan delights, open-air markets, and street food stalls. If you’re looking to explore the country’s temples, you can find some of the most beautiful in the Yogyakarta region. Head to Bandung for a somewhat cooler climate, or spend some time in Surabaya exploring the Arab Quarter. You can also marvel at the country’s largest Hindu temple in Prambanan,or take a torch-lit walk up the steps of the Borobudur temple complex to see the sunrise. Certainly make time for Bromo Tengger National Park, where you’ll find three conical volcanoes nestled in a massive caldera.
Famous for its beaches, Bali draws visitors from near and far. With smiles of sandy beaches and hotels to fit any budget, the island’s south coast hosts a healthy party scene. You’ll find more solitude on the east coast, but the seas are rougher. The west coast boasts a slew of wonderful beaches, temples, and palaces, though it isn’t nearly as developed as other areas. The town of Ubud sits in the center of the island and nurtures a thriving arts and crafts community. You can go white-water rafting, treat yourself to a spa day, indulge in fine dining, or reflect on your island experience in a yoga session.
Lombok & the Gilis
Located east of Bali, Lombok is a haven of scintillating beaches, brooding volcanoes, and a refreshingly slow-paced, traditional lifestyle. Go for a trek up Mt. Ranjani or spend an afternoon in Gunung Rinjani National Park (where the wildlife looks more Australian than Asian). No motorized vehicles are allowed on the Gili Islands, so you can fully immerse yourself in the beauty of your natural surroundings. Experience some of the world’s best diving and snorkeling, try your hand at surfing, or go for a leisurely horseback ride.
Kalimantan is the Indonesian portion of of the island of Borneo—the northern quarter of which is Malaysian. It’s easy to explore this region by foot or boat. Most boat excursions leave from Palangkaraya, a relatively young city with hotels, restaurants, and markets. Look for lounging orangutans and exotic birds in the rainforest canopy and learn about the complex, mystical culture of the native Dayak people. Some of the tribes even allow visitors to stay overnight in one of their longhouses.
Step back in time with a visit to Sumba. Here indigenous tribes practice ancient rituals, including stone tomb burials in the Anakalang and jousting at the Pasola Festival. Learn the ways of life of the Merapu culture in Kodi, or take a stroll through the ancient clifftop village of Wainyapu. Accommodations on Sumba are basic and there’s not much in the way of restaurants, but it’s a cultural experience you won’t soon forget.
Sumatra supports an incredibly rich ecosystem bolstered by 10 national parks. Active volcanoes and dense, forested mountains are two of the island’s major draws, and you won’t want to miss the chance to see a rare Sumatran tiger or rhinoceros. Gunung Leuser National Park is a great place to spot wildlife.