Our Indonesia Travel Guide
Whether it’s your first time travelling to Indonesia or you’ve been there before, read our guide on the country’s history, etiquette, tipping culture, food, festivals and more.
At a glance
"The word 'Indonesia' was first manufactured in 1850 in the form 'Indu-nesians' by the English traveller and social observer George Samuel Windsor Earl. He was searching for an ethnographic term to describe 'that branch of the Polynesian race inhabiting the Indian Archipelago', or 'the brown races of the Indian Archipelago''."
R.E. Elson, The Idea of Indonesia: A History
The beaches and dive sites of Bali and Sulawesi and the national parks of Sumatra and Kalimantan are just a handful of Indonesia's extraordinary natural attractions, which are complemented by a rich cultural heritage.
Scuba diving in Indonesia is excellent and inexpensive. Bunaken National Marine Park in northern Sulawesi is home to over 70% of all the known fish species of the Indo-Pacific, and the marine life in the Raja Ampat area is the most diverse on earth. Popular dive sites on Bali include Tulamben Bay, Candidasa and Menjangan, and among the more remote but spectacular sites are Biak off the coast of Papua and the Alor archipelago. Surfing is also popular, notably on the Indian Ocean coast of southern Java, and Bali and West Java's Pelabuhan Ratu and Pangandaran beaches.
There are 50 national parks in Indonesia, including Sumatra's Gunung Leuser, Kerinci Seblat and Bukit Barisan Selatan, Papua's Lorentz National Park, Komodo National Park in Nusa Tenggara and Ujung Kulon in western Java. Orang-utan can be seen in Sumatra's Bukit Lawang conservation area and Tanjung Puting in central Kalimantan.
Mountain hiking and camping is possible around spectacular active volcanoes like Mount Merapi near Yogyakarta, Gede Pangrango in western Java and the legendary Krakatau and its young caldera anak krakatau (child of Krakatau), which rose above the sea in 1927. The lake and countryside around the dormant volcano at Danau Toba is one of the most scenic spots in Southeast Asia, a near-alpine setting with a cool climate, pine-clothed slopes and a sprinkling of church spires.
In Bali, Hindu festivals and Balinese dance-drama performances in temples are major attractions, and a diverse array of indigenous traditional cultures is evident throughout the country, from the animist funeral rituals of the Toraja in south Sulawesi to the matrilineal culture of the Minangkabau in the Sumatran highlands, while the rise and fall of Buddhist, Hindu, and Islamic kingdoms in Central Java has transformed Yogyakarta into a melting pot of Indonesian culture.
The colonial architectural heritage of the Dutch East Indies includes museums, forts and historical hotels as well as the neo-gothic Jakarta Cathedral in Merdeka Square. Colonial districts are found in Semarang, Surabaya, Malang, Medan and Sawahlunto as well as Jakarta.
Culture & etiquette
"No matter how well a squirrel may jump, it will eventually fall."
Indonesia is a hugely diverse nation, home to over 300 ethnic groups, and each province has its own language, ethnic make-up, religions and history. Most people will define themselves locally before nationally, but in common with other Malay cultures, Indonesian society is conservative and largely conformist, where the concepts of group harmony and mutual security are deemed more important than the individual. The extended family (including close acquaintances) is the centre of the social structure and emphasises unity, loyalty and respect for elders. Hierarchical relationships are respected, emphasised and maintained.
People tend to rely on facial expression, tone of voice and posture to tell them what someone feels, and they can be subtle, indirect and implicit in their communications. Silence is an important element of communication: pausing before responding to a question suggests a considered response, and a hasty answer is seen to indicate thoughtlessness or rude behaviour. Be sensitive to the concept of 'face' or shame, and avoid critical or negative comments. Bahasa Indonesia has a dozen ways of saying 'No' and several discreet ways of saying 'Yes' without full affirmation.
When visiting mosques or Hindu temples visitors must remove their shoes, men should wear long trousers and sleeves, and women are expected to cover up.
"If you are a single woman travelling through Bali and somebody asks you, 'Are you married?' the best possible answer is: 'Not yet.' This is a polite way of saying 'No' while indicating your optimistic intentions to get that taken care of just as soon as you can. Even if you are eighty years old, or a lesbian, or a strident feminist, or a nun."
Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love
"I hate imperialism. I detest colonialism. And I fear the consequences of their last bitter struggle for life. We are determined that our nation, and the world as a whole, shall not be the plaything of one small corner of the world."
The first specimens of Homo erectus, dated to half a million years ago, were found in Java in 1891. Until the discovery of older fossils in East Africa, it was believed that the first humans evolved in this region. Ancestors of the present-day Papuans move eastward through these islands around 30-40,000 years ago, reaching New Guinea and Australia. Between 2500 and 1500 BC, they were followed by ancestors of the Malay, Javanese and other Malayo-Polynesian groups who make up the bulk of Indonesia's population.
Trade contracts with India, China and mainland Southeast Asia brought outside cultural and religious influences to the islands. From the 7th century the Indianised empire of Sriwijaya was located on the coast of Sumatra around the straits of Malacca, and became the hub of a trading network that reached to many parts of the Malay Archipelago.
On Java, rival kingdoms erected scores of exquisite religious monuments, such as 9th-century Borobudur, the largest Buddhist temple in the world. The last and most powerful of these early Hindu-Javanese kingdoms, the 14th-century Majapahit Empire, controlled and influenced much of present-day Indonesia, maintaining trading outposts as far away as the west coast of Papua New Guinea.
Islam spread to Indonesia with Indian traders during the 8th and 9th centuries. By the time Marco Polo visited North Sumatra at the end of the 13th century, the first Islamic states were already established. Soon afterwards, rulers on Java's north coast converted to the new faith and conquered the Majapahit Empire in the island's hinterland. The faith gradually spread throughout archipelago, and Indonesia is today the world's largest Islamic nation.
Abundant spices first brought Portuguese merchants to the key trading port of Malacca in 1511. Cloves, nutmeg and mace, as well as bringing exotic flavours, were believed to cure everything from the plague to venereal disease and were worth their weight in gold. The Dutch ousted the Portuguese 130 years later, and the Dutch East India Company established a spice monopoly that lasted well into the 18th century. During the 19th century, the Dutch began cultivating sugar and coffee on Java, which was soon providing three-quarters of the world supply of coffee.
By the turn of the 20th century, rising nationalism began to challenge the Dutch presence in Indonesia. The Japanese invasion and subsequent occupation during World War II halted Dutch rule, and ultimately encouraged the previously suppressed independence movement. Two days after the surrender of Japan, on 17 August 1945, nationalist leader Sukarno declared independence - and himself president. The Netherlands tried to re-establish its rule, but a bitter armed struggle ended in December 1949, when in the face of international pressure the Dutch formally ceded power. During the first two decades of independence, the republic was dominated by the charismatic figure of Sukarno, who had been imprisoned by the Dutch for over a decade until his release by the Japanese invaders.
An attempted coup in 1965 led to a violent army-led anti-communist purge in which over half a million people were killed. General Suharto outmanoeuvred Sukarno to become president in March 1968, and his New Order administration garnered favour with the West, whose investment in Indonesia was the driving force behind three decades of strong economic growth.
In the late 1990s, Indonesia was the country hardest hit by the East Asian financial crisis. The rupiah lost 80% of its value against the US dollar at the peak of the turmoil, and popular protests led to Suharto's resignation on 21 May 1998. He was replaced by B.J. Habibie, who was succeeded the following year by Abdurrahman Wahid (known colloquially as Gus Dur), then by Sukarno's daughter Megawati Sukarnoputri, who served as president from 2001 to 2004. The Reformasi era that followed saw a strengthening of democratic processes, including a regional autonomy programme, the secession of East Timor and the first direct presidential election, which Megawati lost to Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
The first year of Yudhoyono's presidency brought his biggest challenge, the 2004 Asian tsunami disaster which claimed at least 170,000 Indonesian lives and displaced another half a million people. His administration won international plaudits in 2005 for signing a peace deal with separatist rebels in Aceh. After steering the country to greater economic and political stability against a backdrop of social unrest and corruption, Yudhoyono won a second term as president in 2009. In an eyecatching sideline to his premiership, the president has released several albums of his own love songs, performed by popular Indonesian artists.
"Suharto was a subtle and self-effacing man, with a gift for indirectness and for controlling events without ever appearing to be directly responsible. But he was a killer. The events of 1965 were his talisman, the evil spirit which protected him and his regime. Whatever edifices of progress might be constructed over the next thirty years, beneath them was a pit in which lay the bodies of those who died in the anti-communist massacres."
Richard Lloyd Parry, In the Time of Madness
- Indonesia in Your Hand (free) - an augmented reality app sponsored by the Indonesian government.
- PAPAGO Indonesia - GPS navigation, with a 3D viewing feature and Intelligent Search Technology.
- Indonesia Flights - compares ticket prices and flight schedules on a variety of airlines and allows users to manage their own flight itinerary.
- Learn Bahasa Indonesian - includes essential phrases and high quality audio pronunciation feature.
- Rough Guides Trip Lens (free) - A speedy way to document and share your travels.
- Google Maps (free) - Comprehensive global maps with information and reviews of local hotels, restaurants and attractions.
- Yelp (free) - If you are on the road and don't know where to find a restaurant, pub, hotel or a petrol station, Yelp comes to the rescue.
- XE Currency (free) - Live currency data and up-to-date exchange rates.
- Skype (free) - Make voice and video calls to smartphones, PCs, Macs, landlines and other mobile phones. Operator data charges apply.
- WhatsApp - Smartphone messenger service, which uses Wi-Fi or 3G connections (when available).
- Viber (free) - Call, text and send photos to over 170million users worldwide. Operator data charges apply.
- My Travel Adapter - Information on international and regional plug adapters and voltage conversion plugs.
- Pocket Earth Lite (free) - Offline maps including info on local landmarks, hotels, bars and restaurants.
- Triposo (free) - Travel guides for a comprehensive range of countries. Can be downloaded and accessed offline.
"I'm beginning to think that to hope isn't the same as to expect something. To hope is to believe that life is an acceptable chaos."
"I'd volunteer to go to prison, as long as there are books. Because with books I am free."
There are many excellent travel guides to Indonesia, beginning with the Lonely Planet and Rough Guides series, but to get inside the culture of the country fictional works and short histories are well worth seeking out.
Until the 20th century, the ethnic and linguistic diversity of the Indonesian archipelago precluded any notion of a national literature. Stories and poems in Malay, the lingua franca of the colony, rubbed up against those in Batak, Sundanese, Javanese, Balinese and Moluccan, and each were passed on orally. As the Dutch colonisers encouraged the education and unification of the Indonesian peoples, and with the emergence of newspapers in Chinese and Malay, a growing national consciousness sought new avenues for self-expression.
Marah Rusli's Sitti Nurbaya (1922) is one of the most important works of Indonesian literature, a story of misaligned love that recalls Romeo and Juliet and the Chinese legend of the Butterfly Lovers. It vies for the title of the first true Indonesian novel with Merari Siregar's Azab dan Sengsara (Pain and Suffering, 1920), a story about forced marriage and family pride.
Indonesia's great modern writer is Pramoedya Ananta Toer (1925-2006) whose Buru Quartet: This Earth of Mankind, Child of All Nations, Footsteps and House of Glass, addressing the indignities of living under colonial rule and the struggle for personal and national independence, were composed orally from prison in the 1970s and banned by the Suharto regime, though widely published abroad. Also recommended is The Girl from the Coast (1982), a semi-fictional novel based on Pramoedya's grandmother's experience as a child bride.
Contemporary works published in English include Ayu Atami's Saman (1998, tr. 2005), which weaves together stories of feminist awakening and resistance to neo-colonial policies that devastated rural villages during the Suharto era; Dewi Lestari's Supernova (2001, tr. 2011), a novel of intertwined love stories, science and spiritualism; Andrea Hirata's The Rainbow Troops (2005, tr. 2103), about a group of children in Sumatra fighting for their right to education; and one to watch is Okky Madasari, who in 2012 at the age of 28 won Indonesia's most celebrated literary prize, the Khatulistiwa Literary Award with her third novel Maryam.
Western writers have also contributed to our understanding of the country. Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim (1900) depicts life in Borneo's interior under colonial rule; Agnes Newton Keith's Land Below the Wind (1939) and Three Came Home (1947) tell of her life before the war and subsequent imprisonment by the Japanese in North Borneo and Sarawak; and Colin McPhee's A House in Bali describes the Canadian composer's immersion in Balinese life and culture in the 1930s.
Maria Dermoût's The Ten Thousand Things (1955) is a semi-autobiographical novel about a Dutch woman who returns to her birthplace on the Spice Islands after independence. Hella Hasse's The Tea Lords (1992, tr. 2010) is an epic novel about settlers in the Dutch East Indies in the 19th and 20th century, while Diana Darling's The Painted Alphabet (1994) is a tale of magic, depravity, spiritual ambition and love based on a Balinese epic poem.
For a factual insight into contemporary Indonesia, try Goenawan Mohamad's Sidelines (2005), a collection of the journalist and poet's pieces for Tempo magazine, and Richard Lloyd Parry's In the Time of Madness (2005), a personal account of the events leading up to and following the end of the Suharto regime.
The most popular drinks in Indonesia are tea (teh) and coffee (kopi), generally served sweet. Tea is the drink of choice with meals for most Indonesians, and Jasmine and Green tea are especially popular. The island of Java produces excellent coffee, a colonial legacy, and tea plantations also remain. Another colonial legacy from the Dutch - specifically the Heineken company - is the locally brewed pilsner-style beer, Bintang.
However, the tradition of brewing alcohol on these islands is an ancient one, with wine made from palm sap for centuries. Home brewing is still common in Indonesia - in part a consequence of the hefty tax on alcohol - and home-made concoctions are cheaply sold in some roadside shops. Some are methanol-laced, and contribute to the death of hundreds of Indonesians every year, and some foreigners too.
Alcohol is something of a divisive issue in this majority Muslim country, with some hard-line groups calling for an outright ban; but at present, local authorities are free to make their own decisions on the sale of alcohol.
This is not a problem in tourist areas, where most international brands of spirits, beer and wine are as readily available as bottled water. There is an impressive range of fresh juices to try too, as you'd expect from a country so rich in tropical fruits.
230 volts, AC 50 via a European-style 2-pin plug, so a power adaptor is required for UK appliances. A voltage regulator is also advisable to protect sensitive computer and other electronic equipment, as power surges are quite frequent.
"How foolish of us to think that the beauty bestowed by the gods does not always triumph over the inventions of humans."
Pramoedya Ananta Toer, This Earth of Mankind
Indonesia's high population and rapid industrialisation have presented serious environmental issues, including deforestation and wildfires that cause heavy smog over western Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. Other issues are over-exploitation of marine resources; air pollution, traffic congestion, garbage management, and unreliable water and waste-water services. Habitat destruction threatens the survival of 140 threatened and 15 critically endangered species including the Sumatran Orang-utan.
Deforestation and the destruction of peatlands make Indonesia the world's third largest emitter of greenhouse gasses. You can help by taking steps to balance out any negative environmental impacts of your trip, including:
- Offsetting the carbon emissions of your flights and internal travel
- Removing and disposing of litter
- Using recycling facilities
- Reusing towels in your hotel
- Using water and electricity supplies carefully
- Walking or taking public transport where practical
- Eating local produce and buying locally manufactured souvenirs
- Donating to or volunteering for local conservation networks
Indonesia's rich mix of cultures is celebrated in year-round festivals and events centred upon religion, myths and traditions, while international arts, music and sports events are increasingly popular. Major occasions include:
February/March - Bau Nyale, Lombok. Crowds gather to catch a glimpse of and feast on the nyale, a kind of seaworm that only appears for a couple of days each year and only at the Kuta and Seger beaches.
February/March - Pasola, Nusa Tenggara. Regional harvest festival.
March - Jakarta International Java Jazz Festival. Established in 2005 as the biggest jazz gathering in the southern hemisphere, with around 150 concerts crammed into three days each year, attracting an audience of well over 100,000.
March - Nyepi, Bali. Hindu 'Day of Silence' practised at every Saka new year, featuring fasting and meditation.
April - Teluk Kendari, Sulawesi. Partying and dragon-boat races in Kendari Bay.
May - Waisak Day, Borobudur. The Lord Gautama Buddha's birthday is marked by worship and prayer ceremonies.
June - Java Rockin'land, Jakarta. Two- to three-day international rock festival at Carnaval Beach, Ancol.
June - Solo Batik Carnival, Surakata. Street parade celebrating local fashion and textiles.
June/July - Yogya Arts Festival. A month-long programme of shows and exhibitions in Java's cultural capital.
June/July - Bali Arts Festival. A celebration of Balinese dance, music and crafts.
June/July - Jakarta Fair. Annual event featuring exhibitions, a food festival, handmade arts and crafts and live entertainment.
July - Bali Kite Festival. International competition of traditional kite-flying on Sanur Beach.
July to September - Tana Toraja Funeral Festival. Toraja from all over Indonesia return to Sulawesi to celebrate funeral rituals during the annual rice harvest.
August - Bidar Race, Sumatra. Dozens of vivid canoes race on the Sungai Musi.
August - Baliem Valley Festival. A uniquely Papuan festival tracing its roots in the belief that war is not only a conflict of power and interest, but also a symbol of fertility and prosperity.
September/October - Rock in Solo, Surakata. Annual metal and hardcore rock festival featuring local and international bands.
October - Ubud Writers & Readers Festival. International literary festival.
Movable (23 October to 02 November 2013; 21 to 31 May 2014) - Galungan, Bali. Festival marking the time when ancestral spirits visit the earth, calculated according to the 210-day Balinese calendar.
Films & television
"An empty drum gives the loudest sound."
After a Dutch-led genesis in the late colonial era beginning from 1926 to the onset of World War II, the Indonesian film industry was co-opted as a propaganda tool by the Japanese occupiers' Office of Cultural Enlightenment to make films for home audiences extolling Japan's expanding empire.
After independence in 1945 foreign film imports were banned and the Sukarno government used cinema for nationalistic, anti-Western purposes; and when Sukarno was overthrown by Suharto's New Order regime, films continued to be regulated through a strict censorship code geared to maintaining social order. The leading director to emerge during this time was Usmar Ismail, who set up Indonesia's first production company Perfini Studios in the 1950s and gained international recognition with his 1960 film Pedjuang (Warriors for Freedom), documenting the country's fight for independence. Ismail continued to make films until his death aged 49 in 1971, and he is commemorated in Jakarta's Usmar Ismail Hall, an integrated cinema and concert venue housing a cinema library, warehouse and school as well as being a place for filmmakers to create and present their work.
By the 1980s, local films had gained a popular foothold and successful films included M.T. Risyaf's comedy drama Nagabonar (1987), Nasri Cheppy's Catatan si boy action drama series (1989 to 1991), the films of comedy trio Warkop, directed by Arizal, including Pintar pintar bodoh (1980) and Maju kena mundur kena (1983). Leading actors of the era included Deddy Mizwar, Eva Arnaz and Rano Karno. Eros Djarot's Tjoet Nja' Dhien (1988), about a female guerilla leader, won nine Citra Awards at the Indonesian Film Festival and became the first Indonesian movie to be screened at Cannes.
When ban on imports of foreign films was lifted in the 1990s, the quality of Indonesian films dropped off in competition from Hollywood and Hong Kong, and the number of productions fell dramatically.
Under the Reformasi movement of the post-Suharto era, independent filmmaking saw something of a rebirth, and films began to address topics that were previously banned such as religion, race and romance. Notable films include Rudi Soedjarwo's What's Up with Love? (2002), Riri Riza's Eliana Eliana (2002), and Nia Di Nata's Arisan! (The Gathering, 2003). Hanung Bramantyo's Ayat-ayat cinta (Verses of Love, 2008) was a commercial success across the Muslim world, while 2012 saw two major international action hits in Gareth Evans' The Raid: Redemption and Conor Allyn's Java Heat starring Kellan Lutz and Mickey Rourke.
Joshua Oppenheimer's The Act of Killing (2012; UK release June 2013) is an astonishing Danish-British-Norwegian documentary shot in Medan, north Sumatra between 2005 and 2011 in which ageing members of Indonesia's 1960s death squads recreate and reassess their methods of torture and murder. As Werner Herzog signed up as executive director after seeing early rushes, he declared, "I have not seen a film as powerful, surreal, and frightening in at least a decade."
Indonesian television began in 1962 with the establishment of the state-run TVRI (Televisi Republik Indonesia), which had a monopoly until 1989 when the first commercial station, RCTI (Rajawali Citra Televisi Indonesia) began as a local channel and subsequently gained a national licence. Programmes range from traditional shows such as wayang puppet-theatre performances to programmes based on Western formats like Indonesian Idol. TVRI is dominated by documentaries, music, culture and news, with no adverts and only a small amount of foreign programming, while the private TV channels offer a wide range of local and foreign programming with frequent ad breaks. Typical to almost every network is the sinetron - usually a soap drama, but sometimes a comedy series like the popular Bajaj Bajuri, featuring a bajaj driver and his customers. Metro TV is a news channel featuring regular programmes in English and Mandarin.
Food & drink
Indonesian food is incredibly diverse, partly because there are 6,000 populated islands within this profuse archipelago. The nation's historical position, slap bang in the middle of maritime trading routes, also played a part in influencing the cuisine. Traders from India, China, the Middle East, Spain and Portugal introduced numerous techniques and ingredients to the islands over the centuries, as did the Dutch, who were drawn here by the spices found in the Malacca islands. Curiously those indigenous spices - nutmeg and cloves - are not used extensively in Indonesian dishes. Garlic, ginger, cumin, coriander, tamarind, kaffir lime leaves, galangal, screwpine, shrimp paste and chillies are far more commonly used.
Each island has its own culinary specialities of course, but there are some dishes that are so ubiquitous that they are considered national staples, such as the vegetable salad dressed with peanut sauce known as gado-gado (literally 'mix-mix'), or satay. And the chances are that, whichever island or islands you visit, you will come across nasi goreng, that Chinese-inspired fried rice, cooked with vegetables, egg, chicken and prawns, and/or meat, made in Indonesia with kecap, the Indonesian version of soy sauce, a sweet and thick affair.
Nasi campur is served everywhere too - a plate of steamed rice served with intensely flavoursome beef, mutton, chicken, or fish, with eggs and/or vegetables and roasted peanuts scattered over the top, all covered with a light sauce.
It's not surprising that rice-based dishes are such favourites - the grain is a staple food, and holds an important part in Indonesia's culture, as well as shaping the landscape. Fish too, is a staple, as you'd expect in a country located between two oceans. The variety of fresh seafood available is staggering: tuna, crabs, mackerel, lobster, pomfret, rabbitfish, swordfish, anchovies, squid, trevally, wahoo are just some of the varieties served up regularly, often grilled (ikan bakar), or baked in banana leaves (pepes ikan).
While most meals consist of rice and vegetables and a fish or meat side dish, the variety within these is considerable - to sample just a fraction, find somewhere serving Rijstaffel (rice table), a legacy from the Dutch and something of a smorgasbord with a dozen or so dishes served with rice. In the old colonial days, a ceremonial Rijstaffel could consist of 300 dishes or so.
But there's more to Indonesian food than even that extreme example of rice with sides. As well as a wide array of fiery and fragrant curries, there are noodles, stir fried or served in fragrant stock, scores of stuffed dumplings and street snacks, fish cakes and hearty soups.
Bakso is especially popular, a savoury noodle soup studded with meatballs and garnished with fried shallots and boiled eggs, as is sop buntut (oxtail soup), and soto, a traditional meat soup, with ingredients varying from island to island. It's unlikely to feature pork however, which is rare in this mainly Muslim country. Bali, with its Hindu population, is the exception to this rule, and serves up a near-legendary roast suckling pig, which is immersed in coconut water, then rubbed with garlic, ginger, turmeric and chillies before being spit-roasted to perfection.
Perhaps even more legendary is rendang, that meltingly tender, rich, complex and concentrated curry, which takes long slow cooking and some expertise to get right. This beef curry - or dry stew - is fragrant with lemongrass and ginger, and finished in coconut milk reduced until all is caramelised and the beef soft enough to eat with a spoon. It's usually served with steamed rice, boiled cassava leaves, young jackfruit and sambal.
Sambal is served alongside pretty much everything in Indonesia - a table isn't considered to be properly set unless it includes a helping of this essential condiment. It can vary from place to place, but the basis is always chillies, garlic, shallots, salt, lime juice and fermented shrimp paste.
Pretty much the only time sambal is not used is with puddings, which often feature sticky and glutinous rice, or are derived from Dutch cakes and pancakes. Although with such a variety of delicious tropical fruit on offer, choosing the lighter option is no sacrifice in Indonesia - with 42 varieties of bananas alone to choose from, as well as mangoes, guavas, jackfruit, papaya, mangtosteen, lychees, pineapples and rambutan (with flesh resembling dark green jelly) - all readily available and all delicious.
"One stroke of the paddle, and two or three islands have passed."
Indonesia comprises over 17,000 islands stretching more than 5,000km along the equator, and spreading 1,760km from north to south. It lies between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific, bridging Asia and Australasia. The archipelago includes Sumatra, two-thirds of Borneo (Kalimantan), Java, Bali, Sulawesi, the Lesser Sunda Islands (or Nusa Tenggara), the 'spice islands' of Maluku, and half the island of New Guinea. 6,000 of the islands are populated - Java and Bali most densely - while other islands and large tracts of Papua and West Papua are largely wilderness.
Indonesia's natural habitats vary enormously, from tropical forests climbing from steamy lowlands to mountain slopes to vast areas of parched savannah. Coral reefs line thousands of picture-perfect atolls, while on other shores relentless waves pound rocky cliffs.
Most of the larger islands are mountainous, with peaks generally ranging between 3,000 and 3,800 metres above sea level. The country's highest mountains are in the Jayawijaya and Sudirman ranges in Papua, where permanent ice caps are surrounded by barren alpine tundra. The highest peak, Puncak Jaya, at 4,884 metres, is in the Sudirmans.
Air travel is often the only practical way to travel around Indonesia. Garuda and Merpati airlines service all the main cities as well as short hops to smaller destinations. Flights are cheap when bought within the country.
The national shipping company Pelayaran Nasional Indonesia operates modern passenger ships that ply a fortnightly circuit throughout the islands. Travel can be comfortable and leisurely, but takes some forward planning.
Passenger rail services are limited to Java and parts of Sumatra, and trains are often slow and subject to delay. Eksekutif (first-class) and bisnis (business-class) coaches are comfortable, but Ekonomi is strictly third-class, with many broken-down carriages and overcrowding.
Most Indonesians get about by bus. Ekonomi again means cramped but super-cheap seating, Bis Malam includes fairly comfortable seats and air-conditioning, while Bis VIP offers roomy seats you can actually recline in over long distances.
Driving yourself is not recommended. If you're determined to travel by road either hire a driver, or for local trips take a taxi, bajaj (tuk-tuk-style motor scooter) or ojek (motorcycle taxi).
The information below provides general health advice. Always consult your doctor about vaccinations and health issues before you travel.
The standard of medical care in Indonesia is generally poor and in remote areas attention for serious injuries or illness is often unavailable. Take out adequate health insurance before you go, including accident cover for watersports or any adventure activities you are planning.
No special vaccinations or inoculations are compulsory before arrival. WHO recommends that all travellers should be covered against tetanus, diphtheria, measles, mumps, rubella, chicken pox and hepatitis B, whatever your destination. Vaccination against Hepatitis A is also recommended if travelling to remote areas.
Rabies exists in domestic and wild animals, and there are many street dogs in Bali and elsewhere. Avoid direct contact with dogs and cats, monkeys and other animals and seek immediate help if you are bitten or scratched. Avian flu has led to over 150 human fatalities in Indonesia since 2003, although the annual rate is on the decline. Although the risk is low, avoid visiting live animal markets or poultry farms, and make sure poultry and egg dishes are thoroughly cooked.
There is a heightened risk of dengue fever in Bali and elsewhere during the rainy season.
If you need emergency medical assistance, dial 118 and ask for an ambulance, and contact your insurance company promptly if you are referred for treatment.
Each of Indonesia's main islands has at least one international airport, the latest being Lombok International Airport, which replaced Selaparang Airport in late 2011. The busiest hub is Jakarta's Soekarno-Hatta International Airport, located in Tangerang Regency, Banten.
- Soekarno-Hatta International Airport, Jakarta (CGK) - 33km
- Adi Sumarmo International Airport, Solo, Central Java (SOC) - 10km
- Juanda International Airport, Surabaya, East Java (SUB) - 21km
- Achmad Yani International Airport, Semarang, Central Java (SRG) - 6.5km
- Husein Sastranegara International Airport, Bandung, West Java (BDO) - 5km
- Adisucipto International Airport, Yogyakarta (JOG) - 10km
- Sultan Aji Muhamad Sulaiman Airport, Balikpapan, Kalimantan (BPN) - 4.5km
(formerly Sepinggan Airport)
- Minangkabau International Airport, Padang, West Sumatra (PDG) - 23km
- Ngurah Rai International Airport, Denpasar, Bali (DPS) - 13km
(also known as Denpasar International Airport)
- Lombok International Airport, Mataram (LOP) - 33km
Items to pack
We've listed below some potentially usefully items that you may want to consider taking with you:
- Passport & visa (and photocopies)
- Travel Documents including Wexas travel itinerary
- Travel insurance details
- Driving licence
- Local currency, cards and travellers' cheques
- Money belt
- Unlocked mobile phone
- Padlock for each bag ('TSA approved' if travelling to or via the USA)
- Camera and charger
- Power adaptor
- Loose clothing for warm weather
- Long trousers, floor-length skirts and long-sleeved shirts
- Waterproof jacket and trousers
- Sandals or flip-flops
- Walking boots and socks
- Warm clothing for mountain areas or winter travel
- Small torch
- Sunscreen and first-aid pack (see medical checklist)
Key words & phrases
Bahasa Indonesia is a standardised dialect of the Malay language that was formalised at the time of independence in 1945. The official language is in fact most people's second language, after the many regional languages and dialects spread across the archipelago and spoken at home. English is the most commonly spoken foreign language, and Anglophone visitors are quite widely understood. The tiniest effort to adopt the language will be warmly appreciated. 'Hello' is halo (HAH-lo) and 'thank you' is terima kasih (Tuh-REE-mah KAH-see).
- Sunscreen (factor 30+)
- Paracetamol, aspirin or ibuprofen
- Antidiarrhoeal drugs such as loperamide
- Antihistamines for hay fever and allergic reactions
- Indigestion tablets
- Antibacterial ointment for general cuts and abrasions
- Steroid cream or cortisone for poison ivy and other allergic rashes
- Antiseptic wipes and sprays
- Antibacterial hand gel
- Bandages, gauze, sticking plasters, adhesive or paper tape
- Scissors and tweezers
- DEET insect repellent for the skin
- Permethrin insect spray for clothing, tents and bed nets
- Oral rehydration salts
- Iodine tablets or water filter for water purification
- Personal medication
Historically the rupiah was divided into 100 sen, but inflation has long since rendered all notes and coins denominated in sen and low values of rupiah obsolete. Coins are issued in denominations of 50, 100, 200, 500, and 1,000 rupiah, and banknotes in 1,000, 2,000, 5,000, 10,000, 20,000, 50,000 and 100,000. Recent issues of higher-value notes introduced new security features and tactile elements to assist those with visual difficulties.
ATMs are plentiful in major cities and tourist areas, and at rural banks.
Cash and EFTPOS
Always keep some cash on you for small purchases, and stock up on cash if heading out into the jungle or remote islands. If you wish to withdraw or exchange money over the counter, normal banking hours are from 8.00 am to 2.30 pm from Monday to Friday. Some bank branches in hotels keep longer hours, Jakarta has several international banks, and money can also be changed at hotels and authorised money-changers. Credit and debit cards are accepted in most hotels, resorts, shops and restaurants.
Indonesia is one of the cheapest travel destinations in Asia. Food and transport are all inexpensive by Western standards, and despite recent hikes in fuel prices, internal travel is still remarkably cheap. Dining in good local restaurants, you needn't spend much more than about £15 per day per couple, and street food is still cheaper. A draught beer or coffee costs around 20,000 Rp (£1.30), and soft drinks about 7,000 Rp (45p).
The country code for Indonesia is +62. Local SIM cards are widely available and costs are low. Mobile phone use has rocketed in recent years and coverage is good except in very remote areas. Reliable networks include Telkomsel, IM3 and Pro XL.
In addition to many national (or near-national) holidays, Indonesia has a wide range of regional days off to mark significant local religious or cultural events. The main holidays are:
- 01 January - New Year's Day
- Movable (14 January 2014; 03 January 2015) - Prophet Muhammad's Birthday
- Movable (31 January 2014; 19 February 2015) - Chinese New Year
- March/April - Good Friday (first Friday after the full moon on or after 21 March)
- May - Waisak Day (Buddha's birthday; full moon)
- Movable (09 August 2013; 29 July 2014) - Eid al-Fitr (end of Ramadan)
- 17 August - Independence Day
- Movable (15 October 2013; 05 October 2014) - Eid al-Adha (Festival of Sacrifice)
- Movable (05 November 2013; 25 October 2014) - Muharram (Islamic new year)
- 25 December - Christmas Day
Security & safety
Take sensible precautions to protect yourself from petty crime. Avoid carrying valuables and take particular care of your passport. Credit card and ATM fraud is fairly widespread and the spiking of drinks has led to several cases of serious illness and death by methanol poisoning.
Avoid travelling alone, and on longer journeys inform friends of your travel plans and contact them on arrival. The political situation can be unsettled in many parts of Indonesia, so do check for latest FCO travel advice before you go.
If you are a victim of crime, inform the local police and get a police report.
Indonesia offers a great variety of inexpensive handicrafts including batik and ikat textiles, wood carvings, jewellery, puppets, paintings and ceramics. Bargains can also be found in contemporary or antique teak and rattan furniture - but factor in import duties as well as shipping costs. Bali and Lombok have some of the best handicrafts, shops in Jakarta have the widest range from around the archipelago, and Solo and Yogyakarta have the best quality batik. Expect to bargain at small, family-run outlets. Asking for a 'best price' is a good opening gambit, and you can often settle at up to half the ticket price.
Major shopping centres in Jakarta include Plaza Indonesia, Blok M and Mangga Dua. There's a wide choice of Western-style malls in Denpasar and Kuta on Bali, and the jewellery workshops of Ubud offer intricate modern and traditional designs. Sukawati Art Market in Gianyar is a sprawling street market where determined shoppers can pick up genuine bargains, but less worldly tourists can be mercilessly fleeced.
Tipping is not customary in Indonesia, though taxi drivers and hotel porters will appreciate a small tip where merited. Restaurants, bars and hotels usually include a 6% sales tax and 10% service on your bill, but a little extra will be gratefully received by poorly paid staff. If you want to be sure the waiter who served you receives the tip, it's often a good idea to hand it to them directly.
"Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints, kill nothing but time."
It's always good to keep this old travellers' adage in mind whilst on the road. Tourism can be both highly beneficial and incredibly damaging, so it's important to travel responsibly by respecting local conventions, culture and the wider environment.
Responsible travel is about assessing the impact of your trip, and working to make that impact as positive as possible. It can mean travelling in smaller groups, interacting more with the local community and buying locally produced goods from local stores and markets.
Where to eat
In common with so many Asian destinations, Indonesia has a thriving street food tradition. Small mobile food carts abound, serving snacks such as satay or bakpao (fluffy meat-filled buns) or siomay (steamed fish dumplings - think dim sum) or martabak (crepes with savoury or sweet fillings) or mie ayam (chicken with noodles). The larger food carts have tables and benches nearby.
Warangs or street stalls are simple open-air eating-places that are often atmospheric, particularly at the night markets. They serve a small range of dishes based on rice and a side of meat or vegetables.
A Restoran or rumah makan (eating house) are a step up from warangs, offering the same simple style of cuisine but a greater variety of dishes, and full service. Padang restaurants can be found everywhere (though they are of course most authentic in and around Padang in West Sumatra, from where the cuisine originates). After taking a seat, customers are rapidly served with dozens of small dishes and rice, and pay only for those dishes they consume from this array, which is typically highly flavoured and often includes beef rendang, aubergines with chilli, sautéed local greens such as water spinach, curried fish, fried chicken and many more. It's a speedy - and often spicy - experience.
Smart hotels and restaurants in larger cities often serve the modern version of the colonial rijstaffel or 'rice table', with extensive and elaborate buffets.
"Different fields have different insects, different ponds have different fish."
Indonesia's diverse habitats are home to more than 1,600 species of birds - some 17% of all bird species - more than 500 mammals (12% of the world's species), 1,000 amphibians, 2,000 reptiles, 8,000 species of fish, 25,000 flowering plants, and about a quarter of a million species of insects.
Sumatra, Java, Kalimantan and Bali were once linked to the Asian mainland, and several large Asian land animals still survive on the islands including tigers, rhinoceros, leopards and the sun bear. Tigers are now only known in Sumatra, leopards are rare but still exist in Sumatra and in Java's Ujung Kulon National Park, which is also home to the near-extinct one-horned Javan rhinoceros. Sumatra's two-horned rhino is also endangered.
The orang-utan (literally 'man of the forest'), Indonesia's great ape, is found only in Sumatra and Kalimantan. The Bohorok Orang-utan Viewing Centre in North Sumatra and Tanjung Puting National Park in Kalimantan provide access for viewing orang-utans in a natural setting. Kalimantan is also home to the proboscis monkey, while various species of gibbon and other primate species also exist throughout the region.
Elephants can be seen at the Way Kambas National Park in Sumatra's Lampung province. Northeast Kalimantan also has a few wild elephants, which were probably introduced.
Papua and the Aru Islands were once part of the Australian landmass, and Papua is the only part of Indonesia to have marsupials such as tree kangaroos, bandicoots and ring-tailed possums.
Isolated Sulawesi, Nusa Tenggara and Maluku all have striking endemic species, including Sulawesi's anoa (or dwarf buffalo), and each island's individual species of babirusa (deer pig). Another famous animal in Sulawesi is the tarsier. Your best bet to see the tiny nocturnal primate in the wild is a dawn or dusk trek in Tangkoko National Park.
With more endemic birds than any other country, wherever you travel in Indonesia you won't be far from some of the most spectacular birding sites in the world. Java is home to unique trogon, cochoa, coucal and sparrow species; Komodo has the yellow-crested cockatoo; Sulawesi Wallace's standardwing and the brightly coloured Buton hornbill; Sumatra the banded pitta and the red-bearded bee-eater; and West Papua an astonishing array of birds of paradise and bower birds.
Reptiles and amphibians
The Komodo dragon, the world's largest lizard, is found only on Komodo Island and a few neighbouring islands in Nusa Tenggara. The rest of the country is home to an extraordinary array of skinks and geckos, snakes and frogs. Saltwater crocodiles exist in large numbers in Kalimantran and Sumatra but are practically extinct elsewhere save for a small population in Ujung Kulon National Park in western Java.
More than a third of all known whale and dolphin species including the rare and endangered blue whale are found in Indonesian seas, which are among the most diverse coastal and marine habitats in the world. At the heart of the 'coral triangle' that stretches from Australia to the Philippines and the South Pacific, Indonesia is home to 20% of the world's coral reefs, and superb dive sites abound throughout the islands. Indonesia also supports six out of seven of the world's endangered turtle species, providing important nesting and foraging grounds and migration routes.
Trees and plants
Indonesia comprises the third largest area of tropical rainforest in the world, and despite decades of deforestation around 60% on the land retains forest cover. As with animals, the plant life of Indonesia reflects an intermingling of Asian, Australian and native species. There are about 28,000 species of flowering plants, including 2,500 kinds of orchids, 120 species of bamboo, 350 species of rattan and 400 species of Dipterocarpus including ebony, sandalwood and teak. Indonesia is also home to many species of Rafflesia, the largest flowers in the world, with a diameter of up to 1 metre, as well as large numbers of carnivorous plants.