Beginner’s Guide to Indonesia

A few people have asked me about traveling in Indonesia in the past, knowing that I was born and raised there, and I am always happy to oblige. I left Indonesia when I was 17, so I can’t say I have traveled the country a lot. I went on family trips around Java when I was young, but never left the island. Since I left, I’ve come back a few times and traveled around the country as an adult with totally new appreciation as half an insider half an outsider looking in.

It was somewhat a weird experience, to come back and travel the country. I seem to go along “the foreigner passages” and met more foreign travelers along the way than local travelers. In fact during my travels around Indonesia as an adult, we almost did not meet local travelers at all apart from obvious places like Bali or Borobudur. Anywhere from cheap hostels to the islands to all the sights, we kept bumping into foreigners. The locals hardly travel their own country, and that is a sad fact.

On the other hand, as I speak the local language, I got to talk to many locals serving the tourism industry, and a whole different world opened up to me. I recall talking to a bunch of men selling little trinkets while I was waiting for a boat to cross to a small island. I had been upset because we spent a lot of time trying to bargain for a good price (in Asia the worry for being “cheated” seems like a constant struggle), then had to wait for a while anyway in a small hut. The men followed us around trying to sell us stuff and I did not respond. But with time to kill, at the end we bantered with them as we were the only two people that talk Indonesian in the group that were waiting for the boat. They shared about how they are able to sell the trinkets to “bule” (foreigners) for 10x the price they offer me. (10 times!) But all in good playful manner. They told me more stories. We were laughing together. On the beautiful beach, the locals telling me the insights of their life, and I felt grounded, and very privileged. It ended up to be good afternoon. And we bought a pair of sandals from them, with local price of course.

So about the beginner’s guide. I like to start introducing the country with a little statistics. It would be awesome if I had the time to make a cool infographic, but as I didn’t, let’s pretend that the following is a pretty infographic in pastel colors:


Consists of 18,307 islands (hell yeah!). 3 of those islands are in the top 10 of the biggest islands in the world, and another 2 in the top 20.

A country with the biggest population of Muslim in the world (home to 12.7% of the World’s muslims). Five religions admitted: Islam, Catholic, Christian (Protestant), Buddhism, Hindu. (Everyone needs to pick one religion, which is stated on the National Identity card.)

Located between Malaysia, Singapore, and Australia, and share some islands with Malaysia, Brunei, Papua New Guinea, and recently separated, East Timor. Most people know Bali – dubbed as the Island of the Gods, and some even think that Indonesia is IN BALI, but in fact Bali is merely a dot in the Indonesian archipelago.

Jakarta, the capital, is the largest city with population of 10 million people. The country population is 250 million, which makes Indonesia the top 4 country with the largest population in the world, just after China, India, and United States. As a comparison, the entire island of Singapore has about 5 million people, and the whole continent of Australia about 20 million people.

95% of the population are native Indonesians, with only less than 5% of Chinese ethnicity (recent census states a lower number of 1.2%). In comparison, Malaysia consists of around half Malays/Bumiputras/native with 25% Chinese ethnicity. (I imagine though the ethnicity will blur more and more as people mix more, as I have already seen myself of friends and family with mixed marriages. This tends to be a taboo back in our parents’ generation.)

In my map-making class the other day, I doodled a couple of maps. Surely you will appreciate my awesome drawing skill.

indonesia map

20 mins doodle of Indonesia

childhood map - Jakarta

the extend of my world til the age of 17 (hint: very very small) – Jakarta, Indonesia

Shall we talk about places to visit?

With a new country, I usually start with the capital. But just this once, trust me, skip the capital, and go straight to… anywhere else! Jakarta is the biggest city in Indonesia and it controls the economy of the whole country, but it is merely a metropolitan city full of pollution, rubbish, and mean people. Only go there if you want to see fabulous shopping malls.

The second thing to note is that the infrastructure in Indonesia is… to put it bluntly, horrible. As one Indonesian blogger put it, it’s all about the hassle, not the convenience. But if you’re up for a little adventure and prepared to take everything in good humour, then, boy, you will find gems and hidden treasures like nowhere else.

Forest in Sumatra

Brace yourself for a little adventure

Bali is an obvious destination, so it’s a good start (remember, the Island of the Gods? Surely there’s a good reason for that nickname). Bali is fantastic and it remains one of my favorite places ever to visit (or even to live someday, who knows). You can easily spend a week in Bali. I went back twice for 3-4 days each, and I can go back again. You can stay in Kuta or North Bali to explore the north side, and I highly recommend staying in Ubud/central Bali for at least half of your time in Bali to explore the central and south of the island. I absolutely love Ubud – it is the cultural center of Bali and it’s such a lovely area. For me Bali is all about the temples, I can explore the temples for days. You can hire scooter for probably $5 a day or a car with driver for around $30-40 per day.

The Mother Temple of Besakih, Bali

The Mother Temple of Besakih, Bali

Just next to Bali is the island of Lombok, which some people dub as the Next Bali, which means there are less people and the beaches are more pristine. Balinese are Hindu but Lombok people are muslim, so they do have different cultures and food. Balinese cuisine is famous for its pork. One of the most famous place is Babi Guling (roast pork) by Ibu Oka in the middle of Ubud. If you ask around, everybody should know!

I went to an even smaller island from Lombok. There are the three Gili islands from Lombok, all should have nice huts and pretty secluded. If you take ferry from Lombok to Bali (or the other way), do get a local company that includes the pickup van at the port, because the ports could be pretty nasty and it could be hard and expensive to get taxi from the port to the hostel.

Bali beast

Bali beast

Even further East than Lombok is the famous Komodo Island, where the only Komodo dragons live on earth, and also a Natural UNESCO World Heritage. It is however impossible to go to Komodo island by yourself as it’s pretty far and secluded. You need to take a local tour that lasts for a few days at least (going to other islands nearby on the way e.g. Flores – where the ancient Florence dwarves lived thousands of years ago). I haven’t been to Komodo island as it takes some time and costs quite a bit, but it’s on my todo list.

You can fly from Bali to Jogjakarta in the island of Java. If you do go, don’t miss Borobudur, which is always taught in local schools to be one of the 7 wonders of the world. Borobudur and Prambanan temples are both UNESCO world heritage sites and they’re pretty close with each other. (check out my previous post on Borobudur for more).

Borobudur, Indonesia

Borobudur, Indonesia

Java has a lot to offer, and the infrastructure is probably the best compared to the other islands. Lots of mountains, caves, waterfall, etc. Some famous ones are Gunung Bromo (Mount Bromo), Goa Jomblang (which is featured in Amazing Race a couple of seasons ago) near Jogjakarta, Kawah Ijen (Ijen Crater), Kawah Putih (White Crater) near Bandung. Try to go to one of the sulphurous mountains if you can (there should be quite a few in Java) – it’s quite an experience. When I was small I used to go to one of the closest one to Jakarta (Tangkuban Perahu). You can go down very close to the sulphur, the ground was so hot that people can dig out hole in the ground and boil eggs!

Lake Toba, North Sumatra

Lake Toba – the biggest lake in the world originated from a volcano eruption, North Sumatra

Going all the way to the West, you can go to Sumatra, which has one worthy highlight: Danau Toba / Lake Toba, the biggest volcano crater lake in the world. The lake is so big that there’s a small island inside the lake, about the size of Singapore! My mom and her family came from North Sumatra, and a few years ago we had the opportunity to go visit her home town. A group of 6 with me, hubby, my two brothers, sis-in-law, and mom, we hired a car and a driver and took a road trip from Medan to Padang (North to West Sumatra) – which took 7 days (yes, big island, and that’s not even end to end, far from it). Sumatra has lots of amazing things to see, but I can’t imagine going to all these places without a guide and by public transport. You can probably if you take a lot more time.

pray above the clouds

pray above the clouds – example of random awesome spot we found

Currently the place I really wanna go to but have not is Manado in Sulawesi island. Manado and Bali are probably the only two places that the majority are not muslim, therefore have lots of pork dishes. Bunaken is a famous diving site, and it’s been compared with Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. If diving is your thing, Raja Ampat in West Papua should be fantastic. The ticket to go there used to be more expensive than going to Australia from Jakarta, but I heard these days cheap flights are available. Another on my todo list.

Those are just the ones on top of my head. I’m sure there are lots that I missed. My mom is still in Indonesia and every once in a while she still comes up with story of fascinating places I never heard about.

All the lakes and the mountains and lots of natural phenomenon in Indonesia have back stories. I used to read all the folk tales when I was small, about the djinns and the spirits and the ungrateful sons and the greedy kings and angry deities who turn this mountain to a lake and that lake to mountain. If you get a chance do ask the locals about the story behind the places you’re visiting, I assure you most of the time there would be!

Weird church in Sumatra

Hindu temple? No, it’s a church! – Sumatra

Everytime I travel in Indonesia it saddens me that the country is not more popular as traveler destination. It has so much to offer and yet the infrastructure is bad and the places are not well maintained. Our neighbour Malaysia is mentioned so much more as country to go to. I’m probably biased, but I believe Indonesia has so so much more. The culture, the food, the beaches, the mountains, the islands, the landscape, everything is richer and more varied!

The good thing is, everytime I go back to Indonesia (though I don’t go back very often) there are always new amazing places to explore. Sometimes known by many, sometimes completely unknown apart from the people in the area. We would then be amazed, eyes opened wide, jaw dropped to the floor, and wondering why it is not known more by the rest of the world.

Natural soda water pond, Sumatra

Natural soda water pond (said to be one of the only two in the world), Sumatra


The Traveling Reader
I left home when I was 17 and never stop exploring the world since. Most days I'm a digital technician at one of the London's biggest visual effects studio. My alternate persona writes and travels and dreams of doing these as a living. I alternately call myself Indonesian or Australian whichever is more beneficial at the time, and I've been a Londoner since 2011.