Indonesia is a vast and diverse archipelago that continues to impress and surprise longtime expats and even locals. To think that because you've seen Jakarta and done Bali then you "know" Indonesia is to be sorely mistaken. As one expat told me: "Just when you think you're starting to understand Indonesia, that's when you realize you don't understand it at all."
From amazing cultures and regional customs to a seemingly neverending variety of local cuisines, Indonesia is home to more diversity in some of it's larger islands than other nations have in their entirety. Especially when it comes to langauges and dialects, of which the country has over 700 -- and don't think that Indonesian (Bahasa Indonesia) is even remotely similar to Javanese (Bahasa Jawa) or Balinese (Bahasa Bali) because its not. After all the slogan of the country is Bhinneka Tunggal Ika, which is Javanese for "Unity In Diversity."
Indonesia is home to some of the friendliest and most hospitable people I have even met. During six months motorcycling around the country and making local friends, even doing a tourism film on Sumatra, I had nothing but good experiences with the best of people. All except for while I was in Bali -- but I'll get to that in a second. For now the most important things to know are:
Both in terms of taste and authenticity, street food kicks all other food's ass. Oh yeah and of course price. Depending where you are in the country you can get a decent meal for around 11,000IDR ($1USD), a little more if you want to splurge and really fill up. Don't worry about getting sick, just go with the street vendor or warung has the most local customers. After all they must be doing something right!
Expect a lot of variety in dishes and sweetness/spiciness depending upon where in the country you travel. However no matter where you visit there will be lots of fried dishes, such as nasi goreng, mie goreng and ayam goreng (rice, noodles, and chicken respectively -- and of course as you probably guessed goreng is Indonesian for fried). Beyond that the variety begins. For every city you visit make sure to ask the locals what their speciality is.
Indonesia has no shortage of spectular views, virgin beaches, challenging mountains, and off the beaten path exploring. When I first arrived there I thought one or two months would be enough. Six months later and I still didn't want to leave. Yet during my travels I had met so many other backpackers, all of which were visiting Yogyakarta, Mount Bromo, and Bali. "Oh plus Gili T and Komodo if we have time" I heard more often than I can count. Hardly any stopped by Sumatra. And none had even thought about Kalimantan or Sulawesi, let alone Papua.
Trust the locals. Ask them where to visit, what to eat, how to have fun. The friends I've made along my journeys through Indonesia have shown me a world of things not covered in any tourist guide book, from traditional pastimes and 5am fishing trips to lesser-known things like panjat pinang and stick-fighting. And of course more virgin beaches than I can keep track of!
My friend Trinity is author of the famous Indonesian book series The Naked Traveler. Last week her newest book went on sale, Across The Indonesian Archipelago. If you are looking for ideas on where to travel in Indonesia then this is both a great resource and an enjoyable read. (And yes, it is in English.)
Especially on the main island of Java, which has a reliable train network and plenty of regular routes. Outside of Java you will have to rely on buses and ferries, the latter of which can have a bit more of an irregular schedule depending on how remote your intended destination may be. However in places like Sulawesi short flights might be a better, albeit more expensive, option.
Renting a motorcycle is also another option. Of course I would only recommend this option for experienced riders, preferably ones already used to driving in the chaotic streets of southeast Asia. For 50,000IDR/day ($5USD) or 650,000-1,000,000IDR/month ($60-90USD) a scooter or motorcycle can be rented, allowing you to go where you want when you want. This has fantastic way to visit small villages and other off the beaten path destinations. It is the only way I ever made it to places like Banyusumurup, the traditional village that makes all of the kris, small Indonesian daggers with mystical powers. Plus despite horror stories of bus thieves and midnight muggings in Sumatra I have yet to encounter any difficulties along the road.
For more read my newest blog post: How To Travel Indonesia By Motorcycle
If you only have one month or less in the country then I would say skip Bali entirely. It is an over-priced, Westernized version of Indonesia where the bulk of the individuals working in the tourism industry are not even Balinese but rather Sudanese or Javanese and have come solely to take your foreign money. As a caucasin here you essentially have dollar signs tattooed across your pale forehead. Plus as with any place that attracts massive notoriety as a tourist hotspot so too come the touts, beggars, scam artists, foreign food (so you can "feel at home") and of course the inflated prices. At the risk of upsetting some of my Balinese friends I'll say it: if you get pickpocketed or robbed anywhere in the country, it most likely will happen here. It is a predators' paradise because the prey keep flying in 365 days a year.
I love #Bangkok but *hate* Khao San Road. I love Indonesia but despise Bali. Spot the trend? Be a traveler, not a tourist. Go for culture!— ⌠ Derek4Real ⌡ (@the_HoliDaze) November 17, 2013
Don't get me wrong, Bali is not all bad -- just the southern part is. Kuta, Denpasar, Sanur, Uluwatu, etc. In fact Googling "kuta is hell on earth" or some near varient will produce several interesting articles by other bloggers on why Bali is only for couples or families looking for all-inclusive four- and five-star resorts and not for backpackers. The eastern and northern parts, most specifically Padangbai and Ubud, weren't nearly as bad as the Kuta area but neither were they that good.
Talon of 1Dad1Kid.com and I crossed paths in real life one day in Sanur. Turns out he and I had the same feelings about this island. If you are unsure about visiting Bali then his post will help you decide if the island is right for you.
I basically can’t encourage people to come to the island. Indonesia has some truly amazing areas, and I think a person’s time and money are better spent exploring other parts of the country.
Indonesia ranks third in the world for total number of cigarette smokers according to the WHO. Almost all of the men smoke, far too many kids, and yes, even the orangutans. The tobacco industry is big business here and as the Western world keeps placing more restrictions on cigarette advertising and marketing the tobacco giants keep pumping more money into southeast Asia. Despite 'No Smoking' signs in places like malls you can often find someone less than a meter away, using the floor as an ashtray.
To make matters worse cigarettes are around 10-14,000IDR ($1-1.25USD) and sold at every family-owned market, corner store and restaurant. Although I quit smoking after moving out of Tokyo in 2009 I have found myself occasionally smoking a kretek cigarette when drinking. Although this is entirely social, if you tried hard to quit cigarettes and do not want to see and smell the temptation everywhere you go, you might best avoid Indonesia. Even as I type this I am sitting in a smoke-filled office in Jakarta.
All in all Indonesia is one country that does not disappoint. There is a reason why so many travelers over the years have come here and then never left. Between the warm, inviting culture, vastness of the country and extensive list of places worthy of exporing, beautiful scenery and delicious food, Indonesia truly has something for everyone. You just have to know what you are looking for.
Surviving Jakarta. It was afternoon when I arrived at the Soekarno-Hatta airport and first thing I did was get a cab. The most reliable taxis are the Silver Bird (the make is Mercedez-Benz, very comfortable), Blue Bird (the make is Toyota), and Express. Most locals will recommend this and only this for you. For the record, I took Silver Bird because my friend's uncle was the driver.
One thing you will notice as soon as you get on the road is the traffic. Superbly congested in a nice way. You can see people along the road promoting their 'merchandises' (from foods to drinks to toys) and daring driving skills. It's just unique and somehow I found it serenading. It took an hour to get to my friend's house and it costs me Rp.200,000 (quite an amount!) or less than $20 USD but it was worth it.
Now now, for a person traveling with a tight budget, worry not! There are many other affordable transportation available and they seem to be fun. For example, they have 'Angkot' (which is a van made into a small bus, where it's destination differs and they are decorated differently according to the districts). 'Angkot' means 'carry' or 'bring'. The fares are from Rp.10000 and up (less than $1 USD). But always exercise precautions as you might be victims of pickpockets and such. Also brace yourself as they give you a VERY LIMITED time to enter and exit before they started accelerating the van. Vrooooommmm!
If you opt for something you are more familiar to, there are buses. The most reliable one is TransJakarta, in which it runs in special lane. Chances are you wont be stuck in the heavy traffic. Bingo! :) This bus is so unique that they have an extraordinary bus stops called shelters. These shelters are elevated, and it's like a mini glass building in the middle of the road. The fare may range from Rp. 3500 per trip.
Last but not least, if you wanna channel the inner 'adventurer explorer' in you, you may opt for a ride with some random dudes with motorcycles. Yes! I'm serious, there are dudes with motorcycles who will take you to your destination with a fresh breeze blowing your hair and cheap fares. Just look for any spot with 'OJEK' sign. Sometimes they name it 'PANGKALAN OJEK' which may mean 'OJEK'S STATION/STOP'. 'Ojek' refers to services of sending you to your destination with a motorcycle. Up for the challenge? The fares can be any amount, it depends on them. Chances are they are cheap. :)
Talking with the locals. As I can speak Bahasa Malaysia (and also Indonesian) this was easy for me. However, if you want to address people, be aware that the respective names differ according to the districts. But these are the generally accepted (my Indonesian friend taught me this, pardon me if I am wrong) greetings:
First I went to the Monumen Nasional (National Monument) or called MONAS. You can actually get to the top of the monument and experience a bird-eye's view of Jakarta I was told. Unfortunately, I went there at night and the admission was already closed. If you haven't find something for everyone yet, MONAS can be the place. You can find people selling their merchandises all around, mainly souvenirs and food. Prices are superbly reasonable.
And speaking of ancient and history, make sure you stop by for 'Es Ragusa Es Italia' (Ragusa, Italia Ice cream). The local said that it is from the Dutch Era. Which is just opposite Masjid Istiqlal. It is very well known and you might have to queue before entering the premise! Don't be fooled by the small old unattractive looking shop, the ice cream is anything but ordinary. I suggest you try 'nougat' flavour.
Also, make sure you stop by the 'Kota Tua' (Old city square) and have a tour in Fatahillah Museum. It is a Dutch heritage, a prison in which many were tortured. And if you are lucky, you will get a free 'Wayang Kulit' (Puppet opera) session! I get it from Mr. Alex. And the tour costs only from Rp.190000 (approx. 20 USD).
Oh and yes, if you are going to Kota Tua, make the trip on weekend, because there will be an event every weekend where they serve good indie musics and they sell merchandises for reasonable price. You will enjoy but be aware of your belonging, especially your wallet and cameras
Also in Kota Tua you may find a very very elegant cafe, right opposite the Fatahillah museum building, named Batavia Cafe. Claimed to be since the Dutch era, this cafe serve various foods and drinks for quite an 'elegant' price, yet it is worth it. The scenery and atmosphere are just........mindblowing. A good spot to relax your mind when you had enough with the crowds.
Indonesia has many various cultures and is rich with foods from each ethnic group. I must say I enjoyed all of it. Happy traveling!