An Idiot’s Guide to backpacking Indonesia

There’s no doubt that Indonesia has something for everyone. From untouched jungle, active volcanoes, and unique wildlife to beautiful beaches, religious monuments, and awesome street food, Indonesia must be on every serious backpacker’s bucket list. However, for the uninitiated, travelling around the so-called “Emerald of the Equator”, can be a very daunting prospect. So don’t be an idiot, follow some of this advice.

The highest peak in Indonesia, and surrounded by rainforest

Indonesia, eh? Why not just stay in Singapore, la?

As the Indonesian archipelago is so large, you first have to make a plan as to how you are going to transverse such a vast area of land (and water!). This grants a sense of adventure you cannot get in a city-state like Singapore. Backpackers and even SE Asian residents can fly cheaply from Singapore to cities in Indonesia to experience something life-changing. Some backpackers head to countries like Thailand or Peru and just wing it – well in Indonesia, I do not advise such nonchalance. Make sure you have a rough plan from the moment you arrive at your Indonesian port of entry and although you may have to change it ad hoc for various reasons during your adventure, try to stick to this rough plan as much as possible. In places like Singapore, you have the MRT or public transport to get you out of trouble, but deep in the Sumatran jungle, you do not have that luxury (or ANY luxury, for that matter).

OK, Indonesia sounds intriguing, so whereabouts should I go?

In my opinion, your itinerary should be based around 4 possible locations: North Sumatra, Central Java, South and Central Sulawesi, and Bali (with a trip to Komodo thrown in from there). In Central Java, you have the quaint town of Yogyakarta (like a mini Cusco or Hoi An) and the day trip the phenomenal Candi Borobudur, a Buddhist temple with great opportunities for a sunrise admission (eat your heart out Angkor Wat!). Head north on the train for about 5 hours and you will arrive in the pretty unremarkable city of Surabaya. From here, you head east to Probolinggo, the gateway to the lunar landscape of Mount Bromo. Tanah Toraja is a quaint area of central Sulawesi famous for its funeral processions and unique architecture, but it is skippable if you don’t enjoy long-distance travel (I loved my time in Tanah Toraja, but I can’t claim it to be “life-changing”).

Lake Toba is the largest crater lake in the world

In Sumatra, the main draw is to visit the orangutans in Gunung Leuser National Park. You will arrive in Medan, and travel to jungle frontier town Bukit Lawang, before heading into the tropical shrubbery for treks. I have noticed less and less people visiting here in recent years, so maybe the novelty has worn off (have tourists all gone to Borneo to see the King of the Swingers instead?), but it is such a classic part of the Indo Backpack Trail that I must recommend it anyway. After Bukit Lawang, consider heading east to the ‘volcanic’ Lake Toba, and even the quaint old mountainous town of Berastagi. Bali needs no introduction, but this is 2018 and these days the island is very touristy. However, all true travellers must visit here at least once in their lifetime. Check out Mount Agung, Tanah Lot, and the Ubud rice paddies – you will get so many epic photos that you won’t have enough space to store them all!

Which parts of Indonesia are not advisable to backpack?

Some parts of Indonesia, such as Papua and Maluku are very remote and off the beaten track. There is no serious backpacking infrastructure here, so make the journey at your own peril! I am a huge adventurer myself, but even I have not bothered visiting those areas of Indonesia. Maybe one day. If you wanted to visit Maluku, you would need a flight to Ambon, whereas for Papua, you’d fly to Jayapura. The latter can be accessed occasionally from Bali, but Ambon would be bets reached from the national capital Jakarta.

Tanah Toraja

Sulawesi, although one of my favourite areas of SE Asia, is also extremely difficult to get around because of the long distances involved between key sights. If you arrive in Makassar, and want to head north to Tanah Toraja, then be prepared for a very long bus journey (9 hours or so). From Tanah Toraja in the centre of Sulawesi, it is extremely inadvisable to continue north to Manado due to conflict and poor conditions in these areas – it is possible, but why would you risk it? It is better to double back on yourself to Makassar and then fly to Manado (or skip Manado altogether). In a nutshell, when backpacking in Sulawesi, it all depends on your desire to visit the amazing local tribes and architecture in Tanah Toraja – of you want to do this, then head to Makassar. If you just want to sample of Sulawesi life, then skip the south and central areas, and just fly to the more laid-back city of Manado in the north, as there are good beaches and great opportunities to dive.

I learnt at school that the capital city is Jakarta, so that’s a good place to start, right?!

Erm, no, actually! Jakarta is known as “The Big Durian” for a reason – and that’s because the city stinks! The people are lovely, but traffic and pollution is a big problem, and as for tourists, there is not much to see here aside from Monas (National Monument), Taman Mini Indonesia Indah, and a few mosques. Even the airport is poor by international standards. However, it is from the airport (CGK) where you may fly to other destinations such as Sumatra or Sulawesi.

My friends tell me Thailand is cheap – but is Indonesia cheaper?

You will be very happy to hear that in almost all circumstances Indonesia is a cheaper country to backpack than Thailand. There may be an exception in the touristy areas of Bali (Nusa Dua, Jimbaran, Seminyak etc.), but on the whole, you can spend as little as $20USD per person per day in Indonesia, and that includes your travel expenses. I find hostels in cities like Yogyakarta and Surabaya to be of good standard, and in Bali, they can be even better, but in more remote cities like Medan and Manado, it may be worth considering upping your budget to get a more comfortable night’s sleep. That said, wherever you go in Indonesia, be sure to check out the cheap street food…

Kerak Telor being sold in Jakarta

Bintang and Bali Hai beer are cheap enough to get you tipsy when you so desire, and food is abundant on every street corner (and very, very tasty it is too!), so there is no need whatsoever to dine in expensive establishments. I would recommend checking out Kerak Telor in Jakarta (a spicy omelette),  Gudeg (some kind of jackfruit in coconut milk) from Yogyakarta, and Babi Guling from Bali (a whole roasted suckling pig). The one major expense you will have to consider is flights across the water, as of course Indonesia is an archipelago.

I was going to take ferries across the sea from island to island, are you telling me they are not safe?

Sea travel in Indonesia is not without its risks, as tropical weather and rough seas can wreak havoc with scheduled journeys. I have known many ferries to sink on crossings between Sumatra and Java, and less often from Java to Bali. I don’t recommend using ferries between Bali and Flores (for Komodo Island) – just fly there instead. The one time you may want to save your Rupiah by taking the ferry is with the long distance PELNI ferries, which have a good safety record, albeit with quite crowded conditions onboard.

PELNI ferries have something of an exclusive fan club. A lot of backpackers enjoy using them, and get used to the long-haul conditions (up to 24 hours from Jakarta to Makassar in Sulawesi, for example). If you find other backpackers enroute to your destination, it can be a great experience to strike up conversation, have a game of cards, down a few Bintangs, and generally just share stories of your travel itinerary around Indonesia. It can be problematic to book cabins on the PELNI ferries (possible, but don’t ask me how!), so be prepared to lay down your blanket on the floor and just hope the ship doesn’t sink overnight!

Overall, I must recommend Indonesia to every backpacker. As long as you are prepared for some medium-to-long-distance travel (on either bus or ferry), then you have most of the archipelago at your fingertips! Indonesian people are extremely friendly – if a little curious in smaller towns – and I am sure your expedition will be safe and fruitful!

7 thoughts on “An Idiot’s Guide to backpacking Indonesia

  1. Interesting advices, Lee. I remember one of my colleague asked me “where should I go to see the most famous tourist attractions in Indonesia in three days”.. So I just said, “just go to Bali and get rest there. There’s no way to see them in three days, not even in three weeks”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Beautiful photos. I visited Sumatra about 12 years ago and have just loaded my photos. It was a guided trip, but we did so much, including a jungle trek. It was just after the tsunami, so there was a lot of devastation, but it was still a magical trip.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. In case anyone is wondering, that highest peak in the first photo is Mt. Kerinci, in Jambi province, Sumatra – 3805m above sea level. But, it’s actually not the highest peak in Indonesia – that distinction goes to Puncak Jaya in West Papua, where you can actually still find a glacier. However, Mt. Kerinci is second highest peak, and also the tallest volcano in Indonesia, and actually the highest volcano in all of Southeast Asia. In all of Asia, only Iran and Kamchatka have taller volcanoes.
    Mt. Kerinci is in the Kerinci Seblat National Park – which at around 14,000 sq. km, is the second largest national park in all of Southeast Asia (again, second only to the park where Puncak Jaya is found in West Papua). It also has the most tigers of any park outside of India.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi. Good blog. Anyway just to inform you, that there’s a new airport open in Palopo, S. Sulawesi. So instead of driving 9 hrs from Makassar to Tana Toraja, you can catch a plane from Makassar to Palopo and it’s just roughly 3 hrs ride to Tana Toraja.

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