asia indonesia

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



By mee

Blog about travel, culture, lifestyle and books from London at and

11 replies on “Beginner’s Guide to Indonesia”

“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.”

That right there is the thing that almost ruins Indonesia for me. I know that it’s not uncommon for tourists to get overcharged in most countries in Asia, but I think Indonesia has to be one of the worst places for this. Even going to simple night markets on Flores, Tony & I would get charged 30k each for a plate of food and a drink, or get told the price to take an ojek 1.5 km is 50k, which I think is absolutely ridiculous! What makes it worse is that in most other places if you tell people the price is too high, they will generally stop the farce and give you something closer to the real price, but in Indonesia it takes AGES, and that’s provided the person is even willing to haggle. I can’t blame locals for trying to make a little extra cash where they can, but the glee I have seen them take in ripping off tourists and how they often will refuse to offer a good or service at a fair price for those of us who aren’t locals but know the correct price is really frustrating. There are many things to enjoy about Indonesia, but constantly being viewed as a walking wallet that is just waiting to be taken advantage of is definitely not one of them.


Steph, what you described is one of the hassles I was talking about. I haven’t mentioned them much, but even for me there have been many occasions where I had bad experiences with the locals trying to overcharge. (remember that at that point of the story I was already wasting a lot of time haggling for the boat and had to wait for hours, though there was a silver lining at the end). There was a time when we were followed by “preman” at a Bali seaport (translated to sort of Indonesian gangster – but that time only a single person), and we couldn’t negotiate taxi price with the driver because the preman was in the middle of it all and he wanted a cut. It took us a long time to agree on a price. It was dark at night, there was no other taxi, or hostels. We threatened to stay in a “warung” (small grocery shop) nearby and not take the taxi at all, before they finally agreed.

So no, it’s not just foreigners. Local travelers are taken advantage as well. From my accent, race, and clothing, they can tell I’m from Jakarta, and traveling, which for them means I have extra money. It is one downside of traveling in a poor country. Everyone is so poor, and takes any chance they can to get extra money. It is ridiculous and short-sighted, because they chase tourists away themselves. There’s one lake that I went to in Bali that is so dominated by a group of local trinkets sellers, that people stopped going there because they have been so unaccommodating. Once I stepped out of the car I was followed, hassled, touched – my arms, my hair (!), it was extremely uncomfortable. We were there for all 5 minutes, our driver didn’t even want to leave the car, and left. Never mind the beautiful lake and the beautiful mountain in the background. It was a deserted spot now, while it used to be popular.

A shame. But how do we fix this? I don’t know. There have to be more education and organizations. A country rich of natural resources, but it is so poor it can’t help itself.


a very good read! thanks!
I am too guilty of not traveling much back home, something I deeply regret and hoping to rectify someday….
I think you just made Indonesia one of the places I really want to see.


That’s great Sam. I feel like I haven’t done it justice with my photos, as I only showed the ones I took myself. There are so many amazing places that I want to go to, so maybe there will be another post about the ones on my wishlist by borrowing other people’s pictures!


I for one am secretly glad that many parts of Indonesia are still untouched and unknown to the world. For even though with tourism comes positive things like infrastructure, rediscovery*, and more money brought in (better economy for the community), the bad things tend to outweigh the good. What bad things, you say? I’ll name an ugly one: pollution.

* rediscovery = when the locals go “oh, the tourists would want to see some authentic tradition – let’s make sure we relearn, master it ourselves, and teach our kids how to dance, play musical instruments, etc”).

Don’t get me wrong, I love Bali as much as the next normal person. We go almost every year when we go to visit families back home. What’s not to like? Pretty much everyone speaks English, the locals get to show off their amazing culture while they make a living (not many of us are lucky like that), AND you can get a holiday at a price that suits your budget, whether you rough it up in a hut or live like a royal at one of those villas that comes with your own private butler. What saddens me is, the plastic bag/garbage islands, formed out there in the sea, due to poor waste management system, which is causing a lot of wildlife to suffer. I bet no one thinks of that while they’re enjoying a diamond scrub spa, or sipping Daiquiri at KuDeTa, posting pics of sunset on facebook, listening to a chill-out tune remixed by an Australian DJ. While a seabird chokes to death.

Sorry to sound depressing but you get my drift. I’m not talking about Bali alone. On our honeymoon, when we left Manado, the sea was also very dirty by the port. If that carries on (and it probably will), we can forget about Bunaken in a few decades.

Still… I think if you’re on holiday, you’re on holiday. No point thinking about who’s winning or losing. There is a price for everything – if you want it, can afford it, then get it. If not, don’t. We were recently charged for a “pollution tax” when hiring a diesel car in Mallorca. Something like 50euros for the week. I said, ouch – but good on them, I hope they use the money to compensate for whatever environmental damage we cause during our stay. Yeah right, what am I? A five year old? But that’s okay, we’re on holiday and we’re happy to pay our way. It’s wonderful that the Balearics have the tourist season from May to September. Yes, that’s when the islands get totally stretched, exploited by tourists whether they’re partygoers or families craving for a calm Mediterranean beach. In winter, the islands belong to the locals again. They get to recuperate until the mad season kicks off next year. They have this love-hate relationship / symbiosis thing with the tourists, which I totally get. Bali doesn’t have such luck though. Business opens all year round, people have to be so full of patience.

I got angry a lot when I went to Shanghai because I could not haggle to save my life. For example, I bought a scarf from the market and it cost me 50 Yuan (originally 120 – less than half price because I spoke Mandarin, woohoo!). About 5 minutes later, someone else tried to flog the same thing at 20 Yuan. Either they just wanted to make me feel like a loser or they thought I probably wasn’t going to buy another bloody scarf. But it’s all about perspective. Hey, 50 Yuan was like 5 Pounds. If I wanted to make myself feel better, I could:
a) get another one to lower the average price, or
b) make myself think that I have done a good deed to the PRC and some family probably ate better that week.

So many tourists rant about getting ripped off in Indonesia / Asia. Well, who isn’t getting ripped off these days? Don’t get me started on government taxes. Just you go to a posh restaurant to eat a piece of organically reared meat with some fancy thing called “jus” on it. Oh you’d give up a day’s pay for the meal, that’s totally worth it. But some vendor who stood there, handing you a plate of satay which his wife prepared after slaughtering their pet that morning, for 4 times the local price – oh no, that’s so hard to stomach it almost ruined your whole trip? A few dollars means nothing to tourists on holiday but it does mean a big deal to them. Prices are going up. They are trying to make ends meet. They can’t go on holidays because they have to sell stuff to get by and they haven’t got a passport – even if they have, they’ll need visas to most foreign countries anyway – ARGH why is it so damn tough?!!! Oh, and that thing you binned yesterday in the hotel, would probably end up in the river they wash and bathe in.

It’s not the money, it’s about the principle, you cry? OK. In the UK, where “price discrimination” is illegal (please google the term if you wish), there are still special cases. In Windsor, local residents get an “advantage card” which gives them discounts on parking, leisure centre, food, and free entry to the Castle. The tourists have to pay to get in? Well, yes, the locals pay council tax which partially pays for the upkeep of the town. Plus, the locals have to put up with all these people giggling, enjoying themselves, while the locals are trying to lunch or get to work. I say it’s totally fair and square.

I am just trying to iterate: sometimes it is not about how much you pay compared to others. Try not to think about discount locals may get. If you think it is worth it, go for it. Indonesians are generally genuine, lovely people. But they do see so many tourists who are blatantly having fun, probably earning about 100 times in a week, what they make in a good month – and they want some of that, too. Oh, please just cut them some slacks… If you’re on a tight budget, check the price first, and if you can’t get a fair price / too much, go somewhere else (unless that’s the last cab in the village and some preman is with you, lol).

If only you can put yourself in their shoe, I don’t think you would feel taken advantage of when parting with a bit more of your hard-earnt cash. You would feel fortunate that you have plenty to share.

All in all, I hope Indonesia will take the time to prepare herself for responsible tourism and soon find ways to sort out the waste problems. Otherwise, long may it last, this situation where people think that Indonesia is in Bali. Tourism has to bring more positive than negative effects in order to be worth it.


Thanks Hen for your long response. I think you have a couple of points here that probably merit its own discussion for each. So I’ll try not to mix them all up.

About tourism, I am definitely on the side that it brings positive things, otherwise I wouldn’t be here writing about traveling all the time. Tourism these days has some sort of negative connotation, that a lot of travelers don’t even want to be called that, as if tourists and travelers are two different breeds. But you say potato I say potato, at the end of the day it is about going to a foreign place, whether it is to have holiday or for a “deeper purpose”. Sure some places suffer over-explosion of tourism, like some parts of Bali, and some people do bad things to environment, but should we really blame this entirely on tourism? I’m sure the sea in Bunaken is having problems both from foreign AND local people. Lots of places in the world have their entire livelihood largely depend on tourism and they are doing fine, environment or otherwise. What we need is a little (or a lot of) organization to ensure that the places are preserved, the money goes to the right people (the community), and visitors have a nice and safe experience. Everybody wins.

I wouldn’t talk about Bali, because Bali is doing fine, it is the only place in Indonesia doing absolutely fine. I’m talking about everywhere else in Indonesia. It’s a huge country, the natural resources and the potential are endless, and they are not utilized. Other countries having less than Indonesia are doing better, because they can use what little they have. When I went on the 7 days road trip in Sumatra, we saw wondrous things, yet there were very very few people. At one point we found a spot with 7 flavors of spring water. Statues were build for each of the spring water, and we got to taste each one. Can you imagine such thing? I thought that was amazing. And yet it was in the middle of nowhere, rice fields everywhere. We were the only people there. To reach it from the nearest big city you need to go through death-defying roads (my mom insisted on hiring an experience driver to do this road trip because the roads were horrible – didn’t believe her until I saw them myself). So no I’m not talking about bringing a huge industry complete with 5-star hotels. But a reasonable infrastructure, good roads, good public transports, some organization so the money goes back into the community to build a better life. There are a lot of different types of travelers, and I believe many would be willing to explore Indonesia more if it is more accommodating. Again a nice comparison is Malaysia. Malaysia is not perfect in terms of infrastructure, but it is leaps and bounds ahead of Indonesia. I don’t see how this can be a bad thing at all.

About local or foreign prices, I totally understand. It is one thing though to pay a bit more for local food and handmade goods, and another thing for a random preman to appear out of nowhere expecting to get a cut from taxi fare :P. It should be judged case by case basis I think. 10 times of 50c is rather different with 10 times of $10 or $100.

I have to close this by restating that I see traveling, if not tourism, as a positive thing, for both sides. It is the only way we get to learn about people from other parts of the world with different culture and completely different way of life. And I believe it works the other way around. Whether I stay around a beautiful lake my whole life or in a great city, I would love to introduce people to this place I love, and tell them about the stories, the local culture, the food, and everything. The chance to connect with people from across the planet is a beautiful thing. People have different traveling styles and it is a bit unfair to put everyone under the banner of “irresponsible tourists staying in 5-star hotels for luxury holiday”.


This post won the longest ever comments I have ever read!
You sum Indonesia up very well. Not easy, considering it is big country. One day when “we” retire over there (ha ha) I think then I will explore more of Indonesia. I am guilty of not visiting Indonesia or Philippines because of the hassle you have just mentioned there.

I knew about most of the places you visit but my recent find was Mount Bromo. I thought the landscape is so out-of-the-world, extraordinary.

I had to go there!


Come to think of it, Indonesia and Philippines are both archipelago, that’s why it is harder to travel in (one of the reasons I haven’t been to Philippines too). Mount Bromo is very high on my todo list in Indonesia! I promise myself that I need to go the next time I go back there. A friend has just been there recently and her pictures look as great as all the pictures you see of Mt Bromo. The mountain is also one of the destinations that are quite well known to foreigners, so the more I feel the need to go 🙂


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