With 17,000 Indonesian islands scattered between the Asian mainland and Australia, the archipelago has more than its share of natural wonders and curious wildlife. You’ll discover everything from the scorched landscape of Komodo to the lush volcanic slopes of Flores and the shimmering reefs of the Gili Islands. Spectacular crater lakes change colour before your eyes, while sparring dragons could be straight from a scene of Jurassic Park.
Indonesia’s ethnic, cultural and linguistic diversity is correspondingly great – more than 500 languages and dialects are spoken by its 255 million people. Read our Indonesia travel guide for everything you need to know before you go.
With tens of thousands of islands to explore, it can be challenging to narrow down the best place to travel in Indonesia. As diverse as it is dramatic, the archipelago has many alluring sights: the cultural core of Ubud, the colossal Buddhist stupa looming over Java, the turquoise crater lakes and cragged peaks of Gunung Rinjani, the dazzling white-sand beaches of the Gili Islands.
That’s not to mention the staggering wildlife, from huge Komodo dragons to the tiny tarsiers of Tangkoko National Park, and scores of wild orangutans cavorting among the jungles of Bukit Lawang. But beyond these obvious charms lies an abundance of undiscovered territory. The far-flung Banda Islands are a diver’s paradise, while a boat trip along Borneo’s great rivers offers a taste of traditional Dayak life.
However, we’ve outlined a handful of top contenders to consider for your Indonesia trip.
With its emerald-green rice terraces and artistic culture, Bali has long been the poster child of the Indonesian islands. The popular Kuta-Legian-Seminyak conurbation has an 8km sweep of golden sand lined with accommodation, shops and bars, while neighbouring Canggu is less developed with wilder beaches. For action, the Bukit peninsula is a surfing hot spot, and the tranquil island of Nusa Lembongan and beach resorts of Amed and Padang Bai have excellent snorkelling and diving. Ubud is the undisputed cultural capital of Bali for its traditional dance and music performances and cluster of yoga studios and art galleries.
Around 35 kilometres east of Bali, Lombok has more unspoilt beaches than its neighbour, and less traffic and pollution. Visually it’s stunning, with the awesome bulk of Gunung Rinjani rising above turquoise crater lakes. Just off shore, the fabled Gili Islands are ringed by white-sand beaches and pristine coral reefs. Of the three, Gili Trawangan is the party island, while Gili Air and Meno have a mellower vibe.
Java’s central spine is dominated by volcanoes, their fertile slopes supporting glimmering rice fields dotted with countless villages. To the south is the homeland of the ethnic Javanese and the centre of their traditional arts, culture and language, epitomized by the royal courts of Yogyakarta and Solo. To the east, the volcanic massif of Gunung Bromo offers excellent hikes, particularly at sunrise. Elsewhere are the ancient temples of the Dieng Plateau, the turquoise lake of Kawah Ijen and the palm-fringed beaches around Pangandaran.
An explorer’s paradise, much of Sumatra remains undiscovered. Most of the highlights on the beaten path are clustered to the north of the old Trans-Sumatran highway: the orangutan-filled jungles of Bukit Lawang; Danau Toba, the spiritual heartland of the fascinating Batak tribe; the twin volcanoes of Berastagi; and the diving sites of Pulau Weh. To the west you’ll discover Bukittinggi – the cultural capital of the Minangkabau Highlands – and the jungle-rimmed lake of Danau Maninjau.
Occupying the southern two-thirds of Borneo, Kalimantan remains largely untouched by tourism. With few roads, the interior’s great rivers are its highways and a boat trip along the waterways will offer a taste of traditional Dayak life. More intrepid explorers can spend weeks navigating their way through seldom-ventured tropical jungle, and a visit to one of the national parks could bring you face to face with wild orangutans.
Flores comprises one of the most alluring landscapes in Indonesia. The volcanic spine of the island soars to 2500m, and torrential wet seasons result in a lushness that marks Flores apart from its scorched neighbours. The most arresting sight is Kelimutu: the three craters of this extinct volcano each contain a lake of different, vibrant and gradually changing colours.
Off the west coast of Flores lies Komodo National Park, a group of parched but majestic islands that are home to the endemic Komodo dragon. The largest extant lizard in the world, this fearsome creature weighs up to 150lbs and has a toxic bite, allowing them to hunt far bigger prey. The two most-visited islands in the national park are Komodo and Rinca; received wisdom has it that the dragons on the former are bigger but harder to spot.
Sulawesi’s unusual “K” shape means nowhere on the island is much more than 100km from the sea. Mountains isolate its four separate peninsulas from one another and from the outside world – invaders were hard-pushed to colonize beyond the coast, and a unique blend of cultures developed. The south is split between the highland Torajans and the lowland Bugis; various isolated tribes occupy the central highlands, and the Filipino-descended Minahasans reside in the far north. The mountainous Tanah Toraja is the island’s chief attraction, thanks to its beautiful scenery, unusual architecture and vibrant festivals.
Jakarta is Indonesia’s unrivalled megalopolis, home to almost 30 million people across its 700-square-kilometre concrete sprawl. Though many travellers don’t give the capital a second glance, there’s nowhere better to experience Indonesia’s pulsing dynamism and heart-rending contrasts. Give the city a chance and you’ll discover everything from fascinating ethnic and historical quarters and interesting museums to heady nightlife and gargantuan new malls.
The whole Indonesian archipelago is tropical, with temperatures always between 21°C and 33°C, although cooler in the mountains. In theory, the best time to travel to Indonesia is dictated by the wet and dry season, though it’s often hard to tell the difference. This is increasingly so with the effects of climate change, which has already altered seasonal patterns, sometimes shortening and concentrating wet seasons.
Very roughly, in much of the country, November to April are the wet months (Jan and Feb the wettest) and May through to October is dry. The most expensive time to visit Indonesia is between mid-June and mid-September and again over Christmas and New Year, when rooms can be fully booked for days on end. Read more about the best time to visit Indonesia.
This part of our Indonesia guide will look at how best to travel to the country and how to get around the islands.
Jakarta’s Sukarno-Hatta Airport and Bali’s Ngurah Rai Airport are the main international air gateways into Indonesia, with direct flights from several Australian cities and destinations throughout Asia.
The archipelago also has international airports at Medan, Makassar, Manado, Padang, Surabaya and Yogyakarta – with connections mainly to other Southeast Asian airports.
For entering by boat, Indonesia has ferry connections with Malaysia and Singapore.
When considering how to get around Indonesia, bear in mind delays are common to all forms of transport, caused by weather, mechanical failure, or simply not enough passengers turning up. The best option is to keep your schedule as flexible as possible to save yourself a good deal of stress.
One of the cheaper ways to get around in Indonesia is by bus. However, you may find that you’re getting what you pay for in terms of comfort and safety. Another option are the tourist shuttle buses for the longer distances.
In Java, you will find trains which are likely to be more comfortable and reliable than buses.
Ferry routes run between the neighbouring islands of Indonesia offering short and long distance route options. Check up-to-date route information and buy tickets in advance at the local Pelni office.
Domestic flights can be a quicker and cheaper way to travel between the Indonesian islands. State-operated Garuda and Air Asia are the most reputable airlines, handling a range of international and domestic flights.
Read more travel advice for getting around Indonesia.
The biggest Buddhist stupa in the world, the ninth-century temple is the greatest single piece of classical architecture in the archipelago. The surroundings are just as spectacular, with looming volcanoes on three sides and jagged limestone cliffs on the fourth.
Tucked away on the easternmost fringes of Gunung Leuser National Park, Bukit Lawang offers some of the world’s best opportunities for seeing orangutans in the wild. To witness these incredible creatures performing gymnastics in the treetops is one of the most memorable experiences in Indonesia.
Ubud is the cultural capital of Bali, known for its talented classical dancers and musicians and for its prolific painters and artisans. Set amid terraced rice paddies, the seductive town brims with art galleries, museums and artisanal shops.
Rinjani, at 3726m, is one of Indonesia’s highest mountains. The climb to its summit is challenging but rewarding, taking in forest, rocky peaks and the magnificent crater lake of Danau Segara Anak.
To the south of Sulawesi, the mountainous highlands of Tanah Toraja is home to one of Indonesia’s most confident and vivid cultures: the Torajans, famed for their ghoulish burial rituals.
Clustered about 150km southeast of Ambon in the remote Banda Sea, the Bandas centre around the perfectly conical peak of Gunung Api. Divers from across the world are lured to these far-flung volcanic isles to swim among sea turtles, black marlins and hammerhead sharks.
The three craters of this extinct volcano each contain a lake of different, vibrant and gradually changing colours. Trek to the lunar-like summit at dawn to see the sun rise hazily over the mountains.
Off the west coast of Flores lies Komodo National Park, a group of barren but majestic islands that are home to the Komodo dragon – the largest extant lizard in the world.
On the borders of Alas Purwo National Park in the far southeastern corner of Java, the fishing village of Grajagan has become famous for its world-class surf. Better known as G-Land, it boasts awesomely long right- and left-handers and many kilometres of pristine beach.
This trio of jungly specks just off the northwest coast of Lombok are strikingly beautiful, with glorious white-sand beaches lapped by brilliant blue waters. Gili Trawangan best fits the image of party island, tiny Gili Meno is a honeymooners’ favourite, and Gili Air offers a mix of the two.
The laid-back town of Bukittinggi appeals with its flamboyant Minangkabau architecture, the beautiful scenery around Danau Maninjau and the rafflesia reserves in the hills.
South of Flores, Sumba is famous for its intricate fabrics, grand funeral ceremonies and its extraordinary annual pageant of horseback spear throwing.
With dense tropical jungle and abundant wildlife, Kalimantan provides opportunities for river travel in undiscovered territory. Cruise past mangroves, jungle and stilt villages along Indonesia's longest river, the Sungai Kapuas.
Yogyakarta ranks as one of the best-preserved and most attractive cities in Java, and is a major centre for the classical Javanese arts of dance, music, poetry and puppet shows.
Tangkoko National Park is the home of the world’s smallest primate, the tarsier. These nocturnal tree-dwelling creatures resemble bush babies or aye-ayes with their large saucer eyes and long, thin fingers.
Read our full guide on things not to miss during your Indonesia trip.
We’ve expanded our Indonesia travel guide to include an example of our Tailor-Made travel itineraries. These Indonesia itineraries can take you to every corner of the archipelago – and you’ll learn plenty about the Indonesian islands no matter where you want to go or what you want to do.
Rich wildlife, smoking volcanoes, pink beaches: the highlights of Indonesia can be covered in a two-week trip.
Whether you have two weeks or a month, our local Indonesia experts can book a trip that gives you the flavour of travel in this extraordinary country.
In this section, we will look at Indonesia travel advice and tips to help you enjoy a stress-free trip.
The Indonesian currency is the rupiah (“Rp”). Notes come in denominations of Rp500 (very rare), Rp1000, Rp5000, Rp10,000, Rp20,000, Rp50,000 and Rp100,000. Coins, mainly used for bemos, come in Rp25 (rare), Rp50, Rp100, Rp500 and Rp1000 denominations. Officially, rupiah are available outside Indonesia, but the currency’s volatile value means that few banks carry it.
You’ll find banks capable of handling foreign exchange in provincial capitals and bigger cities throughout Indonesia, and almost every town has at least one or two ATMs, which are also found within most Indomaret and Alfamart convenience stores. These generally accept at least one from Visa, MasterCard or Cirrus-Maestro.
Pharmacies (apotek or apotik) can provide many medicines without prescription, but if you need an English-speaking doctor (doktor) or dentist (doktor gigi), seek advice at your accommodation or at the local tourist office. You’ll find a public hospital (rumah sakit) in major cities and towns, and in some places these are supplemented by private hospitals, many of which operate an accident and emergency department. If you have a serious accident or illness, you will need to be evacuated home or to Singapore, which has Asia’s best medical provision. It is, therefore, vital to arrange health insurance before you visit Indonesia.
Indonesia has endured a torrid time over the past decade or so, most recently with the January 2016 terror attacks in downtown Jakarta, killing eight including the four assailants. Together with the July 2009 bombings of Jakarta’s Ritz-Carlton and JW Marriott hotels, the 2002 Bali bombings which left more than 200 (mostly foreigners) dead and the violence that surrounded the political and religious upheavals of the past decade, it undermines the idea that Indonesia is a safe place to travel. However, considering the scale of Indonesia and the vast number of international travellers, incidents involving Westerners are rare.
Petty theft, however, is a fact of life, so don’t flash around expensive computer equipment, jewellery or watches. Be aware of pickpockets on ferries, buses or bemos, who usually operate in pairs: one will try to distract you. Have nothing to do with drugs in Indonesia: the penalties are extremely tough, and you won’t get any sympathy from consular officials.
Read more travel advice for Indonesia.
As of 2016, citizens from 169 countries, including all of Europe as well as Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the US, can enter Indonesia visa-free at any official immigration gateways and stay for thirty days. However, travel requirements for Indonesia are notoriously prone to change, so it’s worth checking before you travel. For a full list of official gateways see indonesianembassy.org.uk.
Once you have entered visa-free, you cannot extend your stay so if you’re planning to stay longer than thirty days, you’ll need to either purchase a visa in advance from an Indonesian consulate or buy one on arrival for $35, which can then be extended for another thirty days at an immigration office (for Rp250,000).
Alternatively, you could make a visa run to Singapore or Malaysia before returning to obtain another thirty days in the country. A visa is most easily obtained in Singapore, Penang or Kuala Lumpur. A fee of Rp300,000 per day is incurred if you overstay your visa.
Prices for the simplest double room start at around $5 (more in touristy areas like Bali), and in all categories are at their most expensive from mid-June through to August, and in December and January. The bottom end of Indonesia’s accommodation market is provided by homestays and hostels. Penginapan, or inns, are often simply spare bedrooms in the family home, and there’s often not much difference between these and losmen, pondok and wisma, which are also family-run operations. Rooms vary from whitewashed concrete cubes to artful bamboo structures – some are even set in their own walled gardens. Hard beds and bolsters are the norm, and you may be provided with a light blanket.
In remote, rural Indonesia, you may end up staying in villages without formal lodgings, in a bed in a family house. First ask permission from the local police or the kepala desa (village head). In exchange for accommodation and meals, you should offer cash or useful gifts, such as rice, salt, cigarettes or food, to the value of about $2 at the very least.
At first glance Indonesian food may appear to lack variety, but scratch beneath the surface to discover regional specialities from across the archipelago and beyond. Influences from Chinese, Middle Eastern, Malay, Indian and Polynesian cuisines find their way into kitchens across Indonesia.
While rice is the favoured staple, noodles are also widely popular. Chicken, goat and beef are the main meats in this predominantly Muslim country, though plenty of pork options feature in Christian areas and seafood dominates coastal menus. Many restaurants offer a handful of vegetarian options, including cap cay (fried mixed vegetables), tahu (tofu), and tempe (pressed, fermented soya beans), a Javanese speciality.
Spices are the backbone of all Indonesian cooking, fried to form a paste for curries or rubbed over ingredients prior to frying or grilling. Meals are often served with sambal, a sizzling blend of chillies and spices. Vegetarians should be aware that krecek, a type of sambal, contains cow skin.
Alcohol is often a touchy subject in Indonesia, where public drunkenness may incur serious trouble, though there’s no need to be paranoid about this in cities. The locally produced beers, Anker and Bintang, are widely available. Spirits are less publicly consumed, and may be technically illegal, so indulge with caution. Nonetheless, home-produced brews are often sold openly in villages.
Some of the most popular Indonesian food and drink include:
Read more about the food and drink in Indonesia.
Most people who visit Indonesia come for the sea, either surfing across the breakers or delving beneath the water’s surface on snorkelling and diving excursions. Inland is an abundance of hiking and biking opportunities, from volcano treks to wildlife-spotting in national parks and cycling among the lush countryside.
Indonesia has many of the world’s best diving sites, including Pulau Bunaken off Sulawesi, Pulau Weh off northern Aceh in Sumatra, the Bandas in the Maluku Islands, and Raja Ampat to the west of Papua. Most major beach resorts have dive centres, but once you get further afield you’ll probably have to rely on live-aboard cruises. A day’s diving costs anything from $45 to upwards of $100.
One of the main reasons why people travel to Indonesia is for its pounding surf. The best-known waves are found on Bali, G-Land (Grajagan) on Java and around Krui in southern Sumatra. Further afield, Sumba, the Mentawai Islands, and Lhoknga in Aceh are also increasingly popular. Good websites include baliwaves.com, indosurflife.com, wannasurf.com and wavehunters.com.
There are endless trekking opportunities on the islands. The best places to travel in Indonesia for volcano treks include Gunung Batur on Bali and Gunung Bromo and Gunung Merapi on Java. More taxing favourites include Gunung Rinjani on Lombok and Gunung Sinabung in Sumatra. Also in Sumatra, the Gunung Leuser National Park is Southeast Asia’s largest, and includes the famous Bukit Lawang orangutan sanctuary. Guides are available from local villages and tourist centres, at a cost of about Rp250,000–300,000 per day.
Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim country, but the practice of Islam across the archipelago has been shaped by centuries of interaction with Hinduism, Buddhism and other faiths, as well as traditional animist practices. As a result, Islam in Indonesia has historically been buffered against the more austere, exclusivist ideologies of certain Middle Eastern states. The majority of Indonesians remain relatively open and tolerant in line with the state philosophy of Pancasila, which grants followers of all religions equal rights.
Although there are regional variations in accepted social norms, with Aceh among the most conservative provinces and Bali the most liberal, there are also differences within provinces. Outside the main tourist resorts, dress conservatively, especially when visiting religious sites, to avoid giving offence. Often you’ll be required to wear a sarong and a ceremonial sash around your waist (usually provided by the most-visited temples). Be especially sensitive during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.
Of the vast range of traditional dance and music across the Indonesian islands, the best known are the highly stylized and mannered classical dance performances in Java and Bali, accompanied by the gamelan orchestra. Every step is minutely orchestrated, and the merest wink of an eye or arch of an eyebrow has significance. Ubud on Bali and Yogyakarta on Java are the centres for these dances.
Although there are also more 250 native languages spoken throughout the archipelago, Indonesia’s national language is Bahasa Indonesia, a form of Bahasa Malay. Because it’s written in Roman script, has no tones and uses a fairly straightforward grammar, it’s relatively easy to learn.
a as in a cross between father and cup
e sometimes as in along; or as in pay; or as in get; or sometimes omitted (selamat pronounced “slamat”)
i either as in boutique; or as in pit
o either as in hot; or as in cold
u as in boot
ai as in fine
au as in how
c as in cheap
g always hard as in girl
k hard, as in English, except at the end of the word, when you should stop just short of pronouncing it.
Given the enormous cultural and ethnic mix that makes up Indonesia, it’s hardly surprising that the range of traditional music and dance across the archipelago is so vast.
Best known are the highly stylized and mannered classical dance performances in Java and Bali, accompanied by the gamelan orchestra. Every step is minutely orchestrated, and the merest wink of an eye or arch of an eyebrow has significance. Ubud on Bali and Yogyakarta on Java are the centres for these dances. Yogya is also the main place to catch a performance of wayang kulit, shadow puppet plays.
A gamelan is an ensemble of tuned percussion, consisting mainly of gongs, metallophones and drums, made of bronze, iron, brass, wood or bamboo, with wooden frames, which are often intricately carved and painted. The full ensemble also includes vocalists – a male chorus and female solo singers – and is led by the drummer in the centre. A large gamelan may be played by as many as thirty musicians, and is a communal form of music-making – there are no soloists or virtuosos.
Sundanese (West Javanese) degung is arguably the most accessible gamelan music for Western ears. Its musical structures are clear and well defined, and it is played by a small ensemble, but includes the usual range of gongs and metallophones found in all gamelan.
Top image © Akhmad Dody Firmansyah/Shutterstock