Indonesia has endured a torrid time of late, most recently with the July 2009 bombings of the Ritz-Carlton and JW Marriot hotels in Jakarta which killed nine and injuring more than fity people. Together with 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. 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 camera equipment, jewellery or watches. Don’t hesitate to check that doors and windows – including those in the bathroom – are secure before accepting accommodation; if the management seems offended by this, you probably don’t want to stay there anyway. Some guesthouses and hotels have safe-deposit boxes.
If you’re unlucky enough to get mugged, never resist and, if you disturb a thief, raise the alarm rather than try to take them on. Be especially aware of pickpockets on buses or bemos, who usually operate in pairs: one will distract you while another does the job. Afterwards, you’ll need a police report for insurance purposes. Try to take along someone to translate, though police will generally do their best to find an English-speaker. You may also be charged “administration fees”, the cost of which is open to sensitive negotiations. Have nothing to do with drugs in Indonesia: the penalties are tough, and you won’t get any sympathy from consular officials.
The militant Islamic Jemaah Islamiyah terrorist group has been responsible for numerous bombs in Indonesia, most notable, of course, the Bali bomb of 2002, which left more than two hundred dead and the country’s entire tourist industry in tatters. Since then the Marriott hotel in Jakarta was bombed in August 2003, the Australian embassy in Jakarta in September 2004, Bali again in October 2005 and Jakarta’s JW Marriott and Ritz-Carlton hotels in July 2009. Terrorism remains a threat, though there is no need to be alarmed here more than you would be anywhere else frequented by tourists in Southeast Asia.
Caution is advised in the trouble spots around the Maluku Islands and central Sulawesi where the situation remains unsettled. Much of the trouble dates back to 1999, and the horrifying chaos of the elections of the newly independent state of East Timor. Riots in many parts of the archipelago pitched Muslims against their Christian neighbours, while locals in other provinces, inspired by the success of East Timor in winning its independence, began to fight for the secession of their own province. The Maluku Islands in particular were devastated by an internecine war that left thousands dead. A measure of calm is returning to the islands, and travellers are now trickling back.
The security situation can also be unpredictable in other trouble spots such as Aceh in northern Sumatra, and the Poso region of central Sulawesi – where the beheading of three Christian schoolgirls in October 2005 provoked some serious sectarian violence – though the situation in both places has improved dramatically. We also do not cover remote and little-visited West Papua (formerly known as Irian Jaya), whose ongoing separatist struggle has in the past resulted in violence against foreigners, or East Timor’s neighbour, West Timor. If you insist on visiting Indonesia’s more unsettled areas, make sure you are fully aware of the latest situation, and heed any warnings given out by your foreign office, as well as the local people who, along with your fellow travellers, are usually the best source of up-to-date information.
Citizens of Britain, Ireland, most of Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the US can get thirty-day visas (US$25) on arrival from any of Indonesia’s official immigration gateways, though it’s worth checking beforehand as Indonesian visa regulations are prone to change. Official gateways include major international airports – such as Jakarta, Denpasar (Bali), Yogyakarta, Solo, Surabaya and Medan – and several seaports, including Padan Bai in Bali, Tanjung Priok for Jakarta, Pulau Batam and Pulau Bintam (between Singapore and Sumatra), and Medan on Sumatra. If you’re arriving in Indonesia through a more remote air or seaport, check whether you need to obtain a visa from an Indonesian consulate in advance. For a full list of official gateways see wwww.indonesianembassy.org.uk.
You can get a sixty-day visa, but only by applying in advance from an Indonesian consulate; the cost is US$55 and the process takes three to five days, though this varies from one consulate to the next. A visa is most easily obtained in Singapore, Penang or Kuala Lumpur. Note that you must show your ticket out of the country when applying for a visa, whether you’re applying at the embassy or the port. A visa can be extended once for up to 30 days for a fee of Rp250.000; this process also usually takes a few days. When applying for an extension of your visa, bring photocopies of the photo page in your passport, your Indonesian visa, and your flight ticket out of Indonesia.
Those entering the country via a non-designated gateway must get a visa from an Indonesian consulate before travelling. Further details on the latest situation can be found at wwww.indonesianembassy.org.uk.
If you have a minor ailment, head to a pharmacy (apotik), which can provide many medicines without prescription. Condoms (kondom) are available from pharmacists and some convenience stores. 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 the best medical provision in Asia. It is, therefore, vital to arrange health insurance before you leave home.
There’s a range of tourist offices in Indonesia, including government-run organizations, normally called Dinas (or Kantor) Pariwisata (Diparda). However, many tourist information centres in Indonesia are little more than pamphlet outlets. Good hostels are often the best sources of information.
Aside from the usual services, some post offices (kantor pos) now offer internet and fax facilities. Indonesia’s poste restante system is fairly efficient, but only in the cities. In larger post offices, the parcels section is usually in a separate part of the building, and sending one is expensive and time-consuming. The cheapest way of sending mail home is by surface (under 10kg only). Don’t seal the parcel before staff at the post office have checked its contents; in larger towns there is usually a parcel-wrapping service near the post office.
To call abroad from Indonesia, dial t001 or t008 + country code + area code (minus the first 0) + number. For international directory enquiries call t102; the international operator is t101. Some Telkom offices and airports also have home-country direct phones, from which you can call collect (reverse-charge calls), or settle up after the call; they cost more than IDD phones.
Mobile phone coverage is good across most of Java, Sumatra and Bali, but elsewhere is confined largely to the main cities and populated areas only. If you are intent on spending more than a week or so in Indonesia, strongly consider purchasing an Indonesian SIM card, available from wartels from Rp11,000. The dominant operators are Telkomsel, Three and Indosat. There’s a complicated registration process, so ask the sales assistant for help to set up your phone after you’ve purchased the card. You shouldn’t have to pay to receive calls.
Internet access is becoming increasingly widespread in Indonesia, and there are now tourist-friendly internet offices and cafés in many towns and cities; prices vary widely from Rp3000 to Rp30,000 per hour. For travellers with laptops, free wi-fi has become a common feature in tourist cafés, shopping malls and hotels.
For unlimited Wi-Fi on the go whilst travelling Indonesia, buy a Skyroam Solis, which works in 130+ countries at one flat daily rate, paid for on a pay-as-you-go basis. You can connect up to five devices at once. Prices start from as little as €5 a day.
Good all-round maps include GeoCentre’s 1:2,000,000 series and the Nelles Indonesia series. In the same league is Periplus’ range of user-friendly city and provincial maps.
The Indonesian currency is the rupiah (abbreviated to “Rp”). Notes come in denominations of Rp500 (rare), Rp1000, Rp5000, Rp10,000, Rp20,000, Rp50,000 and even Rp100,000; coins, mainly used for public telephones and 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 very few banks carry it. At the time of writing, the exchange rate was Rp14,200 to £1 and Rp9000 to US$1.
You’ll find banks capable of handling foreign exchange in provincial capitals and bigger cities throughout Indonesia, and most bigger places have ATMs, which take at least one from Visa, MasterCard or Cirrus-Maestro. There are also privately run moneychangers in major tourist centres. Always count your money carefully, as unscrupulous dealers can rip you off, either by folding notes over to make it look as if you’re getting twice as much, or by distracting you and then whipping away a few notes from your pile.
In less-travelled regions, provincial banks won’t cash travellers’ cheques, but will take US dollar notes. Over-the-counter cash advances on Visa can be used for getting the best possible exchange rate.
Sometimes prices for tourist services, such as diving or organized trips, are quoted in dollars, or increasingly in euros, but you can pay in rupiah at whatever the exchange rate is on the day.
As a rough outline, businesses such as airline offices open Monday to Friday 8am to 5pm and Saturday 8am–noon. Banking hours are Monday to Friday 8am to 3pm and Saturday 8am to 1pm, but banks may not handle foreign exchange in the afternoons or at weekends. Post offices operate roughly Monday to Thursday 8am to 2pm, Friday 8 to 11am and Saturday 8am to 1pm, though in the larger cities the hours are much longer. Muslim businesses, including government offices, may also close at 11.30am on Fridays, the main day of prayer, and national public holidays see all commerce compulsorily curtailed.
Ramadan, a month of fasting during daylight hours, falls during the ninth Muslim month, which changes from year to year. Even in non-Islamic areas, Muslim restaurants and businesses shut down during the day, and in staunchly Islamic parts of rural Lombok, Sumatra and Kalimantan’s Banjarmasin, you should not eat, drink or smoke in public at this time.
Most of the national public holidays fall on different dates of the Western calendar each year, as they are calculated according to Islamic or local calendars.
January 1 New Year’s Day (Tahun Baru)
Jan/Feb Chinese New Year
Muharam (usually Jan) Islamic New Year
March/April Nyepi, Balinese New Year
March/April Good Friday and Easter Sunday
Maulud Nabi Muhammad (usually March or April) Anniversary of the birth of Muhammed
May/June Waisak Day. Anniversary of the birth, death and enlightenment of Buddha
May/June Ascension Day of Jesus
Lailat al Miraj (usually between July and Sept) Ascension Day of Muhammed
August 17 Independence Day (Hari Proklamasi Kemerdekaan)
Idul Fitri (usually Oct or Nov) The celebration of the end of Ramadan
Idul Adha (Hajhl, usually between Dec and Jan) Feast of Sacrifice
December 25 Christmas Day
In addition to national public holidays, there are frequent religious festivals throughout Indonesia’s Muslim, Hindu, Chinese and indigenous communities. Each of Bali’s twenty thousand temples has an anniversary celebration, for instance, and other ethnic groups may host elaborate marriages or funerals, along with more secular holidays. Many of these festivals change annually against the Western calendar.
Erau Festival Tenggarong, Kalimantan. September. A big display of indigenous Dayak skills and dancing.
Funerals Tanah Toraja, Sulawesi. Mostly May to September. With buffalo slaughter, bullfights and sisemba kick-boxing tournaments.
Galungun Bali. Takes place for ten days every 210 days to celebrate the victory of good over evil.
Kasada Bromo, East Java. Offerings are made to the gods and thrown into the crater. Held on the fourteenth day of Kasada, the twelfth month in the Tenggerese calendar year (Dec).
Krakatau FestivalLampung, Sumatra. October. Five days of events highlighting Lampung’s cultural heritage, including Tuping Karnaval (Lampung Mask Carnival); part of the celebration occurs on the island of Anak Krakatau itself.
Nyepi Throughout Bali. End of March or beginning of April. The major purification ritual of the year.
Pasola West Sumba. Held four times in February and March, this festival to balance the upper sphere of the heavens culminates with a frenetic pitched battle between two villages of spear-wielding horsemen.
Sekaten Central Java. March or April. The celebration of the birthday of the prophet Muhammed, includes a month-long festival of fairs, gamelan recitals and performances.
Indonesia has many of the world’s best diving sites, among the finest of which are Pulau Bunaken off Sulawesi and Pulau Weh off northern Aceh in Sumatra. Bali has many good sites, including the famous Liberty wreck, and reputable tour operators at all major beach resorts. The best time for diving is between late April and early October. Most major beach resorts have dive centres, but once you get further afield you’ll probably have to rely on live aboard cruises or even on having your own gear. A day’s diving with two tanks, lunch and basic equipment costs anything from $30 to $100. Be sure to enquire about the reputation of the dive operators before signing up, check their PADI or equivalent accreditation and, if possible, get first-hand recommendations from other divers. Be aware that it is down to you to check your equipment, and that the purity of an air tank can be suspect, and could cause serious injury. Also check your guide’s credentials carefully, and bear in mind that you may be a long way from a decompression chamber.
Indonesia is also one of the world’s premier surfing destinations, with an enormous variety of class waves and perfect breaks. The best-known waves are found on Bali, G-Land (Grajagan) on Java and around Krui in southern Sumatra; further afield, Sumba and the Mentawai Islands are also increasingly popular.
In June and July, during the best and most consistent surf, you can expect waves to be crowded, especially in Java and Bali. Several surf companies in Kuta in Bali offer all-in surf safaris to other destinations in Indonesia. Try to bring your own board, though in the popular surf spots you can rent some decent boards on the beach. Most public transport charges extra for boards, but many surfers simply rent motorbikes with board-carrying attachments.
For detailed reviews of surf breaks, see the book Indo Surf and Lingo, available from wwww.indosurf.com.au and from surfshops and bookshops in Bali. Good surf websites include wwww.baliwaves.com, wwww.wannasurf.com and wwww.wavehunters.com
There are endless trekking opportunities in Indonesia. The most popular 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 orang-utan sanctuary. The long haul to Gunung Leuser itself from Ketambe as well as many routes heading into the park from Bukit Lawang require guides, and not just to find the paths: turning up at a remote village unannounced can cause trouble, as people may mistrust outsiders, let alone Westerners. Guides are always available from local villages and tourist centres, most charging around Rp120,000–250,000 per day, although prices can be higher when arrangements are made through travel agencies.