Backpacking Indonesia: Top experiences
- Climbing a volcano (or two, or three)
- Diving or snorkeling the reefs of Komodo, Raja Ampat, Menjangan Island, and more
- Watching the sun rise over Borobudur and set over Prambanan
- Relaxing on the beach of your dreams
- Exploring Balinese art, dance and culture in Ubud
Jump to the list of posts from Indonesia, or read on for the destination overview.
I only had two weeks for backpacking Indonesia. Because it’s a huge country and I didn’t want to spend all my time in transit, I decided to restrict my visit to Java, Bali and Nusa Lembrongan.
Yogyakarta --> Borobudur --> Yogyakarta --> Mount Bromo --> Banyuwangi (for Ijen) --> Pemuteran --> Ubud --> Nusa Lembrongan --> Kuta --> Jakarta
Just to give you a sense of how long it takes to fully explore a single island: I’d love to spend a full month on Sumatra, a month in Kalimantan, two weeks on Flores, and some time in West Papua.
Know before you go
The cost of backpacking Indonesia varies by island. On Java, I spent under $20 a day without even trying. Bali was much more expensive — I averaged closer to $40 a day. Small, touristy islands like the Gilis are supposedly even pricier.
Because I was only backpacking Indonesia for two weeks, I wasn’t too careful with my budget. I ate what I wanted to, paid extra to get into Borobudur for sunrise, and stayed at nice budget guesthouses with my own room. To save money, I sorted out my own transportation instead of taking tours, avoided alcohol and limited long-distance travel.
In other words, true shoestring travelers could get by on $15 a day in most of Indonesia. Bali would be challenging on less than $25 per day.
You’ll stay in a variety of places with a range of costs when you’re backpacking Indonesia. Budget travelers will use a mix of hostels, cheap hotels, and homestays.
Hostels are common in traveler centers and urban areas. Jakarta, Yogyakarta, Kuta, the Gili Islands, and Ubud have plenty of dorm beds available. Many places that have dorms have only dorms — private rooms in hostels are uncommon and tend to be wildly overpriced.
Prices start as low as $3 per night, but can go as high as $15 a night. Most hostels in Indonesia have English-speaking staff, good travel information, free breakfast, WiFi, and free drinking water.
The clientele of Indonesian hostels tends to lean young and party-focused.
In touristy parts of Indonesia, cheap local hotels aren’t as common as they are elsewhere in Southeast Asia. They also tend to be of lower quality. Don’t expect WiFi, hot water, or English-speaking staff.
For most people backpacking Indonesia, they’ll be the accommodation option of last resort. But you may need to use them more if you go further off the beaten path.
Homestays are the best value for money you’ll find when you backpack Indonesia. Some homestays are similar to small, simple guesthouses. Others are all-out local immersion experiences. Either way, you’ll get a clean, secure room and usually a private bathroom.
Most homestays have just 2-4 rooms. Amenities like WiFi, air conditioning and free breakfast are common. Homestay owners can usually arrange tours and transportation (or provide it themselves).
The average cost of a homestay when backpacking Indonesia is $15. I paid as little as $7 and as much as $25. But they were worth every penny. The hospitality was really above and beyond. I had owners drive me to Borobudur at 4 am, surprise me with fresh coconuts and bananas from their yard, and make breakfast for me when I had to catch a 6 am bus. I learned a lot about each place I visited from the owners, through chatting with them and through living in their family compounds and seeing how they go about their daily lives.
Regardless of which type of accommodation you choose, if you’re traveling in touristy places during high season or Indonesian holidays, book in advance. The best places to stay fill up fast. Booking.com has a good selection of homestays in addition to hostels and budget hotels.
Indonesian cuisine is one of the overlooked gems of Southeast Asia. Internationally-famous classics like satay, fried rice and fried noodles abound. There are countless regional delicacies. The seafood is to-die-for. And relative to the rest of the region, vegetarians can get by pretty easily.
When you’re backpacking Indonesia, be sure to sample the food at local “warungs,” or informal restaurants. If you’re not a picky eater, just look at what everyone else is eating and try to get the same thing. For the best food, try to visit warungs that specialize in a single dish. A meal at a warung can run as low as $0.50, but most dishes cost 15,000 rupiah (a little over $1).
Formal restaurants are common in tourist centers. Many offer a mix of Indonesian and Western food. Prices are higher than warungs — usually starting around 30,000 rupiah (a little over $2) — and quality varies widely.
Throughout Bali, and especially in Ubud, cafes focusing on vegetarian/organic/raw food are popular. They can be quite good. But beware — a smoothie or raw veggie juice at a cafe can be twice as expensive as an entire meal at a warung. Check prices carefully, including hidden costs like service and tax.
You may be surprised to learn that it’s hard to find a good cup of coffee for cheap when backpacking Indonesia. Locals stick with instant coffee — the good stuff is too expensive — or drink tea instead. You’ll pay Western prices for a coffee made from fresh beans in a cafe. On the other hand, you can get iced tea for as little as 15 cents.
While South Bali has a reputation as a major party capital, many locals don’t drink alcohol. The government has made efforts to restrict alcohol sales, which are strictly enforced in some places (Aceh) and more loosely in others (Kuta). The takeaway is many warungs and restaurants don’t sell beer or booze. And even when you buy beer from a supermarket, it’s very expensive by Asia standards ($1.30+ a bottle).
Indonesia provides opportunities to participate in any activity you can dream up — especially if you’re a fan of the outdoors. It’s an enormous country with an incredible diversity of landscapes and cultures. The only limit is how much time you have.
Most people backpacking Indonesia will head for the beach at least once during their trip. Party beaches, quaint fishing villages, truly remote islands…it’s all at your fingertips. Activities at the beach include surfing (you can take lessons for as little as $15), diving, snorkeling, helping with sea turtle conservation, and drinking coconuts while watching the sun set.
The volcanoes and jungles of Indonesia offer tons of hiking options. Choose a two-hour walk to a viewpoint of Mount Bromo, a five-hour slog up Bali’s highest mountain, a multi-day volcano climb or the month-long cross-Borneo jungle trek. Guides are rarely required but often helpful — if only to shield you from the myriad scams and hassles associated with popular treks. Expect to pay about 250,000 rupiah for a guide for a day (per group).
Popular wildlife encounters include trekking to find orangutans on Sumatra or Kalimantan, and searching for Komodo dragons off the coast of Flores. When considering the cost of these trips, be sure to factor in travel costs. For example, flights to the Labuan Bajo airport (for Komodo) start around $100.
The temples of Java and Bali are major draws from many people backpacking Indonesia. Both Borobudur and Prambanan (near Yogyakarta) are spectacular. Ubud makes a good base to get a taste of Balinese temple culture, but more impressive temples are dotted around the island. Admission fees vary widely — some are free, while others cost as much as $25.
An essential Indonesian cultural experience is a traditional dance performance. You can see them for free at the Kraton in Yogyakarta, or for a small fee (50-100,000 rupiah) in many locations around Ubud. Try to attend a performance of the Ramayana if you can.
Where Indonesia isn’t as great as its neighbors is in urban exploration. Java’s big cities are polluted, sprawling and don’t have much of interest for visitors. Notable exceptions include Yogyakarta and Malang. It’s worth trying to avoid Jakarta altogether, but if you must spend a few days there, it has some of the country’s best museums.
I’ve said it a few times already, but allow me to reiterate: Indonesia is huge. The biggest mistake people backpacking Indonesia make is thinking they can cover more than a handful of islands in the span of a tourist visa (30-60 days).
Inter-island and long distance travel
The good news is, an excellent domestic flight network makes hopping between islands relatively efficient. Budget carriers like Lion Air, Wings Air, and Indonesia AirAsia connect many major cities and some small airports. Flight prices can be insanely low (like $15). Even budget backpackers should check flights to make sure they’re not cheaper than ground transportation; just read fare rules closely if you have checked luggage. Google Flights is the best place to search.
As an archipelago nation, Indonesia relies on boat transportation. Many people backpacking Indonesia use boats to get to/from the Gili Islands, between Java, Bali and Lombok, or to Nusa Lembongan. Safety standards aren’t great. If a boat looks overloaded, if the weather is bad, or if there is no safety equipment onboard, don’t get on. Reliable operators include Scoot and Rocky.
With flights as cheap as they are, you have to be a pretty committed overlander to travel between further-apart islands by boat.
On Java, the best inter-city transportation option is train (Sumatra also has a limited rail network). Rail lines connect all major Javanese cities. The trains are comfortable, fast, scam-free and run on time. There are three classes: Executive (about $3.25/hour), Business (about $2.50/hour) and Economy (about $1/hour). Book tickets several days in advance.
Buses are the only overland option on the rest of the islands. These range from comfortable, air-conditioned buses that run on set schedules to wildly overcrowded, rattle-bang minivans that crawl down the road at 5 miles per hour.
Perhaps the most exasperating thing about Indonesia’s buses is buying your ticket. Unless you book through a tour agency (which will charge a commission), you typically buy your ticket onboard the bus. Rampant overcharging of tourists is common. You may be able to negotiate prices down slightly, but once the bus has pulled out of the station, you’re pretty powerless. I even had a conductor threaten to kick me off the bus in the middle of nowhere if I didn’t hand over double the cost of a ticket.
On Bali, most tourists get around using the Perama shuttle buses. These connect major tourist destinations a few times a day for about $3 per hour. Shuttle buses are less common on other islands.
Getting around Indonesian cities is pretty straightforward. Large cities have good public bus systems. I used these in Jakarta, Surabaya and Yogyakarta — they were surprisingly easy to navigate as a foreigner. Mid-sized cities use minibuses (called “bemo”) to link important landmarks.
Many backpackers rent motorbikes to explore more remote areas. While this may fun, it’s technically illegal unless you have a motorcycle license in your home country. The law is not enforced at all. But if you drive illegally and get into an accident, your travel insurance won’t cover you. The traffic is pretty insane — don’t try to learn how to drive in Jakarta, Yogyakarta or even Ubud. Motorbike rental costs about $3.50 a day. Make sure you get a helmet.
If you’re not comfortable renting your own motorbike, a better option is to hire a motorbike driver (ojek). They operate like taxis for short trips (around 15,000 rupiah), or you can hire them for half a day or longer (75,000+ rupiah, depending on location, how far you want them to take you, and bargaining skills). The app “Gojek” works like Uber for ojek drivers, or hire one of the million people who will offer you a ride as you walk down the street.
Taxis are also available — and many even use the meter! The Blue Bird group is especially reliable. Uber works in many cities throughout the country, but is illegal on Bali. Filling out the local transport universe are motorcycle rickshaws, bicycle rickshaws, pickup trucks with benches in the back, and horse-drawn carriages (avoid due to poor treatment of horses).
Indonesia is an extremely safe country to travel in. Most people backpacking Indonesia will encounter nothing more threatening than the odd scammer or a dangerous beach riptide.
Violent crime and petty street crime are both low. Even Jakarta, which has more than its fair share of big-city problems, is mostly safe to wander at all hours of the day and night.
If you go out to bars or clubs — or even if you buy beverages on the beach — watch the preparation of your drinks. Drink spiking is not unheard of.
Definitely steer clear of anything stronger than alcohol. Indonesia has a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to drugs. You’re not immune to local laws and your embassy won’t be able to help you a whole lot if you break them. See the case of Schapelle Corby if you don’t believe me.
Aside from the aforementioned bus ticket issue, the hassle factor in Indonesia is lower than in neighboring countries. All it takes to get a hawker off your back is a smile and a “no thank you.” There is an expectation that you will bargain for goods and services, but it’s more of a friendly pastime than a cutthroat way to part you with your money. The vast majority of people are honest.
The biggest risk to life and limb when backpacking Indonesia is the natural world.
Indonesia has volcanoes. Very active volcanoes, in fact. Sometimes they erupt. Sometimes they spout toxic gases into the air. Climbing to the top of them can require a steep slog through the jungle on an unmarked trail.
Meanwhile, there are very few regulations preventing travelers from exploring the mountains and jungles. People die on Indonesia’s trails each year — so err on the safe side, take a guide, and ask for local advice on volcanic activity before setting out.
Similarly, the ocean can be very dangerous. Many of Indonesia’s beaches have strong riptides. Inexperienced dive operators bring divers out in swift currents. Boats set out to sea in the midst of storms.
Again, err on the side of caution. Ask for local advice about swimming, and choose reliable operators for any ocean-related activities (find PADI-certified dive shops here — many storefronts claim they’re certified, but aren’t).
For women alone
Before I went to Indonesia, I read many reports of solo female travelers complaining about harassment. But that was not my experience at all.
I felt safer and less-harassed in Indonesia than I have in any other country I’ve visited in the last five years. Yes, really.
I got lots of “hello’s” and “how are you’s,” but since they were coming pretty much equally from men, women and children, I chose to interpret them as genuine friendliness rather than street harassment. Meanwhile, I didn’t get a single truly lewd comment or anything worse.
At no point did I feel like a target as a solo woman. I walked around alone at night, ate in restaurants alone, hung out on the beach alone, and hiked alone. I accepted rides from strangers and had dinner with a guy I met while walking around. And the whole time, I felt 110% safe and comfortable.
Indonesia is a pretty conservative country, and conservative sentiment has been on the rise in recent years. A group of young local women in Yogyakarta even asked me how I could feel comfortable walking around without a headscarf. So you may want to cover your shoulders and knees (even if most other women backpacking Indonesia don’t). In some very conservative regions — namely Aceh — you’ll be expected to cover your whole arms and legs.
Did dressing conservatively make a difference? I’ll never know. All I know is based on my experience, I would highly recommend backpacking Indonesia for first-time solo female travelers.
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