Everything You Need to Know Before You Go to Indonesia

You’ve just touched down in Indonesia. The overwhelming sticky heat and smell of clove cigarettes has left you dizzy and disoriented. Focus. Here’s what you need to know to make your first 24 hours in Indonesia as bagus (good) as possible.

Island hopping around Indonesia Photo © World Nomads

Visas

Show a passport from one of 140 countries given free entry into Indonesia, and you’ll be granted 30 days on arrival without paying a Rupiah.

Keep in mind this visa is non-extendable, so if you foresee lingering longer than a month, pay US $35 for 30 days plus the option to extend, one time only, for another 30 days.   

If your passport is not from one of the 140 countries listed here, you must apply for a visa before you arrive in Indonesia.

Bahasa Phrases for Travelers

Indonesians across the archipelago speak a plethora of local dialects, but are united by a common language called Bahasa Indonesia (Indonesian language).  

From Bali to Jakarta, to Sumba or Borneo, you’ll be able to get by – or at least amuse the locals – with a few phrases. 

Let’s start with good stuff. Bali is “bagus” and “baik”, both meaning good. That fried rice or nasi goreng you’re eating is “enak” (delicious).  

Be sure to mind your Ps and Qs throughout the country by saying “silahkan” (please) and “terima kasih” (thank you, sounds like ‘tear up my car seat’).  Also on the manners front, “ma’af” is sorry and “permissiis excuse me. 

Finally, while no means no in most languages, “tidak” means no in Bahasa, and yes is “ya.”

Indonesia’s “Rainbow village”, Kampung Pelangi. Photo credit: World Nomads

Transport and Getting Around

Transportation in Indonesia is as diverse as the country’s terrain, but you’re mostly likely to arrive from overseas by flying to Bali (Denpasar) or Jakarta.  From these major hubs, you can find a way to most destinations by plane, car or boat. 

Flying

Domestic air travel is often cheaper and much, much easier than traveling overland or by boat.  For example, to get to Lombok from Bali by boat you can expect to sit in traffic for one to three hours to get to the port, to take a two-hour speed boat or 12-hour ferry ride across the Lombok Strait, and then a long drive to your final destination. Or, you can take a 20-minute flight.

If possible, chose Garuda Indonesia over budget airlines, like Lion Air or Indonesian Air Asia. Both are notoriously late and frequently cancel flights without notice. Garuda also carries surfboards for free on domestic flights! 

Motorbikes and Scooters 

Once at your destination, many travelers prefer to rent a self-drive motorbike or scooter to get around. Although scootering was once a favorite pastime in Bali, today motor biking through heavily trafficked streets can be extremely stressful, not to mention dangerous.

Hiring a driver with an air-conditioned vehicle for a day – or week – is definitely a good option for inexperienced bike riders, or for longer journeys – especially if you split the costs (and carbon emissions) with fellow travelers.  

Driving a hire car in Bali isn’t recommended due to the traffic and confusing street layouts.  If you feel comfortable on a bike, a safer (and often more enjoyable) course of action is to rent a bike to use just in your local area, say Canggu or the Bukit Peninsula, and hire a driver to go further than 20 to 30 minutes away. 

Motorbike traffic at night in Indonesia. Photo credit: World Nomads

Hiring a Driver

On islands other than Bali, where there is less traffic, hiring a bike or a car with driver are both viable options that won’t set you back too much.  A scooter often costs as a little as RP. 50,000 (US $3.60) per day, and a driver and car RP. 350,000 (US $25) per day. 

If you’re riding a scooter, always wear a helmet, and make sure you have a motorbike or scooter licence from home, and an Indonesian licence or an International Driver’s Permit valid for the size and type of bike you’ll be riding. Without one you are driving illegally and won’t be covered by your insurance if you have an accident.

Island Hopping by Boat

Boat trips are a common way to surf, dive or explore parts of Indonesia, such as the Mentawais, Komodo Islands or Nusa islands off of Bali.  Don’t take the local ferries or slow boats, unless absolutely necessary. 

It’s better to travel on a fast boat where possible, for safety, convenience, and to avoid sickness.

Cycling and Walking

If you’re tired of hearing the buzz of motorbikes and gridlock traffic, head to the Gili Islands where walking or cycling are the only ways to get around.  

Handy Tips on Customs and Etiquette

Whether it’s your first or 40th trip to Indonesia, you’ll find that the locals love asking questions and learning about your life.  Don’t be offended if they pry: “are you married?,” “how many children do you have?,” “where are you going?,”  “where are you staying?”  Respond politely and go on your way; this is a typical way to greet a person throughout Indonesia. 

Always dress appropriately for the island and the activity.  This means covering your shoulders, wearing sarongs in temples, and leaving beach attire at the beach.  It also means dressing modestly when visiting predominantly Muslim islands.  

When to Travel Around Indonesia

Although it varies throughout the country, monsoon season generally runs from November–March, while the dry season is April–October.  

The dry season sees less rain, but more visitors. Rain during the wet season is heavy but not so torrential that the country should be avoided completely, so it’s not a bad idea to aim for shoulder season, with less crowds. 

Bali and Kalimantan are relatively unaffected by the seasons, but this changes as you travel further east into the Nusa Tenggarra region, where there’s a greater chance of flooding in the wet season.

Accommodation Options from Hammock to 5-Star Villa

As far as accommodation goes, you dream it, Indonesia has it.  

You can rent a hammock, a private poolside villa in the rice paddies or a bed on a catamaran out at sea.  While the traditional Indonesian Losman (family-run boarding houses) is becoming scarce in Bali, you can find very cheap basic lodging nearly everywhere else.  One of the best things about staying in these family-run boarding houses is an opportunity to meet the family and get a glimpse of local life.  

Check for the best prices and read traveler reviews online at sites including Tripadvisor, Hostel World, or Booking.com.

Where to Go

Indonesia is made up of more than 18,000 islands – some massive, some tiny – that span 1,758mi (2,830km) across the Indian Ocean and the so-called Ring of Fire. From the lush jungles and offshore tropical atolls of Sumatra to the desert-like outposts of Lombok, Sumba and Sumbawa, Indonesia is an incredibly diverse place. 

Orangutans in Sumatra. Photo credit: World Nomads

Climb volcanoes soaring more than 16,000ft (4,876m) above sea level, dive amongst one of a kind coral reefs, look out for Komodo dragons or spot the last of the orangutans

Whether you island hop by boat or plane, or travel across Java and Sumatra by car or bus, you’ll find an exotic world of natural, cultural and spiritual wonders in Indonesia.  This country will capture your heart and you’ll leave feeling that life is better than “bagus.”

Want to know more about Indonesia? Listen to the World Nomads podcast. With around 17,000 islands to choose from, where are the must visits, and if you have your surfboard, best surf breaks? Hear the tale of a man chased by headhunters, and tips for traveling the world solo.

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