At the risk of stating the obvious: Indonesia is huge.
In fact, it’s bigger than Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia and The Philippines combined. And it is wider than the entire United States.
So when I see Indonesia covered as just another chapter in a region guide for Southeast Asia, it always seems funny to me. Indonesia could easily justify a whole guide on its own.
What makes it especially daunting is that the default visa for Indonesia is just 30 days. So even if you’re a backpacker traveling the region with no end date, you’ll still be limited in what you can see. Then again, Indonesia is a destination you can always come back to for more.
Some travelers only go to Bali, Indonesia’s famed resort island. Bali at its best can still be enchanting, especially if you go inland, but it has sadly been more often in the news lately for being overtouristed and polluted. More original destinations — such as Lombok, Java, or Sumatra — will let you escape the crowds more easily.
If you’re wondering just which part(s) of Indonesia to tackle, then read on.
Sumatra is like the polar opposite of Bali. If you want somewhere adventurous and fun, but not filled with tourists everywhere, then Sumatra might be just for you.
I’ve heard quite a few Boomer-age backpackers fondly reminisce about when Sumatra was one of the top backpacker destinations. Decades ago it was an essential part of the Banana Pancake Trail as overland travelers made their way down from Singapore through Sumatra, Java, and finally Bali. When visas were shortened from 60 to 30 days and budget airlines took off, backpackers began flying over Sumatra and skipping straight to Bali.
It’s only in recent years that it seems to be rediscovered again — and with good reason.
Sumatra is absolutely filled with primal rainforests, epic waterfalls, volcanic peaks, and giant lakes. The main city, Medan, is also just a 1,5 hr flight from Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, two major international hubs. This means that even though Sumatra is a bit off the beaten path, it’s still easily accessible.
You’ll see only a trickle of Western tourists in Sumatra, but there is still a clearly identifiable backpacker trail. Most visit the region of North Sumatra while some make their way to West Sumatra as well.
You’ll likely start in Medan and then head to Bukit Lawang, an ecotourism hub where jungle treks give you a chance to see Orangutans in the wild. You can make an optional (very long) side-trip to the island called Pulau Weh, then go to Lake Toba, the world’s largest volcanic caldera lake and a chill place where many backpackers seem to stick around for a while.
Popular spots in West Sumatra include Bukittinggi, Harau Valley, Padang, Mt. Kerinci, and the Mentawai Islands.
The southern regions don’t have as much going on though, so most backpackers head for Pedang and fly to Jakarta, Yogjakarta or Bali, avoiding an arduous overland journey.
Sumatra is arguably not where you should go for buzzing backpacker bars and super social hostels, but if you’re craving some true wilderness, unspoiled and adventure-filled places, and locals enthusiastically waving at you everywhere, then you’ll have come to the right place.
Java is Indonesia’s main island and home of its capital city, Jakarta. Some backpackers start in Jakarta, but this is usually only out of practical necessity. Many travelers complain that the capital is just too big, infuriatingly congested, and lacking in tourist interest.
This means the unofficial starting point of the Java backpacker trail is really the smaller and soulful city of Yogyakarta. From there, you can see a ton of amazing sights as you go further east.
Everything in Java just seems to be big. Big volcanoes, big temple complexes, big everything.
Most famously, it’s home to Borobodur, the largest Buddhist temple in the world. The nearby city of Yogjakarta is a great cultural hub and a good base from which to visit Borobudur as well as other temples like Prambanan.
As you go further east on Java, you’ll find some incredible volcanos. The still-active Mt. Bromo is a spectacular sight, especially at sunrise. Then there’s the blue-flame spewing Ijen volcano, where you can go right into its sulphur-spewing crater. Both are usually reached by either a short walk or a 4×4 ride, not by hiking. If you want more of a mountain hiking experience, consider climbing Mount Rinjani on Lombok.
One thing to know about Java is that key sights such as Borobodur do tend to be crowded with domestic tourists, including large groups of school children who may shower you with attention. They’ll want to take pictures or to practice English with you, which is pretty fun at first, but can also get annoying after a while. But so long as you don’t expect some kind of spiritual solitude at Borobodur, you’ll no doubt love seeing this epic monument.
An easy way to do Java quickly is to go to Yogjakarta and take an organized 2- or 3-day tour to Bromo and Ijen, then take a ferry to Bali. I did this back in 2015 but then realized later I had rushed through things quite a bit. It’s worth seeing the sights independently (or on day-tours) and the city of Malang, near mount Bromo, makes for a nice base.
The eeeeeepic Sewu Waterfall was recently ‘discovered’ by several popular travel vloggers. It takes a trek to get there and is still relatively little-known. Go there now before it becomes the next overcrowded Instagram hotspot.
At the very eastern tail of Java you’ll find the oft-overlooked Banyuwangi region, which is home to mangroves, savannahs and a mysterious hairy forest at De Djawatan. Consider staying in Banyuwangi for a few days if you want to add a dash of off the beaten path experience to the usual Java travel trail.
Bali is by far Indonesia’s biggest tourist destination. The vibe on Bali ranges widely from crass commercialism in Kuta, the main tourist area in the city of Denpasar, to pleasant and low-key further inland.
Kuta is a lot of things. To some Australians, it’s a cheap place to drink yourself silly, like the Ozzie version of Magaluf in Spain. You’ll find Asia backpackers too and some families on a holiday staying in one of the resort hotels. Kuta is a bit of a congested maze of little streets and alleyways… with a mix of hostels, hotels, spas, tacky souvenir shops, scooter rentals, Western brand stores, McDonald’s, Starbucks, a Hard Rock Cafe, and a whole lot more. You might find a nice local Indonesian warung tucked away somewhere, but it’s equally easy to have German schnitzel in a tacky tourist restaurant.
As you can maybe tell, I’m not a big fan of Kuta. I think it’s way too commercial, but there are many travelers who love it.
Besides the Australian binge drinking or fly-and-flop holiday crowd, Bali also attracts an older and gentler tour crowd especially around the inland village of Ubud, a place incidentally made famous by the movie Eat Pray Love. Ubud is touristy, but in a more pleasant way. There are many beautiful temples to visit in and around Ubud, the tourist shops sell genuinely impressive handicrafts and local art, and the surrounding hills are wonderful for an afternoon hike.
Another major traveler hub can be found along the beach in Canggu, popular with Australian surfers and digital nomads from around the world. If you’re curious about the vibe in Ubud versus Canggu, our guide can help you decide where to stay. You can also find some great information here on backpacking in Bali.
Rice fields in northern Bali
I think Bali truly shines inland. Consider renting a scooter so you can enjoy the wonderful rice terrace landscapes or visit temples at your own pace.
Along the north and northeast coast many of the beaches have dark volcanic pebbles instead of powdery white sand, which means fewer people visit these parts… but that’s precisely what makes them great. Consider visiting the small fishing villages of Lovina and Amed, or take a boat to the small island of Nusa Lembongan. A popular activity in Lovina is to head out on a small boat for some dolphin spotting.
If you’re a scuba diver, I hugely recommend Amed/Talumben. This small town is right next to the wreck of the USAT Liberty, which once stranded relatively close to shore. You can literally walk from your dive shop into the sea, and then slowly descent from the shores right down to the wreck. Since no boat ride is required, dives cost very little. It’s a perfect place for getting your certification as well, and I saw prices cheaper than on Koh Tao, Thailand.
Mt Agung, northern Bali
Lombok is right next door to Bali, just a 2,5-hour boat ride away. It doesn’t have all the cute little houses and Hindu shrines that you find on Bali, and to some it might be lacking a sense of honeymoon romance. Lombok is a bit less explored and you might say a bit more rugged, but that also makes it a great place to go for something a bit different.
The main attraction is Mount Rinjani, a volcano that you can hike up to as part of many multi-day trekking tours. The various waterfalls, villages, etc. around the island are also well worth exploring. Kuta on Lombok (not to be confused with Kuta on Bali) is a small and low-key surfer town that’s fun to visit as well.
But the biggest magnet for visitors to Lombok are the Gili Islands, a group of three islands that have long been a backpacker favorite.
The biggest island, Gili Trawangan, is also the busiest. Trawangan sees an odd mix of tourists, ranging from backpackers to couples on holiday, to luxury tourists and maybe a corporate retreat or two in the handful of resorts. While only foot traffic and horse-drawn carriages are allowed on the island, it can be very busy along the main strip, not to mention there’s constant honking from passing horse carriages. For much quieter spots, rent a bicycle and go to the far side of the island.
Relaxed beaches on Gili Air
While not exactly 100% tranquil, Gili Trawangan has a lot to do and a fun bar scene as well. It’s sometimes referred to as a “party island”, but I think that creates the wrong image. It’s maybe better to say that it’s “an island where you can party”. The reggae bar Sama Sama has some live music almost every night, and there are several other bar parties regularly throughout the week. Before sunset, many people gather for friendly drinks at the Sunset Bar where there might be drums or fire dancers.
La Boheme is one of the best hostels on Gili Trawangan: go here to meet people. At night, there are friendly social drinks here, as opposed to the much more boozy Gili Hostel. The all-day pancake making station is also much appreciated.
For a more relaxing time, head to neighbouring Gili Meno or Gili Air. There aren’t as many people here, and the slow pace will feel like a breath of fresh air. Anything you can do on Trawangan (scuba diving, snorkelling, yoga, bike rental, etc.) you can also do on Gili Air, just don’t look for a big night out.
I went to the Gili Islands twice, and it was pretty trippy to come back to it two years later. It felt so much had changed… but was that only in my memories?
Nusa Tenggara (Flores)
Flores is a relative newcomer to the backpacker trail, achieving popularity mainly thanks to the Komodo National Park.
Visiting this protected park gives you the opportunity to scuba dive some of the world’s most beautiful reefs, as well as to see the giant Komodo dragon lizards in the wild. Meeting these crocodile-sized lizards might not meet everyone’s high expectations (travel companions of mine complained they were only sunbathing and barely moved!), but I still think it’s not something to miss out on. Just hiking around the islands is worthwhile in itself, and seeing the Komodo dragons is an awesome bonus. Just try not to get eaten.
The launching pad for Komodo is the seaside town of Labuan Bajo. You can reach it either by boat from Lombok (a fun 3-day adventure) or by plane.
Flores gets increasingly remote as you go east. I loved exploring Flores by motorbike as all the kids from the villages will be excited to see a foreigner and come out to high-five you, and rice farmers will be waving at you all along the way.
There are some traditional villages you can visit on Flores, and the multi-colored volcano lakes of Kelimutu are worth a look as well. There are some tourist sights, but Flores is mostly about going somewhere relatively low-key and just enjoying the journey. It’s among my personal favorite bits of Indonesia.
In brief, let me mention a few more parts of Indonesia.
Borneo is home to vast stretches of untouched rainforest, although much of it is also disappearing because of palm oil production. Unlike what you might expect, there actually isn’t much tourism on the Indonesian side of Borneo, and if you do go you are likely to be very much alone! If you want to have Borneo on your itinerary, consider visiting the more easily accessible Malaysian side in the north (this is also what I did). The regions of Sabah and Sarawak have a ton to offer.
Raja Ampat (Papua)
I have not yet been, but Raja Ampat has achieved some notoriety as a travel destination in the far eastern edge of Indonesia. While much of Papua is remote and lacking tourist infrastructure, Raja Ampat is the exception as it is a well-established destination for scuba divers in particular.
Keep in mind that Raja Ampat is more expensive than other parts of Indonesia. It might not be the perfect place to go if you’re a shoestring backpacker. It’s mostly become known through upscale diving shops and some isolated resorts among the crystal clear waters. It’s also far away and hard to get to, but of course the amazing pictures don’t lie.
Sulawesi is still very much on my travel list for Indonesia, so I can’t yet speak from experience here. It’s a less-known destination, much like Sumatra, so if you like your off the beaten path places then Sulawesi is worth a closer look. The main crowd going here seems to be scuba divers, who concentrate especially around Manado in the very north, but small numbers of independent travelers also make their way around Sulawesi. From Sulawesi, you can also make it to the off-the-radar Banda Islands.
Travel cost in Indonesia
Indonesia is cheap, but there are some exceptions. Southern Bali with its luxury hotels and resorts can be very pricey, as are (maybe counterintuitively) the most remote places like Papua.
While Indonesia used to be known as the region’s ultimate cheapie, it is now just a bit more expensive than mainland Southeast Asia. Note that various park entrance fees have been increased a lot in recent years—for more information, check out my Southeast Asia Cost of Travel Overview.
Above: population density in Indonesia. Java can be chaotic and busy, while there is seemingly barely anyone in Nusa Tenggara. I found this map helpful in visualizing what to expect.