Backpacking in Indonesia: Costs, Tips and Places to See
This post was originally published in May 2015 and updated in February 2019 after my big trip to Bali (and nearby islands) in 2018
With over 17,000 islands (I’m sure some of those are just rocks that disappear at low tide though) to choose from, planning a trip to Indonesia can be a daunting prospect. There’s no way to see it all on one trip, so if you’re thinking of going backpacking in Indonesia it’s best to choose a couple of regions and explore them well. Here are the places I’ve been (during over three months in Indonesia on a few different trips) and some advice on accommodation, transport and budgeting.
The capital city is a place most people try and avoid, and while it’s definitely not the best place in Indonesia it’s not the end of the world if you end up stuck there for a couple of days. There’s a crumbling old town to explore, some of the best (and cheapest) street food in Indonesia and an interesting antique/craft market. Check out my post about the best things to do in Jakarta.
Possibly the most interesting big city in Indonesia, Jogjakarta is an ideal place to base yourself for excursions in central Java. The town itself has a nice little backpacker area – the back alleys filled with guesthouses, cafes and restaurants provide a nice respite from the chaotic streets.
These ancient Buddhist and Hindu temples are a throwback to a time before the spread of Islam in Java. You can easily do these on day trips from Jogjakarta and are worth the expensive entry fees. Read more about my trip to Borobudur and Prambanan.
The Dieng Platue, one of my favourite spots in Indonesia, doesn’t see a lot of tourist traffic and I still can’t understand why. It’s home to the oldest temples in Indonesia, colourful volcanic lakes, steaming craters and awesome mountain scenery. It’s a bit of a journey from Jogjakarta but is definitely worth it.
Seeing this smouldering volcano at sunrise doesn’t actually require much walking, but you’ll have to put up with plenty of other people at the viewpoint. It’s worth it though; it really is a stunning sight. Check out a full article on my week in Java, including more in-depth accounts of my time at Dieng Platue, Mount Bromo, Jogjakarta and Borobudur/Pramadan.
I only stayed in Surabaya for a night as I had a flight to Kupang the next morning. It seemed like a decent enough place but you don’t travel to Indonesia to spend your time in cities like Surabaya – move on as soon as possible!
This is where I started my voyage across Flores; it’s not the most interesting of towns but the people really made it special. They don’t see too many tourists in these parts so everyone is keen to have a chat and get a photo taken with you. I arrived here on the overnight ferry from Kupang, West Timor – overnight ferries in Indonesia are great (although they occasionally sink) – try and experience one if you can!
If you want to relax in Flores your best bet is probably Maumere. The beach I stayed at wasn’t anything special, but the pace of life, the friendly locals and the amazing sunsets made it the perfect place to settle down for a few days.
Kelimutu is one of Flores’ biggest tourist attractions, and I can confirm it does live up to the hype. You’ll want to visit the colourful crater lakes at sunrise, and even though it was cloudy when I was there it was still amazing.
17 Islands, Riung
The town of Riung is the definition of a sleepy seaside town, except all the guesthouses are located a good 5 or 10 minute walk from the coast, which I still don’t really understand. The 17 Islands Marine Park is just off shore and is the main reason to visit Riung. The islands are home to some of the best beaches I’ve seen in Indonesia. If you’re sick of island hopping with huge crowds in Thailand, make your way to Riung!
Komodo National Park
The islands of the Komodo National Park are about as rugged and unspoiled as you’ll see anywhere in the world. Most are uninhabited and 2 of them are home to huge man eating lizards; AKA komodo dragons. The only way to see the park is by boat – sleeping under the stars on a small boat surrounded by exotic islands is an experience you’ll never forget. A Komodo National Park tour is also great for people who are into snorkeling and diving.
A private resort island surrounded by electric blue water teeming with sea life, staying on Kanawa Island should be a lot more expensive than it is. It’s located just outside the Komodo National Park, if you take a tour of the park you can arrange to be dropped at Kanawa on the way back to Labuan Bajo.
This is the main tourist town in Flores and is a decent place to spend a few days either before or after your trip to the Komodo National Park. There are some great restaurants and the sunsets can be spectacular, but the town is a bit rough around the edges and after a few days you’ll probably want to go somewhere more peaceful.
Gili Islands and Lombok
Gili Trawangan (or Gili T to most people) is known as a bit of a party island, but it’s still got some great beaches and plenty of relaxing spots. There are some awesome beaches on Gili T — this post will let you know the best ones to visit!
Gili Meno is much more laid back than Gili T and is aimed more at couples on a romantic getaway. The beaches on Gili Meno are amazing and the water is clear — if you’re looking for a romantic stop while backpacking in Indonesia then Gili Meno is a great option.
Another stunning island in the Gili Islands “chain”, Gili Air features some great beaches and a laid-back vibe. It’s kind of a middle ground between Gili T and Gili Meno.
This little beach town on Lombok is growing in popularity. It’s easy to reach from Bali and there are some nice beaches scattered around the Kuta area. There was a bit of a rubbish problem when I visited but hopefully that is getting sorted.
I visited Ubud on a weekend trip while I was still living in Singapore. It’s a nice little town in central Bali; far from the crowds of drunken Australians that beachside communities like Kuta are renowned for. The Monkey Forest is a definite highlight, but there are heaps of other things to do in Ubud.
A moderately difficult climb leads to the top of Mount Batur, where (if it’s not too cloudy) you’ll see a stunning sunrise. You can organise a tour here from Ubud and if you love good views and aren’t afraid of a bit of exercise (and really early mornings) you should seriously consider doing it.
This little town up in the mountains of Bali is a cool spot to spend a day or two. There are some nice waterfalls in Munduk and it’s a good base for exploring other sights in the interior of the island.
The Beach Towns
If you’re spending some time in Bali you’ll likely stay (for at least a couple of days) in one of the beach towns / resort areas. My favourite is Seminyak, but Kuta is OK as well (kind of like a tackier version of Seminyak). Padangbai is a good option as well as that is where most of the boats to the Gili Islands arrive / depart from.
The “Nusa” Islands
These three stunning islands close to Bali are perfect for either day trips or if you want a quieter alternative to the beach towns on Bali. Nusa Penida is famous for its stunning viewpoint over Kelingking Beach while Nusa Lembongan and Nusa Ceningan have some great beaches and surreal coastal sights like the Blue Lagoon.
Lake Toba is one my favourite places in the world – I can’t think of a better place to relax anywhere in the world. Samosir, the island in the middle of the lake, is home to some of the most laid back people in Indonesia and the scenery really is amazing. It’s also one of the cheapest places I’ve been in Indonesia, so if you’re looking spend a few days somewhere beautiful without spending much money, head for Lake Toba; the only danger is that you’ll stay for too long and abandon plans to see all of the other wonders that Sumatra has to offer. I had planned to go to Bukit Lawang, the Mentawai islands and Pulau Weh, but then I got lazy and just stayed at Lake Toba! Read the full post here.
Medan is one of the most unappealing cities I’ve ever visited. You really only need to come here en route to somewhere else – it’s definitely not a tourist destination in itself (which probably makes it sound really appealing to some people).
Located just off the coast of West Timor, Rote Island (Pulau Rote) is home to the laid back surf town of Nembrala. There are some great beaches there and they are almost entirely deserted, so even if you’re not into surfing I’d still recommend going. Pulau Rote isn’t a common destination while backpacking in Indonesia but it’s a great chance to get away from the typical tourist trail.
Kupang, West Timor
I had planned to spend longer in this area but then I found out about Pulau Rote! I also heard that to really see West Timor properly you need a guide/driver which I couldn’t afford. I’m sure there’s some amazing things to see there and I’ll definitely return in the future. Kupang itself is a decent enough town but again, there are more interesting places to spend you time in Indonesia.
If you want to get way off the tourist trail in Indonesia you should check out Raja Ampat. Located just off the coast of West Papua, Raja Ampat is a stunning chain of islands that are famous for diving and beautiful, deserted beaches. I spent a few days in Raja Ampat and loved it, although if you’re a budget backpacker it’s probably not the best place to visit as it’s expensive to get to and is mostly geared towards travellers with a bit more money.
Transport in Indonesia
Indonesia is an easy place to get around. You can take local buses or tourist mini vans to most places on the tourist map, and travelling between islands on the ferries can be fun. Transport in Indonesia is fairly cheap but distances are long and the roads are often rough. In some regions it’s possible to take a shared taxi between towns, but they really cram people into them (including putting 2 people on the front passenger seat), so it’s not always the nicest way to travel.
READ MORE: Looking for a great map to help plan your backpacking in Indonesia trip? Check out this one over National Geographic
Costs while backpacking in Indonesia
Indonesia is fairly cheap place to travel, as long as you avoid the really touristy places like Gili T. You can often get all inclusive packages on small islands (like Rote Island) which includes a room and 3 basic meals for around 100,000 IDR – not a bad deal at all! If you’re covering a lot of ground your transport bill will start to add up; the ferries and tourist buses aren’t all that cheap. You could easily travel Indonesia on $1000 USD a month and a lot less than that if you’re willing to stay in certain places for longer.
Have you been backpacking in Indonesia? Where would you recommend Indonesia first timers to go? Let me know!