Indonesia is truly a wonderful country which has loads to offer. Being prepared on what to expect before you visit the country might even help you getting more out of the experience, which is why I wrote this post. Since my grandparents are from Indonesia, Java, I always grew up with the idea of visiting this country one day, creating a lot of expectations around it. Once I was there, I realized I had designed a complete wrong idea about Indonesia throughout the years which is one of the reasons why I took me so long to go.
I, for example, assumed Indonesia would be very touristy. Growing up in the Netherlands, people would always tell me they’d spend their holidays in Indonesia. In my mind I pictured the entire Netherlands over there. But then I started listening better and I realized everyone flocked to mainly one island: Bali. I rarely would hear anyone talking about another island, apart from maybe Java. So, I decided to entirely skip Bali and go to Java (because of my grandparents) and to Flores instead, which was a great choice! Note that this post therefore might not apply at all to how things go in Bali. Even between Java and Flores I noticed some great differences. Therefore, attempting to write a general post about this gigantic country is difficult, but I still hope it might give you information so you can visit this wonderful country better prepared!
1.) Indonesia is often referred to as the biggest Islamic country, but note that not all islands have the same religion. Java, for example, is Islamic, whereas Flores is a christian island. Generally, the feel of travelling in these two islands is the same with some minor differences felt due to the religion. Generally Indonesians will keep their religion to themselves and you won’t feel much of it as a tourist. On Java there is no problem in wearing shorts or shoulder free shorts, though walking in bikini or swimming shorts is not really appreciated outside of the beach (though this probably counts for most countries, regardless of the religion). The one area where most people feel the Islamic culture shining through is when it comes to alcohol. It’s not always easy to find beer and might even be prohibited in some places, such as hostels. Alcohol is also relatively expensive (even more expensive than in our European supermarkets). So, take this as an advantage and look forward to a healthy, hangover-free holiday where you rather sip on a mango smoothie than a beer.
2.) Instead of drinking people in Indonesia smoke a lot. The second hand smoke I’ve been inhaling here even made me crave smoking again. And I’m not the only one! I met many travelers who used to be ex-smokers who started smoking again here, just because it’s in your face all the time. I’ve never been to a country where people smoke as much as in Indonesia and they seem to smoke everywhere. There are very few places where smoking is restricted. So, don’t be surprised when you take a local bus and suddenly smell someone smoking…
3.) Forget hassling with taxi drivers and download the Grab or Gojek-app (I only used Grab)! These are apps where you can order online (moto-) taxi drivers where the price is fixed within the app. All you need is a mastercard and internet on your phone. Therefore, it makes sense to buy a local sim-card (Telkomsel seems to be the best). When you have a local sim-card you can even activate your OVO-Balance which seems to get you even cheaper prices at times. I tried to do it once, but got lazy, so I don’t know how much the difference really is. Be aware that this app does not work everywhere. In small places (actually most parts of Flores) and near to big stations and airports you won’t find Grab drivers (but they are often available a couple of blocks away).
4.) I would definitely advise you to buy a local sim-card. Internet is relatively cheap, but also very confusing. I bought a sim-card with 5 GB and found myself just 4 days later without internet even though I definitely hadn’t used everything. This was already very confusing, but then it got more confusing when I found out my WhatsApp was still working! Turned out that the GB’s you buy are divided into local data (which you can use for e.g. WhatsApp, YouTube, Facebook..) and flash data which you can use for everything. This is how it was explained to me on Java. When I got to Flores things seemed to have changed. Data were suddenly a lot more expensive but I was told I could use my data for everything. I never got to fully understand the sim-card system of Indonesia. All I know it’s better to get one, if only in order to grab a Grab ;)
5.) The one thing I really enjoyed most about Indonesians the fact that they love music! You’ll hear music everywhere you go and best about it: they enjoy the music I also enjoy! There were few places where I’d hear techno music (which is really not my cup of tea). Instead, they’d play a lot more guitar music, rock music, alternative music, music from the 80’s, world music, pop music…In fact almost all kinds of music except of the techno music which seems to dominate the rest the world. Probably one of the reason they prefer “real” guitar music to electronic music is because many Indonesians play the guitar themselves. You’ll see many (especially) young men with very long fingernails which they use to play the guitar. But the best of all, is that the Indonesians can talk and sing, listen to music, play music all day long, but the latest at about 10-11 pm, everyone retreats to their homes and it’s all quiet. As much as I love music, party and dance, I also really love a good night’s sleep. So, in that sense the Indonesians and I were definitely on one line. Probably, this is all different on Bali. So, if you rather prefer techno music in the night time, that will be more your place to be.
6.) From all the countries I have been, I’ve never been in a place where the locals travel their own country as much as in Indonesia. I regularly shared my dorm with Indonesians and many of the touristic places are visited not only by foreign tourist, but by local tourists as well. And outgoing as the Indonesians are, they will definitely try to connect to you. In big places like Borobudur, you’ll most certainly bump into students who get assignments to interview tourists for their English classes. Give them this opportunity and enjoy the small conversation with this incredibly sweet, open en curious students! But also the grown-ups will find interest in getting to know you or at least take a picture with you. Indonesians are really very friendly and outgoing, few of them will be too “shy” to connect with you, no matter whether they speak English or not. Be prepared to feel a bit like a “tourist attraction” to the locals who might end up finding you more interesting than the actual sight they’re visiting ;)
7.) In Indonesia you’ll have to pay for all national parks. The prices vary considerably, from only 25 000 IDR for Karimunjawa up to 350 000 IDR for Borobudur. Prices always go up on Sundays and national holidays, so if you’re on a budget try to avoid those avoid days.
8.) Take your own toilet paper! Most Indonesians don’t use toilet paper but rather bum guns which is great, but I honestly don’t know very well how to deal with them. If you’re a clumsy Westerner like me who prefers good old toilet paper, make sure to always carry some with you.
9.) Indonesians are extremely punctual! And when I say punctual, I mean they even leave ahead of time sometimes. When I took the first bus from Jakarta to Bandung, I ended up arriving 10 minutes late, simply because I had completely underestimated the crazy traffic in Jakarta. I turned out to be very lucky that day as the bus was delayed by 15 minutes. Later on during my travel I realized how lucky I was, as I literally saw almost all buses leave on time and some of them even ahead of time. And every time I had agreed with someone to pick me up from somewhere in the morning, I’d always be in the middle of my breakfast while they were already waiting for me. So, make sure to always be ready on time and if possible even a little bit ahead of time.