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Indonesia Travel Guide: Quick Mindset To Archipelago Nation

mount bromo-indonesia travel guide

What is the first thing that comes in mind when you are planning to move or visiting Indonesia--the country of many islands?.

Most probably that you often heard or see in the media is that Indonesia is one of the developing countries in Asia, there are volcanoes and earthquakes, and that Bali is the main holiday destination. Well, that's true, but that is just only a scratch.

You may imagine white-sand beaches and palm trees around your hammock or a crowded and jammed-traffic in the busy days in the middle of the city. First of all, think about what you need for comfortable stays in one of 17,000 islands in the entire country, since there is something for everybody.

So, in this Indonesia travel mini-guide, here is a list of things you have to keep in mind when planning to move to Indonesia:

1. Main Cities and Top Destinations for Tourists

Largest Cities

Among the 34 provinces in Indonesia as this post currently written, there are 4 cities that are considered "Largest city" which is; Medan (North Sumatra), Jakarta (Capital of Indonesia), Bandung (West Java), and Surabaya (East Java).

Common problems in urban areas are likely the same for most of Southeast Asia's cities. Generally speaking, some that we can identify is overpopulated and polluted, traffic is horrible and you can spend half of the day in the traffic jam.
The province with the largest area in Indonesia is Papua province with a total area of 309,000 square kilometers. Whereas the province with the smallest area is DKI Jakarta with an area of 741 square kilometers.
Jakarta is the first destination for business purposes and also nightlife. Bandung is famous for shopping with many outlets around the city center. I would agree if Bandung is to be nominated as the food capital of Indonesia.

Surabaya is the second city destination after Jakarta in terms of business activity. While Medan is also considered as the center of economic activity in Sumatra. The lifestyle of society in a big city is pretty much different compared to rural areas. Shopping malls are the main destination points for locals who like to spend their free time. 

Medium cities

Jogjakarta-indonesia travel guide
Jogjakarta - The cultural capital of Indonesia
There are cities that are not grouped as the largest cities but still popular for their tourist attractions, they are Yogyakarta (Central Java), Malang (East Java), Manado (North Sulawesi).

Jogja (Yogyakarta) is the cultural capital of Indonesia and it's located not far from the sea, so there is always many things to do and see. You can go to the beach on the southside of the city or go to the mountains on the northside of the city. 

Malang has a cooler climate which is similar to Bandung, also has numerous universities on both that make them a favorite destination for students. Expect to have crowded streets due to student's motorbike and the growing urbanization on the area. But traffic is less dangerous than in a big city so it's fairly safe to drive a motorbike in these cities. 

Holiday type cities

Bali and the rest eastern islands in Indonesia are considered the holiday destination cities. You may name a lot of these cities as they already famous such as Bunaken, Gili islands, Raja Ampat, Komodo Island--where they have Komodo National Park, etc. More of these will be covered in the next posts. 

Bali is the most developed region in Indonesia, many people speak English, good infrastructures, good shopping place and party, and last but not least is foreigner's friendliest city. Balinese people are Hinduist and that is what makes Bali different to Java is their culture and traditions. This is one of not many islands where people can drink alcohol and show more skin. In contrast with all the rest of Indonesia which is Muslim. 

There are still many tourist destination cities out of what we have covered above. But most of the time they have difficult access or located in the remote areas. Poor internet signal and facilities, also be aware of Malaria if it's located in the jungle. But if you have enough adrenalin and adventurous souls, those virgin islands are waiting for you to be visited. 

2. Accommodation

Many foreigners said that it is difficult and more expensive to search for accommodation in Indonesia compared to their home country. 

Unless if you're planning to married locals, I would suggest renting instead of buying a property. There are two options to choose:
  • House (rumah), can be rented yearly. Normally cost about 600$ up to 4500$ yearly in a big city, depending on the size and number of rooms. 
  • Kost -- this is relatively much cheaper and popular among students room with private bathroom. They can be rented monthly or 3-month basis. Expect to have a price around 40$ up to 120$ per month depending on location and facilities. 
Here are tips for renting accommodation in most the big cities in Indonesia:

NEVER look at places priced in US$ - it is illegal and aimed at expats with more cash than experience.

ALWAYS check prices of places in the same building before you meet the agent--different agents different prices. 

ALWAYS check prices as many agents quote different prices on each media.

ALWAYS get a written contract that clearly states who is responsible for repairs, the period of stay and if there's a cash deposit that should be clearly shown. 

ASK yourself a question, "could a local with a local salary afford the place?"-- if not, it's probably a rip-off.

Many landlords ask for a two-year contract. If it so, ask for a discounted price for the two-year price but then you hold for only one year--it works most of the time. 

If you could, go check the property when raining before the deal so you can ask him to repair in the first place you occupy the building. 

Take pictures of any damage to the property at the time of renting, use them as proof just in case the landlord claim you to be responsible for it.

3. Transportation

If you come from a country that has a traffic discipline, you may surprise to find out how Indonesian drive their vehicles. Indonesians drive on the left ... and the right ... and in the middle.

Lane swapping in the highway is normal and you must be completely aware of this. Lane discipline is unknown so people turning right will often swing wildly from the left or wait in the middle of the road. 

Nevertheless, you must learn to drive motorbike especially when you are in medium city-sized like Yogyakarta or Malang. Also can be very helpful if you can drive a motorbike in Bali, the streets of Bali is not designed for huge cars. Wandering in Bali is best when you do with a motorbike.

Nowadays it becomes easier for moving from one point to another within the city, thanks to online taxis. There are two biggest players who run the business, Gojek and Grab. Once there was Uber but apparently closed down since they failed to compete against the two. 

Tips for riding with Online Taxis:
Make a conversation with your driver and find out about red zones in the city regions. Sometimes you may not call a driver because you are in the red zone. To get out from the red zone, you can use regular metered-taxi or ask locals how to get pickup transport. But usually, this cost you more than an online taxi. 

4. Food

Okay--let me explain to you about how Indonesian categorize three different types of dining venues. Ordered from the lowest price to a higher price is as follows:
kaki lima - indonesia travel guide
Gerobak kaki lima
The first one is "Kaki Lima" or it's similar to a street food stand. Kaki lima is literally translated to "five legs", because it consists of three wheels and two legs of the seller. This type of food stand is a mobile food stand called 'gerobak' and paired with tables and stools. Usually, you can sit under the blue-plastic tent and it's not a permanent as they can bring back the 'gerobak' to home when they close. 

Second is "Warung" or a food stall. This is a medium-class food seller, they sell better and more varied food than kaki lima but not as fancy as a restaurant yet. Already has a permanent or semi-permanent place to sell the foods. Locals also named warung for traditional grocery stores. So, when you are looking for eating, find the one with 'warung makan'. Eat is translate to "makan" in Bahasa.

The last third is "Rumah Makan" or a restaurant. This is the fanciest dining place because they have the highest price rates compared to kaki lima and warung. In many areas around Indonesia, you may find either traditional food or foreign food at a scale of rumah makan. 

Indonesian culinary comprise a wide range of foods and they eat simple but delicious meals. The abundance of rice reflects Indonesia's fertile landscape, the spices are reminiscent of a time of trade and invasion, and the fiery chili echoes the passion of the people.

Apart from rice, which is always preferred to served warm, most meals are eaten at room temperature. It is good to remember that rice is the filler while the accompanying dishes provide the flavor. Filling up on rice also helps to keep down the cost of feeding a family, or guest. 

Indonesians love to buy snacks, or "jajanan", and this is sold everywhere. There are hundreds of varieties of sweet and savory snacks made from almost anything you can think of: peanuts. coconuts, bananas, sweet potato, etc. I will cover more of traditional food later on.
nasi goreng - indonesia travel guide
Nasi goreng - the extremely popular dining in Indonesia

5. Language

Indonesian speaks Bahasa Indonesia as their mother tongue. Only a few using English as a conversation, since Indonesian children in state school don't get English lessons until they're 11 years old. Meaning it's not sufficient to get only six years English lesson if they didn't use it on daily practice. 

So here are the common questions that one ever asked:
What is the official language in Indonesia, and what are the other popular spoken languages?

Bahasa Indonesia is the official language in Indonesia, and there are hundreds of local languages since Indonesia is based on many regional ethnics and tribes. 

Is it possible to live in Indonesia and get by without speaking the language?

As a foreigner who comes only for leisure, it doesn't necessary to learn the conversational language of Bahasa. But if you're an expat who wants to stay for a long period of time, you will need a basic understanding of Indonesian language structure to get along with locals. 

How do you manage to communicate with the locals if you don't speak the native/official language fluently?

You should bring someone who can translate what you want to say in Bahasa. 

6. Cultural Differences

Indonesians call white people or any foreigner with "Bule". Always remember that you are the guest in somebody's home so be respectful. It's OK to make mistakes but better keep these things in mind:


  • Passing things with your left hand. It basically comes from Muslim tradition that every good thing comes from the right hand. 
  • Wear flip flops to official institutions.
  • Walk around with short sleeves or half-naked, be respectful by covering shoulders and knees.
  • Point your foot in somebody's direction while sitting on the floor.
  • Touch somebody's head.
  • Say "anjing" (dog) to anybody -- it's the worst swearing for locals.
  • Expect from Indonesian to be on time for a meeting or to do everything that he was talking about. Stress-free...

7. Small Talks

Greetings or showing a simple smile is a nice gesture or common things in all over the world and Indonesians may seem over-inquisitive to complete strangers.  You may be asked these following questions by the locals when you simply pass on the street: "Dari mana?" (Where do you come from?) and "Mau ke mana?" (Where are you going?)

Don't get offended when Indonesians ask questions about your private life: "Do you have a boyfriend?" is the third question they ask after "What is your name?" and "Are you traveling alone?". It's normal--Indonesians see conversation or small talks is an expression of interest in a foreigner. 

But sometimes visitors can find these questions intrusive. In the tourist's hotspot, they may only be a sales pitch. A short answer or Bahasa Indonesia greeting with a smile is polite and adequate response. If you don't want to say exactly where you're going, just say "Jalan-jalan" (Walking around) is fine.

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