19 Things I Discovered From Backpacking Indonesia

Last updated on April 27th, 2020

Indonesia: It’s the one place I keep coming back to! There’s an adventure around every corner and it’s a backpacker’s dream destination.

If you’re considering visiting Indonesia, don’t wait! Book your flights and get over here.

It’s the ultimate place to explore as a solo traveler or a first-time backpacker. It makes for the perfect girlfriend’s getaway or adventurous diving trip with friends. It’s a honeymoon destination yet can also be a place for self-discovery and reflection.

And once you step off the tourist track, you’ll realize that there’s so much more to Indonesia than what meets the eye!

So, here are 19 things I’ve discovered from spending over 4 months backpacking Indonesia.

Things to know about backpacking Indonesia
About to catch the ferry to the Gili Islands during my first backpacking trip to Indonesia

Psst… Planning your trip to Indonesia? Check out my other posts!

19 Things I discovered when backpacking Indonesia

1) I didn’t become the surfer I’d hoped to

I had big dreams. I was going to spend 2 months exploring some of the best surfing spots in Indonesia and I was committed to surfing all day, every day.

I got off to a good start in Canggu, Bali but that was the extent of my surfing during my 2-month Indonesia backpacking trip!

Little did I know that most surf spots in Indo, including Sumba Island, Lakey Peak and Lombok are for experienced surfers. With huge swell, gnarly reef breaks and strong currents, I didn’t get as much time in the water as I’d hoped to!

Surfing in Indonesia
My first (and only) time surfing in Sumba

2) I basically become vegetarian

The vegetarian food in Indonesia is so good!

I never thought I’d choose a veg curry over a chicken one, or a cap cay over a chicken burger, but surprisingly the veg options here are always my first pick when it comes to ordering food.

There are so many delicious and flavorful choices including mie goreng veg, cap cay, nasi goreng, tempeh curries, and gado gado.

Eating local, vegetarian food is also better suited for travelers on a backpacker’s budget. You can easily find a meal for only 30 000 IDR ($2) and the flavors will beat any western food (in my opinion)!

3) At some point, your car, scooter or bus will break down

Yup, this happened to me countless times and if you’re backpacking Indonesia, it’s only a matter of time before it happens to you!

My scooter got not one, but three flat tires while I was exploring Lombok. Our bus overheated on the way to Kelimutu Lakes in Flores and my entire scooter fell apart on Sumba island!

This would normally frustrate me, I’d get worked up and irritated, especially after the 3rd flat tire in 2 days, but the island vibes will get to you!

Just be patient and wait for the kind folk nearby to help. Before you know it you’ll be back on your way (and hoping it doesn’t happen again)!

Indonesia travel itinerary
Waiting patiently for our scooter after it broke down in Lombok

4) Know how to ride a scooter

If you’re backpacking Indonesia, make sure you know how to ride a scooter.

You can get away without one, but it makes life so much easier! There’s also the option to hire a car and driver, but if you’re on a backpacking budget, this isn’t really an option.

But what about public transport? Bali and Lombok don’t have the best public transportation systems (if any at all!) But other Indonesian islands boast a pretty impressive network of buses and even trains.

These public buses are super cheap and run frequently (but they are slow, there are detours, and they get crowded)!

Whilst using this method of transportation between towns and cities is great, you still need to hire a car or scooter to get around the village and explore the nearby attractions.

You may not feel comfortable riding a scooter in Bali, and I don’t blame you – the traffic is a nightmare. But the other islands are far quieter, and the roads aren’t as busy.

Remember to carry your international driver’s license on you. I’ve been stopped several times in Bali and asked to show mine.

Here’s my complete guide to renting a scooter in Bali with everything you need to know!

Transport in Indonesia
Backpacking Indonesia is so much fun when you explore on a scooter

5) Don’t book accommodation in advance

When planning my Indonesia backpacking trip, I did as much research as humanly possible!

I searched for the best places to go (without the crowds), the best hidden gems in Bali, the easiest way to get from A-B, cheapest places to stay… the list goes on! I didn’t want to miss a thing!

But, no matter how much planning goes into your backpacking trip, there will ALWAYS be something you’ve missed and some diversions to your schedule.

I wish I didn’t pre-book accommodation in Sumba because I found an absolute gem of a place and didn’t want to leave, but I couldn’t cancel my next stop.

Luckily, I learned very fast and by the time we hit Flores Island, my schedule was an open book! I was able to change ALL my plans and divert to a small village, Riung, which I’d never even heard of before.

There will always be a place to stay – It might not be the best spot or most social hostel, but at least you’ll have the freedom to alter your itinerary as you go along.

Exploring Riung, Indonesia
17 Islands Marine Park in Riung wasn’t part of my initial itinerary, but I’m so glad I was able to squeeze it in

6) Not everything goes as planned. Expect the unexpected

Yup, this is unfortunately true for any long term travel. Don’t expect everything to go as you planned.

You will get sick at the worst time (like on a 5-day scuba diving liveaboard!)

You’ll break your ribs at the start of your 2-week surf trip!

And then you’ll plan a trip to Java to hike the Injen volcano, but 2 days prior, you’ll trip down a flight of stairs and twist your ankle, deeming you bedridden for the next couple of days

Yes, all of the above happened to us during our 2-month backpacking trip! It sucks. But it’s life!

7) Beer would be my staple alcohol (and I’d ration myself)

When I was planning my Indonesia backpacking trip, I had visions of me sipping on cocktails all day (and night). There are two reasons why this dream didn’t become a reality.

Firstly, booze is expensive and if you’re on a backpacker’s budget, you’ll soon be broke if you’re out drinking every night.

Here’s how I see it. A local meal cost about 20 000-30 000 IDR ($2). A large beer will set you back 50 000 IDR ($3.50), and a cocktail around 100 000 IDR ($7)!

So, I reasoned that for every beer I drank, I could buy two meals. TWO!

Secondly, if you venture further away from the tourist islands around Bali, Lombok, and Komodo, your choices of alcohol become limited. Bintang is often the only option, and you’ll be lucky if it’s served chilled!

alcohol in Indonesia
Bintang beer and card game on the beach in Bali

8) It’s incredibly polluted

When you think of Indonesia, you probably picture crystal clear waters, soft golden sand, beaches lined with palm trees and of course the incredible marine life including turtles and manta rays.

Picture perfect. Island vibes. Unspoiled Paradise.

Well, I hate to break it to you, but pollution and single-use plastic is a major problem in Indonesia.

The pollution here is unreal as there is no waste management system in place. Around every corner, you can smell the fumes of burning plastic as the locals try their best to get rid of the excess waste on the islands.

I actually found that Bali “appears” cleaner than other islands in Indonesia, but if you take a closer look and explore destinations that are off the beaten track, you’ll soon realize the extent of the pollution problem.

Pollution in Indonesia
One of my favorite beaches in Lombok – except the beach is lined with plastic. This problem is common in Indonesia

9) I wouldn’t wear makeup for weeks on end

Before my Indonesia backpacking trip, I’d been teaching English in South Korea. Beauty is a huge industry in the country with ladies walking around looking on point at all times.

They put makeup on in the trains, buses, and in the classrooms. If I didn’t wear makeup, I was often asked “Carryn teacher, are you sick?” or “Carryn teacher, you look very tired”.

Enter Indonesia: I was running between beaches, hopping on buses and scooters, swimming, hiking, diving. I had no mirror and at times no light. Ain’t nobody got time for makeup!

And the best part – I wasn’t the only one. Yes, some destinations and tourist hot spots attract influencers and couples looking their best. But from my experience, there’s no judgment if you don’t.

I returned home with my makeup bag still full, and half my products not even opened!

10) Hot water & flushing toilets would be a luxury

Now this one isn’t for those who are following the standard Indonesia backpacking route, but rather for those adventure travelers who get a thrill from escaping the crowds and checking out regions that are not often visited by tourists… such as Sumba Island, or Riung in Flores.

I went for 2 weeks with no hot water and several days with bucket toilets.

This became the norm, and whilst hot water and proper toilets were available, these luxurious accommodation options did not fit my backpacker budget and so I had to make do with what I could afford.

Indonesia accommodation
My “bathroom” on Sumba Island

11) There’s SO much more to Indonesia than just Bali

I have a love/hate relationship with Bali!

On my first visit in 2016/2017 I absolutely loved it. The beach clubs are insane, the landscape is gorgeous, the locals are friendly, and accommodation is super cheap.

At this time, Bali was the only Indonesian island on my radar and the furthest I wanted to venture were the Gili Islands.

I didn’t realize that there were so many other incredible places to see in Indonesia.

In 2018 I returned to Bali and noticed a change. The attractions were becoming too busy, the traffic was crazy, and the quiet streets and warungs I’d loved so much had disappeared and were replaced with trendy cafes.

But, it’s so easy to escape this chaos.

So, on my second Indonesia backpacking trip, I only spent 4 days in Bali, and 54 days exploring the other islands. Flores was my favorite. It has a bit of everything from diving, to hiking, to island hopping.

I was also so impressed with Red Island in Java. This sleepy village has an incredible beach and a great coastline. Oh, and Lakey Peak in Sumbawa. Man – this place is awesome (and I didn’t even surf here!)

Still on my bucket list is trekking with orangutans in Sumatra! This is a once-in-a-lifetime kind of experience and hopefully one day I’ll check it off my bucket list.

Best backpacking activities in Indonesia
The Kelimutu Lakes in Flores Island

12) Internet would be so good

This one took me by surprise! I was expecting days with no connection, especially on the remote islands.

But no, my Telkomsel sim card worked everywhere and I was able to send messages, watch YouTube videos, and make calls throughout my Indonesia backpacking trip.

The Wi-fi in homestays or guesthouses is questionable though, so make sure you get a local sim. I paid 150 000 IDR ($10) at the airport for a sim card that had 8 gigs of data.

13) Homestays are the best (and cheapest) places to stay

Staying at a backpackers or hostel is always sociable and a great way to meet people, but they tend to be more expensive and many remote destinations in Indonesia don’t have hostels available.

Enter homestays, my new favorite way to travel!

This is when you stay on a families property, perhaps even in their house! You connect with the people on a more personal level and you get to know the community.

It seems to be the new form of backpackers, especially for travelers who aren’t just looking for a big party!

Most homestays advertise their properties on Booking.com, and you can also find them by chatting to a local on the bus who’ll hook you up with his friend, whose other friend has a cousin brother with a room available!

Indonesia islands
Our homestay in Red Island, Java

14) The heat in Jan and Feb is unbearable

I’ve spent over 5 months in Indonesia, and the best time to plan your trip is without a doubt between July and October.

For my 2 month Indonesia backpacking trip, I arrived in mid-August and left mid-October. This is the ideal time to travel to Indonesia.

Back then I never quite realized how perfect my timing was! The days are sunny and hot, (but not humid) with no rain.

Overall, this makes those crowded buses, long hikes, and days out exploring so much more enjoyable. Oh, and you’ll save cash as you don’t need to book accommodation with aircon (which is needed in January or February).

Now let’s talk about the wet season: December to March!

I’m currently sitting in Bali (it’s February) in my air-conditioned room near Balangan Beach in Uluwatu, and I don’t want to leave (even to get food). It’s so humid and it rained for 2 hours yesterday.

If I was backpacking Indonesia now, my experience would have been a lot different from what it was in August.

But, if you’re used to humid conditions and you don’t mind a few thundershowers here and there, then backpacking Indo during the wet season shouldn’t be a problem.

But if, like me, the heat will get to you, then rather choose to come during the dry, cooler season.

Best time to back pack Indonesia
The dry season is the best time to backpack Indonesia

15) Earthquakes are scary AF

The only downside of backpacking Indonesia between July and November is that this is peak earthquake season.

Indonesia is situated on the Pacific ring of fire meaning there is constant risk of earthquakes, volcanic eruptions as well as tsunamis and flooding. This has resulted in complete destruction over the past few years with many people losing their homes and even their lives.

So, if you choose to backpack Indonesia during August as I did, you have to prepare to experience an earthquake.

During my second night in Bali, at about 9 pm, the clothes hanging in my cupboard suddenly began swaying from side to side. It’s like time froze. I just stared, confused as to what was happening.

Then it hit me. It was an earthquake!

My heart dropped and I ran outside. Luckily it was small in comparison to others before it, but it was still one of the scariest moments of my Indonesia backpacking trip.

I don’t want to frighten you, but you have to be realistic!

Make sure you know where to go. Stay away from buildings and run to open land or higher ground as tsunamis could occur. Also, have proper travel insurance so that you’re covered if you get injured or if there are changes to your itinerary.

Scared? Don’t be. If you’re afraid, you’ll never travel anywhere in your life! (Like seriously, there’s so much going on in every single country at the moment).

16) Going off the beaten track would be so expensive

Indonesia is cheap, right? Um…

When I was planning my second Indonesian backpacking trip, I wanted to get as far away from Bali as possible. I’d been to the island before and seen most of the sites.

I wanted to experience something different and see a more authentic part of Indonesia that wasn’t driven by mass tourism.

So, I immediately began searching for remote islands in Indonesia that have untouched beaches and great surfing conditions, yet little infrastructure and few tourists.

Sumba Island was the first place I found, and I immediately booked my flights.

I then started planning my Sumba itinerary (You can check it out here). I searched for hours but couldn’t find much information online.

The more research I did, the more I realized just how remote Sumba was – This made me even more excited!

All I wanted was to explore the coastline, but then I realized that the roads to get there were barely usable, there were no warungs (local restaurants), and the motorbikes on the island were ancient and not really roadworthy!

On top of this, you need to stay in a homestay that will provide you with all meals (because you can’t get elsewhere) and they have free reign to charge what they want as there are only a handful of options available.

Oh, and you need to pay for expensive private transfers as the local buses don’t reach the coast. Also, the time it takes to get from one side to the other is double than what Google maps will tell you thanks to the conditions of the roads and the size of the island.

As a result, most tourists pre-book an all-inclusive trip to Sumba with day trips to the sights and beaches. They don’t backpack across the island!

But I was adamant that I was going to do it my way and not with an organized tour. Spoiler alert: I did, and it was absolutely incredible!

We spent two weeks on Sumba Island, and it was the most expensive place we visited in the whole of Indonesia. After we left, I went into complete money-saving mode! But I have zero regrets.

If you’re planning your Indonesia backpacking trip, I highly recommend that you choose one destination that’s off the beaten track. But only one or else you’ll run out of money very quickly!

Where to stay in Indonesia
Our amazing homestay in Sumba Island. It’s off the beaten track and basic accommodation is so expensive, but for these views, it’s worth it

17) I’d be wearing the same clothes every day

I’d packed well for my backpacking trip. I had a few trendy outfits for those beach clubs and date nights, warmer clothes in case it got chilly, several bikini options and a pair of cute sandals to go with most outfits.

The worst part, I had so much stuff, but I literally wore the same clothes day in and day out!

My bikini, a t-shirt and a comfy pair of shorts. And the same flip flops. Every. Single. Day. Sometimes I just stayed in my bikini and sarong all day long.

So, no make-up and the same clothes. You might think that I was letting myself go, but I’ve never felt more free in my life!

18) Manage your expectations

We’re all guilty of this! You see a photo or read a blog, and you immediately take this at face value.

It describes the waterfall as “uncrowded” or the rice terrace as “untouched” or that Volcano hike as “incredibly scenic”.

You travel there with the hope of experiencing the same seclusion and tranquility of the person who captured the image.

But it won’t always be like this. What you don’t see is the 4 am wake up call to get to the destination before the crowds arrive, or the litter that has been photo shopped out of the image.

The things that I was most impressed with were those that I had little expectations for such as Munduk in Bali or Mount Inerie in Flores.

And those that I was most disappointed in, I initially thought would be the highlights of my trip!

Don’t expect everything to live up to your expectations. And that’s ok.

Highlights of backpacking Indonesia
I had no expectations before climbing Mount Inerie in Flores, yet it ended up being one of the best things I did on the island

19) You can’t do everything

There is so much to do and see in Indonesia. And I wanted to do everything! But with over 17 000 islands, it just isn’t possible.

Before you leave for your trip, decide what kind of travel you want to do. Slow and or fast-paced. Do you want to go off the beaten track? Are you happy with basic accommodation?

Some of the best experiences I had whilst backpacking Indonesia came from the connections I made and the people I met along the way.

Yes, I didn’t get to see nearly half of what I wanted to. But that’s why I’ve come back and I can’t wait to spend the next few months venturing off to islands I haven’t yet explored.

Best things to do in Indonesia
Exploring a hidden beach in Lombok

Psst… Looking for more Indonesia travel information? Check out my other posts.

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  1. Fantastic post! There is so much to comment on here!

    Firstly, blooming ‘eck, you were unlucky with some of your adventures, breaking your ribs, getting sick and hurting your ankle at the worst moments. Also, it is such a shame about the pollution and plastic.

    It must have been a huge culture shock to come from Korea, to then spend no time/effort on make up and clothes. Still, it sounds like you had a truly amazing experience. The food and amazing views look worth the lack of running water.

  2. I really loved this post so much! I really enjoyed reading and it’s all so true! I spend 4-6 months a year here in Bali and love it, but there is soooo much more!

    1. Hey Krystianna, so glad to hear that you enjoyed it! You should definitely visit Indonesia. Feel free to message me if you have any questions when planning your trip!

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