As I’m on my way to Southeast Asia (I’m writing this from Dubai airport – 11 hours layover), I thought I would share a few tips on planning your trip to Indonesia. It’s a huge country, and with its 15,000 islands and 3,275 miles West to East span and some of the highest peaks in the region (Puncak Jaya is 16,000 feet high), it can be a daunting prospect to plan a trip there. But I’ll give you a few tips on the what, how, where and whens of your holiday to Indonesia
1. How ambitious can I be?
Unless you have a few months to spare, you will have to compromise and choose a couple of key islands or destinations in the country in order to really feel the place and get a good sense of what Indonesia is really about. If its your first time in Indonesia, take it easy and sharpen your sense of humour, because the Indonesians love a joke and you might be the butt of one of them. The different islands have quite distinct cultures and traditions, and its a good idea to explore these to understand the miracle and challenges of building a nation ! The largest islands are Sumatra, Java, Borneo, Bali, Sulawesi and Papua. Except for Papua, travelling within these islands is relatively easy. (For travelling within Indonesia, see below).
2. What about the visa?
If you travel in Indonesia, you only have 30 or 60 days. So you need to plan in order not to get stuck somewhere and have to rush for the border… Indonesia requires most visitors to have a visa, except if you come from the list of 11 countries including Chile, Malaysia, Morocco, Brunei… For the others (or most of the others) you can get a visa on arrival (VOA) which will cost you 25US$. You can renew this visa once for another 25$. If you don’t want to have to bother with renewing and you plan to stay two months, you can apply to the Indonesian embassy in your country to get a two moths tourist visa. Easier, in my opinion, and it’s the same price. You can find a list of the Indonesian embassies around the world here.
3. How do I get around?
Depending on the region, roads are relatively good in Indonesia and public transport is ever present, if slow at times. It is the best way to see the country, but obviously requires a lot of time. On the 5 main island, during the day, buses and mini-buses connect all cities, and it is possible to get off anywhere you want, but might sometimes be difficult to get a bus back the other way. Signs and destinations can sometimes be confusing and unclear, in particular in smaller cities, so don’t hesitate to approach people and ask. “Minta maaf ibu/bapak, bis ke (destination) yang mana?” – “Excuse me madam/sir, which is the bus to (destination?)
On Java and Sumatra, the train network is very useful to get around. Although it is a little rusty, the network on Java will get you to all the major cities pretty safely, if slowly. On Sumatra, the network is much less devellopped and is geared towards freight rather than passengers. You can check times for trains as well as book your tickets here (but some credit card acceptance problems have been reported). If that doesn’t work, try tiket.com or Mau Ke Mana, two reliable agencies that can book your tickets for you for a (very) small fee.
Indonesia being an archipelago, boat travel is ubiquitous between islands. There have been a string of accidents though, and many travellers have felt rather unsafe on boats. I have never had any problems. For long haul travel by boat, you can take Pelni boats to all the major islands plus smaller ones. Check destinations, schedules and cabin types here. It is also possible to island hop by asking fishermen to take you to the next island, but this is hit and miss. You really need to have some time to do so.
Travelling by plane within Indonesia is probably the easiest way. Although some of the flights and airlines are quite cheap, you miss out on the slow pace of the boat, train or road transport. For flights within Indonesia, you can try Airasia, Lion Air, Silk Air, Garuda, Merpati and a host of others. The country is pretty well covered, and the less popular destinations, particularly in the east of the country, are mostly serviced by Merpati. In some places, such as Papua, the plane is the only way to get around within the island. Indonesian airlines are also known for having their mishaps, from miscalculated landings to pilots on crystal meth or hitting a cow on the runway.
4. Is it safe?
In general, Indonesia is a safe country. The crime rate has been increasing in recent years, but it remains mainly non-violent. However, you should be careful, as always. There are some pickpockets around in the cities, and you should not flash expensive belongings in public places. Keep your eyes and ears open. Don’t let yourself be distracted by strangers in bus stations, don’t accept drinks from people you don’t know…
Indonesia is also a country with some civil unrest, such as in Papua. If you go to Papua, do NOT FILM or PHOTOGRAPH any DEMONSTRATIONS you might encounter, as this could land you in jail and get you kicked out of the country. It could also endanger the lives of the protesters.
5. Rainy season… is it a problem?
Indonesia has two seasons only. Dry and rainy. But it’s all relative really, because it still rains during the dry season, it just rains less. The rainy season in most of Indonesia, including Java and Bali) is from November to March. But the country is so large that this can vary, with some areas experiencing more or less rain. So is the rainy season a problem? In my opinion, not at all. It especially rains at the end of the afternoon, so you can plan your day and get back before the downpour. Sometimes it is actually a relief to feel the wind pick up and see the big dark clouds rolling in, holding the promise of a drop in temperature. The rainy season mught be a problem if you are planning to visit places way of the beaten track were there are no paved roads. These might then be boggy and places difficult to access.
If you are planning on diving, then the dry season is definitely the best time to go as the underwater visibility will not be troubled by sediment brought in by swollen rivers.