Having travelled quite a bit the past six years, I’ve gotten pretty comfortable with throwing some stuff in a suitcase the night before hopping on an intercontinental flight. I’d even dare to say that my packing style is getting closer and closer to my boyfriend’s. So when we planned our trip to Indonesia last month, I took the same approach. I use the word “plan” loosely because we booked a flight to Bali and arranged a hotel for the first two nights. The rest was all up for us to decide once we arrived. Traveling to Bali is a great first holiday abroad, though and booking along the way was no problem for us at all.
After arriving in Bali, though, there were some things I wish I knew before – and not all are positive. Indonesia is still one of my favorite places I’ve visited, so don’t let some of these negative things discourage you – but just set some realistic expectations for your trip. So learn from me, and read on about what you should know before visiting Indonesia. If you are looking for specific trip planning tips, check out this post on how to plan a trip to Bali.
Indonesia is BIG
Okay, this should have been an obvious one, but coming from the US, you typically assume that most countries are nowhere as big as the states. What I didn’t expect was how big the distance is between the different islands of the Indonesian archipelago. I probably should have realized this before visiting Indonesia by just looking at the map, but still I had no idea how big the distances are.
Travel is not always easy – or cheap
I learned this based on the above learning. We though we would just jet over to Kalimantan for an orangutan river cruise. Only there are no direct flights from Bali to Kalimantan, and flying with the only trustworthy airline (Garuda Indonesia) would take over 24 hours and over €200 each way. Basically no other airline is recommended to travels since all the other airlines have such poor safety ratings – no thanks! So we decided that we’ll just have to plan that part of our trip better next time to accommodate seeing orangutans. Although we had 4 weeks in Indonesia there was no way we were going to spend 2 full days in airports. The silver lining: it gives us a great reason to go back!
We immediately learned that land travel is also not easy – though it is very cheap! Driving from Ubud to Uluwatu took us nearly 3 hours in our shuttle. The distance is 48km (30miles). So that also discouraged us a bit from trying to move around too much. We were on our trip to relax after all, not spend the whole time sitting in a barely moving vehicle.
Don’t drink the water in Indonesia
Make sure you’re always buying bottles of water (most hotels will supply you with water bottles), and ensure that when you go to a restaurant you specifically ask them how their ice is made. Many tourist places in both Bali and Lombok import their ice so it is tourist-friendly, but you’d better just be safe than sorry and ask anyways. Also be careful not to use any drinking straws. These are often recycling from drink to drink and may carry traces of unclean water – so better just get rid of any drinking straws you find in your beverages.
ATMs in Indonesia are hard to find
ATMs are slightly easier to find in the touristy areas of Bali, but keep in mind that you will probably want to withdraw a lot of money at once to make sure you’ll have enough. Most hotels in the big tourist areas will accept credit card, but the further you go from the busy areas, the more likely it is that you’ll need to pay in cash.
Don’t miss these tips how to backpack Bali
Geckos are everywhere
Ok, this wouldn’t have been necessary to know – but I loved the geckos and I think it would have made me even more excited for the trip. So if you’re planning your trip to Bali or Lombok (and probably most Indonesian islands), get excited – there are adorable geckos everywhere!
Tampons are hard to come by, and expensive
Sorry fellas, this one is for the ladies. Try as you might to plan your natural rhythms, sometimes your body just decides to do what it wants – and that usually happens on vacation. Luckily I could find some tampons in Gili Air, BUT a box of 10 cost about €8! The price was pretty out of control. I assume because they were only sold to tourists, and they know a girl will pay anything to take care of business. Afterward when we were on the main island of Lombok I checked at the Indomarkets in Kuta, and tampons were nowhere to be found. So ladies, pack wisely. Just in case. Good to know before visiting Indonesia, right girls?
and on that note… pack the outdoorsy stuff you think you might need.
I did, in fact, bring hiking boots with me. I thought we might do some major hiking, but based on the rain, I was wrong. Either someone stole my boots or they fell off my backpack in Padangbai. No loss for me… they were pretty stinky anyway. Hope they found a new home. Anyway, my point is, I thought maybe I would buy new hiking boots somewhere else. I soon realized this wasn’t possible because I never saw any shoe stores the entire time I was there, let alone any outdoor stores. Point is, bring what you need if you think you’ll be needing.
Some areas of Bali, even besides Kuta, are very westernized
I had more or less assumed this to be the case before going, but it did really strike me when we were there. We spent 2 nights in Seminyak – sorry Seminyak lovers, I think that place is pretty unfortunate – to me it felt a lot like Miami Beach, which is not the reason I was visiting Indonesia. We also spent 2 nights in Canggu which I liked initially, but in hindsight it felt like Amsterdam but in Bali. Every restaurant we visited would feel completely in place in Amsterdam. Like I said, I expected this, and for the most part we avoided these areas, but still its good to know.
Not all beaches are paradise
If you want to visit some of the most beautiful beaches, check out Raja Ampat or Lombok.
If you’re visiting Bali just for the beaches, definitely think twice about where you go. Kuta and Seminyak’s beaches can be downright disgusting. I tried surfing in Seminyak, but ended up paddling my way through water filled with garbage. It was honestly terrible.
Canggu is popular, but it’s beaches are mostly black sand and aren’t exactly palm tree fringed either. I personally think the best beaches in Bali are in the south, around Uluwatu. If you’re looking for a chilled area, check out the beaches of Padang Padang or Bingin Beach.
Trash is a big problem in Indonesia
After spending four weeks in Bali, the Gili Islands, Lombok and Nusa Lembongan, I was pretty sick of the smell of burning plastic. The truth is, garbage is a problem in Indonesia, and in all of the places I visited, there was no real way of disposing of garbage (see the point above about the beaches). On Gili Air we woke up to the smell of burning plastic in the morning. That kind of ruined our feeling of paradise to be honest.
As you travel through Indonesia, you’ll likely spot smoke in the distance where ever you go – that’s how the locals get rid of trash.
Animals aren’t always treated with respect
I learned this one the hard way when I went dolphin watching in Lovina. My main advice is to double check the treatment of animals whenever to plan to visit any animal attractions in Indonesia.
On Gili Air, where no cars are allowed to drive, you’ll find horse drawn carriages that can take you around the island. Unfortunately though, the islands have a pretty bad reputation for how those animals are treated, although there are some animal rights groups working to educate the locals. The horses often stand and work in the sun for hours with very little water.
Street dogs are everywhere in Indonesia
This is fairly typical in developing countries and is definitely true in Indonesia. If you visit Bali you will see dogs all over the place, but often in Bali they are treated as pets (not always). In Lombok this issue is 10x worse. Visiting Kuta Lombok you’ll see street dogs everywhere, which makes scooter driving extra tricky. Take extra caution when driving a scooter, and by all means, don’t get too close to these dogs. While it is heartbreaking to see dogs that may be starving on the side of the road or on the beach, you don’t know what dogs might be carrying rabies, so be careful.
Bring a backpack
There were so many moments during our trip that I was so grateful we were backpacking. From jumping from bouncing docks on to moving boats, hopping off of boats into knee deep water, and for the lightness of packing, having a backpack was ideal. I honestly don’t know how people could travel with a normal suitcase, unless they are on an organized tour. Backpacking is truly the way to go in Indonesia.
I can strongly recommend my backpack from Osprey, below. It fit tons in it – enough for four weeks in Indonesia, and I could have even fit more in there than I did. Plus, it has a detachable day pack which is also super handy.
Planning your trip to Indonesia? Lonely Planet is my go-to for all my travels and I used it to plan and inspire all my travels in Indonesia
What things do you wish you knew before visiting Indonesia? Let me know in the comments below!
Gabby is a native (Northern) Californian who spent the majority of her 20’s living the expat life in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, exploring Europe and beyond. 27 countries later, she’s relocated back to her home base in California where she explores her passions for the travel and the outdoors.