First time in Indonesia? This is what you cannot miss

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Rice fields around Ubud
Rice fields around Ubud

Indonesia is a huge country and you would need a lifetime to explore it properly. Most of you will probably have one single chance to visit it. In case you’re wondering how to organize your visit, our itinerary might help you.

We have prepared a list of all the places that you shouldn’t miss if it’s your first time in Indonesia. We tried to make it as flexible as possible so that you can decide what’s best for you.

Moving around

First of all, visiting more than one island during your stay in Indonesia needs some proper organizing. You should know that moving around is not as easy as in Thailand or Vietnam and distances can be huge. If you only have a limited amount of time we don’t recommend visiting distant parts of the country. You might waste several days (yes, that’s not a mistake) just getting to the destination. That is the main reason why we decided to skip the Togean islands and leave it for our next visit.

moving around Flores Indonesia
… Geronimo? That’s the standard in Flores!

There are many airlines and ferry services operating around Indonesia. However, you will find out that that most of them are not reliable from the safety point of view. Actually, Indonesia has the lowest rank for safety in the world. We think that says it all. The only airline that follows all the security standards is Garuda. Their prices are higher than average but guys, this is your own safety we’re talking about. The same goes for ferries. Don’t get lured by super low prices or incredible discounts. Check the reviews online and if you’re still convinced, well…go for it.

First time in Indonesia

So, now that you’re warned we can concentrate on more enjoyable things: itineraries. Let’s start with a two-week one. For the lucky ones who get to spend more than two weeks in Indonesia we also have a one-month itinerary. If you’re only thinking about visiting Indonesia we hope to inspire you and wake your wanderlust!

2 weeks in Indonesia

Once again, we don’t want you to spend your first time in Indonesia waiting at the airports. Two weeks are not that much for a country like that so we don’t recommend trying to see too many places. The best decision is one week for one island. We are convinced that Java and Bali are the best for you.

1. Visiting Java

Taman Sari, also called Water Castle
Taman Sari, also called Water Castle

Jakarta, the capital city of Indonesia, lies in the northwest of Java. You can start your journey there but we don’t think it’s worth it. It’s a huge city with a lot of people, skyscrapers and bad traffic. You can go directly to the city Yogyakarta, which is much more tourist-friendly and packed with interesting things to see. Here are a few things that you shouldn’t miss:

  • Kraton or Royal Palace: this place will make you understand better the local culture and art and thanks to the museum inside you will learn a lot about the royal family that still resides there.
  • Taman Sari: it is also called Water Castle thanks to the pools and fountains that you will find there.
  • Malioboro Street: every evening it turns into one big food feast with all the street food vendors. How about having a nice nasi goreng or fried tempeh?
  • Borobudur: this fascinating temple is actually the biggest Buddhist temple in the world. You can join the sunrise tour as the morning light makes the place even more stunning.
  • Volcano Merapi: this nasty guy exploded in 2014 and buried an entire village under its ashes. You can take a tour of the area struck by the explosion. It is a good reminder of the destructive power of nature.
  • Chicken Church: yeah, you got that right. Only in Java can you find a truly bizzarre church in the form of a dove. The creator meant for it to be a sacred place but…nobody actually saw a dove and the building is known as Chicken church.

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One of the most impressive places that you can see if it is your first time in Indonesia is Mount Bromo. We have dedicated a whole article to this active volcano in East Java: Click here to read it! We’ll give you a photo as a teaser.

Visit mount Bromo at sunrise
Mount Bromo at sunrise

2. Visiting Bali

Tegalang rice fields
Tegalalang rice fields

Those who have already visited Bali might argue that this is not the most beautiful place in the country. It is true but since this is your first time in Indonesia it’s a must. There are several reasons why. First of all, the only Hindu island has an incredible cultural and historical heritage. The architecture on the island is really unique. The local people have preserved most traditions until the present day. Last but not least, in Bali there are places that you won’t find anywhere else.

And what are some places that you can see there? Let’s check them:

Ubud

Ubud is a very particular village in Central Bali. Although many people come here for peace and relax, it’s actually really crowded. There is a big number of shops, restaurants, hipster bars or yoga centres. If you don’t care much about this kind of stuff then you can explore the surroundings. Rent a motorbike and visit the following:

1. Tegalalang rice fields: an absolute world wonder. Get lost in the sea of rice fields, you’ll be amazed at how something like that could have been created.

2. Goa Gajah: just a few kilometres from Ubud lies this sacred cave. Goa Gajah means literally “Elephant Cave” but don’t be mistaken, it is actually a temple.

3. Gunung Kawi: a truly impressive temple complex that will leave you stunned. Prepare for a little exercise since there are a lot of steps to take and it can be hard in the heat. However, it’s totally worth the struggle.

4. Istana Tampak Siring: another beautiful temple where you can also wash yourself in the sacred springs. Properly covered, of course.

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Black beaches in the north

The north of the island is not so touristy but since this is your first time in Indonesia you might want to enjoy a little peace and quiet. You will find beaches covered with volcanic ashes. If you’re lucky you might also spot whales in the distance!

Find yourself a nice isolated resort and spend two or three days just doing nothing. We may have a tip for you.

Black sand beach in front of BBC
Black sand beach in front of Bondalem Beach Club

Ulun Danu Beratan Temple

Ulun Danu Beratan Temple
Ulun Danu Beratan Temple

This beautiful temple by the lake is a great example of how unique the architecture on Bali is. Ok, it is also thanks to the surrounding mountains and the Beratan lake but honestly, the place feels magical. It lies in Central Bali and it is far less crowded than the temples around Ubud. The temple is dedicated to the Hindu trinity Vishnu, Shiva and Brahma and the goddess Dewi Danu. If you’re dying for a different perspective of the temple, try renting a boat and admire the complex from the lake.

Southern beaches

The south of Bali is probably the most touristy part of the island. If you cannot stand people then avoid the area. Few beaches are covered with gigantic hotel resorts with swimming pools that could accomodate a high school of 500 students.

There are several wild beaches where you will barely find anyone. However, it is better to visit during low tide. The waters around Bali are capricious and during high tide the beach may simply…disappear. Can you believe that these two pictures are actually the same place? Crazy, right?

So, this itinerary could be convenient for your first time in Indonesia. Java and Bali are amazing. They both have their pros and cons but it is hard to name two more places in Indonesia so packed with interesting things to see.

One month in Indonesia

Let’s suppose that you have one month to spend in Indonesia. Maybe you want to see something bizarre. Or you want to explore more nice beaches or you’re curious to check more volcanoes. Keep on reading!

3. Visiting Komodo and Flores

Viewpoint from Rinca island, Komodo National Park
Viewpoint from Rinca island, Komodo National Park

We must confess that visiting the Komodo National Park was our nr. 1 priority in Indonesia. It had been on our bucket list for a long time, and the reality was even better than we thought.

Komodo

There are many cruises that will get you to the Komodo National Park. We flew to Labuan Bajo, a town in Western Flores, from where we joined a day trip around the national park. First a few words about Labuan Bajo. There is a nice port from which you can watch the sunset or have a tasty grilled fish. But that’s about it. The rest is just local people trying to sell you cruises, snorkeling or diving courses at exaggerated prices. This place has “scam” written all over it and we were actually happy to spend there as little time as possible.

First time in Indonesia, komodo dragons
The Dragon

The Komodo National Park is truly beautiful. The waters around the tiny scattered islands are crystal clear and we even spotted a group of dolphins. It is a perfect location for diving and snorkeling. Many tourists visit the area to see probably one of the rarest animals on earth: Komodo dragons. They principally live on the islands of Rinca and Komodo. It is highly recommended to take a tour with an experienced local guide. It might not look like that from the pictures but dragons can be quite dangerous. Those few times they attacked a human, well…guess who was the winner.

Flores

Flores is not as touristy as Java or Bali. That is not necessarily a negative thing, but it means that to move around you will have to hire a car with a driver. You might argue that it’s better to use public transport. We were thinking the same until the moment we saw a local bus. The fact that it was carrying much more people than it should have was nothing new for us. But when we saw that they had removed all the windows and doors to make space for more passengers we decided not to risk.

The safest option is hiring a car with a driver. However, ask around before accepting the first offer that comes your way. Other travelers or backpackers’ groups on fb can help you out. You need around five days to drive to Maumere, on the opposite coast of the island, and see the most important sights. One interesting thing about Flores is that the majority of people are Christians. You will find it completely different from other Indonesian islands that we have visited.

This is what you can expect from visiting Flores:

  • spider web rice fields
  • picturesque villages where locals have maintained their typical lifestyle and traditions
  • paradise beaches
  • colourful volcano lakes
  • tasty fresh fish and seafood
  • hot springs or waterfalls

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4. Visiting Gili islands

Gili Air beach
Gili Air beach

Depending on what you expect from your first time in Indonesia, you can end your one month with a total relax on the beach. Imagine a tiny island with no concrete roads, cars and heavy traffic. You need around 90mins to walk around it and the main activities that you can do here are lying on the beach, swimming, eating, drinking, reading or doing yoga. Sounds great, right? We are talking about Gili Air, which is one of the three Gili islands located close to one another. Gili Air is a compromise between the extremely touristy Gili Trawangan and the minimalistic Gili Meno.

You can get there by taking a ferry from Bali or Lombok. If this is your first time in Indonesia and you have no idea how it works there with ferries do not skip this paragraph. We want to underline the following words: when it comes to your security the money is not important. Do not get lured by super cheap tickets but verify the company and check online reviews first. You’ll be surprised at how unreliable or even dangerous Indonesian ferries can be. The waters of around Bali and Lombok are treacherous and all the boats should be adequately equipped. As you will find out after reading a few online fora, they are not.

The truth is that we are not exactly those people that go on holiday and spend two weeks between the hotel room and the swimming pool from where you can check if the beach is there. For two or three days it’s nice to be lazy but then we have to fill our time with activities. There is not much to do on Gili Air, but if you don’t want to waste your time and do something exciting, how about a snorkeling trip or a diving course? There are plenty of places where you can do it and one week is a lot of time!

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Indonesia is so big, and we wanna come back again to visit other places like Togean and Banda Islands. What places did you visit during your first time in Indonesia? Let us know in the comments!

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