Updated: Nov 16
I first graced the rich and abundant island of Sumatra as a naïve, some-what wild, whilst well-intentioned 23-year-old, with the dream to teach my way across the Indonesian archipelago. Fast forward five years, and I haven’t quite achieved this dream, however I have done, seen, and experienced more than I ever could have imagined. Now, as a somewhat wiser, more worldly 28-year-old mother to be, let me share with you the top tips I’ve learned during my half a decade on these incredible islands.
1. Don’t go straight to Bali!
Indonesia is an archipelago of over 1800 islands and Bali is only one of them! don't get sucked into the Bali trap straight away- if you've got two months, that's a really decent amount of time to explore THE WHOLE of Indonesia, or at least a few more islands than just Bali. I always advise our guests to start their trip in the west (flying into Medan, North Sumatra) and slowly travel east; this route allows you to really experience the breadth of cultures, traditions and lifestyles found throughout the vast nation, as opposed to focusing on one area filled with heavily westernised yet beautiful beaches. Remember, you can find beaches like this in Ibiza, Mallorca, Sardinia and Greece for a much cheaper plane ticket; so really ask yourself, why did you travel to Indonesia?...
2. Always drink more water than you think.
This sounds lame but I feel it's a valid travel point; Indonesia is so unbelievably hot and humid there’s nothing worse than being caught out with no water. Additionally, times your normal European hangover by ten if you don’t remember to drink water on your night out! Buy yourself a reusable bottle and have it on you at all times!
3. Bring sun cream from your home country.
Firstly, sun cream can be very, very expensive when you buy it at a tourist location and considering most people bring checked luggage, it’s annoying to think you could have saved yourselves some money. Additionally, most skin products sold in Indonesia (soap, face wash, sun cream, moisturiser etc) have skin whitening chemicals in them, in adherence to the nations beauty standards that lighter skin is more attractive. If you don’t want to lose the tan you’ve been working so hard on, bring your own skin products from your home country (but remember to pack them in a plastic bag inside your checked luggage so there’s no drama if they spill or leak!).
4. Keep covered.
Contrary to popular opinion, being a little more covered keeps you a lot cooler than when in skimpy clothing, and especially in the evenings means you avoid any mosquito onslaught! Also please don’t forget to throw on a cardigan or top up your sun-cream when you’re bombing around on your scooter or moped; you probably won’t feel the heat, but I can promise you it’s there! I have been burned RAW so many times because of this, so take my advice and at the very least factor (sun cream) up! Another result of the super-hot and humid climate is the ‘oh so sexy between the thigh chaffing’; this can be a real issue as once you’ve got it its super hard to shake off! To avoid this, all local women will wear bike shorts under their dresses or skirts, which has the added benefit of keeping their decency when getting on an off their bikes.
5. Carry multiple travel cards.
My UK bank deems Indonesia as a ‘high risk’ country and as a result blocks or denies pretty much all banking activity I make whilst Indo. As you can imagine, this can make life and especially online purchases, such as buying onward plane tickets, a real pain in the ass. To get around this I now always travel with two additional travel cards: Caxton for cash withdrawals and TransferWise for online payments. Having two cards ensures I always have a backup option, whilst it also means I can avoid any problems caused by ATM limits. Lastly, please do not store all your cards in the same place, because if it gets separated from you you’ve lost all your means of withdrawing money! If this does happen to you though, remember there are Western Union branches throughout the whole of Indonesia, so family or friends from back home can send you money; you just need your original passport to prove the money is meant for you when you pick it up.
6. Keep a scan of your passport.
I had to do some visa extensions which meant handing over my passport to immigration for a few days. This wasn’t an issue in itself, but it caused problems when I wanted to check into accommodation, as sometimes a driver’s licence isn’t enough. As I only had a copy on my laptop, it was a real faff getting the laptop out, booting it up finding the file, yada yada yada so save yourself some time and hassle and just have a scan (front and back cover including photograph and holographic page) on your phone. If you want to be extra careful, add one to your google drive, so you can access it from any device if yours goes missing!
7. Bring period/contraceptive products.
Sanitary pads are the only menstrual product sold in Indonesia, and obviously they are not going to work for anyone who wants to go swimming! Additionally, they do not accommodate heavier flows, so do yourself a favour and bring your own products from home! If you’re travelling to more remote areas of Indonesia, be aware that there are hardly ever any sanitary bins, as as you can imagine, carrying used sanitary products in this heat is no fun! So, if you haven’t got one already, I strongly advise buying yourself a reusable cups. They're cheap, good for the planet, last you up to several years and take up hardly any space in your luggage.
8. Bring a first aid kit.
As skin rashes or chaffing or bike falls are the most prevalent tourist 'injury' products such as Vaseline, Panadol, Sudacream, Savlon, antiseptic wipes etc are super useful and hard to find here. In times of sickness, we want what we are used to or comfortable with and sometimes foreign alternatives don't cut it. Pack whatever you think you might need in a small bag and just always have it with you.
9. Go with the tummy bug flow.
Just accept you are going to get a little sick at some point on your travels; 'Sumatra stomach' or ‘Bali belly’ is just your body getting used to a whole new cuisine and bacteria. Try to drink a local probiotic as soon as you arrive (this gets your belly used to the local bacteria) and pack electrolyte sachets for when you do come down with ‘the runs’. Having said this do try and eat at local warungs, but maybe stay away from the shell fish or stick to the vegetarian options. Lastly, if you really want to experience Indonesian cuisine start building up you spice tolerance NOW
10. Be aware of other tourists.
We’ve all seen it, people’s demeanour changes when they're on holiday, and when this is mixed with a lot of alcohol and scantily clad beauties on a beach, things can get a little nasty. In my experience the biggest threats to my safety during my travels were drunk, aggressive, entitled westerners especially in Kuta/Seminyak, Bali. Watch out for them. And. Run. Additionally, meet people in person before you commit to travelling/hanging with them. Seems obvious, but it's amazing how many people don't do this and end up with horror stories about incompatible travel buddies!
11. Don’t plan too much.
Indonesians are known for their laid-back attitude, whilst their whole society is very much pinned upon the concept of 'jam karet' or ‘rubber time’. Things will not start on time, people will be late, events will overrun because here, time is not money; time is a collection of moments to be enjoyed, not stressed over. So, if you stumble across somewhere and you fall in love, soak it up, revel in it, don't rush on to see something else. Employ the ‘spontaneous yes’ and accept the invite, take the scenic route, stay longer than planned, eat what they suggest, as this is how you will experience the real Indonesia.
Having read through these top tips, I hope you have a much better idea of what your Indonesian adventure could entail, and most importantly, are now armed with a host of tactics to avoid many a tricky situation that might detract from your trip. I am so excited for you to embark on this journey as it will be one you remember for the rest of your life! Look after yourselves, and have an absolute blast!
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