Should I Go to Indonesia?

In the past month, Indonesia has been hit with several devastating earthquakes. Many of the people I met in Lombok and on the Gili Islands were surely affected by these deadly events. I’ve found myself thinking about our time there a lot.

Below is a post I began writing in Spring, but never got around to finishing until now. Through this post, I hope to inspire people to visit this beautiful island country and to better understand it as well. Whether you are an avid traveler, or simply dream of one day being able to travel, this post is full of all the reasons why I would recommend Indonesia as a travel destination for pretty much anyone.

In the last 4 years, I’ve done a lot of travelling. I’ve had a lot of experiences, eaten a lot of different food and met a lot of different people. From the Hongs of Thailand, to the Thar Desert in India, I’ve never visited anywhere that didn’t offer some sort of spectacular adventure.

Sometimes though, you find a country that offers more than just destinations and good food. Those countries captivate you and take a piece of your heart. They change the way you see the world. Cambodia did that for me, and it became the country I compared all other countries too. Now, Indonesia has also been added to that list, and today I’d like to tell you why.

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Cambodia had it all: Beautiful architecture, rich history and kind people

Diversity & Tolerance

Before going to Indonesia, I’d read a lot of things. I knew, of course, that Indonesia is the country with the most Muslims in the world. I also knew that for the most part, Indonesia’s a pretty peaceful place. We’d heard of some problems in Jakarta, so we avoided the city, but even there, you’re never in any real danger.

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We read ahead of time that some of the guides in the Bukit Lawang area could be pushy. We experienced nothing but awesome interactions with both of our guides, as well as every guide we ran into. When people asked us if we wanted to book a tour, we politely told them we already had. In many other countries, guides will keep hounding you and chasing you. In Indonesia, people politely wished us a good trip.

Similarly, Aceh province has a bit of a bad reputation, as its provincial government tries to enforce shariah law. There is a large group of fundamentalist Muslims in the area, and as a result, Indonesia makes news headlines with some of the things that happen there. The important thing to remember, however, is that Aceh does not represent all of Indonesia. Everyone we went in the rest of the country, we saw tolerance and friendliness.

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I was honestly very surprised by the diversity in Indonesia. Right from the moment we arrived in Sumatra, we saw it. On Samosir Island, you find Christianity and Batik culture. When you move to Bukit Lawang, you see more Islam. Jogjakarta is also primarily Muslim, but the world’s biggest Buddhist temple is nearby along with a very famous Hindu temple. Flores was Christian while Lombok and the Gili Islands had several mosques. There are all sorts of people in Indonesia, and contrary to some of the things I’ve read in the news, everyone seems to get along pretty well. They were polite and friendly not only with tourists…but also with each other.

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Many women in Indonesia wear Hihabs. I loved the way these ladies contrasted with the beautiful stone behind them

Ecotourism & Positive Tourism Experiences

Of course, ecotourism was a huge pull for me in Indonesia. All over the country, responsible tour operators are running businesses that encourage care for the environment and all the living things within those environments. With Bukit Lawang Jungle Trekking, we were able to experience Orangutans in their natural environment. In addition to learning about these beautiful primates, we also learned about the other flora and fauna in the area, and about what it’s like to grow up in Bukit Lawang. Getting to know Sardi and Jimmy was one of the absolute best parts of my time in Indonesia, and I feel good about having chosen Bukit Lawang Jungle Trekking for my tour, because I can see the difference they are trying to make their community better through a variety of initiatives.

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Bukit Lawang Jungle Trekking employs excellent guides who help protect the animals and the environment in Gunung Leuser National Park. This helps to protect beautiful orangutans, like this one.

Similarly, when we decided to go Komodo National Park, we looked at many tour operators before choosing Flores XP Adventure. While we did have some problems with the boat they rented, overall, Komodo XP was an excellent Eco Tour operator. Archer was very knowledgeable about the marine life, as were the rest of the XP crew.

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Manta Rays are just one of many marine species that live in these waters. Komodo National Park actually boasts some of the most incredible marine diversity in the world, so it’s very important that companies like Flores XP Adventures

Most importantly, Flores XP takes ecological conservation seriously. No garbage was left on Padar Island when we left. Archer stopped the boating crew from fishing more than once (they were not part of the XP team, but had been hired out because the XP boats were in for maintenance.). I like that Archer and his team followed the laws that were set to help protect this incredibly bio diverse area.

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The last thing I want to do is to mess with this kind of beauty!

Even Jogjakarta was a good destination for good tourism practices. Our hotel was run by two of the nicest people I’ve ever met in my life. Similarly, the staff at ViaVia, a fair trade store Dave and I discovered, went above and beyond to make our experience a good one. The money spent for our time at the two temples on Java was also put to very good use. The restoration and protection of both Borobudur and Prambanan was evident and we felt good about spending a bit more to be a part of preserving the culture on Java island.

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We were so happy to discover Viavia! Not only did they sell fairtrade goods, but the staff were incredible too!

The People

Which leads me to the #1 reason why I loved Indonesia so much.

If you ask most people who travel extensively, they’ll tell you that it always takes a day or two to get a handle on what things are suppose to cost. Currencies are different from country to country, after all, something that costs $2 in Canada, might cost 5000vnd in Vietnam.

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When I go to the ATM in Canada, they give me $20 and $50 bills. In Vietnam, you get 500,000 bills. Inflation is crazy!

Foreigners are also charged extra in many places, to the point where the practice has been dubbed ‘the foreigner tax’. When you combine that tax with a new currency, it’s a recipe for scams and rip offs. So, when we arrived in Sumatra, and everyone kept charging us 3500rp for water, we just assumed the real price was 2000.

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India had the highest foreigner taxes we’ve seen. Foreigner entry prices were usually 4-5 times higher than local prices, with even more additional fees added on for the use of a camera at those sights.

It took us a few days, but soon we realized that the prices we were being given, were legitimate. People in Indonesia simply charged us the cost of the water, without additional fees. It wasn’t long before we realized that even when vendors did bring up their prices a little bit for us in the market, it was never outrageous. We simply weren’t ripped off in Indonesia.

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I don’t know what these things cost, because signs rarely include prices there, but I can tell you that I’d probably pay the same amount for magic mushrooms as a local…if I ever felt like doing them, that is!

But the honesty we saw in Indonesia wasn’t even the thing that made our interactions with locals so good. What I loved most about the people in Indonesia was how incredibly welcoming and warm they were. Everywhere we went we were greeted and welcomed by locals. Every now and then someone would want a picture of us, but usually, they were happy just to say hello.

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This is one of my favourite pictures I took during our entire month in Indonesia.

The Negatives

Of course, no country is perfect. There were some things about Indonesia that I wasn’t crazy about. Their coffee, for example, was a bit disappointing. Although some of my favourite beans come from Sumatra, coffee culture within the country is not what I expected.

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Although coffee grows all over Indonesia (each bean on the map represents a coffee growing zone), they mostly sell their beans to other countries for roasting and production.

More importantly, while Sumatra, Jogjakarta and Lombok were full of honest and friendly people, The Gili Islands and Labuan Bajo were actually a bit disappointing. In Labuan Bajo (the capital of Flores island), the service industry is very lacking. We honestly felt that we weren’t wanted at our hotel. The employees were often absent, or sitting around, talking with friends, and any time we tried to order food or drinks, we were told they were out. Worst of all, the Wifi at the hotel wasn’t working (and Dave had a deadline to meet), although it was working everywhere else on the island. When I asked about it, I was told that I ‘should have gone to Bali’.

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The hotel looked fantastic. The pool was clean and the rooms were nice. Unfortunately, the staff really didn’t seem to care for their jobs or the tourism industry at all. We talked about this with our tour guide in Komodo and he said that although things are slowly changing for the better…this is just the way Labuan Bajo is. It’s strange because it’s SO different from everything else we experienced!

Gili T is well set up for tourists, but there, you encounter the ‘foreign tax’ that didn’t exist elsewhere in the country. The people were nice, but we were paying 3-4x more to do basically anything on Gili Trawangon.

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Boat prices were the same for everyone, at least, but with no cars on the island, the horse and buggy prices sky rocketed if there was even a bit of rain, if it was after dark, or if they could think of any other reason why they could double the price.

A perfect example of this was when I sent my post cards in Lombok. I had people dropping what they were doing to help me put stamps on all the post cards. We chatted and laughed together and raced to see who could finish first. When I tried to buy stamps on Gili T, the guy at the post office tried to tell me that the stamps were 4x the price I knew they should cost.

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I’ve been particularly worried about these people since the Quakes hit. They all worked at the post office and helped me send my postcards. Unbelievably friendly and warm people. Although we clearly had different beliefs and cultures…everyone was nice to everyone else. There was no element of discomfort or of judgement or racism.

To Summarize

One last thing that is worth mentioning, is that this was MY perfect trip. I love wildlife. I love ecotourism. I love culture and I love adventure. I also don’t mind getting dirty or being cut off of the internet now and then. Bukit Lawang was what some people might consider ‘rugged’ and a lot of work. That was very much part of the appeal for me. If you like staying in a 5 star resort with a saltwater pool and a swim up bar, Sumatra might not be the best place for you, and perhaps Bali is a better option.

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But if you do have an adventurous spirit….definitely consider booking with these guys! They made our trip such an incredible experience!

The way you travel will also affect your experiences in the country. I’ve heard from many people that taking long distance buses in Indonesia is a nightmare. Dave and I opted to pay a bit more and fly for time’s sake. We also rent motorbikes whenever possible so paying taxis and taking public transit was never really necessary. These are all things that can impact your holiday.

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Our flights in Indonesia were pretty spectacular as well!

So, should you go to Indonesia?

Yes….Because from Bali to Bajo, there’s something for everyone!