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Highlights of The Ultimate Indonesia Backpacking Route:
- Exploring the rainforest in Northern Sumatra in search of orang-utans
- Discovering the magnificent temples of Borobudur
- Hiking the moonlike landscape of Mount Bromo at sunrise
- Chilled surfer vibes in Uluwatu, Bali
- Beach parties in the Gili Islands
- This itinerary: 5 weeks
This Indonesia backpacking route guide is an amazing backpacking itinerary if you want to reach a happy medium of getting off the beaten track, whilst hitting some of the more touristy holiday spots at the end. Indonesia has been one of my favourite countries to explore to date, and I’ve been so excited to share the experience with you!
Our Indonesia backpacking route began in Medan, a very industrial city in Northern Sumatra. I was flying in from Thailand, and met up with my friends who flew in from Jakarta – although Medan is pretty remote, it’s easily accessible with daily Air Asia flights from most big cities in the region. Not wanting to spend too long in the city, we immediately travelled out to the jungle region of Bukit Lawang. For years I’d had these dreams of visiting a proper jungle, and thought I’d need to venture to Borneo – but Sumatra is just as good, if not better!
Bukit Lawang is a small village nestled deep in the Sumatran jungle, forming a hub as a starting point for trekking in search of orang-utans. Accommodation options here are fairly limited, and due to its remote location, pretty basic. It’s a good idea to stay at a guesthouse that can also arrange your trek, so that you have an easy starting and end point, whilst you avoid haggling for guide fees. We stayed at Rain Forest (previously known as Nora’s Homestay) which was just perfect – a small cluster of wooden rooms with incredibly helpful staff and great food in their gorgeous river-side open air cafe.
We chose to do a three day, two night trek with the guide from Rain Forest. Trekking here is incredible, but unlike anything I’ve ever done before – it was a real highlight of our Indonesia backpacking route. In order to spot the orang-utans, you have to go deep into the jungle, and far away from the path. Therefore the guide spends most of the time up the front with a machete to cut a path! It’s also very steep!
Tip: Be incredibly careful about bringing your own mosquito net to sleep in. My friend’s net had a whole in it, and a poisonous insect bit her in the night. She was incredibly sick, and we had to raft her back down the river to Bukit Lawang and safety the following morning. It was actually really scary, and therefore I wouldn’t recommend this trek to total novices!
After this scare, since our trek was cut short and my poor friend was still very sick, we headed back to Medan for a few nights in a nice hotel to re-group. We stayed in the Marriott, which was beautiful, but not what we had intended doing. We had aimed to head down to Berastagi, Sumatra’s volcanic region, and to Danua Toba. Danua Toba is somewhere that I’m desperate to make it to one day soon – as the biggest lake in South East Asia, its perfectly blue volcanic waters are home to one of the original ‘party islands’ of the region, long before the full moon parties in Thailand and nightlife in Bali. Its remote location means that it is far less overwhelmed with tourists coming for just a few nights, but rather hosts a community of backpackers that tend to stay for months at a time and make this oasis their temporary home.
After our unexpected extended stay in Medan, we flew to Yogyatarka (pronounced Jogjakarta!) – the cultural capital city of Indonesia, back on mainland Java. The main reason for our stop here was to visit the ancient temple complex of Borobudur, which lies about 40km out of the city. As Indonesia’s most important Buddhist site, this 1200 year old temple complex is so impressive – like the Angkor Wat of Indonesia!
Although lots of guide books recommend for you to spend some time staying in the Borobudur area, if you’re a little short on time like we were, it’s so easily done in a day. We stayed at Ameera Boutique in Yogya, which was a perfect base.
From here, we wanted to travel to Bali – at this point, most people fly, but we decided to get the bus as it was cheaper. This was one of our best decisions of the whole trip, as our overnight bus took us via Mount Bromo for a sunrise hike. This was probably my best travel experience to date as we rode horses across the stunning moonlike landscape to the top of the (active!) volcano. Most local tour providers will include this as part of your journey to Bali, and although it makes for a very long 11 hour bus journey to get to Bromo, with another 6 hours after to get to Bali, it’s worth every second of it.
Upon arrival in Bali, we headed straight for the Kuta / Seminyak area. This is by far the most touristy part of Indonesia, and I must admit I didn’t like it that much. Seminyak is great for bars and beach clubs, but Kuta seemed pretty dodgy – I got mugged in broad daylight and the guys were pretty violent with me. SkyBar is a fun night out, and Potato Head / Ku De Ta are great beach clubs, but beyond that I wouldn’t hang around for too long in this area. After the mugging incident, we moved quite swiftly down south to Uluwatu – my favourite part of mainland Bali. Here, you are instantly immersed into the relaxed surfer culture, with stunning scenery and great people. Single Finn is a perfect spot to grab a cocktail and watch the sunset (pictured below!).
Tip: Padang Padang beach, just along from Uluwatu has a great atmosphere, and holds monthly (much more relaxed than you’d expect) full moon celebrations.
After Uluwatu, we journeyed up to Ubud – the green smoothie / yoga / meditation / monkey centre of Bali. This area is gorgeous for seeing the stunning surrounding rice terraces, and possibly trying out a yoga class or two, but unless you’re booked onto a retreat, there’s less to do around there. The Monkey Forest is less advisable to visit as the monkeys just steal your sunglasses and can be a little vicious – plus, it’s an absolute tourist trap. This is usually including in most Indonesia backpacking route guides that I’ve seen – but it just isn’t for me. The rice terraces are beautiful though and make Ubud still well worth a visit!
From Ubud, it’s really easy to arrange transport to the pristine paradise that is the Gili Islands – tickets with local operators can be booked the day before with minibus transport from Ubud to the port, and boat transfer across to the Islands – Trawangan, Air and Meno. Trawangan (known as ‘Gili T’) is the most popular for backpackers, and was our first stop. Gili T has an incredible balance of fun beach-style nightlife, turtle snorkelling and island paradise with no engines allowed on the island. Gili Backpacker Hostel is by far the best (it has a pool and a climbing wall!) but you must book in advance as it’s so popular. They also run boat trips around the islands twice a week, so make sure you stay long enough to get onto one of these.
Gili Air provides the perfect rest-bite from the craziness on its sister island. With a much more relaxed atmosphere, Gili Air is absolute perfection. For budget travellers, Gili Air Hostel has awesome outdoor dormitories, whilst Captain Coconuts provides something a little more midrange. Scalliwags restaurant has some of the best seafood I’ve ever tasted!
Overall, this Indonesia backpacking route has so much to offer with huge variety across the country – there’s something for everyone! Use this ultimate Indonesia backpacking route guide to go have the most amazing time ever!