Reality check: why Indonesia does not catch up with your dreams

One month in Indonesia was enough. The gap between what I have read online and the reality is massive! I expected paradise for backpackers and adventurer but I was confronted with another Indonesia… That constant feeling of being in danger. Mafia-like organizations make you pay. The rudeness of the local people. No public transportation in many areas, only expensive taxis and drivers. Upcoming resorts that will ruin everything. Paradise beaches polluted with pampers, plastic and other waste. Money trickling out of  my pockets, constantly. – Let me give you a realistic overview based on my recent experience. Indonesia is beautiful, without a doubt, but it not only that. Let me also blog about the negative stuff. As I do not try to sell my travel guides to you there’s not need to filter the information. Nevertheless I didn’t feel safe enough to post something negative while I was in Indonesia. The country leaves me with the feeling of not knowing how it works and of not being able to calculate the risks.

Expectation: Bali and Lombok are paradise islands. There are the perfect beaches.

Reality check: You find plenty of empty beaches in Indonesia. The sand can be black or white or anything in between. Ricefields in lush green, beautiful palmtrees and the wild jungle are typical. Some of the bays on Lombok are embraced by big rocks and green hills. You could watch this scenery for hours.

But… Most beaches – even the empty ones – are polluted: micro plastic, tons of diapers, empty cups and straws, flipflops and other trash make it hard to enjoy the beaches. No one cleans it. Indonesians throw plastic into the ocean and everywhere. They don’t care.

Many beach access roads on Lombok are occupied by locals who collect an entrance fee of 5’000 to 10’000 IDR. At some beaches western / european tourists pay double the price than other tourists. It’s not fun to check the different beaches out as you have to pay everytime. And you do pay the fee because you do not want to have your scooter stolen…

We met three girls from Germany who were pretty desperate; their scooter had been stolen – they had it parked just on the street, not on the paid parking. Not the owner kept their backpacks and wanted them to pay 1000€. Probably this is far too much and probably he will get the scooter back anyway. A guy had “lost” his smartphone at the beach. The owner of our guesthouse knew exactly who to call. The guy could go, pay 20€ and got his smartphone back. It’s organized. There are various ways to quench money out of the tourists’ pockets.

Expectation: Local people are so friendly!

Reality check: After one month on Bali and Lombok I could count the number of friendly encounters with local people. We were often treated very rude. “I am more friendly with my ass than this person is with his/her face!”, I used to say, unbelieving. Local people want you to pay leave as much money there as possible. They don’t like if you try to bargain. They don’t want you to come back. We had the impression that Bali is already ruined from the tourism over the last 25 years. Many Indonesians from all over the country come to Bali to earn some money from tourism. Lombok is not ready for tourism. Although they bulldoze huge areas to build new resorts and streets the local people are not open or interested in foreign people. Yes, we had a few friendly conversations in these weeks but compared to other countries by far not enough to make you feel comfortable. 

Expectation: Snorkeling, diving, surfing, wildlife watching is exceptional in Indonesia.

Reality check: Many of these attractions are tourist traps. An example: In many villages the warans are fed by the locals. It can be very dangerous to approach them while eating. Local „guides“ bring you to these places without taking care of you or warning you. Tourists are injured from time to time while taking pictures. – I prefer to see wildlife in its’ natural environment, without manipulation. We saw many warans on Sri Lanka without a guided tour.

There are various diving schools. I can not say anything about it because we didn’t book a tour. There are beautiful coral reefs you can visit. It’s a big business about every attraction. – On Sri Lanka we could spot colorful fishes on the reef just at the beach without spending money for equipment or a boat tour.

I can say a little bit more about surfing: The waves that hit Bali are monsterous! They can really beat you up when you don’t know what you’re doing. You need to know your level and be careful. You can find nice beginner spots on Bali and on Lombok (beach breaks without reef) but it is by far not as good as expected. You need to put a lot of effort into going to surf: on Lombok you drive up to an hour from Kuta to the surf beaches by scooter. Scooters with surf rack are available everywhere. Some of the roads are in miserable condition so it takes ages and you need to double check if your surfboard is safe in the rack because of the many bumps. In many bays on Lombok you need an outrigger boat to bring you to the break as it is too far to paddle. This needs to be organised and paid (150’000 IDR / 10€ for 2 hours). If you’re lucky you can share the boat. – We expected a surfers’ paradise and were disappointed. On Sri Lanka (again, I’m sorry) there were various perfect beaches and breaks. We often had a hut directly on the beach where you just jump into the water whenever you like…

Expectation: Everything is cheap.

Reality check: Everything is affordable because it is cheaper than in Europe (or most other western countries). Local food is cheap (15’000 IDR / 1€ per meal). Western food is available and costs between 3 to 7€. A bottle of water (1,5 liter) costs between 4’000 to 10’000 IDR (0,30 – 0,70€).  At the local fruit stand it is hard to get a good price. People are not friendly and don’t like when you bargain. They think you should pay more for everything just because you are foreign. This is not ok since the local warungs don’t offer much service or view or atmosphere. When you eat there you should pay the same as the locals without fighting for it.

Transport with the official taxi is expensive. There is no public transportation for tourists in most areas. You can use uber or grab car which is cheaper than a taxi and probably more safe. Read more about it here: Bali: how to use Uber safely . Transportation is expensive for backpackers compared to other countries. Bargain hard but be aware that you depend on the driver. If you don’t pay enough he can take you anywhere and you’ll be pretty helpless. There’s a lot more to say about transportation but here it’s enough to know: it is expensive and you don’t have public transportation.

The wide price range the country has to endure brings everything out of balance. Everyone involved in tourism is rich, everyone else has no chance to keep up. Indonesia is pretty rich and developed. There are so many scooters and cars on the islands that you are often stuck in a traffic jam.

Expectation: Local food is fresh and healthy and tastes amazing.

Reality check: The Indonesian food tastes nice but isn’t as healthy as expected. The local cuisine uses a lot of glutamat – even if they cook with fresh vegetables and herbs. I don’t like the taste of glutamat that stays on my tongue for hours after having had food. You’ll eat meat almost every day when you eat local. Sometimes you order vegetable nasi goreng (fried rice) and you’ll find chicken inside. If you are vegetarian you need to learn how to say „no meat“ in Indonesian very quickly! When you are in a touristic area you’ll find local and western food. This is a good combination. In areas like Medewi that are poorly developed (which can be beautiful) the food is pretty much the same at all local warung, with no great variety. I’d recommend to find a place with kitchen in these areas to be able to cook something different. Fresh vegetables and fruit are available everywhere.

Expectation: Life is easy here.

Reality check: The climate is hot and sunny and makes life easy. After a while of traveling southeast Asia you can easily forget how awsome it is to always wear your bikini, your flipflops and shorts. Bali was often too hot in some areas. It’s nice to find a place with a breeze. I enjoyed that about Kuta, Lombok, and Medewi, Bali. Lombok is a lot cooler than Bali and has the perfect climate. Althoug it’s so close to Bali it has another climate zone! Nevertheless life as a tourist here is not easy, it’s exhausting. You need to work for your happyness – you need to bargain about everything and sometimes you just need to accept the unpleasant circumstances, the tourist price and the unfriendly faces around you. When you manage to develop the right attitude you’ll be able to enjoy yourself.

Anyway, Indonesia made me change my attitude in some points. Watch the video on vimeo for some more impressions: Bali and Lombok – traveling Indonesia

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