Indonesia is an archipelago made up of over 13,000 islands spread across Indian and Pacific Oceans. If you are scouring for information on how to best spend your 3 weeks in Indonesia, you are not alone! With so many destinations in this magnificent country, I too felt overwhelmed when I was planning my first trip to Southeast Asia and deciding where to go in Indonesia.
But when I planted my feet in Bali for the first time in 2009, it was love at first sight. From the vast horizon of lush green rice paddies, stunning turquoise blue ocean to the mind-blowing cliffside coastlines, Bali was the ultimate paradise I had always dreamed of.
After my initial trip to Bali quickly came and went, I knew that I was not done with Indonesia. I planned my second trip in 2013, this time on a one-way ticket to Southeast Asia, on a mission to explore as many exotic islands as possible. Since then, I have traveled extensively throughout the Pacific region but fell particularly in love with Indonesia.
You can easily spend a lifetime discovering the remotest islands and villages across Indonesia. You won’t even scratch the surface with three weeks, considering the distance between the islands and lack of infrastructure or efficient transportation options in some locations. But Indonesia’s impressive volcanoes, unique waterfalls, awe-inspiring rice terraces, historic temples, pristine beaches, magnificent underwater world, and lush jungles are the ultimate dream come true if you love the outdoors!
I am excited to share this travel guide to introduce you to the highlights of the top destinations in Indonesia, and help you create the perfect 3-week Indonesia itinerary! Read on for the best islands to explore during your trip to Indonesia, as well as valuable travel tips for the most epic vacation of a lifetime!
3 Weeks in Indonesia: Travel Route Summary
Day 1-5: Sumatra
Day 6-10: Bali
Day 11-13: Nusa Lembongan & Nusa Ceningan
Day 14-17: Lombok
Day 18-21: Komodo National Park
Top Destinations to Spend 3 Weeks in Indonesia
To this day, the few days I spent in Sumatra trekking through the protected sanctuary to encounter the orangutans, camping in the jungle, and canoeing in the biggest crater lake in the world at Lake Toba was one of the most memorable trips I took in Southeast Asia.
Sumatra is the largest island of Indonesia, located at the most western section of the archipelago just below Malaysia. To get in, fly into Medan’s Kualanamu International Airport.
Day 1 – 3: Bukit Lawang
Once you fly into Medan, head directly to Bukit Lawang and sign up for a jungle trekking tour to see the orangutans. The overnight camping trip was by far, one of the best adventures of my time in Indonesia!
With orangutan population rapidly disappearing due to the deforestation of their natural habitat, the Gunung Leuser National Park (UNESCO Heritage Site) is a protected reserve that remains a home for these beautiful animals among other wildlife species. As Bukit Lawang’s main attraction is the trekking tour in the park, you will find no shortage of tour companies and agencies once you arrive in town.
I signed up for a 2D/1N tour and the comedian tour guides who made us laugh all day and night, prepared fresh meals and guided us through the dense jungle in their mere flip flops were the highlight of my tour. And the baby orangutans were so adorable and worth every effort and penny to get there!
Note: if you choose to camp overnight, be warned that the experience is very rustic. You will sleep in a makeshift tent on a thin mattress (more like a yoga mat). There is no toilet – you will need to be ok with squatting in a jungle, and bathing and brushing your teeth in the river. It is a rare experience and a trip to remember!
For accommodation in town, there are now many options along the Bohorok River in Bukit Lawang, ranging from basic guest houses to eco-lodges of all budgets. I stayed in Kupu-Kupu Garden at the end of town, and it was the perfect jungle haven! Situated right along the river with a direct view of the thick foliage of the National Park, sitting in my hammock and soaking in the scenery was absolutely incredible. I can’t recommend them enough!
Day 4 – 5: Lake Toba
Lake Toba is the largest crater lake in the world. With a vast horizon of mountain ranges against the flat mirror-like surface of the water, the striking view is nothing like you’d ever seen. The lake is so large in fact that it has an island (Samosir) in the center that is nearly the size of Singapore! If you didn’t know any better, you would think you were looking into the ocean.
Rent a scooter or a bicycle and tour around Samosir. The unique architecture of the local Batak culture is breathtaking, and you won’t see anything like it anywhere else in Indonesia! Despite Samosir being a “tourist attraction,” you can still enjoy the authentic vibe of local culture and traditions, and it’s a beautiful scenic ride around the island!
I stayed at Samosir Villa Resort, which was one of the fancier hotels on the island with simple yet modern rooms and a pool on the property. But the most incredible part of the resort is its location with a 180° view of the magnificent Lake Toba!
Transfer Day: Fly from Medan Airport (KNO) to Ngurah Rai International Airport in Bali (DPS). A popular route requires a connection in KL, with the shortest flight time of about 5 hours
I’ve been based in Bali over the last 5 years and I want to offer you two important tips before you plan a trip to Bali:
- Avoid Kuta at all costs (believe me, there is nothing exciting to see there except drunks and tourist traps)
- Get off the beaten path to discover the real beauty of Bali.
I have heard so many visitors complain that Bali was much more commercialized and crowded than they had imagined. And it doesn’t help that the taxi mafia at the Ngurah Rai International Airport leaves a negative impression for visitors arriving in Bali for the first time.
Yes, Bali can be touristy. But if you are willing to be adventurous and get off the main tourist track, Bali has some stunning landscape, beautiful cultural scene and breathtaking countryside that will have you falling in love with this island, as I have.
I think most visitors underestimate how big Bali island is! There are so many destinations and attractions on this island, which I share in my complete 2 week Bali itinerary. Bali is definitely a trip entirely on its own!
You may also find this post helpful on how to best get around Bali and your transportation options around the island.
Day 6 – 8: Ubud
Ubud primarily got on the map thanks to Elizabeth Gilbert’s journey as she ate, prayed, and loved her way through the spiritual mecca of Bali.
Ubud is most known as the sacred center of the island, offering a variety of meditation, yoga, self-development, and healing sessions and services. Although Ubud attracts visitors seeking spiritual awakening and exploration, the town’s central location to Bali’s attractions makes it a desirable base for touring the island as well.
From Ubud, you can spend a few days visiting some of the historic Hindu temples, catching the sunrise at the stunning Mount Batur, chasing magical waterfalls, and of course, hiking through some of the iconic rice terraces!
There are many rice terraces throughout Bali. The famous Tagallalang Rice Terraces is the closest to Ubud and the most convenient to visit, but is also the most touristy with hawkers and kids trying to sell you stuff constantly. Instead of Tagalalang, I recommend Jatiluwih Rice Terraces.
Jatiluwih is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that expands 22 km² and boasts a 360 panoramic view of perfectly sculpted rice terraces. The view of Jatiliwih is breathtaking and guaranteed to blow you away!
Ubud is also a foodie’s haven with endless cuisine and menu options. Here are some of my all-time favorite restaurants in Ubud:
Best BBQ ribs: Naughty Nuri’s
Best Vegan: Moksa Plant-Based Restaurant
Best Coffee: Lazy Cats and Seniman
Best Interior: Clear Café
Best Smoothie Bowls: Alchemy
Oh, while you are in Ubud, don’t forget to indulge yourself in some of the best spa treatments!
Day 9-10: North Bali
After spending a few days touring around popular hot spots of Ubud, you will be ready to escape to the quaint North Bali away from the mass tourism. I traveled to North Bali several times, and I love the scenic drive through the highlands, breathing the fresh, brisk air, stopping by some amazing waterfalls such as Nungnung Waterfall or Banyu Wana Amertha and discovering some volcanic black sand beaches along the way.
If you are a nature lover, be sure to check out north Bali. You may consider booking a day trip to tour the highlights, or hire a driver for a day and customize your own adventure! For some destination ideas in north Bali, check out this post.
Transfer Day: Head to Padang Bai to catch a fast boat to Nusa Lembongan (about 30 minutes for the crossing). Check the ferry schedule below!
Nusa Lembongan & Nusa Ceningan
The Nusa trio consists of Nusa Lembongan, Nusa Ceningan and Nusa Penida, located about 30-45 minutes on a fast boat from the Bali mainland. From dramatic Cliffside views, turquoise blue waters, world-class marine life to epic surf breaks, the Nusa islands are the ultimate paradise you won’t want to miss.
Nusa Ceningan is the smallest of the sister islands, which is easily accessible across a short Yellow Bridge from Nusa Lembongan. Nusa Penida is the largest island, which is quite vast and takes at least 2-3 days to explore on its own. If you get a chance to squeeze in extra days on your Bali itinerary, I highly recommend a visit to Penida for its Instagram-famous viewing points!
Day 11-12: Nusa Lembongan
Nusa Lembongan holds a special place in my heart, as it was where I headed for my first solo trip in 2009, tried scuba diving for the first time, and experienced an awe-inspiring encounter with the manta rays!
Although what was once a quaint seaweed farming island has developed exponentially since then, Nusa Lembongan still maintains laid-back island vibes and is a perfect destination for surfing, snorkeling, scuba diving, or just beach bumming on some of the beautiful white sand beaches in Bali.
The Lembongan island is small enough to drive around the entire island in a couple of hours – but give yourself a couple of days to do some marine activities because the Nusa islands have some of the best reefs and surf breaks around Bali!
Just be warned that once you set your foot on this paradise island, you may never want to leave!
Day 13: Nusa Ceningan
The sister island of Ceningan is so small that you can tour around the perimeter of the island and stop by all the hot spots in half a day. Since you can easily get to Ceningan via the Yellow Bridge from Nusa Lembongan, you do not need to transfer accommodations to sightsee Ceningan. You can stay put on Lembongan island and hop on your motorbike for your adventure in Ceningan.
There are a few incredible viewing points, but the highlight of the Ceningan island is unquestionably the Blue Lagoon. Be sure not to miss it! The water at Blue Lagoon is the milkiest baby blue you have ever seen, and the view of the waves crashing into the cliff walls is mesmerizing.
For an in-depth guide and tips to visiting the Blue Lagoon, check out this post.
Transfer Day: Take the last fast boat ferry from Nusa Lembongan to Teluk Kode, Lombok (about 2 hours for the crossing)
Lombok, Indonesia is a quieter version of the neighbor island Bali, offering stunning coastline of beaches, volcanoes, surfs, waterfalls, and various marine activities including snorkeling, diving, fishing, etc.
Lombok is located just east of Bali and perhaps most known for Mount Rinjani which is an active volcano that rises 3,726m and looms over the entire island. You can trek this second largest volcano of Indonesia during your Lombok travel, or explore the many other nature’s wonders.
The paradise islands of Gili trio – Gili Trawangan, Gili Air, and Gili Meno – are just a quick ferry ride from Lombok, in case you are anything like me and can never get enough of white sand beaches!
Day 14 – 17: Senggigi or Kuta
These two towns offer hotel options that fit all budget levels, as well as restaurants, tour agencies, and transportation accessibility.
Senggigi, located on the wast coast, is a bigger town with luxury beach resorts and active social scene (bars, clubs, restaurants, etc). Kuta is a smaller beach town on the south coast, perfect for relaxing and unwinding in budget homestays and lodges.
For your 4-day stay in Lombok, consider one of two travel itinerary options below:
Option 1: Volcano Trekking at Mount Rinjani
One of Lombok’s main attractions is the famous volcano, Mount Rinjani, which involves a multiple-day trekking excursion to see the awe-inspiring sunrise and sunset from atop the mountain, sleep under the stars and revel in the surrounding wildlife and panoramic mountain ranges.
There are various packages you can choose from, from 1N/2D up to 4N/5D, depending on your experience level. If you want to camp overnight, I highly recommend that you sign up for a trekking package which includes a guide, porters (who will carry your camping equipment and food supplies), pick-up/drop-off services, entrance fee, meals, and accommodation.
If you are an outdoor adventurer, you will be blown away by the views from Mount Rinjani and of the crater rim lake. If you get a chance, go for a dip in the lake. It’s not too often that you get to swim in a volcano!
Note: Trekking the Mount Rinjani is not recommended for novice hikers. The ascent to the summit is strenuous even for experienced adventurers. You should be in good physical health and have fitness stamina to embark on this volcano trek.
Option 2: Explore Lombok
Lombok’s surrounding islands of Gilis are famous for frequent turtle sightings. Sign up for a Discover Scuba Diving (if non-certified) or a guided dive trip (for certified divers) and experience the warm tropical waters, colorful coral reefs and the turtle residents in the nearby Gili islands!
Not a fan of diving? Not to worry – there are shallow reefs around all Gili islands where you can encounter turtles from the surface! Check out a snorkeling day trip to see the best of the Gili trio!
After spending the day splashing around in the crystal clear waters, take a guided day trip to explore the highlights of Lombok island including a tribal village, the incredible Tiu Kelep Waterfalls, the historical Bayan mosque, and a Royal Palace at Narmada Park.
Transfer Day: Fly from Lombok International Airport (LOP) to Labuan Bajo (LBJ): A direct flight on Wings Air takes 1 hour and 15 minutes.
Komodo National Park
As being one of six countries that make up the Coral Triangle, Indonesia is an epicenter for the world’s marine life. No trip to Indonesia is complete without exploring one of Indonesia’s top diving and snorkeling destinations, the Komodo islands. Once you witness Komodo’s vibrant corals and abundant marine specifies (including manta rays, reef sharks, turtles, and schooling fishes), it will be hard to go anywhere else.
I have accumulated over 1,000 dives in Southeast Asia alone as a scuba instructor and believe me when I tell you that Indonesia is one of the best destinations for snorkeling and scuba diving! In one particular dive site called Castle Rock in Komodo, I saw a tornado of jacks, Bluefin trevallies, Giant trevallies, and reef sharks, and felt like I was in a National Geographic photo! The underwater scene of Komodo blew my mind.
Komodo National Park is undoubtedly a bucket list item not only for marine lovers but also for those who relish in the great outdoors. As a UNESCO World Heritage Center, the Komodo National Park is a protected reserve for both terrestrial and marine life around the three main islands of Komodo, Padar, and Rinca.
Most commonly known as a home to the legendary Komodo Dragons – the largest living lizards not found elsewhere in the world – the national park attracts visitors from around the world who wish to discover these rare creatures on land as well as explore the magnificent underwater wonderland.
Day 18-21: Labuan Bajo
Labuan Bajo is the main port city where you can sign up for various land and underwater excursions.
If you are a certified scuba diver, you must do the liveaboard trip around Komodo! You can read what it’s like to go on a dive safari here and learn why Komodo is one of the best liveaboard destinations in Indonesia here. A liveaboard cruise is simply the best way to explore the top dive sites around Komodo.
If you are not yet a scuba diver, there are cruises designed for non-divers too!
Check out Bulan Purnama’s 3N/4D tour island hopping, snorkeling, swimming and trekking the Komodo National Park on a traditional Phinisi boat, or an unforgettable catamaran adventure on the beautiful Anema!
You can forget about staying in hotels while in Labuan Bajo – I did not enjoy my stay in town at all. I found Labuan Bajo to be filthy, unattractive, and uninteresting. You will be much better off on a cruise, drifting over the sea, enjoying BBQs on the beach, watching the sky light up with stars, and basking in the mountain ranges in the horizon.
When to Visit Indonesia
Indonesia has a subtropical climate that ranges from 25°C to 30°C year around. Higher altitudes in the mountains may experience temperature as low as 20°C.
Since Indonesia is uniquely situated across the equator on both Indian Ocean the Pacific Ocean, it would be wise to research the seasons for your particular destinations. The rainy (or “wet”) season generally falls between December to March in most of the country. However, places like Raja Ampat can expect most precipitation between June to August.
If you are a scuba diver heading to Indonesia, the water temperature drops significantly from June to September, particularly around Bali (which is considered “winter” months). The average water temperature throughout the year is about 27°C, but during the dry season from June to September, the temperature can be as cold as 17°C depending on the dive site and how deep you are below the surface.
Take an added layer with you if you plan to dive around Bali during these months, such as a vest or a hoodie.
Things to Know Before Traveling to Indonesia
Is this your first time visiting Indonesia?
I got you covered!
Here are some tips to help you prepare for your 3-week Indonesia itinerary.
1. Respect the Local Culture and Customs
The vast majority of the country is Muslim, which means the Indonesian culture is conservative. Women are advised against wearing revealing clothing in public. You should wear clothes that cover shoulders and knees, particularly when visiting temples and other holy places.
2. Get a Local Sim Card
You can get a local SIM card at any major International Airports when you arrive. Be sure to take an unlocked phone with you, and you are good to go!
The best SIM card brand is Telkomsel, which has the best network around Indonesia. You can buy one for about USD 2, and top it up with weekly or monthly internet and phone bundle packages for just a few dollars.
3. Helpful Travel Apps
Some handy apps that I often use when traveling in Indonesia are Google Translate, GoJek, Grab, BlueBird (taxi), NusaTrip (hotel and domestic flights), and Booking.com (hotels).
GoJek and Grab are similar to Uber, where you can order a driver (motorbike or car) in many popular tourist destinations such as Lombok and Bali. When no drivers were available, I have also used the BlueBird app to order a metered taxi in Bali.
In more remote islands such as Sumatra, your only transportation option may be to hire a private driver. Be sure to agree on the price with the driver before getting in the car.
Another useful app to have in Indonesia is WhatsApp, which is the major communication tool used by residents and many local establishments. You can often make table reservations or spa appointments using WhatsApp.
4. Be prepared to use a squat toilet
If you plan to get off the beaten path, trek the mountains or hike through the jungle, it is unlikely that you will have access to a western toilet (or any toilet for that matter).
Toilet paper is also a rare commodity depending on where you travel in Indonesia (instead, you will have a bucket of water or “toilet shower”). You should carry your own stash of paper just in case. And speaking of toilet paper, you cannot flush toilet paper (or anything else) in most parts of the country. Place used paper in the trash bin provided in the bathroom.
5. Know Which Tourist Visa You Need
For most visitors of Indonesia, a free 30-day stay is provided at the International Airport. You may also purchase a 60-day visa for USD 35 at any international airport, which allows you to extend your free 30-day stay once with a 30-day extension. This option requires a visit to a local immigration office at 30-days to have your photo and fingerprints taken.
There is one more option called Social-Cultural Visa, which allows you to stay for up to 6 months. This visa is a single entry, which means you cannot exit the country while the visa is active (if you leave before 6 months, you forfeit your visa). The Social-Cultural Visa must be obtained at an Indonesian Embassy outside the country before entering Indonesia.
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Sign up for a detailed guide to Indonesia Visa below!
6. Buy Alcohol at Duty-Free
You should know that alcohol, particularly wine and spirits, are expensive in Indonesia due to the customs tax. In some areas of the country, you may not be able to get your hands on it at all due to religious restrictions. If you like your alcohol, you may consider buying a supply at duty-free before you land.
A local beer such as Bintang is cheap, which you can buy for about IDR 25,000 (USD 1.7) for a small bottle and IDR 35,000 (USD 2.5) for a large one.
For the cheapest bottle of wine, which is a local brand (and not that tasty, I might add) such as Hatten or Plaga, you can expect to pay IDR 150,000 (USD 11). For any imported bottles you can expect to pay on average IDR 400,000 (USD 28)
7. Get Used to Being a Millionaire
There are a lot of zeros in the Indonesian Rupiah.
The smallest bill is IDR 2,000 (USD .14), and the largest bill is IDR 100,000 (USD 7). You will easily carry millions of Rupiah to cover the cost of one day’s excursions, meals, and shopping. Get familiar with the currency and know how much you are paying, as foreigners are easy targets for scams.
Pay particular attention to money exchange stands! If the exchange rate seems too good to be true, stay away. Do not trust the “authorized money exchange” signs – always find a building where there is a CCTV camera installed, and if there is a security guard, even better.
8. Get Onboard with the Island Time and Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff
Although not all, many businesses and residents operate on “island time,” which can be super frustrating to people like me who appreciate punctuality, structure, and organization.
Scheduled departure times are often subject to delays, meals may not be served together or in any particular order, you may be forgotten altogether (e.g., in restaurants), your reservation may get lost, etc. Just go with it – it is what it is. You are on vacation after all – don’t let this stress you!
9. Tipping is Optional But Appreciated
There is no tipping culture in Indonesia, but giving a little bit goes a LONG way.
I normally tip a few dollars at spas and salons after treatment and leave extra change for drivers and wait staff in restaurants.
10. Bali Belly is Real
Visitors often suffer from Bali Belly – unfortunately, it can happen even in the most “reputable” restaurants. I always carry charcoal tablets and Imodium when I’m traveling, just in case.
You can help prevent Bali Belly by avoiding drinking tap water and using bottled water for brushing your teeth. When at restaurants, always ask if ice is from purified water.
Don’t forget vaccinations before heading to Indonesia. There are reported cases of Malaria and Dengue, among other diseases in Indonesia. Check the most updated information on the recommended vaccinations with CDC and don’t forget to sign up for travel insurance.
Don’t skimp out on travel insurance, particularly when traveling to this part of the world – it’s one of those things you will never know if you will need it, but you won’t want to be without when you do! It’s never worth risking your health (or your life).
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