Southeast Asia is one of those regions of the world everyone wants to visit at some point in their lifetime. The vibrant cultures, incredible food, breathtaking landscape and exotic wildlife sum up the lure of this part of the globe – Thailand and Indonesia are no exception.
However Indonesia and Thailand are very different, so making the right decision about which to visit for your once-in-a-lifetime holiday is important. That’s why we’re here to help! Having visited both destinations we compare them below, showing you their differences, similarities and what to expect in each.
Indonesia or Thailand: Which should you choose?
Both countries have beautiful landscapes, mountains, jungles and waterfalls to explore, so are perfect destinations for a sunseeker that’s also looking for some adventure.
However if beaches are your main priority, then we think Indonesia is a better choice than Thailand. The pristine beaches in this country – and the thousands of Indonesian islands – are spectacular. We recommend some of our favorite beaches later on in this article. However the problem with Indonesia is that due to its geography, access to the best beaches can be harder than in Thailand.
Therefore Thailand, with its thriving tourist sector, is better catered for visitors. The beaches in this country are also great – albeit the most popular ones tend to get busy – and there are many excursion options geared towards tourists.
That said, Indonesia is also home to the world-famous island of Bali, which has many tourist excursions and upmarket hotels.
With Indonesia receiving less than 20 million tourists a year, and Thailand receiving close to 40 million, you will find that most of Indonesia is far less commercialized than Thailand. What that means is that an Indonesian vacation often feels more cultural, rustic, and less ‘touristy’ than one in Thailand.
In essence, Indonesia is a country with raw natural beauty, but it needs an adventurous traveler to discover it. The reward though, is finding stunning places and having them all to yourself. Thailand’s beauty is more easy to find – resorts are set up on the best beaches, and excursions are in place. The downside is you have to share the most beautiful spots with many tourists.
Expect a friendly welcome in Indonesia too, where locals are more than happy to see tourists! That’s not always the case in Thailand, where tourists are sometimes seen negatively.
One of the reasons for that, is the many party tourists who come to Thailand to drink, enjoy Full Moon parties, and visit Bangkok’s Red Light District. Therefore if you’re looking for a lively nightlife scene, Thailand is likely going to be a better destination than Indonesia.
In terms of expenses, Indonesia tends to be a cheaper country than Thailand in regards to food, alcohol, and accommodation too.
Below we look at some of the sights to see in each country and then compare the culture.
Indonesia or Thailand: Stunning natural scenery
Indonesia’s stunning coral reefs and sandy beaches give way to a forested volcano-sculpted inland. It’s the perfect place to sunbathe, discover exotic wildlife, and go jungle trekking.
If you want to stick with sand but avoid the crowds, Nusa Dua is a little-known beach in Bali that has miles of golden coastline, and is perfect for swimming, sunbathing and kayaking. In fact head to Bali’s north coast for great diving, but the south coast for superb surfing.
Staying in Bali, you have to visit some of the island’s spectacular waterfalls! One of our favorites, Sekumpul Waterfalls, is in the mountainous north. Known as being the most beautiful waterfall on the island, take the Wanagiri Hidden Hills road to this lush rainforest swimming spot that has lots of little hiking trails around it.
For the more adventurous traveler, scuba diving around Indonesia can also be a remarkable experience with a vast variety of wildlife on show.
The Bunaken National Marine Park, in the Bay of Manado, is a great spot to see tuna, sharks, sea snakes, and swim alongside manta rays and turtles!
Going even more remote, head to the breathtaking Gili islands. This group of three tiny islands are ringed by stunning turquoise sea and white sandy beaches. It’s our favourite place to swim and snorkel throughout Indonesia.
There’s also an underwater sculpture made up of 48 human figures in a circle. This sculpture was build by Jason deCaires Taylor, a famous underwater sculptor, with the aim of rejuvenating the coral life at Gili Meno. Coral has now attached itself to the sculpture to create a stunningly haunting view.
Staying outside of the main tourist areas of Indonesia, head to one of the most significant islands in the country for wildlife. That’s Komodo Island, where you can find the famous Komodo Dragons.
These beautiful scaly creatures are the largest lizards in the world, some growing to about the size of an alligator. They carry venom capable of killing humans, and can hunt everything, from other lizards to buffaloes to each other.
If you’re a fan of the hairy animal variety, the island of Sumatra has you covered with its majestic orangutan. These human like orange-haired primates are some of the most incredible animals on Earth, and share 96.4% of our DNA. In fact we’ve written about Indonesia’s stunning wildlife before – see here!
Thailand is one of those rare destinations that has it all. Beaches for relaxing, a famous nightlife and party scene, and food that’s known around the globe. It’s also one of the most beautiful countries on the planet.
For fantastic beaches, head out into the islands. Phuket’s famous beaches include Kata Beach, which offers a busy slice of paradise with street vendors, upmarket hotels, and beach activities such as surfing and snorkeling. However Freedom Beach offers a more serene choice, whilst still providing convenient access to food vendors and beach chairs. In general, expect a livelier and busier beach experience than what you would get in Indonesia.
That said, if you travel away from Phuket there are more laid-back coastal options. One of our favorites is Sunrise Beach on Ko Lipe. This gorgeous long stretch of white sand has shallow warm water perfect for swimming. It’s laid back, quiet by Thai standards, and the perfect place to unwind.
After a day’s relaxing, head to the island of Krabi where you can go rock climbing, jungle trekking, and sea kayaking. Its stunning natural beauty, jungle-covered interior and incredible cliffs and caves offer an array of activities for tourists who want more from their trip than just relaxing on the beach.
For those looking for a more wholesome time, Koh Tao (meaning Turtle Island) on Thailand’s east coast is home to the country’s most beautiful coral reefs. Which naturally makes it the top destination for scuba diving and snorkeling.
Whilst if you want to see jaw-dropping wildlife head to Isaan. This barely visited region of Thailand – as we’ve written about before – is home to breathtaking national parks, hiking trails, elephants, and even temples built on volcanoes! It’s a region almost all tourists ignore, but it feels like Thailand before tourism took over.
Indonesia vs Thailand: Experience a different world
Both are culture-packed countries where you’re guaranteed to experience the incredible east.
Indonesia is a land of many islands, but also many temples – you can combine both at Tanah Lot! This rock formation off the coast of Bali houses an ancient pilgrimage site called Pura Tanah Lot. Visit at high tide and you will experience waves crashing off the mystic temple – it’s quite a sight.
In fact the majority Hindu island of Bali has a plethora of stunning temples. From exotic beachside sanctuarys, to houses of worship hidden deep in the jungle interior.
Go temple hopping around the island for a cultural experience, and a way to see Bali in its full glory. Tirta Empul Temple – with its holy water that you can bathe in which is said to clean you of your sins – is an unforgettable experience.
Rice has been cultivated on Bali for generations, and the gorgeous rice paddies that rise up into the clouds across the island are as iconic as they are important. Head to Tegalalang to see some of the most beautiful tropical rice terraces on the planet. Speak to the friendly locals in the villages about their life and work when there.
For a bustling shopping experience head to Jalan Malioboro in Yogyakarta. During the day this street is perfect to pick up souvenirs at the small stalls that pop up each day. But this street also comes alive in a different way at night, with street musicians, performers, and many open-air restaurants to try out.
If you’re looking for a very cultural experience then visiting Maimun Palace in Northern Sumatra is a must. Serving as a museum, the building itself is a trip back in time too. There’s often traditional music performances here, while you can rent out traditional costumes for photos as well!
Thailand is a country known for its food, culture, stunning scenery, and more recently a great party scene.
For those looking for a wild time, Bangla Road on Patong offers its own selection of bars, go-go clubs and neon-covered craziness. As well as the famous adult entertainment clubs that have become synonymous with Thailand.
Koh Phangan is most well-known for its Full Moon Parties. This small East Coast island is home to the most famous parties in Thailand and 10,000 to 30,000 people flock to them every month.
Around 90% of Thais identify as Buddhists, and there’s also a significant Hindu influence in the country too. Therefore away from the parties and beaches, Thailand is a very spiritual place filled with spectacular temples.
One of our favorites – and one of the most serene – is situated in Phanom Rung Historical Park. A remnant of the Khmer Empire, Phanom Rung is a breathtaking temple built on the rim of an extinct volcano.
You could – and should – also have a go at Muay Thai, Thailand’s national sport. Muay Thai (or Thai Boxing) can be traced back to 18th century Thailand, and has its roots deeply ingrained in Thai culture. Gyms up and down the country offer training sessions (from a single day, to several months!) for foreigners and it’s a fantastic way to get to know this country and culture. In fact that’s something we’ve even written about in the past.
Indonesia or Thailand: A taste of the East
Both countries will provide a treat for your tastebuds!
Indonesian cuisine is a melting pot of different influences, and typically food varies from region to region within the country.
One dish you can get throughout is Bakso – which is a moreish noodle soup containing meatballs. Expect to see this delicacy sold on street carts up and down the country.
Another popular dish is pecel lele – fried catfish. The fish is prepared in a simple manner usually rubbed with salt and a spice or two, then fried. It’s a popular evening snack.
In Bali the food is pork and chicken dominated. Order lawar, a dish that is made up of coconut, garlic, chili, and either chicken or pork meat and blood.
Another traditional meaty dish is Bebek betutu, which is duck cooked with coconut inside banana leaves.
Thai food is famous around the world – and no wonder – so if you’re a food lover, Thailand is going to be a dream destination.
Make sure you try the iconic Pad Thai – a stir fry dish made with thin rice noodles, meat or shrimp.
For something a little less known, Thailand’s remote and rarely visited northeast – Isaan – has a traditional dish called Laap which is delicious. It’s made up of minced meat seasoned with fresh herbs, lime juice and fish sauce, and is served with sticky rice.
You must try Thailand’s comfort food – Khao Phat – as well. This is good hearty fried rice that comes combined with a variety of ingredients. It’s perfect for a long day exploring Thailand’s sights.
Thailand vs Indonesia: Which should you choose?
A holiday to either Thailand or Indonesia is going to be an unforgettable experience with great food, scenery and culture. But both countries do provide very different vacations.
If you’re looking for a holiday where there’s easy access to beaches, tourist hotspots, and excursion options – as well as a lively nightlife and shopping scene – then Thailand is going to be a better choice than Indonesia. However the beaches in Indonesia and its natural scenery is arguably better than Thailand, so if you’re adventurous and want a holiday away from the crowds, this nation will provide a truly unique vacation.