The Southeast Asian nations of Indonesia and Thailand are home to some of the most popular travel destinations in the region, if not the world. From Bali's surfer and yogi havens to Borneo's jungle, Bangkok's bustling streets to Phuket's stunning beaches, it's hard to go wrong with either country. Beyond these hot spots, you'll find plenty of world-class beaches, vibrant cities, remarkable landscapes, underwater splendors, and unique wildlife. To help you decide which country better suits your next Southeast Asian trip, we've put Indonesia and Thailand head-to-head in six key categories, including street food, wildlife, beaches, and more.
Street Food in Indonesia and Thailand
Although Indonesia arguably has a more diverse cuisine between its 14,000-plus islands, Thailand’s street food and night markets are unparalleled. Bangkok in particular is a foodie’s paradise, with numerous thriving street markets, such as Or Tor Kor, Liab Duan Night Market, and Lumpini Park. Here, you’ll find a wide array of tasty offerings, like pad see ew (stir-fried noodles), massaman gai (a Thai curry dish), kluay tod (fried bananas), and the must-have classic, pad Thai.
That being said, travelers heading to Indonesia should make sure to sample delicacies from roadside eateries and food stalls whenever possible. In Jakarta, be on the lookout for kerak telor, which translates to “egg crust” in Bahasa. This renowned crispy snack consists of sticky rice, shallots, coconut flakes, and shrimp mixed with a duck egg. Vegetarians should seek out gado-gado, a dish of fresh vegetables, tempeh, and tofu doused in peanut sauce. Gado-gado typically comes with a side of deep-fried kripik crackers.
Wildlife in Thailand and Indonesia
Many travelers flock to Thailand for the chance to volunteer or interact with elephants at an ethical sanctuary, such as Elephant Nature Park outside of Chiang Mai. Although this is a bucket-list-worthy adventure, Indonesia’s vast geography harbors more diverse flora and fauna. For example, Indonesia’s largest islands — Sumatra and Borneo — have their own subspecies of Asian elephant, with wild populations totaling approximately 2,500 and 1,500, respectively. Both islands also provide the only habitat for wild orangutans. In northern Sumatra, Gunung Leuser National Park offers a great chance of spotting the Sumatran orangutan, a smaller and rarer species than its Bornean relative. Jungle treks out of Bukit Lawang adhere to ethical practices while allowing visitors to view orangutans and other wildlife. Another Indonesian native, the komodo dragon, can be found across the islands of Komodo, Rinca, Flores, and Gili Motang. July through November is the most opportune time to spot the world’s largest lizard species, as they are out and about during mating and nesting season. Heading offshore, Indonesia’s reefs and watery depths grant opportunities to spot whale sharks, especially off Sulawesi.
Hiking in Thailand and Indonesia
The Indonesian archipelago is dotted with many volcanoes, lush jungles, and otherworldly landscapes that are best explored by foot, whether it be a day hike or multi-day trek. For rugged landscapes and solitude, head to the uninhabited Padar island off Komodo island. Scamper up to the Pulau Padar viewpoint to gaze down on three surrounding bays. Wildlife enthusiasts should head to Bukit Lawang in northern Sumatra to witness orangutans, colorful bird species, and a wealth of biodiversity. Farther east, Indonesia’s highest peak, Puncak Jaya, should only be pursued by seasoned trekkers. However, Mount Rinjani’s lower trails are suitable for more leisurely hikers. The towering peak is located on the island of Lombok, which is just a two-hour speed boat ride from Bali. To reach the summit, trekkers must first ascend roughly 6,500 feet through the lush forest to reach the crater rim, where they’ll be rewarded with a breathtaking view of the lake and volcano below. Trekking to this point requires pitching a tent the night before. More experienced hikers should attempt the sunrise hike to the 12,224-foot summit to witness the striking panoramic views and reflection on the lake below.
Thailand may be comparatively lacking in elevation and mountain terrain, but there are some notable treks to enjoy. The northern provinces of Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai feature a multitude of trails, with homestay options making longer treks between the two possible. Even Thailand’s islands offer superb hiking for those able to pull themselves away from the tranquil beaches. Popular Koh Samui is home to Khao Pom, a 2,000-foot peak that can be summited in four hours round-trip. Besides leaving the crowds behind, you’ll be rewarded with views across the island and the Gulf of Thailand.
Capital City in Indonesia and Thailand
Thailand’s capital, Bangkok, blends glitzy modernity with historic temples, canals, and bustling markets. Bangkok’s most iconic neighborhood, Banglamphu, merits a visit for its notorious backpacker dives on Khao San Road, as well as golden wats and hidden antique shops. To the south sits Rattanakosin, known as the royal island, which includes numerous architectural marvels courtesy of Rama I’s effort to recreate the former capital of Siam, Ayutthaya. In contrast to Bangkok’s towering glass skyscrapers, the skyline of Rattanakosin stars the Grand Palace, Wat Phra Kaew, Wat Pho, and the National Museum. Bangkok’s Chinatown is a maze of bazaars and alleyways lined with aromatic food stalls and vendors. The city’s nightlife has developed somewhat of an infamous reputation, especially the lewder bars in Patpong district. Less seedy options include frenzied boxing matches, rooftop bars, and the night clubs on Royal City Avenue.
Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta, makes sprawling Bangkok seem easily navigable in comparison. With more than 20 million people in the metro area, Jakarta is far less user-friendly for first-time travelers to Southeast Asia. However, if you have a connecting flight through this hectic megalopolis, take a moment to dive into the rich sights, sounds, and smells. Head to Kota Tua to admire the colonial architecture and get a sense of Jakarta’s pre-congestion charm. A more thorough look into Indonesian history awaits at the National Museum, which features exhibits on traditional textiles, artwork, and heritage. Nearby, the expansive Merdeka Square occupies an entire square-kilometer, providing a much-needed space for locals to congregate.
Beaches Thailand and Indonesia
Thailand’s abundance of white-sand beaches, lapped by the turquoise waters of the Gulf of Thailand and Andaman Sea, have made the country an internationally-renowned beach destination. Surrounded by jagged limestone cliffs, Railay Beach in Krabi is well worth the choppy boat ride to explore its coves, laze on the beach, or go rock climbing. On Thailand’s eastern coast, Trang Province boasts many idyllic stretches of sand, especially on Ko Libong. This isolated island, located off the coast of Hat Chao Mai National Park, features deserted beaches and offers the chance to spot dugongs grazing on seagrass just offshore. The popularity of Thailand’s beaches has come at a cost, though. Maya Bay, which was the filming location for “The Beach” starring Leonardo DiCaprio, has closed to boats due to environmental degradation and coral bleaching.
Home to over 14,000 islands, Indonesia is not lacking in beautiful beaches. That being said, Bali-bound travelers should note that the coast of Kuta and the southern region have seen extensive development since their rise as a surfing mecca. More natural stretches of sand can be found farther north, such as black-sand Canggu Beach or sleepy Pasir Putih. The Gili Islands — a cluster of three small islands northeast of Bali — are encircled by fine white sand. It’s not uncommon to spot sea turtles while snorkeling in coral reefs just offshore. Among the three, Gili Meno has the sparsest crowds. Farther east, the island of Flores is home to Kanawa Beach, which maintains a thriving sea turtle population. Nearby on the shores of Komodo island, Pink Beach sparkles from microscopic foraminifera, creating a delightful sunbathing spot between the clear sea and grassy green slopes.
Budget-Friendly Options in Indonesia and Thailand
On the whole, both countries can be visited on a budget, but Thailand gets an added edge from transportation costs. If you plan on visiting more than one island in Indonesia, you’ll need to book a ferry or regional flight. For example, round-trip tickets for the speed ferry between Bali and the Gili Islands cost approximately $100. Accommodations in Thailand offer better savings, too. Grungy hostel rooms can be had for under $10, while luxury properties, such as The Dewa Koh Chang, a beachfront hotel in Trat Province, can cost as little as $70 during the off-season.
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