It's not surprising that Indonesia's national motto is 'Unity in Diversity' since there
are few places in the world that offer such cultural
variety and geographical complexity as Indonesia.
Indonesia is the largest archipelago in the world with 18,108
islands (based on 2003 satellite imaging data), stretching along the equator
for more than 5,000 km. Superimposed on the United States or Europe, Indonesia would stretch roughly from San Francisco to New York or from Madrid to Moscow. Nearly 60% of Indonesia's land is forested and a significant portion is mountainous
and volcanic. Some mountains on Sumatra and Irian Jaya exceed
3,000 metres in height. Mt Merapi, on Java,
is regarded as the most volatile of Indonesia's 500 volcanoes – 12% of which are still active!
Indonesia is the fourth most heavily
populated country in the world after China, India and the United States
with 228 million people (2002), comprising some 300 ethnic groups who
speak an estimated 583 languages and dialects. The majority is concentrated
on Java , Bali and Madura (60%). A government
transmigration policy resettles people on the less populated islands,
and Indonesians have been alerted to the importance of only two children
to a family to control the birth explosion.
The majority of Indonesians are of
Malay descent. The major ethnic groups are: Javanese (45%), Sundanese (14%),
Madurese (7.5%). Coastal Malays (7.5%) and others – Chinese, Indians (26%).
Indonesia is the biggest Islamic nation in the world, with
Muslims forming about 90% of the population. Bali, however,
is almost entirely Hindu and everywhere there are Buddhists and Christians.
But, strangely enough, there is no official state religion – freedom of
thought being guaranteed by the Constitution.
There are more than 500 languages and
dialects spoken in Indonesia, but it was Malay that was embraced as the national
language – the language of unity – at the All Indonesian Youth Congress
in 1928. Republicans had recognized for some time the important role that
a common language might play in binding together the different religions
and ethnic groups that comprised the East Indies. Malay
had long been the lingua franca of traders in the archipelago and,
importantly, it was not identified with any particular group. Most importantly
of all, though, it was not a Javanese language. Before long it was being
referred to as Bahasa Indonesia
– the Indonesian language.
The main islands
With such a bewildering mosaic of cultures,
landscapes and histories, it often makes more sense to break the country
down into its constituent parts – Java, Bali, Sumatra, Nusa Tenggara, Sulawesi, Maluku, Kalimantan and Irian Jaya (the western half of New Guinea).
Java is the political, geographic and
economic heart of Indonesia. Although the island covers only 6% of the country's
land area, it has a population of 120 million
– accounting for 60% of Indonesia's total population. This makes it one of the most
densely populated islands on earth. Historically, Java has been home to
Indonesia's most glorious kingdoms and has produced the archipelago's
finest art and architecture, such as Borobudur and Prambanan. Today, it
is the centre of political and economic power, generating more than half
of the country's GDP and dominating Indonesia to such an extent that inhabitants
in the Outer Islands decry the so-called 'Javanization'
of their culture.
- The 18th century
city of Yogyakarta, the cultural centre of Java.
- Borobodur, over a thousand years old and one of the greatest
Buddhist relics in South-East Asia. It is constructed of over a million and a half stones,
with nearly 6 km of reliefs and 300 statues
The Hindu temples of Prambanan village are
the best remaining examples of Java's period of Hindu cultural development
and the second most impressive archaeological site after Borobodur
- Genung Bromo (2,392m), an ancient
crater with four peaks rising from it and the most popular climb in
More tourists visit Bali than any other place in Indonesia. The island has gained a reputation as the exotic
tropical island paradise par excellence – a reputation which dates
from the early years of this century when artists began to visit the island
and record its breathtaking beauty. With its majestic volcanoes, spectacular
terraced rice fields, golden beaches and a rich and colourful culture,
Bali is the jewel in the crown of Indonesia's tourism industry, though
this was marred somewhat in October, 2002 when a bomb exploded outside
a popular nightclub in Kuta, killing some 200
people and leaving hundreds more injured or missing.
- Kuta, Bali's largest and tackiest tourist beach resort. It has the greatest choice of hotels, restaurants,
shops and nightclubs and the best beach – but also the worst traffic
and street hawkers. So go somewhere else if you want a quiet, unspoilt
- Ubud, the cultural centre of Bali.
- The craft villages of Batubulan for stone-carvings, Celuk
for silver, Sukawati for the art market, Batuan for painting and Mas for
- A local cremation.
These are dramatic affairs and tourists are often welcome.
- The volcanoes
Genung Agung and
Genung Batur, plus the spectacular
coast along Tanjung Bukit
and Nusa Penida.
- The temple of Puru
Ulun Danu, one of the most important temples in Bali, dramatically situated on the rim of a crater.
Sumatra is the fourth largest island in the world and is
over 2,000 km long. With a surface area of nearly 475,000 square km, it
is twice the size of Britain and one third larger than Japan. Yet, despite its size, it supports less than 25%
of the population of Indonesia.
Sumatra is an island with an extraordinary wealth of natural
resources, abundant wildlife, Islamic and colonial architecture and breathtaking
mountains, lakes and rivers and some of the finest national parks in the
Sumatra is also crucial to the Indonesian economy. It was
in North Sumatra that Indonesia's first commercial oil well was sunk in 1871, and
over 60% of the country's total petroleum and gas production comes from
the island and the seas surrounding it.
- The Orang-utan Rehabilitation Centre
just outside Bukit Lawang.
- Genung Leuser National Park, one of the largest National Parks
in Indonesia. There are tigers, rhinoceros, elephants and orang-utans,
plus lots of primates such
as gibbons and the white-breasted Thomas Leaf Monkey. There are also
over 3,000 species of plants and 300 bird species.
- Danau Toba, the largest lake
in South-East Asia and one of Indonesia's most spectacular sights. It occupies the caldera
of a giant volcano that collapsed in on itself after a cataclysmic eruption
about 100,000 years ago. It covers an area of 1,707 square km and the
water is 450m deep in places.
- The hill town of Bukittinggi, 930m above sea level on the Ngarai Siank Canyon and surrounded by volcanoes. It is a centre for Minangkabau
Nusa Tenggara means 'South-East Islands' and is quite different from the rest of Indonesia, It consists of over 500 islands, from Lombok in the west to Timor in the East. As you travel east, the drier it becomes. Compared with
other areas of Indonesia, it is dry and barren – more like Australia than the jungle-clad tropics. The people are poorer
than those elsewhere in Indonesia, and there are so many different languages and cultures
that it's impossible to think of these people as one group. Only about
4% of the Indonesian population live in Nusa
- Lombok, next-door neighbour to Bali. If you're looking for the quiet beaches, crystal
clear water and white sand that you didn't find on Bali, then Lombok is
the place to visit. It also has a towering volcano, Gunung
Rinjani and interesting crafts.
- Komoda and Rinca islands, home
of the famous Komoda dragons – 3m long and
weighing 100kg – the largest lizards in the world.
- Sumba, which has the most intact traditional
culture in Nusa Tenggara. It is best-known for its spectacular ikat weaving, fascinating megalithic tombs and the
annual often-violent Pasola festivals which
involve mock battles between teams of armed horsemen.
- The volcanic island of Flores, famous for the spectacular crater
lakes at Kelimutu which change colour every
now and then. (Nobody
can explain why!)
Formerly known as the Celebes, Sulawesi lies between Kalimantan and Maluku. A glance at
any map of Sulawesi immediately highlights the island's strangest attribute
– its shape. The island has four 'arms' which radiate from a mountainous
core and it has been described as looking like an orchid, a deformed spider,
a giant crab and even a mutant starfish! Despite covering an area nearly
as great as Britain, no place is more than about 40 km from the sea.
It is the third largest of the so-called Greater Sundas,
with a land area of 227,000 square km and a population of 13 million.
- Tana Toraja, home of the Toraja people and Sulawesi's most popular tourist attraction. The Toraja people are famous for their unique culture, distinctive
architecture and colourful ceremonies – in particular their burial practices.
- Lore Lindu National Park. Covering an area of 250,000 hectares, this large
and remote national park has barely been touched by tourism. It has
a wide range of habitat and is most famous for its huge variety of birds.
- Danau Poso, Indonesia's third largest lake, with its
famous annual Festival Danau Poso
in late August. Villagers
from far-afield gather for a colourful celebration
of culture, with dancing, song, traditional sports and other activities.
- The reefs around
Pulau Bunanken for
some of the best diving and snorkelling in Indonesia.
Maluku, formerly known as the Moluccas, is not so much a province as an archipelago. It
sprawls across 851,000 square km, of which only one tenth is land, and
consists of over 1,000 islands. Their total population is only 1.9 million.
Although the islands are very much
at the edge of the Indonesian world, both geographically and economically,
they are historically extremely significant. These were the fabled 'Spice
Islands' to which Indian, Chinese, Arab and later, European
traders, came in search of the cloves and nutmeg which grew only there.
- The Banda Islands, with magnificent forts, a volcano,
stunning coral reefs and beaches and the ideal place for diving and
- The Kai Islands (also known as the 'Thousand Islands') with some of the best beaches
east of Bali.
Kalimantan is a huge, thinly-populated
territory of swamps, jungle, mountains and rivers. Borneo, of which Kalimantan forms the major part, has always held a mystical
fascination for westerners. It was a vast, isolated, jungle-covered island,
where head-hunters ran wild, and which, if romantic myths were to be believed,
was rich in gold and diamonds. It is the third largest island in the world
(after Greenland and New Guinea) and is divided between three countries – Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei. Kalimantan's 549,000 square km (nearly 30% of Indonesia's total land area) has just 5% of the country's population
(about 9.5 million), most of which is concentrated in a handful of coastal
cities. The interior is populated by various Dayak
tribes, whose villages are scattered along the riverbanks. Although Kalimantan has huge tracts of virtually uninhabited land, parts
of the island are heavily industrialized and it is the main producer of
oil and timber in Indonesia.
Kalimantan is one of the least visited parts of Indonesia, so it's a great place to 'get off the beaten track'
and for those who like their travel 'rough'!
- The Orang-utan Rehabilitation Centres
at Tanjung Harapan
and Camp Leakey within Tanjung Puting National Park. These are probably the best in Indonesia.
- River travel along
the Sungai Mahakam
- The floating market
at Banjarmarsin on the Barito River. (There are plenty of food canoes as well!)
Irian Jaya comprises the western
half of the island of
New Guinea – the world's largest island after Greenland. It is Indonesia's largest, most remote,
and least populated province, with large areas yet to be explored. The
province is also one of the country's newest
and was only 'acquired' after the Dutch surrendered control of it in the
Irian Jaya has a population of
under 2 million, and is nearly twice the size
of Britain and three times larger than Java and Bali combined. It contains the highest mountain in Indonesia – Puncak Jaya (5,050 m) which is usually snow-capped. Since the province
is covered in vast tracts of remote and rugged country, travelling here
is a serious proposition with many areas only accessible on foot. (And
you will definitely need a guide!)
- Baliem Valley. This is Irian Jaya's major tourist attraction with its unique culture and
trekking opportunities. The Dani people live
here and Dani men still wear penis sheaths despite the government's
campaign in the 1970s to eradicate them.
- Pulau Biak, popular for its beaches, diving and
Second World War relics.
- The Asmat
region, a huge area which remains almost completely undeveloped and
one of the truly unexplored regions left in the world. Home
of the Asmat people, famous for their wood-carvings.
Millie the dog would like
to visit Indonesia one day!
Indonesia, by Peter Turner, Marie Cambon,
Paul Greenway, Brendan Delahunty & Emma Miller, Lonely Planet Publications.
Indonesia Handbook, by Joshua Eliot, Jane Bickersteth and Liz Capaldi,