Ultimate in Diversity
The Republic of Indonesia is the largest archipelago in the world comprising 17,504 large and small tropical islands fringed with white sandy beaches, many still uninhabited and a number even still unnamed. Straddling the equator, situated between the continents of Asia and Australia and between the Pacific and the Indian Oceans, it is as wide as the United States from San Francisco to New York, equaling the distance between London and Moscow. Indonesia has a total population of more than 215 million people from more than 200 ethnic groups. The national language is Bahasa Indonesia.
Among the most well known islands are Sumatra, Java, Bali, Kalimantan (formerly Borneo), Sulawesi (formerly Celebes), the Maluku Islands (or better known as Moluccas, the original Spice Islands) and Papua. Then, there is Bali “the world’s best island resort” with its enchanting culture, beaches, dynamic dances and music. But Indonesia still has many unexplored islands with grand mountain views, green rainforests to trek through, rolling waves to surf and deep blue pristine seas to dive in where one can swim with dugongs, dolphins and large mantarays.
Because of her location, and geology, Indonesia is blessed with the most diverse landscape, from fertile ricelands on Java and Bali to the luxuriant rainforests of Sumatra, Kalimantan and Sulawesi, to the savannah grasslands of the Nusatenggara islands to snow-capped peaks of West Papua.
Her wildlife ranges from the prehistoric giant Komodo lizard to the Orang Utan and the Java rhino, to the Sulawesi anoa dwarf buffalos, to birds with exquisite plumage like the cockatoo and the bird of paradise. This is also the habitat of the Rafflesia the world’s largest flower, wild orchids, an amazing variety of spices, and aromatic hardwood and a large variety of fruit trees. Underwater, scientists have found in North Sulawesi the prehistoric coelacanth fish, a “living fossil” fish, predating the dinosaurs living some 400 million years ago, while whales migrate yearly through these waters from the South Pole. Here are hundreds of species of colourful coral and tropical fish to admire.
Ever since prehistoric times the Indonesian archipelago has been inhabited. Java Man or pithecanthropus erectus (upright apeman) is the oldest known inhabitant here, having lived over a million years ago. Other more recent prehistoric species include the still disputed homo Floresiensis, or the Flores hobbits, dwarf people, who have also made these islands their home.
Historically, Chinese chronicles mention that trade between India, China and these islands was already thriving since the first century AD. The powerful maritime empire of Criwijaya with capital around Palembang in southern Sumatra, was the centre for Buddhism learning and was known for its wealth. It held sway over the Sumatra seas and the Malacca Straits from the 7th to the 13th. century. In the 8th -9th century, the Sailendra Dynasty of the Mataram kingdom in Central Java built the magnificent Buddhist Borobudur temple in Central Java, this was followed by the construction of the elegant Hindu Prambanan Temple built by the Civaistic king Rakai Pikatan of the Sanjaya line.
From 1294 to the 15th century the powerful Majapahit Kingdom in East Java held suzerainty over a large part of this archipelago. Meanwhile, small and large sultanates thrived on many islands of the archipelago, from Sumatra to Java and Bali, to Kalimantan, Sulawesi, Ternate and the Moluccas.
In the 13th century, Islam entered Indonesia through the trade route by way of India, and today, Islam is the religion of the majority of the population.
Throughout history, traders have brought the world’s large religions of Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam to this archipelago, deeply influencing this country’s culture and way of life. Yet Indonesia was never conquered by India nor China, until Europeans came and colonized these islands.
Marco Polo was the first European to set foot on Sumatra. Later, in search for the Spice Islands the Portuguese and Spaniards arrived in these islands sailing around the Cape of Good Hope in southern Africa. In 1596 the first Dutch vessels anchored at the shores of West Java after a long voyage. Over the next three centuries, the Dutch gradually colonized this archipelago until it became known as the Dutch East Indies.
But revolt against the colonizers soon built up throughout the country. The Indonesian youth, in their Youth Pledge of 1928 vowed together to build “One Country, One Nation and One Language: Indonesia”, regardless of race, religion, language or ethnic background in the territory then known as the Dutch East Indies.
Finally, on 17 August 1945, after the defeat of the Japanese in the Second World War, the Indonesian people declared their Independence through their leaders Soekarno and Hatta. Freedom, however was not easily granted. Only after years of bloody fighting did the Dutch government finally relent, officially recognizing Indonesia’s Independence in 1950.
Jakarta, located on the north coast of western Java is the capital of the Republic of Indonesia. It is the seat of government, and center of business and finance. A large, modern metropolitan city with a population of 9 million people, Jakarta is a melting pot of all different ethnic groups in the archipelago.
Today, after six decades of freedom, Indonesia has become the third largest democracy in the world. Despite facing today’s global financial crisis, the country has managed to show positive economic growth, and is internationally respected for her moderate, tolerant yet religious stance in today’s global conflict among civilizations.
Bahasa Indonesia is the national and official language in the entire country. It is the language of official communication, taught in schools and spoken on television. Most Indonesians today speak at least two languages or more, Bahasa Indonesia and their local language, of which Indonesia counts more than 300 regional languages.
Bahasa Indonesia is based on the high Malay language as spoken and written in the Riau Islands, as in the early 19th. century, Malay was the lingua franca throughout the then Dutch East Indies, the language spoken in trade transactions. The more democratic Malay language was preferred by nationalistic youth above the Javanese language, despite the fact that Javanese is more sophisticated and at the time spoken by the majority population, Yet, Javanese is feudal as it has different levels of language depending on one’s status and the status of the person spoken to. The Youth Pledge of 1928, therefore, vowed to build one Indonesian country, one nation, speaking one language: bahasa Indonesia.
Since then, Bahasa Indonesia has developed rapidly incorporating Javanese terms, Jakarta dialect, as well as many English and Arabic words into its vocabulary.
Bahasa Indonesia use Latin alphabets but some parts of Indonesia have their own scripts, too. Bahasa Indonesia is rather easy to learn and once you get the hang of it, you’ll find out that it’s actually quite simple.
Fact: there are 583 languages and dialects spoken by the different ethnic groups in Indonesia. Imagine a school of 583 students who each speaks different languages or dialects. Confusion will be an understatement. Therefore it’s very fortunate that every single ethnic group embraces Bahasa Indonesia as the national language.
Flora and Fauna
Indonesia’s moderate climate throughout the year, its fertile soil brought about by lava, and its minerals found on land and in the sea caused by volcanic eruptions, have made this the ideal habitat for a large number of unique and endemic flora and fauna. Indonesia has among the most diverse variety of species of animal life on land and in the seas found anywhere in the world.
Indonesia’s flora and fauna is divided by the “Wallace Line” that runs between Bali and Lombok, continuing north between Kalimantan and Sulawesi. West of the Line, vegetation and wildlife are Asian in nature, whereas east of the Line, these resemble those of Australia.
Vegetation found in different parts of the archipelago varies according to rainfall, soil and altitude. On the wetter islands, on Sumatra, Kalimantan, and Papua, ancient rainforests cover large areas. These forests are rich in valuable hardwood, aromatic and spice trees, as well as exotic fruit trees. Lately, however, through illegal logging and human settlements, large tracts of forests have been decimated leaving infertile land that cause flooding and erosions.
On the islands east of Bali known as the Nusatenggara islands (or once known as the Small Sunda Islands), there are savannahs, while on other mountain tops such as in the Mt. Gede National Park only 100 kms from Jakarta, one finds edelweiss, more reminiscent of Switzerland.
Indonesia’s wildlife varies from the Java mouse deer (or kancil) and the one-horned rhino to the Sumatran and Kalimantan Orang Utan, the Sulwesi anoa (a small water buffalo), the prehistoric giant Komodo lizard to the exotic Bird of Paradise in Papua.
How about flora?. Here in Indonesia, you can find Raflesia Arnoldi in Bengkulu, one of the giant and unique flower in the world.
To preserve these unique flora and fauna Indonesia has designated 44 national parks throughout the archipelago, covering both land and sea, a large number of protected reserves offering ecotourism opportunities, as well as botanic gardens and zoos.
Being a tropical country, Indonesia is blessed with two seasons, namely dry and rainy. Dry usually occurs from June to September and the rest is rainy season. Sunshine is abundant except in rainy season when the sky tends to be cloudy. It is advisable to visit Indonesia during dry season.
Make sure that your visit does not coincide with holiday festivities such as Muslim holiday Eid (or Lebaran, like Indonesians are fond to say), because the traffic tends to be heavy especially in Java island. Unless you are interested in seeing the festivals up close and experiencing them, of course.
Indonesia’s climate can be hot and humid, so bringing along sunblocks and moisturizers during dry season is recommended. No need to bring umbrellas during rainy season because they are abundant and can easily be bought even in small shops. You might need extra clothing though, and you can purchase them almost anywhere.
People and Culture
Living on more than 17,000 islands, the Indonesian nation today counts some 200 million population comprising more than 200 ethnic groups. After Independence in 1945 inter-marriages among people of different ethnic groups have welded the population into a more cohesive Indonesian nation.
The majority of the population embraces Islam, while in Bali the Hindu religion is predominant. Whereas in areas like the Minahasa in North Sulawesi, the Toraja highlands in South Sulawesi, in the East Nusatenggara islands and in large parts of Papua, in the Batak highlands as well as on Nias island in North Sumatra, the majority are either Catholics or Protestants. On the whole the Indonesian people are religious in nature.
And, true to the Pancasila, the five principles of nationhood, – namely Belief in the One and Only God, a Just and Civilized Humanity, the Unity of Indonesia, Democracy through unanimous deliberations, and Social Justice for all – Indonesian societies are open and remain tolerant towards one another’s religion, customs and traditions, all the while faithfully adhering to their own. The Indonesian coat of arms moreover bears the motto: Bhinneka Tunggal Ika – Unity in Diversity.
Although today’s youth especially in the large cities is modern and follow international trends, yet when it comes to weddings, couples still adhere to traditions on the side of both the bride’s and bridegroom’s parents. So in a mixed ethnic wedding, the vows and wedding traditions may follow the bride’s family’s, while during the reception elaborate decorations and costumes follow the groom’s ethnic traditions, or vice versa. Weddings and wedding receptions in Indonesia are a great introduction to Indonesia’s many and diverse customs and traditions. Weddings are often also occasions to display one’s social status, wealth and fashion sense. Even in villages, hundreds or even thousands of wedding invitees line up to congratulate the couple and their parents who are seated on stage, and then enjoy the wedding feast and entertainment.
The Arts and Celebrations
The Indonesian archipelago harbours many ancient cultures that are rooted here, while throughout its history through centuries until today the islands have been influenced by Indian, Chinese, Arabic and European cultures, and lately also by the global popular culture, international travel and internet. Foreign cultures and traditions, however, are absorbed and assimilated by the people producing unique “Indonesian” creations found nowhere else in the world.
On 2 October 2009, UNESCO recognized Indonesia’s “Batik” as World Intangible Cultural Heritage, adding to the earlier recognized Indonesia’s “Keris” (the wavy blade dagger), and the “Wayang” shadow puppets. Further being considered as World Heritage is the “Angklung” bamboo musical instrument from West Java, being uniquely “Indonesian”.
Indonesia’s culture is indeed rich in the arts and crafts. In textiles, Sumatra produces some of the best gold and silver-thread woven sarongs, known as songket; South Sulawesi women produce colourful hand-woven silks, while Bali, Flores and Timor produce some of the best textiles from natural fibers using complicated motifs. In wood craft, Bali’s artisans produce beautiful sculptures, as do the Asmat in Papua, both traditional and modern, Central Java’s craftsmen produce finely carved furniture, while Bugis shipbuilders of South Sulawesi continue to build the majestic “phinisi” schooners that ply the Indonesian seas until today.
The large variety of different cultures and traditions throughout the country is also expressed in numerous exciting and interesting events, both religious and popular, that are held throughout the year.
Among these are the colourful religious Hindu Dharma ceremonies held continuously on Bali, the court processions during Sekaten in Yogyakarta, Java, preceding the birth date of the Prophet Mohammad, as well as the Tabot Festival in Bengkulu, Sumatra, a ceremony commemorating the role of Prophet Muhammad’s grandchildren, Hasan and Husein in spreading the faith. The Buddhist Vaisak Ceremonies are held yearly around Borobudur, as is the Chinese Toa Peh Kong festival in Manado, while the Feasts to the Dead are held in Toraja, both latter on the island of Sulawesi, and the Kasada ceremony is held annually at the end of the year on Mt. Bromo in East Java, the appease the ancestors and the mountain gods.
Then there are the exciting simulated tribal wars in the Wamena valley of Papua, the bull races on the island of Madura held as thanksgiving after the harvest, as well as the “nyale” festival in Lombok, to collect the sea worms that appear here each February only, and many more events on all islands. And to top it off is the event of complete silence called “nyepi” in Bali, the day of meditation for the entire island, when all lights, fires, sounds, including planes and cars are barred for 24 hours! The Balinese have mooted that “nyepi” becomes an international tradition that will greatly reduce pollution and global warming.
Indonesia is also strong in the performing arts. The beautiful Ramayana dance drama is enacted during the dry season at the large open stage at Prambanan near Yogyakarta under a tropical full moon and against the dramatic illuminated background of this 9th.century temple. Indonesia’s dances are colourful, dramatic or entertaining. They vary from the highly synchronized “saman” song and dance from Aceh, to the sedate and sophisticated court dances from Java accompanied by the liquid sounds of the gamelan orchestra, to the war dances of Kalimantan, Papua, and Sulawesi.
Chinese influence can be seen along the entire north coast of Java from the batik patterns of Cirebon and Pekalongan, to the finely carved furniture and doors of Kudus in Central Java, as also in the intricate gold embroidered wedding costumes of West Sumatra.
But Indonesia does not live in the past alone. Today, in music, in metropolitan Jakarta, the Java Jazz Festival is the annual meeting highlight for top international and Indonesian jazz musicians. Indonesia also boasts some of the best rock and pop bands and singers. Bands like Nidji, Ungu, Slang, Peter Pan and singing celebrities like Rossa, Agnes Monica, Kris Dayanti, Pasha, Ari Lasso, and many others, never fail to create a sensation wherever they appear in Indonesia as also in Malaysia and Singapore.
Indonesia has three time zones—Western Indonesia Time which is GMT +7 (covering Sumatra, Java, Madura, West Kalimantan, Central Kalimantan), Central Indonesia Time which is GMT +8 (covering East and South Kalimantan, Sulawesi, Bali, Nusa Tenggara) and the last is Eastern Indonesia Time which is GMT +9 (covering Maluku and Irian Jaya). The capital Jakarta is GMT + 7 or 16 hours ahead of US Pacific Standard Time.
Office hours start from 8 AM to 4 PM, or 9 AM to 5 PM. Lunch break occurs between 12 noon to 1 PM. Usually offices are closed on Saturdays, including government offices. Government office hours start at 8 AM and end at 4 PM.
Standard banking hours are from 8 AM to 3 PM from Monday to Friday. However several banks open their branches in hotels (and some in malls) longer than office hour, a few are open on Saturdays so you might want to check first. Jakarta has a number of international banks, even though you can also exchange currencies in some hotel cashiers and official money changers.
The Indonesia Rupiah is also called IDR. Information of daily exchange rate can be found in newspapers or from the net. Some Indonesia banks provide this on their websites. IDR and US$ are the most acceptable currencies. Most tourism resorts have money changer facilities. When you are traveling to remote areas it is advisable to exchange your money and clear your check. Credit cards are only acceptable in big hotels, restaurants, shops and traveling agencies.
Electric power supply is 220 volts in all regions. So be careful with your 110-volt electronic equipment. The sockets will only fit with with two pins rounded-tip plugs (technically known as Type C, E, and F) or use adaptors. Most hotels and many restaurants in large cities provide internet connections or free WiFi.
Do’s and Dont’s
Indonesia has several traditions and customs and it is best if you know them beforehand. Some of them are:
- Even though hand shaking is deemed appropriate between men and women, bear in mind that a number of Muslim women prefer to introduce themselves to men by nodding their head, smiling, and clasping their hands without any physical contact.
- Traditionally, when you greet someone, both hands are used when shaking, without grasping.
- It is considered polite to make a phone call first before visiting.Shoes must be taken off before entering a house or place of worship like mosques.
- Usually drinks are offered to guests. It is polite to accept.
- When eating, receiving or giving something, always use your right hand. Right index finger should not be used to point a place, items or people. Use the right hand thumb and fold the remaining fingers to be more polite.
- Taking photographs of houses of worships is allowed, however permission should be asked first whenever possible, especially if you want to take pictures of the interior.Most Indonesian Muslims do not consume alcoholic drinks and pork.
- Hence, the tradition of proposing a toast to honor someone is not generally known.
- Plan your budget and choose your destination carefully. Indonesia is vast—each region has its own quirks and possibilities. For instance, if you plan to have some adventure in rugged terrains, it’s advisable to come on dry season for rains might make your paths muddy.
- Make sure you find as many information as possible concerning Indonesia, especially about the visa.
- Have sufficient cash ready, usually US$ is preferred. It can easily be exchanged in airports, hotels, banks or reputable money changers. Customs might ask you to show how much money you bring.
- Dress sufficiently. If you are female, make sure you dress accordingly. Skimpy clothings in public area, save from beaches and pools, might warrant unwanted attention.