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Did You Know…?

  • Borobudur is the world’s largest Buddhist temple.
  • The Indonesian population encompasses some 365 ethnic and tribal groups.
  • Bahasa Indonesia is the official language but the people also speak 583 dialects.
  • More than 25% of the world’s fish species (4,000) are in Indonesian waters.
  • There are 61 volcanoes on Java, of which more than a dozen are active.

Of Bali and rijstafel

For North Americans, Indonesia is an exotic destination. Even names and words associated with it evoke exotica: the Spice Islands, Bali, Borneo, Java, rijstafel, sarongs, monsoons.

The country forms a bridge between Southeast Asia and Australia. Its tropical climate and surrounding seas ensure visitors will find scenery that is lush, fragrant and conducive to relaxation. Lush scenery can be found closer to home, but the history, culture and people make a longer journey worthwhile.

In reality, Indonesia is an island archipelago of major proportions, extending 3,200 miles, from end to end in a roughly east-to-west direction. The country contains some of the world’s largest islands (Java, Sumatra and parts of Borneo and New Guinea).

The romance of Indonesia for North Americans has to do with its distance from home; its exotic mix of cultures (Dutch, Indian and indigenous, in a predominantly Moslem environment), and its tropical and varied natural beauty.

Monsoon rains control Indonesia’s weather. Temperatures are warm and constant year-round, so the real scheduling issue for travelers is avoiding the times of heavy rainfall, and those times vary from one end of the country to the other. Also, mostly in late summer/early fall, the skies in parts of Indonesia, such as Borneo and Sumatra, can suffer from moderate or even dense smoke haze produced by the seasonal land and forest burnings (for maintenance of rice fields and palm oil plantations).

Each of Indonesia’s more than 300 ethnic groups has its own cultural and religious identity. Most notably, there is a distinct Chinese minority (Buddhist), and Bali is largely Hindu.
For more than 300 years, the Netherlands controled the islands, and the Dutch influence is still apparent. For example, rijstafel is an Indonesian meal of rice with numerous spicy side dishes, but the word is Dutch for rice table.

It is not surprising that Indonesia appeals mostly to the most venturesome. Others will enjoy the more populated islands of Java and Madura, where there is more of a tourist infrastructure and where they can shop for outstanding arts and crafts. And all visitors appreciate the music and dance performances, good prices and friendly people.

Things to do for Venturers

  • Let Balikpapan on Borneo be the starting point for a cruise up the Mahakam River. Travel by houseboat to Tanjung Isau to visit a Dayak longhouse.
  • Spend the time and money to travel from Bali to Menjangan Island and Labuan Lalang for snorkeling and diving.
  • Go to Nias for surfing (best April to October), but you’ll also want to take the opportunity to learn something of the local culture. Watch the Nias people perform their war dance noted for its acrobatic jumps; also, watch demonstrations of a local skill called stone jumping.
  • Visit the Meru Betiri reserve on Java and take your chances on seeing the rafflesia flower, the world’s largest but with short-lived blooms, and the nearly extinct Java tiger. Permits are required to visit most Indonesian nature reserves. Facilities are rustic and transport often is by horseback or on your feet.
  • Eat durian, the world’s smelliest fruit.
  • See if you can get to the island of Komodo for a sighting of the legendary Komodo dragon in its own habitat.

Things to do for Centrics

  • Allow time for a thorough tour of Borobudur, the world’s largest Buddhist temple. You will gain an understanding of the huge project undertaken in the 20th century to restore a valuable cultural site that had been ignored for centuries.
  • Visit the Mount Leuser National Park on Sumatra to see and learn about the orangutans.
  • Visit the Taman Fatahillah Museum, which comprises three main buildings on a single square in Jakarta. Exhibits cover Indonesia’s colonial and precolonial periods, fine art, ceramics and puppets.
  • Visit Torajaland (Tana Toraja) in Sulawesi, and if you are lucky, your visit will coincide with some part of a traditional, weeklong Toraja funeral at which sacred water buffalo are slaughtered and lots of food is shared among the many who’ve traveled far for the event. Torajans are Christian but have not shed all animist beliefs.
  • Dive on Bali’s north coast and “tour” a World War II shipwreck while viewing the sea life that gathers there.
  • Buy souvenirs that bespeak Indonesia, such as wooden masks or silver goods. Better yet, sign up to make your own silver souvenirs in Kotagede. Located a few miles from Yogyakarta, it is called the Silver City because of the number of working silversmiths in town.

Things to do for Authentics

  • Attend a shadow puppet show. Then buy a shadow puppet or two for display at home.
  • Buy batik fabrics from which you can fashion gorgeous clothes you could not buy at home. Yogyakarta in central Java is famed for its vibrant batiks, as well as distinct court music and dance.
  • Sample rijstafel. It’s a rice dish and, essentially, an Indonesian-style comfort food.
  • Take in performances of music and classical or folk dance, which will bring you closer to the people who inhabit these islands.
  • On Bali, in particular, there are several notable types of traditional dances, sometimes accompanied by bizarre music, sometimes involving dozens or hundreds of dancers. They are a must-see.
  • If you are in Indonesia on its Aug. 17 Independence Day, watch the parade nearest you. These parades can include participants in brightly colored traditional ethnic dress.

Additional Resources

For more information, consult the Ministry of Tourism at