Indonesia is the world’s largest archipelago with over 17,000 islands. The country stretches 5,100 km along the equator between Australia and Asia and is bordered by the Pacific and Indian Oceans at the Equator. Few countries in the world could match Indonesia’s diversity of population with some 490 different ethnics living together. With a fascinating, colourful and sometimes tumultuous past, Indonesia is a place of rich and diverse culture. Indonesia is “Ultimate in Diversity”
A Historical Glimpse on Indonesia
The first known hominid inhabitant of Indonesia was the so-called “Java Man”, or Homo erectus, who lived here half a million years ago. Some 60,000 years ago, the ancestors of the present-day Papuans move eastward through these islands, eventually reaching New Guinea and Australia some 30-40,000 years ago. Much later, in about the fourth millennium B.C., they were followed by the ancestors of the modern-day Malays, Javanese and other Malayo-Polynesian groups who now make up the bulk of Indonesia’s population.
Trade contracts with India, China and the mainland of Southeast Asia brought outside cultural and religious influences to Indonesia. One of the first Indianized empires, known to us now as Sriwijaya, was located on the coast of Sumatra around the strategic straits of Malacca, serving as the hub of a trading network that reached to many parts of the archipelago more than a thousand years ago.
On neighboring Java, large kingdoms of the interior of the island erected scores of exquisite of religious monuments, such as Borobudur, the largest Buddhist monument in the world. The last and most powerful of these early Hindu-Javanese kingdoms, the 14th century Majapahit Empire, once controlled and influenced much of what is now known as Indonesia, maintaining contacts with trading outposts as far away as the west coast of Papua New Guinea.
Indian Muslim traders began spreading Islam in Indonesia in the eighth and ninth centuries. By the time Marco Polo visited North Sumatra at the end of the 13th century, the first Islamic states were already established there. Soon afterwards, rulers on Java’s north coast adopted the new creed and conquered the Hindu-based Majapahit Empire in the Javanese hinterland. The faith gradually spread throughout archipelago, and Indonesia is today the world’s largest Islamic nation.
Indonesia’s abundant spices first brought Portuguese merchants to the key trading port of Malacca in 1511. Prized for their flavor, spices such as cloves, nutmeg and mace were also believed to cure everything from the plague to venereal disease, and were literally worth their weight in gold. The Dutch eventually wrested control of the spice trade from Portuguese, and the tenacious Dutch East India Company (known by initials VOC) established a spice monopoly which lasted well into the 18th century. During the 19th century, the Dutch began sugar and coffee cultivation on Java, which was soon providing three-fourths of the world supply of coffee.
By the turn of the 20th century, nationalist stirring, brought about by nearly three centuries of oppressive colonial rule, began to challenge the Dutch presence in Indonesia. A four-year guerilla war led by nationalists against the Dutch on Java after World War II, along with successful diplomatic maneuverings abroad, helped bring about independence. The Republic of Indonesia, officially proclaimed on August 17th, 1945, gained sovereignty four years later.
During the first two decades of independence, the republic was dominated by the charismatic figure of Sukarno, one of the early nationalists who had been imprisoned by the Dutch. General (ret.) Soeharto eased Sukarno from power in 1967. Indonesia’s economy was sustained throughout the 1970′s, almost exclusively by oil export.
The Asian financial crisis, which broke out in mid-1997, paralyzed the Indonesian economy with the rupiah losing 80% of its value against the US dollar at the peak of the turmoil.
On May 21, 1998, Soeharto resigned after 32 years in power and was replaced by B.J. Habibie following bloody violence and riots. Indonesia held its first democratic election in October 1999, which put Abdurrahman ‘Gus Dur’ Wahid in the role of president. Then vice president Megawati assumed the presidency in July 2001 after incumbent president Wahid was impeached by a special session of the People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR), the country’s highest law making body.
Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, also known by his initials SBY, won over voters in Indonesia’s first democratic elections in 2004 and reelected again in 2009. He leads the country with his image as a man of integrity, a strong communicator and firm leader in times of crisis.
Under Suharto, Indonesia had experienced solid economic growth in tandem with an autocratic political system. Then came the Asian economic crisis which brought a temporary end to high economic growth and perhaps a permanent end to dictatorship. Instead it has moved solidly into the ranks of genuine democracies, defined for the purposes of this essay as nations where the people can and do change their government through peaceful, popular elections. Indonesia has also recovered respectable if not stellar economic growth.
So far, Indonesia has achieved all the democratic stability. Most importantly, Indonesia is socially stable, strongly committed to combating terrorism, militarily calm and is increasingly itself giving voice to democratic values in its own foreign policy, and in its natural leadership of ASEAN policy.
Indonesia is the largest archipelagic state in the world that has 17,508 islands, situated between 6 degrees northern latitude and 11 degrees southern latitude and spreading from 97 degrees to 141 degrees eastern longitude and it is located between two continents – Asia and Australia/Oceania. This strategic position greatly influences the country’s culture, social, politics and economy.
Stretching along 3,977 miles between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean, Indonesia has a total area of 1.9 million square miles including the ocean waters. The five large islands of Indonesia are: Sumatera covering 473.606 square km, Java with 132.107 square km, Kalimantan (the third largest island in the world) with an area of 539.460 square km, Sulawesi with 189.216 square km, and Papua with an area of 421.981 square km.
The islands of Indonesia were formed in the Miocene age (12 million years BC); Palaeocene age (70 million years BC); Eocene age (30 million years BC); Oligacene age (25 million years BC). As people from Asia started to migrate, it is believed that Indonesia existed since the Pleistocene age (4 million years BC). The islands have a great effect on the change of the Australian and Pacific tectonic plate. The Australian plate changes slowly with an upward movement into the small plates of the Pacific plate that moves southward. Between these lines, the islands of Indonesia are stretched out.
This makes Indonesia as one of the most changing geological area in the world. There are 400 volcanic mountains – which 100 of them are active- that dot the islands of Indonesia. Every day Indonesia experiences three vibrations, at least one earthquake a day and one volcanic eruption in a year.
The population of Indonesia can be divided into two major groups: in the western region most of the people are from the Malay ethnicity while in the eastern region there are the Papuans originating from the Melanesian Islands. Indonesia also recognizes specific ethnic groups that come from a certain province/area and have specific language for example the Javanese from Central or East Java, the Sundanese from West Java or the Batak ethnicity from North Sumatra.
In addition, there are also minority ethnicities derived from Chinese, Indian and Arabic descendents. These people travelled as merchants through trade exchange since the 8th century BC and migrated to Indonesia. Approximately 3% of the population is from Chinese ethnicity, although the exact percentage is not known as the last ethnicity census was held in the 1930s.
Islam is the major religion of 85.2% of the population, designating Indonesia as the largest Moslem country in the world. The remaining population consists of Protestants (8.9%); Catholics (3%); Hindus (1.8%); Buddhists (0.8%) and other religion (0.3%).
Many Indonesians speak their ethnic language as their mother tongue. However, the Indonesian language is the official language and it is taught at all schools and most Indonesians are proficient in using the language for communication.
Indonesian Culture; Arts and Traditions
Indonesia is culturally rich. Indonesian art and culture are intertwined with religion and age-old traditions from the time of early migrants with Western thoughts brought by Portuguese traders and Dutch colonists. The basic principles which guide life include the concepts of mutual assistance or “gotong royong” and consultations or “musyawarah” to arrive at a consensus or “mufakat” Derived from rural life, this system is still very much in use in community life throughout the country.
Though the legal system is based on the old Dutch penal code, social life as well as the rites of passage are founded on customary or “adat” law which differs from area to area. “Adat” law has a binding impact on Indonesian life and it may be concluded that this law has been instrumental in maintaining equal rights for women in the community. Religious influences on the community are variously evident from island to island.
Intertwined with religion and age-old traditions from the time of early migrants the art and culture of Indonesia is rich in itself with Western thoughts brought by Portuguese traders and Dutch colonists. The art and culture of Indonesia has been shaped around its hundreds of ethnic groups, each with cultural differences that have shifted over the centuries. Modern-day Indonesian culture is a fusion of cultural aspects from Arabic, Chinese, Malay and European sources. Indonesian art and culture has also been influenced from the ancient trading routes between the Far East and the Middle East leading to many cultural practices being strongly influenced by a multitude of religions, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism and Islam.
The official language of Indonesia is ‘Indonesian’ or ‘Bahasa Indonesia’. It’s universally taught in schools and is spoken by nearly every Indonesian in business, politics, national media, education and academia. The Indonesians also speak several hundreds of local languages like ‘bahasa daerah’ as their first language. Javanese is also widely used besides other Papuan or Austronesian languages in a region of just 2.7 million people.
Religion: The government of Indonesia officially recognizes only six religions, viz Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Protestantism, Catholicism, and Confucianism. The largest religious group in Indonesia is Islam with almost 86% of Indonesians being Muslims. Indonesia is also the most populous Muslim-majority nation in the world.
Indonesia has created many internationally famous celebrated authors. There has also been a long tradition, particularly among ethnically Malay populations, of impromptu, interactive, verbal composition of poetry referred to as the ‘pantun’. Pramoedya Ananta Toer, a well-known author won the Magsaysay Award and was considered for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Chairil Anwar was also an important figure in the literature world and a member of the Generation 45 group of authors who were active in the Indonesian independence movement.
Home to hundreds of forms of music, it plays an important role in Indonesia’s art and culture. Traces of its origin can be made to the islands of Java, Sumatra and Bali. ‘Gamelan’ is the traditional music from Central- and East Java and Bali. Another very popular style of music is ‘Dangdut’ which is accompanied with free dance style. This style first came up in the 1970s and is quite useful in political campaigns. Other forms of music include the Keroncong with its roots in Portugal, the soft Sasando music from West Timor and Degung and Angklung from West Java, which is played with bamboo instruments.
The traditional dances depict episodes from the Ramayana and Mahabharata from India. Traditional Javanese and Balinese tinge is also seen in the dance forms of Indonesian art and culture. The highly stylized dances of the courts of Yogyakarta and Surakarta are some of the popular variations. Mythological events of Indonesia are also depicted.
Drama and Theatre
The Javanese and Balinese shadow puppet theatre shows ‘wayang kulit’ displaying several mythological events. A traditional folk theatre, Randai of the Minangkabau people of West Sumatra, is performed during ceremonies and festivals. Music, singing, dance, drama and the silat martial art are all incorporated together and are based on the stories of the legend.
Indonesian culture, especially its architecture has been to a great extent dominated and influenced by the Indian, although European influences have also been particularly strong since the nineteenth century. Traditional buildings in Indonesia are built on stilts with oversized saddle roofs which have been the home of the Batak and the Toraja. The Torajan use the buffalo horns, stacked one above another in front of the house as an indication of status. Scenes from the Ramayana adorn the outer walls in different colors. However, Chinese, Arab, and European architectural influences have also been quite significant in Indonesian architecture.
The cultural diversity of Indonesia is reflected in its food. Rice (nasi) and noodles (mie) are the basic part of the Indonesian diet, but that’s where the similarities end. Depending on the region, different herbs, spices, grasses, roots, and leaves create very different tastes. Hot chili, cumin, coriander, lemon grass, nutmeg, black pepper, garlic, coconut milk, soy sauce, and ginger are all common ingredients.
The arts of Indonesia are many, especially Indonesian paintings which are unique works of art. The intricate and expressive Balinese paintings are quite famous and often express natural scenes and themes from the traditional dances. A long-standing tradition of sculpture can also be seen in the art and culture of Indonesia, some dating back to the Bronze and Iron Ages. Examples of sculpture illustrating the story of the life of Buddha can be seen in the temples of the 8th and the 10th century. Indonesia’s art and culture is also famous for their unique batik, ikat and songket cloth which is even popular today.
Unlike some countries art forms in Indonesia are not only based on folklore, as many were developed in the courts of former kingdoms such as in Bali, where they are part of religious ceremonies. The famous dance dramas of Java and Bali are derived from Hindu mythology and often feature fragments from the Ramayana and Mahabharata Hindu epics.
Highly stylized in movement and costume, dances and the “wayang” drama are accompanied by a full “gamelan” orchestra comprising xylophones, drums, gongs, and in some cases string instruments and flutes. Bamboo xylophones are used in North Sulawesi and the bamboo “angklung” instruments of West Java are well- known for their unique tinkling notes which can be adapted to any melody.
The “Wayang kulit” (leather puppets) of Java is performed with leather puppets held by the puppeteer, who narates the story of one of the famous episodes of the Hindu epics, the Mahabharata or the Ramayana. It is performed against a white screen while a lantern in the background casts the shadows of the characters on the screen, visible from the other side where the spectators are seated.
The “Wayang Golek” (wooden puppets) of West Java is based on the same concept. The crafts of Indonesia vary in both medium and art form. As a whole the people are artistic by nature and express themselves on canvas, wood, metals, clay and stone. The batik process of waxing and dyeing originated in Java centuries ago and classic designs have been modified with modern trends in both pattern and technology. There are several centres of Batik in Java, the major ones being Yogyakarta, Surakarta, Pekalongan and Cirebon.
Batik is also being produced in some other areas as in Bali where local designs are incorporated. Other provinces produce hand-woven cloths of gold and silver threads, silks or cottons with intricate designs. Painting are numerous all over the country, both traditional and contemporary, woodcarvings for ornamentation and furniture, silverwork and engraving form Yogyakarta and Sumatra, filgree from South Sulawesi and Bali with different styles of clay, sandstone and wood sculptures. These are but a few of the handicrafts found in Indonesia.
Indonesia has 34 provinces (including 2 Special Territories of Nanggroe Aceh Darussalam and Yogyakarta) and one Special Capital Region of Jakarta (DKI). East Timor was once part of Indonesia, but then through a referendum in 1999, East Timor became the Democratic Republic of Timor Leste.
Nanggroe Aceh Darussalam | North Sumatera | West Sumatera | Bengkulu | Riau | Riau Islands | Jambi | South Sumatera | Lampung | Bangka Belitung Islands
Jakarta | West Java | Banten | Central Java | Yogyakarta Special Territory | East Java
West Kalimantan | Central Kalimantan | South Kalimantan | East Kalimantan | North Kalimantan
Bali | West Tenggara Barat | East Nusa Tenggara
West Sulawesi | North Sulawesi | Central Sulawesi | South Sulawesi | South East Sulawesi | Gorontalo
Maluku (Moluccas) and Papua Islands
Maluku | North Maluku | West Papua | Papua
It’s never been easier to travel to Indonesia with a number of airlines flying direct to Denpasar (Bali) from all Australian capital cities. Garuda Indonesia and Qantas also provide direct flights to Indonesia’s capital city Jakarta on selected days. Many Australians choose to stay in Bali however it is important to remember that Bali is only one island of over 17,000 With over 100 airports spread across the archipelago, it is easy to fly from Bali or Jakarta to one of the many surrounding island paradises. The largest airports in Indonesia are Jakarta, Surabaya, Denpasar (Bali), Medan, Makassar and Yogyakarta.
An airport tax of between 75,000 IDR and 150,000 IDR is required to be paid to airport authorities for travellers departing on internatinal routes. A tax of between 25,000 IDR and 50,000 IDR is payable for travellers departing on domestic routes within Indonesia.
Garuda Indonesia International is Indonesia’s national carrier and offers a large number of flights to/ from the capital Jakarta or Denpasar, Bali to the rest of Asia, Australia and the Middle East. The carrier offers also non stop flights from Medan, Semarang, Surabaya and Yogyakarta to regional destinations in Southeast Asia. Other Airlines are Merpati Air, Lion Air, Air Asia, Tiger Air and small company airlines for connecting to small airport. Major international airlines such as Air France, KLM, Lufthansa, Emirates, Qatar Airways, Cathay Pacific, Malaysia Airlines, Royal Brunei, Thai Airways, Singapore Airlines or Japan Airlines have regularly scheduled flights to Jakarta and/or Denpasar. It is also easier than ever to fly to Indonesia from Australia. The following airlines operate regular direct flights to Bali from various Australian capitals: Garuda Indonesia, Pacific Blue, Jetstar, Strategic Airlines and Air Asia. Garuda Indonesia and Qantas also operate direct flights to Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital.
For a stay not exceeding 60 days, visas are not required for nationals of the Arab Emirates, Argentine, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Denmark, Egypt, Finland, France, Germany, Great Britain, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan. Kuwait, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Malaysia, Malta, Maldives, Mexico, Morocco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Korea, Spain. Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan (passport coded MEA or M), Thailand, Turkey, the United States, Venezuela and Yugoslavia. Entry and departure must he through the airports of Polonia (Medan), Batu Besar Batam, Simpang Tiga (Pekanbaru) Tabing (Padang), Soekarno-Hatta (Jakarta), Juanda (Surabaya), Ngurah Rai (Bali), Sam Ratulangi (Manadol) Pattimura (Ambon) Frans Kaisiepo (Biak), El Tari (Kupang) Soepadio (Pontianak) or Sepinggan (Balikpapan), Bandung and Ujung Padang, or through the seaports of Belawan (Medan), Batam, Bintan, Tanjung Priok (Jakarta), Tanjung Perak (Surabaya), Tanjung Mas (Semarang), Benoa and Padang Bai (Bali), Bitung (Manado) or Yos Sudarso (Ambon).
For other ports of arrival and departure, visas are required. Visas for a period of 30 days can he obtained from any Indonesian embassy or consulate overseas. For holders of Hong Kong Certificates of Identity, travel should be in tour groups and visas are issued by the Indonesian Consulate General in Hong Kong.
For nationals from other countries, other titan the above mentioned, tourist visas for 30 days may be obtained from any Indonesian Embassy or Consulate. Two photographs must be provided and a small fee is charged.
No employment is allowed on these visas or on the visa-free entry facility. All visitors must have passports valid for at least six months and proof of onward passage.
Customs allow on entry a maximum of one litre of alcoholic beverages, 200 cigarettes or 50 cigars or 100 grams of tobacco, and a reasonable amount of perfume per adult.
There is no restriction on import and export of foreign currencies in cash, travellers cheques and other bank instruments which are fully convertible to Rupiah and vice versa.
An airport tax is levied on all departing passengers on international flights. For those flights within Indonesia, airport taxes vary depending on airport of departure. An additional sum is levied for insurance on domestic routes if tickets are purchased in Indonesia.
In major centres, travellers cheques in US dollars are readily accepted and most hotels in tourist or commercial centres will accept major credit cards. In other areas, small denomination bills in Rupiah are advisable. The Rupiah comes in 100, 500, 1000, 5000, 10,000, 20,000 , 50,000 and 100,000 notes.
Health standards are improving rapidly in Indonesia and good medical care is available in all the major centres. However, if you are extending your trip with a tour to the more remote parts of the archipelago it is wise to consult a professional for advice as to what precautionary measures maybe necessary
Indonesia is divided into three time zones: Western Indonesia Time (Sumatra, Java, west and central Kalimantan) is seven hours ahead of GMT. Central Indonesia Time (Bali, south and east Kalimantan, Sulawesi, Nusa Tenggara) is eight hours ahead of GMT. East Indonesia Time (Maluku, Irian Jaya) is nine hours ahead of GMT.
With temperatures ranging between 20-35 C, light, casual clothes are the most practical.
Natural fibres like cotton or linen are the most comfortable in Indonesia’s often humid conditions Casual clothes are acceptable in must places and a lightweight suit and tie are usual for business or formal meetings. Light cotton dresses are generally acceptable in most situations. Batik is popular for both men’s shirts and women’s dresses.
Indonesia has two seasons: wet and dry. The wet season normally starts in October and lasts until April, with the heaviest rain in December and January. The wet season has the biggest impact in Nusa Tenggara and Papua when large areas flood and roads wash out. Many roads also tend to wash away in the highlands of Sumatra. Travel in Sulawesi, Kalimantan, Bali, and Java are less affected during the wet season. Travel slows a bit, but is usually still possible in these areas. Indonesia’s tropical climate provides a fairly even temperature year around. Expect high temperatures of about 31 C and humidity between 60% and 100% in most lowland areas. The Mountainous areas are much cooler – so much so, a jacket is often needed.
220 volts/50 cycles is standard in most parts of Indonesia, but 110 volts is found in some remote areas. Receptacles are standardized with two rounded prongs which are the same type used in Europe.
A warm, generous people, Indonesians are always prepared to extend a warm welcome.
Handshaking is a customary greeting in Indonesia but avoid using your left hand. Also avoid using your left hand when giving or receiving anything, whenever possible. Using your index finger to summon a person is impolite.
Scanty clothing is not advisable in public places in deference to local customs. Shorts are not allowed in mosques and women should have their arms and head covered. Climbing over monuments or places of worship is considered highly disrespectful. In Bali, waist sashes should be worn when visiting temples.
(*Source: Ministry of Foreign Affairs Republic Of Indonesia)