Beginnings. The first humanoids (Homo erectus) lived in Central Java 500,000 years ago having reached Indonesia across land bridges from Africa, before either dying out or being wiped out by the arrival of Homo sapiens. This idea was challenged in 2003 by the discovery of a tiny survivor of Homo erectus that survived much longer. Most Indonesians are descendants of Malay people who began migrating around 4000 years ago.
Hinduism and Buddhism. They were central to the great kingdoms of the first millennium. The Buddhist Srivijaya empire controlled southern Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula, the Hindu Mataram and Buddhist Sailendra empires controlled Central Java raising their greatest monuments, Borobudur and Prambanan. Mataram was replaced by the Hindu Majapahit empire in 1294 controlling Java, Madura and Bali.
Islam. By the 15th century the Majapahits had fled to Bali where Hindu culture continues to flourish, leaving Java to powerful sultanates. The trading kingdoms of Melaka on the Malay peninsula and Makassar in southern Sulawesi also embraced Islam, seeding the seeds that would make modern Indonesia the most populous Muslim nation on earth.
Europeans. Malaka fell to the Portuguese in 1511 followed by struggles for control between them and the Spanish, Dutch and British. By 1700 the Dutch, with the Dutch East India Company (VOC) eventually controlling most of the spice trade and becoming the world’s first multinational company. Following their bankruptcy, the British governed Java under Sir Stamford Raffles between 1811-1816, but with the end of the Napoleonic wars, the Dutch took over again until Indonesia’s independence 129 years later.
Road to Independence. By the beginning of the 20th century, the Dutch controlled most of the archipelago but a current of revolution under the young Soekarno was brewing. Japan controlled Indonesia during WWII but on August 17, 1946, Soekarno declared independence. Four bitter years followed as the Dutch and British fought the guerrillas. American and UN opposition to colonial rule eventually caused the Dutch to pack it in and the red and white flag was hoisted on Dec. 27, 1949.
Depression, Disunity and Dictatorship. However religious fundamentalists and nationalist separatists challenged the central government leading to a decade of impasse and economic depression. In 1957, Soekarno declared Guided Democracy (a euphemism of dictatorship), and with army backing, started 4 decades of authoritarian rule. In 1965 an attempted coup was blamed on the 3 million strong Communist Party (PKI), and an army purge (aided by the US and the UK) left 500,000 communist sympathizers dead. By 1968 Soeharto ousted Soekarno as president.
Soeharto brought unity through repression, annexing Irian Jaya (Papua) in 1969 and reacting to insurgency with an iron fist. In 1975, Portuguese Timor was invaded with tens of thousands of deaths and separatists quashed in Aceh and Papua. Despite endemic corruption, the 1980s and 1990s were Indonesia’s boom years with meteoric growth and opulent building in the capital.
Soeharto’s Fall. The freefall economy through Asia in the late 1990s caused bankruptcy of the country, cronyism and corruption were blamed and protests and riots in 1998 left thousands, many of them Chinese, dead. Soeharto resigned in 1998. Promises of reform were slow and new riots occurred that November. Violence erupted in Maluku, Irian Jaya, East Timor and Aceh. East Timor won its independence in 1999, but only after its infrastructure was destroyed and thousands dead.
Democracy and Reform. Good elections in 1999 brought Megawati Soekarnoputri (Soekarno’s daughter) to power and month’s later the separate presidential election was won by Abdurrahman Wahid who efforts to undo corruption met stiff resistance. Megawatti was elected president in 2001 but corruption was left in place, the army was still powerful and poverty high. Terrorism attacks resulted in the 2002 Bali bombings. Susilo Banbang Yudhoyono became president in 2004 and he cracked down on Islamic militants, spent on education, health and social-security. But the 2004 tsunami ravaged Aceh in northern Sumatra and earthquakes in 2006 (in Yogyakarta, 6800 died) and 2009 (Padang in Sumatra) were disasters. Elections in 2009 kept moderates in power and the extremist Islamic parties got only 8% of the vote.
Indonesia Today. Growth averaged 5-6% per year and democracy seemed workable. In 2009, Noordin Mohamed Top, the mastermind of a decade of terrorism, was killed. Ferry sinkings and plane crashes emphasized the decrepit infrastructure. Corruption, environmental destruction, poverty, fundamentalism, sectarian violence and tax reform remain challenges. Pollution and congestion threaten Bali. On the positive side, the constitution upholds secular values proving that a majority Muslim country can be politically liberal. Jakartans are the most active tweeters in the world and 27% are on Facebook. It still ranks as the world’s top exporter of thermal coal, nickel ore, refined tin and palm oil. But it seems invisible internationally. It rarely deploys its diplomatic weight, whether by standing up to China or positioning itself as a model of an emergent democracy. The country is insular and not a global leader in anything. Deeply nationalistic but inactive internationally, it needs to change.
Jokowi. In October 2014 Joko Widodo (Jokowi) was elected as the 7th president of Indonesia. The 53-year-old former carpenter, furniture factory owner, mayor of Solo in 2005 and then governor of Jakarta, had none of the advantages of birth or patronage. Winning over a former general and political scion, he symbolized the people’s triumph over a ruling clique that had long treated this resource-rich nation as a personal fief. He flies in economy, believing that because he is skinny, he doesn’t take up much room. In Jakarta he had slashed the processing time for business permits, transformed trash collection, improved transportation and increased hospital beds. He is detail-orientated, a micromanager, and there is a lot to micromanage. Endemic graft and protectionism have eroded foreign-investor interest. Income disparity has widened to record levels. After years of 6% growth, the economy is slowing. Jokowi wants to change consumption to production.
The election was focused on domestic issues, but now has to deal with China and the South China Sea (along with six other nations). Because of its high deforestation rate, it is the world’s third largest emitter of greenhouse gases. It is vulnerable to the rising ocean that could come with rising temperatures.
Indonesia is accustomed to dominate leaders in Sukarno and Suharto, but Jokowi’s entrance into politics was motivated less by a sense of destiny and more by exasperation with Indonesia’s notorious red tape. As a business man, he saw every day how long it took for things to get done – you had to give an envelope of money or your application sat for weeks or months, maybe even years. He believes that democracy must deliver a better life to the people. As mayor of Jakarta, he developed urbanization projects shorn of the usual land grabs and sweetheart deals. Projects supposed to be completed in 8 months were still taking 15 – totally normal by elastic Indonesian standards, he raised hell personally threatening people with their jobs.
Just before the election, his opponent, then in power, voted to abolish direct elections for governors, mayors and district heads meaning that Indonesian voters are no longer able to choose antiestablishment figures like Jokowi who could bypass the entrenched power structure. He is intent on reversing the decision. People’s expectations are high and if he cannot deliver, then he will have problems. Turning around a metropolis, even one as big as Jakarta, is nothing compared with running a country of a quarter-billion people.
With the global commodity boom seemingly ending, Indonesia will no longer be able to depend on raw exports. He wants to move Indonesia up the value chain and position the country as a global maritime nexus. First he has to lure back foreign investors, who have been spooked by the rhetoric of resource nationalism. Locally, there is a strong sense that Indonesia is not able to compete with foreign companies, and the response has been protectionism.
He has committed to invest in infrastructure where 15% of production costs get eaten up by logistics – more than double the global norm. Indonesia is ranked 114 out of 177 nations in the graft-perception index issued by Transparency International. Jokowi has made anti korupsi his mantra. He has vowed to ease the costly fuel subsidies and strengthen tax collection. By showing that the country can change by following the rules, then he hopes to create a place where investors will want to come.
Besides positioning himself outside the traditional political and military elite, he is also the first businessman to become President. He has got some of the biggest, baddest Indonesian politicians quaking in their shoes because he gets things done. That’s true power.
January 2015. Fuel subsidies were completely scrapped as of Jan 1 2105 (small subsidies remain of diesel used in public transport and by fishermen) and the price of petrol will reflect global market prices. Thanks to falling global oil prices, even without subsidy, a litre of petrol now costs 7,600 rupiah, down from a subsidized 8,500 rupiah in December. Energy subsidies have accounted for a fifth of total government spending, more than on infrastructure and social-welfare combined. And the benefits typically flowed to the car-owning middle classes. The savings will be 200 trillion rupiah or $16 billion. 90 trillion is earmarked for delayed payments of last years subsidies, cash transfers to the poor, and money owed to Indonesia’s villages. The left over money is expected to be spent on health, education and infrastructure, and to bring the budget deficit from 3% to under 2%.
Programmes already launched are health insurance for the poor, 12 years free schooling and tertiary education to students accepted to university and cash transfers. The next problems are streamlining the tangled tax regime, regulatory apparatus and government bureaucracy.
With a population of 240 million, 300+ languages and 17,000 islands, many of the other islands resent Java where power is centralized. Indonesia is loosely bound together by a flag and single language but is a loose confederacy of peoples. It is no hardline Islamic state and is becoming more cosmopolitan. Facebook usage is epic. Millions of Indonesians work overseas – mainly in the Gulf, Hong Kong and Malaysia bringing back outside influences on return. Low-cost airfares has allowed internal and overseas travel. But income disparity is huge and it is much poorer than its Asian neighbors. Almost 50% survive on $2/day. Many rural areas have few opportunities.
Population. With 240 million people, it is the 4th largest country in the world. Over half live on Java, one of the most crowded places on earth with 940 people per square kilometer. While Java, Bali and Lombok teem with people, large areas are sparsely populated, especially Papua (10/sk) and Kalimantan. Birth rates have fallen from 3.4 in 1987 to 2.4 today.
Religion. It is the largest Islamic nation on earth with 220 million Muslims. But most of its most impressive historical monuments (Borodudur and Prambanan) are Hindu or Buddhist. 2% are Hindu especially in Bali and the 1% Buddhist population is scattered widely. 9% are Christian, the majority on Papua, Nusa Tenggara, Maluka, and parts of Sumatra. Rural areas have some animists.
All citizens by law must have an official state religion based on the belief in the one and only God. Remote tribal societies are presumed to have adopted one of six state-sanctioned religions (Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism (a stretch with millions of gods), Buddhism and Confucianism).
Indonesia has lost more tropical rainforest than anywhere else in the world, bar Brazil, in the last few decades. Still some incredible national parks and landscapes remain virtually untouched mainly in remote areas.
The land. At 1.92 sq km, it incorporates 10% of the world’s forest cover and 11,508 uninhabited islands. There are 129 active volcanoes – more than any other country including the snow-covered Puncak Java (4884m) in Papua. Despite the incredible diversity, Indonesia is still mostly water.
Wildlife. Indonesia is divided into two zones divided by the Wallace Line which runs between Kalimantan and Sulawesi and south between Lombok and Bali. To the west, the fauna resembles that of Asia (orangutans, rhinos and tigers plus the spectacular Rafflesia flower), while east, it resembles that of Australia (komodo dragon and marsupials including the Papuan tree kangaroos).
National Parks. Most of the 50 are in remote areas with basic visitor facilities but rich in ecological diversity and wildlife. Two of the finest include Ianjung Putting in Kalimantan (orangutans and wetland birds) and Komodo (dragons and astonishing coral reefs).
Environmental issues. A willful disregard of regulations generally with the collusion of the regional authorities make official environmental policies mere words on paper.
Forest cover is cleared at a horrific rate through illegal logging and conversion to palm-oil plantations. It is estimated that 50% of Indonesia’s 150 million hectares of forest have been cleared and the government allows an average 1.8 million hectares a year in additional clearance. 70% of mangrove forests have been damaged. Floods and landslides wash away valuable topsoil, rivers become sluggish and fetid and haze from clearing fires blankets Malaysia and Singapore every dry season. 80% of reef habitat is at risk.
The rampant consumerism of the burgeoning middle class is straining the wholly inadequate infrastructure: private vehicles clog urban streets creating massive air pollution; waste removal services have difficulty coping with household and industrial garbage; and a total lack of sewage disposal systems makes water from most sources undrinkable without boiling, putting further pressure on kerosene and firewood supplies.
Characterized as rice, full of spice and hot from chilis, it is a mixture of Chinese, Portuguese, Indian and all the colonists combined with the food of the archipelago’s diverse landscape, people and culture. Coriander, cumin, chilli, lemon grass, coconut, soy sauce, and palm sugar are all important flavorings; sambal is a crucial condiment. Fish is a favorite. Indonesians traditionally eat with their fingers and thus the rice is sticky. Satay, nasi goring (fried rice) and gado gado (vegetables with peanut sauce) are some of the famous dishes. Nasi campur (mixed rice) is the national dish with myriad variations.
Local markets are a good place to sample Indonesian cuisine. Not for late sleepers, the best time is 6-7am. They also give a glimpse at the variety and freshness of local produce. Atmosphere is lively and colorful with live chickens, dead chickens, freshly slaughtered pigs, sardines, eggs. Local specialties abound.
Drink. Always drink bottled water but take care with local juice drinks to ensure that the water/ice is purified or bottled. Tea is fine and coffee excellent. For a strong local brew ask for kopi java or kopi flores. Beer is quite good with Bintang one of Asia’s finest lagers. Baoi Brem rice wine is really potent. Es buah, or es campur, is a strange concoction of fruit salad, jelly cubes, syrup, srushed rice and condensed milk.
Accommodation. Hotel (losmen, penginapan (simple lodging house), wisma (guesthouse): there are several words for it but there are options to suit every budget. Cheap hotels are basic with a simple breakfast often included. Western-style toilets are nearly standard in tourist areas. Traditional washing facilities consist of a mandi, a large water tank from cool water is scooped with a dipper. Climbing into the tank is bad form. Bali is in a league of its own in terms of quality.
Gay and lesbian travellers. There are few problems especially in Bali. Physical contact between same-sex couples is acceptable. Homosexual behavior is not illegal. Indonesia’s transvestite and transsexual community has always had a public profile. Internet Access. Internet places are found in most towns and tourist areas but speeds are pedestrian.
Legal Matters. Smuggling and selling drugs is taken very, very seriously. Six months in jail often precedes trial. Gambling is illegal, as is pornography. The age of consent is 18.
Public Holidays. Official holidays and religious events are intertwined in the calendar. This results in a plethora of days when much of the nation shuts down or has a day off.
January: New Years Day – January 1. Chinese New Year (Imlek) – January/February. Islamic New Year (Muharram) – date varies but usually in late January.
March/April: Hindu New Year (Nyepi). Virtually all of Bali shuts down. Good Friday.
May/June: Ascension of Christ. Ascension of Mohammed.
August: Independence Day – August 17, mush pomp with parades. Lebaran (Idui Fitri) – everyone returns home, great charity.
October: Idul Adha – the end of Haj, animal sacrifices, meat is given to the poor.
December: Christmas Day – gift giving and special church services.
Safe Travel. While transport safety standards are dodgy, earthquakes are frequent, and there have been a number of highly publicized incidents of terrorism and sectarian violence, Indonesia is actually a very safe nation for travellers, unless you’re very unlucky. Violent crime and even petty crime is rare. With usual precautions, the chances of trouble are rare. Give political or religious demonstrations a wide berth but keep abreast of current political developments. Drug penalties can be severe. Beware of noncommercial arak, the potent rice of palm hooch as there have been incidents of poisoning. Dogs of Bali have been reported to have rabies.
Time. Indonesia has three time zones. Western Indonesia (Sumatra, Java, West and Central Kalimantan) is 7 hours ahead of GMT. Central Indonesia (Bali, South and East Kalimantan, Sulawesi and Nusa Tenggara) is eight hours ahead. East Indonesia (Maluku and Irian Jaya) is nine hours ahead.
Toilets. Public toilets are extremely rare except in bus and train stations. Expect to have to dive into restaurants and hotels frequently. Indonesian toilets are squat-type and flush with a plastic scooper taking water from a tank. Western toilets are common in tourist areas.
Volunteering. There are many opportunities for aspiring volunteers. Bali is a hub for many charitable groups and NGOs.
VISAS. Most visitors obtain a 30-day visa on arrival at recognized entry points including 15 airports and 21 sea ports. For land border crossings, you have to arrange a visa in advance. Citizens of over 60 countries are eligible for VOA except for Ireland, Netherlands, UK, New Zealand and the USA. The cost is US$25 and it is best to have exact change.
Beginning in 2010, it became possible to renew a 30-day VOA for another 30 days at local immigration offices at least a week before your VOA expires but it can be complex. A much prized 60-day visa must be applied for at an embassy or consulate before arriving in Indonesia. Your passport must be valid for 6 months following your date of arrival.
Travel Permits. To travel to remote Papua, you must obtain a surat jalan, a permission to travel, from the local police station. They are easiest to obtain in Jayapura and Sentani. They require your passport, 2 passport photos, and photocopies of the front page of your passport and Indonesian visa. It takes one hour normally with no payment required. List every conceivable place you might want to visit. You are supposed to have it stamped in local police stations. Recently, you could visit Sentani, Pulau Biak, Sorong and the Raja Ampats without a surat jalan.
GETTING THERE AND AWAY
Air. Jakarta and Bali are the main hubs. Many major international airlines with services are Air Asia, Emirates, Garuda Indonesia (the national airline), Jetstar/Qantas, KLM, Malaysia Airlines, and several others.
Land. There are 3 land links: buses link Pontianak and Kuching on Borneo, East Timor, and Jayapura to Vanimo in Papua New Guinea.
Sea. Malaysia and Singapore are linked to Sumatra by boats and ferries although the links are inconvenient and most travelers fly. From Singapore, ferries connect with Pulau Batam and Bintan in the Riau archipelago. There is a link on Borneo from Nunukan in East Kalimantan to Tawau in Malaysian Sabah.
Air. The domestic network is growing with schedules and rates in constant flux. Website information may be nonexistent for small, local airlines.
Tickets may be difficult to purchase over the internet from outside Indonesia (except Air Asia and Garuda). Try phoning from inside the country but you may not find anyone who speaks English. Other options may be travel agents or simply going to the airport. Some airlines may be strictly cash-based. It is highly recommended to confirm (maybe twice) as flights are often overbooked. Domestic departure tax is charged by airports and is payable in cash.
Bicycle. The tropical heat, heavy traffic and poor road conditions may make this a challenge especially for long distances.
Boat. Safety is an important consideration with accidents waiting to happen as safety regulations not even spotty. This is especially important on the busy routes linking Bali, Nusa Lembongan, Lombok and the Gilis. Conditions can be rough in Indonesian waters. Bigger is better, check for safety equipment, avoid over-crowding, look for exits and avoid fly-by-nighters (fishing boats).
Ferries. Sumatra, Java, Bali and Nusa Tenggara are connected by regular ferries allowing you to island hop all the way from Sumatra to Timor. They run daily or several times per week. Check with shipping companies, the harbor office or travel agents. Schedules may be vague, vessels ancient, routinely overcrowded, and safety standards poor.
Pelni ships, the national passenger line, has a fleet of large vessels that connect even to most outlying areas. They have a good web site (pelni.co.id). There are 4 cabin classes: I has 2 beds/cabin and is often more expensive than a low-cost airline; IV has 8 beds/cabin; Ekonomi is very basic with mattresses that can be rented. But this is often meaningless on most boats that are filthy, overcrowded, bathrooms unworkable, food unpalatable and decks impassable. Book at least a few days in advance.
Old Makassar schooners may travel from Sulawesi to other islands.
Tourist boats travel between Lombok and Flores with a stop on Komodo.
Bus. There is a huge variety of services from air-con deluxe buses (blaring TV, toilets and karaoke) to trucks (trek) with wooden seats. Local buses are cheapest, leave when full and stop on request. Minibuses often do shorter runs.
Car and Motorcycle. Self-drive jeeps can be hired in Bali but get more expensive the farther you get from tourist areas. Vehicles with drivers can sometimes be hired. Motorcycles and scooters can be hired everywhere. Helmets are supposedly mandatory.
Hitching. Possible but generally not advisable. Expect to pay. Safety is a concern.
Local Transport. Public minibuses (bemo, colt. Opelet, mikrolet, angkot, angkudes and pete-pete) run standard routes. Cycle rickshaws (becak) and Indonesian tuk-tuks (bajaj) are three wheelers that carry two passengers. Extremely handy are motorcycle taxis (ojek) that are very cheap for short rides. Taxis require careful negotiations. In Jakarta and south Bali, Bluebird taxis are reliable and use meters.
Train. Java has a good railway service running the length of the island.