With over 18,000 islands, Indonesia is the largest archipelago in the world, although only about 6000 of those islands are currently inhabited. The country is right on the equator, with islands in both the Indian and Pacific Oceans. It is the fourth most populous country in the world. The country stretches far and wide, and shares borders with Malaysia, Singapore, Papua New Guinea, Australia, India, Sri Lanka, among a few other countries.
Jakarta city on Java Island is the capital city of Indonesia. The country also has some of the highest concentrations of Muslims, with close to 90 percent of Indonesians following the religion. The country has the second largest tropical rainforests after Brazil.
The people are a mix of the many tribes, an ethnicities that are an intrinsic part of the country’s diversity. Even though the Constitution clearly states its objective of ‘Unity in Diversity’, there are multiple groups and divisions in the country based on religion, caste, class, language, tribe, clan and ethnicity. Indonesian Chinese have a strong economic and social presence all over the country.
Although the national language is Indonesian, there are hundreds of languages and dialects spoken by the hundreds of tribes that inhabit the 6000 islands across the country. There are 300 recognized and known languages and dialects as of now, spoken by the various religious, ethnic and tribal groups.
Since the country was ruled by Hindu kings for a long time, there are a lot of Hindu influences, along with Buddhist and tribal influences, seen in their culture, traditions and rituals, even among those who follow Islam or other religions. Smaller towns and villages have their own customs, traditions and ways of following their chosen religion, which may be distinctly different from each other.
Despite being a Muslim majority country, the State is officially a secular state, and there are not many restrictions on dress and socializing on women in the country. However, certain towns and villages with a Muslim majority may have stricter rules. It is best to avoid clothing that reveal a lot of skin, and to carry a headscarf at all times when traveling across Indonesia.
For adventure junkies and those who crave to be in the wild, Indonesia is heaven. Massive untouched tropical rainforests that are still completely wild and look exactly like they did hundreds of years ago are commonplace. You can climb active volcanoes, swim with turtles and sharks in the open ocean, see komodo dragons (the largest living lizard species in the world) in the wild, and dive into shipwrecks just off the island coasts.
Some must see places from around the country, other than the major cities on the various islands:
- Mount Bromo and the volcanic crater, and the volcanic scenery of the Bromo-Tengger-Semeru National Park.
- Komodo Island National Park, home to the Komodo Dragons.
- Borobudur, one of the largest and most beautiful Buddhist temples in the world.
- Gili Islands off the coast of Lombok, which are three tiny droplets of land with beautiful beaches.
- Lake Toba, which is the world’s largest volcanic lake and Baliem valley in Papua, which has some amazing trekking routes and remote tribes.
The local cuisine is dominated with preparations with nasi (rice) or mie (noodles) as the main ingredient. Each region and community has various kinds of rice and noodle preparations that use different kinds of spices, meats, vegetables and sauces so that the same dish tastes different in different regions.
Traditionally, people use their hands to eat more than cutlery, so feel free to scoop up rice with your fingers and pop it in your mouth. However, certain fine dine restaurants may not be comfortable with people using their fingers to eat, so make sure you know the etiquettes of the place you are eating at.
Nasi goreng, mie goreng are typical dishes, accompanied by satay/peanut sauce, sambal/chili sauce and keropok/shrimp chips. Beef is common in most of Indonesia except on Bali, where you can get pork but no beef. You will not get pork in most parts of the country.
There are beef, chicken and fish soups and broths that you can try, along with dishes inspired by Dutch and Chinese cuisines. There are also a number of desserts, and most are made of a combination of rice or rice flour, coconut and sugar, along with different fruits, dry fruits and condiments. You can also try local fruits like durian, snakefruit and starfruit for dessert.
Tea and coffee are common, but are usually made with a lot of sugar and condensed milk. There are a number of medicinal juices that locals drink for better health and vitality. Rice wines are common, although you should be careful to only buy local alcohol from a proper source, since certain kinds of moonshine might be harmful or even fatal if not well distilled.
You can go scuba diving, surfing and snorkeling along many of the coasts around the major islands. Smaller and more remote islands may need special permissions and arrangements. After these activities, you can go for a relaxing spa treatment, with a choice of aromatherapy, massages and traditional Indonesian treatments.
Nightclubs can be found in every major city in the country. There are clubs that are LGBT friendly too, especially in a few metro cities. However, discretion is advised since not all areas are LGBT friendly or welcoming.
Shopping in Indonesia can be a fun experience, especially if you like markets. Most Indonesian cities and towns have multiple large markets that sell everything from vegetables and fruits to condiments, clothes and trinkets. Most major shopping areas and shopping malls are open through the week. While larger shops open by 10am, smaller shops and markets are up and running as early as 6am.
A few things to keep in mind when out and about on the streets of Indonesia:
- Unless you are making large purchases, only local currency will be accepted, so make sure you carry enough Rupiah at all times.
- Pickpocketing, chain snatching and robbery of expensive jewelry and electronics is commonplace in crowded places, so ensure you keep such items safe if carrying anything expensive or important.
- Malls, markets and such areas can get really crowded on weekends, so plan your shopping sprees accordingly.
To get into Indonesia, you can take flights, boats, trains or travel by road, depending on where you are coming from and what mode of transport you prefer. There are three main international airports – one just outside Jakarta, one at Denpasar on Bali, and one at Surabaya on Java. However, there are many smaller airports that have flights in and out of Malaysia and Singapore.
There are many way to travel within the country. If you are going from one island to another that are far away from each other, there are usually flights that you will be able to book. If you have the luxury of time and like sea travel, you can take a cruise that will take a few days, depending in the distance.
Within bigger islands like Java and Sumatra, you can take trains that connect major cities on these islands from one end to the other. You can also take private cabs, shuttle services and buses from town/city to the next. If you are really adventurous, you can also try the motorcycle taxis and the tricycles in some cities and towns.
Certain countries have visa on arrival, some nationalities do not need a visa, while a few select countries need a pre-approved visa to enter Indonesia. Check the details for your country before traveling. Also, there are certain airport, sea ports and land entry points that process visas, so check these before booking your tickets. You can exchange your currency for the local Rupiah at the airport or one of the many exchange places around, but make sure to check you are getting a good rate.
The climate stays almost the same throughout the year due to the proximity to the equator. It is usually warm, humid and rainy, so pack and dress comfortably but modestly. Carry something warm if you plan to trek or go into highlands. Check for rains before planning treks or venturing out into the sea.
You will need to hone your bargaining skills if you are shopping, taking a private taxi or shuttle, or even buying everyday things, or you will be heavily overcharged as tourists. If you are bad at bargaining, prepare to see your money finish in no time in the country, even though traveling in Indonesia is not very expensive.
Internet and phone connectivity is relatively good even in remote places, but ensure to buy a pack that suits your requirements. There is a list of emergency number available, which you should keep handy at all times.