Indonesia is the largest archipelago in the world. Java, Sumatra, Sulawesi, Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo), and Papua (Indonesian New Guinea)—account for about 90 percent of Indonesia’s land. Java is one of the most densely populated islands in the world and is home to more than 60 percent of Indonesia’s population.
Indonesia spreads across three time zones. Western Indonesia (Sumatra, Java, West and Central Kalimantan) comprises one time zone. Central Indonesia (Bali, South and East Kalimantan, Sulawesi, and Nusa Tenggara) is one hour ahead of the western time zone. Eastern Indonesia (Malaku and Papua) is two hours ahead of the western time zone.
Indonesia has more coral reefs than any country in the world. The islands rise from the deepest points of the oceans to the snowy heights of the Jayawijaya mountain range, which towers more than 15,000 feet above sea level.
Indonesia’s Diverse Population
There are more than 300 distinct and diverse cultures in Indonesia. Most Indonesians are of Malay or Polynesian descent, though the country’s history brought minority populations from India, China, Arabia, Persia, Portugal, Netherlands, Spain, and England.
There are still numerous indigenous tribes in the remote reaches of Indonesia, from Kalimantan to Papua. The most famous tribes include the Asmat and Dani people of Papua, the Dayak people of Kalimantan, and the Batak people of Sumatra.
The Javanese are Indonesia’s most dominant culture. They are known for having very long names, such as President Susilo Bambang Yodhoyono. The Balinese typically use only four first names regardless of sex—Made, Wayan, Nyoman, and Ketut, which indicate the birth order in their family. Girls are distinguished from boys with the prefix “ni,” while boys use the prefix “i” if there is a need to distinguish between a boy and a girl of the same name. Many people throughout the country are given just one name at birth, which does not include the family name. Balinese people rarely have more than four children, but when they do, they will go back to the first of the four names for children and use it again to name one of their children. As you can imagine, there are several people on the island named Made or Imade (first child and fifth child for both boys and girls).
There are about 583 languages and dialects spoken throughout the Indonesian archipelago, including Acehnese, Balinese, Batak, Sundanese, Javanese, Sasak, Tetum of Timor, Dayak, Minahasa, Toraja, Buginese, Halmahera, Ambonese, Ceramese, and several Irianese languages. To make the picture even more colorful, these languages also have localized dialects.
Bahasa Indonesia (commonly known as Indonesian) is the national language. It is related to Malay, written in Roman script and based on European orthography. In all tourist areas, English is the most common foreign language used. However, some Dutch is still used in the bigger cities and French is increasing in popularity at some hotels and restaurants.
Human migration to the Indonesian islands has been traced back to 3,000 – 500 B.C. These first migrants appear to be from the Mongolian region of Asia. They introduced new Stone, Bronze, and Iron Age cultures and influenced local languages throughout these islands.
Indonesia came under the influence of a mighty Indian civilization through the gradual influx of Indian traders in the 1st Century, when great Hindu and Buddhist empires emerged. The Buddhist Sriwijaya was centered in Sumatra, while the Hindu Mataram located its capital on Java. The Mataram Empire ruled for two centuries and built many monuments across Java, including the Prambanan temples near Yogyakarta, the Panataran temples in East Java, as well as the temples on the Dieng Plateau. The rich architectural and cultural legacy that remains from that time forms the basis for Indonesia’s national identity.
By the 7th Century, the powerful Buddhist Kingdom of Sriwijaya was expanding. Many historians believe that the spectacular Borobudur Buddhist sanctuary was built in Central Java during this period.
In the 13th Century, the Hindu Majapahit of Java faced a strong challenge from Muslim forces, which spread south from the Malay Peninsula. Slowly losing ground, the Hindus retreated to Bali, where they remain today.
Arab traders and merchants laid the foundations for the gradual spread of Islam to the region, which did not replace Hinduism and Buddhism as the dominant religions until the end of the 16th Century. Small Muslim kingdoms developed and grew, but none anticipated the strength and persistence of subsequent European invasions.
Marco Polo was one of the first known Europeans to visit the Indonesian islands in 1292. The Portuguese arrived a few centuries later, in pursuit of spices. In 1509, the Portuguese established trading posts in the strategic commercial center of Malacca on the Malaysian peninsula. These strongholds allowed them to control important trade routes in the area.
Although the Portuguese broke the Islamic hold on Indonesia, the Dutch displaced them with settlements of their own in 1602. The new occupants called the area The Dutch East Indies. The new Dutch colony fell under British rule for a short period during the Napoleonic Wars of 1811-1816. A revolt led by Javanese Prince Diponegoro in 1825 also threatened Holland’s empire. Despite these distractions, Dutch rule continued and bloody clashes between the Indonesian people and the Dutch colonial government escalated.
World War II halted the friction between the Dutch and the Indonesians because the Japanese military controlled most of Indonesia. Most of the islanders welcomed the Japanese as a potential force of liberation. However, the surrender of the Japanese in 1945 signaled the end of World War II, which served as a turning point in Indonesia’s quest for independence. The Indonesian revolutionary nationalist movement helped the country win its independence from the Netherlands. The Dutch returned to reclaim Indonesia, but encountered renewed resistance from Indonesian nationalists, who embarked upon a bloody war of independence against Dutch rule.
Although the war dragged on from 1945-1949, the independence movement prevailed. Indonesia declared its independence on August 17, 1945, but it wasn’t until December 9, 1949 that a formal independence agreement was reached with the help of the United Nations. From that point forward the world acknowledged Indonesia as an independent country.
The revolution was led by a young Javanese man named Sukarno. He became the nation’s first president and served from 1945 to 1967, presiding with mixed success over the country’s turbulent transition to independence.
Turmoil characterized the first decade of Indonesian independence until 1957, when Sukarno unified his power over the Indonesian archipelago. An attempted communist coup against Sukarno in 1965 brought renewed turmoil. However, General Suharto’s army restored order, which paved the way for him to ease Sukarno out of the presidency and assume office himself. Haji Mohammad Soeharto, more commonly referred to as simply Soeharto (he was known as Suharto in the English-speaking world), was a former Indonesian military and political leader. He served as a military officer in the Indonesian War of Independence, but is better known as the long-reigning second president of Indonesia, holding the office from 1967 to 1998.
Over the three decades of his authoritarian regime, Suharto constructed a powerful central government with strong military ties. An ability to maintain stability and an avowedly anti-Communist stance won him the economic and diplomatic support of several Western governments in the era of the Cold War. For most of his three-decade rule, Indonesia experienced significant economic growth and industrialization. His rule, however, caused the political purge and deaths of millions of Indonesian “communists” and Chinese-Indonesians, and enactment of legislation outlawing communist parties and ethnic Chinese.
By the 1990s, however, his administration’s authoritarian and increasingly corrupt practices became a source of much discontent. Suharto’s unquestioned authority over Indonesian affairs slipped dramatically when the Asian financial crisis lowered Indonesians’ standard of living and fractured his support among the nation’s military, political and civil society institutions. After internal unrest and diplomatic isolation began to drain his support in the mid-to-late 1990s, Suharto was forced to resign from the presidency in May 1998 following mass demonstrations.
After serving as the public face of Indonesia for over 30 years, Suharto lived his post-presidential years in seclusion until he passed away in 2008. Attempts to try him on charges of genocide failed. His legacy remains hotly debated and contested both in Indonesia and in foreign-policy debates in the West.
Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie was the third president of Indonesia, holding office from 1998 to 1999. He rose to power after modernizing and expanding Indonesia’s aviation industry. Abdurrahman Wahid was the president of Indonesia from 1999 to 2001, and founder of the National Awakening Party (PKB). He was a former Islamic cleric who guided the country for two years, despite virtual blindness.
Diah Permata Megawati Setiawati Soekarnoputri was president of Indonesia from 2001-2004. She was the country’s first female president and she is the daughter of Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno. In 2004, she was ranked number eight on Forbes Magazine’s list of the World’s 100 Most Powerful Women.
General Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is a retired Indonesian military general and statesman and the sixth president of Indonesia. He is the first to be elected directly by voters. Yudhoyono won the presidency in September 2004 in the second round of the Indonesian presidential election, in which he defeated incumbent president Megawati Sukarnoputri. Former Jakarta mayor Joko Widodo won the post in 2014.
Javanese do not have surnames in the Western sense. For example, the president’s name Yudhoyono was not inherited either from his father or his mother. While he uses Yudhoyono in naming his children, it is not a descended family surname. In Indonesia, he is referred to in some media as Susilo and is widely known in Indonesia as SBY. Abroad, he is referred to as Yudhoyono, a name that he chose for his military nametag, while in formal meetings and functions he is addressed as Dr. Yudhoyono.
While Indonesia is comprised of 33 different provinces, and its official capital is Jakarta, the country’s spiritual capital is Yogyakarta— a beautiful city located southeast of Jakarta. Yogykarta is politically sovereign and still has a Javanese sultan who rules the city. Banda Aceh, in northern Sumatra, also has its own sultan who rules the city. Although these Sultans are largely political figureheads who have been carried over from historical eras, they still have significant autonomy and political influence.
Separatist movements in Indonesia are threatening the stability, unity, and territorial integrity of the country. May 20, 2000 marks the birth of the nation of East Timor. In August 1999 the majority of East Timorese voted in a United Nations-sponsored referendum to secede from Indonesia. The withdrawal of Indonesian forces was violent and left much of the territory in ruins. After stabilizing briefly, the new country has returned to somewhat of a chaotic state and its future remains uncertain.
Separatist initiatives by civilians in Papua have emerged in the last several years. Until 2000, the government would not engage in discussion about autonomy, which polarized Papuans who supported autonomy versus those who wanted independence. Although the name of the province was officially changed to Papua from Irian Jaya to reflect local history and culture, that’s about the only concession the Indonesian government has made. The government continues to send transmigrants to the region, while restricting travel to outsiders.
The Free Aceh Movement, also known as the Aceh Sumatra National Liberation Front, was a separatist group which sought independence for the Aceh region of Sumatra from Indonesia since 1976. The organization surrendered its separatist intentions and dissolved its armed wing following a 2005 peace agreement with the Indonesian government.
In addition to the rich culture, Indonesia is full of natural resources. Timber, oil, natural gas, and mining are fueling this country’s economy. Indonesia is a member of the Oil Producing and Exporting Countries (OPEC). However, it currently is a net importer of oil.
Agriculture plays a very significant role throughout Indonesia. Millions of people farm for their own sustenance, but the country also exports several crops, such as coffee, tea, rice, coconuts, bananas, corn, rubber, and spices. Visitors can see large rice fields on several of the islands. Indonesia, however, is a net importer of rice since its booming population has outpaced the growth of agricultural production. Other major products include textiles, timber, coal, tin, copper, rice, pepper, palm oil. Indonesia’s major trading partners include Japan, China, the United States, and Singapore.
Despite the setbacks caused by sporadic terrorism and the deadly tsunami that hit Sumatra and Nias islands in 2004, Indonesian tourism is growing. The country’s ability to lure and satisfy diverse international travelers will play an important role in its sustained development.
Arts & Culture
Indonesia is rich in art and culture, which are intertwined with religion and age-old traditions. They reflect the influences from early migrants, not to mention the Western influences brought by Portuguese traders and Dutch colonists.
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 other performances are accompanied by a full gamelan orchestra, including xylophones, drums, gongs, string instruments, and flutes. The exotic dances of Bali and Java are world-renowned and a rewarding treat for visitors.
Bamboo xylophones are used in North Sulawesi and the bamboo instruments of West Java are well known for their unique notes. The Bataks of North Sumatra form popular singing groups to entertain visitors.
The crafts of Indonesia vary in both medium and style. As a whole, the people are artistic by nature and express themselves through canvas, wood, metals, clay and stone. The batik process of waxing and dyeing originated on Java centuries ago and classic designs have been modified with modern trends in both pattern and technology. There are several centers of Batik production on Java, including Yogyakarta, Surakarta, Pekalongan, and Cirebon. Batik also is produced on Bali, where local designs are incorporated. Other provinces produce hand-woven cloths featuring gold and silver threads among silk and cotton tapestries.
Traditional and contemporary oil, watercolors, and pen and ink drawings are found throughout the country, with Bali serving as the pinnacle of these creations. Other artwork includes woodcarvings, silverwork, and engravings.
The wayang kulit, or shadow puppet performance, of Java is performed with leather puppets held by the puppeteer, who narrates the story from the Hindu epics, the Mahabharata or the Ramayana. The performers work behind a white screen, while a lantern in the background casts the shadows of the characters on the screen, which is visible from the other side for spectators. The wayang golek (wooden puppet) of West Java is based on the same concept.
Almost 90 percent of Indonesia’s population practices Islam, with Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism making up the remaining 10 percent. Hinduism thrives on Bali, and Christianity has a significant presence on Flores, Timor, Sulawesi, and other islands.
Indonesia’s religious history created a trail of beautiful temples in its wake, most of which are found on the islands of Bali, Java, and Lombok. According to the Balinese, there are more than 10,000 temples on that island alone. Java’s Borobudur temple is the largest Buddhist monument in the world. It’s located near Yogykarta and dates back to the 8th Century.
Prambanan, the ancient Hindu monument, which predates Borobudur also is found near Yogyakarta. Central Java’s Dieng Plateau also features several other large Hindu Temples.
Weather & Climate
Indonesia has an equatorial climate tempered by trade winds. It’s essentially hot and humid all year with most daily temperatures between 90 and 95 degrees Fahrenheit near beach and lowland areas. Meanwhile, it stays frozen on the country’s snow-covered glacial peaks of Papua.
There are only two seasons in Indonesia. The dry season is between April and October and the rainy season is between November and March. Kalimantan, the Indonesian portion of Borneo, receives about 130 inches of rain annually. Most islands receive much less, while islands such as Komodo receive very little rainfall.
Indonesia has more active volcanoes than any other country on earth. It has more than 400 volcanoes, including 128 active ones. The tallest, Kerinci on Sumatra, Rinjani on Lombok, and Semeru on Java, for example, reach more than 10,500 feet above sea level. The country covers one of the most volcanic and seismically active regions in the world. The volcanic ash yields extremely productive crops, which lures people to risk their lives farming in the shadows of these dangerous mountains. Thousands of farmers and their families have lost their lives as a result.
These mysterious mountains now lure hikers and mountaineering clubs, which have sprung up in Jakarta, Bandung, and other cities. Adventure travelers from other countries also find these volcanoes worth the trip. The most popular ones to climb are:
- the twin volcanoes of Gede and Pangrango in West Java;
- Semeru and Kelud in East Java;
- Merapi in Central Java; and
- Rinjani on Lombok.
On rare occasions, expeditions are made to the snow-covered summit of the Jayawijaya Range in Papua. Although it was not formed by volcanic activity, it is the highest point in Indonesia and one incredible adventure at 5,050 meters (16,000 feet).
Indonesia’s most famous volcano is Krakatau (known in the Western world as Krakatoa) in the Sunda Strait, between Java and Sumatra. When it blew up in 1883, the explosion and its after-effects circled the world. This volcano and many others have killed more than 150,000 people over the last 200 years in Indonesia.