Across Indonesia's 17,000-odd islands you can hear over 300 different spoken languages and find a range of people from middle-class sophisticates of Jakarta, to subsistence communities speaking tribal dialects and following animist traditions deep in the mountains of West Timor. And then there are the cultural expressions, from the incredible richness of Bali to the buttoned-down conservatism of Aceh. Yet despite this diversity, almost everybody can speak one language: Bahasa Indonesia, a tongue that helps unify this sprawling, chaotic collection of peoples.
Indonesia comprises a massively diverse range of societies and cultures; the differences between, say, the Sumbanese and Sundanese are as marked as those between the Swedes and Sicilians. Even so, a strong national Indonesian identity has emerged, originally through the struggle for independence and, following that, through education programs and the promotion of Bahasa Indonesia as the national language. This is despite the fact that Indonesia continues to be stretched by opposing forces: 'strict' Islam versus 'moderate' Islam, Islam versus Christianity versus Hinduism, outer islands versus Java, country versus city, modern versus traditional, rich versus poor, the modern world versus the past.
One Culture or Many?
The differences within Indonesian culture may challenge social cohesion and have at times been used as an excuse to incite conflict, but the nation still prevails. And, with notable exceptions such as Papua, the bonds have grown stronger, with the notion of an Indonesian identity overlapping rather than supplanting the nation's many preexisting regional cultures. The national slogan, Bhinneka Tunggal Ika (Unity in Diversity) – even though its words are old Javanese – has been adopted by Indonesians across widely varying ethnic and social standpoints.
Religion as Culture
A cultural element that bridges both the regional and the national is religion – the Pancasila principle of belief in a god holds firm. Though Indonesia is predominantly Islamic, in many places Islam is interwoven with traditional customs, giving it unique qualities and characteristics. Some areas are Christian or animist and, to leaven the mix, Bali has its own unique brand of Hinduism. Religion plays a role in the everyday: mosques and musholla (prayer rooms) are in constant use, and the vibrant Hindu ceremonies of Bali are a daily occurrence, to the delight of visitors.
Trends & Traditions
Smart phones, huge malls, techno-driven nightclubs and other facets of international modernity are common in Indonesia. But while the main cities and tourist resorts can appear technologically rich, other areas remain untouched. And even where modernisation has taken hold, it's clear that Indonesians have a very traditionalist heart. As well as adhering to religious and ethnic traditions, Indonesians also maintain social customs. Politeness to strangers is a deeply ingrained habit throughout most of the archipelago. Elders are still accorded great respect. When visiting someone's home, elders are always greeted first, and often customary permission to depart is also offered. This can occur whether in a high-rise in Medan or a hut in the Baliem Valley.
Daily life for Indonesians has changed rapidly in the last decade or two. These days, many people live away from their home region and the role of women has extended well beyond domestic duties to include career and study.
Feature: Small Talk
One thing that takes many visitors by surprise in Indonesia is what may seem like overinquisitiveness from complete strangers. Questions from them might include the following.
- Dari mana? (Where do you come from?)
- Mau kemana? (Where are you going?)
- Tinggal dimana? (Where are you staying?)
- Jalan sendiri? (Are you travelling alone?)
- Sudah kawin? (Are you married?)
- Anak-anak ada? (Do you have children?)
Visitors can find these questions intrusive or irritating, and in tourist areas they may just be a prelude to a sales pitch, but more often they are simply polite greetings and an expression of interest in a foreigner. A short answer or a Bahasa Indonesia greeting, with a smile, is a polite and adequate response. Try the following.
- Jalan-jalan (Walking around)
- Saya pergi dulu (literally 'I go first' nicely says that you can't pause for a pitch)
If you get into a slightly longer conversation, it's proper to ask some of the same questions in return. When you've had enough chatter, you can answer the question 'Where are you going?' even if it hasn't been asked.
The importance of the family remains high. This is evident during such festivals as Idul Fitri (Lebaran, the end of the Islamic fasting month), when highways become gridlocked, ferries get jammed and planes fill with those returning home to loved ones. Even at weekends, many travel for hours to spend a day with their relatives. In many ways, the notions of family and regional identity have become more pronounced: as people move away from small-scale communities and enter the milieu of the cities, the sense of belonging becomes more valued.
Beyond family, the main social unit is the village, whether it is in the country or manifests in the form of a suburb or neighbourhood in an urban area. Less than half the population still lives in rural areas (it was 80% in 1975) where labour in the fields, the home or the market is the basis of daily life. So, for younger Indonesians, is school – though not for as many as might be hoped. Nine out of 10 children complete the five years of primary schooling, but barely over six out of 10 get through secondary school. Kids from poorer families have to start supplementing the family income at an early age.
The village spirit can be found on Jakarta's backstreets, which, for example, are home to tight-knit neighbourhoods where kids run from house to house and everyone knows who owns which chicken. A sense of community may also evolve in a kos (apartment with shared facilities), where tenants, far from their families, come together for meals and companionship.
For the many Indonesians who still live in their home regions, customs and traditions remain a part of the everyday: the Toraja of Sulawesi continue to build traditional houses due to their social importance; the focus of a Sumbanese village remains the gravestones of their ancestors due to the influence they are believed to have in daily happenings. These aren't customs offered attention once a year – they are a part of life. And many Dayaks of Kalimantan still live in communal longhouses sheltering 20 families or more.
And even as modernity has found purchase across much of the nation, age-old traditions can still underpin life: Bali, for example, still scrupulously observes its annual day of silence, Nyepi (Balinese Lunar New Year), when literally all activity stops and everyone stays at home (or in their hotels) so that evil spirits will think the island uninhabited and leave it alone.
Contradictions also run through the status of gays in Indonesian society. Indonesians of both sexes are actively gay, and repression is mostly absent. However this isn't universally true, especially in Aceh where a 2015 incident received attention worldwide: two young women hugging were accused by Sharia police officers of being lesbians and taken in for questioning. Worse, in 2017 two gay men were publicly flogged in Banda Aceh after being caught having sex in a private home.
Positive recognition of gay identity or gay rights is largely missing. Waria (transgender or transvestite) performers and prostitutes have quite a high profile. Otherwise gay behaviour is, by and large, accepted without being particularly approved of. Bali, with its big international scene, and some Javanese cities have the most open gay life – although a gay wedding ceremony at a resort on Bali in 2015 drew an official rebuke.
Indonesia is a country of literally hundreds of cultures. Every one of its 700-plus languages denotes, at least to some extent, a different culture. They range from the matrilineal Minangkabau of Sumatra and the artistic Hindu Balinese, to the seafaring Bugis and buffalo-sacrificing Toraja of Sulawesi and Papua's penis-gourd-wearing Dani, to name but a few. Indonesia's island nature and rugged, mountainous terrain have meant that groups of people have often developed in near isolation from each other, resulting in an extraordinary differentiation of culture and language across the archipelago. Even in densely populated Java there are distinct groups, such as the Badui, who withdrew to the western highlands as Islam spread through the island and have had little contact with outsiders.
One Nation, Many Cultures
The notion that all these peoples could form one nation is a relatively young one, originating in the later part of the Dutch colonial era. Indonesia's 20th-century founding fathers knew that if a country of such diverse culture and religion was to hold together, it needed special handling. They fostered Indonesian nationalism and a national language (Bahasa Indonesia, spoken today by almost all Indonesians but the mother tongue for only about 20% of them). They rejected ideas that Indonesia should be a federal republic (potentially centrifugal), or a state subject to the law of Islam, even though this is the religion of the great majority. Today most Indonesian citizens (with the chief exceptions of many Papuans and some Acehnese) are firmly committed to the idea of Indonesia, even if there is a lingering feeling that in some ways the country is a 'Javanese empire'.
Feature: Migration & Homogenisation
Ethnic and cultural tensions in Indonesia have often been fuelled by transmigrasi (transmigration), the government-sponsored program of migration from more overcrowded islands (Java, Bali and Madura) to less crowded ones such as Kalimantan, Sumatra, Sulawesi and Papua. Over eight million people were relocated between 1950 and 2000. Local residents have often resented their marginalisation due to a sudden influx of people with little regard or use for local cultures and traditions. That the newcomers have the full sponsorship of the government adds to the resentment.
Indonesia's constitution affirms that the state is based on a belief in 'the One and Only God'; yet it also, rather contradictorily, guarantees 'freedom of worship, each according to his/her own religion or belief'. In practice, this translates into a requirement to follow one of the officially accepted 'religions', of which there are now six: Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism.
Islam is the predominant religion, with followers making up about 88% of the population. In Java, pilgrims still visit hundreds of holy places where spiritual energy is believed to be concentrated. Christians make up about 10% of the population, in scattered areas spread across the archipelago. Bali's Hindus comprise about 1.5% of the population.
Nevertheless, old beliefs persist. The earliest Indonesians were animists who practised ancestor and spirit worship. When Hinduism and Buddhism and, later, Islam and Christianity spread into the archipelago, they were layered on to this spiritual base.
Feature: Beliefs Outside the Official Box
Fascinating elements of animism, mostly concerned with the spirits of the dead or fertility rituals, survive alongside the major religions all over Indonesia today – especially among peoples in fairly remote places. These belief systems often involve elaborate rituals, which have become tourist attractions in their own right, and include the following.
Islam arrived in Indonesia with Muslim traders from the Arabian Peninsula and India as early as the 7th century AD, within decades of the Prophet Muhammad receiving the word of Allah (God) in Mecca. The first Indonesian rulers to convert to Islam were in the small North Sumatran ports of Lamreh and Pasai in the 13th century. Gradually over the following two centuries, then more rapidly, other Indonesian states adopted Islam. The religion initially spread along sea-trade routes, and the conversion of Demak, Tuban, Gresik and Cirebon, on Java's north coast, in the late 15th century was an important step in its progress.
The first Indonesian rulers to adopt Islam chose to do so from contact with foreign Muslim communities. Some other states were converted by conquest. Java's first Islamic leaders have long been venerated and mythologised as the nine walis (saints). Many legends are told about their feats of magic or war, and pilgrims visit their graves despite the official proscription of saint worship by Islam.
Today Indonesia has the largest Muslim population of any country in the world and the role Islam should play in its national life is constantly debated. Mainstream Indonesian Islam is moderate. Muslim women are not segregated nor, in most of the country, do they have to wear the jilbab (head covering), although this has recently become more common. Muslim men are allowed to marry two women but must have the consent of their first wife. Even so, polygamy in Indonesia is very rare. Many pre-Islamic traditions and customs remain in place. The Minangkabau society of Sumatra, for example, is strongly Islamic but remains matrilineal according to tradition.
Islam requires that all boys be circumcised, and in Indonesia this is usually done between the ages of six and 11. Muslims observe the fasting month of Ramadan. Friday afternoons are officially set aside for believers to worship, and all government offices and many businesses are closed as a result. In accordance with Islamic teaching, millions of Indonesians have made the pilgrimage to Mecca.
An attempt by some Islamic parties to make sharia (Islamic religious law) a constitutional obligation for all Indonesian Muslims was rejected by the national parliament in 2002. Sharia was firmly outlawed under the Suharto dictatorship, but elements of it have since been introduced in some cities and regions. Aceh was permitted to introduce strict sharia under its 2005 peace deal with the government. In Aceh gambling, alcohol and public affection between the sexes are all now banned, some offenders receive corporal punishment, and the jilbab is compulsory for Muslim women. Public displays of intimacy, alcohol and 'prostitute-like appearance' are outlawed in the factory town of Tangerang on Jakarta's outskirts.
The result of recent elections is that the great majority of Muslims are moderates and do not want an Islamic state. Neither of Indonesia's two biggest Muslim organisations (with about 75 million members between them, but are not political parties) – the traditionalist Nahdlatul Ulama (Rise of the Scholars) and the modernist Muhammadiyah – now seeks an Islamic state.
There are indications that a more conservative form of Islam is gaining some traction. While regions including Sumbawa, West Java and notably Aceh are quite conservative, changes are coming elsewhere. There are reports of mandatory Islamisation of young girls in some parts of West Papua and Sumatra, and in 2017 Jakarta's governor, a Christian of Chinese descent, was jailed for two years for blasphemy against Islam.
Militant Islamist groups that have made headlines with violent actions speak for only small minorities. Jemaah Islamiah was responsible for the 2002 Bali bombings and other acts of terror. The Indonesian government has captured or killed many of its principals, including cleric Abu Bakar Bashir who was jailed for 15 years in 2011.
One of the most important months of the Muslim calendar is the fasting month of Ramadan. As a profession of faith and spiritual discipline, Muslims abstain from food, drink, cigarettes and other worldly desires (including sex) from sunrise to sunset. However, many of the casually devout will find loopholes in the strictures.
Ramadan is often preceded by a cleansing ceremony, Padusan, to prepare for the coming fast (puasa). Traditionally, during Ramadan people get up at 3am or 4am to eat (this meal is called sahur) and then fast until sunset. Special prayers are said at mosques and at home.
The first day of the 10th month of the Muslim calendar is the end of Ramadan, called Idul Fitri or Lebaran. Mass prayers are held in the early morning, followed by two days of feasting. Extracts from the Koran are read and religious processions take place. During this time of mutual forgiveness, gifts are exchanged and pardon is asked for past wrongdoing.
During Ramadan, many restaurants and warungs are closed in Muslim regions of Indonesia. Those owned by non-Muslims will be open, but in deference to those fasting, they may have covered overhangs or will otherwise appear shut. In the big cities, many businesses are open and fasting is less strictly observed. Street stalls, mall food courts and warungs all come alive for the evening meal.
Though not all Muslims can keep to the privations of fasting, the overwhelming majority do and you should respect their values. Do not eat, drink or smoke in public unless you see others doing so.
Note that for a week before and a week after the official two-day Idul Fitri holiday, transport is chaotic; don't even consider travelling during this time as roads and buses are jammed, flights full and ferries bursting. You will be better off in non-Muslim areas – such as Bali, east Nusa Tenggara, Maluku or Papua – but even these areas have significant Muslim populations. Plan well, find yourself an idyllic spot and stay put.
Ramadan and Idul Fitri move back 10 days or so every year, according to the Muslim calendar.
The Portuguese introduced Roman Catholicism to Indonesia in the 16th century. Although they dabbled in religious conversion in Maluku and sent Dominican friars to Timor and Flores, their influence was never strong. The Dutch introduced Protestantism but made little effort to spread it. Missionary efforts came only after the Dutch set about establishing direct colonial rule throughout Indonesia in the 19th century. Animist areas were up for grabs and missionaries set about their work with zeal in parts of Nusa Tenggara, Maluku, Kalimantan, Papua, Sumatra and Sulawesi. A significant number of Chinese Indonesians converted to Christianity during the Suharto era.
Protestants (about 7% of the population) outnumber Catholics, largely because of the work of Dutch Calvinist and Lutheran missions and more recent Evangelical movements. The main Protestant populations are in the Batak area of Sumatra, the Minahasa and Toraja areas of Sulawesi, Timor and Sumba in Nusa Tenggara, Papua, parts of Maluku and Dayak areas of Kalimantan. Catholics comprise 3% of the population and are most numerous in Papua and Flores.
One issue that continues to stir emotions in Indonesia is the 'antipornography' law finally passed by parliament and signed into law in 2008 after years of debate. Promoted by Islamic parties, the law has a very wide definition of pornography that can potentially be applied to every kind of visual, textual or sound communication or performance, and even conversations and gestures. Many traditional forms of behaviour across the archipelago are technically illegal – from wearing penis gourds on Papua, to the modest gyrations of traditional Javanese dancers (to say nothing of the brazenly topless on Bali’s beaches).
Exactly what the antiporn law means is ill-defined. Behaviour not sanctioned in some areas continues in others. Although singled out by a quasi-governmental group for being 'immoral' in 2009, yoga on Bali is being taught and practised by more people than ever. And there have been assurances from the government that Balinese dance and other cultural forms of expression across the archipelago are safe from the law's ill-defined strictures. Opponents of the law include some secular political parties as well as women's, human-rights, regional, Christian, artists' and performers' groups and tourism-industry interests.
Many internet providers block a wide range of sites deemed immoral and there has been a general chilling of freedom of expression. In 2011, the popular singer Ariel (aka Nazril Irham) was sentenced to more than three years in prison when a sex tape he made ended up on the internet, after his laptop was stolen. He was released in 2012 and has taken to performing with his band Noah overseas to escape the restrictions at home.
Hinduism & Buddhism
These belief systems of Indian origin have a key place in Indonesian history but are now practised by relatively small numbers. Arriving with Indian traders by the 5th century AD, Hinduism and Buddhism came to be adopted by many kingdoms, especially in the western half of Indonesia. All the most powerful states in the archipelago until the 15th century – such as Sriwijaya, based in southeast Sumatra, and Majapahit, in eastern Java – were Hindu, Buddhist or a combination of the two, usually in fusion with earlier animist beliefs. Indonesian Hinduism tended to emphasise worship of the god Shiva, the destroyer, perhaps because this was closer to existing fertility worship and the appeasement of malevolent spirits. Buddhism, more a philosophy than a religion, shunned the Hindu pantheon of gods in its goal of escaping from suffering by overcoming desire.
Though Islam later replaced them almost everywhere in Indonesia, Hinduism and Buddhism left a powerful imprint on local culture and spirituality. This is most obvious today in the continued use of stories from the Hindu Ramayana and Mahabharata epics in Javanese and Balinese dance and theatre – as well as in major monuments such as the great Javanese temple complexes of Borobudur (Buddhist) and Prambanan (Hindu). Bali survived as a stronghold of Hinduism because nobles and intelligentsia of the Majapahit kingdom congregated there after the rest of their realm fell to Islam in the 15th century.
Most Buddhists in Indonesia today are Chinese. Their numbers have been estimated at more than two million, although this may come down at the next count following the reinstatement of Confucianism as an official religion in 2006. Confucianism, the creed of many Chinese Indonesians, was delisted in the Suharto era, forcing many Chinese to convert to Buddhism or Christianity.
Women In Indonesia
For Indonesian women, the challenges of balancing traditional roles and the opportunities and responsibilities of the modern era are most pronounced. Many are well educated and well employed; women are widely represented in the bureaucracy and business, although elections in 2009 and 2014 saw women win only about 18% of the seats, far below a goal of 30% professed by some of the parties. Two-income households are increasingly common and often a necessity, however women typically still see roles such as housekeeping and child rearing as their domain.
As a predominantly Islamic society Indonesia remains male-oriented, though women are not cloistered or required to observe purdah (the practice of screening women from strangers by means of a curtain or all-enveloping clothes). The jilbab has become more common, but it does not necessarily mean that women who wear it have a subservient personality or even deep Islamic faith. It can also be a means of deflecting unwanted male attention.
It's also increasingly common to see women in Muslim areas wearing headscarves even as the popular media typically shows women without.
Despite the social liberation of women visible in urban areas, there are those who see the advances made by conservative Islam in the past decade as a threat to women. Pressure on women to dress and behave conservatively comes from elements of sharia law that have been introduced in areas such as Aceh.
An attempt to reform family law in 2005 and give greater rights to women never even got to be debated in parliament after Islamic fundamentalists threatened those who were drafting it. Women still cannot legally be heads of households, which presents particular problems for Indonesia's estimated six million single mothers.
Feature: The Power of Smiles
A smile goes a very long way in Indonesia. It's said Indonesians have a smile for every emotion, and keeping one on your face even in a difficult situation helps to avoid giving offence. Indonesians generally seek consensus rather than disagreement, so maintaining a sense of accord, however tenuous, is a good idea in all dealings. Anger or aggressive behaviour is considered poor form.
Indonesians are very artistic people. This is most obvious in Bali, where the creation of beauty is part of the fabric of daily life, but it's apparent throughout the archipelago in music, dance, theatre, painting and in the handmade artisanry, of which every different island or area seems to have its own original form.
Theatre & Dance
Drama and dance in Indonesia are intimately connected in the hybrid form that is best known internationally – Balinese dancing. The colourful Balinese performances, at times supremely graceful, at others almost slapstick, are dances that tell stories, sometimes from the Indian Ramayana or Mahabharata epics. Balinese dance is performed both as entertainment and as a religious ritual, playing an important part in temple festivals.
Java's famed wayang (puppet) theatre also tells Ramayana and Mahabharata stories, through the use of shadow puppets, three-dimensional wooden puppets, or real people dancing the wayang roles. It too can still have ritual significance. Yogyakarta and Solo are centres of traditional Javanese culture where you can see a wayang performance.
Yogyakarta and Solo are also the centres of classical Javanese dance, a more refined, stylised manner of acting out the Hindu epics, performed most spectacularly in the Ramayana Ballet at Prambanan.
Many other colourful dance and drama traditions are alive and well around the archipelago. The Minangkabau people of West Sumatra have a strong tradition of Randai dance-drama at festivals and ceremonies, which incorporates pencak silat (a form of martial arts). The Batak Sigalegale puppet dance sees life-sized puppets dancing for weddings and funerals. Western Java's Jaipongan is a dynamic style that features swift movements to rhythms complicated enough to dumbfound an audience of musicologists. It was developed out of local dance and music traditions after Sukarno banned rock 'n' roll in 1961.
Central Kalimantan is home to the Manasai, a friendly dance in which tourists are welcome to participate. Kalimantan also has the Mandau, a dance performed with knives and shields. Papua is best known for its warrior dances, most easily seen at annual festivals at Danau Sentani and in the Baliem Valley and Asmat region.
Gamelan orchestras dominate traditional music in Java and Bali. Composed mainly of percussion instruments such as xylophones, gongs, drums and angklung (bamboo tubes shaken to produce a note), but also flutes, gamelan orchestras may have as many as 100 members. The sound produced by a gamelan can range from harmonious to eerie, with the tempo and intensity of sound undulating on a regular basis. Expect to hear powerful waves of music one minute and a single instrument holding court the next.
Balinese gamelan is more dramatic and varied than the refined Javanese forms, but all gamelan music has a hypnotic and haunting effect. It always accompanies Balinese and Javanese dance, and can also be heard in dedicated gamelan concerts, particularly in Solo and Yogyakarta in Java. Similar types of ensembles are also found elsewhere, such as the telempong of West Sumatra.
Another ethereal traditional music is West Java's serene kacapi suling, which features the kacapi (a harp-like instrument) and suling (a bamboo flute).
Indonesia has a massive contemporary-music scene that spans all genres. The popular dangdut is a melange of traditional and modern, Indonesian and foreign musical styles that features instruments such as electric guitars and Indian tablas, and rhythms ranging from Middle Eastern pop to reggae or salsa. The result is sexy, love-drunk songs sung by heartbroken women or cheesy men, accompanied by straight-faced musicians in matching suits. The beats are gutsy, the emotion high, the singing evocative and the dancing often provocative.
The writhings of dangdut star Inul Daratista (whose adopted stage name means 'the girl with breasts') were one reason behind the passage of Indonesia's controversial 'antipornography' legislation. She continues to sell out large venues around the archipelago.
No discussion of modern Indonesian music is complete without mention of the punk band Superman is Dead. From its start on Bali in 1995, the three-man group has gained fans across the country and the world. These days they're known for their environmental crusades.
Galleries in the wealthier neighbourhoods of Jakarta are the epicentre of Indonesia's contemporary-art scene, which has flourished with a full panoply of installations, sculptures, performance art and more, and which can be either extremely original, eye-catching and thought-provoking, or the opposite. Jakarta (www.jakartabiennale.net) and Yogyakarta (www.biennalejogja.org) both hold big biennale art events.
Traditionally, painting was an art for decorating palaces and places of worship, typically with religious or legendary subject matter. Foreign artists in Bali in the 1930s inspired a revolution in painting: artists began to depict everyday scenes in new, more realistic, less crowded canvasses. Others developed an attractive 'primitivist' style. Much Balinese art today is mass-produced tourist-market stuff, though there are also talented and original artists, especially in and around Ubud. Indonesia's most celebrated 20th-century painter was the Javanese expressionist Affandi (1907–90), who liked to paint by squeezing the paint straight out of the tube.
Indonesia is home to a vast and spectacular variety of architecture, from religious and royal buildings to traditional styles of home-building, which can differ hugely from one part of the archipelago to another. Indian, Chinese, Arabic and European influences have all added their mark to locally developed styles.
The great 8th- and 9th-century temples of Borobudur, Prambanan and the Dieng Plateau, in Central Java, all show the Indian influence that predominated in the Hindu-Buddhist period. Indian style, albeit with a distinctive local flavour, persists today in the Hindu temples of Bali, where the leaders of the Hindu-Buddhist Majapahit kingdom took refuge after being driven from Java in the 16th century.
The basic feature of Balinese architecture is the bale (pronounced 'ba-lay'), a rectangular, open-sided pavilion with a steeply pitched roof of palm thatch. A family compound will have a number of bale for eating, sleeping and working. The focus of a community is the bale banjar, a large pavilion for meeting, debate, gamelan practice and so on. Buildings such as restaurants and the lobby areas of hotels are often modelled on the bale – they are airy, spacious and handsomely proportioned.
Like the other arts, architecture has traditionally served the religious life of Bali. Balinese houses, although attractive, have never been lavished with the architectural attention that is given to temples. Even Balinese palaces are modest compared with the more important temples. Temples are designed to fixed rules and formulas, with sculpture serving as an adjunct, a finishing touch to these design guidelines.
Mosques in Indonesia
Mosque interiors are normally empty except for five main features: the mihrab (a wall niche marking the direction of Mecca); the mimbar (a raised pulpit, often canopied, with a staircase); a stand to hold the Koran; a screen to provide privacy for important worshippers; and a water source for ablutions. There are no seats and if there is any ornamentation at all, it will be verses from the Koran, although Indonesia's growing economy has fuelled a construction boom of new and elaborately designed mosques.
All mosques are primarily places of prayer, but their specific functions vary: the jami mesjid is used for Friday prayer meetings, a musalla is used Sunday to Thursday and the mashad is found in a tomb compound.
Indonesia's most revered mosques tend to be those built in the 15th and 16th centuries in Javanese towns that were among the first to convert to Islam. The 'classical' architectural style of these mosques includes tiered roofs clearly influenced by the Hindu culture that Islam had then only recently supplanted. They are curiously reminiscent of the Hindu temples still seen on Bali today. During the Suharto era in the late 20th century, hundreds of standardised, prefabricated mosques were shipped and erected all around Indonesia in pale imitation of this classical Javanese style.
It's generally no problem for travellers to visit mosques, as long as appropriately modest clothing is worn – there is usually a place to leave shoes, and headscarves are often available for hire.
For their own homes Indonesians developed a range of eye-catching structures whose grandeur depended on the family that built them. Timber construction, often with stilts, and elaborate thatched roofs of palm leaves or grass are common to many traditional housing forms around the archipelago. The use of stilts helps to reduce heat and humidity and avoid mud, floods and pests. Tana Toraja in Sulawesi, Pulau Nias off Sumatra, and the Batak and Minangkabau areas of Sumatra exhibit some of the most spectacular vernacular architecture, with high, curved roofs.
Royal palaces around Indonesia are often developments of basic local housing styles, even if far more elaborate as in the case of Javanese kraton (walled palaces). Yogyakarta's kraton is effectively a city within a city inhabited by over 25,000 people. On Bali, where royal families still exist – even if they often lack power – the 'palaces' are much more humble.
The Dutch colonists initially built poorly ventilated houses in European style but eventually a hybrid Indo-European style emerged, using elements such as the Javanese pendopo (open-sided pavilion) and joglo (a high-pitched roof). International styles such as art deco started to arrive in the late 19th century as large numbers of factories, train stations, hotels, hospitals and other public buildings went up in the later colonial period. Bandung in Java has one of the world's largest collections of 1920s art-deco buildings.
The Banda Islands in Maluku are a virtual theme park of Dutch colonial architecture with old forts and streets lined with old columned buildings sporting shady verandas.
Early independent Indonesia had little money to spare for major building projects, though President Sukarno did find the funds for a few prestige projects such as Jakarta's huge and resplendent Mesjid Istiqlal. The economic progress of the Suharto years saw Indonesia's cities spawn their quota of standard international high-rise office blocks and uninspired government buildings, though tourism helped to foster original, even spectacular, hybrids of local and international styles in hotels and resorts. Bali in particular has some properties renowned for their architecture around the coast (especially on the Bukit Peninsula) and overlooking the river valleys near Ubud.
History, religion, custom and modern styles are all reflected in Indonesia's vastly diverse range of crafts, which fills many an extra bag when visitors return home. Broadly speaking, there are three major influences: animism – traditions of animism and ancestor worship form the basis of many Indonesian crafts, particularly in Sumatra, Kalimantan, Sulawesi, Nusa Tenggara, Maluku and Papua; South Asian – the wave of Indian, and to a lesser extent Indo-Chinese, culture brought by extensive trading contacts created the Hindu-Buddhist techniques and styles reflected in Javanese and Balinese temple carvings, art forms, and crafts; and Islam – the third major influence only modified existing traditions. In fact Islam actively employed arts and crafts for dissemination of the religion. The highly stylised floral motifs on Jepara woodcarvings, for example, reflect Islam's ban on human and animal representation.
Though the religious significance or practical function of many traditional objects is disappearing, the skill level remains high. The sophistication and innovation of the craft industry is growing throughout the archipelago, driven by more discerning tourist tastes and by a booming export market. Javanese woodcarvers are turning out magnificent traditional panels and innovative furniture commissioned by large hotels, and Balinese jewellers influenced by Western designs are producing works of stunning quality.
Tourist centres are fostering an increasing cross-fertilisation of craft styles: the 'primitive' Kalimantan statues, so in vogue in Balinese art shops, may well have been carved behind the shop or – more likely – in the vast crafts factories of Java.
Though the forests are vanishing, woodcarving traditions are flourishing. Often woodcarving is practised in conjunction with more practical activities such as house building. All traditional Indonesian dwellings have some provision for repelling unwanted spirits. The horned lion heads of Batak houses, the water-buffalo representations on Toraja houses and the serpent carvings on Dayak houses all serve to protect inhabitants from evil influences.
On the outer islands, woodcarvings and statues are crafted to represent the spirit world and the ancestors who live there. Woodcarving is an intrinsic part of the Toraja's famed funerals: the deceased is represented by a tau tau (a life-sized wooden statue), and the coffin is adorned with carved animal heads. In the Ngaju and Dusun Dayak villages in Kalimantan, temadu (giant carved ancestor totems) also depict the dead.
The most favoured and durable wood in Indonesia is jati (teak), though this is getting increasingly expensive. Sandalwood is occasionally seen in Balinese carvings, as is mahogany and ebony (imported from Sulawesi and Kalimantan). Jackfruit is a common, cheap wood, though it tends to warp and split. Generally, local carvers use woods at hand: heavy ironwood and meranti (a hard wood) in Kalimantan, and belalu (a light wood) in Bali.
Perhaps Indonesia's most famous woodcarvers are the Asmat of southwestern Papua. Shields, canoes, spears and drums are carved, but the most distinctive Asmat woodcarvings are mbis (ancestor poles). These poles show the dead, one above the other, and the open carved 'wing' at the top of the pole is a phallic symbol representing fertility and power. The poles are also an expression of revenge, and were traditionally carved to accompany a feast following a headhunting raid.
In many regions, everyday objects are intricately carved. These include baby carriers and stools from Kalimantan, lacquered bowls from South Sumatra, bamboo containers from Sulawesi, doors from West Timor and horse effigies from Sumba.
Balinese woodcarving is the most ornamental and elaborate in Indonesia. The gods and demons of Balinese cosmology populate statues, temple doors and relief panels throughout the island. Western influence and demand for art and souvenirs has encouraged Balinese woodcarvers to reinvent their craft, echoing the 1930s revolution in Balinese painting by producing simpler, elongated statues of purely ornamental design with a natural finish.
In Java the centre for woodcarving, especially carved furniture, is Jepara. The intricate crafts share Bali's Hindu-Buddhist tradition, adjusted to reflect Islam's prohibition on human representation. Another Javanese woodcarving centre is Kudus, where elaborate panels for traditional houses are produced.
Feature: Exquisite Gifts
Amid the endless piles of tourist tat, Indonesia has truly extraordinary items that make perfect gifts. The secret is finding them. Here are a few ideas.
- West Timor in Nusa Tenggara is home to fab textile markets. Look for shops selling local ikat, antique masks, statues, and carved beams, reliefs and doors from old Timorese homes.
- On South Sumatra, look for ceremonial songket sarongs that are used for marriages and other ceremonies near Palembang. They can take a month to make.
- Dayak rattan, doyo (bark beaten into cloth), carvings and other souvenirs from Kalimantan can be world-class.
- Street vendors in Bandaneira sell scrumptious kenari-nut brittle, a treat found only on the Banda Islands.
- On Bali, intricate and beautiful rattan items made in an ancient village are sold by Ashitaba, which has shops across the island full of exquisite and artful goods.
- Widely available in markets, look for tikar (woven palm-leaf mats) that show careful workmanship and can be rolled up for travel.
The Indonesian word 'ikat', meaning 'to tie' or 'to bind', signifies the intricately patterned cloth of threads that are painstakingly tie-dyed before being woven together. Ikat is produced in many regions, most notably in Nusa Tenggara.
Ikat garments come in an incredible diversity of colours and patterns: the spectacular ikat of Sumba and the elaborately patterned work of Flores (including kapita, used to wrap the dead) are the best known.
Traditionally, ikat is made of hand-spun cotton. The whole process of ikat production – from planting the cotton to folding the finished product – is performed by women. Once the cotton is harvested, it is spun with a spindle. The thread is strengthened by immersing it in baths of crushed cassava, rice or maize, then threaded on to a winder.
Traditional dyes are made from natural sources. The most complex processes result in a rusty colour known as kombu (produced from the bark and roots of the kombu tree). Blue dyes come from the indigo plant, and purple or brown can be produced by dyeing the cloth deep blue and then dyeing it again with kombu.
Any sections that are not coloured are bound together with dye-resistant fibre. Each colour requires a separate tying-and-dyeing process. The sequence of colouring takes into consideration the effect of each application of dye. This stage requires great skill, as the dyer has to work out – before the threads are woven – exactly which parts of the thread are to receive which colour in order to create the pattern of the final cloth. After the thread has been dyed, the cloth is woven on a simple hand loom.
There are traditional times for the production of ikat. On Sumba the thread is spun between July and October, and the patterns bound between September and December. After the rains end in April, the dyeing is carried out. In August the weaving starts – more than a year after work on the thread began.
Origins & Meaning of Ikat
Ikat technique was most likely introduced 2000 years ago by Dongson migrants from southern China and Vietnam.
Ikat styles vary according to the village and the gender of the wearer, and some styles are reserved for special purposes. In parts of Nusa Tenggara, high-quality ikat is part of a bride's dowry. Until recently on Sumba, only members of the highest clans could make and wear ikat textiles. Certain motifs were traditionally reserved for noble families (as on Sumba and Rote) or members of a specific tribe or clan (as on Sabu or among the Atoni of West Timor). The function of ikat as an indicator of social status has since declined.
Motifs & Patterns
Some experts believe that motifs found on Sumba, such as front views of people, animals and birds, stem from an artistic tradition even older than Dongson, whose influence was geometric motifs like diamond and key shapes (which often go together), meanders and spirals.
One strong influence was patola cloth from Gujarat in India. In the 16th and 17th centuries these became highly prized in Indonesia, and one characteristic motif – a hexagon framing a four-pronged star – was copied by local ikat weavers. On the best patola and geometric ikat, repeated small patterns combine to form larger patterns, like a mandala. Over the past century, European styles have influenced the motifs used in ikat.
Unless you are looking for inexpensive machine-made ikat, shopping is best left to the experts. Even trekking out to an 'ikat village' may be in vain: the photogenic woman sitting at a wooden loom may be only for show. But if you insist, here are some tips on recognising the traditional product.
- Thread Hand-spun cotton has a less perfect 'twist' to it than factory cloth.
- Weave Hand-woven cloth, whether made from hand-spun or factory thread, feels rougher and, when new, stiffer than machine-woven cloth. It will probably have minor imperfections in the weave.
- Dyes Until you've seen enough ikat to get a feel for whether colours are natural or chemical, you often have to rely on your instincts as to whether they are 'earthy' enough. Some cloths contain both natural and artificial dyes.
- Dyeing method The patterns on cloths which have been individually tie-dyed using the traditional method are rarely perfectly defined, but they're unlikely to have the detached specks of colour that often appear on mass-dyed cloth.
- Age No matter what anybody tells you, there are very few antique cloths around. There are several processes to make cloth look old.
Songket is silk cloth interwoven with gold or silver threads, although imitation silver or gold is often used in modern pieces. Songket is most commonly found in heavily Islamic regions, such as Aceh, and among the coastal Malays, but Bali also has a strong songket tradition.
The technique of applying wax or other dye-resistant substances (like rice paste) to cloth to produce a design is found in many parts of the world, but none is as famous as the batik of Java. Javanese batik dates from the 12th century, and opinion is divided as to whether batik is an indigenous craft or imported from India along with Hindu religious and cultural traditions.
The word 'batik' is an old Javanese word meaning 'to dot'. Javanese batik was a major weapon in the competition for social-status in the royal courts. The ability to devote extensive resources to the painstaking creation of fine batik demonstrated wealth and power. Certain designs indicated courtly rank, and a courtier risked public humiliation, or worse, by daring to wear the wrong sarong.
In 2009 Unesco added Indonesian batik to its Intangible Cultural Heritage list.
Topeng – Masks
Although carved masks exist throughout the archipelago, the most readily identifiable form of mask is the topeng, used in wayang topeng, the masked dance-dramas of Java and Bali. Dancers perform local tales or adaptations of Hindu epics such as the Mahabharata, with the masks used to represent different characters. Masks vary from the stylised but plain masks of Central and West Java to the heavily carved masks of East Java.
Balinese masks are less stylised and more naturalistic than in Java – the Balinese save their love of colour and detail for the masks of the Barong dance, starring a mythical lion-dog creature who fights tirelessly against evil. Look for masks in shops in and around Ubud, especially to the south in Mas.
The finest batik is batik tulis (hand-painted or literally 'written' batik). Designs are first traced out on to cloth, then patterns are drawn in hot wax with a canting, a pen-like instrument. The wax-covered areas resist colour change when immersed in a dye bath. The waxing and dyeing, with increasingly darker shades, continues until the final colours are achieved. Wax is added to protect previously dyed areas or scraped off to expose new areas to the dye. Finally, all the wax is scraped off and the cloth boiled to remove all traces of wax.
Basketwork & Beadwork
Some of the finest basketwork in Indonesia comes from Lombok. The spiral woven rattan work is very fine and large baskets are woven using this method; smaller receptacles topped with wooden carvings are also popular.
In Java, Tasikmalaya is a major cane-weaving centre, often adapting baskets and vessels to modern uses with the introduction of zips and plastic linings. The Minangkabau people, centred around Bukittinggi, also produce interesting palm-leaf bags and purses, while the lontar palm is used extensively in weaving on West Timor, Rote and other outer eastern islands. The Dayak of Kalimantan produce some superb woven baskets and string bags.
Some of the most colourful and attractive beadwork is made by the Toraja of Sulawesi. Beadwork can be found all over Nusa Tenggara and in the Dayak region of Kalimantan. Small, highly prized cowrie shells are used like beads and are found on Dayak and Lombok works, though the best application of these shells is as intricate beading in Sumbanese tapestries.
No ordinary knife, the wavy-bladed traditional dagger known as a kris is a mandatory possession of a Javanese gentleman; it's said to be endowed with supernatural powers and is to be treated with the utmost respect. A kris owner ritually bathes and polishes his weapon, stores it in an auspicious location, and pays close attention to every rattle and scrape emanating from the blade and sheath in the dead of the night.
Some think the Javanese kris (from iris, meaning 'to cut') is derived from the bronze daggers produced by the Dongson around the 1st century AD. Bas-reliefs of a kris appear in the 14th-century Panataran temple complex in East Java, and the carrying of the kris as a custom in Java was noted in 15th-century Chinese records. The kris remains an integral part of men's ceremonial dress.
Distinctive features, the number of curves in the blade and the damascene design on the blade are read to indicate good or bad fortune for its owner. The number of curves in the blade has symbolic meaning: five curves symbolise the five Pandava brothers of the Mahabharata epic; three represents fire, ardour and passion. Although the blade is the most important part of the kris, the hilt and scabbard are also beautifully decorated.
Although the kris is mostly associated with Java and Bali, larger and less ornate variations are found in Sumatra, Kalimantan and Sulawesi.
The most famous puppets of Indonesia are the carved leather wayang kulit puppets. These intricate lace figures are cut from buffalo hide with a sharp, chisel-like stylus, and then painted. They are produced in Bali and Java, particularly in Central Java. The leaf-shaped kayon representing the 'tree' or 'mountain of life' is also made of leather and is used to end scenes during a performance.
Wayang golek are three-dimensional wooden puppets found in Central and West Java. The wayang klitik puppets are the rarer flat wooden puppets of East Java.
The ubiquitous toko mas (gold shop) found in every Indonesian city is mostly an investment house selling gold jewellery by weight – design and artisanship take a back seat. However, gold and silverwork does have a long history in Indonesia. Some of the best gold jewellery comes from Aceh, where fine filigree work is produced, while chunky bracelets and earrings are produced in the Batak region.
Balinese jewellery is nearly always handworked and rarely involves casting techniques. Balinese work is innovative, employing both traditional designs and those adapted from jewellery presented by Western buyers.
Kota Gede in Yogyakarta is famous for its fine filigree work. Silverware from here tends to be more traditional, but new designs are also being adapted. As well as jewellery, Kota Gede produces a wide range of silver tableware.
Soccer and badminton are the national sporting obsessions. Indonesian badminton players won the mixed-doubles gold medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Although international success has eluded Indonesian soccer (football) teams, it is played with fervour on grassy verges across the archipelago.
Many regions, particularly those with a history of tribal warfare, stage traditional contests of various kinds to accompany weddings, harvest festivals and other ceremonial events. Mock battles are sometimes staged in Papua, caci whip fights are a speciality in Flores and men fight with sticks and shields in Lombok, but the most spectacular ceremonial fight is seen during Sumba's Pasola festival, where every February and March horse riders in traditional dress hurl spears at each other.
In Bali and other islands, the real sporting passion is reserved for cockfighting, which means the spectators (virtually all men) watch and bet while birds brawl. Although nominally illegal, many matches are held openly.
Sidebar: Rimbaud in Java
Rimbaud in Java: The Lost Voyage by Jamie James (2011) re-creates poet Arthur Rimbaud's Java escape in 1876 when he first joined the Dutch army and then deserted, fleeing into the jungle.
Sidebar: Traditional Dance
The best bet for traditional dance? Ubud on Bali, where you can see several performances by talented troupes every night of the week.
Sidebar: Island of Dogs
Bali: Island of Dogs, a film by Lawrence Blair and Dean Allan Tolhurst, shows the complicated lives of the island's misunderstood dogs. Many are being slaughtered in the ongoing – and misguided – effort to eradicate rabies.
Sidebar: Cowboys in Paradise
Cowboys in Paradise (2009), directed by Amit Virmani, has made headlines for its unflinching portrait of real-life gigolos in Bali. Fixtures of Kuta Beach, these men are popular with some female tourists.
Sidebar: In the Shadow of Swords
In the Shadow of Swords (2005) by Sally Neighbour investigates the rise of terrorism in Indonesia and beyond, from an Australian perspective.
Nationalism and Ethnic Conflict in Indonesia (2004) by Jacques Bertrand remains a solid primer on the reasons behind violence in areas such as Maluku and Kalimantan.
In many Indonesian hotel rooms you'll notice a small arrow pointing in a seemingly random direction on the ceiling; it's actually indicating the direction of Mecca for Muslims who want to pray but can't get to a mosque.
Outside India, Hindus predominate only in Nepal and Bali. The Hinduism of Bali is literally far removed from that of India.
Sidebar: Bali Art & Culture
A carefully curated list of books about art, culture and Indonesian writers, dancers and musicians can be found at www.ganeshabooksbali.com, the website of the excellent Bali bookstore.
Sidebar: Jakarta Java Kini
The glossy monthly English-language magazine Jakarta Java Kini contains interesting articles on what's hot in the arts and entertainment, with a Jakarta focus. Another good source of Jakarta and Bali cultural news is The Beat (https://thebeatbali.com).
Sidebar: Iwan Fals
Rock legend Iwan Fals has been around for decades but still packs stadiums. His antiestablishment bent has caused him to be arrested several times.
Sidebar: Djenar Maesa Ayu
Author Djenar Maesa Ayu shook up Indonesia's literary scene with her candid portrayal of the injustices tackled by women. Her books include Mereka Bilang, Saya Monyet (They Say I'm a Monkey, 2001), Nayla (2005) and 1 Perempuan, 14 Laki-laki (1 Woman, 14 Men, 2011).
Sidebar: Ubud Writers & Readers Festival
The popular annual Ubud Writers & Readers Festival (www.ubudwritersfestival.com) in Bali, held in October, showcases both local and international writers and has an annual theme.
Sidebar: Bali Style
Bali Style (1995) by Barbara Walker and Rio Helmi is a lavishly photographed look at Balinese design, architecture and interior decoration. It captured a spare, tropical look that spawned oodles of copycat books and magazines and is today almost a cliché.
Riri Riza's Gie (2005), the story of Soe Hok Gie, an ethnic Chinese antidictatorship activist, was submitted for consideration in the Best Foreign Film category of the Academy Awards. His 3 Hari Untuk Selamanya (Three Days to Forever, 2007) is a classic road movie about a modern journey from Jakarta to Yogyakarta.
Jalanan, a 2013 documentary by Daniel Ziv, provides a compelling look at the lives of three Jakarta street musicians as they try to keep pace with rapid societal change.
Sidebar: Made in Indonesia
Made in Indonesia: A Tribute to the Country's Craftspeople (2005), by Warwick Purser with photos by the ubiquitous Rio Helmi, provides beautiful images and background information on the crafts of the country.
In Tenganan (Bali), a cloth called gringsing is woven using a rare method of double ikat in which both warp and weft threads are predyed.
Batik painting, an odd blend of craft and art that all-too-often is neither, remains popular in Yogyakarta, where it was invented as a pastime for unemployed youth. Though most batik painting is tourist schlock, there are some talented artists working in the medium.
Jakartacasual (http://jakartacasual.blogspot.com) is a great English-language source for Indonesian soccer news.
It makes sense that Indonesians call their country Tanah Air Kita (literally, 'Our Land and Water'), as it is the world's most expansive archipelago. Of its 17,500-plus islands, about 6000 are inhabited. These diverse lands and surrounding waters have an impressive collection of plant and animal life. Yet this very bounty is its own worst enemy, as resource exploitation threatens virtually every corner of Indonesia.
Just as the mash-up of cultures that form the political entity of Indonesia happened not too long ago, the mash-up of land that Indonesians call home also occurred relatively recently – geologically speaking. If Sulawesi looks a bit like an island caught in a blender, that is because it is where three major chunks of Earth converged in a vortex of tectonic chaos. About 30 million years ago, the Australian plate (carrying Papua and the Mulukus) careened into the Sunda Shelf (carrying Sumatra, Java and Borneo) from the south, while the twirling Philippine plate was pushed in from the east by the Pacific plate. The result: a landscape and ecology as diverse and dynamic as the people who live here.
Much of Indonesia is defined by its 150 volcanoes: spectacular peaks towering above the forests and people below. Some trekkers are drawn to their steaming summits, while others flock to their colourful lakes and bubbling mud pits. For the locals, nutrient-rich soils provide high crop yields allowing for higher population density – a benefit that comes with significant risk.
Over five million Indonesians live within the 'danger zone' of active volcanoes. Large and small eruptions are a near constant occurrence, and some have literally made history. Ash from the cataclysmic 1815 eruption of Gunung Tambora in Sumbawa killed 71,000 people and caused crop failures in Europe. The 1883 eruption of Krakatau between Java and Sumatra generated tsunamis that killed tens of thousands. Supervolcano Toba on Sumatra, which may have halved the world's human population 75,000 years ago, quietly reawakened in 2015. Mt Sinabung, near Berastagi, erupted as recently as 2017 and continues to be on watch.
Understandably, volcanoes play a pivotal role in most Indonesian cultures. In Bali and Java, major places of worship grace the slopes of prominent volcanic cones, and eruptions are taken as demonstrations of divine disappointment or anger.
Ring of Fire
Indonesia is stretched along part of the Pacific 'Ring of Fire'. Tectonic forces cause the Indo-Australian and Pacific plates to plunge under the Eurasian plate, where they melt 150km beneath the surface. Some of this molten rock works its way upward where it can erupt in violent and deadly explosions.
Even more pernicious, as these plates slide past each other, they can cause devastating earthquakes and tsunamis. The 2004 tsunami in Sumatra was caused by an offshore earthquake, the third-largest ever recorded, and generated waves up to 10m tall. The tsunami killed 167,799 Indonesians and displaced half a million more.
From tiny tarsiers to enormous stinking flowers, Indonesia's natural diversity is astounding, and we still don't know the complete story. Scientists continually discover new species such as a fanged frog in Sulawasi in 2015, an owl in Lombok in 2013, and three walking sharks since 2007 in the Malukus. Meanwhile, the 'lost world' of Papua's Foja mountains is a constant source of firsts, including the world's smallest wallaby, recorded in 2010. Unfortunately, the pace of discovery lags far behind the rate of habitat destruction, meaning some of Indonesia's rich biological heritage will pass unrecorded into extinction.
Great apes, tigers, elephants and monkeys – lots of monkeys – plus one mean lizard are just some of the more notable critters you may encounter in Indonesia. Here you can find an astonishing 12% of the world's mammal species and 17% of its bird species.
The diversity is partly a result of evolution occurring in two distinct ecozones, the Australian and Asian, which were later brought together by tectonic migration. This is why you won't find marsupials on the western islands, or tigers in the east.
The world's largest arboreal mammal, Indonesia's orang-utans are an iconic part of the nation's image. Although they once swung through the forest canopy throughout all of Southeast Asia, they are now found only in Sumatra and Borneo. The shaggy orange great apes rarely come down from the trees. They spend most of their day searching for and eating forest fruit before building their characteristic nests for the night. Some populations use tools to raid termite colonies (for a rare protein-rich delicacy), and researchers have observed individuals learning new behaviour from others, suggesting an intelligence rare in the animal kingdom.
Orang-utans have long reproductive cycles, with mothers caring for their young for up to eight years. This makes them particularly susceptible to population decline, and less than 60,000 individuals remain in the wild. Researchers fear that the isolated populations will not survive the continued loss of habitat due to logging and agriculture.
Best Places to See Orang-utans
Some orang-utan rehabilitation centres are open to visitors, but there is nothing like spotting these noble creatures in the wild.
- Sumatra – Bukit Lawang The rehabilitation centre here has closed but there's a good chance of seeing wild or semi-wild orang-utans on a trek into Gunung Leuser National Park.
- Kalimantan – Tanjung Puting National Park Several stations feed free-roaming ex-captive orang-utans reached by a romantic jungle river cruise.
- Kalimantan – Palangka Raya Circumnavigate Sungai Kahayan's Orang-utan Island in high style.
- Kalimantan – Kutai National Park The most accessible place to see wild orang-utans, and hear chainsaws.
Tales of evil beasts with huge claws, menacing teeth and yellow forked tongues floated around the islands of Nusa Tenggara for centuries. This continued until around 100 years ago, when the first Westerners brought one out of its namesake island home near Flores.
As mean as these 3m-long 150kg lizards look, their disposition is worse. Scores of humans have perished after being attacked, and Komodos regularly stalk and eat small deer. One researcher compared the sound of a Komodo pounding across the ground in pursuit to that of a machine gun. They have also been known to follow bite victims for miles, waiting as the venom from glands located between their teeth slowly poisons and kills their prey within 24 hours.
The Greater Sunda Islands, comprising Sumatra, Java, Kalimantan and Bali, were once connected to the Malaysian peninsula and Asian mainland. When the glaciers receded and ocean levels rose, the Sunda Shelf flooded, isolating the islands and the animal populations that migrated there. Some large Asian land animals still survive in this area, including tigers, rhinoceroses, leopards and sun bears – but their existence is tenuous at best.
Despite lingering claims of sightings, the Javan tiger was declared extinct in 2003. The Sumatran tiger is literally fighting for survival. There have been several incidents of tigers killing loggers trespassing in protected habitats, and of poachers killing tigers, also in protected habitat. Fewer than 500 individuals remain in the wild. Leopards (the black leopard, or panther, is more common in Southeast Asia) are rare but still live in Sumatra and in Java's Ujung Kulon National Park. This park is also home to the 60 remaining one-horned Javan rhinoceroses. Rhinos have not fared well in Indonesia and the two-horned variety, found in Sumatra and possibly Kalimantan, is also on the endangered list.
Perhaps the most famous endangered Indonesian animal is the orang-utan, which is under constant threat from logging and conversion of habitat to palm-oil plantations. In one especially tragic case, an adult orang-utan that wandered onto a palm-oil plantation died after locals set the tree it was sheltering in on fire to drive it off. Poachers regularly shoot mothers to sell their babies as pets. Also victims of the pet trade and habitat loss, all Indonesian gibbon species are endangered.
Fewer than 2000 Sumatran elephants remain in the wild, and are being driven into conflict with people since 70% of their habitat has been cleared for plantations and farming. The pygmy elephants in North Kalimantan have been reduced to fewer than 100.
Birds of Paradise
Papua's glamorous birds of paradise are a product of extreme sexual selection. In a place where food is abundant, and predators scarce, the main factor deciding who gets to reproduce is the female's choice of mate – and, it turns out, the ladies love a flamboyant fella.
While the female tends to look unremarkable, male birds of paradise may be adorned with fancy plumage, perform elaborate dances, or develop bizarre calls, all with the hopes of inspiring a lady to give him her number. The Wilson's bird of paradise, endemic to Indonesia, has both bright red and yellow feathers, as well as a curling tail like a handlebar moustache, while the Parotia dons a tutu and twirls for his potential mate.
Astrapias, sicklebills, rifle birds and manucodes are just a few of the 1600 species of exotic feathered creatures you'll see in the skies of Indonesia, 380 of which you'll only find here. On Papua alone, there isn't just one species called 'bird of paradise', but 30. For many a birder, watching a pair of these perform their spectacular mating dance is the dream of a lifetime.
Birdwatching is popular in many of the national parks. Guides are often fantastic at spotting birds, but may not know much more about them than you. The second edition of A Photographic Guide to the Birds of Indonesia is your most comprehensive resource. On Sulawesi, Tangkoko-Batuangas Dua Saudara Nature Reserve has regular birdwatching tours. In Bali, you can go on guided bird walks in and around Ubud.
Papua easily wins the birdwatching crown, however. Its range of birds includes migrating species from Australia and as far afield as Siberia.
Indonesia's plant diversity rivals the Amazon, and its botanical riches have defined its history. Wars were fought over the archipelago's spices while high-value timber extraction has opened the forests for settlement and further exploitation.
Many species are showy bloomers, though these are usually rare outside cultivated areas. Orchids are abundant (2500 different species at last count) and are best seen at Bali's excellent botanical gardens. You can expect a riot of fragrant frangipani, lotus and hibiscus blossoms as well as a festival of other blooms across the archipelago. Impossibly complex heliconias hang from vines in all their multifaceted crimson, orange and golden glory.
Amid all the flashy flora are many edible plants, including some of the world's most (in)famous fruits. Queen Victoria is reported to have been manic for the subtly sweet mangosteen from Maluku, while some strains of Kalimantan's durian are sought after by connoisseurs. Bananas are common in many varieties, all very different from the supermarket sameness back home.
Meanwhile, in forested areas, regal trees provide welcome shade from the equatorial sunshine. As you trek below, the plants in the canopy above are locked in a deadly battle for that very same sun. Towering dipterocarp rely on brute strength to push through the canopy, while vines and lianas sneak their way to the top on the shoulders of giants. Some fig species start life clinging to the upper branches of other trees before dropping a network of roots that surround, strangle and occasionally kill their host.
Look for coffee plantations, especially in the hills of Bali near Munduk. On Maluku – the original Spice Island – you can still catch the scent of vanilla and cloves, the latter most often wafting off the glowing end of a sweet kretek cigarette.
But it wouldn't be Indonesia without some real characters. Consider Rafflesia arnoldii, the world's largest flower, and the Amorphophallus titanum, the world's tallest flower. Both can be found, usually by their smell, on Sumatra and parts of Kalimantan and Java.
In areas where the soils are poor, some plants have become carnivores. Nepenthes species, known as pitcher plants, lure ants and other insects into their slippery chambers full of digestive juices. When things get really tough, some turn to even more alternative sources of nitrogen: bat guano and shrew poop.
Indonesia's incredible range of life on land is easily matched beneath the waves. The waters around Komodo, Sulawesi, the north coast of Papua, and even some spots in Java, Bali and Kalimantan are home to a kaleidoscope of corals, reef dwellers and pelagic marine life. In the Raja Ampat region of Papua there are at least 450 species of coral, six times more than found in the entire Caribbean. Thriving in that environment are over 1600 species of fish, with divers encountering up to 300 in a single dive. Manta rays are also found in abundance, along with 118 species of shark, including the endangered hammerhead and sawtooth.
Exit the oceans to head upriver, and the story continues: Irrawaddy dolphins and finless porpoises occupy many of Indonesia's bays; a single population of truly freshwater dolphins (called pesut) can be found in Kalimantan's Mahakam River; and the world's smallest fish (paedocypris progenetica, 7.9mm) occupies Sumatra's peat swamps.
National Parks & Protected Areas
Despite a constant nipping at the edges by illegal loggers and farmers, Indonesia still has large tracts of protected forest and parks, and many new protected areas have been gazetted in recent years. National parks receive greater international recognition and funding than nature, wildlife and marine reserves, of which there are also many in Indonesia.
Most of Indonesia's national parks are isolated, but the extra effort required to get to them is more than rewarded by the country's magnificent wilderness. Visitor facilities are minimal at best, but at many of the parks you'll find locals who are enthusiastic about their land and are ready to guide you to its hidden gems.
Top 10 National Parks & Reserves
rivers, rainforest, mountains; tigers, rhinoceros, elephants, primates such as orang-utans, white-breasted Thomas's leaf monkeys
orang-utan viewing, wildlife spotting, birdwatching; trekking, rafting
Best time to Visit
tropical rainforest, mangrove forest, wetlands; orang-utans, macaques, proboscis monkeys, diverse wildlife
orang-utan viewing, birdwatching
Best time to Visit
volcanology, short walks
Best time to Visit
Best time to Visit
lowland rainforest, scrub, grassy plains, swamps, sandy beaches; one-horned rhinoceros, otters, squirrels, white-breasted Thomas's leaf monkeys, gibbons
jungle walks; wildlife spotting
Best time to Visit
Best time to Visit
snorkelling, diving, island lazing
Best time to Visit
mountainous rainforest, one of Sumatra’s highest peaks
trekking; wildlife spotting, birdwatching
Best time to Visit
snorkelling, diving; being chased by wildlife
Best time to Visit
low hills, grasslands, coral-fringed coasts
snorkelling, diving; wildlife spotting
Best time to Visit
The side effects of deforestation and resource extraction are felt across the nation and beyond: floods and landslides wash away valuable topsoil, rivers become sluggish and fetid, and haze from clearing fires blankets Malaysia and Singapore every dry season, increasing international tensions. The carbon released from deforestation and fires is a significant contributor to global climate change, which in a vicious cycle creates a longer dry season, allowing for more fires.
The problems flow right through to Indonesia's coastline and seas, where more than 80% of reef habitat is considered to be at risk. A long history of cyanide and bomb fishing has left much of Indonesia's coral lifeless or crumbled. Shark finning and manta hunting have taken their toll on populations, while overfishing threatens to disrupt the marine ecosystem.
Meanwhile, the burgeoning middle class is straining the nation's infrastructure. Private vehicles clog urban streets, creating choking air pollution; waste-removal services have difficulty coping with household and industrial refuse; and a lack of sewage disposal makes water from most sources undrinkable without boiling, putting further pressure on kerosene and firewood supplies.
Traveller Tact: Environmental Concerns
You will still see plenty of animal exploitation in Indonesia, including performing monkeys on street corners in big cities and endangered birds in markets. Taking photos or paying the handlers money only encourages this behaviour.
Shops sell turtle-shell products, rare seashells, snakeskin, stuffed birds and framed butterflies. Avoid these. Not only are they illegal, but importing them into most countries is banned and items will probably be confiscated by customs. See the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES; www.cites.org) for more information.
Some animal exploitation is more subtle. Consider the life of a cute civet locked in a cage in a warehouse and force fed coffee to 'naturally' process the beans, for example. It's a far cry from the happy story plantations sell to justify charging outrageous prices for kopi luwak (civet coffee).
Finally, rubbish is an obvious problem. And while packing out your biscuit wrapper from some already rubbish-strewn waterfall may feel futile, your guides and other trekkers will notice, and might even join you. It is a small, but important step in the right direction.
As the environmental situation becomes more dire, more Indonesians are taking notice. Although international groups such as World Wildlife Fund and the Nature Conservancy have strong and effective presences in Indonesia, it is the burgeoning local environmental movements that will exact real and lasting change.
- Profauna (www.profauna.net/en) Operates throughout Indonesia to protect turtles and combat wildlife trade.
- Walhi (Indonesian Friends of the Earth; www.walhi.or.id) Works to protect the country's environment at many levels.
- AMAN (Indigenous People's Alliance of the Archipelago; www.aman.or.id/en) Helps secure indigenous rights to the natural forests necessary for their livelihood.
- JATAM (Mining Advocacy Network; https://business-humanrights.org) Works towards environmental responsibility and human-rights protection in Indonesia's mining sector.
There is much to be done to protect Indonesia's magnificence. While some steps are being made on the national scale to address the issues, a history of decentralisation and an ingrained culture of corruption means that many problems are rooted in the local and regional levels – which is where they must be addressed. Community organising is becoming more common as the local people grow increasingly frustrated with the situation, and less worried about the consequences of standing up for their land and their health.
As Indonesia's most densely populated island, it's not surprising that rampant development causes widespread flooding in Jakarta, Semarang and other cities every rainy season. This results in mass social upheaval and chokes surviving coastal mangroves. Although Jakarta has begun purchasing heavy equipment to remove garbage from the city's rivers, unless something is done about the 70,000 tonnes of rubbish dumped into the waterways every year, it may be a losing battle.
Java's longest river, the Cirtarum, is also one of the world's most polluted from both rubbish and chemical dumping by a growing industrial sector. A 15-year US$500 million loan from the Asian Development Bank is supposed to go towards its clean-up and rehabilitation.
This beautiful island is its own worst enemy: it can't help being popular. Walhi, the Indonesian Forum for Environment (www.walhi.or.id), estimates that the average hotel room uses 3000L of water. The typical golf course needs three million litres a day. Hence, a place fabled for its water is now running short. In addition, rice fields are being converted to commercial land at a rate of about 600 to 1000 hectares a year.
Meanwhile, a plan to create a golf course and shopping mall on top of 700 hectares of mangrove forest near Denpasar, euphemistically called the Benoa Bay Reclamation Project, continues to be a flashpoint for Bali's environmentalists. Feasibility studies predict the project will cause widespread flooding and destroy local fisheries.
Deforestation is a massive problem, threatening this island's rainforests and all its inhabitants, including the Sumatran tiger, Sumatran elephant, Sumatran rhinoceros, and Sumatran orangutan. National parks and other protected lands have consistently been sold off to logging companies and palm-oil plantations. Plans for hundreds of kilometres of new roads through the Leuser ecosystem threaten this critical habitat, while smoke from fires constantly chokes neighbouring Singapore and Malaysia during the dry season.
In a positive move, Indonesia finally ratified a 12-year-old transboundary haze agreement in 2014, becoming the last Southeast Asian nation to do so. Around the same time, anti-corruption officials arrested Riau's governor for allegedly accepting bribes from palm-oil companies. In late 2015, conservation groups backed by the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation won the battle for a 60-year lease of 44,000 hectares of critical habitat.
On southern Lombok, unprecedented new development in the previously untouched and beautiful beach area of Kuta will have untold environmental consequences. On the other hand, in 2015, Lombok's governor did reject a plan to transport 23 million cubic metres of sand from his island to use as back-fill in the controversial Benoa Bay Reclamation Project on neighbouring Bali; and nearby, the Gili Eco Trust continues to make great strides toward greening the Gili islands.
Things are not looking good in West Sumbawa, however, where authorities struggle to get a handle on illegal gold mining where over 1000 small operations dump a steady stream of mercury into the island's waterways. Elsewhere, dynamite fishing and poaching by locals is an ongoing concern in Unesco-listed Komodo National Park.
Deforestation and resource extraction occur in Kalimantan on an unprecedented scale. Coal-mining permits for over half of the land around the city of Samarinda have been issued, resulting in widespread flooding that costs the government tens of millions of dollars in damages each year. Indonesian health officials have warned that residents along the Mahakam river are at high risk of illness and skin disease due to pollution.
During the dry seasons of 2014 and 2015, smog from hundreds of unstoppable fires shut down airports and caused widespread respiratory illness. For the first time, Indonesia's government began cracking down in 2015, fining multiple companies for intentionally starting fires. Meanwhile, several indigenous communities have secured official recognition of their rights to ancestral lands, and some are developing ecotourism initiatives to provide alternative income for their village.
Conflict over mining near the beautiful dive areas of Bangka Island took an ugly turn in 2014 when officers from the company harassed a group of foreign divers, forcing them to surface and hauling them to shore for questioning. The local government has granted a Chinese-owned company permits to mine for iron ore without performing an environmental impact assessment, and without approval from the Ministry of Forestry. Also threatening area reefs are organised networks of cyanide fishing bankrolled by foreign bosses.
A timber-harvesting scheme threatens to destroy half of the forest of Aru, one of Indonesia's biodiversity hotspots. The land was slated for 500,000 hectares of sugar-cane plantations, but the plan was rejected in 2014 after international outcry. However, the plans resurfaced again in 2015.
The Maluku islands are also prime poaching ground for the wild bird trade. Populations of endemic and rare species have plummeted in recent years, especially songbirds, which collectors buy to enter into lucrative singing contests.
At the time of research, President Jokowi was poised to recreate the environmental catastrophe of the failed Mega Rice Project, which destroyed millions of hectares of Kalimantan's peat forests and produced nothing. In a visit to Merauke in 2015 he announced plans to revitalise the controversial plan to clear 1.2 million hectares of forest over three years to make way for large-scale industrial agriculture. Ultimately the plan calls for 4.6 million hectares of new rice production in the area, despite the fact that the land is already home to some of Papau's long-marginalised indigenous groups.
Indonesia's islands continue to be deforested at an alarming rate through illegal logging, conversion to palm-oil plantations and mining. Since the year 2000, over 16 million hectares of forest cover have been cleared in Indonesia, an area roughly the size of Greece. Six million hectares of that were old-growth forest, with almost half of that occurring in theoretically protected areas. And this rate does not seem to be abating; indeed, in both 2009 and 2012 as much as two million hectares of forest was destroyed. Indonesia now destroys its forests almost twice as fast as Brazil.
Feeling the heat of international pressure, Indonesia issued a sweeping moratorium on logging in 2011 (extended by two years in 2013) that left loopholes large enough to drive a fleet of logging trucks through. Deforestation actually increased. Meanwhile, companies independently make grandiose green-washing pledges to end their deforestation, then turn around and hire local smallholders to clear and plant the land for them. The forestry department draws lines around swathes of newly protected land, while local ministers use different maps to carve it up and sell the logging rights. The government declares formal recognition of indigenous people's right to manage their forests, but their claims are then contested in long-running legal battles. In 2015 and 2016, two companies were found guilty of illegal logging in Sumatra and fined a combined total of almost $1.5 billion.
Coal, oil, gold, nickel, tin, aluminium, copper, iron ore, diamonds…what lies beneath Indonesia's forest is just as tempting for exploitation as what grows above. Although mining can be done in an ecologically responsible manner, a lack of oversight and poor enforcement of regulations has resulted in a legacy of environmental disaster. Vast swaths of land have been dug open with little regard for environmental impact and almost no reclamation.
A ban on export of raw ore enacted in early 2015 will have serious implications for Indonesia as companies rush to build domestic smelters. These processing facilities will require extensive infrastructure investments, including power plants and roads, and will further tax natural resources. Environmental groups also worry that the historical lack of industry oversight in Indonesia will allow these new plants to cut corners and ignore safeguards.
The Illegal Animal Trade
Deforestation may have widespread implications, but an even more pernicious threat targets some of Indonesia's most imperilled species: the booming international trade in animals and animal parts. The growing demand is largely fuelled by the rise of China's wealthy class and their conspicuous consumption of exotic food and medicine. The use of animal parts is often loosely attributed to traditional Chinese medicine, though some products are relatively recent additions, and there is little to no scientific evidence that any have true medicinal value.
Regardless, tiger demand has increased as the newly rich seek out status-confirming products such as tiger-bone wine, which can sell for US$250 dollars per bottle, and is believed to cure arthritis. Shark-fin soup, claimed to increase virility, drives a US$500 million per year 'finning' industry – a harvesting practice whereby poachers cut off fins and dump the sharks back in the water to bleed to death. In 2014, Indonesian authorities confiscated 55 porcupines, whose bezoar stones (sometimes found in their digestive tracts) are believed to cure cancer, and sun-bear poaching is on the rise for their gall bladders. Reptiles such as pythons and monitor lizards may be sold online and often sent out of the country live by mail, while several species of endemic birds are at risk of extinction due to the pet trade.
The world's most trafficked animal, pangolin (or scaly anteater) are covered in scales which people dry and powder to treat everything from swelling and arthritis to 'women possessed by devils and ogres'. Their meat is also a highly prized delicacy throughout Asia, and in Vietnam, restaurants openly sell pangolin for US$250 a kilogram. A 2015 bust in Sumatra confiscated 96 live pangolin along with five tonnes more of frozen animals and 77kg of scales estimated to be worth $1.8million.
Sidebar: Rafflesia arnoldii
The Rafflesia arnoldii, the world's largest flower, and the Amorphophallus titanum, the world's tallest flower, can both be found in Sumatra and smell like rotting flesh.
Sidebar: Climate Change
In 2011 Norway placed US$1 billion on the table to encourage Indonesia to get a handle on deforestation and climate change.
Sidebar: Javan Rhino
In 2011, the International Rhino Foundation declared the Javan rhino extinct in Vietnam, leaving the estimated 60 living on Java's Ujung Kulon Peninsula the only examples left in the wild.
Sidebar: Wildlife Smuggling
Its proximity to the Philippines makes the port at Bitung on Sulawesi an unfortunate epicentre for wildlife smuggling. Tasikoki (www.tasikoki.org) is an entirely volunteer-run organisation that rescues and cares for animals confiscated from smugglers.
Sidebar: The Malay Archipelago
British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace was the first to notice Indonesia's duelling eco-zones during eight years of exploration, which he describes with gentlemanly prose in The Malay Archipelago.
Sidebar: Harrison Ford
Rogue pilot Harrison Ford (yes, that one) lambasts Indonesia's forestry minister about Sumatra's deforestation in the documentary series, Years of Living Dangerously.
One hawksbill turtle that visited Bali was tracked for the following year. Its destinations: Java, Kalimantan, Australia (Perth and much of Queensland) and then back to Bali.
Sidebar: Flowering Plants
There are over 25,000 flowering plant species in Indonesia and an estimated 40% exist nowhere else on earth.
Sidebar: Stick Insects
Stick insects measuring over half a metre have been found in Kalimantan.
Sidebar: Birds of Paradise
For a stunning all-access look at the world's 39 birds of paradise, pick up the National Geographic coffee-table book, Birds of Paradise: Revealing the World's Most Extraordinary Birds, by Tim Lamen and Edwin Scholes.
Visit environmental news site www.mongabay.com for the latest information on Indonesia's conservation successes…and failures.