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Indonesia

Background

It is astonishing that Indonesia is defined as a single entity, consisting as it does of  17,508 islands, which support an almost unparalleled racial diversity.

A vast, sprawling archipelago, with a spread the equivalent of Athens to Delhi, Indonesia boasts more coastline than any country in the world. Each island has its own identity and culture with endless opportunity for exploration.

The country's motto is "unity in diversity". It has a population of 190 million - making it the world's 4th most populous; it is home to more Muslims than any other country; and it has the most volcanoes in the world (two thirds of which are active).

Apart from its geographical range, Indonesia is Bali, "the most spiritual island in the world". Orang Utans in their jungle nests, long nights of shadow puppet shows, evenings scented with clove cigarettes, the ancient temples of Borobudur and in West Papua (formerly known as Irian Jaya), communities so remote that they have only recently encountered Western natives

Highlights

Sumatra

Sumatra is the fourth largest island in the world. The east is low-lying and swampy with oil deposits while the west possesses a spectacular ridge of green and forested mountains and volcanoes. Here one can see stunning rice terraces and the remnants of ancient cultures.

The cultures of the Batak and Minangkabau people in the west and north have left architectural traces: carved wooden stilted houses, between 200-300 years old, as well as ancient tombs and megaliths. Just off the coast is Pulau Nias, famous for its surfing, monolithic culture and wood carvings.

Indonesia's natural attractions include Gunung Leuser National Park, where you can visit the world famous Orang Utan rehabilitation unit, Lake Toba, the park's enormous volcanic crater lake, Lake Maninjau, and the many other lakes with tranquil settings.

There are good beaches on the Sabang and Weh islands and the Riau Islands, the latter having been developed mainly for a Singaporean clientele.

Java

Java is often called the tail that wags the dog of Indonesia. Along with Bali it is the political, cultural and economic heart of Indonesia, carrying 60 percent of the total population yet only 7 percent of its land area.

There is good transport, so one can travel from one end of the island to the other in a day.

Java has a rich history and culture, with a wealth of palaces, temples and other historical sites, including the world famous Borobudur and the temples on the Dieng Plateau. Natural features include Krakatau, and the volcanoes of Mount Bromo and Mount Ijen. To the east, at Sukamade, one can see turtles laying their eggs, and in the west there are opportunities to glimpse the extremely rare Javanese One Horned Rhinoceros at Ujung Kulon National Park.

The kris is a traditional wavy-bladed dagger worn originally by all Javanese men over the age of three. Nowadays it is still worn, especially at weddings. The hilts and blades are intricately engraved and decorated. Many are believed imbued with powerful magic. They are often made from metals extracted from fallen meteorites

Kalimantan

Kalimantan is the huge southern part of Borneo, the third largest island in the world, with 30 percent of the land mass of Indonesia but only 5 percent of its population. It has vast swamps and overland travel is difficult -- it is easiest to fly or go by boat along the rivers.

Kalimantan is a mythical place of jungles and rivers, traditional dayak longhouses and boats that conjure up images of head hunters and heroism. Ancient rainforest is still intact despite extensive logging. Orang Utan, Proboscis Monkey, elephant and rhino can still be found.

For dayak culture the Apo Kayan area, the Mahakam, and Kapuas Rivers can be explored upstream into the interior. Orang Utan can be seen at the Tanjung Puting National Park, and although there are no developed beach resorts there is excellent rafting on the Amandit River. At the floating market in Banjarmasin tribal handicrafts and textiles can be bought.

Maluku

Maluku comprises more than 1,000 islands spread over a vast area formerly known as the Moluccas. There are some air links and a few passenger ships. Good diving can be found on Banda Island. Of the islands, Ambon is very important economically and the largest islands are Seram, Buru and Halmahera.

There are remnants of Dutch and Portuguese presence on the Spice islands and thousands of churches as well as mosques.

The Maluku islands are surrounded by very deep seas and the highest mountain is Mt. Binaia on Seram, at 3,027m.

Sulawesi

Its strange spidery shape means that nowhere on Sulawesi is more than 40km from the coast. Formerly called the Celebes, its new name means "Island of Iron", a reference to the large deposits of nickel-iron at the centre. There is one main highway, so a bus can go from one end to the other, but it is an extremely slow journey.

The Bugis of Sulawesi, with their elegant schooners called "pinisi", were coastal adventurers who plundered islands around Java -- and gave rise to the English word "bogeyman". In South Sulawesi one finds the incomparable culture of the Toraja people, with their funeral ceremonies, soaring-roofed houses and cliff burial sites. Visit Rantepao for Torajan handicrafts and textiles.

Natural features include the Tangkoko Batu Angus National Park for its unique fauna and the butterflies of Bantimurung Falls. There is also the cave system outside Ujung Pandang, Lake Poso, rich in unique fauna, and the active Mt Lokon.

Lore Lindu National park has excellent trekking and megaliths. For beaches go to the Togian Islands and Bunaken Marine Park.

West Papua

West Papua, (formerly known as Irian Jaya), the western half of New Guinea island, is one of the last great unknown corners of world. Most of it is only accessible to those with several months on their hands -- an official travel document is still required if you plan on straying beyond main towns.

Komodo

Nusa Tenggara, Komodo, Flores and Timor, islands of the Komodo archipelago, are arid and barren, especially in contrast to the lush extravagance of islands such as Bali. The main reason people visit Komodo is for the dragons, the gigantic lizards indigenous to this area that can grow to 3 metres long and weigh more than 150 kg. Around 2,000 dragons live in the well-organised national park on Komodo, with others on Rinca and Flores.

Young dragons move fast and can outrun a dog. They are voracious carrion eaters as well as powerful hunters in their own right. There have been human fatalities and visitors are encouraged not to stray from the marked paths on Komodo.

Flores

Flores is one of the most beautiful islands in the Sunda chain, with sheer valley walls, rapid rivers, lush forests and fertile soil. It is long from east to west, at 350 km, but only 70 km wide; for this reason the locals call it "serpent island".

Most of the inhabitants are Christian, unlike Komodo and Sumbawa, which are predominantly Muslim. At the east of the island is the volcano Keli Mutu, with three extraordinary lakes, each of which is a different colour: red, blue and black.

Lombok

Lombok is visible from Bali, but differs in flora and fauna. The island is Muslim, unlike Bali, and much more arid -- the centre is an enormous smoking volcano. Some people say that it is similar to Bali of 20 years ago in tourist terms; where Bali has motorbikes and jeeps, Lombok still has pony carts.

Before visitors arrived there were only a few scattered fishing communities. Senggigi is a developed beach resort and Kuta is now developing. Natural features include Mount Rinjani for its views, crater and lake, and Mt Tambora for a hot trek to the peak of a mountain. On Lombok, one can buy local pottery, textiles and baskets.

Bali

The archetypal romantic tropical paradise has been known to the West since the 1920s, with tourists arriving as long ago as the 1950s.

On this tiny, abundant, devoutly spiritual island, with its unique version of Hinduism, hardly a day goes by without some kind of religious festival taking place, featuring processions whose colours dazzle the eye. Here, in the shadow of Gunung Agung volcano (3,142 m), every village has three temples and almost everyone pursues one of the specialist arts for which Bali is famous.

Bali is, in fact, an island of artists and musicians, where everybody is a wood carver, stonemason, painter or a dancer.

Some argue that the "Garden of Eden" is now a "Paradise Los", but in truth, it is still possible to escape the crowds and find peace in this most spiritual island.

There is good but slow transport across the island.

Natural features include the volcanoes of Mts. Batur and Agung, and the much photographed steeped rice terraces. Much of the western part of the island is taken up by the Bali Barat National Park.

There are several beach resorts, the quieter ones with black sand. Major temples are Besakih and Tanah Lot. Tenganan is a preserved traditional Balinese village worth visiting. In Bali you can buy everything from wood carvings to batik, garments to jewelry, and many are adapted for Western taste.


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