With more than 18,000 islands spread across more than 5,100km wide and at least 1700km from north to south. Only a third is inhabited and it is the most populous Muslim country in the world, it has around 300 ethnic groups and subgroups speaking 700+ languages and dialects. Java island, the political nexus of the archipelago is the most densely populated island in the world.
For much of the last two millennia, the archipelago was not once contiguous country but comprised of regional powers that ebbed and flowed. The greatest extent of territory that was ever put together was that of the Sri Vijaya and Majaphit empires respectively.
Emerging from Palembang in the southern end of Sumatra, Sri Vijaya was the early empire that existed in the middle of the first millennia. It even had suzerainty over parts of present day Thailand and Cambodia!
On the other hand Majapahit arose from Java, and eventually dominated most of what is today Indonesia save New Guinea. It was also the period of transition of the archipelago towards the dominant religion of today.
Originally Hinduism was the predominant religion, given the extensive trade relations with India. But as Buddhism arrived it became the state religion. Hence the UNESCO heritage sites – ie Borobudur. Today most of the county has converted to Islam, though pockets remain – such as Bali which kept to its Hindu inspired religion and culture.
Being so diverse there are countless destinations which will cater to your every palette. From diving in Raja Ampat, culture hunting in central Java, to partying till dawn in Bali, these are all within 3½ hours’ flight from Singapore, with much of it even less. However, that did not mean Mel and Suan had any extensive handprints here. You know the thing about not bothering with your backyard.
Visiting twice, the party island is a bastion of Hinduism mixed with local ancestor worship. Architecturally, the Balinese has retained vestiges of Indian influence, thus visitors are in awe when they visit. Add in the various demons, angels and gods of the Hindu religion, doesn’t’ the temples and palaces look familiar to that in Angkor Wat?
During our first visit, we had the pleasure of staying at a hotel that overlooks Tanah Lot, that famed temple on an rocky outcrop just off the coast. At low tide many folks walk across. Many a day were spent lying on the seaside pavilion enjoying the breeze and view of the temple.
Not everything is about temples. We visited local villages to see how the local folks still live in their traditional ways. See prized fighting cocks beautifully manicured or the local bull still tending to the fields. You will know that they have coffee beans collected from the excrement of the ‘luwaks’, a tiny civet like mammal that is endemic to the archipelago. Because there are so many plantations, oftentimes they feed on the coffee fruit. Have a cuppa of poo coffee!
Being famed for its rice terraces and mountains, the natural beauty of the island is not to be neglected. Do take note of the planting seasons though, or all you will see are brown patches of land. Finally, do not forget to visit the relics of royal heritage. Today there are no Kings on the island, but there used to be at least 9, after they split up in the 1700s. A nice water palace of the last Karangasem King (eastern end of Bali) demonstrates some similarity with the “barays” of Angkor.
Just as in other parts of Indonesia, the local handicraft industry is an important economic activity aside from tourism and in more recent years, real estate development. Here in Bali there are actually specialized villages where almost everyone is working in, or connected in some way to a craft. For example wood carving and Silver jewelry making. In Celuk we spent time visiting many a workshop to see how the artisans produce intricate pieces of art.
Finally, food is indispensably something to thoroughly enjoy in Bali. Using an incredible array of spices, the cuisine on the island is quite distinct from other parts of Indonesia. Smoked roasted duck is quite the dish to try, as is the babi guling (roasted suckling pig)!
Roughly in the southern center of Java island, Yogyakarta was the center of the old Mataram state that had its beginnings in the first millennia AD. Initially under the suzerainty of Sri Vijaya and later Majaphait, the city was and remains a cultural center for Javanese art, music, poetry etc. Even the name of the city evokes links to its distant Hindu-Buddhist past – it was said to be named after the Indian city Ayodhya.
So it should not be a surprise to know that the principal sites of touristic interest are of Hindu and Buddhist origin. That would be Prambanan and Borobudur. These were the first places that Mel and Suan visited. Both are UNESCO world heritage sites that showcases the rich legacy that Javanese culture retains significantly till this day.
Yogyakarta today is the capital of a special region, the only one in Indonesia headed by a monarchy. The sultan’s palace (kraton) may not be grandiose, but unlike other parts of the country it is the seat of the governor for the region. This stemmed from the role it played in the war of independence against the Dutch in the 1940s. In fact, Yogyakarta was briefly capital of the republic before it was moved when the city came under attack by the colonial masters, eager to retake their colony.
Being here it was not possible not to venture out to sample the handicraft art of Java. Batik is an obvious start, but again it was silver making that enticed us. In Kota Gede, there are so many workshops and boutiques. As in Bali, the industry employed thousands of artisans. We were told that there are silver mines in Indonesia but have not been able to verify that. Probably so, since the country is actually quite mineral rich. Drilling for oil yes, but mining for Silver….
Getting to “Jogja” wasn’t quite easy for us as we flew into Solo (aka of the old Surakarta sultanate). But since that time there has been direct flights from Singapore to this special region.
Indonesia is indeed our backyard and we have really not quite made inroads into exploring more of the country. And really we have no excuse – after all there are direct flights from Singapore to well over 13 location all across the archipelago. Perhaps when we have finished our bucket list in a few more years we will begin to ‘hunt’ down each one of these cities and their surrounding attractions. The exploring is endless!