Indonesia is the biggest country in South East Asia – with over 17,000 islands, stretching from 100 km south of Nicobar Islands in the Bay of Bengal, to near Darwin Australia. It has over three time zones, thirtythree provinces and hundreds of languages and dialects. It is also the fourth most populous country in the world.
‘Indonesia Indah’ – roughly translates to ‘Beautiful Indonesia’. I recently got a chance to visit this interesting country – a country rich in history, culture and nature. In this blog post, I will discuss some of the highlights from my trip. (Please do read this nice blog post by my friend: http://arsh-else.blogspot.com/2010/10/guest-blog-about-indonesia-by.html for an interesting perspective.)
I would highly recommend visiting Indonesia. (Unfortunately, at present there are no direct flights from India to Jakarta – Hope that they do commence direct flights soon! For now, connections through Singapore, Kuala Lumpur or Bangkok are quite convenient). Tourists from many countries may be eligible for visa on arrival. Combining Jakarta, Bandung and Bali in your itinerary would require a week (at minimum). Given our time constraints, we decided to leave Bali out for our next trip.
Jakarta is the capital (as well as the commercial capital) of Indonesia. It is a large, vibrant, cosmopolitan metropolis with over 14 million people. Like many large developing world cities, it exhibits quite a few contrasts – from first world like road infrastructure, downtown area, malls – to shanty towns and slums. Situated by the sea, 6 degrees south of the equator, it has tropical weather all year around. However, the humidity is definitely a shade lower than what we typically experience in Mumbai.
Friendly and courteous people
The Indonesian people are friendly, courteous and patient. One example of this is evident in the crazy traffic jams – hardly heard any honking! English is not that well understood by the common man; so communication can be a bit of a challenge. Given the breadth and diversity of the country, many different cultures and languages exist. Jakarta itself is quite cosmopolitan. On the topic of language – the Bahasa Indonesian spoken by the majority of the population has many words with Sanskrit origin. It is an interesting blend of East-West, given that the script is Roman.
Remnants of Dutch Era
Indonesia was a Dutch colony for over 3 centuries. But in comparison with cities like Mumbai, Kolkata, and Delhi – you don’t see as many colonial structures/infuence in Jakarta. Maybe the Dutch didn’t invest as much in infrastructure as the British. There are a few old buildings around the old port area and railway station – but nothing grand like the Fort Area or the Victoria Terminus in Mumbai. One prominent Dutch era remnant is the canal network in Jakarta. Though not very well maintained, they remind you of the typical Amsterdam canals. If there is any prominent western influence today, it is that of the American Culture – malls, fast-food, popular entertainment, etc.
Ramayan & Mahabharat
It was interesting to observe how Ramayan and Mahabharat occupy an important place in Indonesian culture. Jakarta’s central business district, features a prominent 50 feet long statue of Krishna and Arjun in a 13 horse chariot. Wooden puppets depicting scenes from these epics are quite popular.
Nasi Goreng (literally means ‘Fried Rice’) is one of the most popular dishes in Indonesia. It is a spicy fried rice preparation with various additions such as Chicken, Seafood, Shrimp, Beef, Eggs, Vegetables, etc. It is available everywhere – from street-food corners to good restaurants.
Traffic in Jakarta is crazy; but definitely better disciplined than in India. The city has over 2.5 Million Cars and over 7 Million Two-Wheelers. You will often get stuck in kilometers long traffic jams. Petrol is quite cheap (until recently, Indonesia was a net-exporter of petroleum) and public transportation is not very good. This adds to the traffic load.
The highway infrastructure though is quite world class. Jakarta has quite a few expressways inside the city. The ride on the Jakarta – Bandung Expressway was also quite good.
One interesting thing I saw was the concept of ‘tipping’ while yielding in traffic. In these crazy traffic jams, it is often impossible to make a turn in busy traffic. However an ingenious solution (doubt if it will work in India!) is often used to address this problem. A group of volunteers act as traffic cops, stop the oncoming traffic and let you pass. You simply tip this volunteer group! It is a commonly accepted practice…the oncoming vehicles doesn’t seem to protest!
Toyotas (and Daihatsus) are by far the most popular. The Toyota Innova (known as ‘Kijang’) and Toyota Avanza are the top models. These 3 passenger row vehicles are ideally suited for the large Indonesian families.
The iconic Bajaj Auto-Rickshaw made an entry in the Indonesian market in the 1970s. Though their popularity has gone down a bit since the 1990s, they are still omnipresent in Jakarta. Like in many Indian cities, they are popular commuting options. Interestingly, they are not called Rickshaws or Autos, but ‘Bajajs’! (Bajaj pronounced ‘Baa-j—aah’). One strange quirk though – the backseat appears to be at a substantial slant angle, compared to what we see here in India.
[On a related note - I reminded my friends that two popular things in Indonesia have a Pune connection! One being the 'Bajaj' and other even popular one being the extremely popular game of Badminton. Badminton (originally known as 'Poona') originated out of the British Army Cantonment in Pune in the 19th century]
Bajaj (image credit: Wikipedia)
We visited a few malls in Jakarta. Some of them were quite large and impressive – comparable with some of the good malls in U.S. Indonesia is definitely an attractive shopping destination; especially for apparel. Do make sure you visit the many traditional ‘Batik’ showrooms.
Bandung is the 3rd largest city in Indonesia and also the educational and textile capital. It is located around 160 km from Jakarta, at a height of over 800 meters. The weather is quite pleasant. Bandung is also a must-visit shopping destination for apparel. Many factory outlet stores have great merchandize selections and huge discounts.
Located close to Bandung, ‘Tangkuban Perahu’ is a dormant volcano. It is a popular tourist destination. Tourists can do a short hike to one of the craters (Kawah Domas). This crater has a few active hot springs.
Taman Mini Indonesia
Taman Mini Indonesia Indah (translated as “Beautiful Indonesia Miniature Park”) is an excellent tourist destination in Jakarta. This theme park provides a showcase of all the major provinces of Indonesia. It is a bit similar in concept to Epcot Center (Orlando, Florida). One interesting attraction is a lake with a series of well manicured islands – that are miniature replicas of the major Indonesian islands – Java, Sumatra, Sulawesi, Kalimantan, etc.)
Even though we didn’t visit Bali on this trip, we got a brief glimpse of the temples, architecture and culture at the park.
Indonesia is the 2nd most bio-diverse country in the world (1st is Brazil). Given its vast expanse and tropical climate, a wide variety of plant and animal species thrive here. Dense forests, rice fields, cash crops plantations (palm, rubber, coffee, tea, etc.) fill up the landscape. Many different kinds of fruits grow here. Do recommend trying the pineapples here (they were great!), as well as fresh coconut water (available everwhere!).