Welcome to Sutera Tour
The floating emerald islands of the Indonesian archipelago have, for centuries, been a magnet to a diverse range of people. Chinese and Indian traders, European colonisers, proselytising missionaries, wayward adventurers, mining companies, intrepid travellers and package tourists have all, at one time or another, been attracted by its sandalwood and spices breezes, its Bali Hai lifestyle and its magnificent beaches, mountains and volcanoes.
Full country name: Republic of Indonesia
Area: 1,904,000 sq km
Population: 216 million (growth rate 1.5%)
Capital city: Jakarta (pop 9.3 million)
People: There are 365 ethnic and tribal groups.
Language: Bahasa Indonesia (plus 583 dialects), English
Religion: 87% Muslim, 9% Christian, 2% Hindu
Government: Military-ruled Republic
There are three time zones: Sumatra, Java and West & Central Kalimantan are seven hours ahead of UTC; Bali, Nusa Tenggara, South & East Kalimantan and Sulawesi are eight hours ahead of UTC; and Irian Jaya and Maluku are nine hours ahead of UTC
Electricity: 220V, 50 Hz
Weights & measures: Metric
Tourism: 4 million visitors per year
Currency: Rupiah (Rp)
The Indonesian archipelago comprises more than 13,000 islands and shares borders with Malaysia and Papua New Guinea. Stretching like a backbone down the western coast of Sumatra is a line of active and extinct volcanoes. These continue through Java, Bali, Nusa Tenggara and then loop through the Banda Islands of Maluku to north-eastern Sulawesi. Under 10 per cent of the total land area is suitable for farming, while two-thirds consists of woodland, forests and mangrove swamp (mostly found in Sumatra, Kalimantan, Sulawesi and Irian Jaya).
Indonesia's rich natural environment encourages a diversity of flora and fauna. The archipelago is home to elephants, tigers, leopards and orang-utans. Sea turtles are found in the waters around Bali and the world's largest flowers - Rafflesia arnoldii - grow in Sumatra. The islands of Irian Jaya, Java, Kalimantan, Sulawesi and Sumatra have national parks, while other parks protect special areas such as Komodo, home to the Komodo dragon. Rainforests are disappearing at an alarming rate, especially in Kalimantan where the mighty dipterocarp forests are being logged ferociously for their durable tropical hardwoods.
Draped over the equator, Indonesia tends to have a fairly uniform climate - hot. It's hot and wet during the wet season (October to April) and hot and dry during the dry season (May to September). Temperatures climb to about 31°C(88°F) in coastal regions, dropping further inland. The best time to visit Indonesia is from April to October.
When to Go
Though travel in the wet season is possible in most parts of Indonesia, it can be a deterrent to some activities and travel on mud-clogged roads in less developed areas is difficult. In general, the best time to visit is in the dry season between May and October.
The Christmas holiday period beings a wave of migratory Australians and there's an even bigger tourist wave during the European summer holidays. The main Indonesian holiday period is the end of Ramadan, when some resorts are packed to overflowing and prices skyrocket.
There is good diving and snorkelling off Bali (Nusa Dua, Sanur, Padangbai), between Komodo and Labuhanbajo in Flores, around the Banda Islands and off Pulau Biak off the north coast of Irian Jaya. The sea gardens of Sulawesi, particularly around Manado, are legendary. Renowned surf spots include Ulu Watu in Bali, Grajagan in Java and Nias off Sumatra, but there is surf along the southern coast of virtually all the islands in Nusa Tenggara. Windsurfing enthusiasts are well catered for in the southern resorts of Bali. Rafting is a new activity now offered on Bali's Ayung River.
Sumatra has good jungle treks, particularly in Gunung Leuser National Park. Berastagi and Bukit Lawang are also popular trekking centres in Sumatra. More adventurous jungle trekking opportunities are available in Kalimantan and Irian Jaya. For those who want to reach for the skies, Mt Bromo in Java and Agung in Bali are day climbs; Gunung Rinjani, the volcano that dominates Lombok, is a strenuous but worthwhile three-day jaunt.
Social and religious duty has, over time, been refined to form a code of behaviour called adat or traditional law. Islam is the predominant religion of the archipelago but it's somewhat tempered by elements of Hindu-Buddhism, adat and animism. In Java, especially, there are hundreds of places where spiritual energy is thought to be concentrated and can be absorbed by followers. Despite a lengthy colonial period, missionaries were only successful in converting small pockets of the Indonesian population to Christianity - the Bataks of Sumatra, the Toraks of Sulawesi and 95% of the population of Flores being notable examples.
Over 300 languages are spoken in the archipelago and most belong to the Malay-Polynesian group. Within this group, many regional languages and dialects are spoken. The lingua franca of the archipelago is Bahasa Indonesia, which is almost identical to Malay. It uses a number of foreign words, indicating the long history of contact Indonesia has had with other cultures. In recent years, Bahasa Indonesia has been appropriated by teenagers into a new and trendy vernacular called Bahasa Prokem; it has proved mostly unintelligible to the older generation.
Batik, the art of applying wax to cloth and then tie-dying in colourful and dramatic designs, is produced throughout Indonesia, and the centre of this activity is Yogyakarta in Java. Other craft forms include: ikat, which is a type of weaving with tie-dyed threads; songket, a silk cloth with gold or silver threads woven into it; and kris, artwork often decorated with jewels. Javanese wayang (puppet) plays and gamelan (hypnotic music composed mostly of percussive instruments) are also popular artistic forms.
Many Indonesian dishes are Chinese-influenced, but some, such as Padang food from Sumatra, are distinctly home-grown. Wherever you travel in Indonesia you'll see vendors selling snacks such as potatoes, sweet nuts, biscuits or fruit. Rice is the basis of each meal, eaten as a soup or with an assortment of hot and spicy side dishes, salad and pickles. Nasi goreng (fried rice) is the most common dish, while sate (skewered meats with a spicy peanut sauce), gado-gado (bean sprouts and vegies in peanut sauce) and seafood are also popular. The variety of tropical fruits grown would make a greengrocer swoon. They include custard apples, durians, guavas, jackfruits, mangoes, papayas, starfruits and rambutans.
The principal gateways for entry to Indonesia are Jakarta and Bali. Jakarta is serviced by more airlines but, thanks to its huge tourist trade, Bali gets almost as much traffic. New Merpati flights from Darwin in Australia's Northern Territory to Ambon (Maluku), Ujung Pandang (Sulawesi) and Biak (Irian Jaya) have opened up eastern Indonesia to travellers departing Australia. Airport tax on international flights varies between airport..
The only open land crossing is at Entikong, between Kalimantan and Sarawak. Most sea connections are on comfortable high-speed ferries running between Malaysia and Sumatra, though there is also a service between Manado in northern Sulawesi and Davao in the Philippines.
Most of the sea conections are between Malaysia and Sumatra and the vessel of choice is the comfortable high-speed ferry from Penang to Medan. The other main ferry connection is between Dumai (Sumatra) and Melaka (Malacca).
Domestic air services have been in a state of flux since the economic downturn in the late 1990s. A few airlines have folded and the remaining services have jacked up the price of domestic travel to compensate for soaring costs. For those with hard currency, though, air travel is still relatively cheap compared to the rest of the world. It is essential to reconfirm on domestic flights in Indonesia, otherwise you may be bumped from the list.
Indonesia's main roads are generally excellently surfaced, with the mainstay of land travel being the ekonomi buses - cheap and cheerful fares that may democratically include chickens, pigs and anything in between. Next step up is the express bus which carries the same cargo but gets to the destination sooner, followed by luxury air-con buses with all the whistles and bells that a coach can have.
Rail travel is restricted solely to Java and Sumatra. Indonesia's trains are pretty much a mixed bag: slow, miserable and cheap or comfortable and expensive. It's advisable to buy train tickets a day in advance to assure a seat. Cars, motorbikes and bicycles can be rented in the main cities and tourist centre. There are regular ferries between the various islands. Kalimantan has an undeveloped road system and internal transport is primarily by river or by air.
Local transport includes the ubiquitous opelets/angkot (minibuses), bajaj (auto rickshaws), becaks (bicycle rickshaws) and dokars (horse-drawn carts); most are ridiculously cheap. Many towns have taxis, but agree on a fare in advance.