While Indonesia’s spectacular beaches, natural resources, and laid-back lifestyle have attracted tourists, missionaries, and businesses for generations, recent political and religiously motivated events make much of the archipelago dangerous for Western tourists.
Travelers should exercise reasonable caution in Jakarta and other metropolitan centers in Java and Sumatra. All travel should be avoided in West Timor; Maluku and North Maluku; remote parts of North, East, and Central Kalimantan; North, South and Central Sulawesi; Papua; and Aceh.
Still, there is much to do and see in Indonesia. The nation is composed of a vast number of islands, both large and small, making up an archipelago that stretches for thousands of miles. Java is the most developed island in Indonesia. While some of Indonesia’s famous pastoral lifestyle continues to exist on Java, it is also home to the country’s largest cities, churning out fumes and traffic, wealth and poverty, and the sort of social discord that typically accompanies rapid development.
To find the “paradise” that hordes of Aussie, European, and American tourists talk about so much, check out Bali. The beaches are beautiful, the volcanic hillsides are lush and brimming with life, and time moves slowly. However, particularly during the high tourist seasons, such as the Christmas season, Bali can be overrun with travelers. It becomes evident that much of what is appealing to tourists is itself manufactured by the tourists and a tourist-friendly society.
The flip side of this is the island of Lombok. Lombok embodies all of the potential of Bali, in terms of a rich and beautiful environment and pastoral lifestyle. With more to offer than Bali, for those who want to avoid the trappings of a tourist-centric society, Lombok is an appealing alternative. However, the people of Lombok are not nearly as open to tourists, often expressing resentment to those they see as intruding on their quiet lives.
Even further removed than Lombok is the island of Sumatra. With its thick forests, meandering rivers, and remote villages, Sumatra is well worth a visit, if only to know that such places still exist. But be wary of the political and religious conflicts, particularly in the northern section of Aceh.
Indonesia is home to elephants, tigers, leopards, and orangutans. Sea turtles are found in the diverse waters around Bali and the world’s largest flowers grow in Sumatra. The islands of Papua, Java, Kalimantan, Sulawesi, and Sumatra have national parks, while other parks protect special areas such as Komodo, home to the famed Komodo dragon. However, massive tracts of rainforest are logged on a constant basis, and the slash and burn method compounds the environmental tumult by pumping soot and particulates into the air, choking populations of people.
Traveling in Indonesia
The major airports in Indonesia are in Jakarta and Bali, serviced by Australian Airlines among others. A luxury high-speed ferry runs from Penang to Medan, and other slower boats arrive from southern Malaysia and the Riau Islands.
The Christmas season is a very popular time to visit Indonesia for Australians and Europeans. The main Indonesian holiday season is the last week of Ramadan.
Visiting Indonesia, particularly outside of the major tourist seasons, can be very affordable. Lodging typically ranges from US$2-$5 at the budget level up to US$20+ at the high end. Meals are between US$1-$2 (budget) to US$5+ (high end). Tipping is generally not necessary with a few exceptions: tour guides often expect a small tip, as do hotel porters; cab drivers expect you to round the fare up. Traveler’s checks are the best bet for carrying cash in Indonesia. Credit cards will be accepted by nicer hotels, shops, and restaurants, but there is not universal acceptance. ATMs are available in bigger cities.
Visa regulations have varied in recent years, as a tug of war between politics and tourism dollars progresses. As of December 2003, nationals of 20 countries–including Australia, the United States, and some European countries–were able to obtain a visa upon arrival. Citizens of eight other countries, mostly in Southeast Asia, did not require visas. All others needed to obtain visas before arriving.
Health risks in Indonesia include Dengue Fever, Giardiasis, Hepatitis, Japanese B Encephalitis, Malaria, Rabies, and Typhoid.
Weather in Indonesia
For the most hospitable traveling weather, go to Indonesia between May and October. Much of the rest of the year is considered the rainy season, when travel is possible, but may be less comfortable or interrupted in more rural areas. Indonesia’s climate is consistently hot. Temperatures climb to about 88°F (31°C) in coastal regions, dropping further inland.
Republic of Indonesia Information
Population: 234.89 million
Area: 1.9 million sq km
Capitol: Jakarta (pop 9.3 million)
Languages: Indonesian, English, Javanese, Sundanese
People: Acehnese, Bataks, Minangkabaus (Sumatra); Javanese, Sundanese (Java); Balinese (Bali); Sasaks (Lombok); and Dani (Irian Jaya/West Papuan); among hundreds of other ethnic and tribal groups
Religion: 88% Muslim, 8% Christian, 2% Hindu
Major products/industries: Oil, gas, textiles, timber, coffee, rubber, coal, tin, copper, rice, pepper, palm oil