Indonesia: Exploring the Spice Islands
Mention Indonesia and most people think of Bali, the island paradise of friendly faces, terraced rice paddies and a fascinating Hindu-based culture all surrounded by clear, coral-filled waters. But Indonesia is far more. It is an archipelago of over 17,000 islands. Its population of 194 million people consists of over 300 ethnic groups and an equally mind boggling number of languages. The most difficult thing for a visitor is deciding where to go.
Jakarta, on the island of Java, is the country's capital. But it's a business city and with about 11 million people in its sprawling reaches, the pollution and traffic jams mean it is simply used as an efficient international airport for most visitors. A short flight south from Jakarta takes you to Jogyakarta, or Jogya, as it is usually called. Here Indonesia's rich history begins to unfold. Within the town's center the Sultan's palace, the kraton, is worth a visit as is the water palace where he and his harem relaxed. Prior to Dutch colonialism, Indonesia was divided into hundreds of different territories, each ruled by a sultan or raja. The long association with royalty has meant many of the finest craftsmen and artisans have lived and worked in Jogya. Watch fine batik textiles being made with painstaking care and don't miss an evening performance of the wayang kulit, special shadow puppetry accompanied by a full gamelan orchestra. Gamelan music refers to the most common type of orchestra in Indonesia and consists of xylophonic instruments. The music has been likened to listening to the sound of running.
Borobodur, the world's largest stupa, is the city's prime attraction and lies about an hour away by bus. Started in about 850AD by the reigning Buddhist empire, it took about 100 years and an estimated 10,000 men to build. Yet this enormous monument was hardly used. Soon after the building was finished it was buried by the outpourings of the nearby Mt. Merapi volcano, only to be rediscovered in the 1800s. Now it has been repaired and stands majestically dominating the plains around it. Close by is Prambanan, a Hindu temple, built around the same time. Interestingly it is very similar to some of the temples in central Vietnam.
Java is Indonesia's rice bowl. Crowned with spectacular volcanoes that have enriched the soil, rice and vegetables seem to be grown on every available square foot of soil. Mt. Bromo at the eastern end of the island rises from the sea of agriculture. To the Indonesians, volcanoes are the abodes of the gods. Climb the rim of Mt. Bromo at night to sit and watch the sun appear over the rim, spreading it's warmth on the land. As the misty belches from the crater's depth emerge it's easy to understand the strong mystical beliefs that underpin all Indonesian faiths.
At the other end of Java lies Indonesia's most famous volcano, Krakatoa. When it exploded in 1883 it sent a mighty tsunami through southwest Java and southern Sumatra. It lies in the Sunda Straits between Java and Sumatra and a boat trip around it can be combined with a visit to the Ujung Kulon National Park where the last Javan rhinos roam in the rainforests.
Stepping from Java to Bali is like moving countries. While the guidebooks explain the historical reasons for the differences, until you experience it, it is difficult to realize the enormous wealth of cultures that lie within Indonesia. Java is mainly Muslim and has a polite, restrained culture. Bali is predominantly Hindu and has a laid back feel to it. It weaves its magic and charm over all who visit. Bali's Kuta beach is famous as a night spot for the young at heart. Full of restaurants and bars, it parties until late into the night. By day you can relax on the beach or at the pool of one of the hotels that dot the shores and hills or shop till you drop for great bargains. Silver jewelry, wood carvings and accessories are just a few of the souvenirs few people can resist. Bali also has a sophisticated culture of dance and temple festivals including cremation rites. Dedicated musicians and artists are drawn here to learn new skills and exchange ideas. Of all of Indonesia this is the easiest place for travelers. English is widely spoken, the infrastructure is of a high standard and there are plenty of choices for everyone from the budget conscious backpacker to those who want every luxury money can buy. The international airport is well-serviced by flights and local ferries which run from here to many other parts of the archipelago.
Bali is the stepping-off point for the less traveled islands of Nusa Tenggara. Lombok is the next island east and simple to get to by ferry. But to head further east is to leave behind the twentieth century and most tourists. Travel is generally by boat and the dry islands are sparsely populated. Intricate ikat textiles (made by dying the pattern on the thread before it is woven) are made by hand. Traditions run deep. Forget the high-class hotels and make sure you have plenty of time as the pace of life is slow. Out here, on a couple of rugged, barren islands, the infamous Komodo dragons live. For those with only a few spare days who like a hot shower each night, there is a good cruise liner that can whisk you from Bali to see the dragons and the intervening islands and return you comfortably back again in just a few days. If you want to see more and go it alone, allow a couple of weeks.
Previously called the Celebes, this odd shaped, volcanic-peaked island has two main ports of call. In the north lies Manado, a scuba diver's mecca and good starting point to explore several fascinating national parks. At the south end of the island live the Tana Toraja people. About a day's journey into the highlands from the capital, Ujung Pandang, these people are famous for their tribal customs and social structure that has remained unchanged for centuries. Their houses have intricate carved wooden panels and high roofs that rise at each end making the shape of a boat. Scattered in small villages, many visitors come not just for the magnificent scenery but to witness the elaborate and spectacular funeral rites. Most occur after the harvest in August to October when there is sufficient food to hold the enormous feasts required to ensure that the souls of the dead can pass into the afterlife and maintain their status. Among other things, the ceremony involves the slaughtering of massive numbers of buffaloes and pigs. If the souls of the deceased are properly cared for in their afterlife, they, in turn, will bring blessings on their living descendants. It may be years before the family can afford a proper funeral for the deceased, so after their death they are wrapped and virtually mummified until the appropriate arrangements can be made. During this period, the corpse is simply considered 'sick' and the person is not regarded as dead until the funeral rites can be held.
The Indonesian section of the massive Borneo island is one of the last untouched wildernesses of the world. Here the Dayak people still live, as they always have, in communal long houses, hunting for food with blow pipes. Dayak is actually a generic term, like 'Indians', referring to a number of inland, non-Muslim groups. The easiest way to get a glimpse of their lifestyle is to start at the oil center of Balikpapan, which has a major airport, fly a little further north to Samarinda, and from there, travel by boat up the mighty Mahakam River. As you leave the last vestiges of villages behind you and enter the tangle of the rainforests, take Alfred Russell Wallace's The Malay Archipelago to read. The book is old, but travel here hasn't changed much since the last century. Kalimantan still has a primitive infrastructure but several sites are accessible for travelers. To the north there is wonderful diving and to the south a fascinating swamp, Tanjung Puting National Park.
Sumatra is another huge island, this one full of industry. Oil bases and rubber, pepper and palm oil plantations abound in the south and center as well as jungles and swamps. A favorite escape is to the north in the cooler hills surrounding Lake Toba where Indonesia's violent geological history again becomes apparent. Lake Toba is the world's largest crater lake. The volcano exploded tens of thousands of years ago creating a 685-square-mile hole now filled with fresh water, a picturesque setting for the hotels that nestle on its shoreline. The lake is so large that an island within it, Samosir, is the same size as the whole country of Singapore. Medan is the major city used as an entrance point and from here you can travel on through rainforests trekking to see the world's largest flower, the Rafflesia, or visit an orangutan rehabilitation station at Bohorok. Alternately, visit the people of Minangkabau where a matrilineal culture has survived and melded with a strong belief in Islam. The water buffalo plays an important role in their traditions and stylized upturned horns decorate everything from their architecture to their head gear. Compare this culture with the nearby Bataks who live around Lake Toba. These people are Christians and are known for their love of song and unlike the more reserved Javanese are quick to voice an opinion.
If you still have time and want to really explore the country, go to Ambon in the Moluccas. This is the center of the true spice islands. You'll have to travel by boat or light plane from one island to the next but these scattered islands were the original lure for the Spanish, Portuguese, English and Dutch who all fought to get the cloves, nutmeg and mace that only grew on a few tiny islands. These spices were worth their weight in gold and remnants of old forts still exist as well as more permanent legacies in Eurasian faces. Fought over again during World War II, the Moluccas are now a quiet, relaxed area that entrances not just historians but an increasing group of nature enthusiasts. They come searching for exotic parrots and birds of paradise or plunge into the pristine waters and are spellbound by the swirling schools of fish.
Irian Jaya is as far east as you can travel within Indonesia. This is the Indonesian part of the New Guinea Island. Travel here is not easy and advance permission from the police (ask for a surat jalan) is needed to go to some areas. Cut off from neighbors by an incredibly rugged terrain where switchbacks and plunging ravines make traveling from north to south virtually impossible, many local tribes still live a Stone Age existence. Yet now, with air travel, education and development, the cities are moving rapidly toward the twentieth century. Wood carvings from the Asmat region are prized exports and for the really intrepid, Irian Jaya has the tallest peak between the Himalayas and the Andes: Puncak Jaya. To climb this 16,500 feet mountain is a task only for the well prepared as around it lies Southeast Asia's only glaciers.
Published on 10/1/96