The world's largest archipelago, Indonesia is composed of over 17,000 islands scattered over 5,000 miles of ocean straddling the Southeast Asian equator. Few places on earth contain such cultural diversity and geographical extremes as this vast, deeply enigmatic country. Indonesia's catalogue of highlights is further enhanced by the year-round hot climate, and outstanding value for money.
Today, the majority of visitors flock here to visit the magical island of Bali with its beautiful sandy beaches, verdant landscapes and tropical climate. For the more adventurous, exploring beyond Bali reaps rich rewards. Sumatra offers the orang-utan nature reserve of Bukhit Lawang, the striking vistas of Lake Toba - the world's largest volcanic lake - and the world-renowned surfing destination of Pulau Nias.
At the tip of Java, Jakarta is the vibrant, chaotic capital of Indonesia. The islands of Nusa Tenggara are where the richness of Indonesia's natural environment becomes even more apparent. Lombok island has beaches to rival the world's best and in general offers a more laid back and less touristy experience than Bali; Komodo is the tiny island that is home to the prehistoric Komodo Dragon, while Flores has intriguing cultures and the extraordinary coloured lakes of Kelimutu.
North of Java, the vast jungles of Kalimantan are one of the least explored areas in the world. Visitors return enthralled from their encounters with the local people and spectacularly diverse fauna and flora. Sulawesi is similarly unexplored, although somewhat more accessible to visitors, and offers gorgeous beaches perfect for soaking up the never-ending sunshine.
Demographics and Stats
When talking about a huge country encompassing such a variety of traditions and local customs, it's difficult to define an overruling culture common to everywhere and everyone. In fact, one of the dominant features of Indonesian culture is that it is so varied and disparate; there are over 300 hundred distinct cultures, and an equivalent number of languages.
One of the first things you are likely to notice when you meet Indonesians is that they are very polite and friendly. This is in fact a very important feature of society, in which harmony is of the utmost importance and people will do almost anything to avoid causing offence. Although predominantly Muslim and a male-dominated society, Indonesian women generally have a fair amount of freedom and foreign women travellers rarely encounter any serious difficulties, even if alone.
Due to its strong tradition in arts and crafts, Indonesia provides an infinite variety of choices for shopping. Best bargains are usually to be had in local markets, in workshops, or in small outlets that can be found along most roads.
Woven (ikat) or printed (batik) fabrics can be found anywhere, but the best ones are in the small islands of Nusa Tenggara (Sumba, Lombok or Flores) or in Bali. Colourful carved masks in Bali are affordable, yet original souvenirs. Another popular souvenir in Java and Bali are decorative puppets made from wood or leather, and Indonesia is a great place to buy silver jewellery.
Apart from handicrafts, many Western clothing brands have factories here. Factory outlets and shops in Java or Bali offer a great variety of clothes or shoes at affordable prices.
10% VAT is levied on most goods and services, and a special sales tax of up to 35% is levied on many luxury items. There is no tax refund system for foreign visitors in place. Shops are usually open all week including Sundays.
Currency: Indonesian Rupiah (IRD). IDR1 = 100 sen
Notes: IDR50000, 20000, 10000, 5000, 1000, 500 and 100
Coins: IDR1000, 500, 100, 50 and 25
Credit cards: Larger establishments in Jakarta and Bali accept major credit cards. You will need cash for all transactions in most other areas of the country.
Indonesia's geographical make-up means that getting around can be time-consuming and expensive. Most people will concentrate their efforts upon one or two islands, and unless you are on a long vacation you'll find that is plenty enough to occupy yourself with.
Trains can only be found in Java and Sumatra. They are cheap, generally crowded and slow, but can provide a good inside view of these islands and a colourful highlight to your trip. All islands have a wide range of bus services, which are Indonesians' favourite way of travelling. Public ferries are the cheapest way to travel around Indonesia but due to the size of the archipelago, the trips are very long, and offer poor comfort.
Indonesia's climate is tropical. There is no autumn or winter and distinctive "dry" and "wet" seasons share the year. The East Monsoon, from June to September, brings dry weather while the West Monsoon, from December to March is moisture-laden, bringing rain.
Heaviest rainfalls are usually recorded in December and January and humidity is generally between 75% and 100%. The best time to go is during the dry season, from April to November, unless you have a particular desire to experience torrential rain.