The Indonesian archipelago spreads over 5200km between the Asian mainland and Australia, all of it within the tropics, and comprises 17,000 islands. Its ethnic, cultural and linguistic diversity is correspondingly great – more than 500 languages and dialects are spoken by its 246 million people, whose fascinating customs and lifestyles are a major attraction. The largely volcanic nature of the islands has created tall cloud-swept mountains swathed in the green of rice terraces or rainforest, dropping to blindingly bright beaches and vivid blue seas, the backdrop for Southeast Asia’s biggest wilderness areas and wildlife sanctuaries. All of this provides an endless resource for adventurous trekking, surfing, scuba diving, or just lounging by a pool in a five-star resort.
Travel across the archipelago is pretty unforgettable, in tiny fragile planes, rusty ferries and careering buses. Give yourself plenty of time to cover the large distances; if you only have a couple of weeks, you’ll have a better time if you restrict yourself to exploring a small area properly rather than hopping across 3000km to see your top ten sights. If you do have longer, try to plan a trip that doesn’t involve too much doubling back, consider an open-jaw international plane ticket, and try to intersperse lengthy journeys with a few days of relaxation in peaceful surroundings. Also, leave yourself some leeway – if you’re in a hurry with a vital plane to catch, something is bound to go wrong. Having said all this, the places which are hardest to reach are often well worth the effort, and some of the most rewarding experiences come when you least expect them. An enforced day’s malinger between transport in an apparently dull town might end with an invitation to watch an exorcism, or to examine a collection of ancestor skulls over coffee and cigarettes.Read More
Although there are also more 250 native languages spoken throughout the archipelago, Indonesia’s national language is Bahasa Indonesia, a form of Bahasa Malay. Because it’s written in Roman script, has no tones and uses a fairly straightforward grammar, it’s relatively easy to learn.
a as in a cross between father and cup
e sometimes as in along; or as in pay; or as in get; or sometimes omitted (selamat pronounced “slamat”)
i either as in boutique; or as in pit
o either as in hot; or as in cold
u as in boot
ai as in fine
au as in how
c as in cheap
g always hard as in girl
k hard, as in English, except at the end of the word, when you should stop just short of pronouncing it.
Traditional dance and music
Traditional dance and music
Given the enormous cultural and ethnic mix that makes up Indonesia, it’s hardly surprising that the range of traditional music and dance across the archipelago is so vast.
Best known are the highly stylized and mannered classical dance performances in Java and Bali, accompanied by the gamelan orchestra. Every step is minutely orchestrated, and the merest wink of an eye or arch of an eyebrow has significance. Ubud on Bali and Yogyakarta on Java are the centres for these dances. Yogya is also the main place to catch a performance of wayang kulit, shadow puppet plays.
A gamelan is an ensemble of tuned percussion, consisting mainly of gongs, metallophones and drums, made of bronze, iron, brass, wood or bamboo, with wooden frames, which are often intricately carved and painted. The full ensemble also includes vocalists – a male chorus and female solo singers – and is led by the drummer in the centre. A large gamelan may be played by as many as thirty musicians, and is a communal form of music-making – there are no soloists or virtuosos.
Sundanese (West Javanese) degung is arguably the most accessible gamelan music for Western ears. Its musical structures are clear and well defined, and it is played by a small ensemble, but includes the usual range of gongs and metallophones found in all gamelan.