With nearly 240 million people spread out over more than 17,500 islands that straddle the wavy line between Southeast Asia and Oceania, Indonesia truly is a land of contrast and surprise. The country boasts a history that goes back thousands of years, which saw it come together both on its own and with help from Muslim traders, the influences of Hindu, Buddhist and Christian visitors, the insistence of Dutch colonizers and, eventually, the varying degrees of authoritarianism proffered by Sukarno and Suharto. The country's motto, 'unity in diversity', is a wise one for a place like this to live by: although it's home to more Muslims than any other country in the world, Indonesia is far from being an Islamic state. Rather, its history and diverse geographical make-up make it home to a seemingly limitless number of languages, religions and cultures. In addition to the cultural diversity, Indonesia is home to natural beauty found in jungles, beaches and volcanoes, eco/adventure tourism opportunities such as caving, diving, snorkelling, hiking and trekking, and culinary treats that encompass so many influences your palate never need be bored or unsatisfied. All of this translates into some fantastic opportunities for travellers, whether here for a week, a month or a year. There are a few caveats, of course. Safety has been an issue in some areas, so travellers would do well to double check the situation in any areas they plan to visit, especially those off the beaten track. And speaking of the road not taken, some trips here may take more planning than others. Tourism is a fairly well developed industry throughout the country but - as one might expect when travelling in an archipelago of this size - infrastructural challenges exist, so getting from point A to point B isn't always the easiest thing in the world to do. But the good thing about Indonesia is that with so much to offer by way of adventure, opportunity and serendipity, the journeys that aren't the easiest may well end up offering the most interesting tales to tell. ~ Samantha McDonald-Amara
Indonesia is a stunning country with a size that is exceeded only by its endless varieties of cultures, locales and adventure opportunities. Home to a vast array of paths not taken, including stunning jungle mountainsides, hidden gold beaches, secluded crisp coral reefs, enigmatic volcanoes and primitive civilisations, the country offers up many mysteries for both the curious traveller and local alike to experience. These gems are everywhere and visitors only have to forget their reservations, turn the dial to 'explore' and think outside of the box in order to find and enjoy them. The small village of Baduy, a few hours by bus from the country's crowded and chaotic capital, is such a place.
In March 2010 I packed a suitcase, sold my car, gave most personal items to my parents for safekeeping and boarded a bus from Aberdeen station to Glasgow to spend the night on the first step of a journey to the southern hemisphere - to Jakarta - where I would be working and living for at least a year. Indonesia is an incredible place. The atmosphere of the cities is intensely cosmopolitan. Going for a car ride with some local friends through downtown it’s possible to see a corporate utopia, gleaming glass towers of wealth standing tall and proud in the tropical heat. A ride through the downtown of any of its larger cities will probably result in a strained neck from marvelling at the post-modern architecture as the buildings, statues, flags, monuments and palm-treed streets bid a warm welcome to Indonesia. The capital city of Jakarta is one so full of contrasts - big and small, ostentatious and modest, astronomically rich and devastatingly poor - that it, like the rest of the country, simply has to be seen to be believed.
I embarked on a six-week Southesast Asia mission as my ‘beach’ time after the crazy hotfooting it around and various volunteer projects I’d worked on in the previous eight months spent in New Zealand and Australia. What I did not count on was the incredible bliss I found on the Gili Islands, just off the coast of Bali, Indonesia. When, through the power of the global communication phenomenon that is Facebook, I received a very animated message from a dear friend of mine all keen to tell me about the ‘beautiful’ Gili islands, I read it with the passion of a now somewhat seasoned traveller and added it to my mental 'maybe list'. It wasn’t until I arrived in Bali, spoke to several locals who were just as animated, established passage for peanuts and secured a partner in crime for the journey that I finally made up my mind to go.
Travelling with Perama to Padang Bai on their minibus with what felt like 30 year old suspension and a flat tire, was a memorable and fabulous way to exit Bali. Once at Padang Bai, travellers bags were hussled onto the boat first, stacked up in organised chaos before passengers shuffled on and we set sail for the Gili Islands. We were provided with some superb fresh fruit and drinks during the five-hour-plus rocky boat ride. It takes quite a pair of sea legs to negotiate your way to the canteen area once out on open water, but making it work is well worth the effort. In true Balinese style, the crew couldn’t do enough for us and as the sun set over Bali I became very excited as to what awaited us on Gili Trewangan, the main island.
Sumatra’s biggest draw card must be its orangutans, as this is one of the few remaining places that we can see them in the wild. This extraordinary yet highly endangered species has been given a sanctuary in Gunung Leuser National Park for which the jungle town of Bukit Lawang provides an easy access point. Bukit Lawang is also the site of the orangutan rehabilitation centre, which is where captive orangutans are taught how to become wild again so they can enter the jungle when they feel ready. The town is home to a feeding station that is frequented a couple of times a day by just about any hungry orangutan. Most visits to Bukit Lawang will include a visit to the feeding station because it is where you have the best chance of seeing orangutans close up. However, when there is a lot of fruit in the jungle, fewer orangutans will feel the need to drop by and eat so there is still no guarantee you will see them.
Most visitors to Sumatra will fly in to Medan, its largest city, and from there to Bukit Lawang is a three-hour journey by private car, or a slightly longer trip by local bus. If you take a private car, be warned! The hassling is likely to start early as the driver will surely have a friend or a cousin or a friend's cousin who is a guide or owns a hotel that they will recommend. Bukit Lawang's main industry is tourism and competition is as high as the locals’ persistence. You will need strong nerves if want to look around and decide for yourself and if you do, you will find a good selection of hotels built along the river that will seem luxurious compared to the rest of Sumatra. You'll even be able to get a shower instead of the traditional Indonesian baths that can remain full of water all day and offer buckets to pour water over yourself.
Concrete walls, tiled floors and peeling paint. Plants lovingly kept in discarded tires and coffee tins. The brown, murky river running parallel is used for fishing and washing, but never for drinking. Kids too young for school run around the dirt pathways barefoot and occasionally pant-less, parents and grandparents casually monitor their whereabouts.
All it takes is a camera to get someone speaking – albeit in Indonesian. “Foto?” they ask, pointing to themselves. They are thrilled with the results, beaming as their hands cup the digital display to ward off the sun’s glare. They want you to come in, sit down and visit in broken English and basic Indonesian. They don’t want anything else.
“The first time I visited one of these neighborhoods, I was a strange bule [ed. “white” foreigner, slightly derogatory] wandering around with a camera. The second time people remembered my name,” Matt Ambrey says. “The third time a group of ladies dragged me into their house to try their homemade cakes, kids were climbing all over me and people were trying to pin down when they’d see me again.”
It was during one of these encounters that Matt noticed something. Or rather, didn’t notice something: “Occasionally I’d visit a house with 2 or 3 photos on the walls or on shelves, but it was rare.”