Essential Travel Facts

Get a snapshot of this extraordinary country in this brief overview of its geography, climate and history, and some of the key considerations for visitors.

How many islands?

No one is quite sure, but then who is say what is too small to be called an island? Some sources give the figure of 13,677, some say 17,500. In any case, a great many, stretched out over a distance of some 5000 km (3000 miles). A mere 6000 or so of these islands are permanently inhabited - by some 300 different ethnic groups, speaking 250 languages (but most speak the official national language, Bahasa Indonesia, which is related to Malay).

The most Muslims

Islam is the religion of 86 per cent of the nation. Given that the total population is about 220 million, this makes Indonesia by far the largest Muslim country (by population) in the world. The island of Bali is an exception in that it is primarily Hindu. Despite the overwhelming Muslim majority, Indonesia is not a Muslim state, and all the main religions are tolerated: the national motto is 'Bhineka Tunggal Ika' ('Unity in Diversity').

Climate

Hot and sticky, in most parts, for most of the year. There are two seasons: the dry season runs from about May to September, the rainy season from about December to April. The best times to travel are in the dry season, or as the seasons turn, from about April to October, but note that July and August are the busiest months for tourism, and prices rise.

Ring of Fire

Indonesia forms part of the 'Ring of Fire' that encircles the Pacific Ocean, riding the faultlines where two tectonic plates collide. This explains the relative frequency of earthquakes, and the presence of a large number of volcanoes, including Mount Agung (on Bali), Mount Bromo (on Java), and, of course, Krakatoa (west of Java). For the visitor, the volcanoes are generally more a cause for wonder than for concern.

Tourism

Some five million tourists travel to Indonesia every year. They tend to go to a relatively small number of destinations in Indonesia (see the separate article Island by Island), particularly Bali. The main entry points for air travellers are Jakarta (the capital, on the island of Java) and Bali.

Visa requirements

British tourists need a visa, but this is purchased on arrival at the point of entry (airport or seaport). A 30-day visa costs about US$25.

Health

The tropical climate of Indonesia makes it advisable to protect yourself from - and be aware of - the usual range of diseases, such as tetanus, cholera, diphtheria, typhoid, malaria and dengue fever. But to some extent, the need for precautions will depend on where and how you intend to travel (major resort, or rainforest trekking). For health advice, look at the website of the Department of Heath (www.dh.gov.uk); or pay a small sum to acquire a tailor-made MASTA Health Brief, issued online by the organisation founded by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (www.masta-travel-health.com). As with all foreign travel, you are strongly advised to make sure that you are fully covered by travel insurance to meet any medical eventuality. For advice on travel insurance, go to www.briefguides.co.uk/content/travelinsurance.php.

Security

In recent years, Indonesia has suffered from a number terrorist attacks that have targeted foreign nationals, including two outrages in Bali (October 2002, and October 2005). Security on some of the other islands has been compromised by ongoing political tensions. For the latest official travel advice, check announcements issued by the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office: www.fco.gov.uk.

A very brief history of Indonesia

The history of Indonesia goes right back to more than 500,000 years ago, when an early edition of human beings called Homo erectus was living here in the form known as 'Java Man'. With its rich natural resources, especially valuable spices (notably cloves and nutmeg, which formerly grew only in the Moluccas and Banda islands), Indonesia has long attracted an active sea-trade. On the winds of the trade with India came Hinduism and Buddhism. In the 7th century, a trading empire called Srivijaya emerged as a dominant force along the coastal areas of the region, while in the 8th-10th centuries the Buddhist Sailendra dynasty and Hindu Mataram dynasty controlled central Java, building (respectively) the great monuments of Borobudur and Prambanan. In the late 13th century, the Hindu Majapahit empire arose in east Java, and came to dominate the whole region. Meanwhile, Islam had arrived with sea traders, and appealed to those who felt cut out by the Hindu caste-system. When Islam began to be adopted by the ruling classes, it spread fast, and in 1515 the Muslim Mataram Sultanate saw off the Hindu Majapahit empire, whose royal courts fled to Bali - where Hinduism now survived in virtual isolation.

European explorers arrived in the region in the early 16th century, in search of the sources of the lucrative spice trade. At first the Portuguese dominated this trade, but the Dutch pushed them aside, and by the 18th century the Dutch East India Company (founded in 1602) had control of most of Indonesia. The Dutch government took over in 1800, and continued to spread its influence, conquering Bali only in 1906. Dutch colonial rule came to a sudden halt in the Second World War, when the Japanese invaded in 1941. After the war, Dutch efforts to reclaim Indonesia were met with fierce local resistance, and Indonesia declared independence in 1949, with Sukarno as the first president. He was deposed in 1967 after two years of turbulence, and was replaced by General Suharto. The country has been under democratic civilian rule since 1998.

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