Indonesia’s cultural and biological diversity spreads out across 17,000 equatorial islands. The world’s largest island country thrives because of a massive abundance of natural resources and a burgeoning tourism industry. Glistening white-sand beaches give way to turquoise oceans that support flourishing marine life. Lush rainforests surround an active chain of volcanoes. Quiet fishing villages have transformed into bustling destinations on a seemingly endless archipelago. Neighboring islands Bali and Lombok have earned reputations as tropical paradises and, justly, attract the most visitors.
Indonesia shares land borders with Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, and East Timor. It has marine borders with Australia to the south; Singapore, Vietnam, Malaysia, Palau, and the Philippines to the north. It spans a stretch of sea from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean.
It’s the seventh largest country in the world with its combined square miles of land and sea, and the 14th largest for land area alone. Popular destinations in Bali and Lombok are part of the Lesser Sunda Islands. Bali covers 2,231 square miles (5,780 square kilometers). Just across the Lombok Strait, Lombok connects the Java Sea to the Indian Ocean. It covers 1,742 square miles (4,514 sq km).
Indonesia is a country of islands, 6,000 of which are inhabited. The population is estimated at 261 million, making it the fourth most populous nation in the world. Over half the population lives on the island of Java (the fifth largest island), which is home to the capital city of Jakarta. New Guinea is one of the largest islands in Indonesia, along with Papua New Guinea — a popular diving destination. Bali and Lombok are 11th and 12th in size, respectively. The exact number of islands remains disputed, but is somewhere between 13,000 and 17,000, depending on who’s counting and how they define an island. It’s safe to say there are more than enough to explore in a lifetime, which is part of the beauty of a visit to Indonesia.
The climate in Indonesia is decidedly tropical, with around 70 to 90 percent humidity. The weather doesn’t change much throughout the year — the temperature depends largely on what area you visit. Temperatures average 82.4 °F (28 ºC) in coastal areas and 78.8 °F (26 ºC) inland. If you climb into the mountains, the average temperature cools considerably, to 73.4 °F (23 ºC). The equatorial location produces two main seasons — dry, from April to October, and rainy, from November to March — but even during the ‘green season,’ the rain doesn’t typically last all day. Tropical savannas are found in isolated locations in Java and on some smaller islands east of Lombok. There is little danger of typhoons.
The mountainous regions are predominantly volcanic and found throughout the country. Part of the Pacific Ring of Fire, Indonesia is home to 400 volcanoes, 150 of which are active. Occasional eruptions and earthquakes are a fact of life in this tectonically unstable region. Islands are ringed with beaches, tall cliffs, or mangrove forests. Inland rainforests are common but many areas in the north, such as Sumatra, are struggling with man-made deforestation.
Indonesia’s unique island ecosystem supports the world’s third-highest level of biodiversity, including rare animals like komodo dragons and orangutans. It is part of the Coral Triangle, which has the world’s largest swath of marine biodiversity. Unfortunately, many native species such as the Balinese Tiger went extinct in the 20th century.
A population of rice farmers and traders flourished in Indonesia by the 1st century AD. As a result of the trading influence, several Hindu and Buddhist empires rose and fell as the century progressed. Islamic culture arrived on its shores in the 13th century.
Beginning in the 1500s, Western colonialism began in earnest, stemming from the spice trade. The Portuguese were first and soon followed by the Dutch and the British. The establishment of the Dutch East India Company led to Dutch supremacy throughout the 1800s. When the trading company was dissolved, Indonesia was declared a colony of the Netherlands. This lasted until World War II, when the Japanese invaded the archipelago and took control until the end of the war.
Two days after the Japanese surrender in 1945, Indonesia declared independence from the Dutch and entered the Indonesian War of Independence. This military and diplomatic conflict lasted until 1949 and ended with Dutch recognition of Indonesian independence. Early leaders moved the country towards authoritarianism and away from democracy. After attempted coups and predictable growing pains, the country has moved toward regional independence. Strengthening democratic processes have meant that Indonesia can finally take advantage of its position in Southeast Asia.
In Bali, early civilizations were ruled by a series of kings or rajas, in a culture heavily influenced by Indian and Chinese cultures. The Majapahit Empire from Java held sway from the late 1200s through the 1500s, and when it fell, there was a nearly 400-year period of regional Hindu rule until the Dutch arrived in 1906. Bali put up a bloody fight against both the Dutch and the Japanese, earning it a reputation for being harder to govern than other islands. It was officially recognized as its own province in 1958.
Little is known about the history of Lombok pre-17th century. The Balinese established colonies and eventually ruled over Lombok by 1750. The Dutch occupation overran the island by co-opting the Balinese rulers, and are thus remembered as liberators in Lombok. Post-World War II, the Balinese and Sasak elite shared control of the island until 1958 when Lombok was incorporated into West Nusa Tenggara province, and the city of Mataram became the provincial capital.
Indonesia is a republic with a president and a representative body with two houses. It has a multiparty system that often results in coalition governments. The country consists of 34 provinces, each with its own governor and legislature. These are further subdivided into regencies, cities, districts, and administrative villages — each with its own leaders and legislature. Indonesia’s current president is Joko Widodo, former governor of Jakarta. His administration has focused internally on improvements in infrastructure and externally on protecting Indonesia’s sovereignty.
Indonesia’s economy is the largest in Southeast Asia and 7th largest in the world. Its GDP as of 2017 is $3.257 trillion USD. The economy has shifted away from its traditional base of agriculture towards industrialization and tourism. It is the world’s largest producer of palm oil and the 17th largest producer of automobiles. Among its abundant natural resources are crude oil, natural gas, coal, tin, copper, and gold. Food products such as palm oil, coconut products, rice, coffee, and seafood are valued commodities.
Indonesia is the second-largest producer of instant noodles in the world behind China. Tourism generates $10.1 billion USD annually, and a recent government initiative to expand tourism seeks to create additional Bali-like destinations.
As recently as the 1970s, Bali’s economy was almost entirely agricultural. Today, 80 percent of its GDP comes from tourism, which has made it one of Indonesia’s wealthiest regions. Lombok is often marketed as an “unspoiled Bali,” and is far less developed — but that will probably change soon. Economic engines on Lombok are tourism, agriculture, traditional crafts, and fishing.
Indonesia has 300 distinct ethnic groups, 742 different languages, and 6 officially recognized religions (although there are closer to 16 in practice). The official common language is Bahasa Indonesian, based on a Malay dialect popular with traders. Most Indonesians speak their own dialect first, Bahasa second, and often English third. 40.2 percent of the population is Javanese, while the rest of the population is made up of smaller ethnic groups. Indonesians have a strong sense of national identity along with pride for their regional cultures.
Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim majority country, with over 200 million adherents that are 99 percent Sunni. There are small numbers of Christian, Confucianists, Buddhists, and more than a few ancient belief systems. Hinduism’s stronghold in Indonesia is in Bali, where 83.5 percent of the population identifies as Hindu.
Lombok is 85 percent Sasak ethnicity and 10-15 percent Balinese. The Sasak are largely Muslim, with the Balinese population observing Hinduism and a minority population of Sasak practicing Wektu Telu — a unique strain of Islam with Hindu and Animist features.
You’re just starting to get to know Bali and Lombok — don’t stop here! Learn more about places to stay in the rainforests and along the beaches, from Bali’s luxury getaways to Lombok’s quiet retreats. Indonesia is an accommodating place to travel, with exciting landscapes for adventure tours and peaceful shores for family vacations. No matter what you’re looking for on your tropical vacation, we’re here to help you find it.
- Sandy T.
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