The Essential Travel Guide to Indonesia

Facts About Indonesia


Indonesia as we know it today, is a legacy of Dutch colonialism in the Indonesian archipelago. The Dutch controlled a series of colonies in an area they called the Dutch East Indies. This brought together a variety of different islands, each with their own culture, underneath a central administration. By early 20th century, the geographical area was becoming increasingly referred to as Indonesia, sowing the seeds for the concept of an Indonesian nation state and the beginnings of a revolutionary movement. Although initially tolerant of the movement and open to a gradual transition to independence, the Dutch authorities changed course after the independence movement radicalised in the 1920’s. Tensions were high by the time Japanese invaded and occupied Indonesia during WWII from 1942 to 1945. Liberation from the Japanese was followed by the Indonesian National Revolution, involving four years of armed conflict and diplomatic struggle between the Dutch and Indonesia. By the end of 1949, Indonesia emerged as an independent nation state.

The hoped for move to democracy did not materialise immediately however. Sukarno, the founding father and first President, moved towards authoritarian rule. He was eventually replaced by another strongman called General Suharto, who headed the ‘New Order’ movement and garnered favour from the West. This brought significant investment in Indonesia and three decades of substantial economic growth, lasting until the East Asian Financial Crisis of the late 1990’s which hit Indonesia particularly hard and forced the resignation of Suharto. Since then, there has been a gradual movement towards a more open, less authoritarian society and a more openly democratic process including the first direct presidential election in 2004. Indonesia is now a Republic with a Presidential system that restricts the president to a maximum of two five year terms. Joko Widodo, the current president of Indonesia and was elected in October of 2014.


Indonesia is home to more than 238 million people, making it the fourth most populous country in the world. It has hundreds of very distinctly different ethnic groups and sub-groups, each with their own language or dialects, traditional beliefs, cultures and physical characteristics. Ethnic groups tend to be geographically concentrated but some such as the Javanese, and to a lesser the Bugis sea gypsy’s, have migrated over time to different parts of the archipelago. The Javanese, the largest ethnic group comprise 41% of the population whilst other groups number only in the hundreds. The Sundanese, Malay and Madurese are the next largest groups whilst the Balinese, whom many outsiders associate most with Indonesia, are actually a minority group.


Bahasa Indonesia was formally adopted as the country’s national language in 1945. However, most Indonesians also speak one or more of the 700 recorded indigenous languages. That makes Indonesian one of the most bi-lingual or multi-lingual countries in the world.



Indonesia has a majority Muslim population (87%) followed by Christianity (7%) and Hinduism (3%), most notably on the island of Bali. Buddism, Confucianism and other indigenous religions make up the rest. Interestingly, a large portion of the population, particularly in more remote areas still actively practice native animist religions, often right alongside the more mainstream religions.

Unity in Diversity

Despite the huge diversity of ethnicity, language and religions, Indonesian’s are extremely tolerant of each other and relations between the groups largely harmonious. Over time a shared Indonesian identity has developed, summed up by the official national motto Bhinneka Tunggal Ika which translates as “Unity in Diversity.”


It’s hardly surprising that a young and vigorous nation state with abundant and diverse natural resources, a relatively stable political and social environment and a strategic location has emerged as the largest economy in Southeast Asia and the 18th largest in the world. Once heavily reliant on agriculture, Indonesia has experienced rapid growth in mining and manufacturing in recent years, moving it towards a more balanced economy. It continues to grow other sectors such as finance, services, construction and tourism.

Gaining an insight into the ‘national average wage’ in Indonesia is difficult and hard to put into context because of differences between rural and urban economies. Minimum wage levels vary across the archipelago and are set according to provincial costs of living. Despite being a member of the G20 group of leading world economies, half of Indonesia’s population live on less than US$12 per day. Over 26 million Indonesian’s still live below the poverty and many millions more barely above it.


The Indonesian education system states that 6 years elementary level education and 3 years at secondary level is compulsory. Delivering good quality education to such a populated and sprawling island nation is challenging though, and despite allocating 20% of its annual budget to education in recent years, Indonesia’s school attendance, graduation and standardised score levels lag behind some of its neighbours.


Football (soccer) is the most popular sport in Indonesia, closely followed by Badminton. The country has a very popular domestic football league and most men will have played it at some level, whether at school or for amateur teams. Badminton has delivered the nation its greatest sporting success though, having won gold medals at most Olympic games since its introduction.


Indonesia is situated on the so-called “Ring of Fire” and has more active volcanoes than any other country in the world – at last count more than 130. More than 75% of the population live within 100km of an active or dormant volcano and on average, there is one eruption a year.

1,171 eruptions have been recorded since the 15th century when European’s came on the scene. Two of the most notable include the enormous eruption of Mt Tambora in 1815 which had such wide reaching effects that Europe experienced a year without summer. A series of tsunamis following the 1883 eruption of Krakatau killed an estimated 30,000-40,000 people. These days the Volcanological Survey of Indonesia (VSI) continuously monitors 59 of the most active volcanoes. Early warning systems have massively reduced fatalities but the impact to homes and livelihoods is often devastating.

Fun (and some not so fun) Facts

  • Indonesia was originally called Indian Archipelago or East Indies Islands. Its current name “Indonesia” came into use in the 1850’s and is derived from the Latin word Indus meaning “Indian” and the Greek word nesos meaning “island.”
  • Marco Polo was the first European to visit Indonesia in 1292.
  • The nation’s capital Jakarta, is the world’s largest populated centre without a metro train system. Not surprisingly, it also suffers from some of the worst traffic congestion in the world.
  • Indonesia has an amazing variety of flora and fauna and is second only to Brazil as the world’s most biodiverse country.
  • Indonesia has real life dragons! The Komodo dragon is the largest lizard in the world, growing up to 3 metres in length. Its diet consists of buffalo, deer, monkeys and the occasional human.
  • The world’s largest flower, Rafflesia Arnoldi, grows only on the island of Sumatra. Its petals grow to 0.5m long and 2.5cm thick and it can weigh up to 7kg.
  • Former Indonesian President Suharto is widely regarded as the most corrupt leader of all time, having embezzled somewhere between US$ 15-35 billion.
  • Lake Toba on the Indonesian island of Sumatra is the largest volcanic lake in the world. The super volcanic eruption that created Lake Toba occurred around 70,000 years ago was the largest known explosive eruption on Earth in the last 25 million years. According to the Toba catastrophe theory, it was a climate-changing event that killed most humans living at that time and resulted in a population bottleneck in central east Africa and India. Today, the genetic make-up of these distant ancestors can be traced to modern humans all over the world.