Indonesia might be a relatively young nation – both in the demographic sense and in the fact that the republic turns 73 this week – but its complex layers of history are hidden in plain sight. Brooding stone dwarapala door guardians half-kneel outside hotels and gleaming skyscrapers in downtown Jakarta; Javanese traditional dances and shadow puppetry recreate episodes from the Hindu epics; and the national language, Bahasa Indonesia, borrows a plethora of words from Dutch, Portuguese, Hokkien, Arabic, Persian, Tamil, and Sanskrit. All these point to a millennial tradition of absorbing foreign influences to create something unique to this part of the world. Read more
“Don’t forget it, don’t you ever forget it, child, that you are a son of the dawn.”
So said the Balinese mother of a precocious little boy who would eventually go on to become a founding father of Indonesia and its very first president. Born at half-past five in the morning on June 6, 1901, as the first glimmers of dawn lit up the sky over the port city of Surabaya, Sukarno ushered in a new era for a sprawling archipelago that had seen three centuries of exploitation and hardship under Dutch colonial rule. Read more
Two summers ago, while exploring the Central Javanese highlands of Dieng at the start of our six-month Spice Odyssey, Bama and I came upon an illustrated timeline inside a museum. It charted the evolution and development of the candi (pronounced “chaan-dee”), a catch-all Indonesian term for the ancient Hindu and/or Buddhist ruins scattered across the island of Java, and to a lesser extent, Sumatra. The great majority are quarried from volcanic andesite – whose color varies from tan to slate grey – with the most prominent examples being the UNESCO-listed temples of Borobudur and Prambanan. Bama had been to both icons several times, but as he traced his finger over depictions of their smaller and lesser-known counterparts further east, he declared with a sigh, “I’ve always wanted to visit these temples in East Java.” Read more
“I’ve never seen an Indonesian working so fast,” Bama says.
Night has fallen in Malang, East Java’s second-largest city, and we’ve joined a small crowd of hungry customers at Puthu Lanang, a portable stall at the covered entrance to a street just wide enough for motorbikes. A five-person assembly line is churning out traditional sweets at lightning speed, led by the mustachioed vendor who takes orders, gives change, heaps the morsels on banana leaf before dousing them in palm sugar syrup, and wraps it all while we look on in amazement. Read more
Several years ago, while asleep in a bungalow not far from a beach in Lombok, Indonesia, I was rudely awakened by the shrill sound of a mosquito buzzing in my ear. Bama and I eventually killed the thing, but I couldn’t forget what it said to me that night: “Uaaaaaang.” For the mosquito had been speaking a language I half-understood. Uang, it turns out, is the Indonesian word for money.
Fast forward to the summer of 2015. Two weeks have elapsed since the end of Ramadan, and we are back in Indonesia, in the wilds of Baluran National Park. Bama and I are transfixed by the sight of deer and peacocks congregating in the shade just below our perch. We observe them in silence from a nondescript observation post, its concrete parapet and makeshift barriers of woven palm leaf enough to disguise us from the skittish animals. Read more
The hike to Kawah Ijen begins with a struggle. It is most likely the sulphurous fumes rising from the depths of the volcano, combined with the effects of little sleep. Bama tells me he doesn’t feel well – he is gripped by nausea. We limp along a trail of volcanic ash, taking refuge on the gnarled, low-slung branches and tree stumps beside the route.