Indonesia was on my wishlist for many reasons.
I always wondered how a country with 17,000+ islands managed itself. I wondered how big or small these islands were.
All through my art history classes, I read about Borobudur, the biggest Buddhist temple in the world. I longed to see its sculpted panels that tell the stories of Buddha & Bodhisattvas. I knew about Bali being a Hindu island with thousands of temples. No matter how many images I saw, I wanted to stand in that place and feel it.
So when I got an invite from the Ministry of Tourism of Indonesia, I could not have asked for more. On my 2 week trip, I covered Yogyakarta in central Java, Raja Ampat in East Indonesia and finally wrapped up the trip in Bali. It was tiring as we island hopped in Indonesia but give me another chance and you would find me there again. I have come back with a longer list of places that I want to go to.
Before I start writing about the lovely destinations and experiences of Indonesia, let me share my first impressions of this island country.
Indonesia a Visa Free country
If you want to visit Indonesia for tourism for 30 days or less – you can just walk in and walk out of the country. You do not need a Visa. Your passport is stamped at the entry and exit, and that’s it.
As an Indian passport holder, there can not be a bigger relief than this. Not only the travel to Indonesia is hassle free but it also makes you feel very welcome. You feel as if the country trusts you when it does not seek to validate you before you enter.
For longer duration too, there is a Visa on Arrival for a nominal fee.
India & Indonesia – Similar names not without reason
As an Indian, you do not really feel out of place in Indonesia.
The traffic is as chaotic as ours. Traffic rules are flexible just like here.
All prices are negotiable. In the popular markets like Sukawati in Bali, people would quote a price and then immediately ask you to bargain. Most of us Indians managed to buy stuff for 25-30% of the prices quoted initially. Indonesians like us, enjoy the game of haggling. It is a war of skills when it comes to bargaining in Indonesia – reminded me of Janpath in Delhi. However, this is restricted only to traditional markets. Shopping malls and high-end markets usually operate at fixed prices with a very little margin for bargaining.
Indonesian currency is also called Rupiah, not very different from ours. At the time of writing, our 1 Rs can get you about 200 Rupiah. Visiting Indonesia is your chance to live like a millionaire. To give you a feel of costs, a cup of tea or coffee on the roadside costs about IDR 5000.
They have horse-drawn tongas though just a tourist attraction now. Then they have cycle rickshaws but slightly different from ours – the driver sits at the back.
They even greet with folded hands, just like we do.
They say there are more than 17000 islands in Indonesia. The truth is no one knows the exact number of islands. I realized the enormity of the task of counting islands when we were literally island hopping in East Indonesia in a paradise called Raja Ampat. From the flight itself, you start observing the big and small dots in the blue ocean waters. Most of them have an emerald green outline that makes them look like jewels thrown in the ocean.
When we were moving around in a speedboat in places like Pianemo, Waisai & Kabui Bay we had a close encounter with these islands. Some of them are just free standing rocks in the ocean while others are small islands. Most of these are uninhabited. Even when they are inhabited, villages exist on the edge of the islands most of the times.
The waters around these islands are bio-diversity hot spots – especially for marine life.
I understood, it is impossible to count these islands.
Jugaad – Indonesia Style
India is best known for its Jugaad – our ability to find a solution where none seems to exist. In fact, Jugaad Innovation is the new buzz word in the Innovation space. I found Indonesia to be equally good at Jugaad.
They can make anything out of a motorbike. Most street food stalls are modified or enhanced motorbikes. Fruits sellers have an attachment to carry fruits on both sides of the vehicle. Does it not remind you of our dudhwallahs or milkmen?
At Yogyakarta, I saw these chairs and waste bins made of recycled tires. Reminded me of similar tire products I had seen at Bhagoria Haat in MP.
The best Jugaad was this – when Garuda airlines forgot to carry my vegetarian meal that was pre-requested, they gave me a tray full of fruits.
For every big & small problem, our Indonesian friends always had a solution. I never felt out of my home.
Ramayana & Mahabharata Everywhere
I always knew that the national airline of Indonesia is called Garuda. I knew that Bali is full of Hindu temples. Even then, I was not prepared to meet the characters of Ramayana & Mahabharata almost everywhere in Indonesia.
At Pentingsari, a small rice-growing village near Yogyakarta I saw these standees of Sahadeva, Bheem & Yuddhistir. I am sure Arjun & Nakul were somewhere too.
Bheem is seen as a symbol of power. I found this depiction of Bheem at a Muslim house in the lanes of Kotagede in Yogyakarta.
I was repeatedly told that Ghatot – the short form of Ghatotkach, the name of one of the Bheem’s son is a very popular name in Indonesia. Though I do not recall meeting a person with that name in India.
At Bali, of course, you see innumerable depictions of Ram, Hanuman & Durga Devi. The Kecak or the Ramayana performances that happen every day are a delight to watch.
Vegetarian Food in Indonesia
As a vegetarian, I was a bit concerned about the availability of vegetarian food in Indonesia. Our hosts took great care in making sure that we always had ample vegetarian meals. Most of the times we had rice with Tofu, Tempe & some green leaves. Eggplant made an occasional appearance. Casava came in various shapes and forms.
Being a rice eating country, half of the vegetarian problem is taken care of. Rice fields can be seen almost everywhere.
The salt levels are relatively low in food. I ended up asking for salt all the time.
Most snacks are sweet but thankfully they are made with Palm Sugar or honey.
Bananas are eaten in abundance. At Tirtha Empul in Bali, small vendors were offering a free banana to every visitor.
They have more local brands of food in the supermarket than standard multi-nationals that we see everywhere.
One thing that I missed big time was curd or yogurt. Looks like the concept of curd is totally absent from Indonesian cuisine.
People of Indonesia
What I would remember the most from this trip is the people of Indonesia. My birthday came on the 2nd day of the trip and I got some of the warmest hugs from my Indonesian friends.
People of Indonesia are warm, fun and cool.
I had an opportunity to talk to kids of a school in Waisai island of Raja Ampat in Papua region. I asked them what they want to become when they grow up and the top 3 answers were – Doctors, Police, and Teachers. In fact, they still use the word Guru for the teacher.
I only wish people of Indonesia smoked a lot less. The younger generation smokes like there is no tomorrow.
Everyone loves Bollywood
Almost every Indonesian can sing a few Bollywood songs. At the same school, I was astonished to hear a young school girl sing Arijit Singh’s songs. A lot of Indonesian bloggers introduced themselves with the song – Tujhe Dekha to yeh Jana Sanam. No, they do not understand a word of the lyrics, but they sing it with perfection.
Bollywood has to be India’s most impactful soft power.
Incidentally, it seems, there is not much travel exchange happening between India and Indonesia. Most of us Indians in the group were traveling to Indonesia for the first time and most Indonesians we met had not traveled to India.
I am surprised that there is no direct flight between India and Indonesia. It’s time to rectify this.