Indonesia is a country of geographical extremes, and without doubt the world’s most complex single nation, comprising of 17,000+ islands stretched over 5200 km from Banda Aceh, on the tip of Sumatra in the west, to the remote highlands of West Papua in the east.
Of those many islands three – New Guinea, Borneo and Sumatra – are amongst the world’s largest, only 6,000 actually have names and less than 1,000 are inhabited.
New Guinea in the east, is the world’s second largest island (after Greenland) and is divided roughly 50/50 with Papua New Guinea, with Indonesia having the western half (West Papua) and the eastern half forming the mainland of PNG. While Borneo, the third largest island in the world, is shared with Malaysia and Brunei, with the lion’s share of about 73% belonging to Indonesia and forming the provinces of Kalimantan.
Map of Indonesia showing the large islands of Sumatra, Borneo and New Guinea
Culturally Indonesia is extremely diverse with most of the 922 inhabited islands having their own customs, native dress, architectural forms & dialects and overall there are an estimated 300 distinct ethnic groupings – a true melting pot.
Indonesia is also the world’s 4th most populous country with 238m people, with 58% of them concentrated on the island Java.
Java has the somewhat dubious honor of being the world’s most populous island as any time spent in the capital Jakarta, or the other large large cities like Yogyakarta or Surabaya, will make you quickly realize…
The Javanese themselves are the largest ethnic group, making up 42% of the overall population and dominating both politically and culturally.
Although culturally diverse, Indonesia has a very strong sense of nationhood and overall social cohesion, which usually manages to keep the lid on any underlying tension.
Although periodic outbursts do occur and when they do it often triggers horrendous violence.
It is no coincidence that the English word “amok“, meaning to be mad with an uncontrollable rage, is derived from the word amuk in Bahasa!
In many ways it is the way Indonesians manage to adapt to their many challenges, and do so in a way that accommodates the many cultural difference and provides everybody with a degree of “face” that makes the country so interesting and inviting.
The predominant religion in Indonesia is Islam and the country is the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation, with 86% of Indonesians being Muslim. However, apart from areas like Banda Aceh in Sumatra and the east coast of Lombok, the vast majority of the country’s Muslim’s are quite tolerant and secular in outlook.
In fact, although Indonesia is often described as a Muslim nation, the truth is that it is a proven secular democracy that happens to have a large majority of Muslims.
Geologically, Indonesia could be described as “tectonically challenged” as it sits astride the southern rim of the Pacific Ring of Fire – the volatile source of some 90% of the world’s earthquakes and 81% of the world’s largest earthquakes.
The Indonesian section of the Ring of Fire hosts some of its most active volcanoes and some of their eruptions like Mount Tambora in 1815, and Krakatau in 1983, were so big they had global impact.
Mount Tambora’s 1815 eruption has the dubious honor of being the most violent eruption in recorded history and caused wide spread harvest failures in Europe, the United States and eastern Canada the following year, which became known as the Year Without a Summer.
It is said that if Indonesia did not exist the 24 hour day we are used to would be much shorter.
That is because of the Indonesian Throughflow and the phenomenal volume of water that flows through the 17,000+ islands of the archipelago. So great is the flow of water that the energy consumed in the process actually slows down the earth’s rotation!
Next Page: Is Indonesia Safe?