The world’s 4th most populated country (with a population of approximately 238 million people), is also one of the world’s largest (ranking 16th internationally). The craziest part about that latter statistic, however, is that the country is not one or two major landmasses, but is comprised of over 17,508 islands, split into 33 provinces. Spreading from the western side of the Malaysian mainland peninsula (almost up to the border of Thailand) and across to the borders of Papua New Guinea and East Timor (the Country actually shares borders with Malaysia, PNG and East Timor on three of its islands), Indonesia absorbs a myriad of cultures, ethnicities, languages and religions. Perhaps this explains why its national motto is “Bhinneka Tunggal Ika”, translating roughly as “many, yet one” and more romantically, “unity in diversity”.
Indonesia has a spectacular history. In fact, “Java Man” was discovered in Indonesia, showing that Homo erectus occupied the archipelago 500,000 years ago. Modern man reached the islands about 45,000 years ago.
Great agricultural conditions and the fact that the islands stand astride natural trade routes between India and Asia have had a profound impact. After early sporadic kingdoms, the primary influences across the archipelago were the Hindu and Buddhist cultures, but eventually Islam became the dominant influence, which has held sway since the 16th Century (albeit by adopting and mixing in with local cultural and religious influences).
Despite the Islamic cultural dominance, Europeans still made their way to the Indonesian islands in the 16th Century as well and asserted a more forceful dominance and monopoly over the trade routes, as well as over highly sought local goods (such as nutmeg).
Even though the Europeans (which eventually consisted of only the Dutch) controlled affairs from a few strongholds, Indonesian independence was only fully achieved in 1949.
Part of the allure to visiting Indonesia is the opportunity to immerse oneself in this cultural mishmash: enjoying thousand year old Hindu and Buddhist architecture in the Prambanan area in Java; seeing life not vastly dissimilar to how it was hundreds of years ago in the more rural areas such as Papua; clubbing, despite the Islamic atmosphere in modern Jakarta; witnessing a traditional Wayang dance (puppets) while listening to Gamelan in the Kraton (a walled palace city) in Yogyakarta; or, the funereal culture of Tana Toraja, the list goes on….
On a natural front, the islands are also resplendent with bi-diversity. Sitting in between the Australian continent and the southeast Asian coastline, Indonesia, due to its size and climate boasts the world’s second highest level of biodiversity after Brazil. Although there 36% of all birds and 39% of animals found on Indonesia are endemic to the Country, the remainder of creatures tend to Asian species or Australasian species (roughly split by a divide known as the Wallace Line, running between the islands of Kalimantan and Sulawesi and between Lombok and Bali). Given the high density of human habitation and cultivation in Indonesia, many species have become more and more marginalized (such as elephants, tigers, rhinoceros, etc) and some are in extreme states of endangerment, such as the orangutan (a species of ape only found in the rainforests of Borneo, Malaysia and Sumatra, Indonesia).
Despite this, a trip to Indonesia is a chance to see some creatures only found in this one spot on the planet (again, such as the orangutan or the Komodo dragon).
The biodiversity translates even under the water, which is why Indonesia gets its own entry on the dive tour of the world. In fact, it should get a few spots, because some of the dive spots could ostensibly demand their own blogs. There is awe-inspiring diving to be had from the far western tip of the Country in Pulau Weh all the way over to Raja Ampat on the edge of the province of Papua (not to be mistaken for Papua New Guinea, the country).
Raja Ampat has been known for a while as the divi jewel of diving in Indonesia. Translatable as “The Four Kings”, due to the four main islands of Misool, Salawati, Batanta and Waigeo (although there are over 1,500 small islands in the region), the beauty of the region is apparently reflected both above and below the surface.
(Credit: Nature_refreshing.blogspot, Indonesiadiving, Tripermaps)
The dominance of Raja Ampat has been challenged quite strongly over the last little while, however, as more and more divers flock to the country and more and more spots are explored. As mentioned above, Pulau Weh on the far west of the country has been known for spectacular diving too and it is fairly remote, so for those seeking solitude and diving at the same time, this seems the perfect spot. Despite the tsunami having been about six years ago, however, the tsunami’s impact is still apparently obvious both above and under the waterline (underwater, manta cleaning stations, etc. are no longer there, so some species are a little harder to find).
And while many of us have heard of Bali and the lap of luxury it offers, not so many have heard of the Gili Islands (an odd name for the three islands, as the word “gili” translates as “island”).
More of your usual dive spot, the Gili’s are three small islands with no vehicles (excluding horse-drawn carts and bicycles), which have a good mixture of beach, restaurants and partying. Many people stay on the most populated island, Gili Trawang (the other two being Gili Meno and Gili Air). The diving is good due to the constant currents and fairly shallow depths, making the area around the islands the perfect mix for coral growth (although dynamite fishing used to be practiced in the area and apparently some areas are still in recovery many years after the fact). Despite that, in comparison to the critters found elsewhere in Indonesia, the variety of marine life on the Gili’s has been described as good, but not spectacular. Having said that, there are apparently hordes of turtles in the waters here. A major reason for visiting Gili is that while they embody remote island living, they do so without surrendering many of the mod cons that make vacations a little more comfortable. A great way to dive, relax and party at night!
Perhaps one of the biggest current attractions for diving in Indonesia is liveaboard diving. There are so many places that you can do so, Raja Ampat amongst them, but some of the ones deserve special attention are the ones servicing Komodo and North Sulawesi. Both spots boast excellent marine national parks and as they are a little more off the beaten path, fairly well conserved diving. The footfall of tourists is certainly a lot less in Komodo, so finding a cheaper alternative to the usual expensiveness of liveaboard diving is more realistic here.
My personal want-to-go-to destination in Indonesia is off the coast of North Sulawesi, however. Not only is it home to Bunaken National Marine Park, home to a huge variety of marine life …
… but also to an area called the Lembeh Strait!
Actually, a lot of divers would probably skip right past Lembeh. It is one of the world’s most unique spots for “muck diving”. What is “muck diving”? Well, as unappetizing as it sounds, muck diving derives its name from the debris, sediment and garbage that lies in the area dived. Why would I want to dive in such an environment? Because these conditions usually offer the perfect habitat for unusual and exotic creatures, such as nudibranch
this weird dude
and last, but certainly not least, the mimic octopus (oh please please please let me see one when I dive Lembeh)