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The Warsaw Voice » Society » April 16, 2008
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The Country of 18,000 Islands
April 16, 2008   
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Indonesia is becoming an increasingly popular tourist destination for Poles. Travel agencies here have for years offered holidays on the popular Indonesian resort island of Bali. Visitors can now also sign up for a tour of the country, jungle trekking in Borneo or even for a trip to see the fearsome Komodo dragons, the largest living lizards. The Polish language can increasingly be heard in resorts once dominated by Russian, Japanese and Australian tourists.

"The Most Varied Destination Anywhere" is Indonesia's promotional slogan. Indeed, the country spans over 5,000 kilometers along the equator and some 1,750 kilometers from north to south. It comprises more than 18,000 islands, 6,000 of them inhabited. The population is made up of some 300 ethnic groups that use more than 250 languages.

Eighty-seven percent of Indonesians are Muslim. In all hotel rooms, you will find arrows on the ceiling pointing to Mecca. In the ultramodern center of the capital, Jakarta, many skyscrapers have mosques attached to them. The biggest one, the Istiglal Mosque, can hold 210,000 people on five levels. Numbered entrances lead you to sectors on the central carpet where 16,000 people can pray at the same time.

Just opposite Istiglal Mosque stands a Christian cathedral. The Indonesians are proud of their tolerance for other religions present in their country-Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism and Buddhism. In fact, the country's two most spectacular historical monuments are linked with the latter two religions.

The Buddhist Sailendra dynasty that around 750 A.D. took control of the central part of Java built the Borobudur shrine complex, which is sometimes called the eighth wonder of the world. This is the world's biggest Buddhist temple ever built. Buddhism in Indonesia eventually gave way to Islam, and for centuries Borobudur remained deserted, hidden under layers of volcanic ash and jungle. Then, in 1814 Java governor Sir Thomas Stamford Bingley Raffles, a key figure in the establishment of the British colonial empire in southeast Asia, found a big pyramid-like structure in the jungle. Raffles discovered eight of the shrine's 10 terrace levels; the other two were uncovered later. The 10 terraces represent 10 levels of the cosmos as appear in Mahayana Buddhism cosmology, from the basic ones to the top levels-enlightenment and nirvana.

The structure is some 40 meters high and is made from 2.5 million interlocking lava stones, laid out without the use of mortar. It is decorated with 2,672 relief panels of a combined length of six kilometers and statues of the Buddha in 72 small openwork stupas on the upper platform. Of the shrine's 504 Buddha statues, some 200 have been plundered or damaged. Some were later found in, for example, the Louvre, the British Museum and museums in Thailand. The shrine was renovated twice, in 1907-1911 and in 1973-1983 under UNESCO auspices.

Not far from Borobudur there are two other important Buddhist temples, Pawon and Mendut. The latter holds the island's biggest, two-and-a-half-meter-tall Buddha statue. The temples no longer play a religious role as only 1 percent of Indonesians are Buddhists, but they are a great tourist magnet. At the foot of the hill on which Borobudur is built stands a hotel offering accommodation and an elephant ride to the temple for $800 per night.

Another key historic monument in Java, the Prambanan Hindu temple compound, is just an hour's drive from Borobudur. It was built in the 9th century by the Sanjaya dynasty that took power over from the Buddhist rulers. The complex is made up of three main shrines, devoted to Shiva the Destroyer, Vishnu the Keeper and Brahma the Creator who are accompanied by their "steeds"-Nandi the bull, Garuda the eagle and Angsa the swan. The Shiva temple is the highest structure, at 47 meters. The compound is surrounded by 120 smaller temple complexes.

According to legend, the compound was built overnight-with the use of magic, of course-by a prince who wanted to win the hand of a woman he loved. Unfortunately, an earthquake measuring 5.8 on the Richter scale on May 27, 2006 damaged the temple compound just as quickly. In just one minute, 300,000 people in central Java lost their homes, and 6,000 were killed. The disaster took place early in the morning when there were no people inside the temples. However, most of the structures were severely damaged and are in need of repair, so no visitors have been allowed into the temples and the courtyards since then. The renovation is being carried out under UNESCO auspices.

From May to October visitors to Prambanan can watch Ramayana ballet shows in the evenings, in an amphitheater in the western part of the complex. Again, you will find few Hindus in the vicinity of this biggest Hindu temple compound, since they make up only 2 percent of the country's population. However, Bali island is a Hindu enclave, where Hinduism is the religion of 95 percent of residents.

Bali Hinduism is based on the principle of Tri Hita Karana-maintaining a balance between humans, environment and God. In line with this principle, the Balinese treat mountains, lakes, springs, the sea and ocean as sacred sites, so Bali is sometimes called the island of 1,000 temples. Smaller or bigger shrines can be seen everywhere, the oldest ones dating back to the 9th century. In the temple areas, sesajen, or multi-layer temple offerings made of fruit, rice paste and young coconut leaves, carried by women on their head, are a picturesque everyday sight.

But Bali is first and foremost a huge tourist center. "Sand, sea and surf" is the travel agency catalog slogan of such famous beaches as Nusa Dua or Kuta. Hotel complexes offer increasingly popular spa services including traditional local medicine therapy. After Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger and supermodel Jerry Hall held their wedding ceremony on Bali, more and more tourists want to get married and have a wedding reception on the island, and nearly every hotel offers an extensive range of related services.

Tourists are also drawn by traditional Indonesian crafts. Souvenir number one are fabrics manufactured with the use of batik, a type of dyeing technique. Batik products dominate the bazaars, from tablecloths and garments to decorative items (for example, the batik technique is also used to decorate wooden sculptures). The prices will suit every pocket, for example, a shirt may cost anywhere from $4-$200. Indonesian craftsmen and artists are also renowned for woodcarving and silver jewelry and decorative items.

In order to preserve Bali's picturesque atmosphere, the authorities issued a ban in 1972 on building of any structure taller than a coconut palm, or around 20 meters. A similar ban is in force in Yogyakarta, a city in central Java, which served as a temporary state capital during the independence struggle against the Dutch in 1946-1949. In the city, no building, except for hotels, can be taller than the Sultan's Palace-a compound of single- and two-story pavilions that are the residence of the local rulers. The sultans (the present one is the 10th) have governed the city and region together with province governors-first Dutch, now Indonesian. The large palace complex, called the Kraton, was built in 1790 and redeveloped in 1928. Some 25,000 people live there. The guards, wearing traditional sarongs (skirt-like lower garments) and dark batik shirts, and carrying a kris dagger with a straight or wavy blade in their belt, solemnly patrol the compound. Once appointed, they keep the job for life.

Apart from the Borobudur and Prambanan temples, another tourist attraction close to Yogyakarta is Mount Merapi (2,968 meters), one of the world's most active volcanoes. Indonesia has 129 active volcanoes in total.

Meanwhile, there are no building height restrictions in Jakarta, the country's capital and the biggest city in southeastern Asia. Founded by Dutch settlers as Batavia, it later developed into a center of trade and the capital of the Dutch East Indies. Since 1949, it has been the capital of independent Indonesia. The city is overlooked by the National Monument, or Monas, a 137-meter white marble obelisk with a cupola covered with 35 kilograms of gold. Its top platform offers a view of the city of 8.5 million people (or more than 12 million if you count the suburbs).

The city has no metro due to swamp grounds. During the morning and evening peak hours, cars carrying fewer than two passengers are not permitted into the city center in an attempt to prevent traffic congestion. As a result, long lines of people waiting for a ride stand in the streets, offering drivers an opportunity to drive downtown legally. Millions of motorcycles remain the most popular means of transport. Even though high curbs separate bus lanes, motorcyclists manage to ride along the curbs to cut through traffic jams.

Dance, performed as a theatrical spectacle, is an important part of Indonesian culture. Among the dozens of dance forms, the Balinese Kecak dance is worth special mention. It is a show without music, and dancers are accompanied by a choir of 50-150 men who sometimes join in the dance. The plot is based on fragments of the Hindu heroic epic Ramayana, featuring characters like Rama, Sita, Lakshmana and ape king Hanuman, who has supernatural powers. The show is often called a fire dance because it is often performed after dark and uses torches.

Another renowned Balinese dance, the Barong-kris, is a drama show about the eternal battle of good and evil, pitting the mythical lion-like creature Barong against the evil monster Rangda. Toward the end, young dancers go into a trance and pretend to kill themselves with kris daggers, but fail to do so, which symbolizes the victory of life over death.

In Java, tourists often see the Jathilan dance featuring a group of boys and young men going into a trance under the control of a "master" with a whip. The show involves whipping, weird body movements, pretend loss of consciousness, and "reanimation" carried out by the master. The dance is accompanied by local drum and string music.

Indonesian cuisine varieties are perhaps as numerous as the country's islands. In Java, a popular dish in both expensive restaurants and cheap diners is nasi goreng, or fried rice with all kinds of additions. Chili paste sambal is present everywhere. Some of its varieties are so hot that restaurant menus carry special warning signs for tourists. Soups are predominantly hot or sweet and sour, and some resemble European chicken soup. Fish wrapped in banana leaves are a great delicacy. Another popular dish is gado-gado, or cooked vegetables in peanut sauce. Some of the most popular fruits include rambutan and snakeskin fruit.

Those who like more extreme culinary experiences can order a baked bat or a glass of snake blood squeezed out from the creature a moment after its head has been cut off, before the patron's eyes. According to a popular local belief, such a drink guarantees supernatural sexual potency.

Bali, on the other hand, is renowned for seafood and fish. Since most of the population are not Muslims, the island also offers a range of pork dishes, including the famous babi guling, or roasted piglet. Connoisseurs cannot miss the bebek betutu, or smoked stuffed duck wrapped in bamboo leaves.

Bali is also Indonesia's sole producer of local alcoholic beverages. Arak Bali is a 40-percent proof alcohol made from coconuts, and Brem is a 20-percent fermented rice liqueur. Both are strongly tied with the local traditions and rituals and are drunk during family celebrations.

Witold Żygulski in Indonesia
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