Well, it’s week four, and time to get out of Vietnam for a while. There are still plenty of things that we could cover, including Ha Long Bay and Hoi An, but we’ve only got ten weeks together and there’s just too much to see. One of my favorite things about living in Southeast Asia is that, much like the easyJets and Ryanairs of Europe, there are plenty of low cost airlines that can take you to nearby countries for less than a hundred dollars. Tiger Airways and Air Asia are just two of note, and can connect you to almost anywhere in the region through their respective hubs in Singapore and Bangkok.
When picking a holiday destination, it can often be as simple as just checking the airlines’ websites to find out what kind of promotions are being offered. This is how we ended up decided on Java. At the time, we simply wanted to get away, and Air Asia was offering a round-trip flight from Ho Chi Minh City to Jakarta for $70. Kind of hard to pass that up. Upon looking back, the fact that this was our primary motivation for going to Java is a bit ridiculous. But at the time, we knew almost nothing about the place. After just eight days there, I can easily say that it’s my favorite place in Southeast Asia, and somewhere that I fully intend to revisit soon.
Indonesia is a bit of an oddity. Technically part of Southeast Asia, the vast spread of its 17,000 islands and distance from mainland Indochina almost make it a distinct region unto itself. And though hardly a major player in international politics, the country is the fourth most populated in the world. Let that sink in for a moment. If we considered population to be the largest factor in determining diplomatic power, Indonesia would rank just under China, India, and the United States. Now obviously that is not the case (see: Nigeria, Bangladesh). But perhaps even more significant is the breakdown of that population. With nearly 86% of its 220 million citizens as followers, the country contains the world’s largest Muslim community, and is a wholly secular democracy.
The island of Java, containing Indonesia’s capital along with 60% of its population, is the center of this power. And all statistics aside, the experience of visiting Java is far more rewarding than any amount of research could suggest. To start with, the people are wonderful. Proud, friendly, welcoming to outsiders, and always willing to sit and converse, despite your butchered attempts at tackling the language. It seems that a thousand years of power struggles between Buddhist and Hindu empires, Islamic and European colonies, Dutch imperialists and Japanese occupiers has created a culture that is at once incredibly diverse and unified.
And that description can apply to the landscape as well. In the seven days it took to get from one side of the 600-mile-long island to the other, we rode trains through endless rice fields, visited quaint colonial towns, trekked through dense subtropical jungle, stayed in misty mountain villages, crossed a sea of black sand, and walked the rim of an active volcano. We couldn’t even fit in the pristine beaches and animal sanctuaries, and had to save those for next door neighbor Bali.
In a recent issue of Foreign Policy, Josh Keating suggests that the number one most overlooked story of 2010 was The Indonesian Tiger. That is, the rising power of one of Asia’s fastest growing economies and best-performing stock markets. You wouldn’t know it by talking to its humble and gracious people but Indonesia, in its relatively quiet corner of the globe, is on its way to becoming “the world’s first Muslim and democratic superpower”. So you best start paying attention.