Indonesia for Dummies: 3 Places Commonly Mistaken as a Country

My creativity has overflown these days, that I've already got a few topics that I want to write about, but something came up recently that made me feel like it's necessary to create a post related to this.

In case you didn't know yet, I'm Indonesian. Last year on Indonesia's 74th Independence Day, I compiled a list of places in Indonesia that are NOT Bali. Why? Because I got annoyed that so many tourists came to Bali, thinking that Bali was actually the country's name.

Recently, there is this #5countrieschallenge hype on Facebook. I saw so many posts about it, mainly in some traveling groups on the platform. And I realized way too many posts that include Bali would state “Bali” instead of “Indonesia” in the list of the countries they visited.

And there was this post where the OP uploaded five pics of her traveling and asked us to guess where they were taken. One of the pics was a photo of orangutans, so I dropped my guess and wrote “Indonesia/Malaysia”. And the OP had the audacity to correct me that the picture was, in fact, taken in Borneo. As if!!!!

So here I am, called for a new idea to get things straight for the dummies… I want to educate yall about my home country. Mind you, I'm Asian. Tough love is all I know, so excuse the rudeness toward you dum-dum!

indonesian map with the prompts.
Map of Indonesia.

Indonesia for Dummies: 5W+1H About the Country

I suppose that's the downside of being able to travel around the world visa-free or with a visa on arrival. Excuse the assumption, but I figure people with a more privileged passport like that tend to just go without educating themselves about their destinations.

For me, I know the risks and the downside of having a green Indonesian passport where the number of places that I can visit without a visa is limited. So whenever I have a plan to travel somewhere, I always have to double-check whether I'm eligible to travel to my next destination. With that in mind, the last thing I want is to get deported for a silly reason that could be anticipated.

Don't get me started with the idea of having to obtain a visa through the visa application at the embassy. Sometimes I force myself to read some unnecessary trivia about the country simply because I don't want to lose money from the possibility of a rejected visa application.

So, here are the facts about Indonesia that you may want to know before visiting… Whether it's Bali or any other place in the country!

What is Indonesia?

Indonesia is a sovereign country with 34 provinces, of which five have special status. The five areas include Aceh, where they apply sharia laws until this very day. Other than that, there's also Yogyakarta, a province that has been governed by the monarchy with Sri Sultan Hamengkubuwono X as the current governor of the special region.

Jakarta, as the current capital, also gained their special status for the same reason. The last provinces with special autonomy are both Papua and West Papua. The two have been granted to manage the interests of the indigenous people on their native land.

As you could see on the map above, while you could only see the five biggest islands including Sumatra, Java, Borneo, Sulawesi, and Papua, Indonesia is actually an archipelago with no less than 17.508 islands in total. Mind you, Indonesia has a significant amount of territory in two of the top three largest islands in the world: New Guinea and Borneo. And many of the islands in Indonesia are worth visiting, from East Nusa Tenggara which has recently gained popularity with Flores and its surroundings, to the off-the-beaten-path island like Raja Ampat.

The fact itself makes us the world's largest archipelago country and the 14th largest country by land area with 1.904.569 square kilometers in total.

Where is Indonesia?

Apart from sharing land borders with the eastern part of Malaysia in Borneo, Indonesia also has borders with Papua New Guinea and East Timor.

There's a daily ferry trip from Indonesia to Singapore in the north via Batam in Riau Islands. There's the down under Australia in the south that makes Bali Aussies' playground somewhat.

Who are Indonesians?

Indonesia is a melting pot for one of the most ethnically diverse societies. With around 1300 ethnic groups with at least 95 percent native to the archipelago, the country is also a home for minority migrant groups such as Chinese, Arab, and Indian.

Our national motto Bhinneka Tunggal Ika is the ancient Javanese term for Unity in Diversity. With that many ethnic groups, most Indonesians have their regional language as their mother tongue with Indonesian as their second. That being said, almost all Indonesians are bilingual, even without them speaking foreign languages.

Our founding father, Soekarno, Indonesia's first president, was born from a Balinese mother. Suppose you only get a chance to stop by Bali on your travel and want to know a piece of Indonesian history, you can go to Soekarno Center Museum in Tampaksiring, Gianyar.

When did Indonesia declare independence? When is the best time to visit the country?

Soekarno and Mohammad Hatta declared the independence through the proclamation on 17th August 1945.

As a tropical country, we spend half the year with a dry season with the rest for the rainy season.

The dry season usually starts from April to September, while the rainy season begins in October through March. With the in-between period is monsoon, it's highly recommended to visit the country during the dry season.

The heat in some areas can be worse than the rest. Do your own research about the climate of your next destination in the country to avoid packing the wrong clothes! 😉

Why is Indonesia worth visiting?

With more than a thousand ethnic groups, we are rich in cultures from the west to the east. On the west, we have a strong Islamic culture along with sharia law applied in Aceh. In the center of Indonesia, who doesn't know Bali now that I brought up the fact that Bali is more popular than Indonesia itself? 

For those of you who love dark tourism, you can take a look at the funeral feast in Toraja. Unlike some of you who live by YOLO motto, Torajans live for their upcoming death as they believe that death has to be festive as it's a way to celebrate their lives. 

If you decide to go to the East, you might find heaven on earth in Raja Ampat. What's not to love?! 

And mind you, Indonesia has been colonialized by the Dutch for a little over three centuries for one sole reason: spices! 

So you bet, we have many kinds of delicacies that are worth tasting. From the normies like Nasi Goreng or the national pride Indomie, to the eastern Papeda. 

Mind you, the recent popular vegan like tempeh (We spell it without the ‘h' btw, it's tempe… Not tempeh!), it's a part of our staples for centuries. For all the obvious reasons, I don't want to hear the idea of Bali being the only thing in the country that is worth visiting. 

Some corner at Soekarno Center in Gianyar, Bali.

How is Indonesia?

One thing that I want to stress in this article is that Bali is a small part of Indonesia, and Indonesia is not just Bali. So, for those of you who include Bali on the list of your #5countrieschallenge, this post is dedicated to you…

3 Places in Indonesia that People Commonly Mistake as a Country

There are at least three places in Indonesia that some people think they're the whole country instead of just a small part of Indonesia. Some people believe mistaken Bali as a country is something that they can just brush it off, but hey… They're not Indonesian.

One of the other ladies in a travel group I'm in, she's Irish. She said that it was also annoying for her whenever someone came to Dublin and thought Ireland is a part of the UK. And I totally understand her frustration.

Now, I don't want to shame some of you who think Bali (or the two other places) a country. But instead, I want to encourage others to be a mindful traveler.

When you travel, the least thing you could do is to know WHERE you're going. Not only is it important for yourself in case there's an emergency, but it is also vital to do the background checks for the places and the people in your destination.

It's like when you go to Texas, and you say that it's in Mexico. While it might be relevant since the state used to be a part of Mexico, you no longer live in the 1830s. So for the love of God, update your knowledge!

1. Bali

Bali infographic.
Bali infographic.

It's only fair to talk about Bali first since most people who have been to Indonesia will have Bali on their first bucket list. As I grew up in Bandung and I honestly focus more on being able to travel overseas than domestically, it took me 30 years until I got to Bali for the first time.

I'm the kind of person who would avoid something when everyone likes it. And that's my perspective about Bali. Everyone wants to either go to Bali or live there. I don't.

Ironically, when I was 23, and I got my first job at one of the airlines in Indonesia, I almost got relocated to the island until, at the last minute, they decided to move me to Semarang instead. But anyway, let's start talking about the island!

A bit of Bali History

It's hard to separate Bali from Hindu culture, as 88% of Bali's populations are Hindu. 

One time, I have a friend who told me that his friend was planning to go to Bali, and he was surprised by the fact that Indonesia is actually a country with the biggest Muslim population, yet the most famous island is the one with the Hindu community as its majority. 

It all began in the 7th century when the Indian merchants started coming to Bali and settled on the island. The migration strongly influenced Bali to how the island is right now, as they began introducing Hinduism to the locals around the island. 

In the early 1500s, Islam started to get introduced on Java island. As a result, the majority of people in Java began converting to Islam that forced the exodus of Hindu scholars to Bali to flee the battle between the two religions. 

At the time, people in Java had difficulty accepting the merchants from Arab with Islam as a new religion that led to the battle. Meanwhile, the Balinese Hindu was more open to the arrival of Arab merchants at the time, with one condition: they could do their business on the island, as long as they didn't force their faith on the locals. 

The arrival of Hindu scholars from Java in the 1500s automatically made Bali the center of Hindu in the archipelago. During this period, the brahman Danghyang Niratha built two of the oldest Hindu temples on the island: Pura Luhur Uluwatu and Pura Tanah Lot

Bali Now

The first exposure to note on the island in the modern days is the pictures taken by Gregor Krause in 1912. The latter worked for the Royal Dutch-Indonesian Army at the time as a medical doctor at the time. Stationed near the village Bangli on the island, he took a few pictures of Bali and its inhabitants during his stay there.

However, Bali's rapid growth as a tourism spot probably started in the early 1970s when Alby Falzon, an Australian filmmaker, made a documentary movie with some of the scenes taken on the island.

Bali has gained its popularity as the island of gods due to its beauty, and the movie triggered more and more Australian tourists to come to the island ever since. With its popularity, more and more expatriates decided to start their showbiz on the island, making it well-known for what it's famous for: party!

Currently, Bali is known as a travel destination and a popular place for digital nomads to settle in. Check some travel influencers on the gram; almost half of them had spent some time on the island to live a digital nomad life.

2. Borneo (or Kalimantan as local Indonesians call it)

Borneo infographic.
Borneo infographic.

When we talk about Borneo, at least two things come to mind: orangutans and rainforest. Those are the things when we talk about Borneo as the third biggest island in the world after Greenland and New Guinea.

However, if we talk about Borneo as a country, it can't be more wrong because Borneo isn't a country. It is a big island split into three countries' territory: Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei.

73% of the island area belongs to Indonesia, while 26% is under two states in East Malaysia: Sarawak and Sabah. Don't even get me started with the old dispute between Malaysia and the Philippines when we talk about Sabah because, honestly, politics make everything way too complicated than they already are.

The 1% of Borneo is under the kingdom of Brunei territory. The smallest country on the island, whose sultan is the world's second longest-reigning monarch in the current era – only after Queen Elizabeth II – Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah.

As we currently focus on Indonesia in this post, please note that I will only focus on the Indonesian side of Borneo later on. I only mentioned this to emphasize that Borneo is NOT a country, and the area is split between the three countries mentioned.

Please don't start another argument in the region, we've had enough. LOL

A bit of Kalimantan History

I found this historical map video that might be useful to understand Borneo's inhabitants and the territory of the island from ancient times to the recent ones. Next question that you probably have is this: if the international pupils know the island as Borneo, why does Indonesia decide to call it Kalimantan? 

Several references explain the origin of the name Borneo, with one of them believes that the name Borneo came from one of the trees that had been seen around the rainforest on the island. 

The tree's name was Borneol, and the island is named after this particular tree by the Europeans who came to the island at the time.

The other reference said that Borneo is named after Brunei. Up to the 9th century, the Borneo area was known as Bun-Lai, according to some Chinese scripture. Given the idea that the word Bun-Lai and Brunei are quite similar, this might also be the case. 

On the other hand, a British scientist and colonial administrator Charles Hose divided six main groups based on the six indigenous tribes on the island, including Kayan, Kenyah, Murut, Iban, Punan, and Klemantan.

However, the latter was more like a miscellaneous category for the native communities that don't fit the other five tribes in Borneo.

Hose was a colonial administrator of Sarawak, which was an independent kingdom ruled by the British Brooke dynasty at the time. And the Klemantan group, as he mentioned on his six main groups of the inhabitant in Borneo, include the numerous groups and communities within Sarawak and the then-Dutch part of Borneo, which is now the areas within Indonesian territory.

Kalimantan Now

For the Indonesian part of Borneo, I've only been to West Kalimantan where the Equator monument stands in Pontianak. Constructed in 1928, it marks the equator line that divides the northern hemisphere and the south.

Pontianak's most prominent phenomenon is the occurrence of “The Culmination of the Sun” on March 21 to 23 and September 21 to 23 each year. During these days, you can see the shadow of objects throughout the Equator line disappears. It's the day without shades, not figuratively, but literally.

Meanwhile, Indonesia's current president, Joko Widodo, recently announced that we're going to move the capital city from Jakarta in Java to Kalimantan.

The new capital will be built in some parts of the North Penajam Paser and Kutai Kartanegara in East Kalimantan. The move of the capital city is projected to start in 2024.

3. Papua

Papua infographic.
Papua infographic.

Another place in the top three biggest islands in the world!

This time, it's a part of the second largest island in the world, which is New Guinea. And I have to admit that from an outsider's perspective, it's harder to identify Papua as a part of Indonesia due to the inequality of development in this corrupted country for years.

There's always a region that became a black sheep of a country. Like Sarawak and Sabah in Malaysia, or Hawaii in the United States… Or you bet, Scotland in the UK. And honestly, Papua is probably the one for Indonesia.

Papua is the cause of some heated debate on the international political stage. And let alone the outsiders, sometimes Indonesian people mistake Papuans as a foreigner due to their skin color.

It's also easy to mistake it as a country due to the neighboring country that is also named “Papua New Guinea”. But mind you, I want to talk about the 47% of the area that is currently still under Indonesian territory.

A bit of Papua History

During the Dutch colonial era, Papua was called Nederlands Nieuw-Guinea or Netherlands New Guinea in English. After Indonesia declared its independence in 1945, Papua was still yet to include as a part of Indonesia for years. 

It was only in 1963 that Papua joined Indonesia after a long dispute between Indonesia and the Netherlands. Later in 1969, there was also a referendum with most Papuans choosing Indonesia over the Netherlands at the time. 

The area was formerly known as Irian Jaya, as a Papuan figure Frans Kaiseipo (the guy in the IDR 10,000 bank note in case you have a chance to stop by Indonesia) got an idea to change the name Papua into Irian which stands for Ikut Republik Indonesia Anti-Nederland. The latter means “Joining the Republic of Indonesia, Anti the Netherlands.” 

Papua Now

Later in 2000, the then-Indonesian president Gus Dur opened the discussion with Papuans, with one of the results was to change the name Irian into Papua for a couple of reasons. First, the word Irian sounds like Urryan, which means naked in Arabic. 

The other reason was a bit more superstitious as most Javanese believe that when a kid is fragile and get easily sick, they usually have to change their name to see if it will improve their condition. So be it, we start calling the area Papua ever since. 

For now, there are two provinces in the Indonesian part of New Guinea. One is Papua with the capital city in Jayapura, with the other one is West Papua with Manokwari as their capital. 

Among the three, Papua is the only place in Indonesia that I'm still yet to go. I would love to. From enjoying the beautiful landscape at Lake Sentani to diving in Raja Ampat, Papua has a lot to offer.

So, those are the places in Indonesia that a lot of people mistake them as a country. Hopefully, this post will enlighten more people about Indonesia and why some areas are more known as a stand-alone region than a part of this country.

Have you ever been to one of the places mentioned? Share your experience in the comment, and cheerio! 😉

Traveling Indonesia For The First Time

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