71 Interesting Facts about Indonesia

By Karin Lehnardt, Senior Writer
Published December 2, 2016
  • The name “Indonesia” is derived from the Latin word Indus meaning “Indian” and the Greek word nesos meaning “island.” Indonesia was originally called Indian Archipelago or East Indies Islands.[12]
  • The name “Indonesia” was coined in the 1850s by James Logan, editor of the Singapore-published Journal of the Indian Archipelago and Eastern Asia, as a shorter equivalent for the term “Indian Archipelago.”[11]
  • Indonesia is the world’s largest country comprised solely of islands. It is composed of 17,508 islands, some 6,000 of which are inhabited.[14]
  • With 238 million people, Indonesia is the fourth most populous nation in the world, just behind China, India, and the U.S. The island of Java, with over 140 million people, is the most populous island in the world.[14]
  • On September 8, 1664, the Dutch under Pieter Stuyvesant made one of the most bizarre real estate deals ever when he traded the rights of the island of New Amsterdam (now the island of Manhattan) for the tiny British-controlled Indonesian island of Run. This transaction was also an important turning point in American history.[8]
  • Marco Polo visited Indonesia at the end of the 13th century
  • Marco Polo was the first European to visit Indonesia, in 1292.[8]
  • The Indonesia archipelago is spread over the Pacific “Ring of Fire” that is situated in the Western Pacific. The country has over 400 active volcanoes and records at least three earthquakes a day.[11]
  • Bahasa Indonesia is Indonesia’s formal language, but the country recognizes more than 700 other languages as well.[14]
  • Java has become a slang term for the word coffee, after the coffee beans grown on the island of Java. Coffee bushes and the habit of coffee drinking were introduced by the Dutch East India Company to Indonesia in 1696.[18]
  • During World War II, the Japanese invaded and occupied Indonesia from 1942 to 1945.[14]
  • Indonesia is the third worst emitter of greenhouse gases in the world.[2]
  • With its rich variety of flora and fauna, Indonesia is second in the world after Brazil with the highest level of biodiversity in the world.[11]
  • Out of the 10 largest islands in the world, three are a part of Indonesia: Borneo, Papua/New Guinea, and Sumatra.[11]
  • Despite being one of the G20 group of world’s leading economies, roughly half of Indonesia’s population lives on less than US$2 a day.[16]
  • Indonesia is one of the world’s largest producers of nutmeg, which is native to its Banda Islands.[8]
  • Indonesians are superstitious people, and one such belief is in the latah, which happens to women when they are startled by something like a loud noise. The latah causes women to react to the noise by using uncharacteristically foul language or falling to the ground in a fit. Indonesians explain that latah results from the soul leaving the body through sudden fright.[8]
  • The word “ketchup” in English comes from the Indonesian word kecap, which is a sweet soy sauce.[8]
  • Indonesians do not openly discuss sex. The general term in Bahasa Indonesia for both male and female sexual organs is kemaluan, meaning “shame” or “embarrassment.”[8]
  • Indonesia's highway to hell (Herianus / iStock)
  • Jakarta, Indonesia, is the world’s largest population center without a metro train system that results in some of the worst traffic jams in the world.[11]
  • Indonesia men admire virility, and the term jago (“rooster”) characterizes a man who is successful with women. Indonesian men admire the philandering reputations of U.S. Presidents like John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton.[8]
  • Indonesian societies tend to be very tolerant of alternate expressions of gender. Banci are men who dress and behave like women and have held special places in Indonesian culture and society, such as matchmakers, artisans, performers, healers, and ritual specialists.[8]
  • In Indonesia, kissing is called cium (“to sniff”). Most Indonesians kiss by sniffing each other’s cheeks, by way of standard greeting. In some places in Indonesia, people rub noses among family to show affection, but it can also become foreplay as well.[8]
  • Popular in Indonesia, Conglak (“cowrie shell”) traces back to Egypt as among the world’s oldest game. Likely introduced to Indonesia by Indian or Arab traders, Conglak consists of a long (18-inch) carved, wooden board with seven cup-like indentations on each side and one at each end. Initially, 98 cowrie shells, stones, or beads sit evenly divided in the recessions. The object is to move as many pieces into one’s “home” cup as possible.[8]
  • Kalimantan—which shares three-quarters of the Indonesian island of Borneo, the world’s third-largest island—has integrated prostitution to a degree perhaps unmatched anywhere else in the world. Most hotel spas, massage centers, karaoke bars, night clubs, and pubs offer “the extras.” Kalimantan society as a whole turns a blind eye to the practice, but many Muslim-run hotels still demand that couples produce a marriage license before checking in.[11]
  • Adult male orangutans, found in the wild only on the Indonesian islands of Borneo and Sumatra, are said to be eight times stronger than a human.[11]
  • Pepper was introduced to Indonesia’s Sumatra and Java from south India around 600 B.C. Black pepper is the result of picking unripened fruits and drying them in the sun, while white pepper comes from larger fruits left on the vine until ripe.[18]
  • Muslims make up 87.2% of Indonesian population, which makes it the world’s largest Muslim majority nation.[14]
  • There are over 202 million Muslims in Indonesia
  • The Javan rhinoceros is one species that is found only in Indonesia. In 2011, the International Rhino Federation declared the Javan rhino extinct, leaving only an estimated 50 of these animals living on Java’s Ujung Kulon Peninsula, the only examples left in the wild.[12]
  • Jakarta, which was called Batavia by the Dutch, is the capital of Indonesia and is the 13th largest city in the world.[11]
  • The island of Sumatra was originally known as Swarnadwipa (“Island of Gold”). It was Marco Polo who corrupted the name to Sumatra in his 1292 report on his journey through the Indonesian archipelago.[11]
  • Indonesia is the only country to see the Komodo dragon, the world’s largest lizard, in the wild. The first published description of the Komodo dragon was in 1910 from a Dutch expedition to Komodo Island, where two of the dragons were shot and their skins taken to Java. One theory holds that the Chinese dragon is based on the Komodo dragon.[11]
  • Indonesia is the only Southeast Asian country to have been a member of OPEC, although it left the cartel in 2008 due to the decline in world oil prices.[6]
  • Indonesia is home to the Rafflesia arnoldii, the world’s largest flower, which may be the world’s stinkiest flower as well, and Amorphophallus titanium, the world’s tallest flower.[11]
  • Rafflesia arnoldii has the largest single flower of any flowering plan
  • Indonesia is the world’s largest producer of palm oil, which can be found in roughly half of the manufactured goods in any supermarket or drug store. Everything from peanut butter to soap to cosmetics contains palm oil in various forms.[15]
  • The Indonesian government recognizes only six religions—Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Protestantism, Catholicism, and Confucianism. Every Indonesian citizen must belong to one of those religions, regardless of what they believe, and two individuals of different religions may not legally marry, unless one of them converts.[10]
  • Indonesia is home to the world’s largest volcanic lake, Danau (“Lake”) Toba, which is located on Sumatra and is the site of a massive super-volcano eruption that is thought to have happened 69,000 to 77,000 years ago. It was the largest known explosive eruption in Earth’s history in the last 25 million years.[11]
  • Among the Mappurondo on the Indonesian island of Borneo, they still practice headhunting in the ritual of pangngae; however, they use coconuts instead of real heads during their simulated “hunts.”[9]
  • The phrase “run amok” originated in Indonesia. “Amok” comes from the Indonesian word mengamuk, which translates to “make a furious and desperate charge” but is linked to deeper spiritual beliefs. It was believed to be caused by hantu belian, an evil tiger spirit that entered one’s body and caused one to do heinous acts.[18]
  • In Indonesia, frog-leg soup is known as swikee or swike
  • Indonesia is the world’s leading exporter of frog legs. During the last decade, Europe alone imported 4,600 tons annually, with France, Belgium, and the Netherlands being the main importers.[1]
  • Indonesia’s small Hindu population remains mainly on the island of Bali. One of Balinese Hinduism’s superstitions that endures to this day is the not letting a baby’s feet touch the ground for the first six months of their life to prevent the devil from entering the child and, as a result, children are passed from adult to adult instead.[4]
  • Almost everyone in Bali has had their teeth filed down. This practice is rooted in the belief that the six main vices—anger, confusion, jealousy, drunkenness, desire, and greed—all enter the body through the top six teeth. By filing away the teeth, the vices are thwarted.[4]
  • In 1859, The English naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace wrote Charles Darwin that the Indonesian archipelago was inhabited by one distinct fauna in the east and one in the west. He refined his theory, drawing a boundary between the two regions. His delineation became known as the “Wallace Line,” dividing Sulawesi and Lombok to the east and Borneo and Bali to the west.[7]
  • The famous “Java Man” fossil, subsequently named Homo erectus, was found by Dutch physician Eugene Dubois on the Indonesian island of Java in 1889. Since then, even older bones have been found in Java, and geochronologists have dated the oldest Homo erectus specimens to 1.7 million years old.[11]
  • U.S. President Barack Obama spent part of his childhood in Indonesia, including a period in the exclusive central suburb of Menteng, where he attended the SDN Menteng I government-run school. He was given the nickname “Barry” by his fellow students there.[11]
  • Krakatoa's explosion is widely believed to be the loudest sound ever heard in modern history
  • Krakatoa, a volcano in Indonesia, is the site of the largest volcanic eruption ever recorded. Occurring on August 27, 1883, it had a force equivalent to 2,000 Hiroshima bombs and resulted in the death of 36,000 people. A tsunami 131 feet (40 m) high, radiating outward at a speed reportedly of over 311 mph (500 kph), destroyed coastal towns and villages. The explosion was heard from Sri Lanka to Perth, Australia, and the resulting waves led to a noticeable surge in the English Channel. It was the greatest volume of sound recorded in human history.[7]
  • Clove-impregnated kretek cigarette sales account for 90% of the cigarette sales in Indonesia. They were fist marketed by Nitsemito, a man from Kudus, Java, in 1906, who said kretek helped his asthma. His Bal Tiga (“Three Balls”) brand grew into one of the biggest Indonesian-owned businesses in the Dutch East Indies.[11]
  • According to the old Javanese tradition of pingit, or confinement, Indonesian girls from the ages of 12 to 16 are virtually imprisoned and forbidden outside the family home.[11]
  • On the Indonesian island of Flores in September 2003, archaeologists discovered a skeleton the size of a three-year-old child but with the worn-down teeth and bone structure of an adult. They named the skeleton Homo floriensis, later nicknamed “Hobbit.” Experts think that “Hobbits” were part of Homo erectus species that fled from Africa around two million years ago and spread throughout Asia.[11]
  • The Indonesia Pasola has to be the most extravagant and bloodiest harvest festivals in Asia. Two teams of spear-wielding ikat-clad horsemen gallop at each other, hurling their spears at rival riders. Despite the blunt spears, injuries and occasional accidental deaths still occur.[11]
  • Papuans, native to the world’s second largest island Papua/New Guinea, are Melanesians and very distinct from other Indonesians. The Portuguese, who originally discovered New Guinea and its surrounding islands in the early 16th century, originally called the islands Ilhas dos Papuas, from the Malay word papuwah (“fuzzy-haired”).[11]
  • Bird of Paradise feathers have long been used in Papua traditional dress and they became so popular as European fashion accessories before World War I that the birds came close to extinction. Trade in the feathers has been illegal in Indonesia since 2000, although the feathers are still smuggled out of Papua.[11]
  • Borobudur is the world's largest Buddhist temple
  • The Buddhist temple of Borobudur on the Indonesian island of Java is the largest Buddhist monument in the world. It resembles a nine-tiered “mountain,” rising to 113 feet (34.5 m) tall. It is said to have taken 75 years to complete.[7]
  • Among the Dani tribe in Papua/New Guinea, Indonesia, one of the most unusual customs is to amputate one or two joints of a woman’s finger when a close relative dies. Many Daniwomen have fingers missing up to their second joint, although this practice is now prohibited.[11]
  • On December 26, 2004, the world’s second largest recorded earthquake, a 9.3+ magnitude quake, struck off the coast of the Indonesian island of Sumatra. The resulting tsunami hit more than a dozen countries around the Indian Ocean, leaving more than 300,000 dead or missing and millions displaced. The force of the earthquake is said to have caused Earth to wobble on its axis and shifted surrounding land masses by up to 12 ft. (36 m).[11]
  • After the explosion of the Indonesian volcano Krakatoa, it was recorded that so much ash filled the sky that it was darkened for days and global temperatures were reduced by 53° F (12° C) for several years.[11]
  • Indonesian nasi Padang (“Padang cuisine”) is served without a menu. If the dish contains a liquid, it is probably a coconut-milk curry, and meaty dishes are usually beef, buffalo, occasionally offal, or even dog. The most famous Padang dish is rendang, in which chunks of beef or water buffalo are slowly simmered in coconut milk.[11]
  • The myth of the orang pendek (“short man”) is the Indonesian version of the Western Sasquatch. Common folk stories claim the creature has feet that face backwards so it can’t be tracked through the forests.[11]
  • The passing of a so-called anti-pornography law in 2008 potentially made many forms of Indonesian behavior illegal, from wearing penis gourds on Papua to the modest gyrations of traditional Javanese dancers.[11]
  • Each of its eyes is actually heavier than its brain
  • One of Indonesia’s most interesting critters is the tiny nocturnal primate called the tarsier. These creatures, found on Sulawesi Island, are recognizable by their eyes, which are literally as big as their stomachs, so big they cannot rotate them in their sockets. Luckily, their heads can rotate 360° to compensate.[11]
  • In the 1650s and 1660s, Banten Island’s Sultan Ageng Tirtajasa decreed that all men aged 16 or over must plant 500 pepper plants.[11]
  • The Asia-Africa Conference staged in Bandung, Indonesia, in 1955 launched the Non-aligned Movement, comprising countries that wanted to align with neither the USA nor USSR. It also gave birth to the term “Third World,” originally meaning countries that belonged to neither Cold War bloc.[11]
  • The film and novel titled The Year of Living Dangerously was inspired by a major 1964 speech by Indonesian Founding Father Sukarno and was drawn from Italian leader Mussolini’s slogan “Live Dangerously,” which was originally penned by 19th-century Germany philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.[11]
  • Arguably one of Indonesia’s stranger exports is Kopi Luwak (Cat Poop Coffee), which is the world’s most expensive beverage, costing around US$1,000 per pound. Kopi Luwak is made by feeding small, catlike civets coffee berries. After they defecate, the berries are collected, washed, and ground into coffee, which supposedly has an unrivaled richness and little bitterness.[5]
  • The word sembako refers to Indonesia’s nine essential culinary ingredients: rice, sugar, egg, meat, flour, corn, fuel, cooking oil, and salt. When any of these becomes unavailable or more expensive, repercussions can be felt right through to the presidency.[11]
  • Batik painting, a blend of craft and art, remains popular in Yogyakarta on Indonesia’s island of Java, where it was invented as a pastime for unemployed youth.[11]
  • The word "gamelan" means 'to hammer'
  • In Indonesia, traditional music is played by a gamelan orchestra. This is a percussion ensemble consisting of bronze metallophones (instrument with tuned metal keys), led by drums, and containing a few wind and stringed instruments too. Most villagers in Bali own at least one set of gamelan instruments for ritual occasions.[3]
  • Papua is home to more than half the animal and plant species in Indonesia, including more than 190 mammals, 550 breeding birds, and more than 2,000 types of orchids.[11]
  • In Indonesia, rice in the field is called padi, rice grain at the market is called beras, and cooked rice on your plate is called nasi.[11]
  • Indonesia’s national dish is nasi campur, which is essentially the plate of the day. Served in stalls, warungs (small shops or cafés), and restaurants, it is always a combination of many dishes and flavors.[11]
  • Indonesian children on Bali are traditionally always given at least four names.[3]
  • Electricity and television came to Bali, Indonesia, only in the last quarter of the 20th century.[3]
  • Important Dates[8][11][13][17]
    DateEvents
    60,000–40,000 BCFirst Homo sapiens arrive in the Indonesian archipelago, probably the ancestors of the Melanesians, which are found today mainly in Papua.
    705Moussa ibn Noussair conquers Morocco and spreads Islam among the Berbers.
    711Archipelago rulers open trade routes between China and India. Hindu Indians arrive in Sumatra, Java, and Bali.
    5th centuryIndonesian ships control most trade in the archipelago and sail far as China.
    6th centuryMuslim traders arrive in Indonesian ports, bringing their religion as well as their goods to trade.
    7th centuryIndonesian farmers begin growing rice.
    8th centurySailendra Dynastry emerges in central Java and rules for 200 years. They build the giant Buddhist monument Borobudur.
    10th centuryAirlangga founds Java’s first great empire, bringing central Java and Bali under some semblance of a united kingdom.
    1292Marco Polo writes about the Islamic sultanate in Acehin, in northern Sumatra.
    1294–1478Kertanegara’s son-in-law Majapahit establishes a great kingdom and monopolizes trade between Sumatra and China.
    1505Portuguese ships reach Indonesian waters.
    1511Portuguese conquer the city of Melaka (Molucca). Months later, they sail to eastern Indonesia seeking spices.
    1520Java is completely converted to Islam, which leaves Bali as the sole remaining Hindu island.
    16th and 17th centuriesIslamic Mataram kingdom rises to power.
    1595Four small Dutch ships reach the pepper port of Banten in northwest Java.
    1611–1700From its headquarters at Batavia (now Jakarta), the VOC (Dutch East India Company) establishes a chain of ports to control the trade to and from the Spice Islands.
    1664The Dutch swap the island of Manhattan with the British in exchange for the small Banda island of Run.
    1795–1824In the Napoleonic Wars, Britain takes control of the Dutch East Indies. Archipelago is split between Dutch and British; borders are similar to modern Indonesia and Malaysia.
    1799Netherlands’ government takes over operations in Indonesia from the VOC.
    1811Thomas Stamford Raffles, lieutenant governor, rediscovers Borobudur, buried under centuries of volcanic soil.
    1825–1830“Java Wars” between resistant Javanese and Dutch break out.
    1845Notorious and brutal rubber plantations are developed on Sumatra.
    1883Krakatoa volcano erupts in the sea west of Java.
    1906On September 20, Dutch troops advance upon Denpasar, Bali. Entire royal family and entourage meet them with only daggers, and all are shot or committ suicide. Day is remembered as Puputan (“Ending”).
    1927Sukarno organizes the Indonesian Nationalist Party (PNI). Indonesian nationalism begins to spread among groups from Muslims to Communists.
    1928The All-Indonesia Youth Conference proclaims its historic Youth Pledge, establishing goals of one national identity and one national language (Bahasa Indonesia).
    1930sDutch East Indies produce most of the quinine used in the world’s tonic water, to the delight of gin drinkers everywhere.
    1941–1942World War II breaks out and Japan conquers Indonesia.
    1945World War II ends; Sukarno proclaims Indonesia an independent nation on August 17.
    1965General Suharto seizes control of country and becomes new leader of Indonesia.
    1967Indonesia joins League of Nations.
    1969Netherlands cedes West Papua/New Guinea to Indonesia. Region is renamed to Irian Jaya (“Victorious Papua”).
    1975Indonesian forces invade East Timor, recently independent from Portugal, Ensuing battle lasts almost 25 years as East Timorese resist Indonesian occupation.
    1979–1984Government’s transmigration program reaches its peak with almost 2.5 million people moving to outer islands from overpopulated Java, Bali, and Madura before the program ends in 2000.
    1979Free Aceh Movement (GAM) is founded.
    1999President Habibie announces East Timor could vote for autonomy or independence. On October 19, Abdurrachman Wahid becomes the fourth Indonesian president. Megawati Sukarnoputri, Sukarno’s daughter, is vice president. East Timor votes overwhelmingly for independence.
    2001Megawati Sukarnoputri becomes Indonesia’s first female and fifth president.
    2002On October 12, a terrorist car bomb explodes outside of a nightclub in Bali, killing over 200 and destroying a city block.
    2003Discovery of the small humanoid fossils on the island of Flores named Homo floriensis.
    2004Indonesia elects new president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (S.B.Y.), in the first direct election in Indonesian history. On December 26, a massive tsunami devastates the region of Aceh on the north coast of Sumatra, killing 200,000.
    2005Indonesian military forces withdraw from Aceh after 31 years.
    2006Women’s groups take to the streets of Jakarta to protest Indonesia’s anti-porn bill, which would apply strict Muslim dress codes to them and not men.
    2010In November, Barack Obama visits Indonesia, hailing it as an example of how a nation can embrace democracy and diversity.
    2011Dutch government apologizes for the 1947 massacre of at least 150 people in the village of Rawagede on the island of Java during Indonesia’s war for Independence.
References

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2Arga, Adhityani. “Indonesia World’s No. 3 Greenhouse Gas Emitter: Report.” Reuters. June 4, 2007. Accessed July 23, 2014.

3Bali & Lombok (Eyewitness Travel). New York, NY: DK Publishing, 2013.

4Bali & Lombok (Insight Guides). Singapore: APA Publishing, 2011.

5Bennett-Smith, Meredith. “Kopi Luwak (Cat Poop Coffee), Made from Asian Palm Civet Poop, Very Expensive Yet High in Demand. Huffington Post. Updated October 17, 2012. Accessed July 26, 2014.

6Deutsch, Anthony. “Indonesia to Pull Out of OPEC.” Washington Post. May 29, 2008. Accessed July 24, 2014.

7Dixon, Paul. Indonesia (Footprints Focus). Guilford, CT: Globe Pequot, 2012.

8Forshee, Jill. Culture and Customs of Indonesia. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2006.

9George, Kenneth M. Showing Signs of Violence: The Cultural Politics of a Twentieth-Century Headhunting Ritual. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1996.

10Indonesia: 2012 Report on International Religious Freedom.” U.S. Department of State. May 20, 2013. Accessed July 24, 2014.

11Indonesia (Lonely Planet). Oakland, CA: Lonely Planet, 2013.

12“Indonesian.” Online Etymology Dictionary. 2014. Accessed August 13, 2014.

13Indonesia Profile—Timeline.” BBC News. July 23, 2014. Accessed August 4, 2014.

14“Indonesia” (World Fact book). Central Intelligence Agency. Updated June 22, 2014. Accessed July 24, 2014.

15Oakford, Samuel. “Indonesia Is Killing the Planet for Palm Oil.” Vice News. July 4, 2014. Accessed August 14, 2014.

16Poverty Headcount Ratio at $2 a day (PPP) (% of Population).” The World Bank. 2014. Accessed July 23, 2014.

17Reader, Lesley and Lucy Ridout. The Rough Guide to Bali & Lombok. London, UK: Rough Guides, 2012.

18Taylor, Jean Gelman. Indonesia: Peoples and History. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003.

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