I used to teach JAVA, the computer language, so coming to this island was a pilgrimage ;^) This is my second time in Indonesia. I went to Sumatra in 2001 and loved it. I met my first wild orangutan in Bukit Lawang, and then went to Lake Toba, the world's largest volcanic lake, perfect for swimming. Sumatra was friendly, interesting, beautiful, relaxing, and inexpensive. Ever since then, I have wanted to return.
I arrived in Jakarta where I took advantage of the devalued rupiah to eat great food and buy new clothes. But I did not stay long (too much air pollution and traffic jams). Yogyakarta (known locally as Jogja), the cultural capital of the island, is more interesting. Famous for traditional batik paintings, Jogja also has shopping malls and fast-food joints. It is a pleasant mix of old and new. Nearby Jogja is the world's largest Buddhist stupha at Borobudur. The Buddhists were forced away by the Muslims a long time ago, but the archaeological site is stunning. I'm travelling with a cool English bloke named Jonathan. We stopped to see Mount Bromo erupt. Awesome sunrise view.
I thought Bali would be so touristy that I might not like it. I was wrong. Bali is a gem. It has black-sand beaches protected by coral reefs, white-sand beaches with excellent surfing, mountains and lakes, Hindu shrines, and traditional culture. Despite the tourist hordes, uncrowded places can be found. And it's all pretty cheap. I stayed in an hotel at Lovina Beach for only $8 a night, including breakfast and swimming pool. OK. It's a bit touristy, and the hawkers can be too persistent at times, but it might be perfect for you. I just read in the Jakarta Post that Bali is "The World's Best Island." Well, maybe. But it does have something for everyone.
I went by the site of the 2002 discotheque bombing in Kuta, now a World Peace Park. The terrorists have no friends here (visibly). Locals wear t-shirts that say things like: Fuck terrorists! ... Osama don't surf! ... A life lived in fear is a life half-lived. But tourist numbers are down. Despite the media talk to the contrary, Indonesia is safe. It's not a good idea to wander Jakarta at night, but the same can be said of Baltimore. There are snatch thieves, but violent theft is rare. There have been two terrorist bombs in recent years, but does that make the place unsafe? I think Washington DC is more likely to get the next bomb. Locals tell me that Indonesia is not a terrorist country. They say the people who blew off those bombs are a tiny minority from Malaysia and the Philippine island of Mindanao. It's too bad they scare off tourists and win-win foreign investment, because the economy could use the cash.
The Indonesian flavor of Islam is the least strict I have seen. The women are NOT obliged to wear head scarves, but many wear them anyway. There is not the usual prohibition on alcohol, but many abstain anyway. Only a minority pray five times a day.
Indonesia makes a perfect case study in economic imperialism according to neoliberal ideology and the gospel of the free market. The book Confessions of an Economic Hit Man details one man's role, and helps to understand why the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis hit Indonesia particularly hard. It's a story of arms dealers and greedy American bankers wreaking havoc in Indonesia's economy, leaving behind suffering and debt. Please help pressure politicians to cancel the debt and reform the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Thanks. These institutions were founded after the Great Depression when there was widespread recognition that the invisible hand was not perfect. Markets need government intervention in various circumstances. But since the banks effectively own the IMF (one dollar = one vote), the banks changed the regulations to increase their own profits, and the media plays along. Most shocking to me are the structural adjustments they impose upon debtor nations.