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An Expat Guide To The Islands Of Indonesia

Sitting across the equator and between two oceans, it’s almost as if Indonesia is purposefully trying to defy easy description. Although a single flag flutters over the nation, its islands, people, business and politics are all rich and varied. It has land borders with Malaysia and Papua New Guinea, but is also the world’s largest archipelago. Many of the islands are untouched tropical paradises, but Indonesia’s 240 million inhabitants also make the country the fourth most populous in the world.The islands straddle the equator and reach into both the Pacific and Indian oceans. It is a land of contradictions, being home to a rich variety of wildlife and alarming rates of logging and pollution. The booming bars of Bali and Jakarta show opulence and wealth whilst the majority of the population lives on less than USD$2 a day. Indonesia is rich in natural resources, but only half of inhabitants have access to electricity. The economy has been on the verge of boom for years, but has yet to fully realise its potential, however it still offers lucrative work to expats.

As contradictory and unpredictable as Indonesia can be, it also provides a rich, varied culture for expats to explore and enjoy. The towns and cities boast a heady mix of neon and buzzing nightlife whilst the rural areas are home to traditions that date back centuries. The rainforests, mountains and beaches are truly beautiful and the cultural heritage combines the modern Muslim traditions with those of older societies and Dutch colonial days.

Life in Indonesia is not without its challenges, from the conservative attitudes of many of its people to the rampant corruption that gums up the working of an already sluggish bureaucracy. The cost of living is relatively high compared to other Asian nations and the quality of life might not be as high. That said, expats with a lust for life will find the electric energy of Indonesia exciting and edifying.

The numbers that describe Indonesia give some idea as to how overwhelming, or opportunity-rich the country can be. Consisting of 18,110 islands, only 6,000 of them inhabited, the country covers an area similar to that of the USA. Dotting the landscape are over 400 volcanoes, 130 of them active. The pace of life can be frenetic, but with 88% of the population being Muslim, things slow to a crawl during the fasting month of Ramadan.

Indonesia is frequently reported as a difficult place for expats to settle in to, with its contradictory character making it difficult to adjust to culture shock. Expats heading to Indonesia should choose their destination with care, as this large and varied country can provide a welcome home to everyone. We’ve taken a look at Indonesia’s larger islands to give expats an idea of exactly what Indonesia has to offer.


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Sumatra is home to a rich abundance of wildlife, from tigers and elephants to red haired orang-utans. The island is the sixth largest in the world and is celebrated for the extent of its natural habitats and the species that reside there. However, there has also been widespread condemnation of the logging, plantations and mining activities that have been destroying this same habitat.

Mother Nature may be getting her revenge as the area is prone to natural disasters, with volcanic eruptions and earthquakes being a regular occurrence. Sumatra’s Aceh province bore the brunt of the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami and the scars are still evident across much of the area.

Sumatra is a great place to be for the adventurous expat. There are plenty of jungle trails to explore and peaks to conquer, Aceh offers some of the world’s best scuba diving, whilst the Mentawai Islands off West Sumatra are home to big waves that draw surfers from the world over.

The island is opening up to tourism in a way that may not bode well for its status as an ark for wildlife. Backpackers are volunteering at elephant ‘sanctuaries’ and helping at orang-utan ‘clinic’, but allegations have been made that many of these centres are more interested in tourist cash than helping wildlife.

Opportunities exist for expats looking to make the most of the tourist boom but you should be aware that some of Sumatra’s provinces are very conservative and Aceh follows strict Sharia law. Doing business in this economy can be complicated. Expat jobs tend to be concentrated in large cities. Sumatra only has Medan. The best chance of work unfortunately is often in the mining or palm oil businesses which are doing so much damage to the island. Opportunities always exist in medium sized towns for English teachers as many young Indonesians set their sights on Australia for a prosperous future.


Just to confuse the casual observer even more, Indonesia has an extensive land border with Papua New Guinea, which splits the island roughly down the middle. The western half of the island, belonging to Indonesia is helpfully known as Papua, Irian Jaya or Western New Guinea depending on the speaker’s preference.

Papua is another region with natural wonders, home to the Lorentz National Park which is also a UNESCO World Heritage site. The park is home to Puncak Jaya, the tallest mountain between the Himalayas and the Andes. The province was given over to the UN for safekeeping when the Dutch renounced it as a colony. The UN quickly handed it over to Indonesia and a questionable referendum claimed 100% of Papuans wanted to remain Indonesian. Ever since there has been bubbling discontent and grumbles about achieving full independence for the area. Over the years, stories of human rights abuses have emerged in regard to quelling any early signs of rebellion.

The forest is seen as a great money spinner for the region, its 42 million hectares of trees are worth an estimated USD$78 billion if they are properly managed. Papua is also home to the Grasberg Mine, close to Puncak Jaya.

This mighty open-cast pit is the largest gold mine and the third largest copper mine in the world. Expats with geology, engineering or management experience would find this the best place to go job hunting. Jayapura, the provincial capital has had little exposure to international tourism so is blissfully free of the touts and scammers that appear elsewhere in Indonesia. It does also mean that very few locals will speak English and so the city can begin to feel very isolated.


Not many people will have heard of the Maluku Islands, but they might have heard of the Spice Islands. The archipelago-within-an-archipelago is made of 632 islands and sits between Sulawesi and Papua and was once the jewel in the crown of the Dutch colony, being the only place in the world where nutmeg, mace and cloves were grown.

Today, the Malukus are firmly off the beaten track in terms of travellers and expats, with only the most adventurous scaling its forest-clad peaks or slipping on the waves to visit the undersea gardens. Perhaps it is only a matter of time until the backpacking crowd ‘discover’ the islands and add them to the guidebooks. The islands have been the scene of violence in recent years, with ethnic and religious conflicts between Christian and Muslim inhabitants. Although the bloodshed has largely abated, there have been the occasional bomb blast.

Even though religion is the big issue between Indonesians in the area, they are a mixed bunch. Over 130 dialects are spoken by the two million residents of the Maluku Islands, mostly scattered among small communities. The spices that first made the islands famous are still the biggest business in the local economy, but large scale fishing and logging are also integral.

Nusa Tenggara

East of Bali, this part of the archipelago is quieter but no less beautiful than its more famous neighbour. Also known as Lesser Sunda, the group is starting to attract the backpacking group and adventurous divers. Lombok is home to luxury resorts, where guests are as likely to arrive by private yacht as they are by air. They come to laze on the pristine beaches, hike well-preserved trails and explore Mount Rinjani National Park. The Gili Islands on the other hand are more popular with teenage Australians looking to party through the night.

Whatever the makeup of the tourist visitors, the local colour is rich and varied as the Nusa Tenggara region is more ethnically, culturally and ethnically mixed than the rest of Indonesia. The region has also managed to avoid some of the civil struggles that have brought unrest to the rest of the country.


Also known as Kalimantan, this massive island is home to only 12 million people, leaving much of it untouched by human hands. Borneo has some of the world’s richest biodiversity and is home to a number of unique species and some severely endangered creatures.

The biggest business on the island is oil and gas, with most of the big corporations headquartered in Balikpapan, or Oil City as it is known to the locals. The city itself is relatively clean and business-like with little in the way of entertainment or night life despite the cruise ships that regularly put in at the port.

There are opportunities for expats seeking roles with NGOs and conservation groups as well as the usual English teaching roles and working with the oil and gas projects.


The star-shaped Sulawesi is another part of Indonesia with large parts remaining unexplored and uncharted. Its rough terrain means there is often little communication between settlements, creating a colourful tapestry of local cultures. Organised religion sits comfortably alongside traditional spirituality, with adherents making offerings to ancestral deities as well as attending formal prayers at mosques or churches.

Sadly, friction between Muslim and Christian groups has spilled over into instances of violence in recent years. Diving is a big attraction for visitors, with Indonesia’s most famous dive site being off the northern arm of Sulawesi and luxury dive boats anchoring off Wakatobi and its UNESCO Marine Biosphere Reserve.


By far the most visited of the Indonesian islands, Bali is ready made as a tourist haven. Beautiful beaches, world-class diving and big wave surfing have secured Bali a permanent place in the travel brochures. The shoestring backpacker and the super-rich alike can find somewhere to play on Bali, from sleazy diver bars to spa resorts and golf courses.

A sizeable expat population also exists, from the backpacks who never left to the bar owners and the corporate managers of hotel chains. Work may be seasonal for a large number of jobs, ebbing and flowing with the holiday seasons, although casual work can also be found outside these times.

The Balinese people are more tolerant than much of the rest of Indonesia, offering a warm welcome to visitors, accepting bikinis on their beaches and alcohol in their streets. However, they will not take kindly to public displays of affection or revealing clothing away from the beaches. Working culture is more relaxed than in the rest of the country, with a slower pace of life, although business is still a hierarchical affair with a strong tradition of saving face.


Java is the bustling heartland of Indonesia, home to the capital Jakarta and most of the population. Java is the world’s most crowded major island. Expats hunting work are most likely to find themselves working in Jakarta, Bandung or Yogyakarta, the biggest, loudest and liveliest cities on the island.

These cities are busy and bustling, but overcrowded and polluted. Although Indonesia enjoys a low rate of violent crime, the cities can be the scene of petty thefts and opportunistic crime. By far and away the biggest threat to expats is the roads, which frequently spill over onto the pavements as excited drivers play fast and loose with the traffic laws.

The cost of living in the big cities is higher than rural areas, yet still vastly cheaper than many other destinations around the world. Most expats should be able to find somewhere to live in a safe neighbourhood without too much fuss. Other costs can start to rack up however, with schooling and healthcare for expats being surprisingly expensive.

In addition to megacities, Java is dotted with over 120 giant volcanoes, including the mighty Gunung Bromo. Surrounded by National Parkland, the massive volcano blew its top thousands of years ago, leaving a huge crater which now holds a large plateau of volcanic sand and two new active volcanoes. Bromo is important to Indonesia’s Hindu population as the site of miracles and is now a pilgrimage destination.

Article by Andy Scofield, Expat Focus International Features Writer

Have you lived on one of the islands listed above? Email scar@expatfocus.com to be interviewed about your experience, or share your thoughts in the comments below.