Impressions from a seven week trip as backpacker Oct.-Dec. 2003

My first visit to these countries was in 1966, then 1972, 1991, and 1998. The perspective is partly political, economical and the role of culture.

Indonesia has had turbulent periods after the October coup in 1965 when Sukarno was ousted from power and Suharto took over. Under his corrupt regime Indonesia had economical progress, but he had to go in June 1998 after the collapse of the economy in 1997 and 1998. Since then the political situation has been described as unstable but with more political freedom. Now people dare to speak. Under Suharto they could risk imprisonment for political utterances. The Bali bombing Oct.12.2002 and later the bombing of the Marriott hotel in Jakarta have hurt their tourist industry badly.  In Bali though quite a few tourists could be seen but Lombok, the beautiful island east of Bali, had very few tourist, particularly in the more expensive hotels. Backpackers, staying in cheaper accommodations than ”the package tourist”, don’t seem to be so easily scared.

Indonesia is a very heterogeneous country with many very ethnic groups, which may contribute to unrest as in the Asch province in Sumatra. But you may also find other groups, which differ a lot.

In Java, about 120 km south-west of Jakarta one finds the Baduy people living in a very traditional way refusing to go to school and use any modern inventions, even shoes. They consist of two groups, the outer Baduys, also called the black Baduys because of the way they dress, and the inner Baduys or the white Baduys. No road, just a path, leads to their villages. It takes about one hours walk to get to the outer Baduys, four hours to the inner Baduys from the nearest road. Almost none are allowed to visit the inner Baduys, and even to the outer Baduys a foreigner needs to be accompanied by a licensed guide. They are soft spoken and even their homes, and musical instruments, both made of bamboo, reflects this mood. For living they grow rice in a very hilly landscape. One may say these about 1000 peaceful and proud people live in harmony with nature and seem to be protected and respected by the authorities.

Another ethnic group, the Bataks, living around Lake Toba in Sumatra, are very different from the Baduys. They have reputation for speaking very loudly and some would say they are aggressive and ambitious and tend to do well. But they also seem to give more attention and priority to their children, i.e. when food supply is low they give priority to their children.   

The Chinese make up 3-5% of the Indonesian population but are an influential group because they are wealthier than the average Indonesian. They seem to play a similar role to the Jews in Nazi Germany. Some would say they control the Indonesian economy and are interested in just making money. Opinion of the Chinese seems to differ a lot depending on whom you ask. They probably took a lot of money out of Indonesia in 1997-98 and contributed to the financial crisis. On the other hand they were harassed and many of their shops were broken into and robbed both in 1965 and 1998.  The Chinese have a reputation of being hardworking and clever business people. In Malaysia, where they make up about 30% of the population, they definitely seem to play a positive role after they sorted out important political questions in a grand political conference in 1969. Malaysia has been doing very well compared to Indonesia and also Thailand due to political stability and cooperation between Chinese and Malays.

Indonesia bus terminals are at the outskirts of the big cities and there are normally several of them depending on what the destination is.


Bus: All three countries have good long distance buses with air-con and reclining seats. The main roads in Malaysia and Thailand are excellent while roads in Indonesia are mostly one-lane roads with all sorts of traffic and shops and houses very close to the road. The average speed of buses travelling the highway running the whole length of Sumatra is around 45 km/h while it is around 90 km/h on Malaysian and Thailand’s highways.

Trains:  There are few trains in these countries but mostly in Java in Indonesia. One common factor in all three countries is that you mostly have to book several days ahead to get a seat while bus tickets can be obtained the same day in most cases, and there seems to be a fierce competition between bus companies.

Taxi: They can be found in abundance in all three countries but mostly you have to bargain over the price. The initial offer is often 2-3 times what you can get it for.

City transport: Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur have got their sky trains and Bangkok is about to get a metro within a year. They really need it. Jakarta has got some high-speed roads within the city while many of the other cities are chaotic with traffic jams. Kuala Lumpur is the most modern city in the region and its new airport is connected with a fast train making the 70 km journey to the city centre in about 30 minutes.

Air: In Indonesia, the poorest of these countries, they had an increase in air travel from 6 to 9 million passengers from 2001 to 2002, and bus fares had been reduced in Sumatra due to low air fares. They have got “no frill air lines” in Indonesia, like Leon air with 43 aircraft, similar in concept to Ryan Air in Europe. They also seem to have a good safety record.

Internet: In Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia they had fast and cheap connections and in Bangkok also while the speed of Internet in Pattaya varied quite a bit. In Indonesia Internet was mostly slow and more expensive. The further away from Jakarta the slower the speed and the higher the price. But Internet could be found almost everywhere in these three countries.

ATM:  In all cities it was easy to get out money on a credit card like Visa but cheaper hotels either prefer cash or don’t accept credit cards.

Language: Almost everybody speak English in Malaysia while the knowledge of English is more limited in the two other countries. Basha Indonesia is rather easy to learn and they have the same alphabet as in English while Thailand has their own alphabet and it is a tonal language making the pronunciation difficult for most European and Americans.

Safety: I felt as safe in all these countries as in my own country Norway. Generally Asians seem to be non-violent people, an attribute of their culture I would say. In Indonesia though there are a few hotspots like Asch province north on Sumatra and near Poso in Sulawesi shooting occurred in Nov. 2003. Some would say it was a conflict between Christians and Muslims, other that it was more a conflict between newcomers to the area and the original population.

Corruption: In Indonesia many people complained about corruption. Under Suharto, from 1965 to 1998, he gave contracts and loans to his family and friends. It was and still is considered a major problem but as a tourist you don’t encounter it to any extent. In the two other countries this is seldom mentioned as a problem.

Political stability and foreign investment: Indonesia is considered the unstable country. It may partly be because of corruption and poor policy but it is also a very big and heterogeneous country making it difficult to govern. Thailand seems to have a homogenous population and seems to be a lot easier to rule than Indonesia. They have had some armed conflict in border regions, in the south and with Burma at times, but this seems to be of no significance for its stability. Malaysia has to main ethnic groups, the Malay, 60-70% and the Chinese 30%. The country seems to have reached a formula regulating ownership and similar matters between the two groups. The country also seems to have very ambitious aims of becoming a developed country. Information technology is one area where they have invested heavily. They have i.e.built a cyber city with university, production plants etc. one hour bus drive outside Kuala Lumpur.

Service and attitudes towards tourists.  People in all these countries may be characterised as friendly but Thailand may be considered the most tourist-oriented country. They have also a more liberal attitude towards sex, while Malaysia and Indonesia are more influenced by their Muslim religion and can be compared with Christian societies with a puritanical view.

Unemployment: This seems to be most pronounced in Indonesia. One indication is all the people trying to sell you things and the surplus of taxies. Begging may be yet another indicator.

Nutrition: Generally people seem to get enough food. You don’t see overtly undernourished people as in Africa and some other developing countries. All three counties have plenty of rainfall and good conditions for growing rice.

Overall impression from 1966 to 2003: All countries have had economical progress and most people have probably a better life today than in 1966. The progress is most pronounced in Malaysia, least in Indonesia.

Why have some countries succeeded better than others?

Take a look at Gert Hofstede (1980) influential book CULTURES CONSEQUENCES- International Differences in Work-Related Values. This is one of very few authors who show connections between certain dimensions of culture and GDP. He points to a correlation of 0,82 between individualism and GDP in 1970 in 43 countries. But he also shows a correlation of 0,77 between GDP and the distance, of the capitals in the same countries, from equator. Or take a look at this BA thesis comparing the economical development in Thailand and Malaysia from 1965 to 1995.

Bjarne Fjeldsenden

Jan. 2004.