Journey Through Indonesia By Tim Hannigan

Whether readers are planning a trip to this archipelagic nation or just fantasizing about one, Journey Through Indonesia adroitly combines the best features of both a picture book and a travel guide. With hundreds of vibrant full-colour photos, the large format book or eBook takes readers on a tour of the world’s most magnificent string of islands.

This is a different kind of illustrated book whose captions and explanatory text are quite readable in and of themselves and not just serve to identify the images. The words are just as important as the photographs, unusual for such a lavishly illustrated book. The attractiveness of the page design also begs the question of why can’t all high school and university text books be as informative and all-encompassing as this “picture” book?

Author Tim Hannigan is the most foremost travel writer and historian specializing on Indonesia working today, a premier interpreter of all things Indonesian. One earmark of his extensive travel in the islands is his frequent use of Indonesian words and phrases (with English translations) in his writing about the country. Whereas his book Geek in Indonesia is about the contemporary, quirky contradictions of Indonesia’s culture and society, his Journey through Indonesia takes a more traditional and idealized approach to country’s iconic attractions.

The word “Journey” in the title gives a hint of the book’s ambitious scope that covers one end of the archipelago to the other. Part Two, the actual “journey” part of the book, comprises 80 pages, more than 62% of the total book, a condensed nitty gritty of what there is to see and do in this largest of island nations. Bali, everyone’s darling, gets an outsized 15 pages of treatment, consistent with its larger than life place in the world’s imagination.

Granted, not the very latest travel information is provided, the province of a top-notch up-to-date guidebook. The 938 km trans-Java toll road inaugurated in January 2019 didn’t make the print run. The book also doesn’t shed much light on Indonesia’s harsh political, social and environmental realities: i.e. the bombing of churches and other interfaith strife, Bali’s suffocating traffic congestion or the fact that Jakarta is sinking into the sea at the rate of two inches per year. What criticism he does level at Indonesia is couched in decorous and euphemistic terms. But of course pointing out the country’s shortcomings is not the author’s purpose.

Besides including knowledgeable and wide-ranging descriptions of its arts, ceremonies, religious beliefs, archaeological sites, crafts and wildlife species, there is one page of travel tips in the backmatter and plenty of other information about low-key eco-tourism and backpacker destinations: the remote North Sumatran village of Tangkahan for its elephant-backed explorations of surrounding forests; the freshwater high mountain Lake Tawar, Aceh’s answer to Lake Toba; the isolated Meratus Mountains in the heart of Borneo for river-rafting; the idyllic Gili Islands off west Lombok where no motorized transport is allowed; Nembrala on the southern shore of Rote, a small island off West Timor; the Chinese outpost of Singkawang in West Kalimantan with its shop houses, temples and cafes wafting with the flavours of authentic Chinese cooking; the tiny Derawan Archipelago, a 20-minute speedboat ride off the north coast of East Kalimantan, 31 barely inhabited and scarcely visited islands of coral reefs, sharks and manta rays; surfer’s hangouts Batu Karas near Pangandaran in West Java and Maluk in far western Sumbawa, home of the incomparable wave Supersuck and the violent and dangerous Scar Reef.

Since the physical book would be too unwieldy to carry while traveling, luckily there is an eBook edition with enhanced typesetting, page flip capabilities and searchable which obviates the need for an index (the physical book doesn’t have an index). The hundreds of meticulously detailed captions would’ve been much easier to read if the typeface was black instead of grey, a color probably chosen so as to not draw too much attention away from the 400 stunning images. Although the photos are all stock photos, they are high quality and well selected.

One two-page map on the contents page shows the country’s most famous attractions, with national parks and World Heritage sites delineated by red dots. Small inset maps would have been helpful, such as one indicating Sumbawa’s position in the string of islands trailing off to the east of Bali. The instructions for climbing Lombok’s redoubtable Mt. Rinjani are so detailed that one yearns for a map in order to trace the way to the top.

Journey Through Indonesia is not just a coffee table book but a complete visual and explanatory introduction to a vast watery realm with all the diversity of an entire continent. The well written and knowledgeable text give the images depth, making it the perfect introduction to this most colourful of countries, ideal for both Indonesia enthusiasts, armchair travelers and those actively planning explorations in Indonesia.

Journey Through Indonesia: An Unforgettable Journey from Sumatra to Papua by Tim Hannigan, Tuttle Publishing 2018, ISBN 978-0-8048-4711-7, hardcover, 128 pages.


Review by Bill Dalton

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