Mon, 24 Jan 2000

A guide to travel books about Indonesia

By David Jardine

JAKARTA (JP): Indonesia, in keeping with its size, has prompted many English-language travel commentaries, some of which, of course, have been very much more than mere travelogues.

William Marsden's A History of Sumatra is a superb nineteenth century example of a powerfully observant mind combining history with a fresh appreciation of a foreign land derived from his own travels. Thomas Stamford Raffles' magisterial A History of Jawa also embodies some of the best that a travel writer might achieve, close observations of the people he lived with and traveled among.

If we do not look for polymaths among today's travel writers, there are some worthwhile books to be found. Colin Thubron, a British academic and Asia specialist, comes to mind. His books on the former Soviet Asia offer excellent insights into both the current conditions of such former USSR territories such as Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, as well as the dramatic history of the region, Tamurlaine, Ulugh Beg and all.

Norman Lewis' Empire of the East was a recent attempt to combine Indonesian travel with commentary on its current affairs during the dark days of the New Order. He mostly got it right and, as always with Lewis, in exceptionally fine, lucid prose.

But none of these books is anything like a travel guide as such, although they undoubtedly provide invaluable supplementary material to the broad-minded traveler who genuinely wants to know more about this country.

Where to look then for the best travel guides to Indonesia? Of course, one must always bear in mind that a travel guide is by its very nature obsolescent. Some of its contents are certain to be out of date by the time of publication. What we look for then is the book with the broadest sweep that comes nearest to catching the flavor of a country. It helps to be well-written and well-presented as well as clearly knowledgeable.

One of the leaders in the modern field is Bill Dalton's Indonesia Handbook, banned for sale here by the New Order for saying too many close-to-the-bone things about Soeharto and his clan. This book, however, has stood the test of time. It contains a wealth of detail and insight -- Dalton has always been more attuned to local cultural forms than his Lonely Planet rivals, for example -- and this Moon Publications issue contains many good maps of provincial cities such as Pontianak and Surabaya.

Dalton, however, has failed to keep pace with the development of Jakarta: his nightlife information is stuck in a Tanamur rut.

Lonely Planet, whose publishing range now appears to cover virtually every country on the planet with the possible exception of Stalinist North Korea, has both an Indonesia edition and individual island coverage for the likes of Java. The series is abidingly popular but has always, in my mind at least, suffered from the "watch out, you're about to get ripped off" mentality of the earliest South-east Asia on a Shoestring edition. This influenced many young backpackers to an alarming degree although in fairness it must be said Lonely Planet seems to have matured.

There are always niche markets in the travel guide book business. Far and away the best contributors in this area are Periplus Action Guides. As always with Periplus, these books are a treat to look at, full of superb photography and printing, as well as written to a high standard.

I am no surfer but I must say that Surfing Indonesia is a joy to read, witty, hip, informed, and a sight for sore eyes, some of the plates being of exceptional quality.

As something of a birdwatcher, but no expert, I recommend Birding Indonesia, which, again, is full of lively, witty writing -- Victor Mason, British eccentric on birds in Bali is a fine example -- and superb plates.

Birding Indonesia, which aims to direct birdwatchers to Indonesia's best remaining locations, has but one fault. There is no comprehensive identification guide. For that you will have to repair to McKinnon and Philips.

There are local history and other specialist books available on Indonesia, All Around Bandung coming to mind, but nobody has dared into the No Money, No Honey genre of books by David Brazil about Singapore's (ssshh!) sleazy nightlife. It could be done here and doubtless would form a niche of its own but its absence is hardly an aching loss.

Post-Soeharto Indonesia has become in some ways a startlingly different country, press freedom and all. In others ways, Indonesia remains the same. The challenge for the next generation travel writers is to capture the strange metamorphosis the country is undergoing.