Islam in Indonesia

August has been something of a “vacation” from our trip for us, not only because we are spending less time on our photos and blog but also because travel in Southeast Asia is so easy and pleasurable. In keeping with the theme of our year, however, we felt that we should “vacation” in an Islamic country, and so are in Islam’s easternmost bastion: Indonesia. (Although Islam exists in parts of the Philippines, Thailand, China, etc., Indonesia and Malaysia are the only majority Islamic countries east of Bengladesh.)

Although fortunately for Indonesia it is not at the core of vexing geopolitical and security problems, like places such as Pakistan, Iran or Palestine, Indonesia’s size alone merits attention. As you may know, Indonesia is the largest Islamic country in the world, with over 200 million Muslims, far more than in Pakistan, India or Bangladesh (the countries with the second, third and fourth largest Muslim populations, respectively) or any country in the Middle East. Indonesia is also the fourth most populous country in the world (after China, India and the U.S.) and geographically one of the most expansive, stretching from Sumatra west of the Malay Peninsula to Papua near Australia. Indonesia is also of interest because it presents Islam at its greatest geographical and cultural distance from its Arabian roots.

Islam came to Indonesia in the eleventh or twelfth century through the Indian Subcontinent, brought by Indian and Arabian traders riding the monsoon winds across the Indian Ocean. Islam was the third major religion to reach Indonesia from India–previously, Hinduism and Buddhism had come from India to dominate the Indonesian archipelago, leaving behind the rich Hindu cultures of Java and Bali and monuments such as the Buddhist temple of Borobudur. When Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta was in now Indonesia in the fourteenth century, only the extreme western island of Sumatra was Muslim–now, the Dar al-Islam stretches all the way east through Java, Lombok and Sumbawa (“skipping” Bali, which remains Hindu) and includes Sulawesi and the Moluccas to the north. The next island to the east, Catholic Flores, has a substantial Muslim population, and it is fair to expect that, in another five hundred years, Islam will have spread yet farther. But for now, at least, Indonesia feels very much a country at the fringe of the Islamic world, and this shows not only in demographics but in people’s attitudes.

While Indonesia is over 85% Muslim, there are significant religious minorities, as in many other Islamic countries. What makes the religious minorities of Indonesia somewhat more significant than religious minorities in other Islamic countries, however, is that Indonesia is so large that the minority groups actually dominate certain regions. Bali, famously, is Hindu, holding on to the ancient traditions that at one time thrived in much of Sumatra and Java. Given its cultural uniqueness, and its great wealth generated by tourism, Bali is likely to succeed in fiercely holding onto its traditions despite being a small part of a majority Muslim country. Other places, such as Flores and the Toraja region of Sulawesi, are largely Christian, or Christian and animist. Because minority religious groups dominate entire islands, or at least regions within an island, they are able to express themselves publicly and cohesively in a way that would be more difficult were such minority populations sequestered in small ghettoes in majority Muslim cities. Such local power likely makes it more difficult for the national government to pursue nationwide Islamic policies, given the very real fears of rebellion or secession in a country that spans thousands of islands in as many miles.

A parade float on Flores suggesting harmony among the three most important religions of Indonesia: Islam, Christianity and Hinduism

Christian church, Flores. In the city of Labuanbajo on the Catholic island of Flores, however, the muezzin’s call to prayer seemed as loud as in any Islamic city, showing perhaps the confidence of the Muslim population even in places where it is a minority.

Christian students on parade, Toraja, Sulawesi

Christian church set amid traditional tongkonan, Toraja, Sulawesi

Festival, Toraja, Sulawesi. Pork eating is a particularly proudly upheld element of Torajan and Balinese culture, no doubt in part because it distinguishes them from the Muslim majority (well, and because pork is so delicious)

Given the geographical remoteness of parts of Indonesia, and the lateness of the arrival of some of the world’s major religions, religious syncretism is a common phenomenon, and one by which Islam also is affected. Wektu Tulu is a special syncretic religion found on Lombok, believed to be a combination of Hinduism, Islam and animism.

Man at Hindu/Wektu Tulu temple, Lombok

Despite the dominance of Islam as a faith on the islands of Java and Lombok, the cultural residue of Hinduism is tremendous. For example, the courtly arts of Java are all based on the great Hindu epics, and superstitions and beliefs based on Hinduism and animism are very much alive throughout the archipelago.

Perhaps the most palpable difference for the traveler, however, between Islam in Indonesia and in parts of the Middle East, is not a matter of dogma but of attitude. In terms of general atmosphere, Indonesia is just another Southeast Asian country, not too dissimilar from Thailand or the Philippines. People are relaxed and friendly, and there are essentially no restrictions on tourists’ ability to interact on a casual basis with women as well as men. Some women may wear cover, but often with tight-fitting t-shirts or jeans, and even women in cover often like having their photos taken. As in Thailand or the Philippines, there is a large and visible transgendered population, which seems reasonably accepted by the general population (post to come). Fanaticism seems essentially not in evidence; it is unfortunate that the country has become associated with terrorism following the bombs in Bali.

Children outside a mosque, Lombok. Children are easily interrupted from prayer and run to have their photos taken. The adults continued praying without pause, but later came to greet us.

But just as the world is getting to be a smaller place, there are signs that orthodoxy and standardization are creeping into Indonesian religious practice. The number of large mosques going up on Lombok and around Indonesia is astounding–almost every town in Lombok seemed to be building or rebuilding its mosque. (If anyone has any insight into this–in terms of who or what is driving this in terms of motivation or financing–please let me know.)

Mosque parts on sale, Flores

Perhaps most interestingly, the architectural style of Indonesian mosques seems to be transforming. There is a uniquely Indonesian style of mosque reminiscent of Indonesian Hindu architecture, seen in some of the oldest mosques in the country. At least some of these bale-style mosques seem to be in the process of being replaced by more typically Arabian/Turkish style mosques in the current building spree.

Traditional Indonesian Mosque, Yogyakarta, Java

Mosque construction, Lombok

Does this imply foreign financing or influence? I’m not sure, but there is of course a great deal of wealth being generated in Gulf Arab states, some of which is being used to promote Islam across the world (I have read that there was a similar revival in the late 70s). The Islamic world as a network is in many ways being brought tighter, as countries such as Malaysia market their cars and universities across the Middle East and, we were told, Arab interests are investing in Kuta Lombok to create a resort intended to be the next Bali at least partly aimed at the Muslim market. Let us hope that, at least in this instance, a smaller world does not mean a more homogenized one, one in which the uniquely Indonesian form of Islam gives way to orthodoxy, Indonesian domestic relations supplanted by Arabian gender roles and elegant Javanese culture discarded on account of its Hindu foundation.

Women’s religious gathering, Makassar, Sulawesi (note the Arab dress of the speakers)

Chinese Exports

Chinese trucks carrying goods over the Qolma Pass from China to Tajikistan

We all know that China’s economy has flourished largely on its exports, and that the volume of Chinese exports is tremendous, but even so it has been interesting seeing in person Chinese goods across the world, as well as their effects on local economies.

One of the first and oddest visibly Chinese products we saw on our trip were these rear view mirror decorations in Syria and Iran. It was peculiar especially because of the disjunction between the clearly traditional Chinese “good-luck” design and the Islamic “Allah” in Arabic script. We imagined a factory in Guangdong Province somewhere churning these out, not knowing what it says or for where it is destined; whereever the factory may actually be, I think that the trinkets are actually produced largely for domestic consumption in Muslim Xinjiang (where we also saw them).

The Syrian driver whose car this was in didn’t even recognize the red and gold ornament as Made in China!

Given the historical influence of Russia in Central Asia, we were surprised to find that the trains in Turkmenistan were Chinese-built. They were brand new and fairly luxurious, especially considering the absurdly cheap (and clearly subsidized) fares. The train we took in Iran (also new and comfortable) was also Chinese built, as were the cars of the Tehran Metro. The Tehran Metro cars, we think, are exactly the same as Hong Kong MTR cars!

On the Tehran Metro

Chinese automobiles are also making headway around the world. In addition to Chery dealerships in Iran and elsewhere, we saw long convoys of new Chinese minivans coming over the Qolma Pass from China into Tajikistan, sometimes filled with other Chinese products such as toilet paper. The Chinese minivans are fast becoming the main mode of public transit on the Pamir Highway. We were told that, prior to the arrival of the minivans, it was sometimes hard to find any public transport, with waits of a day or two for a car. With the cheap Chinese vans ($4000-6000, and with lower maintenance costs than other, older vehicles), there are more cars and cheaper rides. The vans even had Five Friendlies seat covers, with their names in Cyrillic (the script used in Tajikistan)!

Another example of cheap Chinese products improving the world–solar energy. Living in remote locations in the high Pamirs, the Kyrgyz in Tajikistan have no access to any other electricity and no doubt the ability to have music during the day and reading light at night is a welcome luxury in their lives of privation. We were told that they used smoky oil lamps before the solar power came along.

Yurt solar power

We were able to trace the solar panels to the place where they were likely once purchased–Kashgar’s Sunday Market.

To many Americans, the availability of cheap Chinese goods might mean DVD players in the kids’ rooms or a nicer iPod; to Tajikistan, Chinese manufacturing efficiency has brought transportation, music and light.

Unfortunately, the Chinese are exporting ill habits as well. We were told by a Hunza man that the Chinese have proposed to expand the Karakoram Highway to four lanes, with parallel rail lines and gas pipelines. The cultural and natural setting of Northern Pakistan is a fragile one, and no doubt such “progress” would be devastating. Such destruction and environmental degradation are being exported elsewhere as well, for example in Southeast Asia where the Chinese are buying up huge amounts of raw materials to feed their growing economy–in Laos Derek saw a new highway to speed up the transport of timber into Yunnan Province, and the forests of Indonesia are coming down at a startling rate.

As the Chinese economy grows, its impact on the world will become greater and greater, and the scale of the country is such–unimaginable to those who have not been there–that it will be felt in every corner on Earth. From people to products to ideas, we can only hope that the Chinese contribution will be a net positive one.

Changi Layover

We’ve been through Singapore’s Changi Airport many times, both on trips to Singapore and on layovers, but never really understood why it is ranked as one of the world’s greatest. From what we saw, the old-fashioned design of Terminals 1 and 2 put Changi squarely among the older airports of the U.S. rather than the likes of Hong Kong or Incheon, and while the subway access is convenient Changi didn’t seem particularly more efficient than many other, newer airports, either. Faced with a 13 hour layover in Singapore on our way from Hong Kong to Indonesia, we thought that we would put Changi up for a test–we spent the entire layover in the airport. Final assessment? Changi is indeed something special–perhaps not quite as streamlined Hong Kong or Incheon, or Beijing’s new Terminal 3, but very much a self-contained city with an outstanding range of spaces and services for travelers.

Changi is unique among the airports I can think of for having people movers on both the “land” and “air” sides of each terminal, making it easy to change terminals not only for connections but also simply to visit a store or amenity in another terminal. The Skytrains are fast and frequent.

Changi’s Terminal 3 opened in early 2008. I think the design is just as beautiful as other new airports around the world, but it shares with the other Singapore terminals a certain “closedness,” compared to other new airport designs that focus on maximizing window area throughout the terminal. This may be to promote energy efficiency (Singapore being a hot and sunny place) or to create a more controlled, “mall-like” interior where time stands still, day merging into night (cf. my post of 3.29 on air conditioning).

One of the nice design elements of Changi is extravagant use of plant life. This “fern garden” is in Terminal 2. (There are also orchid, cactus and sunflower gardens.)

Singapore has a larger number of facilities and services for travelers than any other airport I can think of.

There’s plenty of food, some open 24 hours. I’m not sure whether Changi is a starter or follower of the trend, but most food is priced as it would be in town–no airport surcharge (cf. post of 7.30 on expensive coffee). Singapore of course has some of the tastiest varieties of food in the world, and so does its airport.

The most comfortable free sleeping space of any airport I know, a feature that justifies Changi’s high ranking at Sure beats rolling out our sleeping bags and getting bitten by mosquitoes in Nairobi’s airport!

Singapore also takes the prize in the largest number of free internet terminals–they are everywhere. There are also laptop stations with live power and ethernet plugs (BYOC). But thumbs down on the free Wi-Fi–we had trouble getting registered on the principal airport-wide system, although we were able to find other open networks here and there.

A rubbing to pass the time!

In Terminal 3, a free movie theater, playing a decent selection of relatively recent movies

In addition to all of the free facilities and services, there are many fee services at Changi. There is a pay lounge which offers, as the list on the right states: lounge use, massage, hair services, aqua massage spa, foot reflexology, nail services, gym, shower and nap room. The prices are not cheap, but not unreasonable.

And, would you believe it–there’s a (pay) pool in T1.

For a solid night’s sleep, the Ambassador Transit Hotel offers rooms within each terminal. Even if you are not able to get a reservation, try dropping by–there may be space available. The rate is around SGD 80 (~USD 42) for six hours, a pretty good deal for an airport transit hotel, especially in a city as expensive as Singapore.

If you want to leave the airport, there are free city tours as well as shuttle services into town for transit passengers.

How did our 13 hours go? We made good use of the internet, saw a movie, ate well and slept comfortably. When it was time to catch our flight, it was without the sense of relief that one might have expected, and we were certainly more rested than when we had arrived. If Changi itself were a destination, it certainly would beat many other places we’ve been!


We’re not proud of this, and it is really with some shame that I admit it, but we have had more than our share of run-ins with police around the world. To wit, Cambodia, Ethiopia, India, Bahrain, Madagascar, Korea, . . . , and most recently China. Given this wealth of experience, I thought that it would be fun to do a post relating our experience, with perhaps stories of one or two of the most interesting incidents.

We usually bring in the police because we have a dispute with some local person. Sometimes we feel that we’ve been overcharged and seek to explain to an official why we are withholding payment, or we otherwise feel that we’ve been wronged and the police are called in to intermediate. Since we only let it escalate to that level when we are clearly in the right, the resolution is usually in our favor, but at any rate it can be helpful to have official mediation. (Contrary to what you may suspect, local police generally do not immediately take the side of the local and assume that the foreigners are in the wrong.)

My favorite story, the one I most often tell, takes place in the foreigner ghetto of Itaewon in Seoul. Derek and I were out late one night near some gay bars in Itaewon, and were walking down a small street in order to catch a cab back home, when I suddenly heard, in English, “Check that one in the black t-shirt.” Now, I was wearing a black shirt at the time, but I did not think that anyone could be referring to me. A few steps later, I was stopped by a group of four U.S. MPs and two Korean police. The MPs asked me for my identification. Now, it was around midnight, and I knew that at the time (a sort of peak in anti-American/anti-military sentiment in Korea due to a recent accident involving the deaths of two young Korean girls) the U.S. armed forces in Korea were subject to an 11 p.m. curfew, and so I figured that the solders thought that I might be a U.S. soldier violating my curfew. After a slight pause I decided that I would on absolutely no account show them any identification. There were so many things wrong with the situation. First, and foremost, why were the U.S. MPs patrolling the streets of Seoul, asking anyone for their identification? Second, why would they pick me, an Asian person, to check? Shouldn’t they at least focus on people who look typically American rather than someone who is just as or more likely to be Korean? Third, why were they set up right next to the gay bars? I thought to myself, even if these MPs were in the U.S., there is no way that I would do their bidding, why the hell should I be doing it here? If I, a lawyer, do not stand up for my rights, who will?

I told the MPs that I was in fact a U.S. citizen but that I was not a soldier and that they had no business asking me for identification. They suggested that they had the authority to check me because I am a U.S. citizen–I told them that that was nonsense. The Korean police officers who were patrolling with them asked me to cooperate. I explained politely but firmly that I understood exactly why the MPs were doing what they were doing, but that I found their methods objectionable and misguided. The dispute went on and a crowd started to gather. For the most part, people were cheering us on–bystanders (mostly gay westerners) taunted the MPs with their own IDs. Eventually, they gave up and the MPs stormed off with the Korean police in tow.

Satisfied, we started walking back toward the main road when a young Korean man who identified himself as the owner of one of the bars stopped us to congratulate us on our victory. He himself (despite his clearly non-native English) had been ID’d the week before, and was relieved that somebody had finally said “no”. He said that we must come back to his bar for a drink on the house. Not wanting to be unappreciative, we went back and were enjoying a glass of wine when the Korean police came back.

The police explained that the U.S. MPs were making a big deal of this situation and simply would not let the matter drop–they demanded my identification. I assured the Korean police that I was not U.S. military, and appealed to their sense of justice and national pride that foreign armed forces were ordering them around. They remained firm, and I said that I would just go home, as originally planned–they could either arrest me or let me leave. I started walking away, but the police followed, eventually to a street with prostitution. A working woman stationed obviously outside her place of business was curious at our late night dispute and got involved, asking what the matter was. “If you’re not a soldier, just show them your identification,” she said. Derek pointed out that there was an outright violation of law in front of the officers (prostitution), but that instead they were wasting their time with me. The police at one point suggested that I get in their car, to which Derek protested by saying that he would then be stranded and lost and in danger (though really what kind of danger would an English-speaking foreigner be in “lost” in Seoul), persuading them not to take me.

Finally, the police argued that they had a right to check my papers for my immigration status, given that I had acknowledged that I was not a Korean citizen. I was annoyed by this, given that U.S. citizens do not even require a visa to visit Korea, but could not dispute the legitimacy of the request. Even in the U.S., I thought, this request would likely be within the law. I said that I would allow them a glance at my passport picture and entry stamp, just to verify that I was in the country legally. I made them promise not record my name in order to pass it along to the MPs. I showed them my passport–I had to sort of yank it back in order for them not to retain it–and they were satisfied, although not looking forward to returning to the MPs empty-handed. From our taxi on our way back home we saw the MPs leaving the Korean police station, where they had apparently been waiting for me.

This was perhaps the police incident that took the largest amount of time to resolve, but there was at least no chance of physical or legal danger. That prize would go to Ethiopia, generally a very safe country, where the police offered to extricate us from a somewhat angry mob by essentially arresting us. Thankfully, we were able to avoid both the mob and the police with the assistance of an armed and sympathetic guide.

Korea in Central Asia

I sometimes think of the world in networks. The most simple of these networks are contiguous. For example, the Scandinavian countries share so much in culture and history that they cannot help but be interconnected. Such geographically tight networks also include the Andean countries of South America and the chopstick countries of east Asia. There are also the colonial empires, which persist to this day as cultural and economic networks. The sun still doesn’t set on the British-led Commonwealth of Nations, and Macau held the first Lusofonia Games, at which the Portuguese-speaking countries competed (as may be expected, the Brazilians won most of the events). We met in Aleppo a Quebecois woman attending a francophone literary conference. Other networks are even broader, such as the Arab, Islamic or Turkish worlds. Despite differences in language and culture, a Palestinian Arab identifies with an Arab from the Gulf or the Maghrib as a kinsman. Our bed and breakfast hosts in Uzbekistan vacationed in Langkawi, and we met many Iranians who were going to study abroad in Malaysia. The route network of Turkish Airways shows that Turkey is laying a sort of claim and influence on all of Central Asia (even non-Turkic Tajik Dushanbe has several Turkish restaurants and grocery stores), and we saw imports of Turkish food products in Xinjiang, China.

For a relatively small country (though admittedly one with one of the world’s largest economies), it can be somewhat surprising to see how widely distributed Koreans and Korean influence are. One rough gauge of the relative prominence of Korea and Koreans in a place is to see how people identify me, clearly an east Asian–their first guess indicates which of China, Japan or Korea has had the greatest impact on the area. For example, in Peru, where there is a significant local Chinese population, or in places where there is really very little interaction at all with east Asians, such as Ethiopia, people will assume that all east Asians are Chinese–not a bad guess, considering that China is almost ten times the size of Japan and over twenty times the size of Korea. In places that receive many Japanese tourists, such as Hawaii or Bali, people will assume that I am Japanese. In some places, Korea is the first guess; since Korea is much smaller than either China or Japan, this likely means that Korea has a relatively large footprint in the area, either because Korean tourists outnumber other east Asian tourists (as in, say, Boracay or Laos) or because of other ties between the place and Korea. One such place is Central Asia.

Perhaps the most important instance of Korea in Central Asia is the large number of ethnic Koreans (around 500,000) living in Central Asia, primarily Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Koreans ended up in Central Asia by force, deported by Stalin from the Russian Far East (where they had been living not far from the Korean border) during World War II for fear that they would assist the Japanese. (While it is true that Korea was part of the Japanese Empire during the first half of the twentieth century, it seems unrealistic that Koreans would have been aiding their occupiers.) The Korean minority is quite visible in Uzbekistan. There are Korean restaurants in all the major cities and the Korean cold noodle dish naengmyeon is a common light meal in Tashkent, where it is called by the Russo-Korean name “kykcy,” meaning noodles.

Ethnic Korean woman selling “salads,” essentially Korean banchan, in a Samarkand market

I’ve spoken to several ethnic Koreans in Uzbekistan. While their lives have been somewhat complicated by the dissolution of the Soviet Union (during Soviet times the Koreans generally spoke Russian and associated with the Russian population rather than assimilating with the local Central Asian populations), it seems that they live quite comfortably, both culturally and materially, in Central Asia. I was told that they face no serious discrimination, and that they are accepted as part of the ethnic collage that is Central Asia. Since about 60 years have passed since the forced migration, most of the ethnic Koreans in Central Asia were born there (and even the elderly who were not born in Central Asia probably called the Russian Far East, and not Korea, home, prior to the move).

Korean woman, Tashkent

The second most visible instance of Korea in Central Asia are Korean products, which are everywhere in Central Asia. I suppose in some ways it is a natural market for Korea, being the next stop west on the Silk Road from China, and I also think that perhaps Korea is filling a vacuum left by the departure of noncompetitive Soviet products from the market. Korean electronics, automobiles, clothes, food products–all are in abundant supply.

Korean products for sale, from undergarments to electronics

Almost every car in Uzbekistan is an Uz-Daewoo, a joint venture of Daewoo Motors.

The ever-popular Choco-Pie, on sale in Tajikistan

An increasingly important category of Korean exports is cultural exports. Korea has become something of a pop culture capital of Asia, with Korean television shows in particular being shown all over the continent, from the Philippines to Vietnam to Mongolia to Uzbekistan. After identifying me as Korean, many Uzbeks would immediately reference the television show Jumong (which I have never seen). One tourist we met said that in Mongolia, the government requires special breaks during marathon Korean programming so that people would remember to feed their livestock!

Korean television shows and actors being used to sell merchandise. The Jumong t-shirts are extremely popular, worn by children all over Uzbekistan. As the American example has shown, cultural exports can be an extremely powerful way to market a country and its products–I’ve also seen Korean musicians pitching real estate developments in Vietnam.

The success of Korean football, especially since the 2002 World Cup, has also been greatly positive for Korea in terms of global recognition–people we meet on our travels often call out to me names of Korean football players (most of whom I’ve never heard of, not being a fan). Those red Korean fan t-shirts are making their way around the world–we’ve even seen them worn by negritos in a village near Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines!

Finally, and perhaps most surprisingly, are the Central Asians who have lived in Korea for work. With local wages high Korea has begun to import manpower. While the number of foreign workers in Korea is nowhere near the levels of some other countries, Korea seems to import them from particularly far and wide, with a large number of Uzbeks having worked in Korea. We’re not sure why this is, but perhaps there is some sort of proto-Altaic connection between Koreans and Central Asians (one Uzbek man told me several words that are similar in Korean and Uzbek), or perhaps ethnic Koreans in Central Asia started the trend of going to Korea for work. Another theory is that Korea issues visas to Uzbeks preferentially because they are seen as more “desirable” than, say, south Asians, or, because they are less able to blend in, less likely to try to overstay their visas than southeast Asians. I have been approached several times by Korean-speaking Uzbeks, not only in Uzbekistan but also in an Uzbek area of Kyrgyzstan. Given that few non-Koreans speak Korean, to hear an Uzbek out of the blue address you in Korean is quite a shocking experience. Since few Uzbeks speak English, Uzbekistan is perhaps the only country in the world where speaking Korean in addition to English can help you get around (especially because many former expatriate workers seem now to drive taxis). I was relieved to hear from those who had worked in Korea that their experience was positive, and a Korean traveler can expect to be the lucky recipient of much residual good will.

Our Sarmarkand taxi driver, who had worked in Korea for a couple of years and planned to return in hopes of establishing a trading company