Reading up on the country we travel to has been a long-standing habit, as it makes our stay so much more enjoyable. Having lived in Indonesia before, we already had an extensive Indonesia library prior to our 2013 journey, and we keep on adding. I have rearranged the list (December 2013), so it makes more sense. Not all of the books on the list below I have read yet, but as soon as I do, I will underline the title (and likely expand on the description).


Because the list is quite long – everybody seems to have been writing about this country – I have listed my favourites first (but many other books are also very good, and note that I haven’t read everything yet…):

03-crazy little heaven

The best General non-fiction, in my view:

1. Touted by one reviewer as the best book on Indonesia he has ever read, he may in fact be close: “Crazy Little Heaven” (2013) by Mark Heyward uses the story of an early 1990s trip across Kalimantan to convey a range of side stories on not only the author’s longtime experience in Indonesia, but also his acute understanding of this complex country. Mr Heyward lives in Indonesia, is married to an Indonesian, and obviously loves his adopted country, but without  unconditionally accepting everything Indonesian. His is an insightful account, of a trip long ago, but far more than that, of a country in transition, with all the ambiguities that result from that: classical Javanese tradition increasingly loosing out against ever increasing Islamic awareness, or uncertainty in dealing with foreigners who are both a threat and an opportunity.  If you want to read only one book about Indonesia today, read this one.

04-Indonesia from Sabang to Marauke2. John Keay, one of my favourite traveler-historians, wrote “Indonesia, from Sabang to Marauke” (1995), his 1990s account of a trip he made from the westernmost point of Sumatra to the easternmost extend of the country, towards the border with Papua New Guinea. In fact, he traveled Sumatra and Java, which occupy the bulk of the book. Keay intersperses his travel experiences, light and witty, always observing and almost never judging, with a whole lot of historical information, both factual and in the form of anecdotes. A delight for travelers like me, although it must be said that the vast majority of Keay’s subjects and sources are limited by English language – the notes of Raffles, the books of Laurens van der Post, the American anthropologist Margaret Mead, Mata Hari, Surabaya Sue. Wouldn’t it be fabulous if someone with Keay’s erudite scholarship would dig into the Dutch colonial legacy, and perhaps early Portuguese works, too? But as it is, English language provides more than enough information, and not in the least about Indonesia’s independence struggle and early post-war history, with all its gory elements.
In the end, Keay hurries through Sulawesi, The Moluccas and Irian Jaya, even skipping his last station, Merauke, all together, perhaps because he was running out of time, or maybe the enormous diversity of the country overwhelmed even him – he admits so much in the last chapter: about Irian Jaya, he says that “the place was just too big and too unmanageable, too new and too vulnerable”. Here no written history which can be used to spice up the travelogue, and perhaps no energy left to discover.
I wonder how we will feel, after three months, and after crossing less than half of the country only.

10-Krakatao3. The account of the dramatic explosion of the volcano “Krakatao” (2003) in 1883, by Simon Winchester, a writer-geologist who has produced a number of highly readable books about a wide variety of subjects, is a must for anybody interested in volcanoes and their potentially devastating effect on societies, on the climate, on the world in general. Winchester tells the story entertainingly, with many diversions into more or less related subjects, which makes it a book about much more than just the Krakatoa.


27-Indonesia Peoples and HistoriesAnd the best Background reading, in my view
4. In “Indonesia: Peoples and Histories” (2003) Jean Gelman Taylor describes the history of the archipelago in a very accessible way, from the early local kingdoms and the introduction of Islam to the Dutch colonial era and subsequent independence. A must for just beginning to understand the complexity, and also the richness, of this country.




Other general non-fiction:

01-indonesian destinies5. For recent history one could do worse than reading “Indonesian Destinies” (2003), written by Theodore Friend. The book deals comprehensively with Indonesia’s post-independence history, the three blocks: the Sukarno years, the Suharto years, and the change to democracy after Suharto stepped down. Mr Friend obviously knows his subject, and knows and has met an incredible amount of people, which has resulted in a very detailed account, in which the story line is occasionally a little lost – perhaps the book would have benefitted from tighter editing, leaving out some of the more personal stories, and some of the specifically American public-oriented explanations, as well as cutting down on what to me looks like non-contributing detail. Having said that, some of the personal stories are entertaining, even if not necessarily adding to a better understanding. For those who want to understand the Indonesia of today, and have time and patience.

02-madness6. Richard Lloyd Parry, foreign correspondent for The Times, and thus perhaps to be taken relatively seriously, wrote “In the Time of Madness” (2005). He has three subjects, who are related by the timing of the events, all around the period of the regime change, from the final days of Suharto, to the chaos that came afterwards. They are also related by Mr. Parry’s need to go into gory detail, whether describing ethnic violence in Kalimantan, including the alleged severing of heads and canibalism, or the mayhem that preceded, and ultimately forced the resignation of Suharto (with helpful further gory details from the 1965 regime change, just to complete the picture). The third subject, East Timor, I will leave for another day; there is only so much gory detail I can digest at any one time. Not sure whether this book is necessary reading for someone who wants to understand Indonesia – but Mr Parry’s subjects are no doubt fascinating stuff.

05-The Drums of Tonkin7. A somewhat similar trip to John Keay’s is described in “The Drums of Tonkin: An Adventure in Indonesia” (1963) by Helen and Frank Schreider. They traveled, by amphibious Jeep (!!), from Jakarta all the way to Timor, crossing the string of islands of Nusa Tenggara, and the streets in between, and they did this in, or just before, 1963. The book is good on the trip itself, like the logistical nightmare of getting fuel, the difficulty of hopping on and off coral-surrounded islands (or getting stuck in the mud, and get 200 islanders to pull you out!), the challenges of the offshore currents, and the many negative, but also even more patently positive, encounters with officialdom in a newly independent country. It is somewhat shallower on the descriptions of places and people, and almost non-observant on the political situation in Indonesia, at the time, a far from united country with various rebel organistions as well as the perceived communist threat all vying for power, just before the overthrow of Sukarno. A pity, and a missed opportunity, especially since the authors were journalists. But the adventure is strong enough to carry the book – just get the background from John Keay. And the 1960’s photos! So 1960’s!

8. More recent is “The Islands in Between” (1989) by Annabel Sutton, who describes her travels in Kalimantan, Sulawesi, but mostly the Lower Sunda Islands. Definitively the more adventurous part of Indonesia, which we keep for the next trip.

07-An Empire of the East9. “An Empire of the East” (1995) – Norman Lewis. This is the guy who wrote the defining travel book on Vietnam, in the 60’s; I wonder how he did 30 years later, in Indonesia. To be read, still, as he covers Sumatra, East Timor and Irian Jaya (now West Papua).

08-Nigel Barley Toraja10. A new discovery for me is Nigel Barley, an anthropologist who wrote a very readable travelogue of his endeavors in Sulawesi when visiting Tana Toraja. “Toraja” (2013, originally published as “Not a Hazardous Sport”, 1988) follows Mr Barley from the UK via Moscow to Singapore and Jakarta, and then to Makassar into the land of the Toraja people, all the while recording the various things that go wrong, or are misunderstood. Very funny, most of the times, from a person who clearly enjoyed being in Indonesia, with Indonesians; although perhaps occasionally a little thin on contents. The story culminates in the building of a traditional rice barn in a London museum, by four Torajans.

09-Nigel Barley Raffles11. “In the Footsteps of Stamford Raffles” (1991), also by Nigel Barley, is partly the history of its subject, and partly a travel experiences of Mr Barley, who does bring a certain lightness and humour to his travels that make his books a joy to read. Will try this one soon.


11-Nathaniel’s Nutmeg12. Another book with a theme, and many entertaining diversions, is “Nathaniel’s Nutmeg” (1999), about the spice trade and the rivalry between colonial powers – although as a Dutchman I cannot but observe that the book has been written from a very British perspective, not necessarily always coinciding with what I learned in school about history (obviously, I am not scholarly enough to judge which history version is correct).

12-Spice The History of Temptation13. The spice trade and everything else related to spices is also the subject of “Spice: The History of Temptation” (2004), by Jack Turner.

13-The Spice Route14. And John Keay, already mentioned above, also wrote about spices, in “The Spice Route” (2005). This tells the story of the West’s obsession with obtaining spices like cloves, mace and nutmeg, as well as pepper, from an early age on. It follows the historical, and gradual, change from a mostly terrestrial transport system depending on crossing the Middle East to an increasingly maritime trade, following the great navigational discoveries, amongst them that the world wasn’t flat at all and that each landmass was surrounded by water. Keay quotes many a narrator of the world’s geography, often with a spice angle to it, from Ptolemy to Marco Polo and Ibn Batuta, and from early Arab, Portuguese, Dutch and British explorers, to create a 2000 year history of the spice route, including the growing realization of the origin of spices, as well as a brief epilogue explaining the demise of the Spice Route, with the growing importance of coffee, tea and sugar, amongst other commodities.

14-Batavia’s Graveyard15. “Batavia’s Graveyard” (2002), by Mike Dash (who also wrote the highly readable account of the first major overheating of Dutch financial markets due to madness over some flower bulbs, Tulipomania).

15-Odoric16. The oldest travel book about Indonesia (and China and Mongolia) I found is from Odoric of Friuli, an Italian Franciscan monk who dictated “Odoritus de Rebus Incognitus” around 1330  to a fellow monk after his 13-year journey. The book is translated in Dutch as “Mijn Reis naar het Verre Oosten” (2008) [transl.: My Journey to the Far East]. In less than 60 pages Oderic travels through the Middle East, India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Vietnam and further to China, but unfortunately, his most used phrase is that “there are many very strange things happening here, but this is not the place to tell about them”, or similar cut-offs. Where he does describe detail, it is often about religious matters. Aceh commands one page, a place where according to Odoric everybody walks naked and does it with everybody, and children are being sold to be eaten. Yet, Aceh commands more space than Java. Disappointing travel account, only of interest because it is almost 700 years old.

16-To the Spice Islands and Beyond Travels in Eastern Indonesia 17-Witness to Sumatra a Travellers’ Anthology17. A compilation of travel stories from the 16th Century onwards has been put together by George Miller in “To the Spice Islands and Beyond: Travels in Eastern Indonesia” (1996). As the title suggests, it deals specifically with travels to Sulawesi and Lombok and further east. There are several West Indonesia equivalents, like “The Best of Borneo Travel” of Victor King (ed.) and “Java: a Travellers’ Anthology”, by James Rush (ed.), which I haven’t acquired yet.

18. “Witness to Sumatra: a Travellers’ Anthology” (1995), by Antony Reid (ed.) is the westernmost equivalent in the above series,  a collection of stories from travelers to Sumatra and Aceh from the 12th Century onwards. (NB Mr. Reid comes back in the Background Reading section.)

18-The Malay Archipelago19. Alfred Wallace is one of the authors that feature in the above Eastern Indonesia compilation. His “The Malay Archipelago” (originally published 1869, my copy 1987) is on the shelf, not yet read, though.

19-Explorers of South East Asia six Lives20. “Explorers of South East Asia: six Lives” (1995), edited by Victor King, brings together brief biologies of some 19th Century travelers, three of whom, Robert Burns, Carl Bock and A.W.Nieuwenhuis, played a role in the early exploration of Borneo.


20-Headhunters of Borneo

21. The one travel account I have on the shelf, from above three characters, is Carl Bock’s “Headhunters of Borneo” ( 1880, my copy 1985). At the request of the Dutch colonial regime, which was eager to learn more about this up-to-then rather unknown part of its empire, Bock traveled through Borneo, from Samarinda up the Mahakam River and then across to the Barito River and down to Banjarmasin, in 1878-1879. His account of this journey, and his notes on Dayak culture, resulted in a very entertaining travel book with lots of observations that could equally well have been made today, although Mr Bock is somewhat dismissive of the locals.

21-De Voorouderlanden Reizen door Kalimantan22. A more recent book on Kalimantan is “De Voorouderlanden: Reizen door Kalimantan” (2007) [transl.: Ancestor Countries: Travels through Kalimantan], by Dutchman Kees Ruys. To be read in in the future.

22-Indonesie23. Another book by Kees Ruys, “Indonesia” (2003) is a compilation of two earlier books he wrote, “De Randgebieden” (1998) and “Onbetreden Paden” (2001). All in Dutch, I am afraid – and to be read at a later stage.

24. Bartele Santema, a Dutchman who settled in Indonesia, wrote “Bule Gila” (2005), about his experiences with his Amsterdam-style bar in Jakarta and its wide range of customers. Occasionally mildly entertaining, but don’t go out of your way to get hold of a copy.

24-Jihad met Sambal25. “Jihad met Sambal” (2011), in Dutch, and as far as I know not translated, is a book with lot of potential, by the female Dutch Al-Jazeera journalist Step Vaasen, but in the end is little more than a personal account of her life, including husband, child, colleagues and acquaintances, over a period of time, in which she happened to live in Indonesia. Those – like me – wanting to hear the specifically Indonesian anecdotes, the story behind the news story, the challenge of a woman journalist in the largest Muslim country (something Ms Vaasen reminds us of a lot), will be disappointed. The occasional link to Aceh after the tsunami, something I can relate to myself, having been there at the same time as Ms Vaasen, does not compensate for the domination of personal stories, perhaps an interesting subject in itself, but not what I had expected from the book.

25-Throwim Way Leg26. “Throwim Way Leg” (1998)  – Tim Flannery: about West Papua and Papuan New Guinea. I’ve got it, but I haven’t read it yet.

27. Another New Guinea-related epic travel story is “Naar de Eeuwige Sneeuw van Tropisch Nederland” (1937), by A.H.Colijn [trans.: To the Permanent Snow of Tropical Netherlands]. In Dutch, and most unlikely to have been translated, this is about an expedition to the Carstenz Mountains, the snow-capped peaks in what was, at the time, Dutch New Guinea (now West Papua). To read after I get back.



More Background reading
28-Last Post the End of Empire in the Far East

28.   One of my favourite historians is John Keay, already mentioned above. His “Last Post: the End of Empire in the Far East” (1997) is a superbly written history of the big powers in the Far East – mostly Vietnam, Dutch Indies, Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong and the Philippines -, and the demise of empire after the Second World War. An excellent account, full of detail, and full of interesting linkages that you would not necessarily understand if you read about one country’s history only. Very readable, and a massive achievement to deal with such a complex subject in less than 400 paperback pages, ideal for the casual tourist.
29-The Emergence of Southeast Asia29.   More ambitious, essentially covering the history of the Far East, is “The Emergence of Southeast Asia”, edited by Norman Owen, and published in 2005. Probably the defining book on the subject, over 500 large and densely covered pages, going well beyond the knowledge needed for the average traveler, but nevertheless extremely interesting, at least the parts I have read so far.

30-Verandah of Violence30. “Verandah of Violence – The Background to the Aceh Problem” (2006) is a series of papers from different authors, collected by Anthony Reid, an authority on South East Asian history in general and Indonesia and Aceh in particular. The various papers describe Aceh’s history from the 16th and 17th Century, when Islam was firmly establishes through treaties with various Arab polities, via the various conflicts, first with the Dutch colonial powers and then with what many Acehnese consider the Indonesian occupation, to the dramatic impact of the 2004 tsunami and the many aspects of the peace process. Only if you are really interested in Aceh.

31. An extension of the above book is “Exploring the Past, Searching for the Future” (2007), the lecture summaries of the First International Conference of Aceh and Indian Ocean Studies, held in Banda Aceh in February 2007. The conference dealt with many aspects of the specific Aceh history, the conflict, the peace process that was underway at the time, and the tsunami reconstruction efforts. I was lucky enough to be able to attend this conference, convened once again by Anthony Reid.

32-Indonesia’s Secret War32. Another local conflict is described by Robin Osborne in “Indonesia’s Secret War” (1985), an account of the Guerilla struggle in what was then called Irian Jaya (now West Papua). I cannot remember the book well, I have read it long ago when I was living in Papua New Guinea, the other half of the island, but I would assume that the book is somewhat dated, even though the struggle continues unabated.

33-Culture Shock Indonesia33. “Culture Shock Indonesia” – A Guide to Customs and Etiquette (1986/1990), written by Cathie Draine & Barbara Hall, is the Indonesia installment of the very useful Culture Shock series of books trying to prepare the Westerner for a stay in a foreign country. Aimed at expatriates the book is equally applicable to tourists, who want to get more out of their trip then just seeing the sights.

34-Instructions for American Servicemen in Dutch Indonesia during World War34. And a curious other book preparing one for the Dutch Indies, as it was called at the time, is “Instructions for American Servicemen in Dutch Indonesia during World War II“, a 2009 reprint of the originally called “Pocket Guide to Netherlands East Indies” (1944), issued by the US Army to prepare the soldiers for a different culture. Quite an interesting little book, which demonstrates that the Americans, at least in earlier times, did have some sense of how the rest of the world behaved – something I fear has sadly disappeared in recent times. There are a few more interesting observations about this book, not in the least the American assessment of Dutch heroism in the Dutch Indies before and after the Japanese invasion, in sharp contrast to the British perception (among others voiced by Laurens van der Post).
Dutch colonial history (all in Dutch, I am afraid…)

35-Batavia – een Koloniale Samenleving35. “Batavia – een Koloniale Samenleving in de 17de Eeuw” (2005), by the Dutch historian Hendrik Niemeijer, published in Dutch only, I believe, deals with the early establishment of the Dutch colonial city of Batavia, now Jakarta.

36-Afscheid van Indie – De Val van het Nederlandse Imperium in Azie


36. “Afscheid van Indie – De Val van het Nederlandse Imperium in Azie” (2000), by H.W. Van den Doel

37-De Nederlands-Indische Geschiedenis van de 19de en 20ste Eeuw


37. “De Nederlands-Indische Geschiedenis van de 19de en 20ste Eeuw” (2003), edited by Harm Stevens, is a compilation of stories and eyewitness accounts of 200 years of colonial and post-colonial history in Indonesia. In Dutch only.
Een gevarieerde selectie van brieven en rapporten gescherven tijdens de Nederlandse overheersing in Indie, voornamelijk door Nederlanders, en dat is meteen ook de beperking van het boek – of misschien wel juist de kracht: het illustreert de geweldige tunnel visie van het koloniale bewind en iedereen eromheen, zelden een woord van kritiek, en nooit enig twijfel over de juistheid van het beleid. De bijdragen worden enigszins overheerst door militaire wapenfeiten, vaak vrij bruut, maar er zijn ook stukjes over recepties en feesten in Batavia, over locale evenementen, en – mijn favorite – zelfs een bijzonder indrukwekkend verslag vanaf een schip nabij de Krakatou, toen die ontplofte.

38-Nog geen Krasje op een Rots38. “Nog geen Krasje op een Rots…” (2009) is the travel account of Marco Baars, who toured Java, Bali and Lombok in 2000 to see what was left of Dutch colonial influence in Indonesia. Very little, is the outcome, but his travelogue is entertaining enough. In Dutch only, I believe…

39-De Balenkraai39. “De Balenkraai” (originally published 1967, my copy 2004) is an eye witness account of the end of the Dutch colonial presence in New Guinea, as far as I know not translated, only available in Dutch. The author, Aad Nuis, is a Dutch publicist and ex-politician.

40. “Hier is Indie” (1939) is een nogal gedateerd boek van G.A.van Bovene, die een Nederlands Indie uiters geidealiseerd voorsteld, met de ogenschijnlijke bedoeling de tanende interesse in Nederland een halt toe te brengen en de trek naar de Indies te stimuleren. Een aardige beschrijving van het leven in de Indies in die tijd, maar waarschijnlijk niet erg realistisch. Ik heb het niet uitgelezen.


41-The Year of Living Dangerously41. Perhaps the best-known novel about Indonesia is “The Year of Living Dangerously” (1978), Christopher Koch’s story about a group of journalists in highly unstable Indonesia in 1965. Mr Koch has since been criticized from various sides, but his book remains equally chilling and entertaining at the same time.

42-The Earth of this Mankind42. “This Earth of this Mankind” (1975) is the first of the Buru Quartet of historical novels written by Indonesian author Pramoedya Ananta Toer. The other three are “Child of all Nations”, “Footsteps”, and “House of Glass”. The books describe the Dutch colonial era end 19th/beginning 20th Century, from the perspective of various population groups, most notably the young Minke, a Dutch-educated Javanese. The stories were originally told to the fellow prisoners on Buru Island, where Pramoedya was incarcerated during the early years of the Suharto regime, deprived of writing materials. Later, with the help of the same prisoners, the stories were written down, and published, initially only outside Indonesia, where they were banned. This may have helped in turning them into perhaps the most important piece of Indonesian literature, well worth reading.

43. “De Stroom uit het Noorden” (1979, Dutch translation 1995) [orig. title: Arus Balik, Eng. trans. unknown] is another major novel by Pramoedya Ananta Toer, about the advance of the Portuguese in the 16th Century.

44-The Years of the Voiceless44. Okki Madasari is a young Indonesian writer. Her first book, “The Years of the Voiceless” (2010) [orig. title: Entrok], is the story of an illiterate, but successful mother and her educated daughter in 1970s to 1990s Java, where corrupt officials and soldiers rule with impunity at every level of society. It is also a story about conflicting religions, animist and Islam, and how the certainty of belief in each is slowly eroded. Well written, reasonably well translated, and well worth reading to gain a glimpse in the changing of a society and the tension between generations, against the backdrop of Suharto’s Indonesia.

46-Max Havelaar45. Quite a lot of other Dutch literature deals with Indonesia, from the books of Louis Couperus and Hella Haasse to some of those by F.Springer and Adriaan van Dis. An interesting compilation is “Insulinde – Verhalen uit de Gordel van Smaragd” (1987), edited by R-H.Zuidinga and containing 24 stories and/or fragments from Dutch literature linked to the Dutch Indies.

46. The “Max Havelaar” (1860), written in the 19th century by Eduard Douwes Dekker, warrants special mentioning, being the first public accusation against the Dutch colonial administration. Classical literature for Dutch schoolchildren, but also a great novel, perhaps not so much appreciated by those schoolchildren, but all the more by those interested in the Dutch Indies of that time.

and the Travel Guides

Lonely Planet Indonesia”, ours was originally the 2003 edition, but thanks to my nephew, now upgraded to 2010. A useful companion for the more mundane elements of our trip, although at times not as well researched as the book claims; it certainly looks as if the authors haven’t visited all and every place they write about, or at least not recently.

Rough Guide to Indonesia”, also 2003 edition, perhaps slightly better researched than LP, with better descriptions of worthwhile sights and potential activities. Also, more enthusiastically written, which makes you want to go to all these places.

On the list to be acquired:
–          Nationalism and Ethnic Conflict – Jacques Bertrand: about the background behind violence in Maluka and Kalimantan
–          Riots, Pogroms, Jihad – John Thyer Sidel: links between religion-related violence and terrorist bombings of 2002 and 2005

(If you have any other suggestions, I would appreciate if you could mention them in a comment)

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One Response to A reading list for Indonesia

  1. Nigel Barley says:

    Many thanks for your kind remarks re: my ‘Duke of Puddledock’ and ‘Toraja’. Might I send you a copy of ‘Island of Demons’ (a novelistic account of the ex-pat community in Bali in the 20s and 30s) and ‘Snow Over Surabaya’ (a reworking of K’tut Tantri’s account of the Indonesian independence struggle, due out in March)?

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