In this final saga of the author’s three books about his 30 years in Indonesia, Ian Burnet combines his love of adventure and travel with his knowledge of the region’s history to take us on a personal journey through geographic space and historical time across the centuries.
The book’s scope seems impossibly ambitious, but yet it manages to give us within just 175 pages a sweeping kaleidoscopic view of all the cultures that have ever washed up upon Indonesia’s shores.
Indonesia is the world’s largest archipelagic nation comprising as many as 17,000 islands that sits astride two oceans and stretches 5,200 kilometers, embracing a total area of 5 million square kilometers, more than the total land and sea area of the entire United States. Indonesia is also the most culturally diverse nation on earth. Its national motto almost had to be Bhinneka Tunggal Ika (“Unity in Diversity”) as these islands are an extraordinary mixture of races, religions, languages and cultures.
No one has published a trilogy of books about Indonesia in recent times. But Archipelago is quite different from Burnet’s other two books Spice Islands and East Indies. Unlike the others, the author uses his journey across a sizable swath of the archipelago to tell a broad history of the country related to the places he visited. He is able to conjure up an historical anecdote, erudite observation or indirect link about every place he visits.
From the image of a giant pot-bellied Singhasari guardian statue on the opening page, this historical travelogue is filled with an unusual and stunning potpourri of full color photographs – many taken by the author – that reflect the multicultural nature of the vast string of islands – vintage 17th C. maps of Batavia and Java, colonial architecture and monuments; Borobudur stone reliefs, ancient Buddhist statuary and Hindu temples, goddesses and bathing places; erupting volcanoes, paintings depicting important historical events; old grave yards and artifacts; the traditional villages; Christian churches, rituals and textiles of the eastern islands; revolutionary slogans emblazoned on walls.
He takes us along on one of the world’s greatest train journeys from Jakarta to Bandung, enjoys a cold beer on the hotel terrace while looking out on the street life of a remote provincial town, rises before dawn to catch a sunrise, chugs across a strait on a fishing boat, splashes cold water over himself from a bak mandi, shares a hard wooden warung bench with Balinese farmers or becak drivers for a crispy fried duck or nasi goreng, faces a menacing Komodo dragon, circumambulates Borobudur in the cool morning silence before the tourist hordes, we remember past trips we have taken and are spurred to explore parts of Indonesia not yet visited.
Archipelago, both an illustrated history and an informative travel book, will delight historians, newcomers to the country, travelogue readers, as well as both bonafide and armchair travelers. A comprehensive history of Indonesia would take several volumes. What Burnet has uniquely and handily accomplished in offering fragments of the country’s history related to his journey is to produce an engaging and enticing piece of modern travel literature.
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Meet Bill Dalton, the Travel Writer
Bill has spent much of his life travelling and writing. His saga took flight in 1971 as he embarked on an eight-year backpacking journey across 65 countries that was the journey of a lifetime and would later result in his highly-acclaimed travel guidebooks. Bill’s Indonesia Handbook was first published in the mid-1970’s and ran for six editions until the early 1990’s and The London Sunday Times called it “One of the best practical guides ever written about any country”.