While visitors to Indonesia tend to head straight to tourist hotspots such as Bali or Lombok, there is plenty more to see and do in this vast and beautiful country. From the majestic Raja Ampat to centuries-old traditions on Flores Island and the endlessly fascinating Komodo Island, this country of over 17,000 islands is rich in beauty and biodiversity. Now that borders have reopened, and Indonesia is one of the Vaccinated Travel Lane countries, we visit some of the iconic sounds you’ll find in The Emerald of the Equator. Pop on your headphones and be transported to the bustling cities, gorgeous islands and mystical destinations that make up Indonesia.
Gamelan is the traditional ensemble music of the Javanese, Sundanese and Balinese peoples of Indonesia, and consists largely of a variety of percussive instruments, such as gongs and metallophones (xylophones with metal bars) that are struck with mallets. The word gamelan comes from the Javanese gamel, which means “to strike” or “to handle”. Sometimes, the main melody is accompanied by a suling (bamboo flute) or a rebab (bowed stringed instrument), or sung. Gamelan performances may take place at ceremonies and celebrations, or accompany performances such as the wayang kulit, the traditional shadow puppet theatre. You can enjoy a live show at the Mekar Bhuana centre, which also gives informative workshops.
Listen: A gamelan orchestra playing an enchanting tune
2. Traffic sounds
Whether it’s Jakarta, Surabaya or Bandung; if you’ve been to Indonesia, you’d know that its roads are busy, cramped with cars, trucks and motorbikes trying to wend their way around the city. Idling exhausts, revving motorcycles, horns tooting, wheels crunching over asphalt or stone, the occasional loud music on a lorry’s stereo as it rumbles by – these sounds are synonymous with Indonesia’s traffic and make up a large part of the country’s ambient sounds. While some might say it borders on noisy, these are typical of a day in Indonesia and add to the country’s charm.
3. Traditional market sounds
In cities such as Jakarta or Yogyakarta, it’s not uncommon to find market stalls lined up along the roads in the mornings. Known as pasar, stall owners either set up on carts or lay their wares in baskets or on mats on the ground. There are also more modern, multi-storey structures comprising a dizzying maze of stalls such as PD Pasar Jaya in Jakarta. In these bustling bazaars, you can find a wide selection of fruit, vegetables, meat and fish, spices, dry goods, flowers and assorted household items. While there, you can typically hear stall owners chatting among themselves in Bahasa Indonesia or haggling with customers, the sound of rustling plastic as produce gets packed, and the occasional roar from a wok as street food vendors whip up dishes on the spot. Popular markets in Yogyakarta include Beringharjo and Malioboro; if you’re in Jakarta, Pasar Baru and Jalan Surabaya Flea Market are not to be missed.
Listen: Traffic and market sounds in Yogyakarta
4. Water irrigation systems
Bali is known for its picturesque rice paddy fields that are carved by hand to follow the slope line and maintained for generations. What makes these rice terraces so unique is the traditional water irrigation system that the Balinese employ. Known as Subak and dating back to the 9th century, it has been recognised as a Unesco World Heritage site and deemed as a cultural landscape. To Balinese, rice is seen as the gift from Ida Bhatari Sri (the Goddess of Rice) and the subak system is part of their temple culture. Water from springs and canals flows through the temples and out onto the rice paddy fields. The irrigation system does not simply provide water for the plant’s roots, but is used to construct a complex, cooperative ecosystem that covers five terraced rice fields and water temples covering 19,500 hectares. Take a jog around the paddy fields and you’d undoubtedly hear the gentle, soothing sounds of flowing water – they are incredibly calming and life-affirming, especially in the mornings.
Listen: Water flowing from an irrigation system in a Balinese rice field
5. Bird sounds
With a tropical climate, untouched landscapes and plenty of lush rainforests that make up about 50% of the country’s land cover, it’s no wonder Indonesia is home to a wide variety of bird species numbering more than 1,700. Among these, about 450 are endemic to the country. The latter include the Sumatran laughingthrush, Javan green magpie, Hoogerwerf pheasant, knobbed hornbill and Sulawesi hawk-eagle. Many of the endemic birds here are listed as threatened, vulnerable, endangered or critical so your best bet of spotting them would be to engage a local guide or tour company that offer birding tours, such as such as Birdpacker and Ecolodges Indonesia. If you prefer to go about it on your own, try Lore Lindu National Park in in Central Sulawesi or West Bali National Park.
Listen: Birdsong in Indonesia
6. Caci dance
Originating from the Manggarai community on Flores Island, the Caci dance is an intricate dance performed by two male dancers dressed up as warriors who prance around each other brandishing a whip and a shield made of bamboo and rattan, as they attempt to strike and defend. It’s an energetic display that signifies one’s dexterity, sportsmanship and mutual respect, and is accompanied by bells (hung on the male dancers), traditional musical instruments such as gongs and drums, and singing. The art form is still performed on Flores Island to celebrate various occasions such as New Year and harvest season or to welcome guests.
Listen: The sounds of a Caci dance
Please check the establishments’ respective websites for opening hours as well as booking and seating requirements before visiting, and remember to adhere to safe-distancing measures while out and about.