For sheer size, scale and variety, Indonesia is pretty much unbeatable. The country is so enormous that nobody is really sure quite how big it is; there are between 13,000 and 17,000 islands. It's certainly the largest archipelago in the world, spreading over 5200km between the Asian mainland and Australia, all of it within the tropics and with huge areas of ocean separating the landmasses. Not surprisingly, Indonesia's ethnic, cultural and linguistic diversity is correspondingly great - the best estimate is of 500 languages and dialects spoken by around 200 million people.
The largely volcanic nature of the islands has created tall cloud-swept mountains swathed in the green of rice terraces or rainforest, dropping to blindingly bright beaches and vivid blue seas, the backdrop for Southeast Asia's biggest wilderness areas and wildlife sanctuaries. All of this provides an endless resource for adventurous trekking, surfing, scuba diving, or just lounging by a pool in a five-star resort. You'll find that the Indonesians themselves are one of the best reasons to visit the country - despite recent troubles, people are generally very open and welcoming, whether they're sophisticated city dwellers or remote island villagers who hunt game and maintain traditional beliefs. The ethnic mix is overwhelming: this is the world's largest Muslim country, but with a distinct local flavour, and there are also substantial populations of Christians, Hindus and animists, whose forms of worship, customs and lifestyles have been influencing each other for centuries.
The area which now comprises modern Indonesia was once a multitude of kingdoms, empires and states, many of which controlled vast areas, some into mainland Asia. Strong foreign influences helped define the rich religious and cultural pattern of the islands: located on the shortest sea route between Europe and the Far East, they have long been visited and settled by traders. Merchants from India brought Hinduism along with the goods they traded as early as the third century, Islam was imported from the subcontinent in the fifth century and, by 1511, the Portuguese had established the immensely lucrative trade in spices. Their grip on the region was loosened by the Dutch, who, in 1602, formed the Dutch East India Company which monopolized trade in the region - then known as the Dutch East Indies - until the end of the eighteenth century. The British had a brief tenure in the archipelago, but were supplanted by the Dutch in 1816, who faced gathering opposition to their rule. During World War II, nationalist ideals took hold across the islands, and led to the Declaration of Independence on August 17, 1945, read by Achmed Sukarno. The War for Independence lasted until December 1949, when the Republic of Indonesia was formed, with Sukarno as its first president. His achievements and miscalculations remain to be fully assessed, but his rule was strongly characterized by both: he managed to introduce a semblance of democracy to the country and to unite its extraordinarily diverse peoples, but failed to control the economy - as well as embarking on a fruitless and costly confrontation with Malaysia. He was toppled by Suharto in 1965, whose successful handling of the economy and commitment to pluralism went hand in hand with increasing authoritarianism and rampant corruption and nepotism. The currency crisis that battered Southeast Asia towards the end of 1997 crystallized the growing dissatisfaction with Suharto's regime, and he was swept from power in 1998.
Much of the recent news about Indonesia has emphasized the fragility of the state. As the old order of ex-president Suharto is dismantled and the current leadership struggles to cope with an ailing economy, some sort of fragmentation seems inevitable: East Timor has recently been promised independence (though whether this will materialize is uncertain), while Aceh, in North Sumatra, continues to press for a greater degree of autonomy. These two provinces lie at the geographical extremes of the archipelago, and it's tempting to think that, if successful, their break from Indonesia will have little adverse effect on the rest of the country. More worrying, however, are the religious and racial ructions that threaten to unravel the very fabric of Indonesian society. Recent riots in many parts of the country have pitched Muslims against their Christian neighbours, while deep-rooted anti-Chinese sentiment surfaced in particularly bloody fashion in 1998. More localized ethnic violence has its source in the transmigration policies of the Indonesian government, whose aim was to settle far-flung areas such as Kalimantan with migrants from overpopulated regions including Java and Madura, often without local consultation and with little heed given to traditional land rights. Unsurprisingly, resentment and violence have sometimes boiled over. Whilst the economy remains on the point of collapse, these tensions will continue to reverberate, and further turmoil can be expected.
In spite of this unrest, the dangers of a trip to Indonesia shouldn't be exaggerated: violence of the sort witnessed on the streets of Jakarta in 1998 remains extremely rare, and has largely been confined to a couple of big cities on Java, although serious ethnic violence flared up in Maluku in early 1999. Keeping an ear to the ground for developments and acting with a degree of common sense and sensitivity should be enough to ensure that your own trip to the country is a safe one.
Travel across the archipelago is pretty unforgettable, in tiny fragile planes, rusty ferries and careering buses - their drivers with one eye on the road, the other on the Jean-Claude Van Damme movie blaring in the background. Give yourself plenty of time to cover the large distances; if you only have a couple of weeks, you'll have a better time if you restrict yourself to exploring a small area properly rather than hopping across 3000km to see your top ten sights. If you do have longer, try to plan a trip that doesn't involve too much doubling back, consider an open-jaw international plane ticket, and try to intersperse lengthy journeys with a few days of relaxation in peaceful surroundings. Also, leave yourself some leeway - if you're in a hurry with a vital plane to catch, something is bound to go wrong. Having said all this, the places which are hardest to reach are often well worth the effort. Some of the most rewarding experiences come when you least expect them: under the surface of the least inspiring place there's always something interesting going on. An enforced day's malinger between transport in an apparently dull town might end with an invitation to watch an exorcism, or to examine a collection of ancestor skulls over coffee and cigarettes.
Just as you should give yourself more time than you think you'll need, allow yourself more than the rock-bottom budget - even if it means a shorter trip. Indonesia can be very economical, but there's plenty to spend your money on: watching every last rupiah will detract from the enjoyment.