Indonesia Customs & Traditions: Avoid Causing Offence

Navigating foreign customs and traditions can be tricky, and when you're visiting a place like Bali, where the friendly locals are always willing to strike up a conversation, you've got to know what will cause offence.

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Indonesia etiquette

In the less populated areas of Indonesia, walking through villages without greeting the locals is considered the height of rudeness. Before you go, find out about the local customs and traditions so that you don't accidentally offend anyone.

Saving Face in Indonesia

Indonesians don't like conflict. For this reason saving face, and not being caustic towards others, is important for travelers to remember.

People in Indonesia embarrass easily, and it's considered very rude to deliberately embarrass someone. This might include raising your voice, or making accusations. Problems should be solved in private, not on the streets, and ego-based or emotional outbursts are inappropriate.

This cultural principle, known as equanimity, has roots in Eastern religious practices like Confucianism and Buddhism.

Religion in Indonesia

In addition to these basic cultural sensitivities, religion plays a large role in Indonesian life and values.

The history of religion in Indonesia is fascinating, complex, and the subject of dozens of books. You might not fully understand what's going on, just be respectful of their customs.

More than 85% of the people in Indonesia consider themselves Muslim, though their practices differ considerably from Islam as it's practiced in the Middle East.

This is because of the rich texture of different religious traditions in the archipelago; from Buddhism and Hinduism, to Chinese Confucianism, European Christianity, Indigenous animist, and ancestor worship practices.

For many, the name of Islam is only the sheet that covers the shape of their ancestors' and communities' eclectic spiritual practices.

The islands of Indonesia have been major trade hubs for over a thousand years, and each island has its own unique mix of religious traditions and practices, depending on who decided to set port there.

Therefore, while there are a few religious and spiritual practices that are practiced by a majority of the population, the main rule regarding religion in Indonesia is, "Judge not, lest ye be judged."

How to Be Friendly in Indonesia

Often all it takes to follow proper etiquette in Indonesia is a smile and a humble demeanor.

It's far more conservative than most Western countries, and as such, the locals tend to view travelers – even if they're just walking through the city, town or village – as guests entering their homes. Treat yourself as a guest in their home.

While the bigger cities in Jakarta and Bali are used to tourist behavior, villagers are often intrigued by visitors.

If you want to walk down a residential street in a village, for instance, and there's a person working outside, ask, "boleh?" (may I?) before walking down the street. People in Indonesia are very friendly, but they have to be sure that you're friendly too.

If you'd like to take a picture of a local, hold up your camera and ask the magic word, "boleh?" Often, he or she will accept gladly, as many people in Indonesia are too poor to own a camera, and don't have any pictures of themselves.

While they won't ask you to send it to them (as that would be considered rude), it would be rude of you not to offer. After you take the picture, ask for their address by saying, "alamat?" Do remember to send the photo when you print it out or get it developed.

If you're invited to an Indonesian family's home, it's customary and polite to bring a small gift - something coming from your country that they might not have access to. A postcard or photograph would make for a nice gift.

How to Show Equanimity in Indonesia

Patience is a virtue in all cases, but nowhere is this more important than in Indonesia. The trains may not run on time, shopkeepers won't understand the notion of "hurry up," and taking a picture of someone is never as simple as snapping and walking away.

Go with the flow, Indonesia is not a place to visit with a complex itinerary. It's far too hot for that anyway.

If you've been stopped by a police officer and know you've done nothing wrong, or if you feel that you've been short-changed by a vendor, don't get angry. Be humble and calm as you explain yourself.

In Indonesian culture, the fact that you're not okay with a situation is spoken by your calm refusal; you don't need a show of anger to make your point.

Similarly, aggressive postures including putting your hands on your hips, or puffing out your chest, are considered poor taste.

How to Respect Religion in Indonesia

Indonesia is home to the largest Muslim population in the world. Most identify as Sunni Muslim and are only moderately religious, at least in comparison to some Muslim countries in the Middle East. Nevertheless, Indonesia has always been a conservative, traditions-based society.

For instance, it's considered shameful and impolite for women to walk around in skimpy clothing, especially in cities like Aceh, home to the Grand Mosque and perhaps the most devout, traditional Muslim city in Indonesia.

Even in cosmopolitan areas like Jakarta and Bali, women wearing short shorts, mini-skirts and revealling tops will often be mistaken for prostitutes, and will be bothered, especially at night.

When entering a mosque, men should wear long pants, and a long-sleeved shirt to cover their arms. Women should cover up as well, and should invest in a kerchief, or shawl, to cover their hair.

A man should also never shake hands with a Muslim woman, unless she extends her hand first.

As far as homosexuality goes, it's unfortunate, but if you go outside of the cosmopolitan cities, you should try not to be overly affectionate in public. People are polite enough to mind their own business, but you may get strange or nasty looks and comments if you engage in public displays of affection.

While outright violence against LGBTQI communities is generally rare, it's best to err on the side of caution if you've chosen to travel in Jakarta.

Other Basic Rules of Etiquette in Indonesia

These are just basic pointers to follow if you find yourself in a social situation in Indonesia.

  • Never use your left hand for anything. Don't touch anyone with it, don't eat with it, don't pick things up with it – as it's considered the hand you use to wipe yourself in the bathroom. If you're left-handed and suddenly everyone looks at you with disgust, that's what's going through their minds.
  • Remember to remove your shoes or sandals at the door to a house, and don't show the soles of your feet to anyone.
  • Use your right thumb to point at things - pointing with the index finger is considered rude.
  • Always bend slightly when meeting or greeting an Indonesian older than you or in a position of authority.
  • Put your resting bitch-face away. Looking at someone the wrong way can be interpreted as disrespectful. 

Indonesia may seem like a difficult place to get around in, and for Westerners it's definitely a travel experience that you have to prepare for. But, the rich traditions, history and culture are worth the difficulty of following the rules of etiquette.

10 Comments

  • Wendy John said

    Excellent article Phil - I learned some really useful things. And thankyou also for reminding us that we need to be humble and respectful when we travel. Makes me shudder to think of Bali...

  • Nigel Mander said

    I hope this won't make you lose face.

    I think there are a couple of mistakes in one of the paragraphs.

    "While the bigger cities like Jakarta and Bali are more cosmopolitan and Western in outlook, villages are often intrigued, to say the least, by visitors."

    Does that mean Bali is a bigger city? Maybe a comma after Jakarta would help with understanding. And 'villages' are often intrigued? Have another 'r'!

  • me said

    dam im left handed

  • Danielle said

    I found this article, after having lived in Indonesia for 16 years, both in Sumatera and Bali to be misinformed. Not only is there misguided information in terms of actual etiquette, but geography (Bali is not a city), spelling mistakes (which the last commenter pointed out) and facts: "...This is because of the rich texture of different religious traditions in the archipelago, from Buddhism and Hinduism to Chinese Confucianism to European Christianity to indigenous animist and ancestor worship practices. For many, the name of Islam is only the sheet that covers the shape of their ancestors' and communities' eclectic spiritual practices..." There are not different 'religious traditions' - they are different religions. Period. Those who are Buddhist are not Muslim and those who are Hindu are not Christian. Though Indonesia is the country with the highest number of Muslims in the world, it is not a Muslim state - it is a Democracy. You make it sound like 50 shades of Islam, which it is not. As far as showing the soles of your feet to anyone - I know in Egypt, that's a no-no, but here, not so much - or maybe it is in some random place I've never been, but on the whole is not an issue generally. The biggest mistake you can make is writing an article about how you should behave in an archipelago of over 17,000 islands. Traditions, etiquette and what is considered the way to conduct yourself varies from village to village, never mind between islands. There is a HUGE difference between the way you have to conduct yourself in Aceh from North Sumatera, only the next province over, again from Bali, which is accustomed to catering for tourists.

  • Payal said

    Interesting. It sounded like you have written an article about India.
    We follow the similar customs. It wouldn't be difficult for an Indian to feel home there, I believe. :)

  • Diana said

    I have been there before, two years ago. its fell like a home, really home sweet home. and i got experience like you said. when i was in bali and bought some souvenir the childreen bring, i was never expected that they're good ini english so we talked like 30 minutes or so, just because i bought some souvenir.

  • Soni Hendrawan said

    Often, he or she will accept gladly, as many people in Indonesia are too poor to own a camera and don't have any pictures of themselves.

    I think you wrong about this almost all Indonesian have Phone Camera , N o matter children, Old man, Rich, Poor peoples , must have atleast 1 phone camera in their pocker , But average or mostly Indonesian peoples today have are Android phone .

  • jan jansen said

    One should read this article as a " general " thing, since most of the population 80 percent are living on Java. Bali is not compairable, since used to turists and their habits, they used drunks, and women in short, mini, etc, since its a " usual " thing for turists do to, bar hopping, eating out, on the beach, there is also a big difference in culture on Bali then on Java, which is considering the main island, since Hinduisme is a 100 percent different approach then Islam, do not forget that.
    Living here 20 plus years now i learned a lot, be polite in all kind of situations is smart, dont use your big mouth, it will make things only more difficult. Indonesian are smart people, and stick to their customs, and if y friendly they also friendly, if y polite, they also, as it should be wordwide sadly. Like every visitor to a foreign country you should prepare youself a bit by reading about it, then adjust as any guest to the situation and you will not have any problem. Nightlife is like in every other place, fun, nice, but could also be dangerous. Technology is going fast also in Indonesia, yes, almost every person now a days has a smartphone and access to the internet. Indonesian is one of the only countries, i believe, correct me if i am wrong, where y just buy a sim card which y fill with an amount of money, and from there y can buy yourself access to the Internet, up to 4G, special package for whatsup, FB , so every kid, dont know if thats good, but anyway, basicly has a smartphone, and yes, also a camara automatically. Its most of the time just the Chinese phones, they work, look nice, cheap, but not much quality.
    Stay away from any forbidden drug, it will costs you, make sure your immigration papers are in order, it will costs y all dear from years in jail ( not european or us standard) to the death penalty. Also there is a very strong IT law, which can be used in many way creatively for lawenforcement. Democracy is not the same as Indonesian Democracy, there are limits, and internet , FB, Twitter are monitored sometimes, ( where not lol ) and if you obvious insult someone, they can take you to court, and yes to jail or a heavy penalty, so be carefull what you write if making comments, or about thinks you dont understand.
    Life is still cheap, but its getting expensive, as with every country which is growing at 5 to 6 percent GDP, cheap used to be cheap, still a foreigner is considered rich, and hagling is an art, and needed. Taxi drivers will drive you " around " the city for an hour, if your distance is only 15 minutes, so there are many tricks. Bars, Cafes, restaurants, there are thousands of them, and nigh life in Jakarta is a very nice experience, every food you want is available agains a price, there are hundreds of Malls and markets.
    Jakarta has 12 millon residents, the traffic is horrible, there is light in the tunnel, since the Metro is coming and some lines will be ready, there will be a new rail system 20 meters above ground level for commuters, but its getting worst before its getting good, patience is the name of the game, plan your traveling, and keep in mind, it all takes time... a lot of time...
    Bali is more western oriented, and used to toerist and to their money. In jakarta or in the villages tips are not requested, and they will be very gratefull for a couple of pennies, in Bali a simple suitcase carrier in a 4 star hotel speaks english, and will not leave your room after you have giving him a reasonable tip. Overal Balinese people are a bit different then Jakartans, in Jakarta its always hurry, traffic is terrible, Bali is more relaxed a different religion, more used to western ideas, customs.

  • gunadharma said

    There are dangerous and inconvenient cities/ region in Indonesia. Try to avoid this cities:
    1.Poso, the land of terorists
    2.Medan, Many of foreigners has been murdered/ robbed/ theft/ sex violent,etc
    3.Jakarta, polluted and inconvenient city to stay, traffic jam, criminals, place of some radical terrorists
    4.Makassar, land of strikes and turnmoil
    5.Border of Papua New Guinea, land of kidnappers
    6.Partly of Solo and Serang, West Java, some of syria and afghan alumni warlord is still living there and ready to make explosive bomb
    7.Aceh, not suitable for visitors who want to have a nightlife, zero tolerance for non-Moslems

  • Patricia Wool said

    Great article! Helpful and would love to learn more. Born in Jakarta and planning to move back very shortly... Kebudayaan is something we all need to have. Laws in Indonesia are very strict regarding drugs, and terrorizing an innocent soul is something to avoid while visiting.. Dear Indonesian Gov: please change the laws for the sake of Bali 9, one of the example.

    The traffic is always jammed. Especially near election day or around holidays...Jln.Merdeka and I remember the last time I was there it was chaos 1998. 4 Important facts:
    1. Sukarno was the ONLY ASIAN leader of modern era to unify diverse background without shedding a drop of blood
    2. 31 years under Suharto created an order that have not been fully executed..
    3. Amazed that Garuda Indonesia airlines still have the same logo as and hope they'll have straight flight to Canada, US at some point of time
    4. Indonesia needs a leader protecting human rights, know how to conduct business worldwide, stabilize the economy and health. Most importantly, a leader that knows how to conduct international trades!
    I am learning about more and more about the culture and history, one of my favorite is THE SUHARTO ERA. What would I do to see that again on the news?

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