Indonesia Etiquette: How You Can Avoid Causing Offense

Navigating Indonesian customs and traditions can be tricky. Check out these handy etiquette tips for showing respect and avoiding awkward faux-pas.

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Indonesia etiquette Photo © iStock/Khlongwangchao

Indonesia is a magnificent destination, whether you're a traveler on a brief holiday or an adventuring backpacker. Filled with otherworldly natural wonders, awe-inspiring places of worship, and your usual tropical island pulls, it's easy to see why so many visit Indonesia.

Along with this nexus of culture comes a level of etiquette that may not be usual for the regular western visitor.

Here are some tips to ensure you have a fun and safe visit.

Basic Indonesian etiquette tips

Many aspects of Indonesian etiquette and culture may not be obvious to a first-time traveler. Here are some general pointers:

  • Avoid using your left hand. This could be for touching someone, handing something to someone, or indicating towards something. The left hand is used for all bathroom activity, and considered ‘dirty’.
  • Cover up. This is a very important, simple point of etiquette. Make sure you know what is appropriate for where you are visiting and what you are doing (more on this in the next section).
  • Don’t show the soles of your feet. This also includes touching someone with your foot or pointing to something with your foot. It’s considered disrespectful.
  • Finish your whole plate of food. When you visit a local home or someone has cooked specifically for you, make sure you clean your plate. This will show you respect and appreciate their time – and of course, love their food. Similarly, if you are offered a beverage when visiting a local home, say yes. If your tea or coffee is sweet, it means they like you.
  • Respect elders and people in high positions. Not that you shouldn’t respect everyone else as well, but make an extra effort to greet elders and people in high positions politely, even ducking or bending a little bit.

No one will expect you to know everything from the jump. If you remain humble, curious, and polite, even if you make a mistake you will not be offending anyone. Simply apologize and learn how to do it right.

Religion in Indonesia

Religion holds a very strong significance within Indonesia, and each area of the country will have its own predominant religion. For example, the majority (90%) of people in Sumatra are Muslim, whereas Bali is considered a Hindu island, with the vast majority (87%) of Balinese locals practicing Hinduism.

This means in each part of Indonesia there will be different religious customs and practices to be aware of.

If you're traveling around a predominantly Muslim area you'll need to be considerate about your clothing, and how you interact with Muslim women. Visiting women should ensure they are adequately covered (shoulders, chest and legs) and possibly wearing a head covering – as simple as a scarf – depending on how strict the area is. Men should avoid initiating contact with a woman they are not familiar with, and affection between a man and woman is not to be shown in public.

A lot of this will also ring true for the devout Christian areas of Indonesia.

In Bali, the island is much more accustomed to foreigners, so you won’t need to be as cautious about what you're wearing day-to-day. However, don't wander the local village streets in skimpy clothes – this will draw attention and could insult some locals who aren’t as used to visitors. Make sure you are properly covered for visiting temples and religious sites.

How to respect Indonesian culture

Much of the culture of Indonesia is influenced by their religious practices. Mosques will have a call to prayer in the early mornings, Balinese close their streets for ceremonies, and overall, Indonesian people are much more calm and considerate in the face of disagreement. Ensuring you are respecting Indonesian culture is mainly a matter of common sense.

  • Be patient. Indonesia has a very relaxed stance when it comes to time. Transport may not run on time, appointments may be late, and services can take longer than you expect. Don’t get flustered or angry. If you are in a rush, a gentle ‘maaf, saya buru-buru’ will let them know you are in a hurry.
  • Always be polite, perhaps overly polite. If you are in the face of conflict - be it an angry market owner or policeman pulling you over – remain calm. You will get a lot further in defusing the situation if you carefully explain what’s happened rather than spewing threats and insults.
  • Smile. Indonesians are known to be incredibly friendly and curious. If you're traveling through an area that doesn’t often see foreigners, you are sure to be greeted and questioned often. A huge smile and kind answers will get you a long way. Avoid being dismissive or judgemental.
  • Ask questions. When visiting a religious site, taking part in a religious practice, or simply touring a town, ask lots of questions to your Indonesian guides and friends. Indonesians are incredibly proud of their culture and are happy to share. This is also true if you are not sure how to act or feel uncomfortable in a situation – ask questions to make sure you are following proper Indonesian etiquette.

Of course, Bali can be considered very differently from the remainder of Indonesia. Although there are still very strong customs and etiquette to be followed, if you are planning on only visiting the tourist towns and lounging on the beaches, this won’t be of much concern to you.

LGBTQ+ matters are a very sensitive topic in Indonesia and not something to be pressed when in a discussion with someone – especially in stricter religious areas. If you are a LGBTQ+ member and traveling around Indonesia, avoid public displays of affection.

Headed to Bali specifically? Check out Balipedia for more do's and dont's of exploring this magical place.

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