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