Cultural Recommendations: Do’s and Dont’s for Travel in Indonesia

Indonesian culture is very different western culture and also distinct from other Southeast Asian cultures. Within Indonesia, the different islands have their own distinct cultures. On many islands, most people follow Islam, but sometimes with animism mixed in. On Bali, most people are Hindu. Alor and Raja Ampat’s populations are primarily Christian. Komodo’s population is mostly dragons! Here are some recommendations to help you fit in during your travel in Indonesia.

People are generally tolerant and friendly and you can get away with knowing nothing about their culture with no major problems. You may not even realize you have offended someone. But things will go more smoothly for you if you understand the local culture. Besides, it is just a matter of basic respect to learn a little about the culture of the islands you are visiting, not to mention – it’s fun. What is the point of travel if not to experience something completely new. Or you might say, to experience something new – completely.

Do – Bring small presents. Gift exchange between guests and hosts is a matter of normal good manners. Gifts need not be extravagant to make a good impression. Something as simple as a post card will win you smiles and new friends. Don’t be insensitive while giving gifts though. You don’t want to give pork sausage to a Muslim or cow leather to a Hindu.

Do – Smile and keep your cool. If things aren’t going your way, make your point calmly with raising your voice, waving your arms around and making faces. Take a lesson from the local example and “be chill.” The western adage “you catch more flies with honey than vinegar” is even truer here than in the west.

Do – Ask about people’s family. This is very normal in most of Indonesia. People are curious about families and where people are from.

Don’t – Show a lot of skin. On Hindu-dominated Bali, women traditionally went topless and young men from Australia always wear pants when they go out drinking in Kuta, but sometimes only on their head with underwear down below. Still, outside the main party zone, people dress more conservatively, especially if you visit a temple, where you must cover your legs. The rest of Indonesia is more even more conservative about dress, including Raja Ampat although it mostly is Christian, not Muslim.

Don’t – Use your left hand. That hand is for one thing only. Remember to use your right hand for exchanging money or objects or handling food.

Don’t – Expect much Sunday service, except for church services, on Raja Ampat. People are pretty serious about observing the Lord’s day of rest.

Don’t – Take the answer “yes” literally. Indonesians generally want to be agreeable. They don’t like saying no, even if the answer to your question “did you fix my car already”? is no. Consider that a “yes” might mean “yes, sort of, but not really so much.”

Do – Have a great time discovering the diverse cultures of Indonesia and meeting friendly, kind, relaxed people with a whole different outlook on life.

Do – Take home some insight in how bringing a very different attitude to your daily affairs can change your mental and emotional state for the better and learn lessons that can last a lifetime.