11 Things You Should Never, Ever Do in Indonesia

 Indonesian girls with traditional costume | © masbebet/Pixabay
Indonesian girls with traditional costume | © masbebet/Pixabay
Photo of Edira Putri
18 January 2018

Being a tropical paradise, Indonesia is often objectified as simply a blissful destination to enjoy nature and adventure. But there are cultures, laws, and customs to heed, respect and comply with. For a safe, insightful and more delightful trip, pay attention to these important things you should never, ever do in Indonesia.

Never joke about race, religion, and ethnicity

The people of Indonesia come from a diverse range of ethnicities, cultures, and beliefs. A mutual respect, inward and outward, has been very crucial in keeping the nation at peace and harmony. It’s never okay to insult a particular race or religion, especially in a setting so diverse with a history so long and complicated. An inappropriate remark, however small, may do more harm than just an offended heart. There are surely other things much more interesting to talk about.

Never underestimate how spicy a meal can be

Indonesia is blessed with all kinds of spices, and many parts of the nation have lived with savory and spicy recipes for generations. So, when a menu says a meal is going to be spicy, mind you, it is going to burn ‘untrained’ tongues or have you running for the bathroom the next morning. Think twice before you dare yourself to down a spoonful of Indonesian chili paste or spicy recipes.

A complete Indonesian meal | © keem1201 / Pixabay

Do not drink alcohol or play card games in public places

There is an exception in tourist places with a lot of international visitors like Bali. But in most other places in Indonesia, where the law and norm are highly influenced by the principles of Islam, drinking alcohol and playing card games (which is often associated with gambling) are things you should keep to yourself. It’s not forbidden or illegal to do both, but be discreet to choose an appropriate time and place. For example, drowning yourself in beer when at a bar is perfectly up to you, but don’t bring a bottle with you when strolling down the streets.

Do not drink tap water

There’s not a particular hygiene issue with Indonesian tap water and it’s totally safe for showering and cooking, but it’s just not made for straight consumption. Generally, Indonesians stick to the bottled or gallon water for their daily drinking, or you can also boil the tap water to make it potable.

Indonesia has various traditional alcoholic beverage | © bridgesward/Pixabay

Don’t do drugs

This is not a general, corny message on posters. This is a real, practical, life-saving tip when travelling to Indonesia. Recreational drugs are not only illegal in Indonesia, they are considered a highly serious and nasty criminal offence. Possession and distribution of drugs are punishable up to the death penalty, and this goes for international tourists, as well.

Don’t forget to say thank you

Politeness and etiquette are important when interacting with Indonesian people. Don’t forget to say the magic words like ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, and a genial smile would never hurt. If you have the time or feel up to it, talk to your local driver or tour guide, even if it’s just small talk —they’ll appreciate the friendly gesture.

Don’t disrupt the wildlife

Indonesia is a sprawling archipelago, a mighty home for a wide variety of wildlife, from corals to birds. It would be very disgraceful for any tourist to do anything to disrupt the balance in any way. The conditions to respect the wildlife and nature may differ depending on the landscape, but as a general rule, always keep the cleanliness and order wherever you’re going, even in the wild. Also, try your best to restrain from animal tourism and keep waste to a minimal.

Baby orangutan in Borneo, Indonesia | © Victor Ulijn/Flickr

Don’t ignore local customs

Many Indonesians still live traditionally, and even among the modern urban generations, many still uphold the customs of the cultures they come from. There is no single rule to respect local customs in Indonesia, it all depends on the locality and society. But here’s something we can all do —whenever you enter a new place or community, take time to first observe how people behave or interact.

Do not rely too much on credit cards

If you’re planning fun days in Indonesia getting in and out of stores, boutiques, and restaurants, then this may not be an issue. But if you’re in for the adventures, natural charms, cultural excursions and explorations, always have a proper amount of cash on you. Also keep smaller bills to tip your guides, pay for parking, or purchase small things or souvenirs you may encounter on the way.

Coral garden in Indonesia | © Tony Shih/Flickr

Do not hitchhike

Hitchhiking is not a thing in Indonesia. It’s not impossible to get a ride from strangers, but don’t count on it when planning a trip. Also, be cautious about accepting an offer from a stranger. If you can’t judge whether someone is offering a ride to help or because they expect something in return, don’t get into it.

Don’t underestimate the power of local phrases

Most of the time, you can get by with just English, perhaps with a little bit of hand gesture at times. Learning a few local phrases are not meant to help you communicate, they are mostly to show respect. Your driver, guide, or even local friends will like you more for just saying an awkward ‘terima kasih‘ instead of ‘thank you’, and you’ll be surprised at how warm and friendly Indonesians can be once they welcome you as one of their own.