21 Essential Phrases You'll Need in Indonesia

Lounging on Balis beaches
Lounging on Bali's beaches | © agus santoso / Pixabay
Edira Putri

Many travellers have a bucket list of must-visit attractions, local food, and indigenous experiences to try before they visit Indonesia. But your preparation is not complete without these basic Indonesian phrases to help you along your travels.

Essential words and phrases may not be on your packing list but they are an important part of your travel plans. Asking for directions may get you from points A to B, but doing so in the local language could mean a new friendship (or at least a glimpse of the famed Indonesian smile). Learning these basic Bahasa Indonesia phrases is not only for practicality, it also shows your genuine interest and respect for local people. Here are 21 essential phrases you’ll need in Indonesia.

Greetings and essentials

Exotic birds

Permisi (per-mee-see) / excuse me
Say this Indonesian phrase before initiating interaction with someone and you’ll get their attention. ‘Permisi’ also works when you get in someone’s way in a crowded tourist destination.

Terima kasih (te-ree-ma ka-seeh) / thank you
There’s no favour too small to deserve a ‘terima kasih’. Whether a local has helped you with directions or after receiving your goods in a local shop, say this phrase with a smile.

Ya – Tidak (ya – tee-dak) / yes – no
These simple affirmative and negative words can go a long way when responding to anything, be it a generous offer for goods or services or an invitation for drinks.

Sama-sama (saa-maa saa-maa) / you’re welcome
Even if a local says ‘thank you’ instead of ‘terima kasih’, surprise them by replying with ‘sama-sama’. For that, you’ll be granted a sweet smile from the locals.

Saya tidak mengerti (saa-yha tee-dah me-nger-tee) / I don’t understand
Many Indonesians speak English well enough, especially in touristy locales. But if you still don’t get what they’re saying or if they enthusiastically speak to you in words you don’t quite understand, say this phrase politely.

Directions

Looking for direction

Di mana toilet? (dee maa-naa toilet?) / where is the bathroom?
When nature calls and you can’t find a sign saying ‘WC’, ‘Toilet’, or ‘Kamar Mandi’, don’t panic. Ask someone this simple question and they’d be happy to show you the way to the nearest bathroom.

Belok kiri, belok kanan (bae-lok kee-ree, be-lok kaa-naan) / turn left, turn right
Knowing these phrases will not only help you understand when people are telling you directions, but it will also help you communicate with drivers (assuming you know where to go or have a map).

Dekat, jauh (dhe-kat, jaa-wuh) / near, far
The measure of distance in Indonesia is rather subjective, but the information may be useful when asking for directions and it’s common for locals to express length this way.

At the restaurant/bar

Saya mau pesan (saa-yaa maaw pe-san) / I want to order
Don’t just point at the menu. When the waiter comes to take your order, at least try to say the phrase ‘saya mau pesan’ before pointing it out – or go out on a limb and challenge yourself to read the dishes’ names out loud.

Jangan terlalu pedas (jaa-ngan ter-laa-luw pe-dash) / don’t make it too spicy
When a restaurant in Indonesia says or signals that a dish is spicy (usually with a chilli symbol on the menu), just take their word for it. For many, Indonesia’s definition of spicy may equate to ‘tongue-burning’. This phrase will save both your tongue and belly!

Enak (e-nak) / delicious
Practice this word as you’ll be prompted to say it a lot when sampling scrumptious Indonesian dishes. Pause from putting food into your mouth and throw in a thumbs-up gesture when saying it.

At the market

Sukawati Art Market, Bali, Indonesia

Berapa harganya? (be-raa-paa harr-gah-nyaa) / how much is this?
Make it a habit to ask how much things cost before agreeing on a transaction to avoid being scammed. Better yet, try saying it in the native language and establish a respectful interaction with the vendors.

Terlalu mahal (ter-laa-luw maa-haal) / too expensive
It’s okay to tell your sellers that something is too expensive. It probably is. The next step would be to bargain for a better price.

Boleh kurang? (bo-leh koo-rang?) / can I get it for less?
You’ll hear this phrase echoing across traditional markets. The trick is to haggle hard at first and then let the bargain go up slowly as to not cause sellers to lose face.

Ini, itu (ee-nee, ee-two) / this one, that one
A simple this or that may help a lot with a wide range of goods on display at the local market. Make sure the seller knows which item you’re bargaining for.

Numbers

Satu (saa-too) / 1

Dua (doo-wa) / 2

Tiga (tee-ga) / 3

Empat (em-paat) / 4

Lima (lee-ma) / 5

Enam (é-num) / 6

Tujuh (too-jooh) / 7

Delapan (dhe-laa-paan) / 8

Sembilan (sem-bee-lan) / 9

Sepuluh (se-poo-looh) / 10

Ratus (raa-toos) / hundred

Ribu (ree-boo) / thousand

Making friends

Friendship

Nama kamu siapa? (naa-maa kaa-moo see-a-pa) / what is your name?
Asking for someone’s name is a common way to strike up a friendship in Indonesia. It’s considered polite and courteous to exchange names while shaking hands.

Nama saya … (naa-maa saa-yaa …) / my name is …
Alternatively, you can also say your name first while offering your right hand for a handshake. Everything else is easy after that.

Salam kenal (saa-laam ke-nal) / nice to meet you
It’s common courtesy to say this phrase after you meet someone for the first time, either via text or face to face.

For everything else

Bule
Bule is a generic term to describe foreigners, especially those who are Caucasian-looking. It’s not meant to be derogatory, although some foreign tourists have found it racist or inappropriate. The truth is, most of the time it’s just a common descriptive term used among locals.

For emergencies
“Tolong” (tho-long) means help, and can be used for interjection to get attention when you need urgent help. “Panggil polisi” (paang-geel po-lee-see) means call the police.

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