Comprising more than 17,000 islands and home to numerous religions and countless regional cultures, Indonesian society is diverse and varied; a visit could seem daunting to visitors, given the number of potential pitfalls. But, with a little insight into the country’s history, and a few examples of how that affects social mores, you’ll be better equipped to navigate the islands culturally.
Located between southeast Asia and Oceania, and at the confluence of the Pacific and Indian oceans, the geographic sprawl of the Indonesian archipelago is home to an ethnic and cultural melting pot. Thanks to its strategic position and abundant natural resources, it has always been an important point of international trade, and since the 7th century it has absorbed religions and customs from abroad. Hinduism and Buddhism came first (with the arrival of Chinese and Indian merchants), and they were followed by the now dominant Islam, which was brought by Muslim scholars in the 13th century. The Europeans arrived in the 16th century; the Portuguese and British fought over trade and introduced Christianity, finally to be defeated by the Dutch, who gradually took control of the whole archipelago.
Still, Indonesia’s countless distinct indigenous cultures were observed, and eventually the people came together to fight for their independence from colonial rule, which was won after World War II. Today the country’s rich and varied cultures exist under a national motto of “Unity in Diversity” – to create a society that is at once modern, multi-ethnic, multi-religious and cosmopolitan and, at the same time, ancient and traditional.
Indonesia is known for its friendly national character, and in general visitors are made very welcome, but still, being aware of a few of the potential faux pas can serve to make you feel more confident. Your visit will be more comfortable, and locals will always appreciate it if you are making the effort to respect their lifestyle. Here are a few tips to help you get the most out of a visit to Indonesia.
Tip One: Leave your anger issues at home
An equanimous people, Indonesians like to keep the peace and avoid confrontation at all costs. It is considered bad form to do anything that might cause someone else to lose face, and that includes raising your voice or making accusations. Dealing with problems publicly, or displays of excessive emotion are never well received, and rarely serve to solve any issues. If you find yourself involved in an exchange where you believe you are right, avoid an argument and aggression at all costs. It is best to remain humble, calm and smiling (if possible); explain your position and ask for a solution, and you’re much more likely to resolve your grievance than with blame or accusation.
Tip Two: There’ll be something missing from the dinner table
Indonesians rarely use knives to eat, preferring a spoon and fork. In some of the very traditional Muslim establishments, there may be no cutlery at all. No need to worry though, as food is usually cut into bite-sized pieces during preparation. If you happen to find that your bite isn’t big enough, it’s permissible to use the side of your spoon to cut food.
In common with other Asian countries, it is best to avoid the use of your left hand where possible in Indonesia. Use your right hand to pass food and, since the spoon is more important than the fork, keep it in your right hand; you can put it down and switch to the fork when you need it.
In some restaurants, particularly more local establishments, you may be seated on a table with others. In this case, it’s customary to be polite but there is no need to force conversation. Finally, cleanliness is, after all, next to godliness, so make a show of washing your hands before and after you eat.
Tip Three: Release your grip
There are a number of potential ways to greet people in Indonesia. Handshakes are common, but here a tight grip is not necessary. Indonesians shake right hands with a light touching of palms, followed by bringing their hands to their heart. Alternatively, there is the salam. Upon meeting someone for the first time, or for the first time that day, they may offer both hands; gently touch both hands with your own and again, bring your hands to your heart. In areas where the Hindu culture is more prominent (Bali, for example), the sembah is more common. This is the Indonesian equivalent of the Thai wai or Indian Namaste; place your hands together in a prayer position and make a little bow. In strongly Islamic areas it’s important to remember that it’s not polite to offer to shake hands with a Muslim woman – indeed, in very strict communities even eye-contact is inappropriate.
Tip Four: If in doubt, cover up
Despite the hot weather, dress codes err on the side of conservative in Indonesia and visitors are appreciated for, and often required to, adhere to local culture.. There are exceptions, of course, and the touristy areas of Bali – for example – are more relaxed, though very provocative outfits may cause offence and even misunderstandings. Generally speaking, shorts and strapless or sleeveless tops are only worn for sport or in private. When exploring public places, it’s better to wear long trousers and cover your shoulders.
When visiting religious sites or events, you should take extra care to dress very modestly, ensuring arms and legs (and ladies’ heads) are fully covered, and when you enter a temple or holy place, always remove your shoes. While we’re on the subject, it’s useful to note that not all places of worship are open to visitors, so if there is a mosque, temple or shrine you’d particularly like to see, it’s best to check ahead of time.
Tip Five: Consult the calendar if you enjoy a tipple
Although the majority of Indonesia is Muslim, it is generally possible to find places to enjoy a drink most of the time. During certain festivals and observances like Ramadan though, locals fast throughout the daylight hours and alcohol is completely banned. Depending on your location, this may mean you can’t buy drinks at all, or that cocktails are confined to international hotel chains. In towns where Sharia law is observed, alcohol is not served at all.
While they can’t possibly cover every characteristic and facet of Indonesia’s incredibly rich and diverse culture, the guidance of these five tips should go some way to preparing you for an adventure in the archipelago. Awareness of the general societal norms should give you a little more confidence to explore and interact with this fascinating country, and ultimately enhance your experience.