Western Travellers in Indonesia

View from Gili Air towards Lombok
Indonesia is a huge country with more than 17'000 islands. Nobody knows the exact number, and information about that changes each time you try to look it up. And this is one of the first things preparing your trip to Indonesia: not only the number about the islands, but all information is inconsistent or difficult to find. Reliable information is not the highest priority in Indonesia. To find facts and figures is hard, daily news can be found in newspapers but you have to know which ones exist and whether you can trust their information. And an English translation is often not available.

That is why we would like to provide you with some basic information that might be useful if you consider travelling in Indonesia.
Before Lisa came to Indonesia in September 2013, all she knew was that it is warm all year long, and that Nasi Goreng and Bakmie Goreng is the typical food here. Culture shock, here I come! Shortly before taking her flight, she checked on Wikitravel, Google, YouTube, and other search platforms the most important information. That's the stuff you can check out yourself. Here a list of things you might want to know but don't necessarily realize before you arrive in not too touristy areas (everything outside Bali, Jakarta, and maybe Yogyakarta):

"Gorengan", fried food, your choice
  • Indonesians need to eat rice three times a day, else they feel like they haven't eaten.
  • Basic staples are rice or noodles with chicken, fish or some kind of meat. Usually something fried is offered, too (tofu or Tempe).
  • Yes, they do eat bats, cats, dogs, snakes, crickets and what not. But not everybody everywhere, and usually they will tell you before you have it on your plate.
  • Spicy things are always available. And if it's not spicy enough, there's chilli sauce (Sambal) to add, and Indonesians do that all the time.
  • In touristy areas western food is easily available (KFC, Pizza Hut, and Italian restaurants arrived in Indonesia), but as soon as you go off the beaten track, you will eat local food, whether you want or not.
  • Mostly they do not have all the food on the menu, so you better ask first what is available. If the answer is “Nasi Goreng or Mie Goreng”, still ask for your other favourites, sometimes they have it anyway but don’t tell right away.

  • Motorbikes are the most common mean of transport, and there is always space for one more on the street.
  • There are motorbike-taxis, called Ojeks. Fast to carry you everywhere but make sure to negotiate the price in advance. And it is necessary to bargain hard. Helmets are rather optional but we've seen far too many accidents to go without. If you insist, they will always be able to organize one.
  • In many cities you find mini buses that are a cheap way to get around with fixed prices for everybody (they carry different names: Mikrolets, Bemos, etc.)
  • Taxis are very expensive compared to public transportation but still affordable compared to western standards. Make sure to use the “Argometer” (meter).
  • Drivers try to cheat – always and everywhere.
  • If you want to do a trip with a rental car, it is better to hire the driver with it. Traffic in Indonesia is crazy and you need a lot of experience to deal with it. Accidents have severe consequences, especially if you are a foreigner. We highly recommend not to risk anything.

A traditional hut on Bali
  • You are really lucky if you find a good value for money place. In our blog we provide you with some treasures we have found, as this is rather difficult in Indonesia.
  • Very cheap rooms are usually smelly and can be quite dirty, always check before settling down.
  • Average priced rooms are often overpriced, smelly and dirty, but newly built hotels/guest houses are usually a good deal, even if they're cheap.
  • Lonely Planet really helps finding accommodation, but make sure to google the place before you book a room.
  • Agoda, booking.com, Trip Advisor, etc. don't list all possibilities you have. Sure that's given. But Indonesia is a special case as the internet has not really arrived outside the bigger cities and in most villages and cities it is better to check the rooms yourself. Especially in guest houses and homestays.

  • Indonesians are extremely welcoming and always up for a „Hello Mister“ on the street.
  • Indonesians love to take a photo with you, always, everywhere. When Fabian bought a new cellphone, all the staff of the electronics store wanted to take a picture with us. Smile and take pictures too, it's fun!
  • Indonesians will call you „bule“ (generic term for what we call “white” people).
  • Time is not money as in Europe, “jam karet” reflects that perfectly well: rubber time – there is always time for a coffee and a cigarette before you start doing anything. If you stress them out, everything even slows down. So take it easy, everything else makes it worse.
Prambanan temple

  • Plans do not work according to a timing. People always follow the plans of authorities – gender and age being very important. Forget all your plans if the boss decides something. You will have no chance to change it. Timetables are guidelines rather than something to stick to for authorities.
  • Indonesians usually do not plan much in advance. Probably because everything will change again anyway.
  • There are over 300 different peoples in Indonesia, with different languages and cultures. But they are all Indonesians.
  • Indonesians never say no. They might say “thank you” and shake their head when they mean no. But a flat no would be shockingly impolite, except if there is no other way out.
  • Indonesians try to avoid problems and difficulties as much as possible. That means they will usually also not look for solutions for possible problems.
  • Indonesians must have a religion. Officially they can be Muslims, Christians, Catholics, Hindus or Buddhists. This is not negotiable. Religion plays a very important part in every Indonesians life.
  • If you want to be at least a little respected as a woman, always wear clothes that cover your shoulders, cleavage and knees, especially in the Muslim areas.
  • Bikinis are extremely inappropriate, except in Bali.
  • The cultural taboos in Indonesia are not the same as in the western culture. Men will for example ask women whether they are menstruating as if they asked about the time. Deal with it.
Banana Cottages, Gili Air

  • Follow the greeting manners of the local person opposite to you. They are very diverse and we have not figured out all the rules yet. So just do what the other person does. In general, pay more respect to older people, and bow a little in front of them to make sure.
  • As Indonesia has a Muslim majority, alcohol is rare in most places and quite expensive (i.e. the less common, the more expensive).
  • Most Indonesians are extremely hospitable. They will go out of their way to help you, invite you to their home and feed you. And they will ask a lot of questions too.
  • Only a minority of Indonesians are aware that garbage is a growing problem. And even this minority isn't too active in promoting garbage disposal systems. Throwing trash simply on the floor is very usual. Unfortunately, this often spoils the beautiful nature we love to explore. During weekends, beaches are covered in garbage, and it's not uncommon to swim among plastic cups and bags. Rivers and ponds can be smelled from far away, especially in urban areas.
  • Power cuts are quite common, lasting from a couple of seconds to several days. The power network is chronically overloaded. The poorer a neighbourhood and the more remote a place, the more likely they will suffer from periodic power cuts. Learn to accept them and enjoy the quiet moments and beautiful stars in the sky.

  • If you have a serious health problem, fly to Bali, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok or home!
  • If it is semi-serious, you can get treatment in bigger cities, but you have to know what you have and you have to know how to treat it.
  • Make sure to find out the equal product that is available in your country and check whether you are allowed to combine the different pills you got, how, when and why to take them, and make sure you are aware how long you can take them without health risks. Also check if you have to consider something special when you want to quit taking them. Doctors often don't share this information with you when prescribing medication.
  • Be prepared to go to a hospital early in the morning to get signed in and then wait a few hours to get treatment.
  • Always go to private hospitals if possible. We had also good experiences with army hospitals (which are open to the public), but private is better.
  • Public hospitals are cheaper but overfilled, and the families of the locals take care of the ill. So you will be surrounded by playing children, cooking mothers, life in all its facets. A wonderful idea, but not if you are sick. And you can afford the expensive hospitals, as they charge you very fair prices compared to western hospitals. Locals often cannot afford it. So leave them the public hospital space, they need it.

Red Tape:
View from Nusa Dua Beach Hotel on Bali
  • Visa issues are taken serious here. If you have questions, ask, but always with a smile and as politely as possible. If you've overstayed or missed a specific regulation, apologize and offer a solution, often they will be ready to help you.
  • Even though it is rarely executed, death penalty still exists in Indonesia, especially for drug trafficking and smuggling.
  • Hard drugs are absolutely forbidden. Don't even think about breaking that rule.

And here a few words that you should understand, as they are a crucial part of the culture and your everyday life here:

Warung                   Food sellers in the street/Food stalls
Becak                     Bicycle rickshaw
Nasi                        Rice
(Bak)mie                Noodles
Ayam                      Chicken
Ikan                         Fish
Daging                   Meat
Mahal                     Expensive. Usually what you say this with a smile to start bargaining about                                     transportation
Kretek                    Clove cigarettes
Wayang                 Puppet theatre, there are many different styles
Bis                         Bus
Kereta Api            Train


  1. Given Indonesia is on my to-do-in-the-not-too-distant-future list, this is very handy. :)

  2. Thx. Very helpful!


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