On this page: Culture
, Your Right Hand
, Bare Feet
, 'Hello Mister'
, Art, Literature and More
The topic of 'culture' is inexhaustible. Especially in a country like
with some 300 different cultures, as diverse as the number of ethnic
groups or the number of local languages spoken.
Numerous publications are available specializing in one or more
aspects of one culture (especially Balinese and Javanese
For a travel and culture guide with a different approach we recommend
Suffice to say that Indonesia is a modernizing society where we find
rap alongside slow traditional music and highly stylized, refined court dances, depicting episodes from the
epics and shadow
puppet performances on auspicious occasions.
West Javanese Angklung music
Shadow puppet performance
Do Indonesians feel Indonesian? It's hard to say. From casual
one would say "yes".
However, sociologists and anthropologists will probably argue that
identify first and foremost with their ethnicity (being Javanese,
Balinese, Batak and so on).
Given the vastness of the country, maybe that is hard to avoid, even
process of nation building that began with independence in 1945.
But even with all the differences, you will also find many similarities.
to our national anthem.
Have a look at our Indonesian
Indonesians are a friendly people, most travel guides tell you. It is
true. Despite their severe economic and political problems, Indonesians
have remained open and friendly. They laugh a lot and they smile a lot.
They also laugh by way of an apology or when they feel embarrassed.
There may be times when you feel tempted to lose your temper, such as
traffic situations. Remember, no matter what
happens, remain calm and friendly.
And smile to get things done or to apologize.
Maybe the next most important cultural aspect to be aware of throughout
Indonesia is the use of your right hand. Whatever you do in public,
never use your left hand to accept or to give something.
The left hand is considered 'dirty' or 'inappropriate'. It is used to
Maybe that is one reason why children who are left handed are
conditioned to use their right
Most Indonesians take their shoes or sandals off before entering a
house. That makes perfect sense, because going barefoot on the cool
floor tiles is far more comfortable in a tropical climate than
choking your feet with shoes and socks.
When at home families prefer to sit on mats on the floor. That's how
relax, watch TV, chat with friends, eat and drink and sometimes even
However, when you are invited to someone's house, you will likely be
received in the guest room
where you formally sit on chairs (but with bare feet).
If you're invited to the family room then you are really considered as
member or a close friend. Here too you will find chairs and sofas but
the family is
comfortably crouching on the floor.
Bathroom cultures in foreign countries can be unsettling.
In Indonesia a clean bathroom is a wet bathroom. While in some
locations you may encounter traditional toilets where you need to
squat, western closets are a normal sight these days, especially in
Toilet tissue is not always part of the inventory.
Traditionally there is a scoop and a bucket of water or a tap to fill
the scoop. The
water replaces the toilet tissue. Taking a bath the traditional
Indonesian way is rather refreshing.
A traditional bathroom contains a small ceramic or cement tub with
If you wonder how to get inside the tub, don't. You're not supposed to
get into the tub at all but to scoop water from it and splash it over
your head and body. Very refreshing indeed, especially on cold mornings
in cool mountain locations like Bogor, Bandung, Dieng or Malang when
there is no hot water to ease the waking up process.
means refined. Being refined, not being
but soft voiced, avoiding confrontation and conflict, not being direct
avoiding to loose face are all part of the ideals of the upper social
classes in the central provinces of Java.
In some respects
has penetrated to lower social ranks and some
aspects have become part and parcel of at least Javanese and Balinese
is not always practiced. In traffic, for
example most drivers are not halus
Standing in line, patiently awaiting one's turn is often an alien
and people's behavior is not at all refined in such occasions.
Interacting with Indonesians is very easy. You will
soon discover that most Indonesians, irrespective of age,
education are interested in getting to know foreign visitors.
They are talkative and friendly, and yet to some extent there is also
an ingrained fear of anything 'foreign'.
No wonder for a country that still bears a collective trauma of 300
years of colonization.
Indonesians like to ask many questions. Some of those may sound
intrusive, but then again, to Indonesians those are only the regular
Examples of such questions are: where you come from, if you are married
(and if not, why not), how many children you have and what your
Others may ask your opinion on the economic or political
situation, in Indonesia, your country or the world.
The first call for your attention is "Hello Mister." Although
'mister' sounds rude, it's most of the English many Indonesians have
mastered. It's not meant to be rude at all.
By the way, "Hello Mister" is also used to address women. If you
respond a bright smile will be
Indonesia is the country with the largest Muslim population in the
world. Approximately 80 percent of all Indonesians are devout
In general, Indonesia is a deeply religious nation and that also
applies to the minorities of Christians, Hindus and Buddhists.
, the State philosophy, says that having a
monotheistic religion is mandatory.
That explains why Indonesians don't understand and can't very well
accept that people (foreigners) may admit that they don't have a
Contrary to what may appear from international news coverage, the
different faiths in Indonesia
largely co-exist side by side.
Yet, discussions about different religions are never held in public.
There is an unwritten convention in Indonesia that one accepts the
religion of others.
Together with the Muslim holidays, Christian, Buddhist and Hindu
holidays are recognized and celebrated..
It won't be long before someone invites you to come over.
Addresses and telephone numbers are exchanged. Then, when you show up,
you may be embarrassed to experience that the hosts apparently had
forgotten about the appointment.
In Indonesia the ritual of inviting is known as
. It translates best with small talk and
nobody expects that you really come.
It takes some experience to understand when an invitation is
and when it is real. Likewise, if you
people, make sure that the intended guests understand that you are
The best way to avoid confusing situations is to call the help of
co-worker or a mutual friend or acquaintance. If you have mastered some
Indonesian, you may do so yourself by emphasizing:
("no small talk", which also
happens to be the slogan of a
Literature and More
(A Belgian site with, on this page, information about contemporary
(information on Borobudur and Prambanan temple complexes, Central Java)
(an insider's look into the court culture of Yogyakarta, Semarang, Solo
(Site in Javanese and
Indonesian: find your birthday and character according to the Javanese
Site also has recipes, information about gamelan and much more)
Have a look at our Indonesian
(traditional art form from Ponorogo, East Java)
(one of Indonesia's major
publishing houses -site is in Indonesian only)
stories in Indonesian: Kumpulan Intisari Cerita Indonesia
Terbesar. Terdiri dari Dongeng, Kata Mutiara, Hikayat, Renungan, Humor,
Puisi, Renungan, Sastra, dll.)
(Annual Writers and Readers festival in Ubud, Bali)
(major new and used bookshop,
all about Bali and Indonesia, Ubud, Bali)
(Pak Edy's humor site
in Indonesian and Javanese)
(well, culture...see what we
find humorous -in Indonesian only)
Museum in Jakarta)
(Adjusted from Wikipedia) Indonesia's population can be roughly
divided into two groups. The west of
the country is Asian and the people are mostly Malay
while the east is more Pacific with roots
in the islands of Melanesia
There are, however, many more subdivisions, which is logical given the
Indonesia spans an area the size of Europe or the USA and that it
many islands that to a large degree had their own separate development.
Indonesians identify with a more specific ethnic group that is often
language and regional origins; examples of these are Javanese
But there are also quite different groups within many islands, such as Borneo
with its Dayak
have different lifestyles and skintones.
Most Indonesians speak a local language (bahasa
daerah) as their first
tongue, but the official national language, Indonesian
(called Bahasa Indonesia)
is universally taught in schools and is spoken by nearly every
Indonesian. Originally a lingua
franca for most of the region, including present-day Malaysia
(and thus closely related to Malay),
it was accepted by the Dutch as the de facto language for the colony
declared the official language after independence.
Indonesia is often troubled by ethnic tensions, predominately
Indonesians of Chinese ethnicity and the Pribumi,
who are 'natives' of
Indonesia. The rioting in Jakarta in 1997 and 1998 highlight this
tension. Ethnic relations are strained mostly due to the high level of
power of minority groups, or newcomers from other islands, mingling
with local populations. The
Indonesian government is attempting to remedy this problem, but due to
widespread corruption and discontent experienced by the poorer citizens
Indonesia, ethnic harmony is slow in coming. Corruption, collusion, and
which were planted by the Dutch as part of their divide and rule
ideology, and continue to the present day, explain the origins of
Indonesia’s ethnic tensions.