On this page: Culture, Smile, Your Right Hand, Bare Feet, Bathrooms, Refinement, 'Hello Mister', Religion, Basa-Basi, Art, Literature and More, Demographics


The topic of 'culture' is inexhaustible. Especially in a country like Indonesia, 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 culture).
For a travel and culture guide with a different approach we recommend "Enjoying Indonesia". 

Suffice to say that Indonesia is a modernizing society where we find hardrock, sexy dangdut and rap alongside slow traditional music and highly stylized, refined court dances, depicting episodes from the ancient Ramayana or Mahabharata epics and shadow puppet performances on auspicious occasions.

Video clips:
Bali dance
Javanese dance
West Javanese Angklung music

Do Indonesians feel Indonesian? It's hard to say. From casual conversations one would say "yes". 
However, sociologists and anthropologists will probably argue that Indonesians identify first and foremost with their ethnicity (being Javanese, Madurese, Balinese, Batak and so on). 
Given the vastness of the country, maybe that is hard to avoid, even after a process of nation building that began with independence in 1945.
But even with all the differences, you will also find many similarities.

Have a look at our Indonesian History page.


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 in traffic situations. Remember, no matter what happens, remain calm and friendly. 
And smile to get things done or to apologize.

Your Right Hand

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 clean oneself. 
Maybe that is one reason why children who are left handed are conditioned to use their right hand.

Bare Feet

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 they relax, watch TV, chat with friends, eat and drink and sometimes even sleep. 
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 a family 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 hotels. 
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 water. 
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.


Halus means refined. Being refined, not being outspoken but soft voiced, avoiding confrontation and conflict, not being direct and avoiding to loose face are all part of the ideals of the upper social classes in the central provinces of Java. 

In some respects halus has penetrated to lower social ranks and some of its aspects have become part and parcel of at least Javanese and Balinese culture. 
Nevertheless halus is not always practiced. In traffic, for example most drivers are not halus or considerate at all. 

Standing in line, patiently awaiting one's turn is often an alien concept and people's behavior is not at all refined in such occasions.

'Hello Mister!'

Interacting with Indonesians is very easy. You will soon discover that most Indonesians, irrespective of age, class or 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 ones. 
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 religion is. 
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 yours.


Indonesia is the country with the largest Muslim population in the world. Approximately 80 percent of all Indonesians are devout Muslims. 
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 religion.

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 basa-basi. It translates best with small talk and nobody expects that you really come. 

It takes some experience to understand when an invitation is basa-basi and when it is real. Likewise, if you invite people, make sure that the intended guests understand that you are serious about the invitation. 

The best way to avoid confusing situations is to call the help of a co-worker or a mutual friend or acquaintance. If you have mastered some Indonesian, you may do so yourself by emphasizing: bukan basa-basi ("no small talk", which also happens to be the slogan of a cigarette brand).

Art, Literature and More

Indonesian Art
Network Indonesia (A Belgian site with, on this page, information about contemporary Indonesia artists)  

Indonesian Culture
borobudurpark (information on Borobudur and Prambanan temple complexes, Central Java)
joglosemar (an insider's look into the court culture of Yogyakarta, Semarang, Solo in Java)
Have a look at our Indonesian History page.
Reog (traditional art form from Ponorogo, East Java)

Indonesian Literature
lontar (Indonesian literature)
sarikata (short stories in Indonesian)
ubudwritersfestival (Annual Writers and Readers festival in Ubud, Bali) 
Ganeshabookshop (major new and used bookshop, all about Bali and Indonesia, Ubud, Bali)

ketawa (well, culture...see what we find humorous -in Indonesian only) 

museumnasional (the National Museum in Jakarta)
museumrudana (Museum Rudana, Bali)


(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 fact that Indonesia spans an area the size of Europe or the USA and that it consists of many islands that to a large degree had their own separate development. Many Indonesians identify with a more specific ethnic group that is often linked to language and regional origins; examples of these are Javanese, Sundanese, or Batak. But there are also quite different groups within many islands, such as Borneo, with its Dayak and Punan, who 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 and declared the official language after independence.

Indonesia is often troubled by ethnic tensions, predominately between Indonesians of Chinese ethnicity and the Pribumi, who are 'natives' of Indonesia. The rioting in Jakarta in 1997 and 1998 highlight this recurring tension. Ethnic relations are strained mostly due to the high level of economic 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 of Indonesia, ethnic harmony is slow in coming. Corruption, collusion, and nepotism 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.