Tips for travellers

On this page you will find a wealth of information, about Indonesia and its people, which will be especially useful if you are planning to travel, live or work there. There is information about the history of Indonesia, the modern Indonesian language, advice on behaviour, and many other things that have been compiled by the Indonesia Forum.

Indonesia: a brief profile

The Indonesian archipelago of more than 17,000 islands (6,000 inhabited) is usually grouped into three main regions: the Greater Sundas (Sumatra, Java, Kalimantan and Sulawesi); the Lesser Sundas (Bali to Timor) and the Moluccas (north of the Lesser Sundas and east of Sulawesi). The whole region covers about 1,010,000 square kilometres and has a population of over 266 million, the fourth largest in the world – you will sense the population pressure immediately in Jakarta, which is the highly centralised administrative, political and business hub of the nation.

Population, industry and religion

The adult literacy rate in 2018 is about 95.4% (defined as people over the age of 15, who can read and write) due to strong emphasis on education by the government since independence. During the 1980s and the early 1990s, there was an increase in general economic standards. However, the economic crisis in the second half of the 1990s had a very negative effect on the economy and on school-retention rates, which may result in problems in the future. The tiny elite class, however, remain extremely wealthy by international standards. Major industries include oil, coal, textiles, vehicle assembly, cement and plywood, while rice is still the most important crop. Another industry which is a major player in the economy is kretek (clove cigarette) production. On arrival at the airport, you will notice immediately that the air is mixed with both diesel fuel and clove-scented tobacco. The effects of the financial crisis were evident when comparing the expected GDP expected growth rate of 7% in 1994 with a real GDP growth of -13.6% in 1998 and 0.1% in 1999. This has been turned around in early 2000 onward, to an average of 5% annual growth. In 2018 the GDP growth is 5.2%.

Every major world religion is represented in Indonesia, but the majority are Muslim (many nominally). Bali remains strongly Hindu. There is a significant Christian population, especially in Eastern Indonesia and among ethnic Chinese. Over the last decade many people who were previously nominal Muslims have adopted a more public practice of their faith (observing the fast month and the haj, the pilgrimage to Mecca). Nevertheless, the casual traveller in Java usually does not receive the impression of travelling in a strongly Islamic society. Religious tolerance has been highly valued in Indonesia, however, the last decade has seen a rise in religious tensions and violence.

Modern history

Indonesia is a young nation with an old culture, which had to grapple with European colonial forces for nearly 400 years. Its modern history has been turbulent. As Japan’s military empire in Southeast Asia collapsed in 1945, Indonesia declared its independence. The Netherlands, the dominant colonial power since the late 1600s, then attempted to recover its lost Asian possessions and a traumatic revolutionary war followed, resulting in a formal transfer of sovereignty to Indonesia under UN auspices in late 1949. Soekarno, the radical nationalist leader who had led the struggle against Dutch colonial rule, was confirmed as Indonesia’s first president.

After almost a decade marked by unstable parliamentary rule and regional rebellions, Soekarno assumed direct rule by declaring a return to Indonesia’s original revolutionary constitution. Under this constitution, which continues to apply (although significantly amended post-Soeharto), Indonesia is a unitary republic, ruled by a Presidential executive with wide powers. The legislative, or DPR, now contains only elected members. The MPR, the highest source of laws below the constitution, comprises a joint sitting of the DPR with the new DPD (Council of Regional Representatives), also an elected body.

The period of ‘Guided Democracy’ was marked by a swing to the political left, the proliferation of Soekarno’s idiosyncratic political ideology, international isolation and increasing economic disintegration.   Eventually, rivalry between the PKI (Indonesia’s communist party, then the third largest in the world) and the armed forces (who have always claimed a right of socio-political intervention by reason of their role in the revolution against the Dutch) led to a violent confrontation on the night of 30 September 1965, the circumstances of which remain unclear. In the aftermath, the military, in partnership with Islamic political groups, was able to destroy the PKI and hundreds of thousands of its supporters were killed. General Soeharto emerged as the leader of the right and, by 1968, toppled Soekarno, who died under house arrest in 1970.

Soeharto’s government became known as the ‘New Order’, to contrast with Soekarno’s ‘Old Order’. The state ideology, the ‘Pancasila’, five broad ideas originally devised by Soekarno to reconcile diverse political groupings, was used by the New Order as a part of a programme of de-politicisation to enhance governmental control. Soeharto’s rule was marked by a commitment to the Western alliance, enormous economic development and a dramatic general rise in living standards. Increasingly, however, the New Order faced criticism internationally in relation to human rights abuses (especially in relation to East Timor which it annexed in 1975). Human rights abuses were also criticised domestically, as was the large-scale corruption seen as arising from elite and military domination of big business.

President Soeharto resigned in May 1998, after he found himself unable to form a cabinet by reason of riots (caused in part by the downturn in the economy and the stringent measures imposed by the IMF), large scale student demonstrations, demanding democratisation and the end of Soeharto’s Presidency and tensions within the military. Vice-President, BJ Habibie, then became Acting President. Despite his short term of office, Habibie instituted a number of reforms, not the least of which was the granting of a referendum to the East Timorese, which led to a vote for independence of the forcibly-annexed province.

In 1999 there was a general election, with a strong emphasis on openness and credibility. This was followed later in the year by a Presidential election (the President was, at that point, still elected by MPR members) in November 1999. The next President, KH Abdurrahman Wahid (commonly known as ‘Gus Dur’) was impeached and was replaced by his Vice-President, Megawati Soekarnoputri in July 2001. At the following elections in 2004, a new voting system was introduced with the President no longer being voted for by the MPR, but directly by the people in two rounds of voting. Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono became Indonesia’s President for two terms, from 2004 to 2014.

Since 2014, Joko Widodo (‘Jokowi’) has been Indonesia’s President, with Jusuf Kalla as his Vice-President. The subsequent general election was held in April 2019, and the incumbent president runs again with KH. Ma’ruf Amien as his Vice President candidate, and most likely to continue into the second term. Indonesia is now finding its way through a complex and difficult process of democratisation and accompanying social, political and economic reform.

Bahasa Indonesia: the national language

The national language is ‘Bahasa Indonesia’, which nearly everyone speaks as a second language. Indonesian does not use a special script and is a relatively simple language to learn. It is a variant of Malay, which has been widely spoken in Southeast Asia for centuries as a lingua franca. Nationalist politicians hoping to bridge ethnic differences as they attempted to create a unified state in an archipelago where at least 300 distinct languages are spoken, deliberately chose it as the national language well before the Second World War.

This means that most Indonesians speak Bahasa Indonesia as their second language, although it is gradually displacing other regional languages as people’s first language, due to education in Bahasa Indonesia from primary school. English is frequently used in business circles and older, upper class Indonesians educated before 1945 often speak Dutch.

Indonesian does not use a special script and is a relatively simple language to learn. A phrase book (easily available in hotels and airports in Indonesia, along with dictionaries) is a good investment and attempts at speaking Bahasa Indonesia will be appreciated.  Be alert, though, that it is better to pronounce a few words (and particularly) names correctly, rather than a lot of words badly. Ask someone to correct your pronunciation.


a as in ‘army’ or ‘hut’

e as in the first syllable of ‘potato’ or as in ‘French’

I as in ‘eat’ but shorter and sharper

o as in ‘sock’ or as in ‘low’

u as in ‘put’ and it is short and sharp


Indonesian consonants are pronounced similarly to those of English, with the exception of:

c is pronounced as the ‘ch’ in ‘much’

r is rolled

t and d are less aspirated than the English ‘t’ and ‘d’

Common phrases

How are things (with you)?                     Bagaimana kabarnya?/ Apa kabar?

Very well                                                 Baik-baik saja

Good morning/(early) afternoon             Selamat pagi/siang

Good (late) afternoon /evening               Selamat sore/malam

Note: Greetings such as ‘Good morning!’ are more common amongst those who have been influenced through contact with Westerners. A common question to ask someone on greeting them is where they have come from.

Where have you come from?                 Dari mana?

Note: This can be used both for where you have just left and for your country of origin, which can cause confusion.

Where are you going to?                        Mau ke mana?

Thank you                                                Terima kasih

Warning!Terima kasih’ is often used as ‘No, thank you’. If you are offered a plate with snacks and asked if you would like one and say ‘Terima kasih!’, the plate may well be taken away, without you getting one!   Thanking, in general, is less common amongst close friends in Indonesian.

Already                                                   Sudah / ‘dah

Note: This can also mean ‘done (completed), no, not necessary’.

Yes                                                           Ya

Warning!  Yes does not always mean yes. It can also mean, ‘maybe; I’m listening to you (but not necessarily agreeing); I’m saying yes to be polite’.

No                                                            Tidak

Warning!  Indonesians don’t think it polite to say no, so they may say what they think will please you or avoid the issue.

Not yet                                                    Belum
Note: Belum should be used in preference to tidak in many situations, where you might do something in the future.

Tips for receiving visitors

For some tips on receiving visitors from Indonesia, download our Tips for receiving visitors from Indonesia (180kb pdf)