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Discover what Indonesian culture is all about 

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Indonesia is a beautiful and unique country in SouthEast Asia. It stands out because of the diversity of its culture, its people, its religions, its languages, its rich marine life, its biodiversity, its food, and its 17000+ islands. 

But what makes Indonesia even more interesting is that despite the cultural and religious diversity of its population, the country is very unified and there is a strong sense of belonging, of shared identity. 

Find out more interesting things about the Indonesian culture below, plus tips on how to be a respectful traveller. 

mt bromo indonesia, indonesian culture
Mount Bromo (photo by Pukpik)

Let’s start with some quick facts about Indonesia

Indonesia was colonised by the Dutch for about 3.5 centuries, and was known as “Dutch East Indies”. This ended when the Japanese took over in 1942, but Indonesia obtained its independence when Japan surrendered the country in 1945.

  • Capital: Jakarta for now (shifting to Nusantara in East Kalimantan in 2024).
  • Currency: Rupiah (IDR).
  • Official language: Bahasa Indonesian (but hundreds of other dialects are spoken).
  • Main religions: secular country, but recognises Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism. Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim majority country.
  • National motto: “Bhinneka Tunggal Ika”. Literal translation: “many, yet one”.
  • Largest ethnic group in Indonesia: Javanese, followed by Sundanese, Malay, Batak, Madurese and Betawi.
  • Indonesia is the world’s largest island country.
  • Largest cities, in order: Jakarta (Java), Surabaya (Java), Bandung (Java), Medan (Sumatra), Semarang (Java).
  • Natural resources: oil, natural gas, tin, copper, gold.
  • Agriculture: rice, tea, coffee, spices, rubber.
  • There are 150 active volcanoes in Indonesia.
  • Warungs are small family-owned restaurants where locals eat.
  • Batik is the Indonesian method of dyeing clothes with designs by using wax.
  • Bali is Indonesia’s most famous island, but there are great things to discover in other parts of Indonesia.

The 5 main aspects of Indonesian culture

Identity

Everyone in Indonesia speaks Indonesian, but each ethnic group has their own language and traditions too. So it’s common to find that most Indonesian people identify themselves by their ethnic community and their family first, and only second as “Indonesian”. 

Face

Similarly across many Asian countries, reputation and face are important aspects of Indonesian culture. Therefore, people behave in ways that protect their dignity and self-respect, in order to build and save face. Inappropriate conduct or behaviour that makes you stand out are not recommended.

Collectivism

Being courteous, gracious, and soft-spoken is also a big part of Indonesian culture. It is a collectivistic society, and people operate with a group mindset, with a lot of importance placed on what others would say or think. 

Respect

Respect is automatically given to the elderly. Age is a big factor in the sense that anyone older than yourself should be treated with esteem and courtesy, no matter what. 

Religion

Indonesia is a secular country, meaning the laws are generally not subject to, or bound, by religious beliefs. However, as you will find in most countries, religion almost always influences politics, and most definitely influences the culture. 

Religion in Indonesia

Islamic influence on Indonesian culture

Islam is the most popular religion in Indonesia, but because Indonesia is a secular country, it does not follow Islamic laws. The province of Aceh is the only part of Indonesia that follows Sharia law and applies it to criminal justice. Drinking alcohol, committing adultery, and homosexuality are all illegal in Aceh, but not in other parts of Indonesia (although, generally speaking, the LGBTQ community does not feel safe or welcome in Indonesia). Other than Aceh, Islamic law is only applied in the context of civil law, i.e. marriage, divorce, inheritance, and religious endowments.

Hinduism in Indonesia

Bali is the only predominantly non-Muslim part of Indonesia. In fact, the majority of Balinese people are Hindus. Balinese Hinduism is a combination of Hindu and Buddhist beliefs.

Pura Ulun Danu Batur
Pura Ulun Danu Batur (photo by Guillaume Marques)

Bali is one of the most popular tourist and digital nomad destinations. As such, we thought of giving some important facts about Balinese culture.

Indonesian culture: a spotlight on Bali

  • The Javanese brought Hinduism to Bali in the 11th century. In the 14th century, after the collapse of the Majapahit kingdom, artists, dancers, and philosophers moved to Bali.
  • The Hindu caste system is not as strict in Bali. For instance, there are no “untouchables”, and people of different castes can intermarry.
  • There are about 20000 puras (temples) and shrines in Bali.
  • Nyepi is the New Year for Hindus, and is celebrated by observing a day of silence, fasting, and meditation.
  • There is a complex irrigation system known as subak developed in the 9th century. The water for the plants is used to construct an artificial and sustainable ecosystem, consisting of large terrace fields and water temples. The priests in water temples are in charge of water management.
  • Kecak (pronounced “kechak”) is one of Bali’s most famous performances, and depicts the Ramayana tale. The piece is performed in a circle where the performers chant “cak” and move their hands and arms.
  • Incense is used regularly, and it is believed that the smoke from the incense will find its way to the gods, which will ensure that the offerings and prayers are delivered.
  • Balinese is spoken more so than Bahasa Indonesian in Bali.
  • Balinese Hindus pray every morning by placing offerings in front of their homes, on the beach, in front of their place of business, and in a variety of other spots. They usually contain flowers and pieces of food.

How to be respectful of Indonesian culture when visiting (cultural etiquette in Indonesia)

  1. Cover your shoulders and legs (at least until the knees) when visiting temples and religious places (this applies to men too). Most of the holy sites hand out sarongs to cover up, but they only cover legs, so wearing any type of sleeveless clothes is still considered disrespectful. 
  2. Be careful to not scratch or damage the centuries-old architecture. We have actually witnessed kids gleefully grab a rock and scratch archaeological monuments to their hearts’ content, with the mother sitting right next to them and watching them.
  3. Do not step on the offerings in Bali, even if some travel books or blogs insist that it’s “not a big deal”. It is a big deal. In fact, while in Bali, we learned that even stepping over them is considered disrespectful, and we should side-step them instead. We know that these offerings are everywhere and hard to avoid walking on them accidentally at times, and most Balinese people won’t say anything, but it is never acceptable to walk carelessly on someone’s act of faith. 
prayer offerings bali
Prayer offerings (photo by Nick Fewings)

Cuisine of Indonesia

What is culture without food? Indonesian cuisine varies across the different regions and islands. In the west, in Sumatra, the cuisine has been heavily influenced by Indian and Middle Eastern styles, while in Java, the cuisine is mostly indigenous with a little bit of Chinese influence. Eastern Indonesian food, on the other hand, bears more of a resemblance to Polynesian and Melanesian cuisine.

Dadar Gulung

Dadar Gulung is a popular snack, found mostly in Java and Bali. Main ingredients: grated coconut and palm sugar inside a thin pancake (the pancake is usually green because it’s made with pandan leaves).

Nasi Goreng

nasi goreng
Nasi Goreng (photo by Iosi Pratama)

Nasi goreng means fried rice. Fried rice is very popular all over Indonesia, and can be found anywhere from fancy restaurants, to street vendors, to local diners (known as warungs, or rumah makan).

Ikan Bakar

Ikan bar literally means burnt fish, but in actuality it means grilled fish and other types of seafood. It is a classic dish, and can be found all over Indonesia.

Mie Goreng

mie goreng, Indonesian cuisine
Mie goreng

Mie Goreng, also sometimes known as bami goreng, is common all over Indonesia, and is made with thin yellow noodles. This is regularly consumed as a breakfast food by locals. Mie: noodles, goreng: fried. 

Pisang Goreng

Pisang: banana, goreng: fried. Commonly sold by street vendors but also found in restaurants, pisang goreng goes by various names across Indonesia. It was originally introduced by the Portuguese as banana fritters, which was a breakfast food.

We hope this article helped you learn just a little bit more about the wonderful Indonesian culture. Now that you’re equipped culturally, find out things to do in Indonesia.

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