Culture and Etiquette in Indonesia

Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim country but the practice of Islam across the archipelago has been shaped by centuries of interaction with Hinduism, Buddhism and other faiths, as well as traditional animist practices. As a result, Islam in Indonesia is far removed from the more austere practices of the Gulf states. In the capital, it’s possible to find mosques situated across the street from nightclubs that would make the raunchiest bar back home seem positively prudish. Although there are regional variations in accepted social norms, with Aceh among the most conservative provinces and Bali the most liberal, there are also differences within provinces. Following your common sense is the best course of action. Outside the main tourist resorts, dress conservatively, especially if visiting religious sites, to avoid giving offence. Be especially sensitive during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.

Visitors to Balinese temples (pura) show respect to the shrines and dress modestly – no skimpy clothing, bare shoulders or shorts. Often you’ll be required to wear a sarong and a ceremonial sash around your waist (usually provided by the most-visited temples).

Indonesia shares the same attitudes to dress and social taboos as other Southeast Asian cultures. In addition, Indonesians are generally very sociable, and dislike doing anything alone. It’s normal for complete strangers engaged in some common enterprise – catching a bus, for instance – to introduce themselves and start up a friendship. Sharing cigarettes between men is in these circumstances a way of establishing a bond, and Westerners who don’t smoke should be genuinely apologetic about refusing; it’s well worth carrying a packet to share around even if you save your own “for later”.

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