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Moving to Indonesia: Survival Guide

December 6, 2014
Moving to Indonesia: Survival Guide
Reading Time: 5 minutes

When I was moving to Indonesia for a year in August 2013 I knew so little about this country. I knew that: many people are Muslims, it’s a developing country, there are volcanoes and earthquakes and that Bali island is the main holiday destination. And also I knew one Indonesian girl – Mala, whom I met during volunteering in India one year before.

Here is the list of things you have to keep in mind when planning to move to Indonesia:


1. City

Probably you imagine Indonesia as a paradise with white-sand beaches and palm trees around your hammock. But most of the times reality is different. As many others Asia’s cities, Indonesian urban areas are very crowded, air is polluted and streets are dirty.

First of all think what you need for the comfort stay in this tropical country. From holiday style Bali, to business centre – Jakarta, to remote and wild Flores – there is something for everybody.

Largest cities

Jakarta, Surabaya and Bandung (Java), Medan (North Sumatra) 

They are overpopulated and polluted, traffic is horrible and you can spend half of the day in the traffic jam.

Go there for business purposes and night-life.

Bandung is also famous for shopping with many outlets around the city centre and I would refer to this city as the food capital of Indonesia.

There is no subway in Indonesian cities, and most of the buildings are not higher than 3 floors because of the seismic activity.

There is nothing interesting in big cities. Shopping malls are the main destination points for locals who like to spend their free time there.

Medium cities

Yogyakarta (Central Java), Malang (East Java), Manado (North Sulawesi) 

Jogja (Jogjakarta) is the cultural capital of Indonesia and it’s located not far from the sea, so there is always many things to do and see.

Malang has cooler climate (similar to Bandung’s) it’s nice and quiet. There are many universities located in both cities.

Most of the foreigners drive motorbikes in this cities because traffic is not so dangerous.

Holiday style

Bali and the rest (Bunaken, Togean islands, Karimunjawa, Gili islands)

Bali is the most developed region in Indonesia, people speak English, infrastructure is very good, there are many cultural performances, good shopping and party. Balinese people are Hinduists that’s why Indonesian government promotes Bali as tourist area the most. This is one of not many islands where people can drink alcohol and show more skin. In contrast with all the rest of Indonesia which is Muslim.

As for me, it’s hard to find authentic culture in Bali because it’s very westernised and also sometimes it’s hard to find an Indonesian among all those bule (read: tourists).

Other “holiday style islands” most of the time they are remote with poor internet connection and poor facilities. Most of the times people spend there not more than few weeks.

Be aware about areas with malaria and check about ethnic-religious conflicts before choosing particular region.

2. Accommodation

It’s difficult and more expensive to search for accommodation in Indonesia while staying in your home country.

There are options to choose from on the spot:

  • kosan – popular among students room with private bathroom. Price varies (40$ -120$ per month) depending on the city and area.
  • house (rumah) can be rented for a year. In the big city price is about 18 mln (1 600$) – 50 mln (4500 $), in medium it’s about 12 mln (1000$) per year.

Often houses are unfurnished, so remember about additional expanses.

Search for kosan by looking for the sign “Kos” or “Kos putra” and asking locals.

3. Transportation

Learn how to drive a motorbike! It’s compulsory: the one and only way to get the most ofyour life and travels in Indonesia.

In other way you are forced to use public transportation – angkots (buses in Jogjakarta). These small buses are very inconvenient way to move around the city because there are no numbers of angkots – just different colours. So you never know it’s route and every time you go somewhere you have to ask locals how to get there and back. There is useful service for navigation in biggest cities – Jakarta, Surabaya and Bandung – kiri.travel.

Taxi is not expensive and there is also Ojek – motorbike-taxi.

4. Food

Eat in local cafes – warungs. My rule was: to choose warung if there are more than 3 people eating at the same time. Locals know where the best food is. And it’s always fresh. Also try street food – kaki lima (5 legs) – street vendors prepare food in front of you.

Indonesian food is spicy – they use a lot of chili sause – sambal. So if you are not used to eating spicy food – ask for “tidak pedas” (not spicy) meal.

5. Language

It’s very hard to have a normal life and be integrated into society without knowledge of Indonesian language (Bahasa Indonesia). Locals know English only in tourist places and Bali.

6. Bule hunters

“Bule” it’s Indonesian word for white person, a foreigner. There is a local phenomenon called “bule hunters” – it refers to Indonesians who like to hang out with foreigners. They know English and are active on couchsurfing and FB, so usually you don’t have to search for them – they will find you. Bule hunting may imply sexual relations. Most of the times Indonesians will contact you and invite you to a party, karaoke or a short trip. They like your company, they like to take pictures with you, especially selfies to share on social media. All this show that they are cool guys because they have friends foreigners. In the same time bule hunters can help you a lot: to search for accommodation, rent a bike, go with you to the immigration office, show best places around the city, etc.

7. Cultural differences

Always remember that you are the guest in somebody’s home so be respectful.

Indonesian people remember that you are stupid bule (my personal interpretation) so it’s OK for you to make mistakes but better keep these things in mind:

Smile a lot and be friendly. Show respect.


  • walk around half naked, be respectful to the culture by covering shoulders and knees.
  • wear flip flops to official institutions.
  • point your foot in somebody’s direction while sitting on the floor.
  • give, receive or eat with your left hand. ‘Cos Indonesian’s like other Asian’s don’t use toilet paper but use left hand for washing.
  • touch somebodies head. It’s very disrespectful.
  • say that you are atheist. Many people will not understand.
  • say “anjing” (dog) to anybody – it’s the worst swearing you could imagine.
  • expect from Indonesian to be on time for meeting or to do everything that he was talking about. No stress 🙂
  • be offended when Indonesians ask questions about your private life: “Do you have a boyfriend?” is the third question they ask after “What is your name?” and “Where are you from?”. It’s normal.
  • ask “why?” ! They don’t know. Always.

If you will be in Indonesia, don’t miss a unforgettable experience of hiking volcanoes. Don’t know where to go? Here’s the list of Top-5 volcanoes to visit in Indonesia.

Wish you to have the best experience in Indonesia 🙂

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