Although local people are very understanding and forgiving of foreign visitors, here are a few things you should know so you don’t inadvertently offend them or embarrass yourself.
- In Indonesia, the left hand is for one unmentionable purpose only. So eating, giving and receiving money, shaking hands, and even waving at someone are all done with the right hand. It’s also generally okay to use both hands, but if for some reason it’s unavoidable to, say, pass something to someone with your left, humbly say maaf kiri or “Pardon my left”.
- The dress code here is quite conservative. Most men and women here wear long pants, and women wear tops with high necklines and sleeves that cover their elbows. While not 100% necessary that you do likewise, you’ll probably feel more comfortable, and local folks will feel more respected if you try to copy their style. When in Rome…
- When swimming, proper swimwear is important. Men can wear regular swimshorts without a problem, but for women anything less than a t-shirt and shorts would be very culturally inappropriate.
- Being a fairly conservative, rural, majority-Muslim society, drinking alcohol in public is taboo. If you must, better to partake in your hotel room.
- Women would only be required to wear a head covering entering a mosque. So bring along a scarf or buy a cheap one from the market if this is on your agenda, otherwise no worries.
- Like in much of Asia, footwear is always removed before entering a home.
- Also similar to most of Asia, public displays of affection between opposite sexes, even holding hands, is considered pretty impolite.
What To Expect
Traveling in rural Sumatra can be a challenge, and will stretch you outside of your normal comfort zone. Here are a few things to keep in mind when you’re on the road.
- Expect the unexpected. Things will likely not go exactly as planned. Transportation could be late, people could get sick, or attractions could be closed for one reason or another (landslides, volcanic eruptions, flooding, etc.) Roll with it and redeem the time! As I like to say, it’s not really an adventure unless something goes off course! Open your eyes to what other experiences turn up instead.
- People will be thrilled to see you. Many of the destinations in the region are very rarely visited by travelers. For some, especially children, seeing a foreigner walking through their village is a HUGEevent, and they will likely want to talk to you or just follow you around. Be prepared to have your picture taken with people’s mobile phones a lot. You will definitely have more pictures taken of you than you will have taken of others, particularly if you spend time exploring populated areas and eating in local food stalls.
- Don’t be offended by people yelling “Hello, Mister!” or “bule!” They’re just being friendly. The question “Where are you going?” is not a rude invasion of privacy, but just a simple Indonesian greeting (“Mau ke mana?”) that doesn’t translate well to English or western culture, and doesn’t really require an answer more detailed than “just walking” and a big smile. If you’re not prepared to be friendly and give up a little of your time to smile and play along, perhaps traveling in the region is not right for you.