It pays to be aware of cultural customs and sensitivities to avoid giving offence in foreign countries, writes Paul Rush.

It was on the top platform of the colossal Buddhist temple of Borobudur in Java, where nirvana might be expected to flow from a lifetime of good karma, that I got the humbling "look".

That look was one of disapproval and disdain and implied that I was guilty of invading the private space of a Muslim mother and her two young daughters in pink dresses paying homage to the Buddha.

With the benefit of hindsight the incident seems innocent enough and lasted all of five seconds.

As I panned my camera around Borobudur's giant apex stupa and the milling crowds on the upper terrace, the lens picked up the trio at close quarters.


The mother's hijab headscarf, black shawl and green sarong filled the viewfinder frame just as the shutter clicked.

As she sidled past, her dark eyes fixed mine with a stern, accusatory look signifying quite clearly that I had caused offence.

This gave me pause to reflect on the importance of respecting customs, protocols and privacy when visiting a strange land.

This epiphany was particularly relevant as my trip was sponsored by the Forum for East Asia-Latin America Co-operation (FEALAC), which promotes cross-cultural understanding and is focused on promoting Indonesia's cultural attractions.

I quickly apologised to the mother and sought advice immediately on the basic etiquette required for interaction with Muslim people who make up 80 per cent of the population.

Armed with this knowledge I was able to enjoy the wonderful diversity of the island of Java without giving offence to anyone.

I loved the complex blend of Dutch, Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist architecture in Jakarta. The urban lifestyle embraces art, culture, shopping, museums, lively nightlife and the fascinating Old Town.

At the magnificent Prambanan Temple complex I watched in awe as the Ramayana Classical Ballet unfolded.

Hanuman's monkey troops rescued the beautiful Dewi Shinta from a wicked ruler and her purity was proven by a fiery ordeal to satisfy husband Rama.

A family visiting Borobodur are not amused by the photographer. Photo / Paul Rush
A family visiting Borobodur are not amused by the photographer. Photo / Paul Rush

In Yogyakarta, I visited the 10th Sultan's Palace and toured 250 year-old pavilions learning about his predecessors like the second Sultan and his 16 wives and 72 children.

Presumably the Sultan lived by his own rules of etiquette.

A few basic courtesies

My visit concluded with a cultural challenge; drawing motifs on a batik fabric and waxing and dyeing the cloth to produce a decorative piece as a souvenir. I took note of the etiquette advice I had received, which I have listed below.

Smile and be patient

Indonesian people are very friendly and naturally look for signs of friendliness and openness among visitors to their country. A genuine smile, humble demeanour and bright, breezy "Selamat pag" (good morning) and "Apa kabar" (how are you?) is an effective way to break the ice with locals.

Remaining composed and valuing patience as a virtue is very important as Indonesians dislike any form of confrontation. Shop assistants don't understand the term "hurry up" in the way we do and transport schedules are sometimes based on local "rubber time".

Meet and greet with respect

A polite smile is the perfect ice-breaker at semi-formal or business meetings too, shaking hands with a medium to soft grip. Shake hands with a woman only if she initiates the greeting. If you exchange business cards they should be presented and received slowly with interest before being secreted away. Body language is significant in both the Muslim and Hindu faiths. The head is where the spirit resides and should never be touched, especially with children. Pointing with a forefinger is considered disrespectful and using the whole open palm or a thumb is preferred.

Accept hospitality with good grace

Asia has a long tradition of hospitality, so invitations you receive to drink tea or share a meal are likely to be genuine. Refusing such an offer can be seen as a personal rejection. It's sound protocol to take a small gift along, such as china or glassware, which will be opened once you have left.

Dining is done with a fork in the left hand, which is used to push food on to a spoon in the right hand. Most meal ingredients like meat and vegetables are pre-cut into bite-sized portions. Muslims observe halal dietary law, consuming no liquor or pork. Food is passed with the right hand only. Compliments about the food are always appreciated and it's good form to never completely finish a meal. In a restaurant the standard practise for requesting a bill is to make a scribbling gesture on the palm.

Dress appropriately away from the beach

For official functions, standard international dress codes apply, such as jacket, shirt and trousers for men and a modest dress or suit for women. Generally speaking, Indonesians adopt conservative and modest dress codes, and shorts or sleeveless tops are considered only suitable for sports or private wear.

When visiting religious sites, special care is needed as proper decorum requires skin to be covered as much as possible. Check what times are suitable for visiting temples and mosques, and remove shoes.

Communicate with calmness

Indonesians are family and community oriented and blatant individualism is shunned. Politeness, respect, modesty and loyalty are hallmarks of the culture. The people generally speak quietly with subdued tones and abhor confrontation, so it's important to be polite and calm to avoid giving offence.

Everyone in Indonesian society has a certain status and hierarchical relationships are greatly respected, especially where age, position and power are concerned. In dealing with government employees it's wise to show respect and avoid raising your voice or making accusations. Indonesia is a wonderful place that satisfies the wanderlust gene in every traveller who keeps an open mind and heart, and respects local customs.


Getting there:


flies from Auckland to Jakarta, via Australia.

Details: Getting around is easy as there are ample taxis and guides with their own websites and most are open to bargaining. Shopping is excellent and bargaining is common but some stores are labelled as fixed price.

When to go: The best time to travel is in the dry season from March to August when temperatures sit around 30C with high humidity. August and September are the hottest months of the year.

Further information: See, and