Indonesia is known to be a hospitable country which welcomes tourists and business. Although its tourism industry has flourished in the past 10 years or so, there are still some things travelers must be wary of. Now, don’t get me wrong: I don’t intend to paint all Indonesians with the same brush, but these are just a couple of points that I have either experienced myself or personally witnessed.
Indonesia is a country with over 1,000 spoken languages but English is not one of them, nor is it the second or third language. Indonesian (bahasa Indonesia) is the first language of the majority of Indonesian, while any local dialect can be their second. As a foreign traveler, expecting some form of English spoken in tourist-heavy areas such as airports and hotels is normal, but you could be very wrong in Indonesia.
I remember a gentleman from the Netherlands asking for directions to Tana Toraja from an airplane stewardess to no avail. There have been mix-ups in orders due to language barriers (a man from the US ordered a beer from a hotel restaurant, but instead was given a Bear-brand can of milk).
I’m not saying that Indonesians should perfect their English (but that wouldn’t be bad at all) but at least certain people who are in constant contact with foreigners should speak one of the most widely spoken languages in the world. But perhaps I’m being a hypocrite since I hardly understand Chinese and the only Spanish phase I know is ‘que pasa?’
We are all familiar with the Asian market scene: the vendor offers his or her products with a ridiculous mark-up and we bargain for 50% of the price; the vendor pretends to accept defeat while in fact he or she has just made a bundle while you are forever labeled a ‘sucker.’ Don’t worry, ladies and gentlemen, we are probably in the same boat. I’ve been labeled a sucker in Hong Kong, Malaysia and Taiwan, as far as I know.
Indonesia is no different. The assumption is that any foreign traveler coming to Indonesia will have deep pockets, and charging over 300% for something won’t hurt your personal finances one bit. I hesitate to say that this practice is unfair or taking advantage of travelers, since it’s most likely practiced all over the world. I guess the bottom line is that if you are interested in a purchasing something from a market without a price tag, try and offer between 10-30% of their asking price. They might laugh at you and ask their friends to point at your obvious ignorance of prices, but stick to your guns. You might end up enjoying the back-and-forth with the seller and earn a reputation as the stingy foreigner.
There are a ton of magicians working in Money Changers in Indonesia. They can turn your US$100 bill into Rp 1 million without you noticing (note: the exchange rate for US$1 is Rp 13,325.50 at the time of writing this article). Their sleight of hand tricks behind thick glass can leave you confused and angry, especially when they deny any wrongdoing. This is a crime and many money changers have been prosecuted for fraud. However, this is hardly an incentive to quit the practice since the money is just too good in tourist-populated cities and regions.
Fortunately we live in a time where visual recording devices are in our pockets at all times (assuming you haven’t been pickpocketed yet, more on this later). If you are not allowed to record the transaction on your smartphone in their establishment, then leave and find another place. It may take you some time to find a place that allows recording, but it’ll be worth it if it can save you from incurring significant losses. Another alternative is changing your money at the airport; their exchange rates are usually lower than what private businesses offer, but at least there’s very little risk.
The one thing I dread most is losing my contact with the outside world while traveling. My smartphone, tablet and laptop are perhaps the most important things to me when visiting foreign countries. Without it, I feel completely naked and helpless since they have GPS and translator apps.
Pickpocketing in Indonesia is huge and it’s not just foreigners who become targets. When traveling in Indonesia, be sure to have a safe backpack with easily accessible pockets when worn. That way you’ll be able to remember which pocket contains which item, and you won’t have to fumble around to find documents or gadgets. It is going to be nearly impossible to locate your electronics if you are a victim of this horrible crime since many electronic shops offer specific services that will leave the gadget untraceable.
For those who have become victims to scams or pickpocketing, you can always report to the police. Policemen and women will be stationed in heavily populated areas and streets, and they serve to protect both locals and foreigners. However, in many cities, police officers may not be able to communicate using English and their patience may wear thin if you both have to resort to using body language.
However, most unfortunately, police officers may be the very same people to avoid. The most common scam they perform is arresting you for law violations you had no idea you broke. In this case, just be prepared to shell out a couple hundred thousand rupiahs to clear your name (maybe US$10 to US$50). However, a much more serious offense committed by corrupt cops is planting illegal narcotics (or substances that look similar to narcotics) and somehow tracing its ownership back to you. This is a serious crime which, if proven you are carrying for distribution purposes, can earn you a death sentence or at least extremely heavy fines.
Fortunately, recent times have found very few cases of these crimes committed by the people dedicated to serve the public as there have been many reformations concerning public safety. Just try and keep tabs on people in your immediate vicinity at all times.