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What do Malaysians Think About Indonesia?

I remember my first time in Indonesia. It was 2010, and it was also my first time flying alone. When I looked out of the plane window as we were about to land, I was alarmed to see houses with tin roofs everywhere. The airport seemed to be in the middle of a shanty town!

This is not to say that Malaysia doesn’t have any rural or impoverished areas — it’s just that I had been living a pretty sheltered life in big cities and had never been to those places. And especially not alone.

But there I was, on my own in Medan, with no tour guide or hotel reservation, and having a mild panic attack for almost being run over by a motorbike when trying to cross the road (there was no pedestrian crossing or stoplight).

Everything turned out okay in the end, and I’ve even developed an affinity for Indonesia in all its chaos and beauty, but I can never forget that first impression.

Here are some of the pleasant surprises and culture shocks that Malaysian travelers will experience when visiting Indonesia for the first time*.

Parapat Indonesia
In Parapat on my first trip to Indonesia. 2010.

*Note that this article is written from my point of view and personal experience, which may differ from yours. It is for entertainment purpose only and not, in any way, meant to offend any party, or to influence the readers’ opinions on this particular destination.

Despite the difference in accents, language barrier is not going to be a problem for Malaysians traveling to Indonesia. If you can understand Malay, you should be able to understand Indonesian too.

After a while, you might even find yourself speaking or attempting to speak with an Indonesian accent, and conversely, you may also find the locals trying to sound like a Malaysian when speaking to you.

There will be some words that are completely different, but you’d probably have heard of them before. It’s good to know that all those hours you spent watching sinetron didn’t go to waste after all!

2. Indonesians Pronounce Their Alphabets Differently

While you can communicate with no problem most of the time, there will be some instances that will leave you utterly confused.

Influenced by the Dutch that colonized them for over a century, Indonesians pronounce their alphabets differently from the way we do in English or Bahasa Malaysia.

This can be a problem if you asked someone where you should wait for your bus and you thought they said Platform A, when they actually meant Platform E, or when you thought they said E when they actually meant I.

Another thing I found confusing was how they tell the time. When they said “setengah delapan“, I had incorrectly assumed they meant 8:30, but it was actually 7:30.

So, take note of these if you don’t want to miss your bus.

3. You're Suddenly a Millionaire

Woman Holding and Showing 100.000 Indonesian Rupiah Money

Unless you have visited countries like Vietnam and Laos, you’re going to be quite overwhelmed by the number of 0’s you see on a single bank note in Indonesia.

RM1 is equivalent to Rp3.500, so if you brought RM1,000 with you, you’d have a total of Rp3.500.000,- (another confusing thing is they use dots to separate thousands and millions, not commas).

It takes some time to get used to doing mental calculations of tens of thousands of rupiah when you just want to buy a plate of rice.

The good news is, most things in Indonesia (other than Bali) will feel very cheap compared to the prices you’re used to back home.

If you’re used to traveling like a pauper in Europe, Japan, or even Singapore — where you practically have to ration your food — Indonesia is going to make you feel like a Crazy Rich Asian. After all, you’re quite literally a millionaire.

4. Someone's Going to Mention Upin Ipin

While we get tons of Indonesian sinetron every year and got ourselves addicted to Bawang Putih Bawang Merah, the only Malaysian TV series that seems to have made it to the Indonesian market is Upin Ipin.

Once the locals found out I was Malaysian, some of them suddenly started calling me Kak Ros. At first, I thought that was so random, but after a few more people called me by the same name, I eventually asked them, “Who’s Kak Ros?”

It turned out to be a character in Upin Ipin. They were surprised to know that I had never watched the show.

5. It's Easy to Find Good Food

Indonesian food
Familiar comfort food, starting from Rp5.000 (approximately RM1.80)

Malaysians traveling in Western countries may sometimes have difficulties finding food that satisfy their taste buds because they find it too bland. You’ll encounter no such problem in Indonesia. Indonesians don’t skimp on their chilies and spices. Here, sambal is life.

Muslim Malaysians are also going to be pleased to know that finding halal food in Indonesia is a breeze, compared to most other Southeast Asian countries. What’s more — they’re super cheap.

You’ll get authentic bakso, gado-gado, and nasi padang at only a fraction of the price you pay in upscale Indonesian restaurants in Kuala Lumpur.

And don’t forget the avocado smoothie. Avocados are a luxury item in Malaysia. In Indonesia, I remember paying only Rp10.000 (RM3) for a tall glass of thick, creamy avocado smoothie laced with chocolate syrup.

6. Indonesia is So Diverse

Speaking of halal food, although it’s relatively easy to find in Indonesia, one must not carelessly assume that all restaurants are halal.

In (West) Malaysia, if someone looks Malay, we often jump to the conclusion that they’re also Muslim. Therefore, Malaysians visiting Bali for the first time may be shell-shocked (and perhaps even enraged) to see Malay-looking people drinking Bintang and selling babi guling.

Now, before you call the religious police and scream “Blasphemy!”, remember that even though Indonesia has the largest Muslim population in the world, it is also very diverse, both geographically and culturally.

The country is made up of over 6,000 inhabited islands, each one with people of different cultures and beliefs. And yet, they all seem to identify themselves as proud Indonesians without squabbling over whose ethnicity / religion is the most supreme or who owns the land.

Something that we, (West) Malaysians, should try to learn, perhaps?

7. Indonesia's Traffic is Just as Bad

You think the rush-hour traffic in Malaysia is terrible? The macet in major Indonesian cities are just as bad, if not worse. According to The Jakarta Post, Jakarta roads have been one of the world’s most congested for many decades. 

In places where the roads are not so congested, you might encounter another problem: the atrocious driving habits of some of the locals. Case in point: the bus drivers going from Medan to Parapat (Lake Toba). If you’ve ever made this journey, you’d understand what I mean. It makes you want to call home and tell your family you love them.

However, you’ve got to applaud these drivers’ skills for being able to overtake other vehicles at full speed on narrow hill roads with poor conditions, no lights, and an apparent lack of traffic rules. Somehow, they manage to keep everyone alive. 

If you’re planning to self-drive a car or a scooter in Indonesia, you’d better be a highly skilled and experienced driver. Otherwise, I suggest you get a good travel insurance.

8. Indomaret & Alfamart are Your New Favorite Shops

Indomaret Indonesia
At Indomaret, Jogjakarta. 2011.

Have you heard of tourists in Japan and Thailand being obsessed with the 7-Elevens there? Well, Indonesia has their own versions that are worth checking out too.

Just like Thailand and its many 7 Elevens, Indonesia has an Indomaret or Alfamart (or both) on almost every street. And you’ll quickly learn to love these 24-hour convenience stores. They even have WiFi!

You’ll love discovering brands that are no longer available in Malaysia or brands that sound familiar but flavors you’ve never seen before.

Some of my favorite must-buy items are:

  • Teh Sosro Melati
  • Qtela Kerepek Singkong Rasa Balado
  • Qtela Kerepek Tempe Rasa Cabai Rawit
  • Indomie Mi Goreng Rasa Dendeng Balado / Rendang / any other flavor we don’t have back home
  • Tora Bika 3-in-1 Cappuccino
Let me know in the comments below if you’ve found any other gems I should try.

9. There's No Mee Bandung in Bandung

If you somehow got it into your head that you can find “authentic mee bandung” in Bandung, forget it. Nobody in Bandung has ever heard of that dish. Or sirap bandung for that matter.

Mee bandung is a 100% Malaysian dish (probably the only Malaysian dish in history that Indonesia can’t claim as their own, ahem).

The word bandung in this context means “mixed”, which presumably refers to the mixture of sauces in the soup. Or in the case of the drink, the mixture of sweetened rose syrup and milk.

Read: 10 Malaysian Noodle Dishes that You Must Try

You can, however, find dishes like rendang and satay, which really originated from Indonesia. In fact, there are more than 25 types of satay in Indonesia — from Satay Makassar to Satay Madura — although I personally think they can’t beat Malaysia’s Satay Kajang.

10. There's a Risk of Natural Disasters

In terms of our geographical location, we Malaysians are a lucky bunch.

Unlike our close neighbors Indonesia and the Philippines, we are safely ensconced in the middle, away from the Pacific Ring of Fire, where many earthquakes and volcanic eruptions occur. In 2018 alone, Indonesia was rattled by over 11,500 earthquakes!

Like a baby elephant being protected by the adults in the herd, we are also shielded from typhoons that hit Southeast Asia twenty times a year on average.

This makes us somewhat complacent and ignorant about natural disasters. I doubt many Malaysians know how to tell if a volcano is going to erupt or what to do in case of an earthquake.

So, it’s quite sobering to see notices like this in hotel rooms:

Earthquake warning in Indonesian hotel
What to do in case of an earthquake.

In any hotel that you stay in, it’s always wise to familiarize yourself with the evacuation route in case of emergencies, but even more so in earthquake-prone countries.

Final Thoughts

To all Malaysians who have yet to visit this beautiful neighbor of ours, I highly recommend that you do. I’ve visited Indonesia more than ten times over the last decade, and sometimes I still find little surprises that reminds me of how we are really two of the same kind. 

Despite our sibling rivalry and constant bickering over who invented which food (fine, Indonesia, you invented them, but we made them better), but all in all, we are more similar than we think.

Let’s celebrate these similarities and appreciate the differences that make each of us special in our own ways.

Have you been to Indonesia? What did you think of it the first time? Share your experience in the comment section below.

Posted in Indonesia

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24 Comments

  1. Ezna

    Pernah ke Indonesia juga. Sis pernah ke Jakarta, Medan, Padang, Bukittinggi dan Bali. Kalau kat Jakarta tu memang macet. Kalau nak balik tu kena bertolak awal ke airport takut macet pulak kat jalan. Sis rasa tenang ajer kalau ke Indonesia sebab budayanya lebih kurang kita. Nak cari makanan halal pun senang kecuali kat Bali.

    • ummi

      Betul sis, rasa macam ‘at home’ sangat kalau kat Indonesia ni sebab budaya dan bahasanya lebih kurang sama. Haha, part yang macet tu memang kena jaga-jaga kalau nak kejar flight.

  2. Rawlins GLAM

    I was in Medan when the tsunami happened. I remembered we were all running out of the hotel after watching the water in the pool suddenly splashes everywhere like, just like the waves in the ocean.
    But yes, I love Indonesia in a way that everybody lives harmoniously as I saw a mosque situated next to a church and everybody is so friendly

    • ummi

      Oh my, that must have been terrifying. I’ve had a few close calls myself, for example, I left Lombok weeks before the earthquake, and Bali weeks before Mt Agung erupted. Glad to know you were okay, but sad that so many lives were lost because of the tsunami.

  3. Ruby

    Akak ingat lagi masa pertama kali ke Indonesia. Akak ke Jogjakarta dan Dieng. Nak tengok candi dan nak try hiking kat negara orang. Akak tengok di sana, orangnya rajin berniaga. Bayangkan Ummi, akak keletihan hiking nak tengok sunrise. Tetiba ada kedai kecil jual teh susu panas. Nikmatnya tengok sunrise sambil minum air panas. Dieng tu kan tanah tinggi juga. Sejukkkkk. Masa tu tak snap gambar. Huwaaa. Kenapalah tak snap gambar waktu travel. Sekarang jadi sweet memory akak aje tau. 😔

    • ummi

      Sama la kak masa saya panjat Gunung Batur. Sampai sebelum matahari terbit tapi dah ada warung makan dah bukak kat atas tu. Betul apa yang akak cakap, diorang ni rajin dan pandai ambil peluang untuk cari rezeki. Yang berniaga di tepi highway, dan dalam bas pun ada.

    • ummi

      Indonesia ialah destinasi trip saya yang paling last sebelum pandemik bermula tahun lepas. Harapnya tak lama lagi kita semua boleh travel semula. 🙂

  4. khai artzfar

    walaupun family ada thai blood tapi khai boleh cakap yang indonesia is my 2nd home! even dalam family pun khai sorg je yang biggest fans of tempe. dulu before covid, khai akan make sure setahun sekali akan ke indonesia. i love all the foods and heritage dekat sana

    • ummi

      Mesti Khai rasa rindu gila kan sekarang, sebab dah setahun lebih tak dapat pergi Indonesia. Saya pun tak sabar nak pergi lagi. Banyak lagi tempat tak explore ni. 🙂

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