Surviving Jakarta: A Tourist Guide for First Time Visitors

The National Monument or Monas in Central Jakarta. It’s topped with a flame made of 14.5 tons of bronze and plated with 35 kg of gold (in case you’re interested). Photo: Coconuts Media

Congratulations on safely landing (or safely docking if you’re the old fashioned type) in the Big Durian! Somebody back home may have warned you about the culture shock you may experience during your first visit to Jakarta, but fear not, for we here at Coconuts Jakarta is here to help with this fool-proof survival guide.

To start off with, foreigners here (particularly white people) are called “bule” (pronounced ‘boo-lay’). Many bules in the past have made the seamless transition to living comfortably in Jakarta, but many also found it too uncomfortable to be out of their Western comfort zone that they end up feeling like they don’t belong here.

You’d often hear locals snicker and mutter “stupid bule” under their breath at the sight of the clueless latter group of people. Worse, locals here take advantage of such bules because, let’s face it; they’re seen as gullible and easily scammable sources of income.

We want your first visit to Jakarta to be memorable for all the good reasons. So here’s an overview of what to expect and what you should and shouldn’t do.

At the airport

Soekarno-Hatta International Airport Terminal 3.

Once you’re at the Soekarno-Hatta International Airport, you can get your tourist visa on arrival for US$ 35 that entitles you to stay in the country for 30 days if you’re a citizen of one of these 61 countries

After you get past customs, the first thing you may see is a moneychanger counter. Try not to be tempted to exchange your valuable foreign currency to Rupiah here right away – the airport rates rip you right off. Instead, go to a moneychanger at shopping malls later on if you can. Look for Dua Sisi, VIP Moneychanger or DolarIndo for the best rates.

The moment you’re outside the airport, crowds of illegal taxi drivers will approach you with incessant “Sir/Madam, come my taxi” pleas. Just put on your most sincere smile and politely say “tidak, terima kasih” (no, thank you). They’ll still be on your ass but they’ll eventually grow tired and move on to other recently arrived passengers.

We recommend that you queue up and take Blue Bird Taxis or Express Taxis. Those with money to burn can consider the more expensive Silver Bird or Tiara Express. These taxis charge you by the meter. Refuse anything otherwise (tidak, terima kasih).

In the bathroom

The drive from the airport to the city may be quite time consuming, so it would be wise for you to empty out the tank(s) before you leave. Why do you need a guide to the bathroom? Because bathroom etiquette is totally different here than what you’re probably used to.

In Southeast Asian toilets, instead of toilet paper, you’ll often find a hose with a small showerhead just like this one:

Behold, the butt sprayer.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is the butt sprayer. Its function is pretty much self-explanatory, but using it takes some learning. Once you’re done answering to nature’s call, you take the butt sprayer (which is usually on your right side) towards the gap between your legs and have the showerhead aimed at your pooper. Pull the trigger and let the water cleanse you.

Some more extreme individuals add soap into the mix; they put the soap in their left hand and rub the anus clean of fecal matter while the right hand sprays water from the butt sprayer to rinse everything. This is exactly why people do not eat with their left hands in Indonesia.

If you’re really unlucky, you might come across the ‘hole in the ground’ toilet. You will be required to squat as you go about your business, which is actually medically proven to be better for bowel movements. 

The only problem with the hole toilet is that, unlike the more effective butt sprayer, you’d have to wash yourself with water using a small bucket. It’s a tricky and messy maneuver that takes years to perfect – even we stay away from it to this day.

If butt spraying or butt bucketing isn’t for you, then consider carrying toilet paper with you at all times. We just think our way of cleaning ourselves is a whole lot more hygienic than just wiping with paper.

As for the gents, you may find in urinals that there’s usually water dripping down from the top. That is not a leak; the water is there for you to wash the tip of your ‘hose’ after a pee. The last thing Indonesian men want is for leftover urine to stick to the hose and go all over the underwear, stinking it up.

Our bathroom etiquette is arguably a lot more thorough than that in the West, but just be sure to wash your hands with soap afterwards.

In the taxi

Most Indonesian taxi drivers aren’t trained to speak English, so it’s best that you prepared a clear address of your destination and show it to the driver. A printed out map, or Google Maps on your phone could help speed things along.

From the Soekarno-Hatta Airport, it’s almost unavoidable that you’ll have to take toll roads in order to get into the city (unless you’re going Tangerang way). Note that you must pay for toll charges, which is why it would be handy to have up to Rp 50k in change for the taxi ride. If not, you can instruct your driver to add up the toll charges to the total fare.

Once you reach your destination, it is advisable (though not customary) to round up the fare to the nearest Rp 5k or 10k. Taxi drivers rarely have small change handy anyway, so you can just pass it off as tip.

Just to give you a picture, a Blue Bird or Express Taxi ride from the airport to the center of the city (let’s say, the National Monument or ‘Monas’) should cost you Rp 200k-300k, depending on traffic conditions on the day.

The trustworthy Blue Bird taxi.

Eating out

In Jakarta you can find fine Indonesian cuisine from all over the archipelago. What you must know about Indonesian food is that it’s mostly spicy and we strongly advise you to start with the mild variety and then work your way up to the level of the big boys if you want to avoid gastrointestinal problems.

If your stomach is not up for it, avoid eating at street stalls or what is commonly known as “kaki lima” (food carts, literally five legs) here. There have been many a horror stories about the hygienic quality of their food and beverages. Even the ice cubes that go into drinks can be laced with nasty chemicals. 

Food at established restaurants can be as authentic and delicious as street food, with the added bonus of (generally) better hygiene. There, you should try to eat as locals do, because when in Rome, right? Don’t know how? Well, you’re in luck, because we happen to have this video made by yours truly:

We were young and hot back then.

It’s not customary to leave a tip for the servers at a restaurant in Jakarta, as you are charged a service tax anyway. But if you do, you’ll be loved by your waiter/waitress. Even a Rp 10k tip at a non-fancy establishment would be greatly appreciated.

Out and about

Jakartans are liberal enough in that there isn’t a strict dress code imposed on citizens or tourists. But you must be aware of your surroundings; if you’re out and about at a mall or a nightclub, then feel free to wear whatever would be considered appropriate in the West (or Down Under). But say you’re venturing through the narrow streets of Jakarta’s neighborhood villages or shanty towns, then it would be best to dress conservatively if you don’t want to be ogled at or lectured by the locals.

Ms Minaj here magically pulls off ‘acceptable’ and ‘downright insulting’ in one outfit. Try to guess which side is which.

Jakarta only knows two weathers: rain or shine (AKA blazing hot). When it rains, bring an umbrella with you (obviously). Umbrellas are also quite useful when it’s really, really hot outside. You may even see some women use an umbrella in ridiculously hot weather to protect their delicate fair skin from exposure to sunlight. Otherwise, a baseball cap, t-shirt, shorts, and sandals combo is the way to go if you want to venture outside during the day. Bring a spare change of clothes as you would probable be drenched in sweat in no time.

You might also want to wear a mask to protect yourself from the city’s air pollution. You can get one of those at any minimarket (FYI, the famous ones here are Indomaret, Alfa Mart, and 7-11).

Some useful vocab

Bule (boo-lay) – You
Stupid bule (stoo-pid boo-lay) – Not you, if you make this guide your bible
Maling! (mah-ling!) – Robber/pickpocket. Shout this out loud when you’ve been mugged. Chances are locals will help you apprehend the perp and beat him senseless
Enggak apa apa (ng-gak pa-pa) – No problem
Ini apa? (ee-knee a-pah?) – What’s this?
Kamu cantik/ganteng (kah-moo chan-teek/gahn-tehng) – You’re beautiful/handsome. Say this when you want to score a local. Works 8.3 times out of 10.

There you have it, now you should have all the information you need to have a great time in Indonesia’s wondrous capital city. So, as the uninspiring motto from the city’s tourism board goes: Enjoy Jakarta!


While you’re here, check out these articles that could be useful during your stay in Jakarta:

The best most ridiculously delicious burgers in Jakarta


6 awesome all-you-can-eat restaurant deals in Jakarta for less than Rp 150k


24 free smartphone apps that will make your life in Jakarta easier and awesomer


Plan your 2015 vacations now! Taking advantage of Indonesia’s public holidays and long weekends


11 of our favourite new restaurants in Jakarta from 2014



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