Some basic tips on local customs, etiquette, social norms and laws for a safe and enjoyable adventure in Sumatra.
Sumatra is not Bali !
It would seem the most important thing for foreign tourists to remember is Sumatra is not Bali ! Behaviour and dress that is tolerated in Bali is seen as offensive, vulgar and a show of disrespect for the local customs in Sumatra.
Religion in Sumatra
90% of Sumatran people are conservative Muslims (unlike Bali which is 87% Hindu). Your trip to Sumatra will be much more relaxed and enjoyable if you take the time to understand some of the customs specific to Islamic cultures and respect them during your visit.
Six important customs and etiquettes
- Appropriate clothing. Make sure you know what is appropriate for where you are visiting.
- Avoid using your left hand to touch someone, handing something to someone, or point towards something. Indonesians use the left hand for all bathroom activity, and it's considered ‘dirty’. Wash your hands before you eat Muslims do it automatically because it is a hadith (rule).
- Seek permission before entering someone’s room.
- Do not critizise people directly or indirectly. If you are asked your opinion about someone it's best to say "I don't know". If you are asked if someone can be trusted the appropriate answer is "maybe ?".
- Restrain your anger. Angry or agressive behaviour will get you nowhere and could end you up in trouble.
- Show respect to elders and those in high positions.
- Finish your whole plate of food.
- Body language is often used in a discreet way to underline a point when doing so verbally would be considered bad etiquette. As an example standing hands on hips in the classic Superman pose is considered confrontational.
- Finger Pointing is considered rude in Indonesia. It gives the impression of being patronizing, angry or bossy.
You need to be considerate about your clothing. Make sure you know what is appropriate for where you are visiting. As an example government offices may require a shirt and shoes and not allow you to enter the building in flip-flops or a T-shirt.
If you plan to disregard local etiquette and wear inappropriate clothing it is advised you do so within your surf camp to avoid hostile or dangerous situations.
Women should ensure they are adequately covered (shoulders, chest and at the very least shorts that cover the knees) and possibly wearing a head covering if visiting small villages.
If you are a women wearing revealing clothing like a bikini you could be mistaken for a foreign prostitue from Bali which will lead to an uncomfortable or even dangerous situation.
Men should always wear a shirt or T-shirt and at the very least shorts that cover their knees. Sumatra is not the place to break out your favourite mankini.
If you'r a surfer wearing your boardshorts half way down your ass then don't be surprised if a “warias” propositions you or a local gives you the middle finger.
Interaction between men and women
Affection between a man and woman is not to be shown in public. What is considered normal behaviour in your home country may be interpreted as something quite different in Sumatra.
As a man you should avoid contact with a woman you are not familiar with. In almost all circumstances touching a woman you do not know very well is not acceptable behaviour.
As a woman, you should be distantly polite to the men you meet. Anything more can be quickly interpreted as showing interest and that could get you more attention than you want.
LGBTQ+ matters are still rather taboo topics in Sumatra. LGBTQ+ travelers should always avoid all public displays of affection. In some areas of Sumatra you could be publicly caned for any display of LGBTQ+ affections.
Consumption of alcohol and drugs
Consumption of alchohol is legal in the Lampung province of Sumatra, however both marijuana and psychedelic mushrooms are illegal.
Consumption of alcohol in Islamic communities is frowned upon so it's best to not take alcohol with you to drink at a local beach or into a village. Keep your alcohol consumption within your accommodation if they allow it or to restaurants that serve it. If you are invited to a local event or into a family home do not take alcohol with you.
Marijuana & Psychedelic Mushrooms
Respond to hostility with good manners
Unfortunately over the years local Lampung residents have seen some appauling behaviour from visiting international surfers. It's now common for foreign tourists to be the target of abusive behaviour from some local people. So if you are met with a hostile reception while exploring the area always remain, calm, polite and friendly. If you get the middle finger from someone it's better to respond with a friendly wave. If you are spat at just ignore it. If however you get rocks thrown at you it's time to quickly leave the area.
Imagine how you might feel towards tourists visiting your neighbourhood if you were often woken in the night to find them drunk and naked chasing your dog through your backyard ? It would probably bring out your hostile nature.