Favorite Indonesian Words and Phrases

After three years of living in Indonesia, I have been lucky to learn quite a bit of Bahasa Indonesia.  I in no way consider myself fluent, but I function fairly well, and I am incredibly thankful for that.  While learning this dynamic and wonderful language, I have come across a few phrases that I have really come to love.  Some are funny, some are beautiful.  But I love them all, and wanted to share them here.

Tidak apa apa.  This literally translates to “No what what,” and using the English version is guaranteed to make a classroom of English-learners giggle uncontrollably.  It means “no problem,” or “it’s okay,” and Indonesians say it all the time.  Yes, sometimes this relaxed nature can get on my nerves, and I find myself ranting in my head: “That is not something you can just tidak apa apa!”  But at the end of the day I admire it, and feel that people in my own country could learn something from this.  And I love the various ways different regions shorten the phrase: “Tak pa pa,” “Ga pa pa,” and even “gpp” in sms.

Hati-Hati.  This phrase means “Be careful.”  It can be used on its own, like when you might warn a small child not to touch a stove.  But it can also be used as part of the larger phrase “Hati-hati di jalan,” or “Be careful on the road,” which is said almost every time you part ways with someone.  What I love about this phrase is that hati is also the word for the metaphorical heart[1].  That this phrase so directly connects the idea of parting ways with someone to the heart is still so touching to me, even after three years of hearing it almost every day.

Mandi bebek.  Mandi is the Indonesian word for “shower” or “bathe,” and in a country where cleanliness is of the upmost importance and people will probably be shocked if you tell them that you shower only once a day, this is an important word to know.  Mandi bebek means “duck shower” and this is a short shower, in which you just rinse your body and don’t wash your hair or use soap.  Any equivalents I know of in English are either far cruder or far less adorable, and as the queen of mandi bebek (a quick rinse-off at the end of a hot day of teaching is so key to decent mental health), I was ecstatic when I learned this word existed.

Anda.  This is the formal Indonesian word for you.  It is always capitalized, while no other pronoun is.  As a native speaker of English, where the capitalized pronoun is “I,” the word for the self, I am fascinated by this emphasis on the other, and the diminishing of the self.  There is a selflessness in Indonesian culture that is beautiful, and it seems it comes out even in the language.

Malu-malu kucing.  This literally translates to “shy-shy cat,” and it is usually used to good-naturedly tease someone who is shy, or malu-malu.  Teachers use it all the time to coax students who are too embarrassed by their English to speak up in class: “Jangan malu-malu kucing!” (“Don’t be shy-sky cat!”).  And it often works.  The very fact that the phrase is amusing often helps nervous students to relax and smile at least a little, and I wish there was a phrase in English that could do the same.

Belum and Sudah.  Belum means “not yet,” and sudah means, “already.”  While there are words for yes and no in Indonesian, iya and tidak, to respond to many questions it is far more common to use the words belum and sudah, and I have always found this particularly fascinating when it comes to belum.  “Have you eaten?”  “Belum.”  “Have you studied for a graduate degree?”  “Belum.”  Have you been to Lombok?” “Belum.”  There is the assumption that just because you haven’t done something yet, doesn’t mean you never will.  And so, you don’t answer with a firm no, but merely a “not yet.”  There is an inherent optimism and recognition of opportunity in this phrasing that I find really wonderful, and it has made me re-think how I think about the future.

Mandi hujan.  This means, “rain shower,” and is the word used for playing in the rain, and many Indonesians use it even if the mandi hujan was unintentional.  If I come home soaked to the bone, because I forgot my umbrella, I joke with the security in front of the building that I was mandi hujan.  I learned this phrase from one of my students, who loved mandi hujan so much that he simply could not stay still if the rain started to fall.  Almost every time we had class together, because his English class fell at a time when the rains would come like clockwork, the way they do in Indonesia, he would start to dance in his seat and look longingly out the windows.  I would help him to focus as best as I could, and if he could finish his tasks for that day, and could show me that he understood his homework, he would look up at me and say, “Mandi hujan, miss?” and I would let him leave class a few minutes early, and would see him later on, walking home, soaking wet and deliriously happy.  Rain has always brought me joy, and cloudy days have never been dreary for me.  My student’s shared love of rain has made this one of my favorite Indonesian phrases.

Bapak, Ibu, Kakak, and Adik.  The simplest translations for these words are: Bapak as “father,” Ibu as “mother,” kakak as “older sibling,” and adik as “younger sibling.”  These are used to talk about actual family members—my brother, for example, is my adik laki-laki—but it is also used as a form of address in many parts of Indonesia.  Older women are Ibu, or Bu, and older men are Bapak, or Pak.  Anyone similar in age or only slightly older is kakak, or kak and younger folks are adik, or dik.  You use these words even when you meet someone for the first time, and I am fascinated by this immediate familiarity.  Like Anda, this seems to echo something in the larger culture that I have observed: in such a communal society, neighbors and even strangers are like family.

This is in no way an exhaustive list of the Indonesian words and phrases I have come to love, and I am sure that I will learn more wonderful Indonesian even during the last month I have left.  But I hope that you all enjoyed this list!




[1] Regarding physical body parts, jatung is “heart,” and hati is “liver.”  This means than an alternative translation for hati-hati di jalan is “Liver-liver on the road,” something my students in English Club found hilarious, and so we used that phrase exclusively for the year.

Third Time’s a Charm: I Finally Made it to Borneo

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You don’t get blue skies like this in Jakarta.  

Ever since I first became an English Teaching Assistant (ETA) in Indonesia, I have wanted to go on the riverboat tour in Tanjung Puting National Park to see the orangutans of Kalimantan (the name for the Indonesian potion of Borneo).  Typhoid led to my deciding not to go on the trip during my first grant, and last year because of a broken plane my trip to the jungles of Kalimantan turned into a completely unexpected but equally wonderful trip to Solo with two other stranded ETAs.  I was hoping against hope that this year I might finally make it to Borneo, an island I had not had a chance to visit at all during my time as an ETA.

And finally, the little bit of luck I keep in my back pocket came through.  My housemate had family visit recently, and one of the places they wanted to visit while here was Tanjung Puting.  When she asked me if I wanted to accompany them, I jumped at the chance.

The trip was magical.


Shout out to our wonderful guide, Rini, and to Caitlin and Liane, wonderful travel companions.  (Photo credit to Caitlin.)  

We were greeted at the airport by our absolutely lovely guide, Rini, and immediately whisked away to our boat, where we met our lively crew and the adorable cook’s son, whom Reni put right in my lap as we pulled away from the dock.

Having not escaped the smog of Jakarta in over a month, I was overjoyed to find that I could already breathe so much more easily.  And while we thought that we would merely stay on the boat our first day, we actually went almost directly to our first orangutan feeding.

Seeing an orang hutan (orangutan, or literally jungle person) gently passing from tree to tree above our heads was simply surreal.  During my time in Indonesia, I have come across smaller primates, and my mind can wrap itself around their existence in the pohon (trees).  But orangutans are so much larger, that I found myself convinced that at any moment the branches would break and they would come crashing down onto the jungle floor.  But they never did.

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Just a few of the orang hutan we saw on our trip.

We went to three feedings during our trip.  Many of the orangutans that come to the feedings were what the guides called semi-liar (semi-wild), as they are the offspring of rehabilitated orangutans.  We saw mothers with babies, adolescent males, single adult females, and even the occasional older male.  Not matter how many orang hutan came our way, we never grew bored, but stayed enraptured by the privilege of bearing witness to such amazing creatures.

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You can see in this photo how the water changes from natural black to a polluted brown.  

I was also incredibly impressed by the conservation education present at each station.  There were explanations of the dangers of the palm industry, especially regarding the slash and burn techniques that pose such a threat to the jungles of the area and that were a major cause of the horrible haze of smoke in 2015.  Animal trafficking was also heavily discussed at many of the stations.  All throughout the trip, I was impressed by how conscious of these issues our crew were, and how eager they were to make us aware of mankind’s negative effect on the area.  When we came to a fork in the river, for example, they were quick to point out where the water changed from the deep black that was natural, to a muddy, polluted brown, caused by a gold mine farther up river.

Orangutans weren’t the only animals we came across on our trip.  We saw several other primates as well: long-tailed macaques, gibbons, and monyet belanda (Dutch monkeys, also known as proboscis monkeys).  A family of babi hutan (jungle pigs, or wild boars) came to one of the feeding stations and fed on the bananas that fell from the platform, and we even saw a crocodile one night, lurking in the reeds alongside our boat.  Our first night Rini also invited us on a night trek, and we came across all sorts of creepy crawlies, including a tarantula.

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From left to right: long-tailed macaques, a gibbon, and monyet belanda.

While on our night trek, we also came across a glowing fungus, which I had never heard of before and was completely fascinated by.  The ranger guiding us through the forest asked us to turn off our flashlights, and while I was a bit hesitant in doing so, I was so glad he had us do so.  Once the lights had dimmed, we could see the fungus all around us, like tiny bits of galaxy peeking through the leaves.


Our captain (left) was clearly too cool for our selfie, and the first mate (right) was very shy but extremely sweet. (Photo credit to Caitlin.)

As impressive as this celestial fungus was, the actual night skies were perhaps the most beautiful part of the trip.  The milky way was draped above our heads as we ate a candlelit dinner on the deck of the boat, and I honestly cannot remember the last time I saw stars shining so bright.

The time to leave the boat came all too soon: none of us were ready to leave.  But our adventures in Kalimantan were not over just yet, as we still had a day in Pankalanbun before flying back to Jakarta.


Don’t get on this raja‘s bad side.  He may point at you.

After first stopping at a place where we could buy local fabrics, Reni took us to Istana Kuning (Yellow Palace), where the raja (king) and his family lived and ruled until Indonesia became an Independent Republic.  The palace was filled with fun relics from the legacy of the raja, including a painting of one king who supposedly had a black tongue that created wounds when he licked people, and who always gestured to people with his thumb because he could cause someone to fall ill simply by pointing at them with his index finger.


One of the teams competing at the bird calling competition.  (Photo credit to Caitlin.) 

Lunch was delicious ikan bakar (grilled fish), and as we drove through the city on out tour, Reni happened to notice a banner at the entrance of the local army base, which announced that a bird competition was happening that day.  No one was entirely sure what this entailed, so we stopped to check it out.  It turns out it was a competition for pet songbirds, in which the burung (birds) were judged by how frequently they sang.  I had certainly never seen anything like it.  Reni did worry that many of the songbirds had most likely been taken from the jungle, and I’m sure she was right.   It was yet another reminder of how mankind’s interests tend to so negatively shape our planet.

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Teaching some adorable little boys how to say “th.”  (Photo credit to Caitlin.) 

Our tour ended with a visit to an English Community, where we were able to spend a little time with a group of seven- to eleven-year-olds, who gathered each week to study English together.  The group was run entirely by volunteers, and the course was free for the children who joined.  I loved the opportunity to work with young people again, even only for a brief moment, and it was a joy to meet the people running the program.  And after having gained so much from our experience in the area, I was glad we had the opportunity to give something back, however small.

It took me almost three full years in Indonesia to finally visit Kalimantan, but it was well worth the wait.  I can’t wait for the opportunity to return, and learn more about this beautiful place.

Caitlin, who took some of the wonderful selfies and other people pictures that I used in this blog, also wrote about out trip to Tanjung Puting, as well as her other adventures in Indonesia.  You can find her blog here.