With over 17,500 islands, Indonesia is the world’s largest archipelago. This culturally diverse corner of South-East Asia maintains a rich tradition of music, art, dance, storytelling and craft, and offers a rich and varied lifestyle for expats.
Nevertheless, as exciting and exotic as the country is, there are still some downsides to living in Indonesia. Depending on the origins of an expat, these things may be of little or no concern, but they are worth considering if they're thinking of settling in Indonesia.
Lifestyle in Indonesia
+ PRO: Vibrant nightlife and entertainment
The nightlife in Indonesian cities is vibrant and varied, so it’s not difficult to have a good time if one knows where to look for it. In Jakarta, the cultural side of life is rich with regular art shows, live music, and film festivals. International rock bands and famous singers regularly perform gigs hosted in the city.
Despite alcohol being very expensive, it’s not prohibited and there are many popular bars and clubs to choose from. There are plenty of excellent places to eat and drink or relax with a coffee. Indonesian food is excellent and varied enough to cater to everyone’s dietary needs. If expats find themselves craving Western fast food, there are the usual American fast food joints dotted around most cities and international food is available in all the major tourist spots.
- CON: Conservative culture
Expats in Indonesia will find themselves having to adjust to and respect the local customs. Islam is the majority religion and carries a conservative culture that may be difficult for expats to understand. The dress code is more modest than what some expats may be used to, and it's best to wear loose-fitted clothing and to cover knees and shoulders.
+ PRO: Expat organisations
For expats, especially women who feel isolated from their compatriots, there are a number of well-run and established organisations which host meetings, events and talks. They offer support and can give help and advice on any number of issues that may arise.
There are also various organisations that expats can join and volunteer with if they would like to support one of the many charities that work in Indonesia. The very young, the elderly and the sick are particularly vulnerable.
- CON: Social inequalities and poverty
Indonesia's poverty and the disparity between the rich and the poor is something that expats might find quite shocking. Nothing can prepare expats for this, especially those coming from more developed and richer nations. It’s not uncommon to see small children with babies tied to their fronts, ducking and diving through the heavy, polluted traffic and begging in Indonesian cities. For many Indonesians, living in poverty is all that they have ever known and there are few support systems to change this situation.
Accommodation in Indonesia
- CON: Overcrowding
Finding accommodation in Indonesia, especially if spacious living is a priority, is difficult. Space comes at a premium in Jakarta so expect to pay a lot more if wanting a house with a garden in an expat area. Most people opt to live in apartments. If choosing to live in an expat area, also be prepared to pay a lot more than if living among the locals. In major Indonesian cities, traffic can be horrific so, ideally, expats should try to live somewhere that is as close to work as possible.
Healthcare in Indonesia
+ PRO: Decent healthcare
Most minor medical emergencies can be handled from within Indonesia. For any serious emergencies, however, Singapore, which has world-class medical facilities, is just a two-hour flight away. Good private dentists are available and dental costs are usually cheaper than what one would expect to pay in the West.
- CON: Poor sanitation
Stomach bugs are a part of life in Indonesia and are easily contracted by expats. Dengue fever is another serious problem, especially in the rainy season, and internal parasites are not uncommon. Only bottled water should be consumed, and if possible expats should try not to eat the street food, however tempting it may look or smell. Fresh juices are sold widely from carts on the roadside in Indonesia; they are often diluted with water of dubious origin and can cause serious illness.
Transport in Indonesia
+ PRO: Affordable taxis
Taxis are abundant and ridiculously cheap when compared to the West, and if tipped well the driver will wait for passengers while they do their shopping. It is uncommon for expats to drive in Jakarta and most people employ a driver. A good driver is well worth the cost as they have knowledge of all the side streets to make travelling around more bearable. Having a driver in the West would be considered a luxury; here in Indonesia, it is a part of life for most people with a stable income.
- CON: Traffic congestion
One of the greatest disadvantages of living in Jakarta is the traffic. With over 12 million people using the city’s roads daily, congestion is a nightmare and traffic jams are a normal part of life. The pollution generated by the exhaust fumes hangs like an umbrella over the city and the public transport system leaves much to be desired. Motorcycle taxis known as ojeks are good, but not always ideal if it’s pouring with rain or if one has shopping bags to carry.
Cost of living in Indonesia
+ PRO: Cheap food, communications and household help
Eating out is very cheap if alcohol is not included. Shopping for local fresh produce in the markets and warungs is fun and there are great bargains to be found. If buying locally and skipping the supermarkets, one can live well and very cheaply.
Mobile phone tariffs are good value and broadband or cable is easily installed and not expensive. To hire household help of any kind, be it household staff, a gardener, driver or nanny, the cost is considerably cheaper than in the West. Textiles are abundant in Indonesia and considered cheap. By finding the right tailor, made-to-measure clothes become a way of life.
- CON: Expensive imported products
The cost of living does vary depending on what one buys, though. In general, any imported goods are much more expensive than Indonesian products.
Shopping for food in the supermarkets, especially Western-styled ones, can be very expensive. Electricity bills can be disproportionately high, and for people who are used to getting visits to the doctor and certain medicines for free, healthcare will need to be accounted for in the budget.