You may be worrying about traveling as an unmarried couple in Indonesia after reading news stories or travel advisories regarding Bali. There have been rumors circling around that Indonesia could propose and enforce laws that would punish both unmarried foreign and local couples.
As foreigners, you shouldn’t have anything to worry about traveling in Indonesia as an unmarried couple as long as you respect cultural norms and follow a few basic guidelines.
We traveled for months in Southeast Sulawesi, a conservative part of Indonesia, and in Raja Ampat (as beautifully pictured above!) over the past two years. In this time, we were traveling as an unmarried couple (technically as a “common law” couple).
Based on our own experiences and the recommendations of others (including gay couples who have traveled in Indonesia), we hope to offer some tips to hopefully make your lives easier during your travels. In a nutshell, we recommend:
- Saying that you’re married…
- Booking hotels (as an unmarried foreign couple) confidently and without worry (if in doubt, see #1)
- Avoiding all public displays of affection
- Dressing appropriately for the conservative surroundings
- For gay couples – most of the above rules apply (minus #1)
#1 – Sigh. Just… Pretend You’re Married
Traveling as a couple in Indonesia, you will be asked constantly, “Are you married?” or “Why aren’t you married?” and probably, “Do you have children? How many?”
This can get old quickly and feel invasive to some couples, but they’re common questions in Indonesia—people are curious! And they will ask these questions A LOT.
You might feel a little bit bad about it at first, but an easy solution is to just say you’re married (same sex couples see below). I know this can feel wrong to some people, and it’s not great to lie. But MAN, it will really make your conversations with many Indonesians easier. Make sure you and your partner get your stories straight beforehand too, and get used to saying “my husband” and “my wife.”
I wasn’t super comfortable with lying, even though it wasn’t exactly a lie for us—common-law is pretty much the same thing as being married in Canada. But it still didn’t feel great.
What made me feel better is remembering that I do FEEL married… and to me, there’s no difference between a committed unmarried couple and a married couple. But I felt bad at times because I knew that THEY observe a big difference between married and unmarried couples.
You can even go so far as to buy cheap fake wedding rings for when you travel to eliminate any doubt. In really traditional parts of Indonesia, the status of marriage makes you more respected and people may even treat you better.
We’re in a common-law relationship which is fully recognized and has all the privileges of marriage in Canada, but it doesn’t quite hold the same weight in Indonesia. I sometimes explained to my Indonesian friends that we were married on paper but just never had a ceremony. This is what common-law is!! (is how I justify this white lie in my head). I’m sorry Indonesian friends if you feel like this was being untruthful!
Are you learning to speak some Bahasa Indonesia for your travels? It’s a great idea, and will make your stay even more fun! Bahasa is a relatively easy language to learn and is mostly pronounced how it looks. We recommend memorizing some useful Indonesian phrases for when the inevitable questions come up about your relationship in conversations with Indonesians during your travels:
- kami menikah = We are married
- ini istri saya = This is my wife
- ini suami saya = This is my husband
#2 – You shouldn’t have any issues booking hotels as an Unmarried Couple
If you’re planning on traveling to Indonesia as an unmarried couple, you may be wondering if you’ll be able to book a hotel room together. As foreigners, there should be no problem. We never had a problem or heard of any friends or fellow travelers having a problem booking a room together as an unmarried couple.
Hotels would regularly scan both of our passports on check-in and show us to our room, no questions asked (and we have passports from different countries and different last names).
We stayed in hotels in Jakarta and Sulawesi, and in guesthouses in Raja Ampat with no issues. In Bali, asking travelers for paperwork to prove that they are married would either be damaging to the massive tourist industry there, or impossible to enforce because it is literally full of unmarried couples.
If you’re still worried, I revert back to my previous advice—just say that you’re married. I haven’t come across any actual cases of foreigners who were asked to show proof of marriage to check into a hotel.
#3 – Public Displays of Affection—Don’t do it!
PDA is always something couples should keep in mind when traveling abroad. We have to remember that in order to avoid offending local cultures, and to be good guests, we have to try to adapt and be respectful.
Keep public displays of affection to a minimum in Indonesia. Just observe what others around you are doing and follow suit (locals, not other tourists). I would always err on the side of caution if you’re not sure, just to avoid offending anyone or drawing unwanted attention to yourselves.
In Southeast Sulawesi, we didn’t feel comfortable even holding hands or hugging too long! Forget about kissing in public. We would probably make people faint. It’s just a very traditional area and you don’t see local couples ever touching each other. This isn’t the same as a vacation to Paris 🙂 Of course, inside the walls of your own hotel room is another story!
The exception would be on resorts, in Bali, in Raja Ampat…
#4 – How should we dress in Indonesia?
I’ve written about this a bit before in another post—When traveling in Indonesia, if you want to be treated well, you should respect the local customs. And this means dressing conservatively.
You’ll see in majority-Muslim parts of Indonesia, men and women are quite covered up. In Sulawesi, you won’t find either men or women in short shorts or tank tops, even in extreme heat and humidity.
There are always tourists who don’t respect the local customs, including in the way they dress. But we recommend you take the time to think about this aspect and it will make your trip much more enjoyable.
Plan to wear loose-fitting long pants or long skirts and dresses. Men should wear long pants but can get away with shorts (unless they go to a mosque or have to visit a government office for some reason—then they’ll need a pair of long pants). T-shirts or something to cover your shoulders is okay (not tank tops). Open-toed shoes and sandals are acceptable.
Again, just look around at what other people are doing and do your best to copy them.
The exception would be head scarves—women don’t have to wear them, and many Indonesian women choose not to wear them. Foreign women are definitely not expected to or required to cover their heads.
Also be aware on the beach of what is and isn’t appropriate—it can really vary from island to island and from beach to beach Indonesia, with some beaches full of foreigners in bikinis and others where women are fully dressed while swimming.
However, note that no matter where you are in Indonesia, skinny dipping or topless bathing for women will certainly offend people.
Traveling to Raja Ampat specifically? Check out our post What to Wear in Raja Ampat Without Offending People!
#5 – For Same-sex Couples Traveling in Indonesia
I don’t have expertise on traveling as a gay couple in Indonesia. However, gay couples that we met in Indonesia said they were able to enjoy traveling together but were also cautious—meaning, they kept PDA under wraps (just like straight couples). It seems that staying in hotel rooms together is not an issue.
Gay marriage isn’t legal in Indonesia. People will probably make the assumption that gay couples are friends traveling together and won’t ask questions.
By most accounts, there seems to be a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in place. Indonesia has been getting increasingly more conservative and some places have passed anti-gay bylaws (Aceh and Palembang in South Sumatra) but as of recently, it appears that foreigner gay couples have been able to travel in Indonesia without a problem.
We hope that these tips are useful for you and offer some insight into traveling Indonesia as an unmarried couple!