Safety in Indonesia

Indonesia seemingly has a reputation as being one of the more unsafe countries in Asia and often tourists and expats are cautioned against visiting. While expats should always be aware of the latest travel advice issued by their home government, most of the time there is no need to worry about safety in Indonesia. 

Generally speaking, by simply keeping informed and being aware of the potential dangers, expats can minimise their risks of coming to harm. Most visitors and residents spend their time in Indonesia peacefully without any problems. It makes sense to be aware of the risks but there is no need to live in fear.

Indonesia is a large country spread over thousands of islands, all with their own unique culture and infrastructure. This can make advice for visiting the country as a whole difficult. Visiting Jakarta will be a very different experience from visiting one of the small islands. Certain provinces such as Aceh and Papua are considered to be more dangerous for visitors than the rest of the country due to ethnic violence and political instability.

The problems Indonesia faces are further compounded by an underdeveloped infrastructure that is inadequate to cope with regularly occurring natural disasters, including earthquakes and flooding. Religious and ethnic tensions, which are inevitable with many different ethnic groups living side by side, are also the root cause of much of the crime in Indonesia, including a high risk of terrorism. 

Crime in Indonesia

Crime rates in Indonesia are relatively high, particularly in urban areas such as Jakarta and Surabaya. Pickpocketing is common, as is bag-snatching – usually from the back of a motorbike. To reduce the risk of being a victim of such crimes, expats can take simple steps such as wearing a secure bag that cannot easily be snatched from their shoulder and keeping items within the seat storage area rather than on their person when traveling by motorbike.

Home break-ins are also a risk and are becoming more common even in areas thought to be safe, such as Bali. Homes should have appropriate security measures such as secure locks and gates. Expats may want to consider hiring security staff, particularly if living in an isolated area.

There have been reports of crimes against people using unlicensed taxis ranging from extortionate fares to armed robberies. It is recommended to use only reputable taxi firms such as Blue Bird and Silver Bird when in urban areas. Carjacking is not unheard of, particularly in Jakarta, and it is advisable to keep the doors of vehicles locked at all times.

ATM fraud also seems to be a common occurrence, although most banks have taken steps to improve the security of their machines in recent years. When using any ATM it is important to check for any suspicious persons in the vicinity and inspect the machine before use.

Credit card fraud is also a concern and it is recommended to use cash wherever possible. Expats should take extra care to monitor their account and inform their bank immediately of any unauthorised activity.

In recent years there have been a number of deaths and serious illnesses caused by locals and tourists drinking alcohol spiked with methanol, mostly on the tourist islands of Bali and Lombok. The local spirit arak seems to be the main culprit but even some branded spirits, including vodka and rum, may be local copies and should not be considered safe. 

Road safety in Indonesia

Road accidents are one of the main causes of hospitalisation and death to foreigners in Indonesia. Traffic is busy and chaotic, particularly in urban centres, and traffic rules are rarely enforced. Roads are overcrowded and it is common for motorbikes to overtake on both sides. Most drivers of both cars and motorbikes have never received formal training and even children drive themselves to school on motorbikes. Extreme weather conditions in the wet season and poor road conditions add to the problems.

When an accident occurs it is common for any foreigner involved (in some cases just as a witness) to be implicated as the cause of the accident and forced to pay money for the repair of vehicles and hospital fees. The involvement of police is certainly not a guarantee against this.

It is common for tourists and expatriates to rent motorcycles as personal transport, particularly in tourist areas like Bali. If renting a motorcycle, expats should have adequate insurance and wear a helmet at all times. An International Driving Permit issued in Indonesia is necessary by law, although many drivers choose to simply pay a small fine to the police when stopped.

Expats unfamiliar with driving in Indonesia should rather consider hiring a car with a driver. 

Air and sea travel safety in Indonesia

Most of the domestic airlines of Indonesia have been banned from operating in the EU due to inadequate safety records. Expats should avoid travelling on airlines that are subject to the ban.

There have been a number of fatal accidents involving passenger boats in recent years. As Indonesia is made up of many islands, travelling between them by boat is common but a lack of safety equipment and unpredictable weather can make this an unsafe option. 

Terrorism in Indonesia

Terrorism is a real threat in Indonesia and there have been a number of terrorist attacks and bombings that have caused injury and deaths to foreign nationals in recent years. The worst attack occurred in Bali in 2002 when three bombs in the heavily populated tourist area of Kuta killed over 200 people. There have been a number of smaller attacks in the country since then. 

The Indonesian government has taken steps to fight terrorism, but attacks are unpredictable and places frequented by tourists and expatriates are most at risk of being hit. These include foreign embassies, shopping malls, Western hotels, airports and popular tourist areas. It's important to remain vigilant, particularly around holiday times.

Due to political and religious tensions, certain nationalities are sometimes targeted so it is important to stay up to date with the advice given by foreign embassies. Expatriates should always register their contact details with their national embassy so that they can be contacted in an emergency. 

Natural disasters in Indonesia

Indonesia is located on the Pacific 'Ring of Fire' and earthquakes and volcanic eruptions are frequent. As an archipelago, a high percentage of the land in Indonesia is located in coastal areas and so tsunamis resulting from large earthquakes can be catastrophic. Indonesia was the worst-hit country in the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami with over 130,000 people confirmed dead.

Flooding is also a problem during the rainy season and flash floods and landslides occur frequently. Jakarta is hit particularly badly with flooding every year.

Many buildings in Indonesia are not constructed to the same standards that are found in other earthquake-prone areas and the infrastructure to deal with natural disasters is limited. Emergency telephone numbers do exist (see below) but are unreliable. Most hospitals have private ambulances but in many cases it is quicker to use one's own transport. 

Food and water safety in Indonesia

Tap water in Indonesia is usually not safe for drinking and bottled water should be used for drinking, cooking and brushing teeth. Commercial bottled water is inexpensive and widely available. Be wary of drinks containing ice from roadside stalls and smaller local-style restaurants, as it may not be made with bottled or boiled water. Hot drinks such as tea are usually safe.

Food may not be prepared to the same hygiene standards as many expats are used to and gastro-intestinal illnesses are common. To avoid any problems, avoid salads, undercooked eggs, buffets and fish and meat that are not served hot.

It's common for many meals in Indonesia to be served at room temperature and for food that has been cooked to be left out for several hours, for example nasi campur (white rice and vegetables and/or meat) and food found in Padang restaurants where the available dishes are displayed in bowls stacked in the window. The spices in the food usually prevent it from spoiling but it makes sense only to eat in restaurants that look clean and are busy with customers. 

Health risks in Indonesia

Rabies is present in Indonesia, and Bali, with a high number of roaming street dogs, is currently the area carrying the highest risk. There is sometimes a shortage of the rabies vaccine on Bali and if unobtainable, any person being bitten must be evacuated for medical reasons within 24 hours. For this reason it is advisable to have a rabies vaccination before visiting Bali or any remote areas of Indonesia. If bitten by a dog or other animal, immediate medical attention should be sought.

Mosquitoes are common throughout the whole of Indonesia and there is a risk of malaria, with the highest risk areas being Lombok and Irian Jaya (Papua). Dengue fever is another mosquito-borne disease that is common in Indonesia and for which there is no preventive medication or vaccination. Expats should minimise their exposure to mosquitos by using mosquito nets, coils and repellent spray, and covering their skin as much as possible in the evening. 

Emergency numbers in Indonesia

The following numbers are the official national emergency response numbers of Indonesia but cannot always be relied on, particularly in remote areas:

  • Police: 110

  • Fire service: 113

  • Ambulance: 118