Knowing how to say hello in Indonesian (Bahasa Indonesia) is going to come in very handy while traveling there. Sure, "hi" and "hello" work in Indonesia like everywhere else, but using some basic Indonesian greetings leads to more fun during interactions.
In places such as Sumatra, you'll leave a wake of "Hello, mister!" everywhere you walk. The locals love to say hello; they'll really be tickled when you return the greetings in Bahasa Indonesia. The smiles are worth the effort to learn a few words.
But not just in Indonesia. Being able to competently greet people in their own languages helps to break the cultural ice. Doing so may differentiate you from the visitors who care only about interacting with other travelers. Showing an interest in the people always goes a long way. If nothing else, knowing how to say hello in the local language helps you connect with a place a bit more.
Don't worry: There's no need to start memorizing an extensive Bahasa vocabulary. This is going to be easier than you think.
About the Language
Bahasa Indonesia, the official language of Indonesia, is relatively easy to learn compared to other tonal Asian languages such as Thai or Mandarin Chinese. Plus, Bahasa uses the 26-letter English alphabet familiar to native English speakers. You may accidentally learn a few new words just by reading signs!
Words are pronounced much in the way that they are spelled, with the exception of "c" being pronounced as "ch." Unlike in English, vowels generally follow these simple and predictable pronunciation guidelines:
- A – ah
- E – uh
- I – ee
- O – oh
- U – ew
Note: Many words In Indonesian were borrowed from Dutch (Indonesia was a Dutch colony until gaining independence in 1945. Asbak (ashtray) and handuk (towel) are two examples. English borrowed the word amok (as in "running amok") from Bahasa.
Greetings in Indonesia don't necessarily contain polite or formal variations as in some other Asian languages, however, you'll need to choose the appropriate greeting based on the time of day.
Unlike when saying hello in Vietnamese and other Asian languages, you don't really have to worry about a complex system of honorifics (titles of respect) when addressing people of varying age. The way to say hello in Indonesian is basically the same for all people regardless of age, gender, and social status. That said, you should offer your greeting in Indonesian to any elders present first, preferably without maintaining strong eye contact.
All greetings in Bahasa Indonesia begin with selamat (sounds like: "suh-lah-mat"). Selamat can roughly be translated as happy, peaceful, or safe.
- Good Morning: Selamat pagi (sounds like: "suh-lah-mat pah-gee")
- Good Day: Selamat siang (sounds like: "suh-lah-mat see-ahng")
- Good Afternoon: Selamat sore (sounds like: "suh-lah-mat sor-ee")
- Good Evening: Selamat malam (sounds like: "suh-lah-mat mah-lahm")
Note: Sometimes selamat petang (sounds like "suh-lah-mat puh-tong") is used for "good evening" in formal situations. This is much more common in Bahasa Malaysia.
There is some gray area for determining the appropriate time of day. You'll know you got it wrong when someone replies with a different greeting! Sometimes timing differs between regions.
- Selamat Pagi: All morning until around 11 p.m. or noon
- Selamat Siang: Early day until around 4 p.m.
- Selamat Sore: From 4 p.m. until around 6 or 7 p.m. (depending on daylight)
- Selamat Malam: After sunset
When going to sleep or telling someone goodnight, use: selamat tidur (sounds like: "suh-lah-mat tee-dure"). Only use selamat tidur when someone is retiring for the night.
In very informal settings, the selamat can be left out of the beginning of greetings, much in the way that English speakers sometimes simply say "morning" instead of "good morning" to friends.
Siang vs Sayang
A simple mispronunciation of one of the Indonesian greetings can lead to some comical situations.
When saying selamat siang, be sure to pronounce the i in siang as "ee" rather than the long form of "ai." The Indonesian word for honey/sweetheart is sayang (sounds like: "sai-ahng"). Confusing siang and sayang might get you some interesting reactions—avoid calling your taxi driver a sweetheart!
Indonesians shake hands, but it's more of a touch than a firm shake. Don't expect the firm grip and strong eye contact that are common in the West. Squeezing someone's hand too hard could be be misinterpreted as aggression. After shaking, it is customary to briefly touch your heart in a sign of respect.
The wai hand gesture (palms together at the chest) popular in Thailand and some other Buddhist countries is only seen in a few Hindu and Buddhist places in Indonesia. If someone offers you the gesture, you can return it.
You won't need to bow deeply as you would do in Japan; a smile and handshake are enough. Sometimes a slight dip of the head is added to a handshake to show additional respect. Nod your head in a slight bow when shaking hands with someone older than you.
Asking How Someone Is Doing
You can expand on your greeting by asking how someone is doing in Bahasa Indonesia. The universal way to ask is apa kabar which means "how are you?" Interestingly, the literal translation is "what's new / what is the news?"
The correct answer is baik (sounds like: "bike") which means "well" or "good." Sometimes it is said twice (baik, baik). Hopefully whomever you are asking doesn't answer, tidak bagus or tidak baik—"not good." If they reply with saya sakit, watch out: they are sick!
If someone asks you apa kabar? the best response is kabar baik (I am fine/well). Kabar baik also means "good news."
Now that you know how to say hello in Indonesia, knowing how to say a proper goodbye will close the interaction on the same friendly note.
When telling a stranger goodbye, use the following phrases:
- If you are the one leaving: Selamat tinggal (sounds like: "teen-gal")
- If you are the one staying: Selamat jalan (sounds like: "jal-lan")
Tinggal means to stay, and jalan means to go.
If there's a chance or hope to meet again (there usually is with friendly people) then use something more endearing:
- Sampai jumpa (Sounds like: "sahm-pai joom-pah"): See you later
- Jumpa lagi (Sounds like: "joom-pah log-ee"): See you again / meet again
Are Bahasa Malaysia and Bahasa Indonesia the Same?
Bahasa Malaysia, the language of Malaysia, shares many similarities with Bahasa Indonesia. In fact, people from the two countries can generally understand each other. But there are also many differences.
One example of how Malaysian greetings differ is selamat tengah hari (sounds like: ''suh-lah-mat ten-gah har-ee") which is a way to say good afternoon rather than selamat siang or selamat sore. Also, they are more apt to say selamat petang for good evening.
Another major difference is with the words bisa and boleh. In Malaysia, boleh means "can" or "able." In Indonesia, boleh is often a pejorative term applied to foreigners (i.e., you can pull a scam on her or ask a higher price).
The Indonesian word for "can" is bisa, but Malaysians often use bisa for "poison"—big difference!