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Master the Compass and Directions in Indonesian

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Did you get lost again?

In the sweltering heat of an Indonesian dry season, it’s no fun to not know where you’re going. (The rainy season is arguably worse!)

Going to Indonesia and learning some of the language to help you prepare is an excellent step you can take for a great trip. But did you remember to learn about directions in Indonesian too?

Suppose your motorcycle taxi driver has heard of your guesthouse, but never actually been. Or suppose your class is starting in ten minutes and you’re still wandering around the same university streets.

Log in to Download Your Free Cheat Sheet - Around Town in Indonesian Table of Contents
  1. Basic Cultural Notes and Phrases
  2. Pull Out Your Map and Learn the Compass Points
  3. City Vocabulary and Reference Points
  4. Phrases for Directions in Indonesian, Part 1: Asking Others
  5. Phrases for Directions, Part 2: Giving Directions
  6. Travel Time
  7. How to Use Directions as Language Practice
  8. Conclusion

1. Basic Cultural Notes and Phrases

group of friends in semicircle

Indonesian people are extremely friendly when foreigners ask them for help. Many of them speak English quite well, especially if they live near a university. However, since Indonesian is a second language for most people in the country, they’re also aware that it’s not incredibly complicated to pick up.

Therefore, if you can speak Indonesian at a basic conversational level, many people will be happy to continue the conversation without switching to English. In fact, they may end up speaking too fast for you!

When you want to get someone’s attention, you can say:

  • Permisi!

“Excuse me!”

Or maybe:

  • Maaf, bisa bantu?

“Sorry, could you help me?”

These two phrases will help you lead into actually asking them for directions.

Indonesian cities change a lot, with new buildings going up and shops changing owners left and right. Furthermore, street signs aren’t often marked very well, particularly the small gangs or “alleyways” that make up the majority of the residential areas.

That means that you should really only expect locals in the immediate area to be familiar with the layout of the small streets. Even taxi drivers ask locals for directions sometimes, so you’ll probably hear these phrases a lot!

First, though, let’s have a look at the big picture.

2. Pull Out Your Map and Learn the Compass Points

west and east

The word for “compass rose” in Indonesian is actually not the (fairly common) word kompas. That word does mean “compass,” but it’s far more common that you’ll see it used in reference to the nationwide newspaper and media chain of the same name.

Instead, it’s a name that I think is quite beautiful: mata angin, or “eye of the wind.”And the “directions,” or arah, on that eye of the wind are as follows:

EnglishIndonesian
“north”utara
“south”selatan
“east”timur
“west”barat
“northwest”barat laut
“northeast”timur laut
“southwest”barat daya
“southeast”tenggara

Using the compass directions in Indonesian, you can divide a city into various parts like this:

  • Saya tinggal di bagian barat kota.

“I live in the western part of the city.”

  • Dia tinggal di bagian utara pulau.

“She lives in the northern part of the island.”

In addition to these absolute directions, you’ll also need to know four very useful relative directions for talking to drivers, and really just describing things in general.

EnglishIndonesian
“left”kiri
“right”kanan
“forward”terus
“back”balik

In Indonesia, there’s one cheesy dance song that everybody loves. The lyrics are simple, and the chorus is catchy. Why am I mentioning it in this article?

Because here’s how the lyrics go:

  • Ke kiri! Ke kiri! Ke kiri! Ke kanan! Ke kanan! Ke kanan!

“To the left! To the left! To the left! To the right! To the right! To the right!”

You can find and listen to the song online, but be warned that you’ll never forget these directions afterward!

3. City Vocabulary and Reference Points

Basic questions

There are a lot of little words about cities, particularly parts of cities, that might slip through the cracks during your vocabulary review. When it’s time to give or get directions, it might be hard to express yourself clearly without these words.

pusat kota — “city center”

  • Bus mana yang ke pusat kota?

“Which bus goes to the city center?”

kawasan bisnis — “business district”

  • Tidak ada apartemen murah dekat kawasan bisnis.

“There are no cheap apartments near the business district.”

pinggir kota — “the edge of town”

  • Sebelumnya, tidak ada stasiun kereta api di pinggir kota.

“A while ago, there was no train station on the edge of town.”

pusat belanja — “shopping center

  • Kita harus pergi ke pusat belanja yang baru atau yang lama?

“Should we go to the new shopping center or the old one?”

Once you have those nice and memorized, it’s good to make sure you can also make sentences using more fundamental words, such as landmarks and streets.

patung — “statue”

  • Letakkan tas di depan patung.

“Put the bag in front of the statue.”

alun-alun — “square” (particularly one with grass and fountains)

  • Apakah alun-alun bisa dilihat dari kantor?

“Can the square be seen from the office?”

jalan — “street”

  • Maaf, jalan ini jalan apa?

“Sorry, what street is this?”

lampu merah — “traffic light” (literally a red light signaling stop)

  • Belok kanan di lampu lalu lintas kedua.

“Turn right at the second traffic light.”

kantor pos — “post office

  • Mohon parkir mobil di samping kantor pos.

“Please park your car next to the post office.”

bank (pronounced bang) — “bank”

  • Di mana bank terdekat?

“Where is the nearest bank?”

kost — “guesthouse” / “boarding house”

  • Ada kost putra di pojok.

“There’s a men’s boarding house on the corner.”

4. Phrases for Directions in Indonesian, Part 1: Asking Others

Asking directions

All you need to know here is two simple words: di mana. This literally means “is located where,” and is the best way to ask people where things are.

Simply say the thing or place you want to go to, and add di mana after it to ask for directions.

  • Universitas di mana?

“Where’s the university?”

  • Gramedia di mana?

“Where is the Gramedia bookstore?”

Now, that’s very useful, but you should know that it does assume that you’re certain there is a university or Gramedia nearby. If you’re not even sure about that, you’d better ask like this:

  • Apakah ada hotel dekat sini?

“Is there a hotel near here?”

  • Apakah ada warung makan dekat sini?

“Is there a small restaurant near here?”

The last way that you can ask is by describing what you’d like to accomplish, and then seeing if anywhere nearby fits that bill.

  • Di mana bisa cetak dokumen?

“Where can I print documents?”

As for me personally, whenever I read a phrasebook or guidebook, I always find that they use very formal language. And the very first time I tried one of these phrases out, a very nice security guard laughed at me!

If you’d like to try them out for yourself, though, here are some phrases that you can use to sound extremely polite. Use them correctly, and you may even impress others and make new friends!

  • Permisi, Pak, bolehkah Anda membantu saya mencari…

“Excuse me, sir, could you please help me find…”

  • Maaf, Bu, apakah Anda tahu di mana…

“Excuse me, ma’am, do you know where…”

5. Phrases for Directions, Part 2: Giving Directions

Directions

It’s a truly wonderful situation to be in a foreign country and use the local language to give directions to a local. The longer you spend there, the more your body language will show that you’re comfortable, and the more confident locals will feel that you know your way around.

Taking a “taxi,” or ojek, is another way you can show off. Let’s look at a couple of phrases you can use to guide somebody to their destination. 

Remember, be clear and concise with your language. Now is not the time to show off how good your Indonesian is, or to worry about getting each verb ending perfectly flawless.

You can set the stage by saying:

  • Sudah dekat.

“It’s close by.”

Or:

  • Masih jauh. / Cukup jauh.

“It’s still far away.” / “It’s pretty far away.”

This will at least give them a ballpark of what to expect. Here are some more phrases you can use:

  • Bukan jalan ini.

“It’s not on this street.”

  • Harus pergi ke Jalan Malioboro, lalu belok kanan.

“You have to go to Jalan Malioboro, and then turn right.”

  • Belok kiri di sana.

“Turn left there.”

  • Putar balik di lampu merah.

“Make a U-turn at the traffic light.”

Within hours of walking around streets in Indonesia, you’ll hear a traffic guard guide somebody backing up by saying Terus! Terus! This literally means “Keep going!” or “Forward!” even though the car in question is probably moving backward. (If you happen to be driving the car, by the way, give them a small tip. They work for free.)

You can use this word terus in two very useful ways. The first is to tell your driver to continue onward without turning, like so:

  • Belum, Pak… terus aja…

“Not quite there, sir, just keep going…”

And the other is to say “and then.” In our example above, we translated this as lalu, and that’s correct, but it’s also very common to use terus to introduce the next step in a set of directions.

  • Sampai di Jalan Affandi, terus belok kiri ke Gang Guru.

“Arrive at Jalan Affandi, and then turn left to Gang Guru.”

6. Travel Time 

man stressed about commute time

Let’s briefly discuss travel time. These aren’t specifically directions, but many people include them in their directions and it would be a good thing to understand when they do! 

Indonesians also aren’t used to walking or bicycling, which is how many foreigners get around. If somebody says that it’ll be a long time, they may be thinking in terms of motorbike traffic—which means it could be a really long time for you!

  • Berapa jauh kira-kira?

“How far is it, about?”

  • Rute ini akan memakan waktu dua jam.

“This route is going to take two hours.”

  • Naik motor akan memakan waktu satu jam setengah.

“Going by motorbike is going to take one and a half hours.”

7. How to Use Directions as Language Practice

Did you know that talking about directions can actually start a whole conversation?

Or failing that, some language practice opportunities that you might not have thought about.

When living in a foreign country, a lot of people find it hard to get out of the bubble of their native language. Even if you don’t have expat or English-speaking friends, it can seem like it’s hard to actually go out and speak Indonesian sometimes!

Asking for directions to a place you already know is a great low-pressure way to practice your Indonesian. It’s such a simple question that nobody will switch to English in their response, and by listening to several people give the same answer, you can practice your listening skills.

I also like talking to taxi or ojek drivers about how the city used to be in the past. You can practice the same words about streets and buildings by asking questions like this:

  • Apakah jalan ini selalu sama?

“Has this area always been the same?”

  • Kapan gedung-gedung ini dibangun?

“When were these buildings built?”

  • Di sini ada apa sebelum mal ini?

“What was here before this mall?”

Chances are, in some parts of Indonesia, things haven’t changed much. And in others, the city is practically unrecognizable after a few years!

8. Conclusion

peaceful landscape

Clearly, there are a lot of ways you can make asking for directions work for you.

I’ll tell you a secret—this stuff takes a long time to learn naturally, and if you’re studying or working in Indonesia, it could be months before you can tell north from south!

What’s not a secret, though, is that reading an article once isn’t going to help you much beyond reminding you how much work you have to do. Fortunately, it’s not that hard.

All you have to do is check out the other lesson materials on IndonesianPod101.com, and the very fact that you’ve read through this article will help you retain that information a whole lot better.

Then, when you’re wandering the streets of Indonesia, you’ll know exactly how to get wherever you need to go, and will be confident that you can ask others for help if need be.

You might even get to guide the locals! 

Are there any positions and directions in Indonesian you’re struggling to remember? Any we left out? Let us know in the comments!

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