The Indonesian rupiah is the currency of Indonesia. Currently, one US dollar is equivalent to a little more than 13,000 rupiah; though in the past twelve months the exchange rate has been as high as Rp 14,500 to one dollar. Needless to say a single rupiah will not buy much. In fact, the smallest denomination in mint now is the one hundred rupiah coin, which is worth less than a single American penny. And the largest Indonesian bank note currently printed is the 100,000 rupiah, worth approximately 7.70 US dollars.
There has been talk in Indonesia of undergoing a redenomination which would reduce the marked values of present day notes from 1,000 to 1. This change would make things much simpler for people, like myself, who must adapt to using very large numbers when making financial transactions. Such a change would also bring back the sen. One sen is a hundredth a rupiah, same as a cent, but inflation has made the sen’s existence… senseless. Luckily, it is often assumed “thousand” is a part of the price, so on menus and in bargaining it isn’t always explicitly stated that “fifteen” means fifteen thousand rupiah because there aren’t any coins or bills worth fifteen rupiah.
Sometimes locals will ask me if I think goods here in Indonesia are “cheap,” meaning inexpensive. I don’t often feel compelled to launch into a discussion on macro-economic principles when confronted with this question, so I will usually reply by saying goods aren’t “cheap” in Indonesia, they’re just expensive in America. Still, when comparted to America, things can seem to be rather cheap here.
Indonesia is vast, and purchasing power across the archipelago can vary greatly. As is to be expected, in bigger cities things tend to be more expensive. Malang, Surabaya, Bandung all experience some of this effect with prices in Jakarta, being similar to what one would expect in any fully industrialized developed nation’s capital. West Java is a little more expensive than East Java, and Yogyakarta is typically thought of as the most economical region on Java.
No one joins the Peace Corps to become rich, we are called volunteers after all. But I would not say I am struggling financially while living in Indonesia. The volunteer living allowance is not substantial, but it is adequate. Depending on a multitude of factors it’s typically somewhere in the ball park of 2.4 million rupiah each month, or 180 US dollars. All of this sum is tax-free save for Rp 100k (~$7), which is our discretionary spending allowance, the remainder is allocated for other necessities, the bulk of which is rent, about one million rupiah. Everything else is supposed to be used for, among other things, expenses such as transportation, clothes, and communication.
Because the volunteer living allowance is given to us each month as a lump sum it is all, essentially, to be spent at the discretion of the volunteer. After I pay my one million for rent each month there is still a fair amount left over for other things, and I don’t need to buy new clothes each month. So here are some things that can be bought for around one US dollar in Indonesia.
I will not hesitate to say that cigarettes are cheap in Indonesia, though maybe not for long. Right now a pack of cigarettes will cost about 13,000 rupiah, so almost exactly one dollar. Depending on the brand a pack can more than double that but, for the most part, price is not prohibitive to smoking in Indonesia.
Sixty-three percent of men and five percent of women smoke in Indonesia. It is not culturally appropriate for women to smoke in public but I have seen a couple women smoking in the sawah or around their house in my desa. In a larger city, such as Bandung or Jakarta, it is not odd to see a woman smoking during a night out on the town.
Cigarettes are known to be unhealthy. Their packaging prominently features some of the gruesome long-term effects smoking can have on people. Still, many men chain smoke regularly. During one angkot ride back to my desa my driver smoked six cigarettes in less than an hour. Frequently, when a woman enquires as to whether or not I smoke and I tell her ‘no,’ she’ll issue a few words of praise on my part. So, smoking is not particularly popular among the womenfolk here.
The standard minimum fare to ride in an angkot is generally three thousand rupiah. Depending on how long you’re in the angkot or how far you want to travel the fare will increase by some unknowable factor. I am still trying to work out exactly how fare is determined but within my site I have a pretty good sense of rates. From my desa to my district capital, about one hour’s ride, it costs ten thousand rupiah—and don’t let the angkot driver tell you otherwise! I can get to my sub-district capital, and thus a market, for Rp 3k; to an Alfamart for 4k; and to and Indomaret, and thus an ATM, for Rp 5k.
The absolute best thing anyone can buy in Indonesia is biskuit kelapa, or coconut cookies. Available at pretty much every toko worth its rice these delightful snacks can be found for as little as Rp 7k in small shops to Rp 11k in larger more urban stores. After a particularly bad day I’ll make the fifteen minute angkot ride to my closest Alfamart and pick up a pack. I have resolved to only ever buy one pack at a time because I usually finish them in less than a day. Biskuit kelapa makes all the hardships of Peace Corps service in Indonesia worth it. And they’re also very good with coffee.
I could just as easily walk down the street to any roadside kios or took but there are some benefits to going to an Alfamart or Indomaret. All Indomarets and Alfamarts are air-conditioned, and most have Wifi. They are very similar in feeling to a medium sized grocery store in America. Fluorescent lights, clean neatly organized aisles of goods, tired and hapless cashiers. These are also excellent locations to get an ice cream bar which is also a good purchase but in the same realm of indulgence as biskuit kelapa though I much prefer my kelapa cookies.
Though the places to get a haircut here are not as fancy or elegant as the ones which might be found in America, what with their height-adjustable swiveling chairs, disinfectant solution, sinks and blow-dryers, I much prefer getting my hair cut here.
I’ve only had four haircuts so far, each at a different place. The least expensive hair cut cost Rp 8k and my last two being the most expensive cost Rp 15k. My last two haircuts cost a bit more because they ended with a very nice massage and neck cracking, something I have never experienced in the States. The first time I saw a barber crack someone’s neck here I thought the guy getting his haircut said something negative about his barber’s handiwork so the barber decided to kill the guy in the chair. Turns out I was wrong. America really needs to get in on ending a haircut with a massage.
For around Rp 17k a three kilogram container of propane and butane can be purchased to fuel gas stove tops. In Indonesian these containers are referred to as elpiji, the Indonesian pronunciation of the English acronym LPG, liquefied petroleum gas. LPG containers are ubiquitous across Java as almost almost all cooking is done with gas.
They can be seen transported two or three at a time on a motor bike or by the hundreds in flatbed trucks. The small green containers are the most widely used but they come in three sizes. The largest is twelve kilograms and costs around Rp 135k. Indonesians don’t have hot water heaters so if it is cold out then they will occasionally heat up water for their mandi on a stove for their mandi.
A liter of gas can be bought for between Rp 7k and 8.5k. To save you the trouble of converting that works out to be about $2.03 and $2.46 per gallon of gas. Indonesia has significant oil resources and the state-run oil and natural gas corporation, Pertamina, is the largest distributor and manufacturer of oil and natural gas products including elpiji.
Unfortunately, I don’t eat street food all that often but a very nice meal can be had for under Rp 20k. The price of street food is very dependent on what is being served and the location it’s being sold. One of the most popular street foods in my region is tahu Sumedang, or Sumedang tofu, which is just fried tofu. A single cube of tahu Sumedang will cost Rp 500 and 20 cubes will be more than enough to fill a person up. Other options are sate, seblak, bakso, cilok, and mie ayam. I think most foods here can be had on the street in one form or another.
Also a great value and compliment to street food is street juice. The cheapest juice I’ve found sold for Rp 2.5k but the price is typically somewhere around Rp 8k with vendors in bigger cities or who have brick and mortar storefronts usually costing more. Indonesia has a wide variety of fruits which can be blended into a delicious juice format. My usual go-to fruits are soursop, mango, or dragon fruit.
If you plan on coming to Indonesia for a vacation I would advise staying away from the freshly blended juice here as the sanitary practices could stand improvement. Typically a blender is only rinsed out with water between uses and they often use unfiltered ice which could cause some gastrointestinal issues among the non-adjusted (read: diarrhea). Still for those of us living here for an extended period of time street juice is quite a treat.
Not a dollar, but still a good thing to buy, is batik, traditional Indonesian clothing often made into shirts. Batik is one of the coolest things about living in Indonesia. A meter of fabric can cost as little as Rp 20k to maybe Rp 40k depending on the material, design, and your bargaining skills. It takes two meters to make a shirt and tailoring will cost around Rp 50k. So a tailored shirt will end up costing around Rp 100k, or a little less than eight dollars.
Indonesia is quite tropical so there is no shortage of coconuts. A whole coconut will usually costs Rp 10k and will be cut open with a machete right in front of you for your drinking pleasure. Most places around Indonesia will have a couple places to purchase a coconut. They’re a great way to rehydrate and an excellent prop for photographs.