Smelly Armpits

Oct 28th, 2007, in Opinion, Society, by

Achmad Sudarsono

Achmad says Indonesians have a body odor problem.

Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Smelliness

As I stepped out of Sukarno-Hatta airport one balmy night after a recent trip to Thailand, I was welcomed by the familiar scents of Indonesia: Kretek cigarettes, a touch of Kamboja flower, and the crushing, unmistakeable musk of underarm odour.

Driving home, with canals, slums, and giant toll-roads passing by outside, the invisible fumes made it hard to breathe. And sadly, the pollution came not from a factory or a machine, but the moist armpits of my toothless Javanese driver.

Indonesia, it seems, is content to fall behind its neighbours, Thailand and Malaysia, not only in education and science, but now in standards of personal hygiene as well. Indonesians may be overcoming the Krismon and building democracy, but along the way we’ve abandoned the basics: soap and deodorant.

It’s not just the men, either. Ladies, cheap perfume – no matter how much you lather on – cannot hide the pungency if you’ve been wearing the same panties for days. A guy wants a woman to smell like a Jasmine flower or a Rose, not a raw, week-old Gurame fish!

By contrast, in Thailand, even the “working girls” shower at least three times a day; sometimes up to five times. Remember folks, it was the Viet Cong, not the Viet Pong, who defeated the great U.S. of A.

In New Delhi or Hyderabad, it’d be understandable. You’d have come prepared. Those same India-nose pegs would go with you to Sub-Saharan Africa, and even some parts of Italy. But this is Southeast Asia, home to the Spice Islands, where centuries ago the aromas alone once attracted sailors from across the seas.

Why do tourists prefer Phuket or Chiang Mai to Bali or Jakarta? The average foreign visitor to Asia might cough politely as he or she mentions the scary images on CNN. But could the real culprit be strong odours? I, for one, often find myself holding my nose in elevators and shopping malls. Sometimes, I even have to do it in boardrooms.

Please, Indonesia, it’s the meek who’ll inherit the earth, not those who reek! But, as the communist leader Lenin once asked: “what is to be done?”

For a start, foreign journalists could end their conspiracy of silence. They casually blame Indonesia’s problems on terrorism and politics instead of giving us in-depth reports on the nation-wide pandemic of bad smells.

Also, Indonesia’s many activists could turn their attention to the real environmental crisis — their own unwashed, ungroomed, super-stinky selves. In the end, perhaps the government will have to snub the International Monetary Fund and re-introduce subsidies, this time on soap and toothpaste.

It would be a tragedy if, after embracing French Republican ideals of the 1790s, Indonesians took on that era’s bad habit of masking body odor with perfume, instead of bathing. Even now, too many Indonesians consider their inalienable rights only to be: life, liberty, and the pursuit of smelliness.

One day, this great country may solve its big problems, like money laundering. But please, Indonesia, get on top of the little ones, like clothes laundering first. Let’s look forward to a day when visitors don’t have to keep one hand on their nose while the other is hailing a taxi.

32 Comments on “Smelly Armpits”

  1. Janma says:

    Polyester is part of the problem…. Indonesians are huge fans of polyester and nylon clothing, they wear it again and again without washing it, granted, but it pongs way worse than natural fibre…. and when they do wash it then they love to rub it with a hot iron to get that shiny skid mark look…. Luvley!

    *Who thinks the freaks are going to inherit the earth*

    Oh yeah”¦. TOT (totally off topik) today is sumpah pemuda day”¦”¦ I feel all emotional about the youth of indonesia all those years ago who had such a sense of vision and purpose for their not yet formed nation”¦.. what happened? Now all we can worry about it smelliness? I would have written some stirring piece for IM except I can’t work out how to write something for IM, so I hijacked Achmads thread, cause he does.

  2. Achmad Sudarsono says:



    You could write something about how the Yuppies of 1998 somehow failed to maintain their rage once the economy picked up again, Amien Rais and Gus Dur turned out to be windbags, and the DPR produced small-scale corruptors.

    The star student leaders took good jobs. Didn’t even last as long as the 1960s protestors/baby boomers.

  3. Janma says:

    no I don’t mean I don’t know how to write… I mean I don’t know how to post a topic….

  4. Achmad Sudarsono says:

    TOT: wasn’t talking about technique – talking about subject matter — you said you couldn’t think up something I stirring. I, Achmad Sudarsono, a poet, stir for a living. In the “about” section Mr. Patung has a section on how to post, but not how to pest – that’s my job. 🙂

  5. Janma says:

    well actually I wasn’t talking about subject matter, I was talking about the technicalities of posting the thing……. but I see I should have RTFM…! of course the ‘About’ page… duh. I didn’t say however that I couldn’t think up something stirring, I just couldn’t work out how to get it up there and was too feather headed to think of looking in the ‘about’ section. But it’s too late now…. on my way to the airport going home… will be stuck in bloody Soekarno Hatta Airport from 11pm tonight until I can find a flight to bali…probably monday afternoon knowing my luck…. but I’m pretty sure they don’t have hot spots there do they? not singapore afterall…. just a room full of smelly armpits. *sigh*

  6. Achmad Sudarsono says:

    Sadly, no hotspots I know of at Sukarno Hatta. I seek solace in poetry at the airport. Sometimes I read it to officials or taxi drivers; they miss the point of the surrealist-absurdist pieces. Maybe I’ll have to read them some of the revolutionary class anthems.

  7. Sputjam says:

    Smelly armpits can easily be cured by spraying a malaysian invention called “Dr. Mist”, available at any pharmaceautical outlet in malaysia. It does not create rash, no alcohol and the odour will be gone within three days after application.
    Another thing for indonesian to do is wear sleeved cotton singlets over their shirts. The shirts can be worn many time without any odour, but singlets must be washed frequently.

  8. mutmut7 jkt says:

    I don’t immediately agree, because many non-Indonesians I met also smells not good. I don’t think the smell is because Indonesian don’t wash their clothes. That’s because our environment here (humid tropics) makes us sweat. The common people working in non air conditioned environment should be expected to smell bad by afternoon. Me too, that’s why I always bring an extra shirt to change. The smell in the airport may probably because the non air conditioned environment.

    Also clothes which is not washed properly and without using perfumer while washing can still have bad odor.

  9. Ihaknt says:

    polyester + person with a good personal hygiene = BAD.
    polyester + person without a good personal hygiene = REALLY BAD.

    Also if the clothes are not dried properly, it also smells off-ish.

  10. Janma says:

    Well, back home in bali now…. I gotta tell you the airport in jakarta was the pits! I arrived 11pm, no place open to change money, no place to buy pulsa, no airline booking counter open for booking flight onwards…. and the toilets!!!? Bleuah!!! so dirty! Half of the flushes were broken and the other half had no toilet seats. There was muddy water all over the floors, there was menstrual blood all over one of the toilet seats and the whole thing stunk! Besides that it was just dirty everywhere even outside the toilets.
    After arriving in Bali, the airport was so clean, the toilets had bowls of flowers on the sinks and they smelt nice. Granted there were a few muddy footprints on a couple of the toilet seats, but at least they had the seat!
    On smelly armpits, didn’t smell any until I got into the car with my own driver!

  11. Ihaknt says:

    Tell him to shower Janma! Heheheh. Yeah Jakarta airport is in a very poor condition, considering it’s an International airport as well…I think this has been discussed too right?

  12. Achmad Sudarsono says:

    When you say the pits, was it the ‘pits as in arm-pits ? It’s good to see we have something in common, Janma.

  13. Anita McKay says:

    There was a time when I was in a flight from Singapore back to Indonesia (with SQ) and I was sitting next to a Korean guy. The plane was full of TKIs, mostly from HK or China because they spoke in Chinese with their friends.

    The Korean guy was in a mood of conversation so he told many stories about his factory in East Java, and suddenly said that the plane was smelly. He claimed he’s very familiar with the smell because it’s the smell of his factory workers, and he (who sat on the aisle) said the person sitting across was really smelly he’s got headache. He asked me why Indonesian men (he said men, not women) always smell like that?

    I was too stunned because I never knew that people can relate a smell with the whole nation….

    During college I was an intern in a firm in Jakarta. The design chief, who’s really cute, was being the biggest joke in the office because he’s really smelly. God, I never knew someone could have such strong odour like that, you could smell him 3 metres away. I don’t think it helped either because he’s always dressed like he’s still in Japan (he took his degree in Japan, but he’s Indonesian), with long sleeves shirt, tie, and vest. Plus he sprayed a heavy scent cologne, a lot.

    I’ve worked in a construction industry and had to deal with labours all the time. Never met one who’s smelly though, despite working in a project site that was hot, dusty, and had no access to fresh air.

  14. Parvita says:

    Ah, talking about smelly armpits reminds me of my former Italian boss. Bad smell and the wet armpits almost everyday. I feel sorry for him, must be the food or the way his body works. And one of the manager in my office, who sometimes smells pretty bad (he is English). The smell is quite different from the Indonesian smell, probably the diet. It’s bad when he’s stressed out. Both of these people smell regardless of AC. And it is difficult to tell someone that they smell.

    My maid don’t smell despite of her job. I guess some people are just borned to have smelly armpits.

  15. spew-it-all says:

    Although the article is written with sarcastic style, honestly I dont think this phenomenon exclusively belongs to Indonesia.

    Surely you can find some stinky bugger within caucasian population! My friends and I once whinged about how annoying to find some smelly guys in the pub. I used to see a guy (maybe from Pakistan or Bangladesh) at work and he smells really bad.

    Does hygiene have something to do with class?

  16. Bas says:

    I live here for quite a long time I never noticed a real smelly armpits problem here. Westerners are the ones with that bad reputation lol… The famous sweating Dutch backpacker myth (?) and the fact that in modern, non tropical, clean countries people don’t have to take showers 2 or 3 times a day.

    Talking about hygiene the real problem in this country is more about public places, living places (especially kitchens) and food. For example 99% of Indonesian don’t know it is dangerous to refrozen food that has been unfrozen. I have been living in maybe 6 or 7 different Indonesian families, most of them healthy families, and all the time their kitchen was so dirty (And I am French, my cleaniness standart is not as high as in the US or in Japan lol)… So dirty I actually always found difficult to cook in such places.

    Not mentioning the fact that most Indonesian home look more like “gudang” than real home. Javanese and Chinese home are especially dirty but not only.

  17. Achmad Sudarsono says:


    That’s interesting. Care to elaborate ??

  18. Anita McKay says:

    I found the secret clean toilets in Cengkareng Airport. It’s located right next to the visa-on-arrival counter. 🙂

  19. Achmad Sudarsono says:

    Janma, Anita,

    Glad to hear I’m helping to trigger the spread of useful knowledge…:-). Janma…u live in Bali ?? Lucky u…

  20. WP says:


    We Indonesians are just being slightly more environment-aware than our neighbors:

    In Thailand, even the “working girls” shower at least three times a day; sometimes up to five times.

    by not wasting and polluting water just to destroy the natural habitat of a bunch of underarm bacteria, which btw are also part of our Indonesian bio-diversity heritage.

    Bringing down the human population would btw solve both problems. 😀

  21. Anita McKay says:

    (this is the second time I write it, the first comment went missing)

    Not everyone can speak or write perfect English, even if they live in English speaking country. Take a look at the picture, I couldn’t stop smiling…. PS: it’s in Aberdeen!

  22. Achmad Sudarsono says:


    yes, that’s very true. Not all Pesantrens teach English as well as the one I went to in Purbalingga (but not the same one as Sumanto).

    In fact, even the BBC appears to have problems. See below.

    Mind your language.

  23. ecky says:

    I know great Creative Director in a multinational advertising agency in Jakarta who smells soo bad like he haven’t took shower for a month, and the worst thing is he always sit next to taxi driver every time we go to a meeting.

    So, can you imagine, in the middle of the hot day everyone in the taxi trapped with his smelly armpit.

  24. Emma Woodhouse says:

    I love how seriously everyone has taken this posting. Class and hygiene! Bringing down the population! Blatant racism.A posting on a smelly armpit brings out the ethnic cleansing despot in us all.

    Here’s a thought: some people just stink. some don’t.

    I’m half Indonesian so I only half stink. Half English. So I half stink and half of my teeth are bad. haha.x

  25. Janma says:

    Anita contributed the following gem….

    I found the secret clean toilets in Cengkareng Airport. It’s located right next to the visa-on-arrival counter.

    Now you see, I missed that all together, since I don’t have to buy a visa on arrival, I swanned past the long line all smug that I got to go to the short queue. Karma I guess, I shouldn’t have been so smug! I ended up using the toilets near the transit hotel…. I’m going to write a sternly worded letter to the pihak wewenang there.

  26. Tinkerbell says:

    It’s good that Indonesian have smelly armpits. We can attack our neighbour (The Malaysian Bitch) with super duper sticky jelly armpits through the TKI-s….. ha ha ha……………………

  27. Achmad Sudarsono says:

    Yes, good one, Janma, stern words, that’ll get ’em trembling in their sandal jepit.

  28. Ray Ramos says:

    The cure for all the problems is called personal hygiene. Wash your body properly with water and soap twice a day in the morning and night before going to sleep with special enfasis on whashishg you ass, geniltas arm pits ears and hair and stop saying about sprays and all kins of nasty stuff.

    Nastyness is in your culture but you do not see it like that

  29. Achmad Sudarsono says:

    Obviously literacy and grammar is not in your culture Ray.

  30. dingo says:

    Now that we’ve discussed and analyzed the truths about smelly armpits why don’t we go further to explore other aspects of the armpit smelliness. For instance, anyone interested in this ‘armpitology’ can make a proposal about an international armpit competition or annual armpit festival.

    The age of the participant is between 20 to 60 years old. The participants will be put in a room for two weeks. The temperature in the room is 34 degrees Celsius. During staying in the room the participants will not be permitted to shower, wash their armpits, or use any perfume or deodorant.

    After two weeks the armpit of each participant will be smelled by a board of jury and will be scored based on how strong or how weak the smell is. The competition may run in two or three round, so it is possible that there may be a quarter final, semi final and final stages. The winner is the person whose armpit is not smelly or odorless or hardly smelly, having least smell, weak smell, and the like. 🙂

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