"Mau ke mana?" - Decoding Bali's Ubiquitous Question

“Mau ke mana?”(where are you going?), your neighbour asks.
“Ke mana?” (where are you off to?), inquires a man who always sits outside the banjar.
“Mau ke mana, sayang?” (where are you off to, love?), a motherly older woman playfully asks your five-year-old at the local warung.
Before you even leave your neighbourhood, you might be asked this same question half a dozen times by people you hardly know.
The frequency of these daily “ke mana” inquiries in Bali reportedly drives some visitors crazy. Why are the locals being so nosy? And why do they care where a tourist is heading?
In this article, I explore what it means when an Indonesian person asks this question. Specifically, I want to delve into the origins of this question and whether there is any cultural significance to both asking and answering it.
Image: jateng.tribunnews.com

Origins of the "Ke Mana" Question

One of the tales told to bali.live is that by asking “mau ke mana,” people used to determine whether the respondent was human or a demonic being. The explanation goes like this: the question would surprise a demonic being, causing them to immediately forget where they were heading and thus be unable to answer.
This interpretation strongly resembles the medieval witch hunts, where women suspected of witchcraft were thrown into deep waters. If a woman could swim, she was declared a witch and killed; if she drowned, it was concluded that she was not a witch. In comparison, the Balinese version appears much more innocent.
Another interpretation is that in the past, people did not travel much, and postal services did not exist. So, when someone was heading in a direction where a message or parcel needed to go, they would take advantage of the opportunity. That's why the question was asked.
Both interpretations suggest that the original intent of asking “mau ke mana” has faded, but the habit of asking has remained.
In over a decade of my life married into a Balinese family, I have never encountered such interpretations. Upon explicitly asking about the origins, I was told the phrase has no specific origin and certainly has nothing to do with demonic beings.

Cultural Significance

In fact, this phrase, together with “dari mana” (where are you coming from), is not exclusive to Bali but is used all over Indonesia.
The best way to explain the intention behind asking these questions is to compare them with small talk in English-speaking countries. There, upon meeting a familiar face, you might ask standard phrases such as “How is it going?”, “Are you alright?”, or “Where are you off to?”. These questions are not intended to prompt deep and prolonged discussion, and it would be considered rude to treat them as such.
This analogy sums up the “ke mana” and “dari mana” questions in Indonesia. But, just like in other places around the world, your level of familiarity with the person you converse with makes a significant difference to the kind of small talk you engage in.
When it comes to people you don’t know well, “mau ke mana” and “dari mana” are ways to say hi, show familiarity, and possibly learn something new if you’re lucky enough to get a meaningful answer.
It is also a way to make new acquaintances and friends, but it is up to the respondent to decide on their level of engagement.
In the context of family members or people you know well, these questions serve as a way to show interest and signal that you care. It would be very impolite not to ask these questions of someone you know well, as it would indicate you couldn't give a fig.

Do You Find Constant "Ke Mana" Questions Annoying?

The casual small talk commonly practised in Indonesia may appear intrusive to those from cultures where such interactions are not customary. In many parts of the world, a simple nod suffices as a polite greeting among acquaintances, whereas in other cultures, just a nod from someone you know might seem entirely odd. It's important to acknowledge these cultural differences and always give the benefit of the doubt.

Personal Insights: The Value of "Ke Mana" and "Dari Mana" Questions

From a personal perspective, I find these questions incredibly useful.
First, I live in a compound with 14 other family members. Asking these questions lets me stay on top of other people’s lives, which would otherwise be impossible, given our busy schedules. I liken these questions to social media status updates that keep you informed about the activities of the people you follow.
Second, asking about where people are going can indeed serve practical purposes. For instance, if you find out that someone is heading towards your friend's house and you have something you need to send there, you would "nitip" it (a variation of "titip," meaning "to deposit"). In other words, you would entrust the item to them to pass on to your addressee. Another example is when you head to a public office on your business, and a relative or friend asks you to make an enquiry there on their behalf. This practice aligns with one of the suggested origins of the "ke mana" question: it provides an opportunity to fulfill your needs without doing the legwork.
Third, asking or answering these questions might lead to the exchange of useful information. For example, you might discover that your brother-in-law just had his car fixed by a new mechanic who did a great job at a reasonable price. You then remember that your car is overdue for servicing and ask for the mechanic’s number. Alternatively, someone might come home disappointed that they were too late to the market and didn’t buy chicken for their dogs, and you happen to know a guy who sells chicken all day long.


Next time you are asked “ke mana” or “dari mana,” I suggest you answer. Not only is it a polite way to acknowledge another person, but by letting familiar people into your personal business, you might learn something useful in return.
And if you prefer to keep your comings and goings private, think of it as a matter of local etiquette. Prepare a standard phrase like “ke/dari rumah teman” (to/from a friend’s house) or “olahraga” (exercise/sport activities) and use it every time you are asked.
Finally, when meeting familiar people on the street or at the shops, ask these questions first! Typically, the first one to ask is expected to receive an answer. Once the answer is given, people will be on their merry way, likely thinking what a nice tourist you are.
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