Indonesian Children’s Folk Tales

In the age of Netflix, HBO, YouTube, TikTok and Instagram reels, folk tales have somehow lost their place in the hearts of children and their parents.

While today’s shows are very entertaining and contemporary, there is something magical about old and traditional stories. How they are told, and how they connect to a place’s history and culture is unique.  With more than 1,340 ethnic groups, Indonesia has an abundance of these tales as old as time.

As Bali Island School (the longest established IB school in Bali) celebrates Indonesian Children’s National Day today, we want to remind you of the charm of folk tales that were told during children’s bedtime storytelling, and how their values can be used to help face challenges in the modern world.


Image credit: Cinta Pekalongan

Timun Mas

Originating from Central Java, Timun Mas (the Golden Cucumber) tells the story of a brave young girl who escapes the clutches of a giant called Buto Ijo (the Green Giant).

The story begins with a childless old widow living on her own, who asks Buto Ijo, a powerful giant, if she can be blessed with a child. Instead of granting the widow the wish, Buto Ijo gives her a large cucumber and asks her to made a vow that if she does have her first child, the old widow must give the child to Buto Ijo.

It turns out there is a baby girl hidden inside of the cucumber. She names her Timun Mas, giving the child the best possible upbringing, forgetting the important promise she made to Buto Ijo.

One day, Buto Ijo visits the old woman’s house asking her to fulfill her promise. With a stash of magic cucumber seeds, needles and salt from her mother, Timun Mas runs away.

In a rage, Buto Ijo chases after Timun Mas. The small yet strong at heart Timun Mas manages to escape, using her mother’s magic tricks. Buto Ijo is finally defeated when Timun Mas sprinkles salt around him that turns into an ocean, swallowing him whole.

In a simpler version of the story, there is a happier ending. Buto Ijo is a lonely giant who desperately wants Timun Mas to be his friend. She tells him to smile so he doesn’t look so terrifying. The story ends happily with a smiling Buto Ijo hanging out with his new friends.


Image credit: Poskata

Si Kancil

Stories of a dreamy-eyed trickster called Si Kancil (The Mousedeer) are popular across Indonesia and Malaysia. According to historian Philip Frick McKean, the Kancil symbolizes the characteristics of a Javanese or Malay man, whose levelheaded problem-solving approach helps avoid conflict.

Quick-witted, bright, and somewhat mischievous, Kancil always manages to outsmart bigger animals and predators.

In The Kancil and the Crocodile, the mousedeer wants to cross a river to reach a cucumber garden. But the river is full of crocodiles that want to eat him. Kancil tells the crocodiles to line up because he wants to surrender and make sure there is enough meat for them to share and eat. As soon as the predators line up, Kancil runs across the crocodiles’ backs to reach the cucumber garden.

Another version tells of how Kancil tricks the crocodiles by telling them he’s been assigned by the King of the Jungle to count the number of crocodiles, as the King is hosting a feast for all the animals.


Image Credit: Pelajar Indo

Malin Kundang

Set in the Air Manis Beach in Padang, West Sumatra, Malin Kundang tells the story of an ungrateful son who is cursed and turned into stone by his own mother.

In the beginning the story portrays Malin Kundang as a hard-working, obedient young man. He sails around the world to earn more money, to help support his mother. After many years, Malin returns a rich man. The new and vain Malin refuses to be associated with his poor mother. So the mother prays for him to be turned into stone.

A similar story from West Sumatra is called Batu Menangis, with a girl as the main character. Her name is never mentioned, but she never lifts a finger to help her mother with the daily chores. Lazy, selfish, and boastful, she keeps telling people that the mother is actually her maid. Eventually the mother has enough and prays to God to turn the girl into stone.

If you visit the same beach, you can see a stone believed to be the cursed Malin Kundang, because it is shaped like a kneeling person, begging for forgiveness.