Sumatra, Java, Bali, Nusa Tenggara and Sulawesi are all connected by regular ferries, and you can use them to island-hop all the way from Sumatra to Timor. These ferries run either daily or several times a week, so there’s no need to spend days in sleepy little port towns. Check with shipping companies, the harbour office or travel agents for current schedules and fares.
Going to and between Kalimantan, Maluku and Papua, the main connections are provided by Pelni, the government-run passenger line. The increase in competitive airline prices has had a significant impact on many of Pelni’s routes and it’s difficult to obtain any accurate or solid information about schedules more than a month in advance. Furthermore, Pelni ships generally only operate every two or four weeks, so regular ferries are much more convenient.
Pelni is still the biggest shipping line, with services almost everywhere. It has modern, all air-con passenger ships that operate set routes around the islands, either on a fortnightly or monthly schedule. The ships usually stop for four hours in each port, so there’s time for a quick look around.
Routes and schedules change every year and the best place to find accurate information is from a Pelni office, but they may only have schedules for the ships that call at their port. At the time of writing the Pelni website (www.pelni.com) was four years out of date, but it’s useful for details regarding ports and Pelni offices.
Pelni has four cabin classes, followed by economy class, which is the modern version of deck class. It is sometimes possible to book a sleeping place in economy; otherwise, you’ll have to find your own empty space. Mattresses can be rented and many boats have a ‘tourist deck’ upstairs. Even economy class is air-conditioned and it can get pretty cool at night, so bring warm clothes. There are no locker facilities, so you have to keep an eye on your gear.
First class is luxury-plus, with only two beds per cabin. Second class is a notch down in style, with four to a cabin, but still very comfortable. Third class has six beds to a cabin and 4th class has eight. Each of these classes has a restaurant with good food, while in economy you queue up to collect an unappetising meal and then sit down wherever you can to eat it. It pays to bring some other food with you.
Economy class is OK for short trips. Fourth class is the best value for longer hauls, but some ships only offer 1st and 2nd or 3rd class in addition to economy. As a rough approximation, 4th class is 50% more than economy, 3rd class is 100% more, 2nd class is 200% more and 1st class is 400% more.
It’s best to book at least a few days in advance, although you can book tickets up to a week ahead. Pelni is not a tourist operation, so don’t expect any special service, although there is usually somebody hidden away in the ticket offices who can help foreigners.
As well as its luxury liners, Pelni has Perinitis (Pioneer) ships that visit many of the other ports not covered by the passenger liners. The ships are often beaten-up old crates that primarily carry cargo, but they can get you to just about any of the remote islands, as well as the major ports. They offer deck class only, but you may be able to negotiate a cabin with one of the crew.
There’s a whole range of floating tubs you can use to hop between islands, down rivers and across lakes. Just about any sort of vessel can be rented in Indonesia. Fishing boats or other small boats can be chartered to take you to small offshore islands. Some of these boats are not reliable and engine trouble can be an occasional problem. Check out the boat before you rent it – it would be nice if it had a two-way radio and a lifeboat, but these are rare.
The longbot (longboat) is a long, narrow boat powered by a couple of outboard motors, with bench seats on either side of the hull for passengers to sit on. They are mainly used in Kalimantan as a standard means of transport.
Outrigger canoes powered by an outboard motor are a standard form of transport for some short inter-island hops, such as the trip out from Manado in northern Sulawesi to the coral reefs surrounding nearby Pulau Bunaken. On Lombok these elegant, brilliantly painted fishing boats, which look like exotic dragonflies, are used for the short hop from Bangsal harbour to the offshore islands of Gili Air and Gili Trawangan. There are standard fares for standard routes, and you can charter these boats.
Speedboats are not very common, though they are used on some routes on the rivers of Kalimantan or for some short inter-island hops in some parts of Indonesia. They are, of course, considerably faster than longbot or river ferries, but are considerably more expensive. A smaller version is the motorised canoe – also used widely in Kalimantan.
River ferries are commonly found on Kalimantan, where the rivers are the roads. They’re large, bulky vessels that carry passengers and cargo up and down the water network.
Hitching is not part of the culture but if you put out your thumb, someone may give you a lift. Confusion may arise as to whether payment is required or not. On the back roads where no public transport exists, hitching may be the only alternative to walking, and passing motorists or trucks are often willing to help.
Bear in mind, however, that hitching is never entirely safe in any country, and we do not recommend it. Travellers who decide to hitch should understand that they are taking a small but potentially serious risk. People who do choose to hitch will be safer if they travel in pairs and let someone know where they are planning to go.
You’ll find that motorcycles are readily available for hire throughout Indonesia. In the tourist centres they can be rented from around 30,000Rp per day, but in most places the locals rent out their own motorcycles to earn a few extra rupiah. Rental charges vary with the type of bike and the length of hire. The longer the hire period, the lower the rate; the bigger or newer the bike, the higher the rate.
Motorcycles are almost all between 90cc and 125cc, with 100cc the average size. You really don’t need anything bigger; the distances are short and the roads are rarely suitable for fast speeds.
Indonesia is not the place to learn how to ride. The main highways are hectic, especially in Java and Bali. Combined with all the normal hazards of motorcycle riding are narrow roads, unexpected potholes, crazy drivers, buses and trucks that claim road ownership, children who dart onto the road, lumbering bullocks, dogs and chickens that run around in circles and unlit traffic at night. Take it slowly and cautiously around curves to avoid hitting oncoming traffic – this may include very large and heavy buses, buffalo, herds of stray goats and children. Keep to the back roads as much as possible, where riding can be pleasurable.
You need to have a licence, especially to satisfy travel insurance in case of an accident, though you’ll rarely need to show it.
Some travel insurance policies do not cover you if you are involved in an accident while on a motorcycle. Check the small print.
Rental agencies and owners usually insist that the vehicle itself is insured, and minimal insurance should be included in the basic rental deal – often with an excess of as much as US$100 for a motorcycle and US$500 for a car (ie the customer pays the first US$100/500 of any claim). The more formal motorcycle and car rental agencies may offer additional insurance to reduce the level of the excess, and cover damage to other people or their property, ie ‘third-party’ or ‘liability’ cover. Your travel insurance may provide some additional protection, although liability for motor accidents is specifically excluded from many policies.
A private owner renting a motorcycle may not offer any insurance at all. Ensure that your personal travel insurance covers injuries incurred while motorcycling. Some policies specifically exclude coverage for motorcycle riding, or have special conditions.
Buses are the mainstay of Indonesian transport. At any time of the day, thousands in all shapes and sizes move thousands of people throughout Indonesia. The ‘leave-when-full’ school of scheduling applies to almost every service, and ‘full’ sometimes means the aisles are occupied too. In the vast majority of cases, buses are hot, bumpy, banged-up affairs with a lack of suspension that can rearrange your internal organs. The going is generally slow. But they are undoubtedly the best way to meet and socialise with locals. Comfortable coaches also operate on Java, Sumatra and Bali, and relatively comfortable services do the border run between Pontianak in East Kalimantan and Kuching in Malaysia.
Personal safety is an issue, in as much as buses are simply microcosms of whatever’s going on outside. Take precautions with your personal belongings and keep your passport, money and any other valuables close at hand, preferably in a concealed money belt.
Economy-class bus prices vary from region to region and with the condition of the road. The daytime buses that depart early in the morning – carrying chickens, pigs and goats – are usually the cheapest. An eight-hour journey will cost 50,000Rp to 80,000Rp. By way of comparison, an eight-hour journey on a luxurious, overnight bus will cost 140,000Rp to 200,000Rp.
Large buses aren’t used much as a means of city transport except on Java. There’s an extensive system of buses in Jakarta and these are universally cheap, but beware of pickpockets. They usually work in gangs and can empty your pockets faster than you can say ‘gado gado’.
Train travel in Indonesia is restricted to Java and Sumatra. In Java, trains are one of the most comfortable and easiest ways to travel. In the east, the railway service connects with the ferry to Bali, and in the west with the ferry to Sumatra. Sumatra’s limited rail network runs in the south from Bandarlampung to Lubuklinggau, and in the north from Medan to Tanjung Balai and Rantauparapat.
Vehicles usually depart throughout the day for shorter routes over good roads; for longer routes, you’ll have to get down to the bus terminal early in the morning in order to get a vehicle. On bad roads, there’ll be fewer vehicles, so buying a ticket beforehand can be a good idea. In many towns and villages, the bus companies have a ticket/reservations office, or there are shops which act as agents (or own the buses). Often, hotels will act as agents or buy a ticket for you and will arrange for the bus to pick you up at the hotel – they sometimes charge a few hundred rupiah for this service but it’s easily worth it.
A wide range of tours can be booked from travel agents within Indonesia. Most operate in tourist hotspots. Some of the best ‘tours’ are with local guides, such as the eco-trips to Halimun National Park in Java with Alwi, or treks to Kalimantan’s Apokayan Highlands with Suryadi.
You can be certain that taking a tour will work out to be more expensive than going by yourself, but in remote areas the benefit of local dialects and experience is worth it.
Some recommended agencies:
Bali Eco and Educational Cycling Tour (0361-975557) Local company offering mountain biking, cultural and culinary tours around Ubud.
Earthwatch Institute (www.earthwatch.org) US-based company offering eco-sustainable tours and activities and volunteer programmes.
Kartika Trekking (0274-562016) Local agent specialising in trekking trips to Gunung Merapi.
These machines are noisy, smoke-belching three-wheeled vehicles with a driver who sits at the front, a small motorcycle engine below and seats for two passengers behind. They’re a common form of local transport in Jakarta, but you don’t see them very often elsewhere.
These are three-wheeled bicycle-rickshaws. Unlike the version found in India where the driver sits in front of you, or the Filipino version with the driver at the side, in Indonesia the driver sits at the rear, nosing your life ever forwards into the traffic.
Many drivers rent their vehicles, but those who own them add personal touches: brightly painted pictures, bells or whirring metal discs strung across the undercarriage.
The becak is now banned from the main streets of some large cities, but you’ll still see them swarming the back streets, moving anyone and anything.
Negotiate your fare before you get in; and if there are two passengers, make sure that it covers both people, otherwise you’ll be in for an argument when you get to your destination. Becak drivers are hard bargainers – they have to be to survive – but they will usually settle on a reasonable fare, around 2000Rp to 4000Rp per kilometre. Fares vary from city to city and increase with more passengers, luggage, hills and night journeys. Hiring a becak for a period of time or for a round trip often makes good sense if you’re planning to cover a lot of ground in one day, particularly in large places like Yogyakarta or Solo.
A dokar is the jingling, horse-drawn cart found throughout the archipelago. The two-wheeled carts are usually brightly coloured with decorative motifs and bells, and the small horses or ponies often have long tassels attached to their bridle. A typical dokar has bench seating on either side, which can comfortably fit three or four people. However, their owners try to pack in three or four families plus bags of rice and other paraphernalia. It’s a picturesque way of getting around if you don’t get upset by the ill-treatment of animals, but generally the ponies are well looked after. The carts often operate on set runs and payment is per person (1500Rp to 2000Rp). Foreigners may have to charter; 10,000Rp to 15,000Rp should get you just about anywhere around town.
In Java you will also see the andong or dilman, which is a larger horse-drawn wagon designed to carry six people. In some parts of Indonesia, such as Gorontalo and Manado in northern Sulawesi, you also see the bendi, which is basically a small dokar that carries two passengers.
There are various other ways of getting around. Ojeks (or ojegs) are motorcycle riders who take pillion passengers for a bargainable price. They are found at bus terminals and markets, or just hanging around at crossroads. They will take you around town and go where no other public transport exists, or along roads that are impassable in any other vehicle. They can also be rented by the hour for sightseeing (starting at around 20,000Rp to 30,000Rp).
The domestic flight network in Indonesia continues to grow extensively; the schedules are in a constant state of flux and the fares are more competitive than they have ever been. Local carriers servicing small routes tend to operate small and dated aircraft, whereas flights heading to Jakarta, Denpasar or other major cities are usually on larger, newer craft. Prices quoted by airlines and agencies are rarely any different, however visiting a travel agent first can save you time. They know exactly which carrier is flying where and which is the cheapest. Discounting is the exception rather than rule, but a few large travel agents in the main cities may sell tickets at a small discount. Airlines accept credit cards (often with a small surcharge), but don’t expect to be able to use them in small offices in the outer islands.
Even if you book on the day of departure, there’s a good chance you’ll get a seat – but it pays to book as far in advance as possible during Indonesian holiday periods and the peak season around August. During these times, flights may be booked on the more popular out-of-the-way routes serviced by small aircraft.
It is essential to reconfirm. Overbooking is a problem and if you don’t reconfirm at least a few days before departure, you may well get bumped. Expect problems in the outer islands, where flights are limited, communications poor and booking procedures haphazard – you should reconfirm and reconfirm again.
Travel agents overseas can usually include discounted domestic flights with an international ticket if you enter Indonesia with Garuda. However, domestic tickets bought overseas are quoted in US dollars and cost around 50% more than if bought in Indonesia in rupiah, so it is usually just as cheap, if not cheaper, to buy them after you arrive.
Depending on the size of the airlines and where they fly, timetables will vary from accurate, national schedules to hand-adjusted printouts of localised areas or provinces on specific islands. Website information is useful for the bigger carriers but nonexistent for the smaller ones. The best option is to check with local airline offices and travel agents to see what’s available.
Major airlines flying domestically:
Merpati (Merpati Nusantara Airlines; 021-6548888; www.merpati.co.id) Flies to major cities on all islands.
Airlines with smaller networks include Deraya, Dirgantara Air Service (DAS), Wings Air and Kal-Star.
There are some other intriguing possibilities for flying in Indonesia. The mission air services, which operate in places such as Kalimantan and Papua fly to some really remote parts of the interior of these islands and will take paying passengers if seats are available.
The main advantage of cycling is the quality of the experience. You can cover many more kilometres by bemo, bus or motorcycle, but you really don’t see much on the way. Bicycles also tend to bridge the time gap between the rush of the West and the calm of rural Asia – without the noise of a motorcycle engine you can hear the wind rustling in the rice paddies or gamelan music as you pass a Balinese village.
The main problems with seeing Indonesia by bicycle are the traffic in Java, and the hills and enormous distances you’ll find everywhere. Bali is more compact, and seeing it by bicycle is reasonably popular despite the traffic on the roads. There are also bicycle tours offered in some places such as Solo in Java. At all the main sights in Java there are bicycle parking areas (usually about 1000Rp), where an attendant keeps an eye on your bicycle.