Depending upon how you look at it, getting around Indonesia is one of the greatest joys of travelling here -- or one of the greatest challenges. Transport infrastructure is often poor, meaning it can take more time than you might expect to get from A to B, it will often be uncomfortable, and yes, it can be dangerous. Having said that, long boat and train journeys in particular can be special in their own way and a fabulous way to meet Indonesians.
Indonesia is home to a plethora of domestic carriers offering an extensive flight network, though the industry as a whole has a seriously questionable safety record. Among the most popular carriers, and with the most extensive routes, are national carrier Garuda Indonesia (last crashed in 2007 in Yogyakarta, killing 21; subsidiary Citilink), AirAsia Indonesia (last crashed in 2014, killing all 162 on board), and LionAir (last fatal crashed in 2004 but at least eight serious incidents since then; subsidiary Wings Air and Batik Air). Smaller carriers include KalStar, Malindo, Nam Air, Sriwijaya Air, TransNusa Air, Trigana Air and Susi Air.
Booking domestic flights with smaller carriers can be a challenge from outside the country and you may need the assistance of a travel agent to do so.
Indonesia's train system is patchy, but where it exists -- primarily on Java, with a less used stretches on Sumatra -- it can be a pleasant and relatively quick way to get around. On Java, main stops include Jakarta, Bandung, Surabaya and Yogyakarta. Sumatra has three non-connected train services: in Aceh and North Sumatra, then West Sumatra and finally Lampung and South Sumatra. For long distance trips, Java has a far better network and greater frequency of trains. As a general rule trains are faster than buses in Java, but also slightly more expensive. We like to think of train travel as a great compromise between scenery-skipping flights and stomach-churning buses. Occasionally it is possible to pick up an economy fare on a train with cramped bench seats for a slightly lower price than the bus, but be warned that the bus in this instance may well be more comfortable.
Indonesian trains offer three different classes of travel: economy (Ekonomi), which used to be fan-cooled but is now mostly air-con and no longer available on many popular routes; business (Bisnis), which has larger coach-style seating in a two-two configuration; and executive (eksecutif), which has air-con, more legroom and power sockets for all your gadgets. On trunk routes the services tend to be primarily business and executive.
In the economy and business carriages, sellers will regularly jump on the train to sell food, drinks and knick-knacks, meaning you don’t need to go hungry on your journey. In all carriages you will be regularly offered nasi goreng on plates from the train staff themselves, but you pay a premium for this service.
All classes of carriages have clean squat toilets and racks for luggage which are large enough to fit even the biggest of backpacks. It is worth noting that theft on trains is not unknown in Indonesia so it’s best to keep valuables close especially if heading to the toilet or having a sleep.
While you can book online with the official site kai.id, the site is in Indonesian only and you will need a domestic credit card to do so. Still, you can work out available routes, at least. Another option is to use private agent www.tiket.com/, which has information in English and accepts overseas-issued credit cards.
For exhaustive and useful information on train travel in Indonesia, check out The Man in Seat 61.
Standard of bus travel will vary from island to island in Indonesia, but most cities will have minibuses, or angkot, to get around on. They seem to be one of the least frequently used by foreign visitors to the country, which is a shame as catching an angkot is a cheap and fun way to see a city. The word “angkot” is derived from "angkutan kota", or city transportation, and is used to describe the little beat-up minibuses that terrorise city streets. In some cities the term angkot is replaced by bemo, mikrolet and sudako, but the underlying principle of this form of basic transportation is the same: a small bus with no fixed stops that travels along a pre-determined route.
Generally these minibuses will travel to and from terminals that offer connections to destinations further afield. The great thing about this is that if you need to get to a train station, intercity bus terminal or other transportation hub, it’s likely that an angkot will be heading that way and it’s just a matter of asking someone where the nearest angkot departs from.
Catching an angkot is easy. Firstly determine which one you wish to catch by looking at the names of the destinations written across the windscreen. Usually these destinations will be in the format of place name abbreviations such as “Caheum” to denote “Terminal Cicaheum” or “ADL” to denote “Arjosari, Dinoyo, Landungsari”; a local will be able to help you decipher it. To get the angkot to pick you up simply stand on the side of the road and wave your arm. Your friendly angkot driver will do anything possible to cut across traffic to stop.
Once on the correct angkot, the fun starts. Conditions can be cramped and the Indonesian obsession with getting sick from the wind means that quite often the windows will be shut tight despite the interior of the angkot being as hot as Hades. Smoking is officially banned on angkots, but this doesn’t stop some old timers lighting up. If you have a big bag, be prepared to carry it on your lap. When you want to get off, simply yell out “kiri!”, which means “left”, loud enough for the driver to hear.
At this point you need to negotiate your way between the masses of tangled legs filling the aisle of the angkot. Be sure to duck on your way out: the number of times we have smashed our heads in the hurry to exit the angkot has led to a slightly deformed skull. It’s at this stage that payment should be made through the passenger-side window. Bank on, say, a seven-kilometre journey costing about 5,000 rupiah and a kilometre journey costing 1,500-2,000 rupiah. Everything in between will likely be 3,000 rupiah give or take — it’s an incredibly cheap way of getting around a city. Be warned that some cities will have a fixed price no matter how far you travel -- probably around 3,000 rupiah.
Angkot drivers are incredibly keen to get your business and will help as much as possible to get you to your destination by offering advice on connecting angkots, directions to your hotel and by dropping you off as close as possible to your final destination without you having to know exactly where you are going.
Indonesia has an extensive network of inter-city and inter-island buses (ferries are used between the islands) that depart and arrive from city terminals. These terminals are often inconveniently located outside of downtown areas. Three classes of buses are usually available for long distance travel: economy (non-air-con), executive and VIP/luxury. While luxury is a relative term, these buses are reasonably comfortable and are often worth the extra money. Trunk routes will often attract a better standard of bus with fully reclining seats, a toilet on board and perhaps even WiFi.
For day-time travel, get to the terminal earlier in the day, when departures are more frequent. For longer trips, tickets can often be purchased through travel agents (or in some cases online) for a small surcharge. This is almost always an easier approach and will save you the time (and cost) of trundling out to the bus station the day before to get a ticket -- or showing up and not being able to get a seat.
Some bus trips can be spectacularly long -- we once met some Indonesian students on the beach in Bali who had come by bus from Medan and said the trip took four days. In cases like this, the train or a low-cost flight may be at least a faster and perhaps more comfortable option. Buses do serve many centres though that are not well served by flights, ferries or train.
Accidents on Indonesia's bus network are not infrequent and the standards of driving and vehicle maintenance may not be up to the standard you are used to in your home country.
Hiring an ojek, or a motorbike taxi driver, is a quick way to beat the traffic in Indonesian cities. Ojeks typically congregate at junctions to roads that angkots don’t service, train stations and bus terminals, and any other place where a ready supply of customers awaits. Armed with this knowledge, it is usually quite easy to track down a nearby ojek post wherever you are. If all else fails, any guy with a motorbike is a potential ojek; it’s quite possible to just say “ojek” to a random guy with a bike and get a lift to where you want to go.
Prices of ojeks are highly negotiable, but a good starting point might be 140,000 rupiah for an eight-hour journey of about 100 kilometres which includes the cost of petrol. You would normally be expected to buy the guy lunch and a drink as well, but if that’s awkward you can get around this by just increasing the price you pay him. If the road you are travelling on is rough and likely to increase wear and tear on his motorbike, there is excessive traffic, it’s raining or the stuff you want him to do is just not appealing, the price starts to increase. A two-kilometre trip should cost in the vicinity of 10,000 rupiah; those guys you see in the Kuta backstreets charging 100,000 rupiah for a short trip to nearby Seminyak are rip-off merchants. The moral of the story: for a fair price, negotiate hard and with a smile. Prices will vary depending on where you are -- expect more always in tourist-heavy areas.
Once you have selected your ojek and negotiated a price, it’s time to hop on board and experience Indonesian traffic up close and personal. The bike will normally have pegs for you to rest your feet on and you will normally be given a helmet, unless the journey is short in which case your life is in the hands of the driver and the surrounding traffic. If you have a big backpack to transport as well, it is usually possible for the backpack to be stored between the driver’s legs. If you have another passenger to carry, meaning three people are on board, one person will usually not have pegs to rest their feet on. The three-person motorbike journey is an experience in itself, but rarely encouraged as it is illegal.
Go-jek has (controversially) arrived in Jakarta, Bandung, Bali, Surabaya, Makassar, Medan, Yogyakarta, Balikpapan, Semarang and Palembang -- so far. If you download the app, they are another option for getting you from A to B and priced very competitively.
Cycling is ever-increasing in popularity among Indonesians -- it's not uncommon to see large groups on long journeys in Java and Bali. While traffic can be horrific in cities, in quieter, more rural areas, cycling can be a great way to enjoy the countryside and mechanics always easy to find.
Some people might say you haven't travelled in Indonesia until you've caught a few long-distance ferries. Three types of ferries or boats are on offer: boats run by Pelni (Indonesia's state-owned shipping company), scheduled private passenger boats and charter boats.
Pelni boats ply an extensive network right across the archipelago, including ports in extremely remote areas. They have a website with loads of route and pricing information, but it is only in Indonesian. Numerous classes of travel are available and generally it's worth spending a little more for a higher class with better facilities and less crowding. Tickets can be purchased at Pelni offices across the country.
Private passenger boats have a patchier safety record and can often be dangerously overcrowded. Cabin accommodation sells out in advance quickly, so do book ahead.
In parts of the archipelago, boat charters are essential to getting around: the small boat that brings you out to sea to board the big boat that takes you back to (relative) civilisation; the vessels that carry you up jungle rivers into the dark heart of Kalimantan or Papua. A trip to an Indonesian waterfront is an illuminating experience; you don't need to spend long there to realise that boats come in a very broad degree of seaworthiness. The first rule of boat club is this: Never hand over any money, not even for petrol, until you've seen your chariot close up, and checked it. The second? Know what type of boat you need. For a small group of people popping up an easy stretch of river, a canoe with an outboard will do just fine. Surprisingly small outriggers hop fast and safely between sheltered islands. When heading out through open sea, however, or negotiating narrow channels through an exposed coastal reef, you need something with the size and power to cope with chunky surf, heavy swell and nasty chop. Big fish and marine mammals, such as whales and killer whales, cruise on serious oceanic currents, requiring, generally, a relatively hefty boat. Nervous mammals, like dugong, may feed at sea but shy away from engine noise: meaning you'll need to be towed in a rowboat, canoe or other human-powered boat to where they're grazing and then be left to spot them.
How to find a boat? Look for a promising one, then ask about the owner. The best value boats are often moored away from the main jetty, by the shore. Basic safety checks are critical. For example... Is the boat watertight? Puddles of water should be no cause for alarm unless you're carrying electronics and have yet to plastic-bag your pack. But an inflow? That's the sort of thing to walk away from. If the boat has an outboard motor, take a look at it. Are all (or most) of the external bolts intact? Can you see rust? Does it start convincingly (ideally first tug, first time)? If not, move on. If the owner borrows a reserve engine from a friend, check that one too. The safest boats feature lifejackets (at least one per person, including crew) and a working, two-way radio (with someone on the other end). Outside regions with a developed tourist culture, these are like hen's teeth.
Storms at sea, especially during the rainy season, can kill. Take advice on the weather from a local who has no financial or familial interest in your transaction — delay or cut short your trip as necessary.
Finally, you'll need to negotiate the price. For short hop charters, such as trips to nearby populated islands, or out to sea to meet a ferry, there is often a standard local price. Find out the figure from a local and use it as your starting point. For other deals, prices are calculated on a combination on the type and size of boat, the time you're hiring it for and the distance the boat will be covering (including any returns to base). Fuel is normally included (though owners often like a contribution to fuel paid upfront); normally, it's form to feed the crew. Confirm these details when you haggle.