Getting Around Indonesia – Lonely Planet
With tens of thousands of islands scattered over some 5,000 km from east to west, Indonesia looks like anything but a single country. Vast seas, impenetrable jungles, rugged mountains and inadequate roads demand extra patience for those who want to explore this fascinating archipelago.
But the good news is that traveling has been less painful in recent years. Airplanes have replaced ships and highways have reached remote areas. But you can always choose other slower but more evocative traditional ways to get around. Here’s what you need to know to easily navigate Indonesia.
Fly to distant islands
As low-cost carriers inaugurate the flight, almost everyone now flies between and within the islands. Budget-conscious travelers usually fly with Citilink, Lion Air and Sriwijaya Air, but generally those who value punctuality and reliability opt for the national airline Garuda Indonesia. Airline ticket prices vary widely depending on distance, frequency and airline standards. From Jakarta it can be as low as US$35 to Bali, but a whopping US$350 to Papua one way.
The government has recently pushed for the construction of new airports in hard-to-reach tourist destinations such as Labuan Bajo (gateway to the Komodo Islands), Silangit (to Lake Toba) and Toraja. The days of grueling travel are over; now you can reach your dream destinations within hours from Jakarta. Most flights to Maluku or Papua pass through Makassar, the aviation hub for eastern Indonesia.
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Take a boat for a true island experience
The main shipping operator – the government-owned company Pelni – connects hundreds of coastal towns across Indonesia. It would be wise to book early to secure seats. Tickets from Jakarta to Papua are only US$70, but it’s an arduous seven-day trip. You were warned.
If you fancy shorter, more reliable boat trips, your best bet is the inter-island ferry crossings. The classic island-hopping route is to travel overland through Java, then through Bali, Lombok, and all the way east to the Komodo Islands.
River boats were once the main means of transport in heavily forested Kalimantan, but were quickly replaced by cars with the emergence of new roads. Nevertheless, you can still take a four to six day boat tour package along the Mahakam River to visit traditional Dayak villages deep in the jungle.
Trains are a pleasant way to enjoy the rural scenery
Trains can be the most comfortable and reliable way to travel overland across Java, where most of Indonesia’s railways are located. The irresistible highlight is the incomparable scenery of mystical Javanese volcanoes and lush rice paddies visible from your train window.
Train tickets can be booked even a month in advance on the KAI website. Executive class has reclining seats and freezing air conditioning that makes you forget you’re in a tropical country (remember to bring jackets). Economy class seats do not recline and can get very crowded.
Rent a vehicle to explore destinations off the beaten track
The public transport network in Indonesia is considerably limited, even in the most developed Java and Bali. Having your own vehicle will give you more freedom to explore remote areas.
Renting a car is sweat-free: all you need is a passport and an international driving license, and remember that Indonesians drive on the left. Car rental starts from US$40 per day. Be prepared for variable road conditions, from potholes to heavy traffic. It may be much better to hire a local driver.
In Bali and Lombok, renting a moped may be the easiest way to explore the islands. Don’t forget to wear a helmet, even if you’re just sitting on the back of a motorbike.
Buses are affordable and convenient
Buses are still the main form of ground transportation in Indonesia as they are cheap and readily available almost anytime. Advance booking is usually not necessary, except during the Eid holiday, when millions of Indonesians flock to their hometowns.
Of the many bus operators across Indonesia, the government-owned DAMRI promises an extensive network and reliable service. You can book tickets from their website or through its apps.
Economy buses are the cheapest but slow; expect frequent stops as passengers are picked up along the way. Some tourist areas like Yogyakarta and Toraja have executive bus services with comfortable reclining seats similar to business class flights.
Avoid Jakarta’s traffic jams by using public transport
Jakarta is known as one of the most congested cities in the world, but its extensive public transport system (although not fully integrated) helps reduce the pain of commuting.
The new MRT Jakarta is the most modern mode of transport in Jakarta today, but its short distance is still the concern of most foreign visitors. The same goes for LRT Jakarta.
Remember that public transport in Jakarta operates with a cashless payment system. You can get a transit pass at MRT stations or at some Transjakarta bus stops. Charging can be done at MRT stations or any Alfamart convenience store in Jakarta.
For a touch of nostalgia, greet a becak
The traditional manual tricycle rickshaw, becak, used to rule the streets of Indonesia, but since it has been banned from the main roads of many cities, it is almost a memory now. Corn beaks have not entirely disappeared. You can still find beaks in select tourist destinations in Jakarta and Yogyakarta for visitors who want to get a sense of Indonesia’s past.
Becak has also evolved into motorized tricycles – the bajaj in Jakarta or the bentor (becak-motor) in Sumatra and Sulawesi. It still provides locals with affordable and convenient transportation over short distances. If you want to learn the history of becakthe best place to start is the Indonesian Becak Museum in Bali.
Ridesharing apps make life easier
As Indonesians have embraced digital technology, ride-sharing apps have become an everyday way of life in urban areas. The larger, Indonesian-owned Gojek was originally created to facilitate ordering motorcycle taxis (ojek) practice. It then became a great app, where you can order anything from taxis, cars, food deliveries to groceries.
The app is bilingual; there is an automatic chat translation feature to help you communicate with non-English speaking drivers. Gojek can be found in over 160 cities across Indonesia, even in faraway Papua. Wherever you are, getting around is as easy as tapping a smartphone screen.
Accessible travel in Indonesia
Indonesia can be quite difficult for people with disabilities. Sidewalks full of potholes and uneven are quite complicated and street vendors often block special lanes for blind pedestrians. However, Jakarta’s main streets, Thamrin and Sudirman, and most modern shopping malls are designed with accessibility in mind.
The Transjakarta bus is not recommended for people with reduced mobility, as most bus stops involve climbing an overpass by stairs and you literally have to jump on the bus. However, MRT stations, including the Railink airport trains in Jakarta and Medan, are wheelchair accessible.
Despite being the most popular international tourist destination, Bali is not yet wheelchair friendly. You can check out specialist tour operators, such as Bali Access Travel, and don’t forget to visit Lonely Planet’s Accessible Travel page to download the full accessible travel guide.
Why I like to travel by boat in Indonesia
Many people end their trip to Indonesia without even taking a single boat trip. Such a shame as water dominates nearly 80% of Indonesia’s total area, after all. Boat trips can be slow and monotonous, but they open up an opportunity to get into the spirit of Indonesia as an archipelago nation.
A sailing trip from Labuan Bajo to Komodo on a traditional boat Pinissi sailing would be magical, combined with a few short snorkeling stops as you wallow in the company of an impressive squadron of manta rays. I believe that no Indonesian trip is truly complete without experiencing the embrace of its vast ocean.