We cannot recommend overland travel enough. Read through our last 6 months of blog posts and you’ll see why. Overland travel on public transport is probably the closest you can get to experiencing a country in its authentic entirety, the good bits and the bad bits all thrown in together as you shoot by bullet train or meander by river ferry through this wonderful planet’s outstretched landscapes giving you a real feeling of geography and distance.
Sites such as www.seat61.com have been incredibly helpful. Mark – thank you, we don’t know you but you’ve saved us many a headache. But it seems that eastern Indonesia is still rather adventurous territory due to the lack of trains because, well, it’s all a bit of a hotch potch of islands with ocean in between. After finding our way along this green line marked on the out-of-date-but-only-available national Pelni ferry map, we would like to share our findings with you, dear adventurous reader just chomping on the bit to get off on your next trip – we can guarantee one thing, it’s going to be an experience to tell your grand kids about.
Pelni is the Indonesian public ferry operator, who still offer most routes on the map above. Check your preferred route well in advance as ferries usually only run once a week or (in the Bali-Kupang route) once every 3 weeks. To find out when the next ferry is due, check the Pelni website, make sure to select the little union jack (although this will only change some of the words into English) and then select your start port and destination in the ‘Ship Departure Schedule Search’ (‘Pencarian Jadwal Keberangkatan Kapal’ if English isn’t working) in the middle on the left. Make sure to set the date range pretty wide to be able to capture these infrequent services in your search. Check preliminary availability and rough prices by clicking ‘fare table’.
Note that you sometimes have to have a crystal ball to know what your destination port is called, as it’s not always the same as the city name. For example, if you want to arrive in Bali, don’t look for ‘Bali’ or ‘Denpasar’, you need to look for ‘Benoa’. If you’re choosing a different route to the one we’re describing, you may have to do a little bit of detective work on google. It was possible to find out about schedules via phone ( +62 (0)21 791 80 606), but not find out what different classes included or to book tickets, which we were only able to get from the local offices. But more of that later.
So here you have it: the Rat & Dragon step by step guide to travelling overland from Singapore to Timor and beyond. All prices at time of writing, i.e. June/July 2014. DISCLAIMER: We would love you to have the best holiday in the world, so please always check these details locally as embarkation locations may change randomly (this is Indonesia, remember!). Otherwise, enjoy!
Singapore to Jakarta: Pelni Ferry
1) Ferry Singapore (Harbourfront) to Batam (Sekupang), 1 hour, SGD 35 pp
Take the underground to Harbourfront, fight your way through the endless maze of Gucci, Prada, Tiffany’s and Davidoff to the ferry terminal. Acquire ticket to Batam (Sekupang) on the 3rd level of the ferry terminal (there are various companies offering several crossings a day to different ports, make sure to chose Sekupang) and resist the temptation to pick up a special promotion Samsonite trolly suitcase from the stand in the middle of the terminal. Board the ferry, it should look something like this:
Congratulations, you have arrived on Batam Island, (the port is called Sekupang – we’ll put the port name behind the place name, if different, in parenthesis from now on) and in one hour have made it from Singapore to a completely new country: Indonesia. Give yourself a pat on the back.
2) Pelni ferry Batam (Pulau Batam) to Jakarta (Tanjung Priok), 30 hours, 2nd class: IDR 517’500 pp
Once on Batam Island, make sure you have enough cash (Pelni don’t do cards here, there’s an ATM in the terminal building), leave Sekupang terminal and head out to the road in search of the Pelni office. The address is on Jalan RE Martadinata – Jl. Dr. Cipto Mangunkusumo No.4, (Phone: 0778321070) but there are about 5 roads all called this. Here are pretty pictures in stead. Don’t be fooled by the google map windiness of the road, we found it to be quite straight and a little bit of a walk with the backpacks but certainly not worth getting ripped off by a persistent taxi driver at Sekupang terminal.
Turn right after heading out of Sekupang Terminal car park. Strike your best ‘I’m a tourist’ pose (no use denying it, you’ll never pass as a local)…
…and head down the road until you reach these old toll/security gates.
Turn left up the next road (it’s quite long, wide and empty), engage in banter with the taxi drivers hanging out on the corner but don’t believe them when they tell you it’s an hour’s walk to the Pelni office. It is not.
We wouldn’t recommend this particular hospital establishment, but get some water if you’re thirsty (check it’s still got plastic wrapping around the top). Head up this road…
…until you get to a left turn. If you look closely, you’ll see this washed out Pelni sign at the junction. Turn onto this road.
About 100m on your right, there will be a house with similar signage (you can see it peaking through the trees on the right of the picture above).
Engage in random banter with dude in white t-shirt. Then proceed to the blue and white striped awning and tell everyone in the queue you want to buy a ticket or you won’t be seen by the ticket vendor behind the grimy window. There was no way for us to buy tickets in advance or check their availability, so we had to take a leap of faith and just go very early on the day of departure and hope there were some left.
We got lucky and paid IDR 517’500 per person for a 2nd class berth, which is way cheaper than advertised on their website. Maybe our student IDs helped. 2nd class is gender segregated but we were around the corner from each other, sharing with 7 others per room (see pic later). Alternatives would have been a first class cabin each at IDR 1’628’000 (whether they let men and women share a cabin is up to the officer/captain on that day, we weren’t allowed to share) or economy class at IDR 415’000 which is a mattress space on the floor in a big room (or cardboard in the corridor/stairwell if you’re not fast enough – check out this blog for pics). Due to our need to lock up our kit, we chose the cabin, although for one night the ‘dorm’ would definitely have been an adventure.
Next step was heading to the Pulau Batam departure terminal and kill time until our scheduled departure at 5pm. Head back down to the Sekupang terminal you arrived at, thank the taxi dudes for their kind offers to rip you off earlier. In stead of going into the car park, keep straight on past it until the road curves to your right by a big white water tank.
Keep going until you spot a large blue warehouse type building on your left (seen in the right hand corner of the pic above). This is the waiting area for Pelni’s ‘Pulau Batam’ – note it is ram-packed with people (yes, there are that many people waiting to get on a ferry with you).
Enter past the guard, we chose to sit outdoors because it was a) pretty warm so everyone inside was sweating their proverbial bits off, b) the outdoors view was much nicer for the 8 hours we had ahead, c) no one was going anywhere for quite some time and d) there was a Bakso man playing twinkly music.
Purchase breakfast, lunch and snacks from ladies on the left. Purchase colourful bouncy ball that almost immediately deflates from scooter at the back. Wait. Send friend back to Sekupang terminal to buy cold water and Indonesian SIM cards. We found SIMpati good – vendors will usually charge you a service fee made up on the spot, so for IDR 10’000 credit, you’ll have to pay 12’000 and so on. You can get blocks of 1 week unlimited mobile data though, which is fantastic as we used our phones as mobile tethering hotspots so were able to do a lot of work on our laptops. Get the vendor to set it up, they may need to download some software, and credit needs to be allocated especially to internet usage. Make sure it works before leaving the shop. Wait some more.
Finally around 5pm, we were funnelled through the warehouse down a very narrow walkway area at the back and out to the harbour. Everyone made a game out of seeing how far they could push, or if they could queue-jump by legging it over the razor wired pier gate. Varying degrees of raucous laughter ensued. Prepare to be squashed.
Added fun-factor by the boat: a) try to not miss the gangplank whilst being squeezed around and out of the throng, b) try to not fall in the water. Think of the whole thing as a mass-hug.
One of our rooms before everyone else got there. Ask the ferry reception for a bed with a lockable locker (only half the beds have them) and most beds didn’t have blankets, so we improvised. It was quite crowded once all beds were full, but otherwise a lot more luxurious than expected.
Make instant friends on deck and have a look around before everyone takes up all the space with makeshift beds on every available floor space. The family sleeping, cooking and generally living in the little corridor in front of the fire escape were very keen to practice their English. There is an open air bar/cafe at the back of the ferry where cheeky teenagers will comment on everything you do, say and wear.
Economy latecomers claiming their little piece of floor space for the night.
2nd and 1st class are fed at 6pm, usually fried fish, chicken, unidentifiable boiled vegetables and rice. On special occasions, a band made up of the pump mechanic, kitchen help, second level steward and captain’s niece in a D&G hijab and sparkly dress will pelt out 1970s Indonesian pop classics at full volume next to your table. For some things, there is mastercard – the good things in life are priceless.
Finally at 1am, 8 hours after schedule and 16 hours after we got out tickets, the ferry left Sekupang and couples had the romantic opportunity to enjoy the view over Singapore’s multi-billion dollar lit architecture, from the comfort of their cardboard cushioned sleeping sarongs before bunkering down for a night of sea breeze on deck.
We arrived the following night at Tanjung Priok (see below) around 1am and called a Blue Bird taxi (24 hour service) to take us to our hostel in the centre of town (about 45 mins drive away. We wouldn’t recommend walking). Whenever you need a cab in Indonesia, call a blue bird. When calling, make sure to call the correct office – Jakarta: (021) 79171234/7941234, Bali: (0361) 701111, Lombok: (0370) 627000 etc. as Indo taxis aren’t amphibious (yet). They also have a smartphone app for easy booking in Indonesia.
Note that NOT all blue taxis are blue bird taxis. Taxis that are marked ‘blue group’ are also NOT blue bird taxis. There are countless stories of other cabs either making you pay ridiculous amounts of money, having no idea where they are going, arguing over already confirmed fees or putting people into seriously dodgy situations. Whilst we never had a bad experience with a cab, Blue Bird were the most reliable, easiest to deal with and friendliest drivers we met, and always put us on the meter.
Chill out in Jakarta for a desired period of time.
Jakarta to Bali: Train, Train, Train, Rickshaw, Ferry, Bus
1) Train Jakarta (Gambir Station) to Bandung, 3 hours, Executive Class: IDR 100’000 pp (IDR 130’000 pp through travel agent)
Transport from Jakarta to Denpasar (Bali) is usually a straightforward all-in-one ticket comprising a train to Surabaya and Bayuwangi, a ferry to Bali and bus to Denpasar. All sorts of very helpful info can be found on Seat 61.
We were unfortunately not quite as lucky as trains, busses and dodgy minivans were booked out days in advance upon our arrival, which had something to do with this holy time of the year for certain countries… oh, yes, Ramadan. If you find yourself in a pickle, worry not as a local travel agent who managed to work through his bosses completely illogical chatter and presented us with a solution – a similar route, but with more exciting stop offs. Read on and experience the wonders of the Indonesian rail network.
Board train at Gambir Station, headed for creative Javan hotspot Bandung. Note that the seats swivel like the Japanese Bullet Train models so you can face your new found friends or travel backwards if you’re into rowing.
Enjoy the beautiful scenery along the way. Don’t drop your camera out of the window.
Upon arrival in Bandung, take lots of childish photos blocking out half of the welcome sign. Enjoy the really very good band playing for free in the passenger seating area. Go buy lunch at the japanese fast food place, walk back past the band and realise they’re all blind. Your mind may blow.
Go crazy in Bandung for a desired amount of time.
2) Train Bandung to Surabaya, 14 hours (overnight), Business Class: IDR 365’000 pp (IDR 395’000 pp through travel agent)
Once you’re ready to leave the trendy crowd of Bandung behind in search of your next exciting destination, head over to the tracks past the station’s immaculately kept gardens. Ask an attendant to point you towards your train as they sometimes park one in front of the other which makes it difficult to tell them apart.
Walk way beyond the platform if need be, there will be wooden steps from time to time to help the less agile into their designated carriages. Do a Saxon in your carriage and chat with a conductor in a mutually made up sign language.
Local kids are also more than happy to pose for your camera. If you’re lucky you’ll see some of them train-surfing later.
Business class doesn’t have reclining seats, but we found the benches a lot easier to sleep on, provided you like the person next to you. Pillows are also provided, but collected early in the morning so get comfortable sooner rather than later.
3) Train Surabaya to Banyuwangi, 4 hours , Executive Class: IDR 255’000 pp combined train, ferry and bus ticket to Denpasar (IDR 285’000 pp through travel agent)
Get woken up way too early by the conductor taking your pillow. If you leave the waiting area or the Surabaya station, you are not allowed in again until an hour before your next train. If you do have to leave the station, there is a cafe confusingly called ‘VIP lounge’ in the main station building that is more comfortable than the floor. Alternatively, check out Surabaya’s statue of a shark fighting a croc in the city zoo. It might inspire you to chill for a while and postpone Bali plans.
Connected interesting fact of the day: Indonesia’s second largest city is locally believed to derive its name from ‘Suro’ (shark) and ‘Boyo’ (croc) who, according to myth fought for the title of strongest animal. The Aussies have a slightly more pragmatic take on the matter of animals, which you can read all about here.
Be entertained by yet another X factor worthy head-scarfed girl-and-piano combo singing beautifully in the waiting area. When the train is ready, ask an attendant for confirmation (avoid heading with the flow, we nearly got sent back to Bandung by accident).
Seats are similar to the Executive Jakarta to Bandung service, but a lot more threadbare and lumpy. We missed our Business Bench, but the views on the way were fantastic.
Arrive in Banyuwangi, everyone disappears. Get a bakso, get your ticket taken off you by some dude who tells you to wait for a rickshaw to the port. You have two options.
Option 1: Let loose in Banyuwangi (that already sounds like an awesome story). Option 2: read on.
4) Rickshaw from Banyuwangi train station to ferry port Ketapang, 10 minutes , included in price if you manage to avoid paying a large tip.
Photographic evidence of this thrilling rickshaw ride is far too blurry due to high-speed inter-lane highway travel. It was kind of like Star Wars Pod Racing. You’ll just have to use your imagination.
5) Ferry from Banyuwangi (Ketapang) to Bali (Gilimanuk), 1.5 hours, included in price if you track down the dude who is looking after your ticket for you.
Ferries operate so regularly between Banyuwangi (Ketapang) and Bali (Gilimanuk) that a crossing that should take half an hour is so overloaded with operators that ferries have to wait in a queue for an additional hour before being able to dock at port. The crossing is over a very deep and open ocean like body of water, which means Bali is home to spectacular wildlife including Giant Manta Rays you can swim with at Nusa Lembongan. The crossing is sometimes a little rocky, but usually fine.
Some ferries have indoor areas, some, like ours, open deck seating where you can enjoy VHS tapes of trained monkeys on leashes doing tricks on a miniature bicycle to stupid music in exchange for booze. Cue an open mind and appreciation for unusual cultural differences. There is a little kiosk selling snacks – the home made potato fritters are fantastic.
If you’d rather leave the entertainment up to local kids (and some daredevil grownups), these guys will jump in the water from very high and jagged places (including the top deck of the ferry) to catch coins thrown into the water by passengers who want to see the most spectacular jump. They swim back to the sometimes already moving boat, climb aboard and repeat. Raucous laughter included.
6) Bus from Bali (Gilimanuk) to Denpasar, 4 – 8 hours, included in price if you track down the dude who is hopefully still looking after your ticket for you and hasn’t buggered off to the pub/warung in stead.
So boring it didn’t even merrit a picture, the standard tourist minibus from the port to downtown Denpasar will take from 4 to 8 hours, depending on traffic and may stop off for dinner on the way (depending on the whims of the driver). When asked where we wanted to be dropped off, the driver pretended he knew anywhere else than tourist trap Kuta, which resulted in him driving us around the block three times and claiming it was upmarket tourist trap Seminyak. Thankfully our trusty Blue Bird taxi was with us 15 minutes after calling the Bali office on our SIMpati mobiles. WELCOME TO BALI!
We’re beyond interested to hear your stories from travelling through Indonesia, do share them in the comments. For the more eastward bound, don’t miss PART 2 of our Indonesia overland travel account: Bali to Timor.