Notes on Indonesia

Practical notes for other travellers 

We decided to separate this out, as it doesn’t help with the flow of the narrative, but as relatively few cycle tour in Indonesia, we have been asked…

Route: from Singapore, short frequent ferry to…

  • 3 days in Batam (2 short cycling days), then by the weekly ship to…
  • 5 weeks in Sumatra, then by bus to…
  • 2 weeks in Java, then short frequent ferry to…
  • 7 days in Bali. Only 2 cycling days. We took a bikeless side trip to Flores/Rinka to see the dragons.
  • Then flew from Bali to Cairns (Jetstar, roughly daily).
Why go: People are lovely and lots to see. It’s a cheap place to be. It’s a cheap place to stay in comfy hotels. Phone data cheap and coverage good on main roads. Buses go everywhere.
Why not go: Road conditions on Java and occasionally elsewhere are abominable. It’s very hot & humid (we were there in May/June/July), very uncomfortable without A/C or fan, unless high up. Some mosquitos (malaria is present and it’s and difficult to find anti-malarials). It’s hilly. Economy food isn’t great, and limited choice in shops (sardines again!)
Getting In. We got our 60 day visas at the Indonesian Consulate in Penang, Malaysia.
Communication: We had about 20 Indonesian words and managed fine, with occasional hilarity. It wasn’t usually enough to make phone calls work though. Phone SIM and data very good value and good data coverage at least near main roads.
Money: ATMs are common and easy to use in English. Our credit cards were accepted in some tourist hotels, and ATMs, but otherwise not widely. Widespread chains Indomaret and Alfamart have arrangements where you can pay bills at their tills. That was the only way I was able to buy flights on LionAir – the website declined my foreign card but gave an option to pay as a bill within 6 hours: The bill-payment ATM also refused the card, but I used it to draw cash to pay at Indomaret’s till.
Food & Water. Cheap food from roadside stalls and little restaurants is often pretty poor, especially the sort that’s cooked at 9am, left out, and served all day. But one can certainly get by cheaply. On occasions we splashed out, and for sure Indonesians can cook well given the chance. The widespread little shops and small supermarkets all seem to sell the same limited choice. Cheap white toasting bread widely available, often nothing else breadwise – it’s a rice country. Most food stops (but not shops) closed daytime during Ramadan, although compliance varies with region. Bottled drinking water is available everywhere, and cheap, although one might be concerned at the amount of waste plastic. A pleasant surprise is that many small supermarkets sell isotonic drinks in their fridges – ideal for sweaty cyclists. We drank virtually no alcohol, it’s a mostly moslem country and Ramadan to boot, it seemed rude, although it was available in shops. Gideon had one or two beers, literally that few, in the non-moslem areas (Toba and Bali).
Useful: We had one of those little heating elements you stick in a cup in an hotel room to make tea. Very useful. It’s a euro plug, BTW.
Maps: Sorry, can’t remember exactly what we had. They were hard to get hold of on the road – never saw any in Indonesia. We borrowed from the hostel in Bangkok and indirectly (long story) in Singapore, then posted back. They were OK but small scales. We also had a Marco Polo map bought in Singapore, was OK, still small scale. We used Maps.Me, OpenTopoMap and Google maps. However online/phone maps attempts to show profiles are very appropriate, sometimes very crap. I suspect the height data in electronic maps is too coarse. Electronic maps seem to have good data on roads, at least main ones, but minor road data very incomplete, plus didn’t distinguish decent asphalt from awful tracks. Electronic maps may also omit entire towns, as well as specific facilities. The OpenFietsMap versions of OSM for Garmin seemed to omit a lot of places to stay.
Roads. Indonesia is generally quite hilly, or mountainous, and underdeveloped. Like many hilly places, to get from A to B, there often is no minor road. We used mostly main roads. When we found a minor road our way, it was often lovely. We didn’t have paper maps of a scale to show minor roads. Electronic maps gave no idea of minor road passability – some are tracks suitable only for small motorbikes, which can tackle awful conditions with aplomb. One was so bad we needed help from villagers to push the bikes… And that’s without monsoon mud. All part of the adventure.
Traffic. Our perspective was having come via India then SE Asia. Driving/riding standards would be a shock coming from northern Europe. We felt on edge and unsafe nearly all the time in Java, and on two days in Sumatra. Otherwise it was ok, and often fairly peaceful in Sumatra, even on main roads. If I can be so rude, I would suggest Indonesians drivers and riders are substantially more aware and less homicidal than Indian, who’re by far the worst we’ve encountered, but north India’s main highways are (mostly) wide, smooth multi lane jobs, whereas Indonesia has bumpy, narrow, two lanes for (in Java) many more vehicles – so it seemed more dangerous. As in most countries, it’s bus drivers who are the most inconsiderate and reckless towards other traffic (not to mention their passengers).
Hint: Stay off the road for about 3 days after Ramadan, at least in populated areas. It’s much more crowded and dangerous. Find a way to join in the fun without travelling.
Accommodation. We found it too hot to camp except high up (near Toba). You may be tougher. Hotels cheap often good. Alternative names Guesthouse, Losmen, Penginapan. The last may not be signed, ask in small towns. in Sumatra there can be distances over 100km between mapped places to stay, possibly even actual places to stay. Can also crash out in rural police stations. Warm Showers works well in Indonesia, although we just randomly met hosts, didn’t use website! Electronic maps based on OSM seem to contain about half the hotels/guesthouses/losmen/penginipan.
Bike Shops. There are people on sporty bikes occasionally, though only near big towns or tourist outposts. We saw only one other cycle tourer while we were there. The big towns may have bike shops of use for exotic tourists (we didn’t need anything so didn’t look until we stopped in Bali, where BMBT was pretty good for touring stuff, if a bit boutique and expensive). But in general I suspect you could whistle for derailleurs, 700C tyres, Presta valves etc. There’s probably plenty of folks who can true a wheel though, and even more who can weld steel parts back together.
Batam. Not really a destination, but it’s the hub for Indonesian ferries and passenger ships (which Indonesians say are not ferries). We stayed with super-helpful warm showers host Zainal and his family. We were there 3 days while Zainal helped us sort our next ferry ship, which was a weekly one taking 36 hours. Fairly heavy, but slow, traffic, decent roads, loads of motorbikes.
Sumatra. Medan-Bukit Lawang-Berestagi-Toba-Bukittingi then down west coast to Krui where we gave up and bussed to Jakarta. Main Medan-Berestagi road pretty horrible. Otherwise good enough and light traffic. Often hilly, including West coast main road (profiles wrong, wrong, wrong). Slow cycling because there’s always hills, at least in the west and “spine”. No idea what it’s like in the flatter eastern side of Sumatra. We ran out of time and ran out of legs after five weeks of our intended four on Sumatra and still a week to go. But if you can take the hills and heat, a great destination. If I was going again, I’d not take tent and stove type stuff, just enough to camp in a building, seek other lightness, and go for 2″ tyres at least, for crashing potholes and seeking minor roads. I think I’d try a more relaxed, dirt-road-friendly schedule, too.
Java. We cycled E from Jakarta (our Garmin found a great way out of town) then S to Jogjakarta, then E to the Bali Ferry. Lots to see, but narrow, bumpy roads and mega, often lunatic, traffic. Felt uncomfortable and dangerous. One minor accident. We can’t recommend Java for cycling. Maybe light loads on tracks/day rides, but not loaded road tours.
Bali. Only two days, we got to Jimbaran and stopped there. A bit like Java but better, wider, roads and less traffic. So ok. Still lots to see. Great bike shop at Jimbaran (link above). We then flew to Oz. But first we flew (sorry!) to Flores, and did snorkeling and DRAGONS.
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