Indonesian public transport might not currently be well defined, but that does not stop people from using the service of thousands of bus operators spread across the nation. This article is from the perspective of a first timer to Indonesia, who might be interested to take up public transport for short or long distance commuting. The facts specified could not be generalised for all the bus operators, but still holds good for a considerable majority.
Boarding a bus
A bus’ number and destination is posted on the front and back of the bus.
- Finding any printed information about bus routes, schedules, and addresses of bus terminals is difficult
- Signed bus stops do exist, but bus stops do not have any information about routes
- Buses usually stop anywhere along a road. Passengers wait on a safe stretch of road along the bus route and wave down the driver
- There are set bus routes, but there is no schedule and buses circulate continuously instead
Do not pay the bus driver. Once seated, a bus conductor circulates and takes the fare. Fare amounts are set, but rarely posted. Foreigners can be asked to pay more than the set fare, especially if it is a long bus ride. The best protection is to know the fare ahead of time, and to remain firm about paying the set fare. Always carry change, as there is no change given for large denominations of cash.
Long distance buses
Inter-city buses depart from and arrive at specific terminals: travellers have to find out which terminal serves their destination. Questioning locals is helpful, but if there is a language barrier, updated travel guides are very reliable. Individual country guides also provide information about bus terminals and their destinations.
For overland travel, most Indonesians use buses, so terminals are found in most centres, including small villages. Some terminals are easy to find as they are close to downtown, while others are located on the outskirts.
Between cities or villages, it is best to arrive at a bus terminal from early morning to midday as there are many buses that depart during these hours. For busy, shorter routes, expect to wait for up to an hour before midday. Buses become less frequent during the course of the afternoon and by sunset there are no buses at all.
Bus trips of eight hours or less
Smaller buses have limited leg space and have no toilets, but drivers make regular stops.
Small buses can do many routes a day, but there is no schedule. A traveller arrives at the terminal, boards the bus, and when the driver is satisfied that the bus is full, it departs. Travellers can buy a bus’ empty seats. This is often done in remote areas where the wait can be hours, and if a quota of seats is not filled, the bus driver cancels the trip.
For long overnight travel, travellers can expect large, modern buses. There are three classes:
Sometimes only economy and executive are available. The difference between executive and VIP is primarily leg room. Both have air conditioning, but buses with a VIP class also have seats that recline into beds. Air conditioning can be very cold, and travellers are advised to have a jacket. Buses do not have toilets. Instead, drivers stop regularly every few hours.
Bus trips across islands
There are longer, cross-island routes, for example, Denpasar in Bali to Yogyakarta, or across islands such as Java, Sulawesi and Sumatra. There are also bus trips that span two islands or more, and include one or more ferry crossings.
Higher quality buses are generally used for longer trips and some companies require passengers to make reservations and buy tickets a day or two before departure. Offices can be difficult to find as they are not necessarily in the centre of town. Tickets can also be bought at the terminal without making any reservations, but this depends on the bus company.
Bus fares are relatively cheap, and it is worth paying more for a better class of bus travel if it is available. Travellers must be warned that these trips are very long and often uncomfortable. However, the advantage is that they can stop along the way and visit for as long as they like.
Luggage on buses
It is best to travel with a small backpack. Larger luggage might have to be stowed outside the bus, because many Indonesians carry large amounts of luggage and storage space under the bus fills up quickly. Luggage is then tied to the top of the bus and can be hard to locate. It sometimes falls off during transit, or is stolen while passengers are seated inside and the bus is stationary. Travellers need to be vigilant about their luggage and make their presence known to luggage handlers.