Indonesia, January 2020
This is the first of what I intend to become a series of articles about Sumatra and Indonesia in general from the point of view of a foreigner (me). Please keep in mind that the content of those articles reflects my opinion and experience of the place and can be subject to incomplete information, inaccuracies and wrong interpretations and for those I apologize in advance.
As stated in the title, this article will describe the very first thing that stroked me when I started to live in Sumatra: the transports. As there is a lot to say about it and I am in a thorough mood, I’ll divide this article into several parts.
1/ General overview
I have seen my fair share of countries; I’ve seen Senegal, lived in China, Thailand, and Malaysia and visited lots of other countries but not one quite match Indonesia when it comes to transports. We’ve got the roads of Thailand, traffic of big cities of China and apparently a quite widely spread death wish from the drivers.
Je suis allé dans pas mal de pays; J’ai été au Sénégal, vécu en Chine, en Thaïlande et en Malaisie et visité de nombreux autres pays, mais aucun n’est comparable à l’Indonésie en matière de transports. Nous avons les routes de Thaïlande, le trafic des grandes villes de Chine et apparemment une tendance au suicide généralisée de la part des conducteurs.
In Thailand you can be surprised by quite big holes in the middle of the road in the countryside, here in Sumatra this road quality is nearly everywhere and represent the best you should expect, as the worse, I saw so far was near Berastagi were some of the road where in such condition that it wouldn’t be displaced in a post-apocalyptic movie, the only word that comes to my mind to describe it is “unusable”. Most of the road network is still practicable tho.
Now traffic-wise… comparing Sumatra to Chinese cities is admittingly an exaggeration; however, you’ll see that the road is quite overused and that cities are teeming with motorcycles and require constant attention to make sure you won’t kill yourself or someone else. In my opinion, the roads of Sumatra are too small and not numerous enough, in addition, traffic lights and signs are scarce, even in cities of decent size, which means next to zero traffic regulation.
Now last part… the reason why my parents are afraid to visit me here: the way Indonesian people drive… Great news, they are not all crazy… it is just a significant portion of the drivers that is… Where should I start… Overtaking on the left or on the right, however, they feel like, trucks taking over cars or motorbikes, motorbikes driving counter the regular flow of circulation, disrespect for the few traffic lights present, sometimes ignoring the way they should use a roundabout… I could go on forever and if you think I am exaggerating, that these events are in fact not that common, let me tell you that I see most of those EVERY TIME I drive.
It is not because Indonesia has no driving rule, they do have one, their police apparently doesn’t care or is insufficient (probably both) to apply those rules. It is quite simple, if I was to apply the driving code from France (my motherland) in Sumatra, I could give a fine to nearly every single driver crossing my path… So if you intend to travel to Indonesia, my advice: forget about driving if you never had previous experience outside of your country and hire a local that known how to drive carefully.
2/ Get around
One day I asked Winny “Why Indonesia is not doing anything about the transport infrastructure in Sumatra, it cripple the tourism and make the whole place dangerous to get around and therefore unattractive?” she told me that several years ago she attended a meeting of travel blogger and submitted this very question to the minister of tourism that was working back then and who was attending this gathering. His answer was, according to her as follows (I am paraphrasing): “Foreigner like the authenticity of our transports”.
When I heard that, my reaction was more or less to advocate for a law that would allow to hit people that are stupid enough to state such abhorrent stupidity; with a baseball bat; in their faces. I do hope the said minister was just too proud to say “Sorry we got no money for that” because as a foreigner and in the name of my family and friends who visited me: “No we don’t like that kind of “authenticity”, in fact, we hate it”. This being said, let’s see how things are organized here.
If you want to travel locally, you have several options:
You can use GoJek or Grab which are similar to Uber for westerners, or you can use the local equivalent of our city buses: the angkots.
Si vous souhaitez voyager localement, vous avez plusieurs options:
Vous pouvez utiliser GoJek ou Grab qui sont similaires à Uber pour les occidentaux, ou vous pouvez utiliser l’équivalent local de nos bus urbains: les angkots.
When in most decent-sized cities in Europe you have bus stops all around with maps of the line to help you find your way, and once the desired bus arrives you just sit comfortably waiting for the desired stop… In Indonesia, you’ll get none of those as the angkots are short vans, sometimes on the brink of falling apart where the people pack themselves. You should also forget about bus stops or line maps as you can stop the angkots anytime you want (and need to do the same to get off) and, even if they do have a line, you’ll not find any map describing it.
Those transports will take you around the city, however, know that using a GoJek/Grab/Uber will be more expensive than the angkot. You may also find different types of transportation that are available locally.
To travel from city to city your options are a bit more numerous but I am only going to talk about the minibuses as the other types of transports (buses, renting a car with driver and “travel” (long distance taxi)) are not that special and the train network in Sumatra is next to nonexistent.
So, why the minibuses… the day minibuses take you close-by cities for a low price and the night ones travel longer distances.
Whereas the day minibuses will stop every 5mn to take someone in until full capacity (which sometimes mean 4 people per 3 seats, the night minibuses will go straight to their destination, they are also more comfortable.
Alors pourquoi les minibus… les minibus de jour vous emmènent dans des villes proches les unes des autres pour un prix modique et les nocturnes parcourent de plus longues distances.
Alors que les minibus de jour s’arrêteront toutes les 5 minutes pour prendre des passagers jusqu’à pleine capacité (ce qui signifie parfois 4 personnes pour 3 sièges, les minibus de nuit iront directement à destination, ils sont également plus confortables.
Now, what makes those transports special… you remember when I was talking about the drivers of Indonesia that seems to have a death wish? Well, minibusses drivers are THE WORSE, they drive like freaking F1 drivers sometimes going off-road to go a bit faster during the day. During the night, it is even worse as in addition to driving even faster inroads with only their cars lights to see and on top of that, they are constantly playing loud music to “not fall asleep”, oh yeah… did I mention they never take breaks (except for eating)? Even on 12h trips? And that Sumatra is full of hills that make the roads go up and down? The ideal combination of vomiting… or for a car crash…
Qu’est-ce qui rend ces transports spéciaux? Vous vous souvenez quand je parlais des chauffeurs d’Indonésie qui semblent vouloir se suicider? Eh bien, les conducteurs de minibus sont LES PIRES, ils conduisent comme des pilotes de F1 et vont parfois hors route pour aller un peu plus vite pendant la journée. Pendant la nuit, c’est encore pire car en plus de conduire sur des routes encore plus rapidement avec seulement les lumières de leur voiture pour voir, ils jouent constamment de la musique forte pour “ne pas s’endormir”, Ah oui… ai-je mentionné qu’ils ne prennent jamais de pause (sauf pour manger)? Même si le voyage dure 12h? Et que Sumatra est plein de collines qui font monter et descendre les routes? La combinaison idéale pour vomir… ou pour un accident de voiture…
Those minibuses are the main reason why I would not drive at night out of cities, and for your own safety, I strongly recommend, if you want to visit Indonesia, to always be mindful of those minibuses as they are probably the greatest threat you’ll encounter.
As it happens Winny and I have been involved in an accident, we were not driving thankfully… We were being driven with my parents and a friend by a hired driver and on his way, he crossed path with a boy, too young to drive a motorbike and without helmet…
The said boy got scared as the car was coming his way (from the other side of the road) and slipped with his motorbike across the road. Our driver tried to avoid him but still bumped into his motorbike. He was about to continue on his way but decided to stop on our request. The boy had a displaced jaw but the local inhabitants of the village we were in decided it was our fault and forced our driver to take the boy in his car to the nearest hospital which is normal. However, they forced us by blocking the car and drawing a machete to leave Winny behind (I decided to stay with her). In other words, they took us, hostages.
While we stayed there we angrily explained what happened and since the men who forced us to stay vanished as soon as the car was gone, we hitchhiked to the hospital to meet the others.
Winny explained to me afterward that when a motorbike and a car are involved in an accident, the car is considered responsible almost all the time and stopping to help a victim can get you into big troubles… As big as being hacked into pieces if the victim is dead and their family hot-blooded…
I can’t encourage you to do hit and runs if you are caught in an accident nor can I encourage you not to rescue someone who’s life is depending on whether you help them or not. But keep this story in mind and get ready for the worse…
Overall, the transport network in Sumatra is awful, lawless and the only thing that keeps the death toll lower than other countries like Thailand is probably the fact that the infrastructure is so bad that even the most reckless drivers need to keep their speed down to avoid crashing.
If you want to visit Indonesia be extremely cautious while driving.
Dans l’ensemble, le réseau de transport à Sumatra est horrible, sans loi et la seule chose qui maintient le nombre de morts plus bas que pour d’autres pays comme la Thaïlande est probablement le fait que l’infrastructure est si mauvaise que même les conducteurs les plus téméraires doivent garder leur vitesse réduite pour éviter le crash.
Si vous voulez visiter l’Indonésie, soyez extrêmement prudent lorsque vous conduisez.
All the best