Chris & Liz cycled across Indonesia in 2010, as part of their bicycle tour from New Zealand home to the UK.
When they arrived in Indonesia from Australia, their first impression was of a country full of sensations.
“To demonstrate the brain-overload experienced daily, here is what Indonesia is like: lush green hot hot hot traditional ‘hello mister’ fans scooters rice sweat black tea sweeping satay ayam beautiful hand crafts innovative food markets rich mosquitoes rubbish stray dogs blue warm water…” they wrote on their Bike About website.
In this edition of 10 questions, Liz and Chris share the highlights and daily routines of bike touring in Indonesia, including a diverse landscape and being adopted by local families for an evening.
1. How would you describe the sensation of cycling in Indonesia, for someone who hasn’t been there?
Indonesia is a big country made up of many different islands. We cycled in Bali, Lombok and Java during our 2 months. Depending on where you are, you can have busy roads and pollution or quiet country lanes with paddy fields on each side. Wherever you are, the country is full of smiles.
2. Was there one stretch or section of your trip that was really wonderful cycling?
The best part was going to Lovina from Ubud. It involves a big climb but at the top we got given free oranges in a topical rain shower and had a beautiful ride down the hill into Lovina. We did not have time to cycle much in Lombok but we reckon that would have been really beautiful and quiet. There is a lot of exploring to do off the bikes too. We tended to cycle to places and then explore the local area: temples, trekking, volcanoes, ballet and chilling with the locals.
3. Traffic in Indonesia is sometimes described as hectic or even aggressive. What was your experience?
We describe the traffic in Indonesia as 360 degree traffic. Java was the busiest but Bali and Lombok were not so bad, especially away from main roads. Any previous road rules you may have learned really don’t apply so be patient, watch and learn. Overall, common sense does prevail.
The traffic is made up of trucks, demon driving coaches, bemos and scooters, old rickshaws and slow bicycles, as well as pedestrians and chickens. Everyone beeps when they overtake. This can seem aggressive but it is to tell the person ahead that they are overtaking. It is a free-for-all and anything goes, however if you stay away from the main highways it can be very pleasant and enjoyable.
4. How do local people view cyclists?
In Java we were a constant curiosity and often had our photos taken in the small ‘warungs’ restaurants by the side of the road. Where there are more tourists there is less interest, especially in Bali where companies offer bike tours. Many local people use bikes to get around but also to carry rice and crops on the back of their bikes. Travelling through villages, we were greeted regularly with shouts of “Hello mistairrrr!” and big smiles. The Indonesian people really are welcoming and friendly to visitors.
5. Where did you sleep?
We spent most of our time in guest houses or hotels, which you could find in most towns. We also camped in police stations, football pitches, outside shops and even got invited to sleep in peoples houses. Camping is a strange concept and people were worried we would get cold or the tent would leak when it rained.
Most of the accommodation was very clean. The cheap end was often basic with squat toilets and a bucket to wash with. The mid to high end tended to have more western facilities and showers. Prices varied from 50,000 Rupiah (cheapest) to 350,000 Rupiah for air conditioning, big room, bath, hot water, swimming pool and breakfast.
6. What is the food like, and could you travel in Indonesia without a stove?
We were never far from food. We loved the local food, mostly rice based and we would hunt out the cheapest Nasi Goreng for about 10,000 Rupiah (their national dish) or eat chicken satay by the side of the road. You pay more in the posh or western restaurants as you get good service, a wider choice and fancy presentation. You don’t really need to take a stove as there is always a warung (basic restaurant) in most towns. We did cook a bit to start with but food went off quickly in the heat and it never tasted as good as the locals made it. It was nice, however, to have the stove to snack on instant noodles and to make tea and coffee at a fraction of the price that you buy it for. Indonesian coffee is Chris’s favourite so far.
7. You took ferries and trains with your bikes. How easy is it to get your bike on public transport?
Taking the bikes on the ferries between the islands was easy. They have a rate for bicycles and you leave your bike in the bottom of the ferry with the cars. It’s useful to have some straps or bungees to secure the bikes. We never had a problem with stuff being stolen but took our valuables with us on deck. For the long ferry (28 hours) Java to Singapore the bikes and all our stuff were in the same communal room, we did not pay extra for this and there were no issues with the bikes.
We only took one train, it was quite easy once we worked out which section of the train the bikes needed to go on. You pay extra for the bikes but there did not seem to be a set price. We managed to barter for this and did hear of some people not even paying. You can get different class trains. We took first class; much more expensive but the only available one at the time we wanted to go.
8. What is your most treasured memory of cycling in Indonesia?
We were looking for a place to camp and since we were surrounded by paddy fields that were no good for camping, we took a trip down a side road. Eventually we got the message across that we wanted somewhere to put our tent for the night. A kind woman said we could camp in her garden but the rest of the villagers were worried about us getting cold and wet. We were whisked into the house and told that we could sleep there.
More and more people turned up until it seemed half the village was there, wanting to see who the people on bikes were. Liz was ushered off to have a shower and Chris set about cooking some food. He soon had an audience of over 30 people watching him cook rice and vegetables. It was like live Masterchef. “Better than TV,” said one of the men! All the children sat cross legged on the floor watching his every move.
It was very funny because the rice took ages to cook and Chris kept trying it and then putting it back on the stove. Rice is eaten everyday here, at most meals, so they were watching with interest. One lady seemed to be telling Chris how to cook it. Chris replied wittily ‘Nasi Goreng English’ and she seemed happy with that but she did throw out the rest of our long beans as she said they were old. Another lady in the morning gave us fresh beans before we left.
9. And the biggest challenge you faced?
There was not one big challenge that stood out. Generally Indonesia is an easy and lovely place to travel. We learnt some of the local language and that was really useful. In the non-tourist areas, hardly anyone spoke English. We did get annoyed with the traffic in Java but eventually got used to it. In Jakarta, the capital, Chris had to convince a prostitute that he was already taken.
10. What’s one essential tip that everyone considering a bike tour in Indonesia needs to know?
You only get a one month visa on arrival. Plan your route so you can be in the right place to extend your visa and explore more. There is so much to see. Go with the flow!