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Travel In Indonesia
Post date 24 April 2017: The past 10 years have seen significant changes in daily life around Indonesia. Most of what I previously posted on this page has either been modified or vanished altogether. With the upcoming Asian Games in 2018, it is time to update the information for visitors.
The page focuses primarily on Jakarta, where 250,000 tourists enter the country every month. For the most part, the information is good for all of the international ports of arrival (Menado, Bali, Balikpapan, Medan, Jakarta), except that outside of Jakarta, there are no mass transit systems.
The reader is invited to read my TripAdvisor reviews for additional insights and recommendations.
Soekarno-Hatta airport has received multiple upgrades over the past few years. It is relatively smooth for international arrivals now, with most of the ubiquitous swarms of blue-shirted bag boys gone now, at least unless you specifically hail one.
The Visa-On-Arrival system has been amended and many countries now receive free 30-day tourist stamps. It is still advisable, if you have the time and opportunity, to get a visa at your local consulate before traveling. It will make the arrival process that much smoother and quicker. The usual rules apply, such as a passport with at least 6 months left before expiring, a handful of empty pages (Indonesia loves big visa stickers that take up whole pages), and so forth.
HAVE IDR20,000 ON HAND TO PAY TOLL.
As of this writing, there is no mass transit service to/from the airport. Currently, the Jakarta administration is threatening to complete light rail service by July 2017, but I'm not holding my breath. Taxis and ride services are your best bet, since there is no such thing as car rental (Avis, Hertz, etc.) here, and you really don't want to drive here anyway.
DO NOT USE any taxi outside of the official stands in front of the arrivals area. You will be accosted by dozens of no-name services as you leave the terminal. Best bet is to ignore them completely. Even saying "No" will earn you a shadow for the next half-hour. I highly recommend Blue Bird Group (blue) or Express (white). Other than that, you are on your own. Uber (US), GrabCar (Malaysia) and GoCar (local) are available, however you will likely need to speak passable Indonesian to find and direct your driver. They will not pick you up at the arrivals area, since the taxi mafias get rather nasty about it. GrabCar has a tie-in with BlueBird Group and Uber has a tie-in with Express.
I highly recommend using Waze (or GoogleMaps if you must) to get around. This will help you guide the driver and make sure you are not getting an unwanted tour of the city. Also have the name and address of your destination printed out to hand to the driver. DO NOT DEPEND on any driver or service speaking English - or any other language.
Once inside the city, you can choose TransJakarta busway system. The cost is IDR3,500 one-way and is the best value for getting around the city. The service has vastly improved, with actual schedules posted that may or may not actually be followed. The routes are color-coded, and for the most part the buses match the color of the route. TransJakarta is also expanding into links with local buses, as well. I have not tried the expanded service, so you are on your own there. There is a TransJakarta stop within walking distance of most of the major attractions (MONAS, museums, Old Town, zoo, etc.) and malls. I have not yet seen any transportation plans for the 2918 Asian Games, and I seriously doubt one exists; however, I will post any information as it becomes available.
Outside the city, there are large numbers of regular tour buses that run to most of the major cities and towns. The main terminals are Kota Tua, Grogol, Pulo Gadung, and Rambutan, which equate more or less to central, west, north and south. The buses are labelled with the terminal stops in large letters, and the intervening stops in smaller text on the rear and near the doors. Prices are quite reasonable and the "executive" buses are air conditioned, non-smoking and fairly comfortable.
The train system is pretty good across Java and parts of Sumatera, but more or less non-existent anywhere else. There are electric commuter trains with stations at a number of points across the city roughly connected to the TransJakarta buses. Diesel trains (Kereta Api or Express) run from the main stations to most of the major cities across the islands. Again, prices are very reasonable and the Executive Class has A/C and airline-style seats. The primary stations are Gambir, Kota Tua and Senen. You will need your passport when purchasing tickets and boarding the trains.
Food and Water
DO NOT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES DRINK THE TAP WATER! Always buy bottled water and carry some with you on outings. It's easy to find and cheap to buy, but it never hurts to have a little reserve. Most hotels offer 2 or 3 large bottles in your room per day, in addition to street vendors and quickie-marts.
Indonesian food ranges from harmless to paint-peeling hot, depending on the cuisine and how you order it. You should know two Indonesian words when it comes to food: cabe (chah-bay) which are the little mean hot peppers, and sambal, which refer to any number of local hot sauces. Being Texan, I have no issues with either one, but if you are not used to spicy foods, avoid these items. The sambal ranges from Del Monte's version, which is more tangy than hot, to some sauces that are downright dangerous. Rule of thumb is the more chunky and oily the sauce is, the hotter it is.
That said, I highly recommend Padang cuisine. The restaurants usually have a high-peaked roof over the door and the word padang somewhere on the front. It is served two ways: steam table a la carte, or just sit down and someone will start piling dishes in the center of the table with a sample of everything on the menu. The latter is somewhat more expensive, but a unique experience. You only pay for the items you eat. The most popular dish is called rendang, which looks a lot like good Texas chili, but with a completely different taste.
Sate (sah-tay) is everywhere. It is the national food of Indonesia. It consists of bite-sized chunks of meat on a bamboo skewer, grilled and dunked in a sauce. Meats include kambing (goat), sapi (beef), ayam (chicken), as well as a number of more specialized and local varieties (cobra, duck, pork, etc.). Sauces include spicy peanut or sweet soy (kecap). The goat also comes with small red onions, cucumber wedges, diced tomatoes, and hot peppers. Avoid anything with the word usus in it, unless you like eating organs in curry sauce. I highly recommned the goat sate, though you should avoid this if you have high blood pressure or a heart condition. A typical serving is 10 tusuk (skewer).
One of my favorites is gado-gado. This is a hot salad of cabbage, bean sprouts, soy cake, and cucumbers with peanut sauce. Be sure to specify your tolerance for spice. Tawar means plain and pedas means spicy, or my favorite - ekstra pedas. Other dishes I really like are opor ayam (chicken soup), bebek bakar (roast duck), soto Betawi (beef stew), pangsit (stuffed wanton), and martabak telor (egg pastry).
I, personally, have only been poisoned once in 10 years by a street vendor, and that was with shrimp. Otherwise, neither I nor anyone else I know has had any major issues with the food stalls that line the streets in all directions at all times. If they have a tarpaulin roof and tables, then they have been there a while and are a good bet for good vittles. Most are very specialized with a limited menu, meaning whatever they make is pretty darned good. The most popular food stalls are called warteg (warung Tegal). They are the next step up on the permanency ladder and are known for having great food, generous portions and cheap prices.
Hidden from view of most tourists are the kantin (canteen). They can be found in many mall parking garages if you look hard enough. These are basically street cafes with a dozen or so food stalls inside. A most enjoyable and unique experience for the adventurous and persistent traveler. They primarily serve the mall employees who don't earn enough to eat at the higher-priced restaurants inside the mall.
Things To Do
For being such a large international city, Jakarta has surprisingly little to do for tourists. One can easily see all the main attractions in 2 or 3 days. Of note are the MONAS (national monument) and National Museum, which are across the street from each other; the Jakarta Zoo has some interesting exhibits, like the Monkey House and the Komodo dragons; Old Town (Kota Tua) has a number of museums, rich architecture and some fun restaurants all within easy walking distance of each other; Taman Mini Indonesia Indah (TMII) park with its pavillions representing the main cultures of the country and the stepping-stone map of the country set in a pond; Ancol has a large public beach, Sea World and Dunia Fantasi or Dufan amusement park, and many restaurants and nightlife attractions.
Located will outside the city in Bogor, and not accessible by any public transportation is Taman Safari. In another direction is the city of Bandung, accessible by train or bus, where you can find the TransStudio amusement park and other activities.
Jakarta has no permanent symphony, ballet, opera, nor live theater. In fact, it has no national performance center at all. There are plenty of local groups who put on shows as budgets allow, and there are a couple of performance halls that aren't bad, with at least one new one slated to complete construction in Kemayoran this year, with 2,200 seats. Hopefully, it will become a major attraction for those seeking local flavor in the arts.
Outside The Cities
The real attractions in Indonesia are far outside the cities. Volcanoes, reefs, desert islands, nature hikes, rivers, waterfalls, unsullied beaches, and the real culture of the country are accessible if you know where to look and are resourceful with transportation and language. I am NOT referring to Bali, which is overrun with tourists and a mecca for all the scams, thieves and prices associated thereto. About two hours from Jakarta by speed boat (from Ancol) are the Thousand Islands. The further out you go, the further back in time you travel. This is just a taste of what can be had with a little research and effort. There are hidden temples, ancient structures, world-class diving and fishing, and views that will last a lifetime in memory.
Jakarta, with its overcrowding, endless traffic jams, lack of culture, and poor public transportation system, make it little more than a good stepping-off point for the real show. There is regular airline service to all the major islands, puddle jumpers to many of the smaller ones, ferry and fast-boat service to even more, and a list as long as your arm in 6-point type of things to see and do. Withing 3 hours of the city are empty tropical islands, mountains, jungle, unspoiled beaches, monkeys, and all manner of things to see and do.
Unless you simply insist on seeing the latest Hollywood movies with Indonesian subtitles, shopping in stores you can find in a hundred other countries, or eating at chain restaurants that offer the same bland experience you can find at home.
The choice is yours.