May 28, 2024 Last Updated 8:34 AM, May 27, 2024

Sumatra by bus

Published: Sep 12, 2007

Jim Della-Giacoma

My death defying 2,800km journey began with an idea over a few beers to cross Indonesia's longest island from tip to toe by public transport. There was no reason behind it more than just because it was there. Nor was there any real preparation and, as a rule, definitely no bookings. I did check with a friend what time the buses left from Gambir railway station for Lampung, packed my Lonely Planet and went to the doctor to get some malaria tablets. Above all, I wore the blinkers of fatalism and carried with me the blind faith it was possible. With less than 10 kilograms in my backpack, a million rupiah on my person and breakfast in my stomach I set out from a friends Menteng house in a President Taxi.

It all started in the air-conditioned luxury of a Damri bus in the shadow of the national monument, Monas, in central Jakarta. It was one of those 'Full AC' buses where everybody complained about being cold as it sped along the smooth freeway to the port of Merak on Java's western tip. Nearing the ferry terminal, roadside signs appeared telling that many people before have taken this route from Java to Sumatra. 'Transmigration - A better future for all'. As our bus loaded on the roll on-roll off vessel we parked next to a similar bus from Damri, the state-run bus company. Without the comfort of AC, people languished out the open windows next to signs that read 'Transmigrants from East Java'. They didn't seem to look like they thought they were off to the promised land.

Aboard the vessel, on the empty upper deck I gave my one and only English lesson of the trip. Bari, an earnest 17-year-old high school student, was heading home to pick pepper on the family farm in South Sumatra. Full of confidence despite the economic crisis and the recent fall of Suharto, he was looking forward to making a bit of money before returning to Java for his education. 'Pepper's high right now, about 22,000 rupiah per kilogram,' he said. Again and again, while mixing with people on local buses I found many winners from the economic crisis on Sumatra, and none of the depression of Java or Jakarta.

From Bandar Lampung, after a night's sleep, I went west to Bengkulu, across the Sumatran range and great fault line that lies beneath it. With a ticket in hand I waited for hours at the Bajarasa bus terminal as great waves of humanity roared through with loud toots on their horns heading to all points north as far as Banda Aceh and east as distant as Lombok. Back and forth the buses moved between seemingly random destinations such as between Solo and Bengkulu or Purkowerto to Palembang.

Ebb and flow

It was not until I sat next to the daughter of transmigrants, as I did on the trip to Bengkulu, that I appreciated the nature of the ebb and flow of modern Indonesia. This young woman, born in Bengkulu from parents of Central Java origin, was returning on holiday from her studies in Solo. She said her parents went 'home' to Central Java sometimes once a year. The odd pairs of destinations were starting to make sense when you took into account the millions the government had moved off overcrowded Java to the sparsely populated fields and forests of Sumatra. The link between the old and the new kampungs was a 60,000 rupiah bus ticket.

But these are long journeys. It was 18 butt-breaking hours to travel between Bandar Lampung and Bengkulu. Unlike the student, I had a choice of modes of travel. Even buying an executive class bus ticket didn't ease the pain. Boarding in the middle of a journey meant I had to be squeezed in, either in the front or back of the coach cabin. After three hours of waiting with the idle terminal jockeys and three failed attempts to board full buses, I was pushed into the front of a clearly packed Putra Rafflesia bus. Ordered onto a backless seat beside the driver and centimetres from the windscreen, I resolved to place my fate in God's hands. I had the death seat. In the event of a sudden stop I would be the first in the overloaded bus through the windscreen. At least the driver had the steering wheel to hold on to.

The conductor looked at me. 'This wouldn't be allowed in your country, would it?' the crewman asked rhetorically. 'But here in Indonesia, we can make room for you,' he said answering his own question. Simultaneously, he was expressing two great concepts of life in Indonesia that an outsider should learn to understand and love if you spend any length of time there. First, 'tamu raja', or the guest is king. Second, 'bisa diatur', everything can be arranged. Add only 'insya Allah', God willing, the phrase of fatalism, and you're set to ride the Sumatran buses.

Sunrise found us on the Lahat plateau. There were no highwaymen as people had predicted. The tales of robbery in Jakarta newspapers seemed exaggerated. The locals say they focus on trucks laden with coffee and other valuable commodities, rather than buses laden with bleary-eyed travellers. The ride down the slope to the sea was a picturesque scene of rural Indonesia, all green and carefully cultivated. By midday we were safely in Bengkulu.

After breakfast a local government official, who moments earlier had argued over taxes with the losmen owner, offered to take me on his motorbike to the bus company's office. It was a spontaneous act of kindness that I had experienced so often when travelling in the countryside, particularly when by myself. He even insisted in dropping by a nearby Chinese restaurant to borrow a helmet for me. 'Why bother,' a young ethnic Chinese man said handing over the helmet. 'He's a foreigner, the police never bother them anyway.'

Deposited courteously in front of the Safa Marwa bus, a rusting black Mitsubishi Colt, I arrived early enough to watch it push started. For the next 350 km to Kerinci, it was only parked pointing downhill. The crew insisted I take the 'best seat' as their guest, in front of the windscreen next to the driver. By this time I had slipped into fatalistic mode and accepted my destiny with the air of a gracious guest.

Later into the journey, as we wound our way up the narrow road from the coast to the mountainous area of Kerinci, the driver's attention switched from chatting up a young woman passenger to pointing out the local sites. At one point, he swerved the bus back and forward on the hairpin bends for my benefit as he tried to make the bus headlights illuminate the Japanese caves dug during World War II. It was a treacherous road littered with fallen trees and encroaching branches. Our progress was impeded at another point when a low branch knocked a bound goat off the roof rack in a tumble of bleating. The driver, An, enjoyed playing chicken with trucks coming down the road to see who would baulk first. The loser being the one who stopped to back up or down on the narrow pass to let the victor through. An rarely lost.

From Sungai Penuh I hopped to Mount Kerinci, staying overnight before going to Padang and Bukit Tinggi. A rest stop at Lake Maninjau also helped recover weary limbs, a legacy of climbing Mount Kerinci. But despite paying extra for 'Super Executive Class', I still got the toilet seat to Lake Toba. Having endured the 18 sweaty hours of the Safa Mawar, this now seemed like heaven with a seat of my own. The 'super' seemed to add a few centimetres to the edge of the seat. The short hop from Prapat on Lake Toba to Medan was a wake up call for mortality as we witnessed a series of motor accidents. The worst was watching a young couple on a motorcycle crushed by a Damri bus. After a quick gawk, our driver sped on to Medan.


Along the way, legend had it that Sumatra's most luxurious buses plied the route between Medan and Banda Aceh. It turned out to be true, although no one could explain this anomaly. They even had reserved seats. Arriving a few hours early, I booked an overnight bus not looking at my ticket until I was ready to board. It was seat number 1B. The death seat again. But despite the often hair-raising views from this position, I mostly slept right through, only being interrupted by the bus stopping to pick up soldiers hitching on their way back to base. This was August 1998, weeks before this practice became very dangerous.

Banda Aceh to the port was a 30km ride in the back of a bemo. Buying my ticket for the ferry to We Island, I had to give my personal details for the manifest, the first time I had done this for any mode of transport in Indonesia. This seemed to be a legacy of the January 1996 Gurita ferry sinking when hundreds anonymously lost their lives when the overcrowded boat went down. My journey was marked only by the awe of those who survived the strong currents, and of the large number of ships steaming into the Malacca Straits, like floating apartment blocks stacked high with multi-coloured containers.

After a short mini-bus ride to Sabang, a newly found friend set me down in the centre of town beside a covered pick-up truck for my final leg. On his late afternoon rounds, the driver's first stop was the ice factory where three large blocks of ice were carefully hoisted from their moulds only to be crudely tossed in the dirty back tray.

Before long, as we picked up a steady stream of passengers, children were standing on the ice as men dropped cigarette ash on the glassy surface. The vehicle meandered around the sleepy town picking up passengers in the typical laid-back fashion of the island. Nobody in Sabang seemed like they were in a hurry to get anywhere. The driver stopped for fuel and bought homemade popsicles for all the children on board. As we weaved in and out of the fertile hills and valleys of this lumpy isle, I glimpsed the setting sun dipping behind the Indian Ocean. We reached Gapang Beach, my final destination, in the dark. A world away from Jakarta. Just down the road was the oddly named 'kilometre zero' - the western-most tip of the archipelago.

Jim Della-Giacoma is a consultant based in Washington, D.C.

Inside Indonesia 60: Oct-Dec 1999

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