Indonesia 1999

A throwback to some proper backpacking...

This one is a very long time coming, twenty years in fact. Ordinarily I'm not sure I'd be able to recall all the details after such a delay, but fortunately I have some old-school help. Firstly, I kept a diary throughout - never had I done that before and never have I done it since. Secondly, as this trip was pre-Google Maps, pre-smartphone and generally pre-all other technology including even a watch, I blagged it day-to-day with my Lonely Planet (LP) guidebook. It was my travel bible and as I still have it today, I can pretty much piece together all the details. So here goes...

I was living in Bintan at the time, an island in the Riau Archipelago just off Singapore. I had some leave to clear, so I booked a return flight from Singapore to Lombok with the intention of spending two weeks on the beach. A friend of mine had recommended the Sheraton Sengiggi, so I worked my way there after landing in Mataram, the capital of Lombok. Those details I don't have - I can't even remember if I pre-booked the room or just rocked up and booked on the spot. What I remember though is a nice room with a great pool and spending one day there reading. Above all though, I remember being bored-stiff after two days and starting to get restless. Another friend had mentioned some great scuba diving in the island of Gili Air, so I ventured over there for the next two days. This was back to basics - from the Sheraton one day to a hut on the beach the next, with no AC and barely any light from the one bulb. But the diving was great - I've not been a prolific diver over the years but this is probably the best of the lot.


I did make a rookie mistake in Gili Air though, one that has bugged me ever since. On the first night, I ate at a beach-side restaurant a little way away from my hut. When casually asked by the waiter where I was staying, I only went and told him. I'm pretty sure I was savvy enough to carry my cash, cards and passport on me at all times, but I left my watch and camera in the locked room, and alas, they were gone by the time I got back. I was annoyed but I knew any complaint was futile. I was more annoyed with myself and decided to get out of there as soon as I could. On top of that something else was bugging me - it dawned on me that I would have to pay the 'fiscal-fee' of one-million Rupiah when I finally arrived back into Bintan from Singapore. This fee is for foreign workers in Indonesia - we had to pay every time we returned from abroad. So with this hanging over me, I made the snap decision to forfeit my return flight and make my way over-land all the way to Bintan. With my LP guide in hand, I would plan each day as it came. Bali first, across Java, all the way up Sumatra, then across Sumatra and the Riau islands to Bintan. I only had eight days left, so a whistle-stop tour it would be.

The first morning started from a beach on Gili Air with stunning views of both Gunung Agung and Rinjani - the two largest volcanoes on Bali & Lombok. I took the one-hour boat over to Bangsil in Lombok, then bypassed the mad-scramble for public buses and took a delightful taxi ride through hills and rice-paddies to Lembar. Monkeys galore too. Once at Lembar, I took the four-hour boat over to Padangbai in Bali. A long, tedious boat ride sitting on the floor followed, but I arrived in Bali none too worse for it. Padangbai harbour offered me a host of drivers and I bartered my way down from Rp120k to 70k for a ride to Denpasar. From my scribbles, the exchange rate at the time was around Rp10k to the pound.

A crowded but pleasant looking city with a friendly outgoing population, I noted at the time that Denpasar reminded me a little of Macau (where I had lived from 1996 to 1998). My memory, jogged by my LP, suggests I stayed at the Puri Pemecutan Hotel which was said to be a former palace, and it felt pretty good to me after a long day on the road. Once settled in, I looked ahead to the next day, which was to get me to Java. I was happy to be on the road but started to have doubts if I actually could make it to Bintan with just seven days or so to go. I was loving the experience, but kicking myself for wasting those days in Sengiggi when I could have been testing myself and my travel skills.

I left Denpasar at 8:00am, with the aim of getting over to Banyuwagi in Java in time to catch the 9:30am train to Surabaya. My new found travel skills rather let me down though, as the bus from Denpasar and the short boat ride to Banyuwangi didn't get me there until midday. The next train was at 10:00pm, so I considered my options over a plate of nasi goreng, and decided to get the bus instead. I arrived late into Surabaya and my assessment at the time was that it was remarkably similar to other South East Asian cities - friendly locals, poor roads & pavements, excess pollution and hell crossing the roads. The LP guide suggested crossing the road slowly, raising one hand towards to traffic while crossing yourself with the other, and I agreed with this assessment at the time. My memory, my diary, and the LP let me down on this one - I've no idea where I stayed. Once settled though, I planned the next day - a train ride to Yogyakarta (pronounced Jogja). I was feeling good and even thought about two nights in Yogya which would be a luxury. I nodded off watching re-runs of Benny Hill.

An early start for the 7:00am 'Eksekutif' train to Yogyakarta, saw me up at 5:30am for a short walk to Surabaya station. I queued up to get a ticket only to be told I could pay on the train. My Bahasa Indonesia was quite well-tuned back then so I could handle these simple conversations. I also think she said that the train was full but I could try my luck. The train was indeed full but I took up residence in seat 8D. It was standing room only, but I relaxed as the train pulled out of the station for the five hour journey. I had my money ready, but as the hours passed and the ticket collectors came and went, no-one seemed to want it. Not even a glance even though they checked everyone else. As we pulled into Yogya, I still had Rp50k burning a hole in my pocket and hurried out of the station. 

I loved Yogya, easily the best city so far. Big, polluted and chaotic but with a small-world charm. I spent the afternoon walking the narrow streets and alleyways with no purpose in mind, just enjoying a 'jalan-jalan' while 'makan angin' and 'cuci mata'. The local people were always friendly and asked 'mau ke mana' or where are you going, at every opportunity. I was told the best way to answer was with 'eating the wind', or 'washing the eyes', which usually raised a smile. Yogya is the jumping off point for Borobudur, but I had not left myself enough time for this side trip. Another day I thought, although I've not been back to Indonesia since. No recollections of where I stayed - my sources let me down again - but I distinctly remember being offered (and declining) a 'massage' by a passing 'masseuse' at one point.

With a little more time in this lovely city, I started looking ahead as Sumatra was beckoning. I noticed for the first time a little town that was once a small part of the British Empire. That town was now Bengkulu, but as Bencoolen it was integrated into the British Empire from 1785 until 1824, although the British had been stationed there since 1685, and built Fort Marlborough in 1714. I wanted to visit, but had some work to do first.

The following day was pretty straightforward - a nine hour train ride from Yogya to Jakarta, and I actually paid for my seat this time. I'm a history-buff at heart and while reading ahead of arriving in Jakarta, I selected the old part as somewhere I should visit. I checked in to my (obviously unmemorable) hotel and ventured out for a stroll towards the old port of Batavia, an important cog in the long-since diminished Dutch Empire. I could certainly see evidence of the Dutch with plenty of old colonial buildings, but as I kept going I was walking further and further into slum-like conditions. The only time I felt unsafe during my trip, I did an about-turn and retreated to the safety of my hotel. Sumatra beckoned.

An early start saw me leave on the 24-hour bus to Bengkulu at 9:30am on Saturday morning and I pulled into Bengkulu at 10:00am the following day. The journey was uneventful - the buses are the heart and soul of Indonesia and they generally get you where you want to go. We crossed the sea from Java to Sumatra with Krakatoa in sight and without too much fuss. We all departed the bus after boarding the ferry and jumped back on as we arrived in Bakauheni port, then took the coastal road up the west side of Sumatra. Upon arrival in Bengkulu, I didn't hang around as I had a sixteen hour bus ride to Padang ahead of me, departing at 2:00pm. I had four hours to explore this special little corner of the British Empire.

The first thing I came across was a delightful tree-lined boulevard with two rows of stout trees that looked to have been planted in British times. Fort Marlborough was first on the list and although the LP suggested it was 'curiously unimpressive as British architecture goes', to find it in such a remote place made up for it. In hindsight, in the following years after my visit, the fort endured a large earthquake and tsunami and it came through unscathed - a great example of 18th Century British engineering.


As you walk in, you see the first of several British graves dating from as early as 1704. British corners of foreign fields well before Rupert Brooke's time. I had a good walk around - not much else to see aside from a few old cannons, but it certainly stirred a few feelings for me. At the time, I'd only been outside of the UK for three years and it resonated - being stationed in faraway places for years on end. After thirty odd minutes, I left to find the old European cemetery, and must have looked a strange sight thrashing through the overgrown grass and weeds to see a few faded gravestones. Looking back now, there is actually a well-tended British Cemetery which might have been good to see but back then, if it wasn't in the LP, it didn't exist.


I also passed a statue of Captain Robert Hamilton who it said 'died in command of the troops', and Governor Thomas Parr who was beheaded by locals, the poor fellow. Lastly, I passed a little house where Sukarno was exiled in the 1930s. The last noteworthy Bengkulu claim to fame was its second to last Governor - Sir Stamford Raffles - who established the colony of Singapore while actually based in Bengkulu. When he left, he agreed to hand Bengkulu back to the Dutch in exchange for Malacca and the future Singapore. I'd say he got the better deal.


I loved Bengkulu and it's friendly locals. I was invited into homes on more than one occasion and from memory I think I shared tea with one family. A unique experience, but I had to dash and get on my bus to Padang. At this stage, I had a few thoughts about visiting one or two extra places in North Sumatra, but first was my non-AC bus trip and I had sixteen hours to decide what to do when I got there.

Upon arrival in Padang, two hours late at 8:30am on Monday morning, I had had enough. I decided to take the easy option and fly from Padang to Batam (the island next to Bintan) to save an extra two or three days of coach and boat journeys. I headed to the nearest travel agent only to find out that today's flight left at 8:50am and the Wednesday flight was already full. I was gutted and now facing another seventeen hours to Pekanbaru, which had zero redeeming features according to the LP. Once at the bus station, the only option available was the 'direct' service to Batam. This was another 24 hours, and the only - and I mean only - good prospect about this was that I would get to cross the equator over-land. 

We left in the afternoon and the view while crossing Sumatra was stunning. With no camera, I couldn't record any of the views, but they were truly amazing and some are still locked into memory. As night fell and we were passing over the equator around the city of Bukittinggi, the bus stopped for maintenance and we all piled onto the road to sit down. I shared out my cigarettes and chatted with my new found bus friends. The sky was free of clouds and the stars were bright and amazing. I still remember that night, and I'll remember it for a long time yet.

Pekanbaru was flat, dull and miserable, but we only stayed a short time while swapping buses. We ended up in Dumai in the dust and the heat and piled into an absolute death trap of a boat. The 'door' was a one-metre square window at the top of the boat and around 300 of us piled into the decks below. If this thing went down, we were all going down with it. Although the windows didn't open, I sat near one just in case it could be smashed open in an emergency. Needless to say, if boat is still on the water, don't get in.

We passed through the Riau islands and although we seemed to stop off at most of them, we made it to Batam at 6:00pm on Tuesday evening. I was in familiar territory now, and checked into a hotel after my nine day trip from Gili Air including the last eighty-hour leg from Jakarta. The next morning should have been an easy taxi to the last port which would take me back to Bintan, but my last interaction was with the concierge who tried to persuade me that the local taxis were not safe and I should take their expensive car service. I felt invincible after all I had been through, so I declined and found a taxi. Unfortunately once inside and on the way, I noticed it had no door handles or window winders and the guy was taking a unfamiliar route to the port. I suddenly felt less invincible and tipped him Rp10k out of sheer relief when I reached the port. 

My diary ended here as I was so close to familiar ground, but I put my last thoughts on paper. I had seen so much of Indonesia - enough for three of four separate trips. Most tourists may only associate Indonesia with Bali, but I had seen Gili Air, Lombok, Bali, Java, Sumatra and Riau all in one go, and in doing so, I had totally immersed myself in everyday Indonesian life, most of it revolving around travel. It may have changed by now, but I imagine most Indonesians are used to those long bus journeys with their hawkers and sweepers and take them all in their stride. 


And what did I see in that everyday life? I saw people living day-to-day and hand-to-mouth. I saw mothers heading to the bus stations at dawn to set up stall for the day, with their children in tow, left to beg, borrow or steal their day's food or a few coins. I saw children on the dockside swimming after ferries to dive down behind the boats to scoop up the coins that those on the boat would throw into the water. They would store the coins inside their cheeks and continue to follow the boats until the people got bored of throwing their coins. 


The Indonesia I saw then, seemed to be a nation of hawkers. Everyone was trying to sell you something wherever you were - on trains or buses. I was offered vegetables, fruit, pens, pencils, diaries, prayer hats, cigarettes and of course all array of food and drinks. I ended up living on bread and wafers. Whenever we stopped, the bus or train would fill up with hawkers and sweepers who would sweep under your seat for a few coins. You could only admire them - they had mouths to feed and did their best to fill them. There were beggars of course but I declined them all in order to give my coins to those who worked for them. I remember one girl though, she was constantly asking me for money during my six hour stay at Padang bus station. I must have refused her twenty times. Even when on the bus and waiting to leave again, she asked and I refused. Finally she brought me a tray of roti to buy and my interest was piqued. The label said Rp400 and she asked me for Rp1,000, but I took one and paid for five. She ran off without thanking me, probably thinking I had misunderstood. A cute girl and I hope her persistence with this one small thing led to more success. She'd be around 25 now, I hope she did well in life. It was election time while I was there, with Megawati Sukarnoputri seen as the people's choice. She represented hope and while she didn't win this time around, she did become President two years later. It was a time of hope and I distinctly remember her supporters coming onto trains and buses and singing their catchy campaign songs. 

I cherished my time on the road in Indonesia. I thought long and hard about my life and what mattered most to me at the time. I had forgotten what was important to me and I managed to get some perspective back. I loved Indonesia and honestly thought that my future would lie there. While I still have great memories of my travels and my time in Bintan, my future went in a different direction and I haven't been back since. Writing this makes me realize that I need to return.

The details from Gili Air beach onwards...

Travel costs: Rp398,000 or around GBP40 at the time.

Hotel costs (5 hotels): 948,000 or around GBP95.

Savings from not paying the fiscal-fee: RP1M or about GBP100.