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Travel In Indonesia

Post date 8 July 2019: 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.  It is time to update the information for visitors.

This 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 (Freeport, Menado, Bali, Balikpapan, Medan, Jakarta), except that outside of Jakarta, mass transit options are spotty, at best.

The reader is invited to read my TripAdvisor reviews for additional insights and recommendations.

The Airport
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.

The VOA costs US$35 (or equivalent) for 30 days.  If you get an Extended Stay Visa at your local consulate before leaving, expect to pay US$45 for 45 days.  Performer/Temp Worker Visas are a whole 'nuther mess that is best handled by agencies.  The VOA and ESV can be extended up to 3 times for the same fee each time.  I know one fellow who has stayed here for 9 years on a Tourist visa, so enforcement is a bit spotty.  Overstaying a visa incurs a fine of IDR300,000/day, and may lead to prison and deportation for 5 years or more.

Ground Transportation
In many port cities, there is a toll road from the airport to the city centre.  Expect to pay up to IDR50,000 in tolls if you use a taxi or ride-hailing service.  The toll roads do not accept cash, and you or the driver need to have an "e-toll" or "e-money" card to pass through.  Most taxi drivers carry one and add the toll to the fare.

Jakarta is in the process of building an MRT/LRT/Subway system to compliment its TransJakarta busway system.  The link from the airport to the west side of the city is operational.  Additionally, 5km of the train are currently operating in city centre and reports are that it is very nice.  The rest of the system is still more than a year from completion, as of this writing.  The latest route information can be found here.

DO NOT USE any taxi or unmarked/un-metered service 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.

GrabCar (Malaysia) and GoCar (local, a.k.a. GoJek) are available ride-hailing services; 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 BlueBird also has its own hailing app.  All of them work with credit cards, online e-money tokens and can be recharged at most Indomaret or Alfamart stores.

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.  Keep in mind that the shortest, most direct route anywhere in Jakarta is usually the most jammed, so experienced drivers may use alternatives that are faster, though not necessarily intuitive.

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 circulator 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.

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 or formal ID when purchasing tickets and boarding the trains.

For something completely different, I highly recommend the bajaj (pronounced bah-JAI).  These are the ubiquitous blue 3-wheeled auto-rikshaws lining the curbs at most busy locations in the city.  Each one is licensed to operate in certain zones, so they are only good for short hops, but they can be a fun way to travel.  Prices are negotiable, and if you look like a tourist, prices given are double or triple normal.  Rule of thumb is IDR5,000 - 7,000/km.

The absolute fastest and easiest way to get around are the motorcycle taxis, or ojek.  They can be hailed using GrabBike or GoBike, are fairly cheap, and get through  traffic with ease, if you are feeling adventurous.

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 spicy, 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 refers 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 serving or two 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 (kacang), yellow curry (kari) 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 recommend 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) with a bowl of rice.

One of my favorites is gado-gado.  This is a hot (temperature) 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), sop buntut (ox-tail soup), iga bakar (roasted ribs), and martabak telor (egg pastry).

Eating Out And Entertainment
There are a few nightclubs in Jakarta, most geared towards the local market and often "gentlemen" oriented.  The Kemang and Kuningan areas have the greatest density of tourist-oriented dining and night-life.  Most of the larger hotels have bar/club areas and many are popular nightspots.

For the more adventurous, beware your wallet and with whom you strike up conversations.

Some of the "gentlemen" nightclubs include the notorious Alexis Hotel, The Dragonfly (mostly Korean and Japanese), King's Cross, and B Fashion.  They are called "hotels" to skirt certain legal and regulatory restrictions, but not a lot of sleeping goes on in them.  The decor and prices are fairly swank, so bring your expense account.

If you've been here some years before and are looking for the infamous Stadium, you're too late.  The back-packer haven of Jalan Jaksa is also nearly gone, as is Jalan Pelatihan in Blok M.

All restaurants and bar/pub/nighclubs add a 10% to 15% service charge and tipping is rare above leaving loose change and small notes.  There is also a hefty 25% entertainment tax added in recent years to nearly every form of leisure activity known to Man.  While menu prices generally reflect the 10% VAT, they may not prepare you for being stabbed in the bank account by the local government.

KARAOKE is THE preferred choice of a night out in Asia, and Jakarta is crammed to the gills with them, ranging from very high-end "luxury" kind of joints, down to the basest of human activities.  If you are taking the family out, you will want to look for "family karaoke" on the signs and ads.  They may or may not serve beer and set-ups (meaning bring your own bottle), but will not have the more nefarious sights you are wanting to avoid.  Business or executive karaoke is a whole different thing, and is geared more towards a male high-roller clientele.

There are pleasure palaces and massage parlors galore throughout the city, many marketed by blue lights (not red).  You will be hard-pressed to find one that is English-speaking, and if you don't speak Indonesian, you will likely get over-charged.

Please note that prostitution is illegal in Indonesia, despite its prevalence.  In addition to the usual risks, you do have an elevated risk of legal interactions, regardless of how small that risk is in reality.

If you come to Jakarta during Ramadhan, you will likely find most of these establishments either closed, or running in minimalist mode.  Outside the city, it is very likely they will be closed, and if you find one open, you run the risk of being caught in the middle of a raid by police and/or Islamic zealots.

Package liquor stores are very rare, and even beer and wine cannot be sold anywhere but restaurants and grocery stores.  There are a handful of duty-free shops (in Kemang and Lotte Shopping Avenue mall), and some stores sell packaged liquor under the table, depending on position of the Moon and whether the ubiquitous tax man is nearby.  Be prepared for sticker shock, as the country imposes a 75% import tax on liquor, except in Bali (of course).  Smirnoff is produced on license in Bali, making it one of the cheapest liquors available, since it doesn't have the import tax.  Two common local brands are Vibe and Mansion House, and are also cheap(er) than imports.

Beer selection is extremely limited, with Guiness, Heineken, Carlsberg, and San Miguel being the most commonly found imports.  Local brews include Bintang (owned by Heineken) and Anker, but I highly recommend Bali Hai and its family of beers, El Diablo and Panther Stout.  They are finely crafted by one of only two Indonesian brew masters in the country (the other is at the Paulaner Brauhaus in Grand Indonesia Mall Jakarta).

Local hooch is not recommended.  There have been a number of cases of wood alcohol poisoning and you take your life in your hands if you want to go this route.  That said, there are two types of popular local wine: anggur merah and anggur orang tua.  The former is a cheap, unremarkable red wine, while the latter is a most unusual spiced red wine.  Both are generally mixed 1-to-1 with beer and served on ice.  The most unusual liquor is called Cap Tikus (mouse piss), made from fermented coconut milk and the most authentic version has a fetal deer in it, giving the beverage a pinkish color (hint - the deer is eaten at the end, like grubs in mescal).  There are also many kinds of arak, considered medicinal, ranging from the famous Arak Bali (tastes like Gran Marinier and makes a mean margarita) to dozens of you-don't-wanna-know regional concoctions.

Street Food & Food Stalls
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 in all locations.  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.

One of the most popular street foods is martabak.  There are two basic types - Telor with egg, or Manis (sweet).  The telor is scrambled egg and grilled onions in filo pastry and is very good.  The manis variety is a giant pancake filled with (usually) chocolate and peanuts.  Both are very good and a favorite of Indonesians.

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 pavilions 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 well 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, not to mention much cooler temperatures.

Also in West Java are Tankuban Perahu, an active volcano popular with local tourists, and Kawah Putih, a dormant volcano with a white-colored lake in the center.  Both areas also feature large wild monkey populations.  There is also Gunung Padang, a controversial mountain that some suspect is a man-made pyramid as much as 20,000 years old.

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 at JIExpo in Kemayoran this year, with 2,300 seats.  Hopefully, it will become a major attraction for those seeking local flavor in the arts, as well as touring international shows.

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.

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