Indonesia Travel: Motorbikes, Monsoons, Monuments, and Monkeys – Part 1

Indonesia is my most unique travel experience so far. Credit goes to my travel companions for planning this trip. For the first time in years, I was along for the ride and had no expectations. In fact, I knew next to nothing about Indonesia and its geography. This travel adventure included cities, countryside, a four-passenger river cruise, and a rain forest.

After the December 2018 tsunami, someone asked me if I was still going to Indonesia in January. Of course! I didn’t think I’d be anywhere near where the tsunami hit. And, unlike a certain world leader, I fact-checked my assumption and tried to at least have a clue about this Asian nation.

10 Facts About Indonesia

  • Indonesia has two seasons — wet (monsoon) and dry. I was there in January during monsoon season, which lasts from about November to March.
  • Two of my city destinations — Jakarta and Jogyakarta — are indeed on the island of Java. The tsunami originated in the Sunda Strait between Java and Sumatra. Jakarta was on the end of the island near tsunami impact.
  • Indonesia is in a region known as the Ring of Fire due to its frequent volcano eruptions and earthquakes. In fact, it had three disaster events in 2018: flooding and mudslides, earthquake, and tsunami.
  • Indonesia is an archipelago of more than 17,000 islands. It is Southeast Asia’s largest nation.
  • Java is the most populous island in Indonesia.
  • The island of Borneo (the Malaysian name) is shared by Indonesia (whose territory is called Kalimantan), Brunei, and Malaysia. Borneo is the third largest island in the world.
  • Indonesia is the fourth most populous nation in the world after the United States.
  • Bahasa Indonesian is the official language; and there are over 300 native languages.
  • Indonesia is a Muslim-majority nation. Religious tolerance is part of the Constitution; however, blasphemy is against the law and the penalty is prison.
  • By law, since 2006, Indonesians must carry an ID card that declares affiliation with one of six officially recognized religions: Islam, Hindu, Catholic Christianity, Confucianism, and Buddhism.

JAKARTA

Jakarta was my home base for travel in the archipelago. It is not a tourist destination, but it is the nation’s center of commerce. Considering we flew in and out of the city three times in two weeks, my observations are superficial.

Modernity and luxury co-exist with pockets of squalor. Go down any tiny alley and be amazed at how densely populated it is. Street food abounds. There are also many good restaurants, including international ones. We enjoyed a very good meal at a Japanese restaurant called Sakana.

You need to be aware of clean water issues for drinking water, fresh fruit and vegetables. (Sometimes I forgot about that and ate raw fruits and vegetables. Luckily, I didn’t suffer any GI issues.) Security checkpoints and scanners are everywhere: mall entrances, gated communities, and office buildings. And, rush hour traffic….!

Traffic was epic. It moved under a code only Indonesians understand. Road rules seem to be very loose, and signage and road markings are treated more like a suggestion for order. Three clearly marked lanes become five when about a hundred motorbikes join the fray with cars, trucks, and buses. There is neither time nor space for distracted driving. All motorists are squeezed and traffic becomes a game of inches.

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The dreaded Jakarta rush hour.

Motorbikes might travel both ways on a one-way street if it’s more convenient for the rider and the rider can get away with it. All motorists use horns frequently — a tap, not a blast — to warn other motorists that they’re being passed, or they’re really, really close. Of course, that’s the intended purpose of horns, as opposed to how they’re used here in the Washington, DC region to signal annoyance and rage. It was fascinating to watch traffic maneuverings at street level or from a high-rise. My conclusion: Indonesians are the best motorists (car or motorbike) in the world. You can’t teach those skills.

Motorbike riders wore helmets (by law) and flip-flops. If it rained or stormed, riders might huddle somewhere, but most just popped on their rain ponchos and kept it moving. Riders with helmets that say “Grab” or “GO-JEK” operate like Uber. I assume that those motorbike operators can only have one passenger at a time. Otherwise, there was apparently no limit to the number of passengers a rider can have. The record number of people I saw piled onto a motorbike was five. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a photo of that record-setter. The fifth passenger was a baby strapped to a passenger’s chest.

 

There is no such thing as motorists automatically yielding to pedestrians. In fact, the cities — Jakarta and Jogyakarta — were not especially walkable or pedestrian-friendly.  Where there was a sidewalk, it was little wider than a curb. Crosswalks near malls were, again, a suggestion to motorists to let pedestrians cross the street. In addition to all of this, motorists drive on the left, like Brits, which adds another layer of challenge for perambulating the city. Ninety-nine percent of the time we took a “Taksi” everywhere we wanted to go in the cities.

Jakarta is a city whose population has outgrown its road system.  The good news is completion of the rapid transit project scheduled to open March 2019.  (And I wonder what it will be like for people to walk to those stations.)


Stay tuned for upcoming posts featuring Jogykarta, Bali, and Kalimantan!