Part 2 of our island hopping adventure begins with our entering Indonesia on April 5 at the port city of Dumai on Sumatra Island. From there, we traveled all the way to Bali Island almost 2,000km to the east. We relied heavily on Indonesia’s famously unreliable state-run transportation network, but we saw many interesting places and met many interesting people along the way. We had business in Bali: we were going to set up a bánh mì Vietnamese sandwich shop in one of the crafts markets - and we did this successfully. But we will share more about that in a dedicated post. Indonesia is a fascinating country. It is hard to grasp the complexity and diversity of the place, even after spending one month. When you begin to try make sense of it, you quickly wind up back at the beginning doubting that the country makes any sense at all. We look forward to returning, especially to see more of Bali away from the crowds of tourists in Kuta and Denpasar, but also to explore islands like Papua, Maluku, and Sulawesi. But that will have to wait. This post was mostly written from a ship bound for Singapore, headed to meet our friends Nakul and Mika on the final island of our island hopping adventures.
Let’s start from the beginning. Sumatra is the massive island that guards Indonesia’s west flank. Aceh province sits in the North, historically the part of Indonesia most economically connected to the the Indian Ocean trading region. At the southern tip sits Bakauheni, just across the Sunda strait from Java island (the Sunda strait had been receiving news coverage recently as the place where the US Navy lost it's aircraft carrier supposedly traveling towards Korea).
Dozens of large volcanoes rise steeply along the west side of Sumatra, but slope very gently towards the Malacca straits which form the east coast of the island. The volcanic soil, giant river plains, and tropical weather in this area creates some of the most fertile land on the planet, and Sumatra has long been famous for the production of coffee, rubber, and other commodities. More recently, two other export products have severely altered the jungle landscape: oil and natural gas were discovered recently, and are exploited widely; and Sumatra continues to be a major source of palm oil, which has led to the deforestation of wide tracts of Sumatra’s jungle to make space for plantations.
The cities we visited in Sumatra cater mostly to these industries. Our first stop was Pekan Baru, capital of Riau province and home to Indonesia’s oil and gas industry. We exited our ferry from Dumai, also in Riau, then passed through customs, and transferred to a bus bound for Pekan Baru (at the station we met several new Facebook friends seeking our photo). But not before being accosted by twenty or more young and old men seeking our taxi fare at the port (this would become a theme. We expect many travelers to Indonesia have encountered this phenomenon of hoards of men loitering around stations and public squares - seems a recipe for trouble).
Pekan Baru sits on the Siak river, which flows from the volcanoes down to the Malacca straits. In town, we tried a local fried rice and visited the An Nur mosque. The following morning we set out for Jambi, which sits on the Batanghari river and is capital of Jambi province. We had intended to travel directly to Palembang, but upon learning that it was a 16 hour trip, decided to make the Jambi pit stop. For many kilometers alongside the paved road between the cities runs oil pipelines, and we passed several rigs and other facilities before arriving to Jambi late at night. We were proud to parlay the broken WiFi at the Evan hotel in to a room upgrade - the staff were duly impressed with our skills of negotiation.
We would follow the same routine the next day, and we awoke early to catch a bus, finally bound for Palembang. Palembang is the capital of South Sumatra province and seems to be an up-and-coming city. Sumatra’s only active rail line runs from Bandar Lampung (connected to Bakauheni on the Sunda strait across from Java island), and terminates in Palembang. This explains why Palembang is a center for trading many of the commodities that Sumatra produces; it is the furthest city into the hinterland that has easy rail access to Java. In fact, Joshua had lunch with a palm oil salesman who travels frequently to Java for business but is based in Palembang. Palembang hosts a massive market on the Musi river, also a place you can easily observe the trading culture for which Palembang is famous. Along with Jakarta, Palembang is to host the 2018 Asian Games, and the city was in the middle of receiving an upgrade. Under construction was a raised monorail line that would run from the airport, through the city, to the large stadium being constructed for the event (and causing severe traffic jams in the meantime). At the Msquare hotel where we stayed, we met a business traveler from Japan who was working as a consultant on the monorail project. But the highlight of Palembang, by far, was stumbling onto the Super Martabak Bangka Belinyu street stall. The large crowds queuing were a sign of something good, and the moist cakes made into chocolate and condensed milk sandwiches did not disappoint !
On the evening of April 8, we boarded Sriwijaya 1, a night train from Palembang bound for Tanjung Karang station in Bandar Lampung city, Lampung province (Sriwijaya is a reference to the ancient civilization from this region). The train was operated by Kereta Api Indonesia, the state-owned rail network on Java and Sumatra islands. A quick bus ride from from Bandar Lampung to Bakauheni and we could cross the Sunda strait aboard a ferry to Java. Java is the cultural and political center of modern Indonesia, and hosts Indonesia’s largest and most dynamic cities. Java is not only the most populous island in Indonesia, but the most populous island in the world (number two is actually Honshu in Japan, where we live).
For most of this region’s history, there was no such political entity as Indonesia. Indonesia, as we know it today, is very much a construct of the Dutch colonists, who stitched together their various colonial possessions in the region to form the Dutch East Indies. Prior to that, many of these islands were governed by independent or autonomous sultanates, which traded with each other, as well as Arabs, Indians, and Chinese. Of course there were (and still are) many areas inhabited by itinerant tribes and small villages.
Indonesia gained independence from the Dutch in 1949, and it was at that time that the Independence leaders declared their country to include much of the land it now does (Indonesian Papua and other areas were annexed to Indonesia years later). These leaders at the time of Independence were mostly Javanese, but they implemented a federal structure to accommodate the astounding number of languages, religions, and cultures that their Indonesia would subsume. In a stroke of good leadership, the national language was not to be Javanese, but instead Bahasa Indonesia, a form of Malay long used by traders as the lingua franca for these islands. However, many Indonesians have and continue to resent the real or perceived dominance of Java and Javanese culture over the rest of the land. This has led to conflicts, violence, and even successful and unsuccessful attempts at secession over the years. Indonesian nation building remains very much a work in progress.
We finally arrived to Jakarta on April 9 after four days of heavy travel, so we were happy to relax at our Airbnb in a modern apartment building. Feeling a bit under the weather, we spent our time in Jakarta mostly poolside, and left exploring for when we returned 3 weeks later.
April 11 was spent on the train to Surabaya, Indonesia’s second city. Surabaya has gained a reputation in Indonesia for urban charm and as a model of good governance. The current mayor has cleaned and greened up the city, and it was decidedly more pleasant than any other city we visited in Indonesia. We stayed at the Arthotel in a leafy neighborhood on the south side of the city.
We spent the next day exploring. Our first destination was the government/administrative area, which hosted the PELNI ticket office. We were there to purchase our return tickets from Bali, and tickets to Singapore. Pelayamaran Nasiunal Indonsia (shortened to PELNI) is Indonesia’s state-owned ferry network, established in 1950 to connect the many ports that form this island nation. PELNI ferries are a lifeline for many Indonesians, and PELNI continues to operate hundreds of ferries a day despite the availability of low-cost airfare.
Our experience in Surabaya, however, offered us a good look in to the famous inefficiency of Indonesia’s vast bureaucracy. Between the reluctance of anyone at the office to assist foreigners, the need for frequent selfie breaks for the swaths of young women seeking to take their photos with us, and the ticket agent’s unfamiliarity with computers and general incompetence, it took us a full hour to purchase two sets of ferry tickets, which we would discover had several booking mistakes upon boarding the ships two weeks later, naturally.
With tickets in hand, we continued our day with lunch at Soto Ambengan Pak Sadi. We took seats at a communal table, next to a father-daughter pair, and they helped us make sense of the menu and to order. The gentleman, Donny, is a corporate general manager at Midtown Hotels. Not only did Donny graciously pick up the tab for our lunch, but continued to provide us help and support for our journey through Indonesia after we left Surabaya (more on that below). Next stop was Zagrandi, started in 1930 by an Italian family and still serving wonderful homemade ice cream. And our last stop in Surabaya, before a night train, was dinner at Domicile, a trendy new restaurant only blocks from the station. We can highly recommend the beef rendeng pasta, a modern take on a local dish.
From Surabaya, we traveled next to Bali on a special train+boat+bus package offered by Kereta Api, and we were greeted by an incredible sunrise. Bali is an island (and a province which includes several smaller islands). Although it lies just across the eponymous Bali strait from Java, it is a world apart. The local people and their language are referred to as Balinese, and the language is not mutually intelligible with Javanese. A majority of Balinese are followers of Hinduism, quite apart from Sumatra and Java, where Islam is most popular.
Indonesia is both the largest Muslim-majority country in the world, and has the world’s largest Muslim population (~200M). It is not entirely clear how Islam entered this region, but it is thought to have been brought originally by Arab traders between 700-1000 years ago. Islam started gaining followers in the cities of Java and Sumatra, then spread to the countryside, mixing with local religions and belief systems. Indonesia has a reputation for the practice of a tolerant or moderate form of Islam, perhaps a legacy of this mixing of beliefs, and Indonesia’s natural ethnic diversity. However, in recent years, there has been much written about the emergence of more orthodox practices of Sunni Islam, and many have observed the increase in public displays of piety such as women donning the jilbab (Indonesian hijab). From what we have read, this can be attributable to many factors, but two in particular resonated with our experience: 1) as people move from the countryside to cities, they are less rooted in their traditional beliefs, receive less support from informal networks, and gravitate towards more orthodox forms of religion to fill those gaps, and 2) Arab countries have infused money into Indonesia to build madrasas and mosques in the reflection of those found in the Arab world, grafting a form of Islam onto Indonesia that different from the country's traditions.
We spent 12 nights in Bali but we are going to share a dedicated post about that experience, especially about the bánh mì shop. By the time we sold out of sandwiches, we were ready to turn around and head back towards mainland Southeast Asia. From Bali, we rode aboard the KM Awu, part of PELNI's giant fleet. Upon boarding, we found room 5019 and entered, only to disrupt an older gentlemen during his prayers. Apparently, the very helpful PELNI clerk in Surabaya had accidentally booked us in to the communal prayer room instead of the private room we had requested. The staff made some adjustments, and tried to squeeze us into a smelly bunk two doors down, with a non-functioning toilet. We made a stink, and eventually did get our own private room (functioning toilet, and all). In Surabaya we were more comfortable. Donny hooked us up with a room at one of his hotels to spend the day relaxing (thank you, Donny !). That evening, we were back on a night train, this one bound for Jakarta. From Jakarta, we spent another night on a much nicer PELNI ship, complete with musical entertainment, and even participated in the crew's game of tug-o-war (Joshua's team lost).
By the time we reached Batam island, within sight of Singapore, we were well rested and ready for the luxuries of Singapore, our final island destination on the island-hopping tour. But we will cover that in the final island hopping adventure post !
Pekan Baru April 5-6
Jambi April 6-7
Palembang April 7-8
Palembang-Bandar Lampung Train April 8-9
Jakarta April 9-11
Surabaya April 11-12
Surabaya-Kabupaten Train April 12-13
Kuta April 13-25
Denpasar-Surabaya Ferry April 25-26
Surabaya-Jakarta Train April 26-27
Jakarta April 27-28
Jakarta-Batam Ferry April 28-29