If you come to Indonesia as a Peace Corps volunteer you will not be allowed to drive a car and you can’t use a scooter or motorbike as either a driver or passenger for the entirety of your service. That’s a pretty big limitation considering how over eighty percent of Indonesians cite motorbike as their main mode of transportation.
Globally, Peace Corps volunteers are prohibited from using motorcycles and scooters as they have been the cause of many volunteer deaths. If Peace Corps has evidence to believe that one of their volunteers used a motorcycle it is grounds for administrative separation—the equivalent to being fired. Although the most prevalent mode of transportation in Indonesia is off the table, there are still many ways to get around.
For traveling in and around the desa nothing can beat the classic bicycle. Peace Corps provides volunteers with money to purchase a bike when they get to their permanent site. Additionally, it costs very little to maintain and use a bike. Bikes are efficient in that they’re ready to go whenever. No need to coordinate with anyone else or figure out complicated routes.
Volunteers are supposed to have many ways out of their district in the case of an emergency. For this reason we are told to have one or two people that can drive us to our closest big city on relatively short notice. Since volunteers live in country for two years it is not ideal to always have to rely on someone else to get out of the desa. Indonesians are always very eager to help and assist however they can, but my American sense of independence motivates me to not consider bumming rides off friends to be a long-term transportation solution.
Indonesia also has a well-developed railway network. The trains in Indonesia are the only thing that seems to run on a posted schedule, and generally they aren’t too far off of that schedule. They’re convenient, easy to figure out, and not too expensive. Just be sure to bring an eye mask for overnight trips as the lights are never dimmed in the passenger cars. Busses travel long distances and are also easy to use, though figuring out the fare can be challenging if it’s not posted within the bus.
The real workhorse of Indonesian public transportation is the angkot. Imagine crossing a Volkswagen bus with a go-cart (one of the ones from Mario Kart). Now fill that creation with as many passengers as will comfortably fit inside, then double the number of passengers, and that’s an angkot. An amazing thing I’ve noticed about Indonesians and their use of the angkot is their inability to admit that more people can’t fit in an already packed angkot.
One of my more magical experiences in Indonesia thus far was bouncing around behind the driver’s seat in an angkot that was driving much too fast on what was, perhaps, once a road while listening to a smooth jazz rendition of My Heart Will Go On with fifteen other people jammed into a space no bigger than the average minivan.
Of course there is no air-conditioning in angkots, and I have seen no indication to airbags being present on either the driver’s or passenger’s side of the vehicle. It is possible to find a seatbelt in the front passenger seat occasionally, but do you really want to buckle up when you’re basically sitting on pak Amat’s lap?
Angkots do not have schedules. Each driver decides when he or she (though I’ve yet to meet a female angkot driver) begins driving their route and when they finish. Angkots start running early in the morning and most will stop around five in the afternoon as most people are home by then anyway. In bigger cities, however, it is possible to find angkots running all day and night. There are terminals where multiple angkot routes meet, but like buses, each angkot will stay in the terminal until the driver deems he has enough passengers. It can be frustrating choosing the wrong angkot and waiting while others leave so it is best to only get on angkots that are already moving.
The fares of angkots vary depending on region and distance traveled. Typically the base fare will be something around four or five thousand rupiah (40 cents), though if you’re fair-skinned like me the driver will try to give you the “bule price” which can be as much as double the actual fare. The best thing to do is watch what others are paying and then pay the same amount without asking the driver. I never hear an Indonesian ask what the cost of their trip was, they just know. So follow the crowd and pay what everybody else pays.
The most I have been asked to pay for a ride in an angkot was Rp 12,000. I knew this was too much so I expressed my shock that the fare was so much, “awis pisan, pak,” very expensive, I said kind of thinking that he wouldn’t actually change the price. Luckily he modified his original statement and asked for Rp 10,000 instead. I later learned that the fare should actually have been Rp 8,000 but I was pleased I could use my language skills enough to save a couple rupiah. When you’re only making a little more than 70,000 rupiah a day (about five and a half dollars), and half of that goes towards housing, every little bit helps.
In order to get on an angkot all you have to do is stand on the side of the road and vaguely look like you might want to ride in an angkot. It’s not difficult. Since angkot drivers are paid for each passenger they are always eager to pick up another person. To get off an angkot just say “kiri, pak,” which is a polite way of asking the driver to stop. Kiri means left, and since people drive on the left side of the road here it translates to “pull over, sir.”
The hardest part of using angkots is figuring out where they’re going, though this really isn’t much of an obstacle with a basic understanding of Indonesian. Simply saying the name of the street you want to go to when an angkot driver pulls up next to you will have the driver either confirm that he’s going there or not. Additionally, all angkots are color coded depending on their route. This makes it very easy to take the same route twice.
Angkot actually means public transportation, but as that can mean many forms of transport, for foreigners at least, angkot effectively only refers to the ubiquitous minibus. Naik angkot, means to ride angkot, and literally it means to ascend, board, or go up. Turun means to get off, and it literally means to descend, disembark, or drop. One can also naik gunung, or climb a mountain. While using public transportation in Indonesian isn’t as difficult as climbing a mountain it can be just as exhilarating an experience.