Ah yes, another love/hate relationship I have with Indonesia: their public transportation.
On the one hand, it’s abundant. Getting anywhere is (more or less) simple. Just a matter of sticking your arm out and waiting for one of the many buses/mini buses to come by.
On the other hand, as a foreigner, you are 80% likely to get ripped off.
The gamble is one of the many frustrating things in Indonesia, but there is a way to beat the system. My technique: know the price you should be paying, jump out of the bus as fast as possible when you arrive at your destination, throw the driver the money, and walk away as fast as you can before he can try to swindle you.
Nine times out of ten, they will not yell at you because they know they have received the fair price. That tenth person can go eat a big ol’ bowl of rice for trying his hardest to take advantage of the assumed-to-be rich foreigner when he really just needs to give up and accept his *fair* (pun intended).
Within large cities, there are buses that have fixed prices, are usually air conditioned, and run on schedules. These are magical, blessed means of transportation as they are insanely inexpensive and are actively trying to combat traffic (it’s literally their slogan.)
In most small cities and large cities alike across Java (and on other islands even), there are small bus-like creatures called “angkots” (pictured above.) These are usually mini buses that give off the ora of death. They always look like they are falling apart and are sometimes literally falling apart. I have riden in angkots that have holes in the floor with terrifying views of the streets below.
They are almost always emitting a fog, generally smell like smoke, and usually contain far more people that would ever be considered safe in the western world. In a small angkot that should comfortably seat about 5, there are regularly around 13+ people journeying on.
Don’t forget to pray before entering. Seriously, that’s a thing here. Not only do angkots look like they’re falling apart, the drivers are usually grumpy men who will yell at you until you get in their vehicle even if you’re going the opposite direction. They will wait on the side of the road for more passengers no matter how many they already have, and when they do finally get going, there is no speed limit. They drive like it’s the zombie apocalypse and they have no chance of encountering another driver.
This is the most populated island in the world and has some of the worst traffic in the world. They encounter many other drivers, they just don’t care.
“Elf” are the slightly larger brothers of the angkot. Not yet quite a bus, elf (in Sundanese) is a mini-bus that makes longer journeys. It’s what I ride when I leave my village to go anywhere at all, we have no other option. They are similar to angkots in that they are usually falling apart, filled with holes, smell of smoke, and contain far more people than they should. They drive way too fast and have a tendency to tip over on sharp turns.
Personally, I’ve never been in an elf accident (knock on wood), so I appreciate the fact that with a particularly speedy driver, my commute to the big city of Bandung from home can take 4 hours instead of the usual 6.
The biggest difference is that a long-journey elf usually comes with a co-captain. A friend of the driver whose only job is to collect money from the passengers. This defeats my throwing money and run technique, so I never ride an elf unless I know for certain the fair, local price. I don’t pay bule fares.
For all that is horrible about them: unsafe conditions, harassment, terrible smells, I truly do love these public transportation options here on Java. They never stop; they have no timetables, so are generally running 24 hours a day; they are frequent because there are so many drivers; and are usually pretty flexible. Tell your driver you need to use the bathroom and he will stop. Want some coffee? He will stop and probably join you.
But my absolute favorite part of angkots, buses, and elfs in Indonesia is the potential for snacks! Because routes are crowded, journeys are long, and Indonesians love to eat, vendors are constantly jumping on board various modes of public transportation. They commonly sell cold drinks, peanuts, bagged and sliced fruit, and my biggest love tahu sumedang.
No matter where you’re going, Indonesians will get you there. Transportation options are always plentiful and readily available. While it may not be the most safe, pleasant, or reliable (by western standards) to get around, you will get where you need to go. Just stick out your arm and wait.