An overnight bumpy bus from Sumatra’s Dumai to Medan, a short 3-hour public bus trip, and finally, arrive in the sultry village of Bukit Lawang.
Unlike travel information in 2020, a couple of decades’ ago in 1998, information on travelling through the Indonesian Archipelago wasn’t great. Especially the further you traversed through isolated unchartered paths, as we would discover later.
Photos? What photos?
Apologies for the lack of photos in this and previous 2 articles, on Indonesia. The first several days of travelling from Australia to Indonesia was relentless. No time for photos, with my 35mm film camera. Also, Dumai and Medan are a little seedy. Read about how I almost lost my camera in a theft incident, later in this post.
Let’s get on with the long continuing journey that follows the ferry from Batam Island to Dumai…
Buying a bus ticket in Dumai
Somehow, another local latches onto us – a recurring theme in Indonesia – and takes us in his Becak (cycle Rickshaw) for free, to ‘his’ bus yard.
Checking two prices earlier, his company still tries to fleece us for double the ticket price. Half an hour of haggling and frustrating exchanges with scarce English and Indonesian, the price is reduced slightly. You never accept the first price in Indonesia. The price is still much higher than the others, but we’re captive now.
Happily, the Becak driver takes us to another bus yard. I’m sure he’s on a commission. Pleasantly surprised, a brand new Mercedes bus for the 12-hour trip is getting a wash before the scheduled trip at 8pm.
Bus from Dumai to Medan
In predictable southeast-Asian fashion, the bus finally heads out of Dumai late, at 9pm.
Travelling for under an hour, the ride becomes quite jarring, as the potholed road is no longer sealed.
Even though we’re travelling at dangerous speeds, longing for this trip to be in daylight as the scenery would be mesmerising.
Passing vehicles light up, revealing clumps of hugely dense palm trees, smothered by jungle along the dirt road. Flickers of shining, piercing eyes come alive in the surrounding lush vegetation.
At alarming speeds, the driver only slows down to cross a pebbled brook, or to narrowly miss by the skin of our teeth, massive oncoming logging trucks. Mental note to self, don’t sit on the right side of the bus for the next trip. Traffic passes within inches of each other, on this side.
Although this bus is top of the range by Indonesian standards, it’s quite uncomfortable for an overnight journey. The seats don’t recline enough.
Arriving in Medan
Relieved when the bus finally rolls into Medan’s bus station at 5:30am. The uncomfortable 12-hour bus trip lasts only 8.5-hours, as the driver was in a hurry!
Greeted by the usual chaotic bus station, bursting with touts and cabbies chanting in unison: “where you going?”
Where indeed are we going? What’s the next destination?
To rest after hours on the road and spend one night only in Medan, then leave as soon possible, in case riots should flare up once more. It’s only one month since the racial civil riots left 1,000 people dead in Indonesia, and Medan was one of the hotspots. So, grab a taxi for a couple of dollars to The Sumatera hotel.
A recurring theme in Indonesia is a hotel’s impressive foyer masking the dingy room, typically filled with a noisy old air-conditioner. This is the Hotel Sumatera in 1998. Surprisingly, this hotel is still in business in 2020 and hope that it has improved.
On the third floor and with the lift broken, we climb each flight of stairs lugging packs, after the long bus trip – becoming hotter and sweatier, until collapsing into the small room. Water from the toilet announces its presence by trickling gently into the shower drain. There is a TV (of course), to mask the sound.
It’s sad how run down this hotel is in 1998. I’m sure that in its hey-day, The Sumatera would have been quite grand.
Needing a couple of hours’ sleep after the long and bumpy overnight journey sleep doesn’t come easy on the hard bed.
The Sumatera’s coffee shop only offers tea, coffee, and toast, so venture out to hunt for a substantial meal to satisfy the hunger pangs.
A little on Medan
As the capital of Sumatra and one of Indonesia’s financial hubs, Medan’s sprawling metropolis is bustling with activity and masses of hurried locals.
Noisy and grotty, stay in Medan long enough to make your way to the next destination.
Relaxing into Indonesia, I let my guard down.
And, make the mistake of wearing my camera bag over my shoulder and not across my body. The inevitable happens, only a block away from the hotel…
Welcome to Medan
Dodging the cesspit potholes, putrified rubbish and food scraps, ever-present cabbies shouting at us, a passing motorbike comes dangerously close. Its passenger violently grabs my camera strap, trying to tear it from my body, but I clench it tightly, instinctively. Breaking the bag’s strap before fleeing in a hurry, my husband takes off after the bike in his thongs (Australian for flip-flops) – tripping over and falling. The bike flees.
Leaving behind in its wake, a grazed ankle, a chunk of skin gouged from my husband’s toe and a little lost pride. Not a great start, to the trip. Especially, nursing an open wound in this sweltering hot and dirty environment. Septic comes to mind in this filth.
Instead of returning to the hotel, decide to head for the shopping mall to clean up the bloodied limb. With all toilets closed for cleaning on all 3 floors, opt for a delicious meal instead.
Indonesian Mall experience
An opulent fashion parade with blaring bad music pumps out throughout the Deli Plaza for most of the day. Luckily, we’re not trying to sleep. Armed with bandages and medication, return to the hotel for the triage.
Bump into a French tourist that’s been in Sumatra for a couple of months and going stir-crazy, as doesn’t speak English or any Indonesian. But, declines an invitation to travel north with us on the next trip.
Do you speak English?
Everyone here seems to want to practise English. Often, locals latch onto us in the hope that we’re English teachers.
While in the Deli Plaza, a couple of young girls target us wanting to practise their English. Taking us to a local museum that’s not in the Lonely Planet or a tourist trap (wish I knew the name for you), a young guide also latches on relentlessly.
Eventually, the eager guide asks for a “donation for the museum”. Even though we paid an entry fee and regardless of where the donation goes, he’s very helpful and informative.
Throughout the museum, the earthly scent of Teakwood fills each room. Indonesia’s jungles are abundant with valuable teak, although rapidly declining due to heavy logging.
Totally exhausted, reluctantly decline a kind invitation for dinner at the girls’ place. Instead, search for a quick bite before crashing at the hotel.
Unusual dining experience
Stopping at a Tamil Restaurant, which looks basic, but intriguing, a new dining experience is unearthed.
Eight bowls of varying dishes arrive at the centre of our table, even though we didn’t place an order. Everyone gets the same. Oddly, the bowls contain mountains of delicious-coloured food.
Glancing around inconspicuously other diners using their hands (no utensils anywhere), pick out what they want from each bowl and leave the rest. Bowls containing leftovers are hastily swept up and returned to the aluminium, huge pots to be topped up with more food, for the next customers. Nothing is thrown out. Nothing is washed. Great way to transmit germs!
Too exhausted to worry about catching a stomach bug, drag ourselves back to the dingy hotel room – at least the lift is working now.
The hotel returns our washing with everything crisply pressed – even our undies – costing only a few dollars. It’s now time to tackle the next leg of the journey. Gotta have ironed undies before travelling!
Bus from Medan to Bukit Lawang
Taking a Becak to Medan’s northern bus terminal, pay under AU$0.50c each for a public bus ticket and a tip for the driver, for the 3-hour trip.
Although full at the start of the trip, the bus still stops continuously along the way, to pick-up and drop-off passengers.
The unashamed display of opulence, in the affluent northern suburbs of Medan, is a stark contrast to the surrounding poverty.
Leaving the wealth behind and passing lush jungle on both sides of the road, thatched huts make up villages that dot the picturesque landscape.
Just when you think no one else can fit, the bus stops at a tiny village and 10 more people cram in.
Already, 3 to 4 locals occupy each seat. The aisles are also crammed with bodies and their possessions, on this steamy sweaty trip.
Inquisitive, but shy locals hop on the bus – always smiling a lot, perhaps it’s also a little nervousness. Finally arrive in Bukit Lawang to not many cabbies or touts – a sigh of relief.
Promise more photos in next week’s post!