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Travel without flying from Sarawak to Sumatra

We made it our challenge to travel without flying during our World Journey. We wanted to rediscover the art of travel that the airline-travelling masses have almost forgotten. And we wanted to travel as the locals do in the countries we visit. Typical Pelni ship in Indonesia We came a long way, from western Europe as far as Flores in the east of Indonesia. Our most challenging trip was to get from Sarawak, the Malaysian part of Borneo, to Sumatra in Indonesia.

Strangely, there is no direct connection between the Malaysian peninsula and Sarawak on Malaysian Borneo other than by airplane. Other than in Indonesia, local people are wealthy enough to afford air services. Consequently, air services are plentiful, and there is hardly a need for a connection by boat. People how do not want to fly, because of a fear of flying, because of the air travel's contribution to global warming, or for the challenge, will have to make a detour via Indonesia.

Busride Kuching � Pontianak

The bus station of Kuching is located just outside of town. We take the taxi, and when we arrive there, we find out that we should have shared it with the other foreigners doing this trip: an English couple we met at the BandB Inn in Kuching. We fill in the immigration forms to prevent a delay at the border, and find a place in the bus.

Just after the bus leaves, it has to stop for fuel. This form of extra delay seems to be normal in Asia. But other than that, the busride through mountainous area is fairly comfortable. The bus is clean and has comfortable chairs, and the roads are good. We are almost forgotten what Indonesia is like when we reach the border.

Other travels without flying

You will find a bit of our travels without flying in almost every tale on this website. Obviously, there's the Trans Siberian Express we took, and you might be interested in how we reached St Petersburg from Europe, and the Minangkabau in Indonesia from the mainland of Asia. And also check our best and worst Public Transport Experiences. In fact, just Follow our World Journey!!

Oh, and also check the page about Overland Trucks. You're only challenge will be to reach the starting point of these great overland journeys.


The customs officer grins at our friendly suggestion to put the stamp in a corner of a page in our passports (the space in our passports is scarce). And then he just stamps somewhere else. And back in the bus we see the dirty chaos around, which is also typical for Indonesia. Welcome back!!

At the end of the afternoon we arrive in Pontianak. The many small villages we pass all of a sudden change into this big city. We ride along the river that ends in the sea when we finally cross a bridge to the other side. Traffic gets heavier, the streets become even more dirty, we must be approaching the city center. A little later, we arrive.

Hotel Search

While Patrick searches for a hotel, Sabine waits with our gear. Pontianak doesn't have many budget hotels, and the ones it does have are widely spread across town. Most of them are full too, which is no problem considering the dirty rooms. After a long search, Patrick finds a reasonably clean room just outside the center. We check in, and do not need much time to decide not to stay in this city too long.

The first boat to Jakarta leaves in the afternoon on the next day. In the morning, we take a walk to explore the city a bit. Pontianak isn't that bad after all. The people are friendly, and we do some shopping in a luxurious shopping mall. On the streets we see a man trying to sell a young monkey and a few small otters, a little sad really. When it's time to leave, we hire two rickshaws and off we go.

Boat trips

Our boat this time isn't a Pelni ship, but the idea is the same. But this time we are allowed to share a cabin together with apparently an Indonesian brother and sister, who don't communicate much. This is in contrast to the rest of the people on the boat, who all like to have a conversation with us. But we mostly spend our time in our cabin, since it's almost the only place where we can sit. Our meals are also served in the cabin, and consequently it is not a very exciting trip of two nights from Pontianak to Jakarta.

Upon arrival in Tanjung Priok, Jakarta's harbor, we already know there is a Pelni ship leaving for Medan this afternoon. So we immediately search for a ticket-office, which isn't available. Eventually we follow a nice old man who knows a booking office near the harbor. After a few hundred meters walking we arrive at the old train station of Tanjung Priok. Typical Indonesian: there are no trains running here anymore, the building is decaying, but there are still a few offices inside. Nobody worries about the possible danger.

After arranging the tickets, and giving the old man a tip, we search for a way to kill the time before the boat leaves. We walk and ask around for an Internet caf�, and need to walk a kilometer to find one. On our way, we see what we already knew: Jakarta is the worst part of Indonesia. There is so much garbage around, it's terrible. People dump it in their back yard, on the street or in the canal, who cares? After reading our e-mails, we quickly walk back to the harbor, get our backpacks, and sit in the waiting room. We're just happy we do not have to stay for the night here.

Pelni trick

The third class, for which we have tickets, is not much more than Ekonomi, and so we decide to perform the Pelni trick once again. We are only with the two of us, however, but we get a private cabin for 6 people just for ourselves.

The trip to Medan takes two days. It's relaxed, but the food isn't very good this time, and we get a little tired of these boat trips, with little space to sit down on deck. But there is something new on this trip: a stop at one of the islands above Sumatra. The boat doesn't enter the harbor here, bur anchors before it. A few small boats bring new passengers on board. As always everybody is looking to the action from deck.

Just before arrival in Belawan, Medan's harbor, we see how a sunken ship is being preserved. But our ship safely enters the harbor, to anchor at what seems to be a quiet quay. But when the ship is fastened, the doors of a large building opens and a wave of orange overalls breaks loose. They run up the stairs and enter the ship to carry all kinds of luggage out. We've seen it before, but are still amazed at this scene.

Choose a Bemo

As we squeeze ourselves from the boat, the bemo drivers start pulling at us. "Kota?", "Amplas?" and some other terms we hear. To get to Lake Toba, we find out we have to go to the bus station Amplas, and so we follow a guy who claims he's going there. He fastens our backpacks onto the bemo, but then goes back to look for more people. The terrain is full of bemo's, and there just aren't enough passengers to fill them all. It takes our guy very long to come back, so we decide to move to another bemo, which already has more passengers. But that one doesn't leave yet either. In the end, it takes one and a half hours before we finally leave.

During the bemo ride some local guy constantly asks questions, thinking he's funny. Politely we keep answering, but this way an hour is a long time. But finally we arrive at Amplas bus station in Medan.

Bus scam

Although our travel guide is a little old, we kind of know which bus companies operate here, which one to take, and how much it should costs. So despite the pushing and pulling of different touts (normal in Indonesia), we walk to the office of one of the better companies. But there, we are rudely turned down ("no bus", "bus full"). At the second office we try, they first look a bit puzzled, and then start repeating the things the touts that followed us inside are saying. Strange, but maybe these touts are from this company. And the price they ask is okay, so we decide to give it a go. We are led to the bus, our backpacks are put in the back, and almost immediately the bus leaves.

The bus picks up more people on the road and starts getting full. We notice that the locals pay less then us, and the bus isn't very comfortable. But, we are underway and that's most important right now. Then, a large bang followed by sizzling sound, a flat tire. The driver and touts, who came along to convince more people to get in the bus, immediately start working to replace the tire. But the spare tire doesn't have any profile either, so we wonder how long that one will last. Meanwhile, the driver asks us how much we paid for our tickets. For two? He asks, obviously surprised by the amount we paid. Now we know fur sure we are ripped off.

Early destination

The bus continues its way, with just an hour delay. We are loosing more time with loading in more people and cargo than with the flat tire. The bus here is also a means of transport for wholesale businesses, so it seems. Then, all of a sudden, the bus stops and everybody gets out. They tell us it is the final destination of this bus, but obviously it is not Parapat, the village at Lake Toba where the bus is supposed to go to.

A woman indicates that we should take a bemo for the rest of the trip, which should take another one and a half hour. The bemo driver, however, wants to charge us extra for this trip, and then we have had enough. We make clear that the bus driver should pay for that, since he was supposed to bring us to Parapat. After some negotiation, the bemo rider gets money from the bus driver, and off we go. We are satisfied we made it clear that there is a limit to their scam, but actually we realise again that we have paid way too much in the first place.

The bemo is full, and not very comfortable. Yet, it is a nice ride, mainly because of the friendly locals in the bemo. No pushy, "funny" guys asking questions, but people who answer our questions in a friendly way. They tell us about the crowd on the road, where apparently an accident happened, and about the monkeys of a passenger carrying two boxes with bananas. This way, time goes fast, and before we know it it gets dark and we reach Parapat, where we are dropped off at the ferry to Tuktuk, for the last part of our trip.

At the ferry we are welcomed by a local guy, belonging to one of the hotels in Tuktuk. Normally, these guys are annoying and pushy, but this guy is friendly and gives us all the information we need. This is obviously a relaxed place, where we quickly forget about the stress of the trip. And that's the unique thing about Indonesia: a lot of chaos and crowds in the cities, and a lot of fuss to be getting somewhere, in contrast with the peace and quiet in the local villages.

At some places in the world, it is a real challenge to travel without flying. But, it is a real experience, which you will never forget. Make it a part of your vacation, holiday, or long journey, and traveling without flying will be an integral part of your adventure travels.



Follow our World Journey!! Next Stop: Lake Toba


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