Ever had a crazy notion to ride a Vespa across Indonesia? Well, for years I’ve had this idea stewing in the back of my mind. Pouring over the maps and talking with friends and motorcycle enthusiasts, I plotted a trip from Jakarta through Nusa Tenggara all the way to Timur. Sure enough, most people thought I was crazy.
Now that I am free from the shackles of the “nine-to-five” and still blessed with a wife who is also my best friend, I set out on this solo adventure one hazy Jakarta morning last January. Riding my Vespa GTS, affectionately known as “Big Budi,” I spent weeks zigzagging across Java and Bali, visiting places that I have always wanted to see and discovering places that were totally off my radar. This trip confirmed that Indonesia is as fascinating as ever, and one of the world’s great touring destinations.
There is a long list of cultural and natural wonders that can guide you across the archipelago. Just pull out a map, start drooling and stick some pins in it. You can climb volcanos, explore rainforests, surf, dive and snorkel – however, one thing I learned is that the real thrill is in the journey, not in the destination. After a few days you will find yourself not caring where you are going or how long it’ll take to get there – and the feeling is liberating!
There are a lot of big name places to pin on your map like Bromo, Borobudur and Ubud, to name just a few. And though there is nothing like gazing into the fuming abyss of Bromo Crater, realise that many not-so-famous places will feed your adventurous spirit. Like following the bamboo bridges and walkways over headlands on the south coast of Java, or body surfing perfect waves in Bali at a beach more popular with cows than people or cleansing your soul in sacred baths nestled amongst the oldest Hindu ruins in Java. There are also little-known waterfalls, canyons and villages throughout Java and Bali where you can hike into the clouds, stumble upon Viking-like fishing boats bedecked in Hindu and Muslim motifs or be the first traveller that people have ever seen. You can do this if you have your own wheels and take the roads less travelled.
Then there are the little things in life. Take time to have breakfast at a tiny warung on a busy street corner. Watch life go by. Men pushing carts stacked high with mattresses, becak drivers in search of the day’s first customer, or jamu ladies pedalling bicycles jingling with bottles of herbal medicine. Life in Indonesia is rich.
I stopped in a small town one morning to watch villagers carry their bananas to market. Sipping coffee and munching on fried bananas, I was approached by an old woman in a tattered batik dress. She lifted the load off her head and sat down next to me. Silently, she unwrapped a banana leaf and ate a steamed banana, and together we gazed onto the busy street. It was our “banana moment.” A precious slice of life.
When you speak Bahasa Indonesia, people in the countryside may be shocked. In rural Java I stopped at a crossroad to ask directions from a group of farmers. They looked at me, eyes dilating as I spoke, and when I finished they all just burst out laughing! I asked again, but they couldn’t stop laughing. I never did get an answer.
Adapt to the Indonesian way of life and you’ll never have to worry about food or gas. Almost every village has a warung (a roadside food stall) serving up nasi goreng or bakso. And if there aren’t any gas stations, who cares? Eventually you will see someone squatting and smoking next to a rack of recycled bottles filled with bensin (petrol). Let them finish their cigarette, then fill up your tank.
Though national roads will often get you to places faster than back roads, avoid them when you can. National roads are the domain of speed freaks racing from point A to point B. It’s unnerving when a behemoth, like a Pariwisata (tourism) bus, sneaks up from behind and sounds a horn so loud that it blows your helmet forward. Then there are the traffic lights where you will bake in the sun while people indiscriminately flick cigarette butts out of their windows in your direction. No thank you. Get on the back roads where smiles beam from beneath “coolie” hats and people wave to you from fields so arrestingly green that you will have to stop and take a picture. This is the real Indonesia.
Besides packable clothing, a bathing suit, mask and snorkel, hiking sneakers and a warm jacket, all you really need is the following:
- A Scooter: Contrary to western belief, you don’t need (or want) a 1500 cc motorcycle in Indonesia. In fact, 125 cc will do just fine. I can see my friends back in North America falling out of their chairs as they read this, but it is true. If you have a scooter, buy a top box and go! If you don’t have a scooter, pack light and rent one at your next destination.
- A map app: There are many good apps, but I prefer Google Maps as I like the lady’s perky voice. Just be aware that she knows your every move. So when mother nature calls and you sneak off into the bushes with your phone in your pocket, you may be caught off guard by one of her sudden tirades: “Turn right! Continue north! In 400 meters do a U-turn!” which, of course, will alert anyone nearby of your whereabouts. Google Maps also offers alternative routes that will get you off the main roads and into some spectacular countryside.
- A booking app: When booking homestays and hotels, I find that Booking.com works great in Indonesia. Don’t book too far in advance, as you may find a gem along the way and change your plans.
- Music: Load up your phone before you go as you will have lots of time to hear your favourite tunes and explore new music. Tip: I found that the Bebop will help you improvise your way through any convoluted traffic jam!
- Language: Lastly, learn enough Bahasa Indonesia to greet people and ask directions. Then load an Indonesian podcast onto your phone, learn more of the language along the way and dazzle everyone.
Yes, maybe heading across Indonesia on Big Budi was a crazy idea, but what a great way to intimately explore this fascinating country – travelling at the speed of whim.
By the time you read this Terry should be somewhere near Sumbawa. Follow his travels on Instagram @donohueterry