Indonesia is one of my favourite travel destinations, especially the beautiful island of Sumatra. The country has great diversity in its landscapes, people (and their languages and cultures), and flora & fauna (though this biodiversity is sadly under great threat these days); it’s home to great beaches, lakes, mountains, hiking, and scuba diving; it’s cheap, and the people are friendly. However, the archipelagic and mountainous geography combined with the poorly developed infrastructure make it a pretty tough place for long-distance overland travel; be prepared for some hardcore bus rides and crazy minivans!
How to travel to and from Indonesia overland
Indonesia has three land borders, one on each of the three islands it shares: with Malaysia on Borneo, with East Timor on Timor, and with Papua New Guinea on New Guinea.
Despite the long border on New Guinea it’s almost entirely jungle and there’s only one crossing point, on the north coast between Jayapura and PNG’s Vanimo. These two cities are in remote areas of their respective countries, and if you’re crossing this border as part of a long-distance overland trip you are hardcore and I salute you!
Similarly, if you travel to Timor by sea from the rest of Indonesia and then cross the land border to East Timor, that is some serious overlanding and I’d love to hear about it!
On Borneo, the Indonesian portion of the island is called Kalimantan, and the West Kalimantan provincial capital Pontianak is connected by road to Kuching, state capital of Malaysia’s Sarawak state. The rest of the border is remote and mountainous jungle, and the only other crossing is at the eastern end by sea, between East Kalimantan and Malaysia’s Sabah state; ferries run between Tawau in Sabah and Tarakan in East Kalimantan. This route may be of interest to scuba divers as Tawau is near Semporna, the town used as a base for the famous diving at Sipadan; if you head on to Tarakan, from there you can take a boat to Derawan, a dive location said to be even better than Sipadan but far less visited due to the more remote location (if travelling on a budget, be aware that Derawan is a more luxury-market oriented destination than Semporna)
Apart from the above land crossings, the routes to Indonesia overland are the ferry connections between Sumatra and Singapore / Peninsula Malaysia, and the majority of overlanders will arrive or depart Inodonesia this way. There are many routes, but the main ones are between Singapore (or neighbouring Johor Baru in Malaysia) and the Indonesian islands of Batam and Bintan, and between Malacca (Malaysia) and Dumai (Sumatra).
Batam and Bintan are most commonly visited as destinations in their own right for short visits from Singapore and Malaysia, but they do have onward ferries to the rest of Indonesia, most notably the Sumatran ports of Dumai and Pekanbaru.
The Melacca – Dumai ferry was how I arrived on my first visit to Indonesia; visas are available on arrival if required (although our Swedish friend was prevented from boarding the ferry in Malaysia as visa-on-arrival wasn’t available to Swedes at the time for some reason – we finally caught up with him again on Ko Tao – and while I think this is no longer the case, the moral of the story is double-check the latest information for the passport you’re travelling on). From Dumai, it’s best to make for Bukittinggi (though it’s a fairly solid 8 hours or so by minivan).
The other main ferry connection between Peninsular Malaysia and Sumatra was the Penang – Medan ferry, which I’ve used in both directions but which has unfortunately fallen victim to budget air travel and no longer operates.
Overland travel within Indonesia
…is hard work. Rail travel is available between the major cities of Java island, and in very limited form on Sumatra. Apart from that, intra-island travel is by road and inter-island travel by ferry. Travel times are long, and safety isn’t paramount; the main roads on Java are good, but some of the mountain and jungle roads are madness. I do love Sumatra, but the Trans-Sumatran ‘Highway’ is dreadful; if you’re not set on doing it overland, this is a country where flying makes a huge difference. But with that said, Indonesia doesn’t have a great air safety record either – routing through Singapore or Malaysia is often a good option e.g. if going from Sumatra to Bali (having done it once, I will never again travel overland from Sumatra to the rest of Indonesia!)
Some Indonesia Highlights
The Minangkabau Highlands of West Sumatra – Bukittinggi is the main town, and nearby Lake Maninjau is an easy place to get stuck in chill out mode.
See the ancient temples of Borobudur and Prambanan near Yogyakarta.
Head up to the volcanic moonscape at the top of Gunung Bromo.
Bali – beaches, volcanoes, and great diving.
The Gili islands off Lombok are tropical paradise islands and another easy place to get stuck for a while.
Resources and Useful Links for Visiting Indonesia
All my Indonesia posts here
World Nomads offer flexible travel insurance that you can buy even if you’re already overseas (this is a key point, as I once learned the hard way when I got pickpocketed in Bangkok). Also check out their scuba cover if you’re planning on some diving.
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