What is Getting A Long Distance Bus Through Sumatra Really Like?

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Have you ever wondered what getting a 60 hour bus in Sumatra is like?

Probably not, right? But I’m going to tell you anyway, because I recently took a 60 hour bus through Sumatra and wow, I have so much to say.

So I’m travelling overland from Bali to London. The first epic part of my trip was a bus odessey from Jakarta to Pekanbaru. If you’ve never heard of Pekanbaru, don’t worry – not many people have. It’s a city in Central Sumatra. It doesn’t have much in the way of tourist attractions, or much in the way of tourists, but the people are absolutely wonderful (more on that later).

Why Pekanbaru?

When I was prepping this trip, many, many people asked me ‘why are you going to Pekanbaru’? The question was often shortly succeeded by ‘why aren’t you flying’?.

Basically, through my extensive research on how to get from Jakarta to Singapore without flying, Pekanbaru looked like the most obvious hub. I was originally thinking of stopping in a couple of other places in Sumatra, maybe Palembang and Jambi, but then I checked in with myself. I’d spent a while in Java (you can see my one-week itinerary here), and I had a lot of kilometres to cover, I wasn’t too enthralled by anywhere in South Sumatra really (I’m super keen to see the North though!) and there was a bus going all the way.

So I thought well, let’s just go all the way, see how I feel when I get to Pekanbaru, and then decide whether I wanted to stick around for a day or just go to Singapore.

Booking the Jakarta to Pekanbaru ticket

Honestly, I didn’t have the foggiest about how to book the Jakarta to Pekanbaru ticket. I didn’t know whether to wait until I got to Jakarta and go to the bus station myself, or book it online. I wasn’t sure which company to go for either – I was kinda worried about safety, and obviously wanted to make sure I was as comfortable as possible!

After extensive research and consulting the TripAdvisor Sumatra forums, I decided on the bus company Lorena, and I booked a ticket with them using Traveloaka. I can report that that worked well!

Arriving in Jakarta bus station

So, after a lovely night couchsurfing in Jakarta, I got a GoJek to Jakarta bus station. It’s a bit overwhelming, especially if like me you speak virtually no Bahasa Indonesian.

I had my ticket and just showed that to anyone and everyone possible, and eventually found myself in the Lorena office, where I had to sign in and was instructed that my bus was now leaving at 2:00pm rather than 12:30pm. It was 11:30am, meaning that I had a fun 2.5 hours to kill in a very uneventful bus station.

I strolled around (backpack in tow), I wielded off a creepy guy who tried to persuade me to get on the same bus as him, to go to whatever destination he was going to (absolute stellar pick up line, I wasn’t having it), I tried to read. Eventually 2pm came and went – and I was getting concerned.

My main worry was the fact that all the announcements were in Bahasa, so if my bus was to be called, I didn’t think I’d have a clue what was being said. I was also told to wait by two different gates and that it would come at two different times, which didn’t help!

My solution? Tell everyone in the bus station that I was getting the 12:30pm/ 2:00pm/ 3:00pm/ 3:15pm bus to Pekanbaru. And ask everyone to let me know when it was there. It actually worked – at 3:50pm, I was approached by an official rep of Lorena, and told to get on my bus (which was waiting the other side of the bus station to the two gates I’d been told to wait by), and was ushered along by virtually everyone else who I’d spoke to.

Finally, by 4pm, we were on our way.

The journey in Java

Jakarta is the most congested city in the world. The metropolis has a huge population, and very little in the way of public transport, meaning that the roads are absolutely manic. This meant that my journey was… long. We stopped after a little while at a 7/11 to purchase snacks.

I was delighted to find not only corn flavoured doritos and oreos (vegan staples) but apples, watermelon and dragonfruit too. Living the absolute dream over here in West Java.

We got to the ferry crossing at around 10pm – what was meant to take a 1.5 hour drive took a SIX hour drive, because of Jakarta’s crazy traffic!

The ferry crossing

I wasn’t all that sure if we’d be able to get a boat at this time, but after a bit of a wait, we were on. It was quite a large ferry, much bigger than the Bali to Java boat I’d been on a week before.

It was about 11pm by the time we were on the boat, so I was ready to find a couple of spare seats and have a little snooze. But the boat had other ideas. There’s entertainment during the entire 2.5 hour journey – unfortunatley the entertainment isn’t zen Buddhist music but rather quite brash chanting/ singing. I’m not really sure what the purpose of it was, but it definitely made sure that none of us got any sleep during the crossing.

Finally, at 1:30am, we stumbled back onto the coach, and it was time to sleep. I was told halfway through the night that I needed to move because someone was sitting next to me – so I readjusted to the ‘reclining seat’ position’.

The next two days…

Next up, was… a long time on a bus. I’m not really sure how else to frame this, other than it was a long time on a bus.

I went through phases of loving it and some of hating it. The people were amazing, so sweet, lots of them offered me food and they were all very interested in why on earth I was on a bus from Jakarta to Pekanbaru. Half the time, I couldn’t even give them a proper answer.

We stopped for breakfast, lunch and dinner; and unsurprisingly, the vegan pickings in rural Sumatra are on the slim side. Crips and oreos were a main part of my diet, I once had a pot noodle without the flavouring (so just plain noodles in water), and I drank coffee. Due to lack of sleep, I was kind of in a weird ‘sicky’ mindset anyway, and didn’t have much appetite.

I watched BBC iPlayer (I still had Race Across the World downloaded at that point, which was giving me overland inspiration), I listened to podcasts, I occasionally read (but quite often had to stop due to feeling travel sick), and I had the odd chat with the people around me.

We pulled into Palembang at about 5pm on day 2. This was only meant to take 15 or so hours; with the delay at the start, it had taken 27. So I wasn’t holding out high hopes for arriving into Pekanbaru in 37 hours!

My high hopes were lessened even more when, after pulling out of Palembang, we were met with… traffic. Lots and lots of it. Probably the most traffic I’ve ever seen in my life. It took 6 hours to get out of a city that has less than 1.5 million residents. By the time we were (slowly) moving again, it was dark and I was ready for bed.

Of course, not everyone was – most people were hungry, so we stopped once again for dinner. It was 12pm by this point, and all I wanted was to be on the bus and to be moving once again.

But move we did not. I tried to block out the world and sleep as much as possible over the next few hours, but I had a suspicious feeling that we were remaining rather stationery…

The next morning, I learned why. It was bucketing it down with rain, and had been all night. The roads just weren’t safe to drive on in the dark in this storm, so buses and cars all had to stay put and wait for the morning. After sunrise, we began gradually creeping forward.

Something in Indonesian was shouted down the bus. I sat there rather bemused, with no idea what was going on, but a few people motioned to me that I was ok to stay in my seat. However, half the people – mainly the younger adults – on the bus disembarked, while families and older people stayed. I guess, as the only non-Bahasa speaker in the group, it was easier to just put me in the ‘stay on the bus’ category.

I realised why half the people had to disembark a moment later. The bus was going through a huge flooded pothole, and the driver was worried it would get stuck with the full amount of passengers on it. He floored the accelerator as he approached the puddle, giving the bus all the momentum to get through….

And the bus made it. Just. I checked my maps to see how far from Palembang we were (it wasn’t much) and tried to stop myself feeling sorry for myself – I’d put myself in this situation, after all – when the bus attendant walked towards my seat. The traffic was so bad that he’d actually got off the bus and gone shopping, and he gave me a pot of sweetcorn, which made the entire bus start laughing (I’m not sure why). He said ‘you look sad, so I got you this’.

We started moving at the comparatively rapid pace of 20 kmph, and a few hours later, had made it to Jambi – the next stop en route. We would be here for 20 minutes, the bus driver told me.

So I thought I’d better find some food and coffee. There were a few stalls selling noodles, crisps and oreos – a bus speciality – but as I was choosing which one to go for (they were regrettably all selling the same thing, and the people running each stall seemed equally lovely) I heard ‘hey miss! Welcome to come and eat with my family’.

One of the men running the stalls had previously worked with tourists in Northern Sumatra, so had a fantastic command of English. He wanted to know why on earth I was in Jambi, and offered to help in any way he could. He gave me a coffee, some rice and tempeh, and refused to take my money even after I tried to insist. I stayed sitting with him and his lovely family until my friend, the bus attendant, ran towards the stall screaming ‘Claire!!!! We go now!!!’ and then said something to the man in Indonesian. He laughed and translated ‘he says he is always making sure you are on the bus but you are always late!’.

I ran back to the bus and indeed, all of the other passengers were already on it. Muttering an apology, yet being met with beaming smiles, I took my seat and got ready for the next few hours of my life.

I actually lucked out again at the next stop, where rice, samba and leafy greens were being cooked; I loved it so much I went back for seconds! I was turfed off the bus by the attendant, who wanted to clean it, but made friends with a 7 year old boy who taught me the numbers 1-10 in Indonesian. The next few hours of the bus ride were spent by me pointing at various things, kind of like i-spy, and my new friend telling me the name in Indonesian (which I promptly forgot 100% of the time) and me telling him the English translation.

It was midnight, and we were 3 hours from Pekanbaru. But the bus had stopped again, for all those who fancied a late-night snack. After being told an apple would cost me the equivalent of £1.50, I purchased a cup of dragonfruit and some tea. I was very, very keen to be off this bus now, and didn’t really fancy socialising, so just stayed in my seat, and waited for it to fill up and to be on our way once again.

My neighbour, a sweet woman who didn’t speak any English but had been nothing but lovely to me for the whole trip, disembarked shortly after. I stretched out for my last bus doze before (hopefully!) arriving in Pekanbaru.

Bus stops in Indonesia aren’t as definite as they are in other parts of the world, and people seemed to just request where they wanted to be dropped off around Pekanbaru. Finally, at 3am, 59 hours after leaving Jakarta, we pulled up to Lorena’s Pekanbaru office.

Arriving in Pekanbaru

I don’t like arriving into new cities at 3 in the morning – I don’t really like being awake at 3 in the morning – so I was a bit wary when arriving into Pekanbaru. And I unfortunately did have a bit of a situation. I can’t pretend that solo female travel is always the easiest thing in the world, and while I’m very lucky to have never had anything really bad happen, there are times when could-be dangerous situations need to be averted.

While everyone else on my bus was absolutely lovely, there was one guy I was a bit wary of. He first tried to buy all of my groceries for me in 7/11 – which could have just been him being nice, but I know better to accept freebies off people I barely know. He then asked for my WhatsApp number – on the spot I did give him the right number, thinking he’d probably check it right away and I had 3 days on the same bus – and once I was off the bus, if I didn’t want to speak to him I could just block his number.

All was ok until he started asking me where I was going. I hadn’t booked anywhere, so I truthfully told him that I didn’t know. Then he Google translated that he was going to a certain hotel and would I go with him. I then, in true awkward style, said that I’d already booked somewhere but I couldn’t remember the name.

I had a name of a hotel, and ordered a Go-Jek to that place. But when the driver arrived, this man went over to him and asked him to take him to the hotel he was staying at. Obviously I couldn’t understand this, but heard the name of the hotel he’d previously mentioned. I firmly said ‘NO’ and showed the Go-Jek driver the address of the hotel again, without saying its name because honestly, I was worried that this man would follow me there. Luckily, the Go-Jek driver seemed to get the message and nodded to me, sped off with me on the back of the bike and dropped me off at the right hotel.

I might have been being a cynic here, the man could have been watching out for me and just wanted to make sure I got to a hotel safely, but honestly, he gave me creepy vibes, and when someone’s giving you those vibes at 3am in a strange city, you’ve got to look after yourself. The good news was that the Go-Jek driver was obviously a kind and honest man, I’m sure that if I’d caused a scene the rest of the passengers on the bus would have looked out for me, and I met good people at my hotel reception.

Which took me a while to find. The first hotel I went to was fully booked, contrary to what Booking had said 3 hours prior. Luckily, the receptionist spoke excellent English and was more than happy to ring every other hotel in Pekanbaru to find me somewhere to stay. Which is how I ended up on another Go-Jek heading to a 4* hotel on the edge of town at 4 in the morning.

They had somewhere to stay for 400,000 IDR – I would have paid 5x that by this point – and I sleepily checked in, found my room and went to bed, just as the morning call to prayer was beginning.

Things to do in Pekanbaru

I quite enjoy going to cities where there is absolutely nothing to do, because it’s normally here where you can experience the most local life. There are a couple of mosques, the Riau (this is the province in which Pekanbaru is located) museum and the Riau cultural centre.

But honestly, after 60 hours on one bus, all I wanted was to eat some good food the next day. HappyCow had a surprising number of vegan and vegetarian restaurants in Pekanbaru and I set out to the one where I thought I’d be most likely to get a soy cappucino. Coffee was needed.

My amazing Pekanbaru family

Friendships happen in the unlikeliest of places sometimes, and I was greeted like an old friend at LN Fortunate Coffee. The owner spoke amazing English and we had a great conversation about life, happiness and travel. She then invited me to a food festival that was on that day as her guest.

The food festival was really busy, but I was without a doubt the only tourist there. Quite a few students practicing their English chatted to me, and my friend from the cafe let me sample all of her food. Then, for some obscure reason, the festival organiser decided that he really wanted me to give a speech.

So I ended up giving a speech, onstage, at an Indonesian festival. I have no idea how that happened either.

How to get from Pekanbaru to Singapore

The next day, it was time to travel from Pekanbaru to Singapore. I feel like this journey might warrant a whole new blog post, but here is what I did in brief:

  • Went to the boat station in Pekanbaru the day before and purchased a ticket – I just said ‘Batam’ and was given a ticket with instructions to get there at 8:30am the next day.
  • Returned the next day, was very confused, met a woman who spoke great English and helped me, and was ushered through to the boat.
  • Got a boat part of the way down the river
  • Got off the boat and transferred to a bus
  • Got a boat from the coast to an outlying island
  • Had to buy another ticket to Batam Island (my ticket only covered the segment of the journey up until now)
  • Boarded a more spacious boat to Batam Island
  • Arrived at Batam Island at 6:20pm, in the knowledge that the last international boat to Singapore was leaving at 7pm
  • Sprinted to the international boat terminal and up to the counter, and rather flustered and out of breath, asked if I could still buy a ticket for the boat
  • Was reassured that yes, I could if I went through immigration this second
  • Went through immigration, sat down in the waiting area… and realised I’d dropped my entire bag of dirty laundry. Sorry, Batam.
  • Took the 45 minute boat and arrived in Singapore

Finally, I arrived, exhausted, at my capsule hotel in Singapore.

How to Travel from Jakarta to Singapore Without Flying

I hope that this post about buses in Sumatra and how to travel from Jakarta to Singapore without flying has helped you when planning your travels – or at least given you some laughs! This was definitely one of my most memorable travel experiences and although it was long and exhausting, I wouldn’t have changed it for the world.

You can check out my YouTube video about the bus journey below!

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