Wouldn’t it be great if you could arrive in Medan and then travel overland (via Bukit Lawang, Lake Toba, and Padang) all the way to the eastern tip of Sumatra to continue your adventure to Java and beyond? This is actually one of the hardest and most challenging journeys a backpacker can endure in South East Asia – but it is possible. Just.
Sumatra, the world’s 6th largest island, is not exactly known for its ease of overland travel. The thick jungle of Gunung Leuser and particularly Kerinci Seblat make travel extremely difficult and time-consuming. So much so, that it is often much easier to just head to the nearest airport and fly a domestic flight to your intended destination. But where’s the adventure in that?!
The key city that you need to head to in Sumatra is Bandar Lampung (11 hours on a train from Palembang). It is an unremarkable city (like every city in Sumatra apart from Padang) that has very little to offer travellers of any budget. From there, you need to head to the Sumatran port of Bakauhueni where you can catch a passenger ferry to Merak port in Java (Merak is around 151km away from Indonesia’s capital Jakarta inland).
Bandar Lampung is 94km away from the coast and as there is pretty much no significant rail network on the entire island of Sumatra (in stark contrast to Java), you need to take a bus or taxi to Bakauhueni. By bus, this journey should not take any longer than 90 minutes and will set you back 20,000 Rupiah (less than £1.50).
At Bakauhueni, the ferry to Merak departs every 20 minutes in daylight hours (but rough seas can lead to cancellations) and within 2 hours you should have reached Java. Although travelling by boat in Indonesia can be quite a scary affair, in calm seas at least, the ferries plying the route between Bakauhueni and Merak are generally considered safe, if not particularly comfortable. There will be a chance to purchase impromptu snacks onboard courtesy of a noisy vendor. I saw Onde-Onde for sale, as well as rojak and pempek!
Compared to Sumatra, Java is civilisation personified – now your backpacking can begin using 21st century standards (almost)! A train from Merak to Jakarta (the station is right next to the port) will take 3 hours and cost around 7,000 Rupiah (about 90 pence). The trains on this route are horrible and provide “ekonomi class” only, but for just 90 pence what do you expect?
You will arrive at Jakarta Ambang Station, where you can explore the city before heading off on much more popular train routes across Java (in relative luxury) to Yogyakarta or Surabaya (for Mount Bromo).
At the eastern tip of Java, at a town called Ketapang, you will need to board another ferry to Bali. Seeing as Bali is an island, your unconventional Indonesian overland adventure ends here (as it is not possible to use a ferry all the way back to Singapore or any other country)!