Indonesia is a massive archipelago spanning over 5,000 kilometres from its western tip in Aceh to the eastern border in Papua, and travelling across this huge country requires the use of a wide variety of transport. On the densely populated island of Java, which is the home to more than 120 million people, a popular and relatively fast form of transport is the railway, which connects all the major cities (including Jakarta, where the trains have been in the news).
There are also train services in Sumatra, but the train lines there are not connected to one another, making long distance travel impossible and usually not worth the effort. In Java, the story is different, with frequent trains between many of the destinations that travellers are likely to find themselves heading to.
As a general rule trains are faster than buses in Java, but also more expensive. We like to think of train travel as a great compromise between scenery-skipping flights and stomach-churning buses. For example the journey from Bandung to Yogyakarta by train takes eight hours. Occasionally it is possible to pick up an economy fare on a train with cramped bench seats for a slightly lower price than the bus, but be warned that the bus in this instance may well be more comfortable.
Indonesian trains offer three different classes of travel: economy, which used to be fan-cooled but is now mostly air-con and no longer available on many popular routes; business, which has larger coach-style seating in a two-two configuration; and executive, which has air-con, more legroom and power sockets for all your gadgets. On trunk routes the services tend to be primarily business and executive.
In the economy and business carriages, sellers will regularly jump on the train to sell food, drinks and knick-knacks, meaning you don’t need to go hungry on your journey. In all carriages you will be regularly offered nasi goreng on plates from the train staff themselves, but you pay a premium for this service.
Train travel in Java is a fantastic way to see the countryside without having to endure the perils of bus travel. The scenery is magnificent, the service efficient and the price competitive. You will pass some spectacular views of mountains, rice fields and volcanoes, water fowl, sheep and cows, as well as children excitedly waving as your train engineer blasted the warning horn.
It will take you seven hours to go through the mountains of Java between Bandung and Yogyakarta. The ride is not smooth but the views are amazing. The terraced rice fields seem endless and are endlessly fascinating. They follow the form of even the most unforgiving landscape and the vivid greens virtually vibrate. Occasionally, just one person can be seen working alone in the fields or sometimes just a few.
Train travel offers a behind the scenes view of a society that car and plane travel can’t – an opportunity to see more of the details of daily life. There is much to see and learn while jostling through a country by train.
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