Indonesia is My Least Favorite Country, Even More The Second Time

I was trying hard to give Indonesia a second chance despite Lion Air’s pre-trip cancellations of both of my Saturday flights and a major telephone hassle to get a refund.

Reader Michael wrote:

Wow, love to hear why you had a bad experience in Indonesia. I was an exchange student there many years ago. It was a transformative experience and I fell in love with the people and the landscape. Went back 5 years ago and love it even more.

I gave a tart reply. Later thinking it over as I arrived in Jakarta to a sea of smiles, I see there can be quite divergent experiences as a tourist and as a long-term resident. In a short visit, infrastructure is central the experience, while for residency the rhythms and quirks of daily life are normalized and deeper appreciation of the society can form. I lived in China for eight years, with plenty of ups and downs. Every time I return is a delight, whereas it can be a quite difficult trip for a general tourist. Indonesians are undoubtedly friendly.

In 2005 I spent 9 days traveling Sulawesi, Bali and overland through Java. My three distinct memories are:

  1. Getting my worst food poisoning ever on my first day, from those restaurants with no doors that let food sit out all day. There were no restaurants with doors in Tana Toraja and through the clenching of my guts I surmised the source of the inhabitants of their famed hanging coffins. Though I eat street food in many places, I henceforth have had a Southeast Asia rule, ‘only eat at restaurants with doors,’ even if that means KFC or local knock-off CFC.
  2. Not being able to take one step on the street without being hassled with, ‘hey mister…’
  3. Those soaking wet bathrooms.

That trip did have some highlights, like volcano Gunung Bromo and the local guide who saw how sick I was and tried his best to help, even though I hadn’t hired him.

Pontianak Food Stand

No door, no eat

Pontianak Satria Wangi Restaurant

Chinese restaurant with door

There is so much to see in the world and I had no desire to go back, but East Timor was an Asian hangnail on my collection of UN countries, and the Travelers Century Club counts 7 ‘countries’ in Indonesia, so I was eventually to go back. The opportunity came this past weekend while on a business trip to Shanghai, so I booked a day in Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) and a day in East Timor, via Bali.

Arrival to a downpour in Jarkarta outside and endless Visa on Arrival line inside was familiar. Arriving behind a 747 from Saudi Arabia does not help. Endless drama and delays. I have no objection to paying the $25 visa fee, that is relatively cheap and at least is not needed in advance for most nationalities, but could they ever get their act together to at least have orderly lines? Immigration agents constantly opened and closed lines, took breaks on their mobile phones and caused all kinds of delays. I have been to just shy of 100 countries and Indonesia arrival is about the worst (US may be worst, Saudi Arabia, too), and there is clearly no willpower to learn from its functional neighbors that compete for tourist dollars. I count myself lucky to have gotten out of that dungeon in an hour, neatly 10 minutes after my hotel shuttle quit for the night.

Jakarta Airport Visa on Arrival

Jakarta Visa on Arrival line stretches to Singapore

POP! Hotel Airport Jakarta is clean, cute and a nice deal for $35, but don’t believe the 500 meters from the airport bit. It is a 20-minute taxi ride through crumbling roads. Coming back to the airport is much faster. I picked the only taxi stand that had locals in line waiting for cars, while all the other companies circled like sharks and hassled people.

Early in the morning I set out for my day trip to Pontianak in Kalimantan. My first choice had been the canals and gold mines of Banjarmasin. The Lion Air cancellations took care of Banjarmasin. Pontianak worked by flight schedule, not so much for attractions, with the really appealing stuff too far on slow-going roads for a day trip.

Jakarta Airport

Jakarta Airport design is pretty cool

Upon arrival I eschewed the taxis, headed out of the airport, and hopped on a motorcycle taxi. I saw the meager sights of the town, including the Equator Monument. The heat was withering. After a nice Chinese lunch I went to the airport and caught my afternoon flight. I was so worried about screw-ups that I made sure there were multiple back-up flights on different airlines.

Pontianak

Pontianak

Pontianak Equator Monument

Equator Monument

My flights on Sriwijaya with their 737-only fleet were quite pleasant. You need to be alert for announcements because departure screens are not updated. For us oversize foreign types they automatically assign exit rows. In-flight was fine except the flight-long shopping hard sell. They are relentless, breaking people down like timeshare sales, and bumping into passengers as they swing their wares. One of my flights the flight attendants struggled to get their shopping cart back as we landed.

Sriwijaya Air

Hard sell on Sriwijaya, even buy the scarves off the flight attendants

The next day I was back on Sriwijaya bound for Dili, East Timor via Bali. Bali is attempting to open a new airport terminal, is in fact using what is open. ‘Transit’ involved an agent telling passengers to go through the exit and re-check-in. Not a big issue, despite the massive walk, since it was domestic to international. I was about to write an ‘on second thought’ post about Indonesia, since things had been minimally crappy.

Then I took a pleasant overnight in East Timor and was back again on Sriwijaya. As we touched down in Bali at 2:15 pm I finally relaxed. All my worries about incompetence and/or weather disrupting my tightly scheduled trip melted away as I saw the Thai Airways plane on the tarmac and all I had to do was connect for my 4:15 pm departure. Bali is a major regional international airport after-all, and heavily dependent on tourist business.

There were no Thai agents at the transit desk among the gaggle of airport transit staff. They huddled and one whisked me up to the departures level, took my reservation, passport and departure tax fee (yes, I was a bit worried about him purloining it all) and went out to Thai. Pretty slick so far!

Then he came back. Thai would not check me in until I appeared in person. I demanded that they come out and at least explain that to me and escort me through immigration. He came back again. Thai would do nothing. He said other airlines, specifically mentioning Singapore and JetStar, have no problem.

I checked the gates, no Thai staff.

I went back down to arrivals with the agent. He really tried to help. By now it was 3 pm and there were hundreds of people in the non-moving Visa on Arrival line. He took me to the head of the immigration office who was rude and said my issue was with the airline, I would have to pay the fee and wait in line. Did missing my flight matter? Of course not. At this point the agent dashed away. He did try, though.

I was getting desperate. I paid the $25 visa fee. The guardians of the lines prevented me from cutting through, though. There were various unsavory characters offering to expedite for $25. I knew this was likely a scam but felt I had to try. I gave a $20 to one of the guys, he deftly pocketed it while showing my passport to the guard, then dashed off, playing dumb when I grabbed him. “I have no money, see, you give me no money,” blah, blah, blah. Struck out again. The guard laughed, “you should take better care of your money.” Screw you.

I couldn’t even find the arrival form because those were gone from the desk. One guard directed me to a guy sitting on the floor by the walll that had the arrival forms, I was surprised he didn’t ask for a tip. There was a new women at the main transit desk and a bunch of idle men at the transit check-in counters. The men wouldn’t even lift their fingers to call Thai. The young woman took pity on me and I got her to follow me to immigration enough to use her as cover to cut in line, as to my luck the guard previously preventing me from cutting had gone off. I was free at 3:30 and on the run.

I got up to Thai’s check-in and they were indifferent and sarcastic. I rarely loose my temper but I really flipped out at them. Absolutely no effort to do anything to help despite the transit agent meeting them at the beginning of all this. For what it’s worth, I was booked in business class, too.

I made it to the flight by dashing through the duty free forced labyrinth. The Thai airport manager was at the gate and she was exactly the same as the check-in agents, blaming everyone else. She blamed me for not knowing their purported procedure, and took no responsibility of any kind to help with transit passengers. She claimed national carrier Garuda has cut an exclusive deal with the airport to be the only one to, at least currently, offer transit. This is in contradiction to the transit agent, but I have no idea what is truth or lies. Wow, I was angry.

But happy to get out of Indonesia. In the grand scheme this was just a hiccup among many happy travels. Yet this crystallized my 2005 experiences and the hassles I was trying to overlook in 2014. I would prefer to never go back. Maybe someday I will finish all the Travelers Century Club list except the remaining three locations in Indonesia.

There are plenty of airports that don’t handle transit particularly well, but usually airports can problem solve. Indonesia, and Bali in particular, position themselves as major tourist destinations. The absurd, corrupt money grabs and hassles for travelers shame the country compared to its neighbors.

I see the value proposition for Southeast travel. Exotic destinations at cut-rate prices. Flying in and out of Bali and never leaving a resort except for Disney-fied cultural attractions works well for many. Malaysia and Philippine work pretty well for tourists, Brunei is interesting, though my favorites are in Mainland Southeast Asia, not Archipelago. Vietnam is dynamic, Cambodia has Angkor Wat, Laos has nature, Myanmar is opening the the world, and Thailand has just about everything in extremes.

Indonesia, I can’t give a third try.

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  • Peter

    OMG. You are a travel-noob. Stay at home. Why do you even write a travel blog? Food poisoning, hassled in the streets, and (it’s unvbelievable) soaking wet bathrooms. This is a joke? Is it first of April?

  • Well done, Stefan. Very funny post.

  • Peter

    On your website you present yourself as an open minded frequent traveller that tries to discover/travel the world. However, it seems that you became even more sensitive than in 2005. Why do you even travel to Indonesia? You have mentionned that you travelled all over China, and you are worried about some small Indonesian problems? Please justify.

  • Cooper

    Third time is a charm. I hope you give Bali a chance. It’s not fair to write it off just from the bad airport/airline experience. I was lucky enough to visit Bali last year and it truly was magnificent. Bali is not all about the resorts. Its culture, religion and people are what make Bali what it is. You need to stay in Bali a little longer to truly know what that is. Airports usually have people that want to take advantage of tourists which is unfortunate.

  • RakSiam

    Wow. I would have been pretty angry too.

    Maybe this is the pitfall of just trying to check off countries on a list?

  • P T

    Stefan, glad you are back. Wonderful writing. Sorry you had such terrible experiences. Scaring me into not going there.

  • Ruy

    I’m sorry to hear you had such a bad experience, but this is what travel is all about… finding the beauty on what went right and not focusing on what went wrong.

  • Tom

    I hope you get to have better experiences, there. I’m not a fan of Jakarta, but the Central Java, Bali, Pangkalan Bun, Lombok, Komodo, Raja Ampat, Moyo and more are among my favorite places on Earth. I’ve found the people to be wonderfully gracious and the cultures stunningly and fascinatingly diverse.

  • J

    I’ve learned to speak Indonesian language as a second language but haven’t had the opportunity to go.

  • @Tom – thanks for the suggestions. Dragons certainly interest me, and I did like PNG so would like to see the other half of the island.

    @RakSiam – yes, there are pitfalls to checking off the list. Every place I have visited, even Indonesia, I have found something that interests me and I like the TCC for turning me on to places that I would have never uncovered like East New Britian in PNG. The irony here is that many things could have gone wrong with my country collecting, trying to slip in Kalimantan, but in the end the part that should have been easiest, a simple international connection in Indonesia’s tourist hub turned out to be the most problematic. And they were hundreds of angry non-country collectors to share the experience, mostly fortunately not connecting so they just lost a few hours of their vacation.

    @Cooper – last time around I only passed through Bali to head on to Gunung Bromo, so, sometime, I suppose I should give Bali a try. I am just not big into beaches and resorts, I much prefer historical sites so back in 2005 focused on places like Borobudur.

    @Peter – I don’t see the point in not giving my honest impressions, and that is that Indonesia is a significantly worse tourist experience compared to its neighbors. I highlighted the inability of their major tourist international airport to even handle transit passengers to show how lacking they are at the basic infrastructure. Is Bali so much better than competitor beaches towns that I would recommend people spend one-two hours in a sweltering immigration line? Why can even East Timor have such a better experience from A to Z with so little infrastructure, and what they have only rebuilt after the scorched earth of departing Indonesian marauders?

    Some areas are better than others, Pontianak was relatively hassle-free because of no tourists, but should I not say that out of 95 countries I have visited, I was hassled in the street far more than any other place? That is something that prospective tourists should know in advance and make their own travel decisions about how to have a safe and pleasant journey.

    And should tourists not know to avoid attempting to transfer at Bali, where even a 2-3 hour connection is not safe, and they will get stuck paying for a new visa just for the privilege?

    Indonesia owes its tourists, and its people, to get it’s act together and try to catch up with its neighbors.

  • Lively

    Great post! I was LOLing the whole time.

    @Peter: It’s a really big Internet. If you don’t like what you read here……

  • @Lively – indeed, Peter is a first time reader, anyway, however they come, I try to treat my guests with respect and engage in productive debate.

  • JB

    I wonder if Tripadvisor has some info on Thai’s Bali “policies?” Also just because it’s Thai airlines doesn’t mean its Thai staff.

  • Paul

    Honestly, I think Peter in post #1 is pretty much spot-on. What you experienced in Indonesia is nothing unusual, and anyone with some experience traveling in developing countries should know that and not be completely infuriated when encountering such. That’s part of overseas travel (unless you do the typical “travel blog” experiences by isolating yourself in sanitized resorts), ands you roll with the punches.

    Having been to Indonesia a few times myself, I feel sorry for you. You completely missed it.

    Honestly, the way you describe your travels – “9 days traveling Sulawesi, Bali and overland through Java” and “I booked a day in Kalimantan and a day in East Timor”, to me this sounds like a description of a completely wasted life. It sounds like you’ve never actually *been* anywhere, you’ve only passed through a collection of airports and hotels. No wonder you got food poisoning. What a shame to do all this and think you have seen the world. Sad.

  • Shannon

    Welcome back! Hopefully the snow storm won’t be too depressing to you. And very funny post…but I feel the same when I first visited China a couple years ago…

  • @JB – the two at the check-in were contractors, the manager was Thai and from Thai Airways. I should have checked Trip Advisor, I did for the parts of the trip I was worried about but thought this was the simplest part. There is added confusion as they move into the new international terminal, a process that has been delayed many times. All my flights were in the new terminal and it seemed mostly complete inside departures and arrivals, though outside areas still had a long way to go. Perhaps they will eventually sort out transit, but right now they have all those transit counters and a bunch of staff not willing or empowered to actually conduct any transit matters.

  • @Paul – it is interesting the attacks on the rare occasion where I share a negative experience. Some travel blogs whitewash everything because they are interested in comped trips, which I have never accepted. I am not sure how much time I am supposed to spend in a country to qualify by your merits. That 2005 trip I spent several days in Tana Taraja in Sulawesi. Due to flight issues I had to go through Surabaya where I spent the most I could of a few hours’ layover delay, headed on to Bali which was not specifically to visit but to catch the overnight bus to Gunung Bromo. From there I continued through Yogyakarta, Borobudur, and on to Jakarta, taking local transport and staying in guest houses all the way. Some people have the luxury of indefinite travel, others, like me, have work and family commitments, so we have to maximize our time. As for last weekend, I could have either sat in my hotel in Shanghai or I could go to Kalimantan and East Timor. Business did not afford more days for me to frolic. I don’t say people sitting on the couch for the weekend are wasting their life. By flying on overnight flights I had a full day in Pontianak, and in East Timor had a delightful afternoon 3-hour walk, excellent Portuguese dinner, and a another half-day the following morning to explore. If I had unlimited time and money I would do more, but I have neither in abundance, so make the most with what I have.

    It is curious why the apologists would rather attack me than say that an airport like Bali, which is designed to lure tourists, should not have functioning transit facilities. If I hadn’t fought and persisted I would have been stuck overnight. I still maintain that Indonesia’s neighbors provide a much better travel experience offering much the same culture, scenery and food. In Borneo I have had great trips to Malaysia’s Sabah and Sarawak states, so why not tell readers what I like and don’t like?

    Also, I thought the story would be entertaining to readers, so I shared it. Fortunately some take it in the spirit of a good, honest story.

    So, please for my benefit and readers’, what is your approved way to appreciate Indonesia and why should they choose it over its neighbors?

  • Baqa

    Personally I don’t have a problem with sharing your negative experience. However, you may inflame fewer readers by omitting statements which negatively characterize those who have, in contrast to your experiences, enjoyed Indonesia as a tourist even without stepping foot in a resort.

    “Flying in and out of Bali and never leaving a resort except for Disney-fied cultural attractions works well for many.”

    This just undermines your credibility as you seem to be implying that those who disagree with your assessment are in some way not seeing the “true” Indonesia.

  • @Baqa – fair enough, I perhaps did not phrase that elegantly enough. My only intent in that paragraph was to mention the value proposition for many travelers of Southeast Asia, and Bali in particular. The vast majority of travelers I encounter, when they think Indonesia, they think a beach resort. The hundreds of people in line in front of me, disgorged from planes already in their beach clothes, testify to that.

    There are of course many ways to experience a place and it was not intended to say that, quite the opposite, since the overall piece and prior piece about Lion Air’s shenanigans, is primarily relevant to the independent traveler, not the resort-goer. At this stage in my life I do not find resorts appealing, but I see the value for many, and who knows, maybe resorts could even manage an airport transfer. In my piece about Lion Air, one astute reader suggested exclusively booking through travel agents tied to 5-star hotels to try to get good service for the constant issues with flying in Indonesia.