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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:
- 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.
- Not being able to take one step on the street without being hassled with, ‘hey mister…’
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.