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Indonesia: Up and Down in Sumatra


(Thanks to Andy for helping with the translation)

May 2014

To be on the road with a bicycle is not always nice and it is not always easy. Actually, every day is exhausting. I always notice my muscles and I´m tired in the evening. Unless it’s only downhill with a tailwind and on a good road with no traffic, conditions which are extremely rare.

I like to show photos of secluded camp spots, spectacular landscapes, and I like to tell about great people I meet and the many good experiences.

But if you are like me and try to go every kilometer by bicycle, then taking routes that are not exactly enjoyable can`t be avoided. The Trans-Sumatra Highway is one of them.


Sumatra is hot

At 8 in the morning it is already over 30 degrees. There are no mountains, but a lot of hills. One after the other, it is a constant up and down. When I climb one, I already see the next four. Often it is not possible to use the momentum to roll up the next hill at least halfway: The road is too bad and there’s the traffic as well: Mainly trucks, at peak times and bottlenecks one after the other, a proper column, at quieter times at least one per minute. The road is narrow, there is not much space to dodge, neither for me nor for the trucks, because there is almost always oncoming traffic. The drivers overtake anyway, so tight that it seems that I need only stretch my elbow a little more to touch them.


I can`t remember ever feeling so threatened by traffic as on this trip. Not even in India, but there I was used to the “other” driving style already for some time. Here in Sumatra it took a few days until I became confident in the ability of the drivers to judge distances correctly. And I also realize that many drivers leave enough distance (of course not enough by European standards) if they have space to do so. With all due respect for the Indonesian way of traffic (overtaking is a necessity, otherwise you’ll never get to your destination), I cannot help to impute some drivers’ serious killing intentions. Or at least no appreciation for the miracle of life in the form of a cyclist.

Otherwise I can`t explain it when a car or a truck on my side of the road comes with breakneck speed and flashes its headlights to signal “Make way, here I come. Go away or I’ll make you flat.” Unfortunately, I can´t evaporate myself. There is no shoulder, often only a field or slope or forest. I stop breathing and watch the car rush past me, just centimeters away, the driver staring with concentration straight ahead.

A small movement of the steering wheel or a small swerve on my part and this life is over.

Situations like this happen here in Sumatra one to two times per day, reminding me how precious life is and how quickly it can be over. And that’s why we should use our time to do what makes us happy. Maybe for me this is not exactly cycling in Sumatra, but to travel the world by bike in general.

And what would all the beautiful moments be without the difficult ones? What would life be without death?


There are also good moments

On a few days I can take some back routes that go through small villages and along rivers. Less traffic makes me enjoy the ride again and I have enough energy to get involved with the people.

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Several times a day I have to stop to let people take photos of me. Young people especially are very eager to get a photo with a Bule, a white man. Sometimes they don´t even ask for my name or where I´m from, they just want that photo on their phone.

This guy doesn´t want a picture of me, but he wants me to take one of him.

When I stop for something to eat, people ask directly where I come from and where I’m going. My Indonesian is still very limited and I haven´t heard much English in Sumatra except “Hello Mister!”, and that hundreds of times a day. I´m glad that I can provide a letter which my friend Pandi from Battam has written. He explains in Indonesian the basics of my journey, and compliments my portfolio of photos from different countries. Once I’ve shown the letter, often a place to sleep is offered to me, but in the first days I reject these and stay in hotels.

People are curious wherever I stop
This shop owner gives me some food and water for free

Bad Hotels

My days are exhausting and in the afternoon I have had enough. I look for a hotel, just to have some rest, to have a door I can close behind me. A space where the sound of the traffic and the other noise is barely audible. Where I can be alone and where no one stares at me all the time or approaches me or photographs me.

In larger towns there are two types of hotels: New, modern ones with air-conditioned rooms which are too expensive for my budget, and old, sleazy ones. Here the rooms haven´t been renovated for 20 years, the beds are lumpy the walls moldy. It is incomprehensible to me how you can build rooms without windows in a country where it rains regularly and where it is moist all the time. Sometimes these rooms even don´t have a fan, for that you have to pay extra.

In places where there is only one hotel, I rarely get a room under 10 dollars. This is expensive compared to the other costs of living in Indonesia and also to the rest of Asia. In Thailand you can get for the same money a clean room with air conditioning and TV. Here in Sumatra you get a dirty, damp, dark hole with a worn bed.

Sometimes I prefer to sleep on the floor. On the right a better hotel room.


One evening I pick out a place to sleep in the school of a village. The school buildings here are all similar. There is always a toilet and in front of the classrooms always some covered space in case it rains. I have slept also inside classrooms. The downside of sleeping at schools is, that I´m often surrounded by curious children the next morning if I don´t wake up early enough to pack my things.

This evening I just want to pitch my tent, when a man invites me to sleep in his house. His wife is a teacher and the house is next to the school. I agree and look forward to having a shower and maybe a second dinner.

The whole family and some children want to be on the picture

I want to have a quiet evening. It is the second anniversary of my trip. Of course, years are only one of the units in which we humans measure our time and other things are more important. But nevertheless it is a special day for me, which makes me look back and reflect.

After the curiosity of the family has waned, I wonder where I can sleep. The man shows me a place in the living room and of course the TV is on full blast, the light is on and the kids romp around. Here, privacy hasn´t much importance and there is not much consideration for sleeping people. I wish I had rejected the invitation and slept in the school. But I have spent so many nights under suboptimal conditions that I fell asleep at some point anyway.

Fireworks for the 2. anniversary of my journey

Palembang – the first big city

After a few days I reach Palembang. With almost 2 million inhabitants, it is one of the larger cities in Indonesia. The roads are hopelessly crowded that it takes two hours before I reach the city center. Trucks, buses, cars, motorcycles, many motorcycles, people with pushcarts are everywhere and the remaining space is filled by pedestrians. And by a tired cyclist who finally manages to find a cheap and good hotel.


The next day I explore the city on foot to find a quiet, calm place. Maybe a park or a place at the river. But all the streets are full of traffic, noise and pollution is everywhere. The sidewalks, if any, are taken by scooters, parking or driving, and in between people everywhere

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In one street there is a market. People sell vegetables on plastic sheets on the roadside. Only centimeters away cars drive by and the vegetables (and pedestrians) get almost slushed. Each attempt to cross a road becomes a mortal danger. Eventually, I give up finding a quiet place, and instead buy a road map of Indonesia in a bookstore with the hope of finding some smaller roads. Then, resigned to the noise, I withdrew back to my hotel room. After all, I’ve eaten well, in a restaurant with a proper menu.



After two weeks and 1000 kilometers I arrive in Bakauheni at the eastern end of Sumatra. I must say, they were not the best two weeks of this trip.


Passage to Java

A ferry takes me and my bike to Java. The crossing should take only an hour, but because there is also on the water a lot of traffic in Indonesia, it takes four.


I didn`t have breakfast, but fortunately the captain invites me onto the bridge. It doesn`t happen very often that a white man with a bicycle comes here and he is curious. He shows me old sea maps, explains the ship to me, and then brings me to the cafeteria for lunch with the crew. After all, a good farewell from Sumatra.