Home Planning a trip Travel Stories Indonesia travel stories

Travel stories: Indonesia

Bemos are without doubt the finest form of public transport I've ever encountered...

By Geoff White, UK

Each South-East Asian country has its own variety of short-distance public minibus, but if you want a real taste of life in the slow lane, get to Indonesia, and get on board a Bemo.

Outside the main depots, catching a bemo is a pretty tricky business, since to get one to stop for you means learning a subtle system of hand movements. So subtle is this system that the first three bemos I tried to signal passed me by without even slowing down. One wrong twitch and you'll be bypassed, or perhaps accidentally request that the driver bring you a chicken on his return journey (bemos aren't just public transport; in remote areas they function in a similar way to the outback postman, delivering letters, goods and gossip back and forth across the countryside).

Your best bet is to hang out where the locals do, and wait.

As your bemo draws near you'll catch your first glimpse of a new kind of styling. Combining 50's hot rod with Bollywood whorehouse, this is Bemo Chic.

The vehicles themselves are usually converted minivans by Mitsubishi, Toyota, or whichever company has given the local government the most generous backhander. The bodywork bounces around the epileptic extremes of the colour spectrum, favouring aquamarine, orange, yellow, purple. Ultimately, though, it doesn't matter, since the majority of paintwork will be covered with stickers of one kind or another, the biggest of which will be it's name.

All bemos have names, and if you're unacquainted with the area it's quite easy to confuse the name of the bus with its destination (the equivalent of boarding a coach and asking what time it's due to arrive at 'Mercedes Benz'). The kudos attached to Western names sometimes results in some amusing misnomers; any Westerner would be understandably reluctant to board a Bemo named 'Dangervan', 'Moving Hell' or 'Valhalla' (one instance in which its name may well be the same as its destination).

Once on the road, the driver concentrates on making subtle but vital adjustments to the bass on the stereo. Music is by far the most important aspect of the bemo. Any self-respecting vehicle will be equipped with a sound system that wouldn't embarrass a small nightclub, and has in all likelihood cost more than the engine.

If when you board the Bemo it is packed (which is always), there is a strict etiquette to be followed: gently drop your right hand in front of you, politely say 'permissi' (excuse me), and then barge and elbow your way violently through until you squeeze into a space just about big enough to accommodate a small kitten. If you're lucky both of your buttocks will make contact with the seat, which, being a wooden plank, will reward them with a relentless pummeling.

Congratulations. You are now free to enjoy the ride. People will stare at you. You're foreign. Smile at them, they'll probably smile back, and if they don't you'll have a smug hold on the moral high ground. The other passengers will almost certainly talk to you, and possibly even in English.

If you know where you want the bemo to stop, there is a bewildering number of ways to make yourself heard above the techno version of 'The Boy From Iponima'. Banging on the roof seems to be looked on as crass. Using a coin or ring to tap on the hand-bars is a winner. There is also a bunch of incomprehensible grunts to be learned, and a noise made using the tongue which sounds something like 'clok'. If a driver is foolish enough to overshoot an important stop, the whole bemo will erupt into something which sounds like an early Bobby McFerrin number.

Having bundled off the bemo with all your bags, you must now pay. You could try doing a runner, but bearing in mind the size of your rucksack it would almost certainly turn into a waddler. Some travel guidebooks will advise you to look at what the locals are paying and pay the same. What this doesn't take into account is the bemo culture's flexible pricing system: the betel-nut munching mamas who travel to and from the market each week can count on paying 100 Rupiah for the journey. For you as a rich tourist on a one-off it's going to be 1,000 Rupiah. Know your currency. Bargain hard. But in the last resort, give them the cash and get lost.

This fare policy says it all. Ultimately it comes down to 'from each according to his ability'. Communism works when it has to, and the bemo is living, back-firing proof of it.

The absolute antithesis of the bemo would be any kind of timetable or discernible route map. bemos operate when and where they are needed; if there is a morning market, then there will be lots of bemos to the market earlier on, lots returning around midday, and in the afternoon what might be called a 'skeleton service'. There will always be a bemo going where you want to go however, since even the most remote village will be on someone's route, provided the bemo guys can cajole enough passengers to make it worthwhile going there.

Consequently bemos are without doubt the finest form of public transport I've ever encountered, simply through being totally unregulated. They run when and where needed. They carry everything from people to pigs, forcing you to rub shoulders (amongst other body parts) with both, whilst tolerating all kinds of musical and aesthetic tastes and experiencing what local people experience every day. There truly is no finer way to travel.

More travel stories

More travel stories

Highly recommended tour companies

Responsible Travel tours

Support local communities and protect the environment

Find tours

G Adventures tours

Exciting and responsible overland and adventure tours

Find tours


Superb group adventure tours and exciting short breaks

Find tours