Getting Around Sumatra, Indonesia: Guide to Public Transportation

Kelok Sembilan road, Nagari Sarilamak, West Sumatra, Indonesia
irwansyahst / Getty Images

Getting around Sumatra is a choice between cheap and fast; you can’t have both. Due to the island’s massive size and less-than-optimal highway system, a Sumatra-only itinerary can be challenging to organize. The best way to describe the transport experience in Sumatra is chaotic but surprisingly efficient. You might not always leave on time, and the buses and ferries can be frighteningly overcrowded, but you’ll get where you want to go at the cost you’re willing to pay.

Is time running short and you're traveling between major cities? A plane is your best option. Have lots of time to kill and traveling on a budget? The island’s bus system is your best bet. There are plenty of other travel options in between, depending on where you’re headed or how far you plan to go. We’ve listed your options below.

Taking the Bus in Sumatra

Buses are the most common option for intercity travel around Sumatra, particularly North Sumatra where the top destinations (Medan, Bukit Lawang, Lake Toba) are relatively closer together. For the rest of Sumatra, visitors need to contend with the long distances and, frankly, suboptimal roads in between cities; five or so hours riding down pitted jungle roads is par for the course.

Most trans-island highways must circumvent Sumatra’s largest national parks—Gunung Leuser and Kerinci Seblat—to get from point A to point B creating circuitous routes up mountains and past jungles. However, a new Trans-Sumatra toll highway may soon put an end to that. The road will span 1,800 miles down the length of Sumatra, from Aceh in the northwest to Bakauheni in the southeast, the port gateway to Java; and will cost $33.2 billion upon completion by 2022. (Part of the highway cuts right through Gunung Leuser, a point of concern for many conservationists.)

Booking Tickets: Buses in Sumatra do not generally offer timetables or online bookings (the latter certainly exist, but they’re severely underrepresented in regional bus booking sites like Traveloka and Easybook). To plan your bus trip, we recommend asking your hotel/lodging to make recommendations, or better yet, book the trip for you. The next best thing is to go to the local bus terminal to book tickets, but it's very easy for foreigners to get overcharged for a ticket at the terminal.

Types of Buses: Trips to out-of-the-way places may only offer crowded, non-air-conditioned economy buses. The most well-established routes (for instance, Medan to Lake Toba) have clearer schedules and air-conditioned buses. Longer trips (for instance, from Medan to Banda Aceh) may offer overnight buses. The VIP buses available in Sumatra have lower seating capacities, air conditioning, onboard toilets, and reclining seats.

All these buses, though, ride on the same single-carriageway roads (until the new tollway opens), exposing everyone to the same interminable traffic jams and other delays. Budget your time accordingly. A bus trip from Medan to Lake Toba, for instance, will likely take you more than five hours instead of Google Maps’ estimate of three hours, 30 minutes.

Sumatra’s Minibuses

These smaller-size budget transport options run between cities or major tourist destinations, and can even take tourists from hotel to hotel. Ask your accommodation to book you a seat instead of trying to get a ticket from a bus station.

Manage your expectations when riding a minibus: while they can be more convenient than riding a bus, their comfort levels are almost the same as economy buses, with little legroom and no air conditioning.

Air Travel in Sumatra

If you have the extra money to afford it, take an airplane to get around Sumatra. You'll pay a little extra for shorter travel times in greater comfort.

Most foreign visitors to Sumatra fly in through Medan’s Kuala Namu International Airport (KNO). From Medan, you can travel throughout the island on a well-developed domestic flight network, with nodes at the following locations:

  • Banda Aceh: Sultan Iskandar Muda International Airport (BTJ)
  • Batam: Hang Nadim International Airport (BTH)
  • Dumai: Pinang Kampai Airport (DUM)
  • Jambi: Sultan Thaha Syaifuddin Airport (DJB)
  • Lake Toba: Sisingamangaraja XII International Airport (DTB)
  • Pekanbaru: Sultan Syarif Kasim II International Airport (PKU)
  • Padang: Minangkabau International Airport (PDG)
  • Palembang: Sultan Mahmud Badaruddin II International Airport (PLM)
  • Pangkal Pinang, Bangka Island: Depati Amir Airport (PGK)
  • Tanjungpinang, Riau Islands: Raja Haji Fisabilillah International Airport (TNJ)

Domestic flight services can vary, from once a week to daily, depending on route demand. These flights are serviced by local providers Garuda, AirAsia Indonesia, Citilink, LionAir, and SusiAir; bookings can be made on their respective websites.

The weather can adversely affect air travel schedules; for instance, the smog season can affect many flights along Sumatra’s east coast.

Boat Travel Around Sumatra

Before highways and airports were a thing, most visitors going into and around Sumatra went about on boats. Water transport remains a viable way of getting around, particularly between Sumatra’s many islands.

Visitors to Sumatra can get in by ferry through two ports. International visitors from Malacca, Malaysia can take a ferry to Dumai in Riau, which allows for visas on arrival; while domestic visitors from Java island can sail into the port at Bakauheni.

The majority of boats plying Sumatra’s inter-island waters are slow ferries, sometimes crowded to the limit with local commuters. A few select routes (like those to Bangka Island and Mentawai) are serviced by faster, modern speedboats and hydrofoils.

Some of the most common ferry routes include:

  • Padang and the Mentawai Islands
  • Banda Aceh and Pulau Weh
  • Singkil and the Banyak Islands or Pulau Nias
  • Sibolga and Pulau Nias
  • Palembang and Bangka Island
  • Bangka and Belitung Islands

Tickets for each of these routes can be purchased at their respective docks, but make sure to purchase your tickets early (especially if you expect to travel on major Indonesian holidays).

Bakauheni ferry

nawaitesuga/Getty Images

Train Travel in Sumatra

While train travel does exist on Sumatra, the island’s rail "network” is actually just a patchwork of disconnected rail lines centered around major cities.

  • In North Sumatra, the train from Medan connects visitors to and from the airport, as well as towns on the east coast like Tanjungbalai, Rantauprapat, Siantar, and Binjai.
  • In South Sumatra, a regular train route runs between Bandar Lampung and Palembang, with stops in between.
  • In West Sumatra, the train station in Padang services an airport express and a commuter rail to nearby towns like Pariaman, Pasar Alai, and Lubuk Buaya.

Ask your hotel to book reservations for you, book online at Tiket.com, or look up train schedules at Kereta Api Indonesia (Indonesian Railways). You can also self-book at local train stations.

Local Transport Around Sumatra’s Towns

To travel the shorter commuter distances within Sumatra’s cities or towns, try one of the local public transport options. You can ride on the minibuses called angkot; ride pillion on the motorcycle taxi called ojek; or just summon an air-conditioned taxi via phone app (available in select cities only).

Taxis

Indonesian taxis have a well-earned reputation for sharp practices with tourists. Bluebird taxis are the exception (which explains why other taxi operators loathe them so much!); you can book a ride on a Bluebird using their MyBlueBird phone app if you can’t flag them anywhere.

Another app-based option in Indonesia is Grab, which offers you a choice between hired car or taxi options.

Do remember that most taxi drivers can’t speak English. Write down your destination, or whip out your navigation app to point them in the right direction.

Angkot

These are vans converted into open-air minibuses; used throughout Indonesia, angkot are favorite commuter options for locals. Angkot are cheap to ride, if somewhat crowded and you’ll need a grasp of the local language to make the most of a ride. Costs are reliably low, but vary depending on the city you’re traveling in; angkot in Padang, for instance, charge 3,000-4,000 Indonesian rupiah (around $0.21-0.28) per trip. Pay after you disembark.

Ojek

Motorcycle taxis are a common transport method throughout Indonesia, appreciated for their ability to negotiate rough roads and circumvent traffic jams. While fast, ojek can be dangerous compared to your other travel options. Some cities allow online booking of ojek via GoRide; online ojek trips will cost about 1,850-2,300 rupiah ($0.13-0.16) per kilometer.

Becak and Betor

Becak (bicycles) or motorbikes (betor) are three-wheeled transport with sidecars and a viable taxi option for shorter distances. There’s some wiggle room on the price of a ride; you’ll need to haggle the price before riding a becak.

Bendi and Dokar

Traditional horse and carts are still widely used throughout the island but rely on the tourist trade for their income. Prices for one-way rides may range from 40,000-150,000 rupiah ($$2.75-10.35). You should expect to haggle hard before riding one.

Article Sources
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  1. Mongabay. "Deforestation spurred by road project creeps closer to Sumatra wildlife haven." January 14, 2021.

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