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In our age of budget airlines and constant hurry few international visitors are aware of Indonesia’s superbly scenic train journeys.
We experience two of them on our Real North Sumatra and Java Tour – the Argo Wilis express from Bandung to Yogyakarta and the Sancaka Pagi express from Yogyakarta to Mojokerto.
An efficient train system links all the main cities on Java, including Jakarta, Bandung, Yogyakarta, Solo, Surabaya, Mojokerto or Probolinggo (for Mt Bromo) and Banyuwangi (the ferry terminal for Bali).
In Indonesian the words for train are Kereta Api which literally means “fire wagon” – a hangover from the days of steam. The Indonesian railway system is operated by Kereta Api Indonesia.
We travel Eksekutif Klas – that’s a notch above Bisnis Klas and considerably more appealing than usually crowded Klas Ekonomik.
The fares are cheap, the trains are punctual (rarely more than 15 minutes late), and we relax in modern air-conditioned railcars with comfortable seats, plenty of leg room and large panoramic windows to enjoy the breathtaking views.
It you are a train buff you will treasure these journeys. And if you aren’t, then by the time we arrive in Jogjakarta you probably will be.
The train is slower than air travel but usually faster than travelling on Indonesia’s road system. For example, the Argo Bromo Anggrek (the Bromo Orchid), Indonesia’s premier train, takes 9 hours from Jakarta to Surabaya. Travelling by road takes 15 hours.
Java, with 170 million people, is one of the world’s most densely populated places. By bus or car you find yourself passing through an endless series of townships and villages.
But the train takes you away from the roads and townships into and through the countryside, where you can see and appreciate the deep, rich, fertile volcanic soils and croplands that make Java one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world.
This makes train travel undoubtedly the best, most comfortable and most affordable way to see and enjoy the Java’s panorama of mountains, valleys, rivers, plains, forests and rice fields.
Indonesia’s premier Argo class passenger trains are named for mountains in the regions they service – our train from Bandung is named for Gunung Wilis is a 2,170m [7,116ft] peak in Ponorogo Regency east of Jogjakarta.
As we leave the busy Bandung suburbs the line meanders through hills and valleys and remnants of the morning mist. If the weather is kind, we see kampungs (villages) clinging to the sides of the hills and smoke rising from houses nestled in valleys far below. Swathes of green jungle open to expanses of irrigated rice paddies intricately carved into the hillsides. And we feel good to be alive.
The first sweeping viaducts may seem a little scary – they really are tall and it’s a long way down. But the uninterrupted views will have you grabbing for your camera.
As we emerge from the mountains the scenery changes to extended fields of rice paddies with farming families toiling in conical bamboo hats, planting, harvesting, threshing or working buffaloes, rotary hoes and intricate flood irrigation systems..
The expanses of tiny farms are interrupted by townships, small pockets of trees, clumps of bamboo and the scattered kampungs (villages) of farming communities.
Mark Smith, founder of The Man in Seat 61 website, the leading international train journeys website (https://www.seat61.com/index.html) provides this comment from one of his train enthusiast followers:
“The Argo Wilis is one of the world’s great trains in terms of scenery, particularly the first 100 km east of Bandung; if Bali had a railroad, this is what the scenery would look like.”
Despite the narrow-gauge lines (1,067 mm or 3 ft 6 in), we travel fast, hooting strenuously at each level crossing and speeding non-stop through smaller stations. Look for the station master as you flash by. He stands to attention outside his office in his red and gold cap waving the train through.
From Bandung to Yogyakarta takes a little over 7 hours (8.30am to 3.52pm) and our trip a few days later from Yogyakarta to Mojokerto (on the way to Mt Bromo) takes a little over 4 hours (6.45am to 11am)
Eksekutif class on Indonesian trains means good air-conditioning and individual reclining seats arranged 2+2 across the car width. Sometime the air conditioning is too chill and it’s prudent to have a sweater or a light jacket readily accessible.
Seats normally face forward but in newer carriages can be rotated to face either direction by depressing a foot pedal on the aisle side. There’s a small table for drinks on the wall by each pair of seats with two European 2-pin type two power sockets for charging electronic devices. Newer carriages have tray tables, but they are missing from older carriages.
There are spacious overhead racks for luggage and space behind the last row of seats in each car for larger bags. The luggage allowance for Eksekutif class passengers is 20kg. Passengers travelling together may combine the allowance with individual bags weighing more than 20kg being permitted so long as the overall total weight doesn’t exceed 40kg. Excess baggage is chargeable at 10,000 rupiah (about AUD$1) a kilo.
Malaysian traveler, train enthusiast and former radio and TV presenter Alan Bligh published the above 15-minute video of a journey from Bandung on the Argo Wilis in 2018. He travels beyond Yogyakarta all the way to Surabaya and the video is a little long. But it provides a good feel for this journey.
All long-distance trains have a catering car selling tea, coffee, bottled water, soft drinks, packaged snacks, instant noodles and basic Indonesia tray meals, usually chicken (ayam) or Indonesian meatballs (bakso) and rice with a salad or pickles garnish and sambal.
Train attendants also routinely move through carriages with a refreshment trolley offering drinks, meals and snacks. Meals typically cost around Rp30,000 (around AUD$3) and are quite tasty.
But before you buy it’s prudent to inquire as to whether a complimentary meal is included in your ticket – attendants have a habit of coming through and selling from the trolley a little before mealtime and then returning less than an hour later to deliver your identical FREE meal!
Passengers are permitted to bring their own food and drink on board for consumption during their journey but unless you have a medical reason it is probably pointless to do so.
Smoking is banned – the on-train announcer advises bluntly that anyone caught smoking will be put off the train at the next station. Smoking is permitted in railway stations and on station platforms.
Most newer cars on long-distance trains have two western-style toilets or one western and one Asian squat-style toilet. There are hand washbasins and usually toilet paper and soap are provided. The toilets usually are clean. On some services teams of cleaning attendants work through the length of the train.
A caution re car numbers when boarding – cars are numbered by class starting from the front. But if the train has two or more classes, numbers are repeated in each class, with an Eksekutif car 1, 2 & 3 and a Bisnis car 1, 2 & 3 etc. The trick is to avoid mistakenly boarding Bisnis car 1 if your seat is in Eksekutif car 1!
Then, as they say, sit back, relax and enjoy your journey!
THANK YOU – We are indebted to Mark Smith, The Man in Seat 61, for much of the detail included in the above report – Mark is the founder of https://www.seat61.com/index.html, a website dedicated to “rediscovering the pleasure, romance and adventure of travel by train or ship”. We highly commend his site to anyone interested in train journies anywhere.
The crowded and fascinating island of Java has many stunning and authentic places of interest. For descriptions and images of some of the experiences included in our Real North Sumatra and Java tour program click the links below.
Bandung is sometimes called the “Paris of Java” or the “City of Flowers”, reflecting the old-world architecture of its colonial heritage and a lively scene of cafes, restaurants, hotels, resort retreats and institutions of learning …
It is impossible to consider you have seen the REAL Indonesia if your itinerary doesn’t include at least a brief visit to Jakarta – South East Asia’s massive and important megacity of more than 30 million people (and still growing) …
Yogyakarta exudes energy from a rich tradition of more than 1300 years of culture, history, empires, dynasties, conflicts, rebellions and spectacular achievements.Many consider it the intellectual, artistic and cultural capital of Indonesia …
‘AWESOME’ will be the word that immediately springs to mind as you explore the Prambanan Hindu temple complex. You will be asking yourself just who were these people who built and caved these ornate and beautiful structures …
The mighty smoldering peaks belching smoke and surrounded by swirling mists illustrate thousands of brochures, articles and book covers. But no iconic photograph or words can substitute for seeing and experiencing the real thing close-up …
Borobudur is more than just the world’s biggest Buddhist temple – it’s a special, iconic place with a fascinating story and an aura to match. It is Indonesia’s most visited attraction and after you have been there you will understand why …
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