Sunday, August 31, 2008 Indonesia Indonesia / Malaysia Malaysia

Return to the realm of the touts

Fenix Inn, Melaka [Enlarge]

The ferry terminal in Melaka is a small, single storey building just inside the river mouth. Tickets are not sold at the terminal. Instead you have to go to one of a handful of agents nearby. The one we'd bought our ticket from had told us to turn up at 09:30 for the 10:00 sailing, but we were characteristically early, and were glad to be so. When we arrived the covered area in front of the terminal building was already very crowded, and two queues snaked off in opposite directions. In the absence of any instructions we joined what looked like the shorter, quicker moving line and waited. Someone was in control somewhere because the queues kept taking it in turn to move forward as a few people at a time were let through to immigration.

To get onto our ferry we had to go into, across and out of another ferry. Paranoid about getting on the wrong one and ending up at the wrong Indonesian port we checked several times that we were definitely the boat for Dumai. Seats were unallocated so we nabbed the front ones with ample legroom. That also put us near to two exits in case of pirate attack or sudden sinking. For once the in-flight movie wasn't too loud or too bad, and free water and snacks were distributed.

Fifteen minutes or so into the journey, Malaysia was shrinking into the distance behind us, and we were settling into the movie quite nicely when we suddenly slowed down and the engines stopped. We spent a few stationary minutes looking out of the windows to see if there were any fluttering Jolly Rogers, or cutlasses glinting in the sunshine, but boringly it seemed to be some sort of mechanical problem... we started off again a bit slower than before.

The billed one and three quarter hour journey took more than three hours, but it wasn't too bad. As we neared the port we stood up and went over to the door area so we wouldn't have to wait while the mountains of luggage was gathered by our fellow passengers. As we came alongside we wondered just what sort of a country Indonesia was going to be.

The single door to the three-passenger-compartment ferry opened. At once the crowd around us surged forward toward the door in a fluid mass, suitcases flying. And then the mass stopped, as people in their misguided hurry to get out jammed the bags of the people in front of them. This made all forward movement by anyone impossible, and so everyone stopped, unable to make progress.

OK... It's going to be that sort of country.

Well, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. After we'd elbowed all the old women out of the way and pushed a few children overboard we found ourselves inside the terminal building wondering what to do next. We had no visa, but our research had told us that Dumai is one of the entry points where you can get a visa on arrival. There was an immigration office, but the door said staff only. Luckily a 'friendly local' was on hand to help us out. He sent us through the door and we handed over our passports and USD 50 (25 each). Our passports were returned about fifteen minutes later with a one page visa and a big entry stamp on the facing page—another double page wiped out. The friendly local, our new best friend (here we go again), had spent the intervening time finding out where we wanted to go and telling us not to worry, he'd help us get there. Uh huh.

He told us to come with him in his MPV, he'd take us to the bus station. Free, of course. We were some way out from the town centre with no readily apparent alternative way of getting to the bus station, which we knew was on the other side of town. We decided to go with him and see how he would try to get our money. Along with two Indonesian passengers we all got into the MPV and drove from the port to... the bus station? No, to a travel agent's office in town. Here we were sold what we were told was a transfer to the bus station and a bus ticket to Pekanbaru for significantly more than the price we were expecting, but still a pifflingly small amount for a five hour journey. We weren't in a position to negotiate, and the town didn't seem like one we wanted to linger in. We had some time to kill so our friend suggested we have something to eat at the cafe next door. We weren't hungry, but we were thirsty so in the absence of a menu to point at, we communicated a desire for two drinks.

No matter what we tried, they wouldn't take our money until we'd finished our drinks. Isla went up to pay expecting change from a 10,000 rupiah note, but the lady wanted more. She initially said 14,000, then her friend said something and the price went up to 20,000. Presumably the something was "Charge them more, don't forget we have to pay commission to the friendly local".

The MPV driver had just called us back to start our journey when we were approached by another 'friendly local', but this one turned out to be a bit different. He runs an English school in Dumai and offers native English speakers free accommodation and transfers to the bus station in exchange for coming to talk to his students for an hour or two. Glenn had read about him on Wikitravel, but we didn't expect him to hunt us down so effectively. If we hadn't already bought our bus tickets we'd have loved to take him up on his offer. Mr Teacher-man, if you're reading this, our advice is: try to get to the ferry terminal to intercept people before the scumbag touts do!

We accelerated out of the town centre in the MPV. The GPS told us we were heading for the bus station and everything seemed fine. Then the driver got a phone call. He did a u-turn, stopped at a shophouse, collected a box and sped away again. Just out of the town centre we turned up a narrow road alongside a stream that was so full it threatened to engulf the road at any moment, and finally stopped at a tiny cottage with a garden full of ducks. He delivered the box and we were off again.

Main road from Dumai to Pekanbaru [Enlarge]

After a while it became clear that we weren't going to the bus station at all, we had in fact unwittingly commissioned ourselves an MPV all the way to Pekanbaru. That at least explained the high price tag. To be fair, the journey was much more comfortable and faster than it would have been on the bus, even allowing for the absolutely heart-stoppingly, underpant-soilingly dire standard of driving in Indonesia.

Seven hours later, after many small detours to pick up and drop off packages and small family groups, we were dropped at the door of our hotel in Pekanbaru. We felt like kissing the ground in thanks that we had survived. The driving wasn't as bad as India's, but the problem was that the roads and vehicles were in a better state and so the speeds were much higher. When you're flying round a narrow, blind bend three wide at 100 km/h, there's not much you can do except maybe pray to Allah for safe passage. Unlike in our taxi ride in India we didn't actually see the aftermath of any accidents, apart from a few wrecked cars which had been mounted on posts as a futile warning to drivers.

Pekanbaru was grubby, devoid of footpaths, with muddy puddles everywhere... But unlike in India, at least it was just mud on the ground, and not anything more... biological!

Our hotel of choice was the Ibis, part of a French chain, and much higher-end than we usually go for, but Indonesia is very cheap. We took full advantage of the facilities: restaurant, money changing, travel desk and free wifi. The staff were very helpful, but every time we asked them something it seemed like it was the first time they'd ever been asked. Still, we had survived our first day in Indonesia and the spectacular sights of Sumatra were now tantalisingly close.

Map of Day 645

Day 645
Melaka to Pekanbaru

This map shows the route we took in this post. Click it to see larger maps of our whole route at flickr.

Maps are taken from the CIA World Factbook.