The plasticky fabric of the cushion makes my backside hot. The seat is creaky and uncomfortable after 6+ hours; the interior looks like it hasn't been updated since the 1970s. But the scenery is beautiful. We pass by lush rice fields and small towns, with mountains and volcanos rising up in the distance. I marvel at the many shades of green: the vivid green of the rice shoots, yellow green of the tops of trees, dark green of palms, brown green of dry grass.
If you’ve spent time in Southeast Asia, you’re probably used to traveling by minivan, bus, taxi, and even motorbike. But have you thought about trying trains? I love train travel, as I wrote in my post on the ride in Vietnam from Quy Nong to Nha Trang. So of course I was excited to learn that there’s a good train system in Java that’s reported to be the easiest and most comfortable way to get between the big cities.
I owe a lot of thanks to The Man in Seat 61 for his helpful article on train travel in Indonesia. Since he covers everything from how to buy a ticket to the different classes to the routes in great detail, I won’t repeat it here. Make sure to check out his site if you plan to take a train in Java!
I took 3 trains during my 10 days in Java: executive class from Jakarta to Yogyakarta (8 hours), executive class from Yogyakarta to Probolinggo to see Mount Bromo (8 hours), and economy class from Probolinggo to Banyuwangi (5.5 hours). I know you can fly between Jakarta and Yogyakarta, but I prefer trains to planes, and wanted to see some of the countryside.
The two executive trains were quite similar, except that the one from Yogyakarta didn’t have a foot rest. I bought tickets online at tiket.com and printed out the boarding pass at the station (you’ll need your booking number so remember to save it if you don’t have data on your phone). I even downloaded the Tiket app because it was pretty helpful.
If you go...
- All three trains I took were on time and the ride was pretty smooth
- The website and The Man in 61 blog recommend being at the station one hour early, which is when they open the gate for you to scan your boarding pass and go onto the tracks. I don’t know what would happen if you were late... I think if you already have your boarding pass printed it’s ok to be a bit later. There’s not much to do in the Yogya and Probo train stations; Probolinggo didn’t even have a cafe or snack bar in the station itself (but did have a few just outside). Jakarta has a lot of little snack shops and restaurants.
- If you know when you’ll go, buy tickets ahead of time online as they do sell out and the prices are cheaper if you buy earlier.
- Announcement are in Indonesian and English
- People don’t seem too concerned about seat reservations; a couple times I came across someone in my seat and when I showed them my ticket they pointed me to another seat in the same row. One time I got a better seat so I was happy with this; the other time I lost my window seat but decided not to make a fuss about it. So if you see a better seat than yours, you can just take it and move if the owner shows up.
- You’ll see people coming up and down the aisle with food and drinks. There’s not much choice for a hot meal but you can get packaged nasi goreng (fried rice) or mie goreng (fried noodles) and they're fine. If you don’t see anyone and you’re hungry or just want to stretch your legs you can walk to the eating car, which has a few counters with barstools.
- I believe the executive class trains all have western-style toilets and squat toilets; economy class seems to be squat only. Ladies might want to bring tissue as toilet paper does run out (tissue is my standard lifesaver all over Asia!). I found that the train stations usually had pretty good toilets too.
- The executive train seemed to have more business people on it, but I ended up sitting next to 3 different men who all wanted to talk with me, and two of them wanted to take a photo with me. That’s fine if you’re in the mood for talking, but by the end i just wanted to read and gaze out the window! On the economy train, it felt super local; lots of families with kids, but it also felt a little more relaxing because no one asked for my photo (feeling like a celebrity gets old after a while).
- Overall, the difference between executive and economy was smaller than I would’ve expected. All the trains are air-conditioned and have power outlets. The seats in executive recline and there is a large amount of leg room, so for an 8-hour trip it is more comfortable. The seats in economy don’t recline and (at least on my train) are facing each other so unless you’re traveling with 3 other people you’ll be sharing close quarters with people you don’t know. But if you're on a budget, it's a good way to save some rupiah.
In my case, sitting with others in economy was actually nice. I spoke a little with the older Indonesian couple in front of me, who were very sweet and offered me snacks. When I got off the train and tried unsuccessfully to find a Grab, the woman insisted I share their taxi. They dropped me off at my hotel and wouldn’t accept any money. "Mama and Papa pay for baby!" she said. It was so sweet and touching—one of the great experiences of traveling alone.
I would definitely recommend taking the trains in Java! And, if you have any questions or additional helpful tips, I'd love to hear them in the comments below.