Taking the Local Ferry in Indonesia as the Only Foreigner

People head to Flores because the SCUBA diving is absolutely spectacular, and I am no exception.  I was drawn in by the promise of manta rays, mandarin fish, amazing reefs, and the awesome challenge of a little bit of drift.  All of these things made sailing in Komodo a wonderful experience.

I’d paid the painful price of around $300 to fly from Medan to Labuan Bajo in Flores after trekking in Sumatra.  I was not about to pay another $100 to get from Labuan Bajo in Flores to Lombok, where I planned to take another trek, and I most definitely was not willing to bleed closer to $200 to take a tourist boat between the two points.  I had just spent six days sailing around the beautiful Komodo National Park and had therefore already seen most of what we’d be sailing through, not to mention, those boats have terrible records of sinking in the middle of the night.

What’s a thrifty backpacker to do?

Take the local transport for only $22.80. 

“What time does the boat leave for Sape in the morning?” I must have asked about 5 different people.  I was told everything from 6am to 9am, so safe to say, it varies.  I was advised that since I’m a “whitey” it’s best to show up early.  Arriving at 7:30am, I decided this was true as I took one of the last seats available, which was thankfully near a window.

Gorgeous Komodo

The cost of the ticket is posted at 53,000 Rupiah. I bypassed the man selling a combo ticket all the way to Mataram in Lombok having heard that sometimes connections are missed and the busses don’t wait, making people lose out on the bus portion of the ticket.  I’m not even sure what he would have charged, but suffice to say, it would have been more than I needed to pay.

Unlike tourist boats, the ferry is huge, transporting cargo and vehicles as well.  I was much less worried about this behemoth sinking than a flimsy little boat in the strong currents of Indonesia.

Immediately, the old lady next to me started speaking to me in Bahasa (Indonesian), holding out her hand and stroking my hair.  She wanted money from me.  I groaned internally and simply shook my head.

This had potential to be one long boat ride.

Around 9:45 the boat groaned and started to move.  I looked around.  I was the only foreigner.

I’ve done it right. 

It was packed to the brim with families taking over floor space sleeping, eating, smoking, and chatting.  A poorly-made horror movie played in the background.  I was glad to have brought along a good book and some music to listen to.

Over time the discomfort between the woman and I evaporated and I offered her cookies.  She responded by offering me noodles and rice a couple of hours later.  I offered her some peanuts, she insisted I take some bread and bananas.  I bought us coffee.

We became friends.

Before long, she and nearly everyone sitting around us was trying on my sunglasses and taking photos together (sidenote: I must be in, like, 100 random Indonesian Facebook photos at this point).  We had somehow gone from an awkward situation to a downright hilarious and friendly one.

Communication was nearly impossible, but her daughter helped explain that they would help me get to Bima, and that the boy in the row ahead of us “liked” me (a common thing in Indonesia), which I pretended not to understand.

The ferry docked 6 hours after taking off.  Several public mini busses waited at the port to take us from Sape to Bima where I would then board a bus, then another ferry, and then board the bus once again bound for Mataram on Lombok.

Sure enough, the old lady motioned for a young man whose English was fairly decent to usher me to the minibus. He teased the others on the boat, “Why his English no good? He not finish school!” and then translated for me when another passenger said “Lombok has a lot of coconuts,” which they all found hilarious.  I smiled awkwardly.

The bus took 2 hours and cost 25,000 Rupiah (I watched as the locals paid the same amount) driving through truly stunning countryside.  The bus stopped at a depot where I was immediately pointed out as the only foreigner as a swarm of ticket touts closed in on me.  The signed price for the combo ticket for an overnight bus and ferry to Mataram was 210,000, but eventually, I bargained it down to 150,000.

Overnighting through the islands

The trip was relatively painless and worked like clockwork from there.  The coach was nice enough although the chairs barely reclined and, per usual, my long legs hardly fit between myself and the seat in front of me.  After almost 10 months in Southeast Asia, this was standard and did not bother me much.

Indonesian karaoke music continued to blare in the background.

Finally, arrival at the Mataram bus station occurred around 7am, almost exactly 24 hours after I had started my journey in Labuan Bajo. All-in, it cost me 228,000 Rupiah ($22.80), and ended up being an experience worth writing about.

Do it yourself:

  • Get to the ferry terminal at Labuan Bajo (it’s pretty obvious in this small town and any local can point it out to you, there is a giant white ferry waiting at the port) and buy a ticket from the official ticket window for Sape. Try to arrive by 7:30-8am to secure a seat
  • Board and take a seat in the economy section. Snacks can be purchased on board if needed during the 6-hour journey
  • Find a bus to Bima at the ferry terminal (there will be many) pay the fare on board the bus
  • Arrive at the Bima bus station and haggle a fare for an overnight bus and ferry combo ticket to Mataram. The price should be no more than 150,000 Rupiah (one can also use this method to get all the way to Jakarta for around 410,000 before bartering)

UPDATE: November 2014 – Reader Chris left the following super helpful information in the comments:

9am Ferry to Sape left Labuan Bajo (60,000)
4/5pm Arrival in Sape (ferry had to wait almost 1 hour till dock was free)
5pm Bus to Bima left (50,000)
6pm Arrival in Bima
7:15pm Overnight Bus to Mataram left Bima (210,000)
2am Overnight Bus drives on Ferry for Lombok (ferry ticket is already in bus ticket included)
7am Arrival in Mataram
8am shuttle Bus to Bengsal (70,000)
9am Arrival at Harbour
9:30am Boat to Gilis (10,000)

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    • Kristin says

      That’s how I felt too. Long trip, but it was way cheaper and I got a truly local experience.

    • Kristin says

      Thanks Jo! I use a DSLR camera (Nikon) and play with the settings to get the right shot, then edit them in light room.

  1. says

    Excellent tips! We are planning to visit Flores and would prefer not to fly (unless we can get an amazing flight deal…) so we’re planning to go the overland route just as you have, so lots of great info here.

    One question: how do you approach haggling when there are posted prices? I never feel entirely comfortable doing that, so was just wondering what technique you use!
    Steph (@ 20 Years Hence) recently posted…Chewing the Fat with Sarah Somewhere!My Profile

    • Kristin says

      If it’s an official ticket booth with a posted price then I don’t haggle, so for the ferry, I paid the posted price. The bus just seemed really expensive to me, though, which I guess you can only gain from the amount of travel experience I already had in Indonesia. The fact that so many touts came running up to me after I got off the public bus made it pretty clear to me that there was heavy competition, so I just said “seems expensive,” and they immediately dropped the price, so then I started haggling and went with the cheapest offer.

  2. Jay says

    I did the reverse of this from Mataram to flores, but got stranded in dompu overnight. At first it was a bit worrying, but i ended up drinking rice wine with a local bikey who promised he would pick me up the next morning and drive me to bima in his side-car motorbike.

    I figured he was quite drunk and wouldn’t hold up his word. I figured wrong. At 7am the following morning he picked me up and took me to his restaurant where he insisted I have the gado gado. he wouldn’t let me pay for the meal. And then we went on our little side car journey to bima. Loved every second of it.

    • Kristin says

      That’s amazing! True, it’s going to be a journey filled with surprises going the local route but really, that’s the whole reason to go the local route!

  3. Chris says

    Traveled Nov 3rd 2014
    9am Ferry to Sape left Labuan Bajo (60,000)
    4/5pm Arrival in Sape (ferry had to wait almost 1 hour till dock was free)
    5pm Bus to Bima left (50,000)
    6pm Arrival in Bima
    7:15pm Overnight Bus to Mataram left Bima (210,000)
    2am Overnight Bus drives on Ferry for Lombok (ferry ticket is already in bus ticket included)
    7am Arrival in Mataram
    8am shuttle Bus to Bengsal (70,000)
    9am Arrival at Harbour
    9:30am Boat to Gilis (10,000)

    • Kristin says

      Thank you so much for the super helpful updated information, Chris. Really appreciate it and updated the post to reflect the updated info. Happy travels!

  4. Pedro says

    Hi, Kristin.
    Do you know if I can find the posted prices for public ferries in Indonesia online? I’ve been trying but nothing so far…
    It would help me a lot.

    • Kristin says

      Hi Pedro. I doubt it very much, but I have the prices itemized out in this post. Remember I haggled for the bus. Check the bottom as that it has been updated recently and should have the most up to date information.

  5. says

    nice share. I do not quite understand the tourist transport in Lombok. But I know that in that place there is a lot of travel accommodations to traveling between islands, one of them by ferry or boat. But I’ve never done. Perhaps the most inexpensive is by ferry. but when looking for a personality you can use the boats. And there are many choices in Lombok travel services uses boats. and you must be clever to select it. It would be better if you use the service boats belonging to a trusted travel agent. thanks for the share.

    • Kristin says

      Hi Robert. I have the feeling you run one of these tourist boats. They sink all the time and they cost 10x the public ferry.

      Take the public ferry, folks. Sorry to call you out Robert but you lobbed the first stone trying to essentially put an ad in my comments section.

  6. Tommy says

    Hello there! Labuan bajo is indeed very beautiful. One the best places to snorkel and dive. I had a blast in a 3d2n tour covering nearly all the snorkel places, rinca, komodo, pink beach and some islands for the beaches/snorkelling)
    Just wanna say a BIG Thank you cos ive made it from labuan bajo, flores to gili air, Lombok :) thanks to your detailed post. So heres my part for the updated prices and details (while its still fresh in my mind haha)

    Labuan bajo to sape by ferry – Rp 60,000
    (Arrived there around 8am, bought the ticket at the counter, kprice is stated. And yes somebody did offer me Rp 360,000 for an all-inclusive one way to Mataram, but i declined. Ferry departs at 945am and arrive at 430pm but hour till the docl was free, so disembarked at 530pm. Bring some books and music cos i gt very tired from doing nothing. Theres a place to buy some snacks,instant noodles and hot/cold beverages on deck)

    Sape port to Bima bus terminal – Rp30,000
    (Once you disembark, there will be lots of minibuses waiting to go to Bima, and it was a bit chaotic as usual and go with the one that you find comfortable. I took surya kencana, but i think all the others were the same. Paid the money while enroute, and arrived in Bima at 6.50pm. I sat on the right side of the minibus and i had a great view throughout this journey)

    Bima bus terminal to Mataram bus terminal Rp180,000
    (There will be lots of buses to mataram and touts will quote you high prices. Managed to get mine for Rp180,000 and the company was Tiara Mas. I did ask the tout to show me the bus and where i will be sitting for the journey before i agreed. The other buses were similar so its up to you which ones you wanna take. The bus departs at 7.15pm and stop occassionally to pick up passengers who had prebooked their tickets along the way. At around 1130am, the bus stops for 30mins and a guy from the bus will hand out a coupon to eat at a local restaurant. Hand over the coupon to exchange for a plate and its buffet-style. The food was OK, just something to fill your stomach. The bus boarded a ferry to cross to lombok at around 3am. I then went to the main deck in the ferry to chill. Bus disemabarked the ferry at around 730am. And the journey continues all the way to Mataram bus terminal, arrived at 9.20am. Bring a jacket/sweater cos its cold in the bus)

    Mataram bus terminal to Bengsal Harbour Rp60,000
    (Once arrived, i negoed with an Ojek-motorbiketaxi to bengsal, as i felt it would be faster and im just carrying a small bagpack with me. Alternatively, you could hop on a Bemo-smallvans to go to bengsal, i didnt ask how much but should be just slightly more expensive. The ride took 1hr and i had a good ojek cos he was sharing and explaining to me the stuff we saw along the way. Arrived at 1030am. He sent me all the way to the ticket office. Some vans may not be able to go in, so you might need to walk 300metres in from the main gate.)

    Bengsal harbour to Gili Air – Rp13,000
    (If you go in from the main gate, the public boat ticket for trawangan and meno is on the left and the right end to gili air. Touts will be around offering ‘private boats’ that will cost more, just declined and go to the ticket office and ask for a public boat. You will have to wait till the boat is full before departing. Shouldnt be long cos lots of tourists and locals are heading to gili air around this time. Boat ride took 20mins)

    And arrived in Gili Air!
    Yeah so i spent arooud 28hrs travelling and spent Rp 343,000.
    Would i do it again? Maybe….haha
    i feel this route is suitable if you are on a budget and have the time. Cos flying from labuan bajo to bali will take you half a day and around Rp1.5million. Hope this helps , good luck and safe travels! – Tommy

    • Kristin says

      Thanks SO MUCH for sending along this update! Glad to see that the prices haven’t gone up too much in the past 2.5 years. Would I do it again? No, but then again back then I was rich in time and almost broke, besides, what a cool experience to do it the local way.

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