On Edge at Bromo

Smiling at sweet victory

Indonesia has more volcanoes than any other country on the planet. The landscape of central Java is dominated by a series of fierce smoking cones which thrust out of the plains giving the island a mystical air straight out of the cheesiest B-grade dinosaur flick. I love it.

So it should come as some surprise that one particular mountain, Bromo, has become THE must-see volcano featured on most Indonesia itineraries. It’s not the prettiest volcano in Indonesia. It’s not the highest. It’s not the most active. So why does everyone visit?

Well, the truth is that it’s conveniently located halfway between Yogyakarta and Bali. Not to mention there is a road leading to the central crater. It’s also relatively photogenic. (Is any volcano unphotogenic?) It’s really about convenience and location more than anything else. But all that convenience has resulted in Bromo becoming one of the worst tourist traps in all of Indonesia.

Somehow the touristic gravitational pull of Bromo prevented us from bypassing it. We had heard story after story of the terrible, poorly organized tours out of Yogyakarta. They are notorious for crappy vehicles, sleazy organizers, and VERY long delays. But since absolutely everyone goes to Bromo, like lemmings, we found ourselves drawn into the frenzy.

Annoyed by the con-artists and scams connected with Yogya tours, we traveled independently to Probolinggo hoping that the situation was better there. It wasn’t. In four years of travel (including 15 months in India), Probolinggo is the singularly most dishonest location we have visited. At times, it feels like the entire city is in on the Bromo scam. Taxi drivers and tour operators conspire to fix prices at ridiculous levels. When we inquired about public transportation to Bromo, locals robotically denied the existence of such options, instead offering up a brother or a cousin or a neighbor who would drive us for an extortionate amount of money. The enormous effort that the population was putting into making us take a tour made us more determined than ever to travel there independently. By this point, it wasn’t even really about seeing Bromo; it was about bypassing the scams.

But bypassing them is not easy. When we headed out by bemo to the local bus station to investigate for ourselves, the driver actually stopped one kilometer before the station in front of a travel agency and announced, “Bus station.” The other passengers nodded in complicit agreement suggesting we get out of the bemo. But we ain’t no fools, a dozen glassed-over, soulless eyes gave them all away. “God damn it, drive to the fuckin’ bus station… NOW!!!” I responded on autopilot. This is just another day on the tourist path in Indonesia.

Once at the station, every single person there denied the existence of a minibus. They all had a friend who would drive us for an absurd amount of money. (Seriously, does anyone have a real job in this country? Or does everyone just stand around waiting to scam tourists?) We walked around in circles hoping to find at least one honest person; there wasn’t one. I had a quick meltdown and showered those around me with four-letter words. We knew the minibuses existed, we just couldn’t find them. That was because they weren’t allowed into the bus station.

Due to extremely aggressive territorial behavior by the taxi mafia, it turned out that the minibus operators were forced to park off a side street where no tourist could find them. Once we inadvertently crossed an invisible territorial line, a driver was allowed to approach us and discretely showed us to the public minibus. He tried one last rather pathetic scam, but we quickly negotiated a very good deal to Bromo. Yes, sweet victory!

So was it worth it?

The dramatic volcanic landscape and picturesque terraced farms along the road leading up to Bromo were, perhaps, most impressive. The edge of the crater was relatively overdeveloped with scroungy guesthouses and restaurants catering to Yogya tours. Beyond the limited sprawl, there were nice views out over the dusty crater. We hiked up to the highest viewpoint on Gunung Penanjakan, an almost imperceptible rain of volcanic ash floated down around us, and stared out over central Java. To the west, a blanket of clouds lay over the plains pierced by the occasional conical peak. To the east, Gunung Semeru erupted in the distance sending smoke and ash high into the sky. Squat Bromo sat low before us belching out a continuous stream of smoggy ash. It was beautiful even in the flat light of the morning sun. To me, it would have been less beautiful in the perfect light of the rising sun because we would have had to share the viewpoint with 500 other people.

And despite the visual beauty of Bromo, I found the experience a terrible testament to the sad reality of tourism in Indonesia. Why not let people just travel? Why such elaborate games to trick and manipulate? Do all the scams really make more money than a straight-forward travel experience? So many tourists see Indonesia as the land of liars and con-artists. Is this how Indonesians want to be known?

15 responses to “On Edge at Bromo”

  1. avatar Greeneyes says:

    Huuum,
    Brings back the memory of crossing the Thai Border into Cambodia.
    Not a good memory
    But a good learning experience

  2. Aaaah, Tony, Tony, Tony. You haven’t changed a bit. Tony against the world! I gotta love you though. (The secret world government pays me.)

    • avatar Tony says:

      Your response is interesting and it suddenly makes me aware that the idea of “taxi mafia” or “transport mafia” may not be understood by a lot of our Western readers.

      The rather conspiratorial undertones of what I wrote (and previous pieces) hadn’t occurred to me at all. Of course, the idea of such elaborate scams must actually sound ridiculous to people in the West who just get into a public bus and drop coins into a slot.

      We’ve had years of exposure to the very well organized transportation syndicates, so it is all quite familiar to us. And we have encountered dozens of people (mostly locals) who have been attacked or threatened by these syndicates, so the dangers associated with them are what shape our underlying tone.

      Perhaps, we should write a more detailed piece about the nature of taxi mafias around Asia in general.

  3. seems a lot of stress to save maybe $20. Find a smile can work wonders in these poor towns where they rely on tourism. I’ve seen westerners get angry for less than a cup of coffee

    • avatar Tony says:

      We go to great lengths to avoid the scammers. Moreover, we’ve seen the scammers threaten people’s lives over “the cost of a cup of coffee.”

      Plus only $20 adds up fast. We regularly save WAY more than $20 a day by bargaining and avoiding scams. $20 a day is $7,300 a year. We have been traveling for four years, so that’s a grand total of $29,200 – that much money saved does make me smile. 🙂

  4. avatar Hoong Earn says:

    Hi Tony, I have just bought ticket to Bromo this Oct. Where did you find the public minibus?

    • avatar Thomas says:

      Hi Hoong Earn,

      As we mentioned before, it was not so easy to find the minibus station. First, go to the main bus terminal in town. Don’t go into the bus terminal, but rather walk by it along the main road (walk to your right when you are on the main road facing the entry to the bus terminal). Within 100 meters, there are minibuses on the left-hand side of the road.

      Look for a minibus to Cemoro Lawang (the town by Bromo). It should cost about 25,000 rupiah each way, but you may have to wait until the bus fills up. We paid a little more and the driver left immediately with only the two of us in the minibus. (We paid 150,000 rupiah for a return trip for both of us). Remember to bargain!

  5. avatar Mezze says:

    Hi Guys,
    thank you for this really awesome and helpful input!

    Can you just tell me, if this is the bus station in Probbolinggo, you was talking about? Or is there another?

    Greetings Mezze

  6. avatar Tony says:

    Isn’t it awesome that Google Maps covers Indonesia now? Yes, that is the bus station we were talking about. When we were there, the public minibuses were leaving from this side street.

    But I wouldn’t be surprised if absolutely everything is different now. If you have an update on the situation at Bromo, please come back and share it in this comment section.

  7. avatar Mezze says:

    Hi Guys !

    Unfortunately we arrived too late in Probolinggo (with Train from Yogyakarta), so it was already dark and we tried to find a Hotel in Probolinggo.
    So our Plan to reach Cemoro Lawang on one day failed.
    The next day we shared a Car with 2 other Guys to Cemoro Lawang.

    After our trip to Bromo we spend some time in the streets of Prob and we found the “Bemo Corner” you were talking about. So i think with this information everyone can find some public transport to Cemoro but without it is still very hard because of all the unhonestly people there…

    We had another experience like this in Banyuwangi .. but this is another story

    Greetings Mezze

  8. avatar Kaja says:

    Hey,

    Sorry to tell you guys but you still got ripped off. These so called mini busses ARE the mafia busses! And their trick is to play with your patience and letting you wait until you are annoyed and really want to go and charter the whole bus because “no more travelers are coming”. A public transport would run anyway at a certain time and wouldn’t want you to pay for the rest of the seats because noone else is coming. I think that’s ridiculous! So yes you made it to not get cheated by some locals that wanted their uncle or cousin to drive you and yes you overcome the travel agency ripp off that probably wants to sell you a tour but in the end they got you with their “public minibus”. We are here right now facing the same problem..In the end I think you have to go with the mafia minibus or charter a motorbike taxi which belongs to them too..We really tried to hire a motorbike here yesterday but there is no place you can do that and everyone says immediately “no, no motorbike in probolinggo”. We even tried to hire it from a private person and we even nearly convinced him but after some discussions with his friend in indonese he said “no, no motorbike in probolinggo”. It’s a strange little town and I wonder how we will end up. We possibly will even skip Bromo if things just get too weird and we will start to feel like an open wallet. Thanks for the post! Was still helpful but it seems like there is no chance to not get ripped off. You can just try to get ripped off but not that much 😛 greetings Kaja

    • avatar Tony says:

      Hey Kaja,

      Well, if they ripped us off, they charged WAY less than any other “scheduled” vehicle including buses at the official station. I think we paid $10 dollars round trip to get all the way up the mountain and have us drive us all the way back later that evening. That works out to $2.50 each way per person for a private vehicle up the mountain and back. I only wish we could get ripped off like that all over the world.

  9. avatar Saipah says:

    Who ripped those people off centuries ago, mate ?

    • avatar Tony says:

      Certainly not the travelers showing up today supporting locals with their tourist dollars. Cheat your tourists and they go somewhere else where they won’t be cheated. (By the way, following your logic all Americans could treat British tourists like crap… but they don’t.)

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