Bandung to Bali XXiii – Becaks to Jalan Bengawan – 23 May 1973

Early in the morning Dad has all the details of the house we will be moving to sorted out.

He also decides we can all travel by becaks to our new home.

The neat and serious hotel manager with his fine oval face and neatly combed blue-black hair confers with Dad and agrees that the becaks are a most sensible plan.

The becaks can take us through the quiet streets where there is shade and little traffic. It will be much better for the children. Six becaks can easily be found. There is no need to wait. Six becaks can be brought directly.

As he speaks six becaks arrive and curl, as if in planned formation, into the forecourt of the hotel.

We decide on a becak each and climb on like we are choosing a horse on a merry-go-round.

“I’m going on the orange one” says Matt.

Each becak is decorated with once vibrant greens or pinks and blues – in swirls and curves of endless patterns, now faded into pastels by sun and dinted by wear.

Dad sorts us back into some order of pairs into each becak.

“Johnny you go with Chas.”

Johnny cheerfully enjoys the game to try another becak and clambers up beside me.

The seats are deep and Johnny’s feet shoot up as he sinks back into the seat giggling.

Matt is made to go and sit with Mum and Bart.

Dad and Tony will take the lead and the other drivers fold back the shiny canvas canopies to lift all the luggage onto the last two becaks.

Matt wriggles discontented with this plan. He stands up and twists around to kneel on the seat so he can see the driver through the back.

“Will you sit down Matthew, just sit down.” Mum juggles Bart as Matt kicks and bounces, knocking the bag bulging with all our important documents.

The hotel manager is about to wave off the last becak which looks to be more than was needed. The driver remonstrates for a moment at being turned away, giving Matt his opportunity.

“Dad – Dad, can I go the other becak? Can I go on one on my own?” Dad’s first thought of economy is silenced by Mum’s look for peace and quiet.

The manager agrees this is a most excellent idea.

The young gentleman will not be a difficulty at all. It will be no great expense. The drivers know that you will all be in Bandung for some time. They will give you a special price.

‘But, Pak,’ he says in an earnest whisper, ‘You must pay each driver separately. You cannot expect them to divide the money. They will argue – for the ones carrying the luggage will say they should have more. No, you must be sure to give each the same amount.’

Once again the hotel staff assemble to wave us off.

Dad goes to the front of the column of becaks for another photo.

The manager stops him.

‘Pak – please allow me – I will take the picture for you. It will be a pleasure. Such a lovely family. We hope you can all come and stay again. Perhaps before you leave Bandung.’


Slowly our caravan moves us out onto the streets of Bandung. The cool, fresh morning air after a long deep night’s sleep and a feast of satay and tea has repaired my motion sickness.

I feel light and clear headed for the first time since we have arrived in Indonesia. The world is in focus again, sharp and vibrant, every colour, sound and smell is richer and stronger.

At the manager’s suggestion we take the roads away from the traffic and turn into Jalan Asia Afrika and then right into the town before taking the small hill we had walked along the day before.

As we reach the top of the hill the drivers wheel around to their right onto a broad leafy avenue. Matt’s becak takes the corner first and the drivers enjoy the race, with Matt being the lightest load. We trail out into an orderly queue – Mum and Bart follow Matt, then Johnny and I, then Tony and Dad and finally the two poor drivers with the disordered luggage.

Sitting in the front of a becak is the best way to travel anywhere. There is nothing between you and the road except a small plate where you can rest your feet (if you can reach) and the view comes toward you like sitting in front of a film screen with a light breeze cooling your face.

I start to study the becak driver peddling Mum and Bart. Unlike the hotel staff who all look so petite and bright faced in their neat black uniforms, the becak drivers appear hard and weary, their long, thin limbs and faces held in place by deeply creviced skin. The muscled, sinewed legs of the drivers pump each pedal to full stretch in a rhythm which makes the small cabinets where we sit hum.

They perch high above the curved canopy of the small vehicles, their conical hats adding to their height. It is clear by their thin clothes and fine muscles that being a becak driver is a hard job with little reward, except perhaps for the freedom of low overheads, self-employment and the open road.

The tree lined road ahead dances with splashes of weak sunlight. Small undulations and the flicker of light and the becak ride starts to give the slight sensation of a roller coaster. Like at Luna Park on Linda Moss’s birthday when Michelle and I sat with fingers gripped in our little car as the train creaked up and up to the summit, to catch a glitter of the sea below, a blinking sensation, and then ‘whoosh’, down the other side with our faces pushed into a squeal and a wide grin.

I go back to studying the becak – it is hard to understand how a becak works. I decide to try to make a proper drawing of a becak as my first picture in our new house, which will be much harder to draw than a bike. The becak is a back-to-front tricycle with the driver pushing the bike forward from behind, steering through handles on the back of the passenger carriage and occasionally pulling on the single brake directly in front which catches the drive shaft between the wheels.

After this lightly up and down ride, the becaks curl right and seeing the downhill stretch, Matt’s head comes out the side of the becak – and calls back to Dad, “Dad how do you say ‘go faster’?”

“Don’t worry about that Matt, just sit down and be still.”

The becak drivers pick up on Matt’s question and laugh among themselves. The driver takes a course out to the middle of the street and builds up speed. We hear Matt’s cries of delight all the way down the street.

Matt’s driver slows the becak and waits at the sloop of the hill. The driver swings the becak back to show Matt’s beaming face topped by hair made even more unruly by the wind. We all move off again down the street, the becaks turn a the corner into a narrower street.

To one side high brick walls topped by thin wire follow us.

Matt calls, “Are there tigers in there Dad? Is it the zoo?”

“Elephants?” Johnny looks hard at the brick wall.

“I don’t think there are any tigers in there” Dad replies as we pass the entrance guarded by stern beret wearing soldiers.

Dad asks the driver, “Apa yang ada di balik dinding?” (‘What’s behind the wall?’)

“Rumah Jenderal,” was the brief reply. (House of the General)

Dad’s grim translation makes us quiet as we watch the brick wall pass. It takes some time to travel the full length of the compound.

Finally the high wall turns up the hill, finally letting sunlight flood the street ahead where there are patches of open land, separated by large handsome houses, then another wall enclosed building approaches as we join another broad street.

“Look Dad – another general?” Matt calls

Dad reads the prominent sign over the arched entrance – “No! You can read that – ‘Sekolah’ look it’s a school, a convent school.”

“Are we going to school there Dad?”

“No, no” Dad laughs, “No, we going to have school at home for a while.”

“Jalan Bengawan,” Tony points to the sign as we make our final turn down another long downhill slope.

“Nomor tujuh”Dad reminds the driver.

** ** ** ** ** **

Becak is pronounced ‘Bet-cha’ (with a soft ‘t’) and in an earlier (Dutch) spelling was  ‘betjak’.

Some great becak stories can be found here.

Tim Hannigan describes the becak and their drivers within Indonesia’s changing world from the time Christopher J Koch wrote ‘The Year of Living Dangerously- to today

David Atkinson shares a song about the becak driver in English and Indonesian – nice one David.

The re-instatement of the becak in ever growing cities like Jakarta is looked at by Otniel Tamindael as an essential part of reclaiming a sense of history and even being seen as central to Java’s civilization.

and a lovely selection of images here:

By chance I managed to get a photo of a becak on the weekend in Geelong of all places to base my drawings on. I did make some careful pictures of becaks while we lived in Bandung, but these are lost – so it’s nice to try drawing these again.

There was a small reminder on this enjoyable journey about military rule in Indonesia at the time.

I recall the becak driver was unabashed in speaking to dad quite opening on his views about ‘the generals’ and the word ‘korup’ (corrupt) definitely came into the discussion.

Although poor, the becak drivers like all Indonesians, have a strong sense of self determination.

5 thoughts on “Bandung to Bali XXiii – Becaks to Jalan Bengawan – 23 May 1973

  1. You can feel the exhilaration you and your brothers had riding in the becaks, even if it was a long time ago…wonderful!


    • Thanks so much – it was a lot of fun. I think children today might be less than impressed. But then perhaps that’s because we adults (particularly in the West) serve up the ‘Disneyland’ idea of what is ‘fun’ for children instead of taking the time to do simpler things with them.


    • Hi Andrew – On my last trip to Indonesia I was far more conscious of the added weight the poor driver had to push up a slightly gentle slope! Mind you the drivers today all seemed fit and a little more weighty too. Made me realize how very thin the drivers were back in 73. This first ride was just heavenly.


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